Michael Lin - Auston
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I’m Michael, and I run an Engineering Institute called Auston. We train engineers for the semiconductor, data centre, and telecommunications industries. I’m an accidental entrepreneur. I was born into a wealthy family, but then I was told that I was not invited to be part of that business until my father and I took over the school. Although we are now in education, I think we have probably learned more than any of the students. I would say we’re just accidental entrepreneurs with an ever-changing view of what business ownership is like.
What inspired you to be an entrepreneur?
It was more of an accidental. It was just something that I got pushed into because of the family situation. I think what’s more interesting is not how I became an entrepreneur but how the situation has evolved in my view of things and how that’s changed.
The typical story of an entrepreneur is somebody who comes on, and they’re like, this is what I want to do, this is how I want to develop my business. There’s a push or pull from a difficult position. Then you got thrown at this opportunity, and you turned it into something, or you have a pole story where people are chasing glory, riches and wealth. And then they go and achieve that. Mine was neither of the two. I was dumped into that position.
That story had changed a little bit because when I first started as an entrepreneur, I don’t think I was super hungry. I did not have the hunger that I have today. Back then, it was very just chill, like whatever happen happens, there’s no big deal. As life evolves, you realize that if you’re not going to show up and go and get it for yourself, then don’t expect that anyone’s going to go out there and get it for you. That created the hunger a little bit. Among other things, you have kids, and you get married, that kind of stuff. Then you pursue things a bit more aggressively because of what you perceive you want that future to be.
What does ‘grit” mean to you, and what lessons have you learnt as a result?
I would define grit as people who go through tough times, and despite the difficulty and the outcomes they face, they’re going to come back and try again. Grit doesn’t mean that you win. Not everybody who goes through grit comes out with an eight-figure payout, or a seven-figure payout, or whatever. And at the same time, not everybody who goes through grit dies along the way. I see grit as people who go through tough times, willing to come back and try again.
It is a value that I would like to have in my kids. But you also can’t tell your kids they have to win every time. It’s just not realistic. At the same time, kids will tell you stuff like, “it’s not fair” or “we were supposed to win”. And that’s rubbish. There’s no such thing as you’re supposed to win. It’s not a Disney movie; the good guy doesn’t always win. The real value of grit is being able to show up again and again and take another swing at it and try rather than have that constant expectation of what’s the outcome going to be.
What is work-life balance to you?
It’s tough. I don’t spend enough time with my kids as much as I would like to. And when I do, I’ve always got 50% of my brain on something else, and then the other 50% of my brain are on the kids trying to stop them from killing themselves. The other 50% is thinking about work, and the balance isn’t there.
But the way I justify it, and I don’t know whether I’m counting my chickens too early, but my views of what I’m doing now is, I’m building up a reserve of cash of time of what I owe to the kids. And then I will cash that all in later; I can’t see it within a day or a week, just because I can’t cut my time out that way. Every day at 5 pm, I would say that I stop working, go home, and spend like two hours with the kids, do their homework, or play with them. But running a business is too complex to have that kind of control over your time.
So my thinking is that every day, I owe them two hours, and it just keeps adding up. At some point in my life, when I have that freedom of time and resource, I’ll cash all that in and spend months with them on holiday. And that’s what will pay it back.
But obviously, I’m not going to delay that for years. It’s more like chunks of time. I don’t want to miss the precious moments now and the important character-building moments that you can only take at the moment, sort of in that phase of life. If they get too old, you can’t drag them back and change their view again. It’s not a great well-balanced situation now, but hopefully, it will be.
How do you unwind?
Until about a year ago, I didn’t really have a happy place, but now I do. My happy place is watching boats on the water, watching videos of it, and people living the boat life. That’s unwinding for me. A bit of sports too. Understanding neurology that goes on, like, how does your brain make happy chemicals? That happiness comes from your stomach. That’s why you feel happy when you eat. But did you know that when you exercise, it releases the same happy chemicals? So you have two choices, eat more or exercise. It’s not either-or; just try and get a good mix of both, and you can be happy.
How would you describe your company culture?
We’ve had our challenges when it comes to company culture. I would describe it as a work in progress. Anybody who says that culture is done solid, it’s crap. You can’t have a once and for all fixed culture.
For example, the greatest consulting companies in the world like Gallup, McKenzie, EY, an article that came out a couple of weeks ago was about how they believed to have such a fantastic culture. But psychologists went into counsellors, and they looked at it. And it’s not a culture; what you have is fanatics. The fanatics were told that they have to believe in their culture without any hesitation. That is like a cult, and you’re not allowed to question management or even question the values.
It turns out that some of the practices they have are not developing the company or doing better for their customers. All they’re worried about is protecting that culture. And that’s a cult. You don’t have an external value besides protecting that cult. I think that’s the danger of having a culture that’s too deep-seated in the entire organization.
Our culture is a work in progress, but we’re trying to build very strong, independent people. We try and make sure that people are focused on value creation and not just value receiving. We value togetherness and harmony in the company.
It’s easy to say what your values are. But we’ve recently decided that we want to start chasing our values, things that we like our culture with, as much as intensity, that you will chase business. If you have detractors from your culture, people who are just making things or messing things up just because that’s what they want, and they’re not developing the business at all, that type of negativity has to be removed as aggressively as you would kick out that business. Those are just some ideas that we have at the moment but still a work in progress.
What has been the most rewarding experience of your entrepreneurship journey so far?
So we used to think education is counting bums on seats. If you’ve got 50 seats in the room, you got to fill those 50 seats, which was very sales-focused. Filling the class makes you happy about your business, the margins and the profits you make, but it’s not really a rewarding experience.
In 2019, we started doing very aggressive student surveys. As soon as they graduate, we try to find out what job they are doing, their careers, and where they hope to be. That’s when we realized that some of our good and average students were doing extremely well. After graduating with us, they would get between a 50 to 60% increase in salary, some of them get around two to three times, and some move from small businesses to the MMCs. They get the promotions they’re looking for.
And if you know Singaporeans, if they don’t complain, that’s a really good thing. The fact that none of our graduates was complaining meant that we have been doing our jobs well. I think that’s where we got the most fulfilment, knowing that we weren’t just putting some content together and then talking for like 600 hours and then saying, “Okay, you guys are now trained, go into the world, and good luck.” What we’re actually seeing was that these guys were going out there, and they were performing in their jobs. They were getting promotions, and they were moving up; they were getting increments. We said that’s what it should be doing.
Our product is actually producing the outcomes that it’s supposed to produce. I think it is the most rewarding thing. When you have a product, and you feel like you’re just faking it till you make it, and you will find it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But then you don’t know what it’s really producing. Now that you have empirical evidence that people out there are actually working, then you feel good. Like, yes, this is what it’s supposed to do.
You’re no longer looking for just one outcome, but you’re looking for continuously improving outcomes. That we’re no longer looking at just one thing when we want the whole batch to get this. It is now, how can we get more people from the batch getting those kinds of results.
What would be the advice that you would give to your 20-year-old self?
I would need to tell myself, “you are too comfortable”. That’s the advice I’d give myself because I was too comfortable. And knowing that someone feels that I’m too comfortable, I will be worried about public perception and be like, I can’t be comfortable. I better get more aggressive. And if I were more aggressive ten years ago, this business would be five to ten times its size. But the fact that it’s just taken me six to seven years to actually get that message into my head, to come to that realization on my own, I wasted a lot of time and many opportunities.
What is failure?
I think failure is a missed opportunity. That you had the chance to succeed, everything that you needed to do was there on the table for you to do it. And you did not achieve that, that would be a failure. Failure is we want to try something, and it didn’t work out like nice. It’s just another lesson that maybe doesn’t work in that format.
But in retrospect, one example, we have a campus in Sri Lanka that, when we first launched it about ten years ago, it was doing extremely well. And we had all the cards on our side or all the chips on our side of the table. We could have grown it to 100 times the size that we were, and it will be just a massive business today. And instead, we got very comfortable thinking that 300 students were all right; we didn’t need to do 3000 or 30,000. It was, “Let’s just chill out and not reinvest in the business, not push harder for excellence, not develop more faculties, not build a better facility.” We just set them thing like this gravy train, it’s enough for us, and we’ll just ride this forever.
I think that that was probably one of the big mistakes. But now, looking back, we could have easily made two or three big decisions that would have grown that business to a massive size. Yeah, a failure. Because every opportunity was right there, and we just didn’t take it.