By SGN | 2 Oct 2023
In December 2020, Salesforce announced it was acquiring Slack for a staggering $27.7 billion. This set the stage for – at the time – the fifth-largest tech acquisition ever, eclipsing even the sales of LinkedIn ($26.2bn) and WhatsApp ($22bn).
“I believe Slack isn’t just some kind of chat tool. It’s much more about building openness and transparency, and influencing change in work culture,” says Allen, who served as CFO. “The financial outcomes were very impressive. Everyone came together as a company to make that happen.”
Seven months later, in July 2021, Slack started a new chapter when the acquisition came to a close. For Allen and his family, that same month marked a new beginning too, as they relocated their lives to Singapore.
Joining the Slack rocketship
Born in Queens, New York, to Korean immigrants, Allen studied at The Wharton School and worked in equity research after graduating. He then switched coasts and industries, joining Yahoo! in the Bay Area, where he conducted analysis to support various business units.
“I got my first taste of tech at Yahoo!,” he shares. “I saw how products get built, how they get monetised, how users are acquired. Seeing all the connective tissue and the different steps that come together was very exciting.”
His next gig was at a video advertising startup called YuMe. After it went public, Allen connected with Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of Slack, through mutual Yahoo! contacts. Within a week, Allen received an offer letter and submitted his two weeks’ notice.
As employee number 20 at Slack, Allen was officially SVP of Finance and Operations but in reality a master multitasker. Early on, he also oversaw legal, sales and marketing, and office management – which included taking food orders and restocking office supplies. As Stewart once put it, Allen was “my right hand from the earliest days”.
“Slack was the best work experience I’ve ever had,” Allen says. He speaks with pride of how the startup became an early exemplar of product-led growth – i.e. building a compelling product with excellent UX that fuels word-of-mouth virality without the need for aggressive marketing.
As the Slack rocketship lifted off, Allen was promoted to CFO in 2018. This was a year before the company went public, and three years before it was acquired.
The move to Singapore
Following Slack’s acquisition, Allen moved to an advisory role at Salesforce and began to think about new possibilities.
“My wife and I talked about potentially living overseas,” he says. They had three criteria for their new home: it had to be English-speaking, COVID-safe, and have a warm climate. Finally, a global search led them to Singapore. “A developed place with a blend of East and West seemed like a good fit for us as Asian Americans,” Allen adds.
While researching the country, he came upon the Tech.Pass, a newly launched visa offering top-tier tech professionals the flexibility to take on multiple roles, be it founder, consultant, lecturer, investor or director.
His immediate reaction was one of amazement. “I thought: Wow, this is a lot of the different avenues that I wanted to participate in, without being restricted to one company,” he says. “So I applied for it, and got it.”
Having settled into the city for the last two years, Allen says the family is thriving in their new environment. “Living here has given us a lot of things – safety, security, stability – that we now almost take for granted,” he says.
“It’s almost comical how safe it is here,” he remarks. “Our friend once left her trunk open in a carpark, and returned hours later to find everything was still there.” At hawker centres, it surprises him to see not just tissue packets but sometimes valuables like phones or purses being used to reserve seats.
Allen’s two children attend a British international school, where they benefit from a broad curriculum and from being surrounded by a mix of cultures. The convenience of getting around the city has not only made it easier for the kids to explore extracurricular activities in music and sports, but also proved a boon for Allen’s own active lifestyle, which involves kickboxing, Pilates, golf, and more.
“We’re still adjusting to a true local style of life,” he admits. “We’re learning Mandarin and trying to eat more local foods on a regular basis – but not everything sticks.”
Coaching is not a luxury
Upon moving to Singapore, Allen started Anderson Point Consulting to advise and invest in regional tech firms. He is currently a board member at Kredivo, a Singapore-based fintech that largely operates in Indonesia, and UNL, a microlocation and mapping tech company.
“I feel like the biggest, most tangible impact I can make is helping some of these younger companies and founders,” he says. “There’s a dearth of experience for later-stage growth in the region, since there have been relatively few IPOs and acquisitions.”
Allen’s coaching style is to avoid giving direct advice. Instead, he guides leaders to break down challenges or chart steps towards their aspirations, which often includes going public.
Recent clients include Grab and ShopBack, and discussions range from solving specific problems (How big should the team be? How do we hit our target revenue?) to tackling broad questions (What does ‘good’ look like at the next level of scale? What should the trade-off be between growth and profitability?).
Coaching is not an approach everyone is enthusiastic about, however.
“It’s not particularly valued or prevalent in this region,” Allen observes. “People maybe think of it as something similar to therapy, as a bonus or nice-to-have. And there is sometimes the preconception that coaching is a sign of inadequacy rather than a catalyst for realising potential.”
While companies are rightfully tightening spending in view of the market situation, Allen believes they should also be thinking about earmarking and investing in their team members to take on future leadership positions.
“Coaching is not a silver bullet by any means,” he says, “but I believe it can help to fill the leadership gap by nurturing homegrown talent.”
The upside of a downturn
One major difference in startup culture between Asia and the States concerns risk-taking. “Silicon Valley is known for its openness and encouragement to take risks, pursue rapid innovation and learn from failure,” Allen says. “In Asia, there’s a greater inclination to avoid failure or big mistakes, for fear of looking silly.”
“The willingness to collaborate and share in Silicon Valley is also higher,” he continues. “While companies wouldn’t share proprietary information, they readily offer their perspectives or connect you with the right people. And that powerful network still exists.” Before Slack’s direct listing, Allen consulted the CFO of Spotify, which had gone public a year earlier. “Here, the thinking is a bit more zero-sum. There’s a belief that if I give you my information and you succeed, then I’m losing in some way.”
Still, he believes that startup potential in Singapore is immense, thanks to an abundance of capital and talent. “People are willing to make an investment here. There’s a very educated populace, tax rates are favourable, and it’s the one place where people trust rule of law,” he says.
He also notes how impressively interconnected the region is becoming, citing ASEAN’s QR-based unified payments system as an example.
As the Southeast Asian ecosystem continues to grow, Allen believes the current economic slowdown will serve to hasten its learning and the realisation of its potential. “It’s now more important for founders to build a good business rather than focus on growth at all costs,” he says.
“The way you learn discipline and how to build a sustainable business is through cycles like this. You figure out how to make money, you figure out your data and your metrics. And so it will be very interesting to see how businesses in this region emerge stronger and what they become.”
Allen is the founder of Anderson Point Consulting, through which he advises and invests in tech startups in Southeast Asia. An early employee of Slack, he served as CFO when the company went public in 2019 and was acquired by Salesforce in 2021. He is based in Singapore with his wife and two children.
Connect with him here.