Desmond Lim, CEO & Co-founder digs deep into the new workplace normal and how behaviours, culture and skillsets are shifting. We chat with the CEO and Co-Founder of San Francisco-based hiring solution Workstream, Desmond Lim, on his success story from humble beginnings in the little red dot to pushing the boundaries of the future of work.
10 September 2020 / By SGN
Desmond Lim may be the CEO and Co-Founder of Workstream, and a honouree for the 2020 Silicon Valley Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 Award, but he credits his achievements to humble beginnings in Singapore. His parents had limited education, and both started working from a young age. To support Desmond and his siblings, his father worked as a delivery driver while his mother was a cleaner. He recalls all the times spent in his dad’s van, waking up before the crack of dawn and travelling the length of Singapore to pick up goods, just so that he could hitch a ride to school. To his parents, who were paid by the hour, every minute counted.
His parents’ resilience and hard work spurred Desmond to perform well academically in order to provide for his family. He was the first in his family to finish high school, and in 2013 moved to the US for his postgraduate studies at Harvard – a milestone he cherished, as it was the only school in the US which his parents had heard about.
Despite a budding career at brand-name institutions including WeChat and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Desmond never forgot the hardship that his parents went through, and the sacrifices they made. This notion led him to build Workstream in 2017 to help other hourly wage workers and local businesses succeed.
Helping hourly workers as the core of Workstream
Desmond always had a vision and mission to help hourly workers and ease the pain points faced by local businesses.
“Workstream is a text-based hiring tool built for local businesses. We work with a wide range of companies, from restaurants to retail, hotels, and more. Texting is the very first step for us to help to engage people better because it has a much higher open rate than email. We use texting and video as ways to help people apply for jobs faster and better,” he explains.
Major corporations including Jamba Juice, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Marriott in the US are using Workstream. With hiring for hourly workers facing much higher churn and quicker turnaround than hiring for office-based staff, Workstream has helped to optimise this process with automated steps built through the phone for increased accessibility and faster onboarding of new hires.
He was humbled when he was able to successfully raise Workstream’s series A. “In the end, we chose Founders Fund, followed by the CEO of Zoom, CEO of DoorDash, Jay-Z, James Harden, CEO of Yelp, CEO of Logitech, CEO of Intercom and more,” he recounts. “I was very thankful that it validated what I was trying to work on that people cared, and they knew that it was a big pain that should be solved.”
Being in the talent business means that Desmond is acutely aware of the need to build and inspire great teams. He built on previous experiences, where he led a team at an on-demand moving company, to form a winning team at Workstream.
“It meant so much to me to be able to find my early founding team to work on [the industry’s] pain point and to build software that my clients wanted to pay for to help solve their pain of hiring,” he says.
Envisioning the future of work
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, much of our professional communications moved online. We saw an increased uptake in remote and flexible working arrangements, while activities such as job interviews and employee engagements, formerly held in the office, also turned virtual.
Desmond thinks that some of the most significant organisational changes will be in the role of the hiring manager: “I think talent is going to be much savvier over time. Enterprises will start to use end-to-end tools to help them to source, screen, and onboard people more efficiently.” He also thinks that job seekers will begin to have a much easier time to choose the work that they want to do, and believes that it is critical for industries to adapt to these trends and optimise the hiring process with the use of video and texting.
At Workstream, he and fellow managers have also been responsive to the needs and well-being of their team during this challenging time. At their weekly all-hands meetings, they share work updates and a day in the life of one teammate, for everybody to know each other better. To maintain a healthy work culture, they prioritise results instead of face time. Desmond says Workstream has also set up interest-based channels on Slack, for the team to chat about things like basketball and books.
In the post-pandemic landscape, continuous learning to upskill is vital for individuals to build up long-term resilience and improve career mobility. This is especially important today as job markets become increasingly competitive.
Desmond recommends individuals to find opportunities for self-improvement, such as taking online classes to learn new skills or find mentors. “For me, I had between five to ten mentors in my career and my life, and they have been beneficial as I try to learn and grow to be better,” he says.
He also encourages individuals to stay focused on their ambitions. “If you want to do well in sales, stay in sales for the next ten years. If you want to do finance, stay in finance for the next ten years. It is very hard for someone to stay focused and do well in just one thing, but if you can go very deep and be at the top in that space, then will do you well,” Desmond opines.
Desmond shares that the three main skillsets that are valuable in today’s competitive and evolving business climate are being able to learn things fast, connect with people, and being humble and hungry.
“I think these three points are critical. If you’re always open to learning new things, you can learn new skills. If you connect well with others, you can identify pain points and seek solutions that resolve them. And if you remain humble and hungry, you will always be able to do better and do more,” Desmond says.
Connecting Singapore to the US
Relocating thousands of miles away from Singapore was quite a big move, but Desmond says he barely felt any culture shock. “I am passionate about basketball and played it since I was young, even becoming captain of the school teams,” he says. He adds that playing basketball was a great way for him to connect with locals in the US.
“The only culture shock I had was how a lot of the food in the US was served in huge portions! I typically don’t eat as much, so I was pretty shocked,” Desmond says.
Even though Desmond has been living and working in the Bay Area for the past four years, he remains connected to his Singaporean roots. He hangs out with Singaporean friends who live in the area, visits Singaporean restaurants, and jumps on weekly calls with family and friends to keep in touch.
“I live very close to this Singapore restaurant called Shiok at Menlo Park. I go there every other month or maybe even every month to enjoy the taste of home,” he laughs.
Of course, expanding Workstream in Singapore is never far from his mind. They already have a few clients, such as Redmart, Fairprice, Formula 1 and more. Desmond shares, “I wanted to be this Singaporean-founded company that will be built globally. I hope to grow Workstream globally with my two other founders and my team. And yes, we would love to expand to Singapore and SEA.”