Friday, April 25, 2014

Adrian Li: "There Is No Better Time Than Now."

The founder of restaurant-discovery tool Qraved discusses his biggest failure, his greatest achievements, and the values that matter most in business.

Adrian Li is a serial entrepreneur and triathlete based in Jakarta, Indonesia. He is currently a co-founder of Qraved, a Web-based restaurant-discovery tool similar to OpenTable. Previously, he was co-founder and CEO of Idapted, an Internet-based, on-demand training service to teach English to people in China. After selling Idapted in 2011, Li worked on other startups, including an Airbnb-like company for China and an online office-supply company in Indonesia. He earned his MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2006. He says focus is critical for business but nearly impossible to achieve in life.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

Great restaurants for less: less time, less effort, and less money.

What is the best advice you've ever received?

My mother always told me: Try your best. Never give up. That mantra has helped me tackle challenges I have thought were insurmountable. It has guided me to be more fearless and take more risks.

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?

Being fully accountable for not only the success of the company you start but also for all the people you bring onboard. That hit me hard early on at Idapted when we almost ran out of money. I had to go to my management team and convince them that this was a great opportunity and we would make the next round of funding. They had their own personal financial commitments, and I had to ask them to take pay cuts in order to make it work. We did raise the funding, so there was a good end to the story. It is a good reminder to always be transparent about where the company stands. You need to maintain integrity with your team and your investors because you are accountable to them.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?

Fail fast and focus. For us, a critical point at Idapted was when we recognized that we were doing too much, offering too broad an array of services. We only started to get significant traction when we cut away the noise and focused on test-prep English, like TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language], which is used for college applications.

What inspires you?

I want to empower people by providing them with new opportunities in life.

What is your greatest achievement?

At Idapted, I built a team that stuck together and helped each other change our lives, both professionally and personally. We all tried new things we had never done before. One team-building thing I did was to take everyone running. In 2008, we signed up half the company to take part in the Beijing marathon. Some of them had never run more than 2,000 meters in their lives. We trained for a year. We continue to help each other, and many of us remain good friends.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

I have a hard time focusing in my own life. For me, everything is happening at once, or nothing at all. Last year when I left Rocket, I started Qraved and became a partner at Imaginato. I had just moved to Indonesia and was still finding my feet. I had just been married six months prior, and our son was due later that year. I thought that was also a good time to do my first Ironman race!

What values are important to you in business?

Teamwork and an open, flat structure. I don’t believe in hierarchy. I believe teams work well when they are openly communicating and talking as peers versus as managers and subordinates. I also value hard work. Given the choice of two candidates, I would always choose someone who works hard over someone who is just smart.

What impact would you like to have on the world?

I like the Stanford credo: “Change lives, change organizations, change the world.”I like to empower people and give them opportunities to change their economic situations and their lives. I started a charity when I was an undergraduate student at Cambridge University. It started as a small society and it evolved into a registered charity in the U.K. called CNYTrust (Chinese New Year Trust). It is entirely run by volunteers. All the money we raise goes to teach impoverished migrant students in Beijing. We have built a school, given scholarships, and sponsored students to become teachers who now teach other migrant students.

Why are you an entrepreneur?

I’m a masochist! I like the creation process of making something from nothing. I enjoy the process of value creation and seeing something come to fruition from a simple idea.

What was your first paying job?

Stocking shelves at Marks and Spencer at 15. I made sure the food with the earliest expiration date was at the front of the refrigerator. If I wasn’t doing my job, the user experience would be diminished. That has helped me understand the importance of the front line. I make it a point to sit down and talk with the sales and call center staff. Business happens with the people, not in management meetings.

Do you think there is such a thing as balance?

Time is the most important asset you have, and it’s slipping away with every second. There is no better time than now. The more goals I set and things I commit myself to do, the more I adapt and become more efficient to make those things happen. I achieve balance through imbalance.

What is the best business book you have read?

Switch: How to change things when change is hard. The book talks about not just looking at things that don’t work, but looking at things that do work to improve your business. Where are the bright spots? Where are you getting traction? Leverage that to do it better. Another one is First, Break All the Rules. There is no one who is good at everything. When I am recruiting, I look for people who are exceptional at the specific skill set we need, versus looking for well-rounded people.

What businessperson do you most admire?

I admire entrepreneurs who came through hardships and built significant, impactful businesses. Jack Ma comes to mind. He built Alibaba into the behemoth it is now. At one point, the company was on the brink of failure, and he had to ask employees and his team for money to keep the company going.

What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?

Stanford put me on a different path. I was a banker before, and I was hesitant to go out and pursue what I loved. The environment at Stanford, the friends I made, and the ecosystem around the school helped support my choice to pursue my passions and dreams.

What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?

Mobile communication. Everyone has a mobile phone now, farmers as well as businesspeople.