Career Life Stories: Terence Lim, Udemy

With time spent at Uber, Ebay and now Udemy, engineer turned strategy consultant Terence Lim is a strategic and operational leader in the world of marketplace startups. He talks to us about the chicken and egg dilemma when it comes to establishing a marketplace business and what it’s like to work in an ultra-high growth company, as part of our Career Life Stories series.

As a former engineer, can you tell me about what drove you to pursue strategy, operations, and general management? How did you get started?

Early in my career, I realized that while I enjoyed the intellectual nature and often tangible outcomes of software engineering work, what I found most intriguing was the challenge of understanding the commercial application of technology. I often found myself asking ‘what is the purpose of this’ or ‘what are we solving for?’

My first job in retrospect couldn't have been a better fit. It was a hybrid role that was equal parts programmer and consultant, and it afforded me the opportunity to explore which path I found most intriguing. I ultimately decided to pursue the consultant path which led me to management, operations and ultimately roles which involved formulating business strategies. I've not looked back since, but I also haven't forgotten my roots and occasionally dabble in the technical realm to keep my inner geek happy.

You’ve had a lot of experience within marketplace businesses. What is it about marketplace businesses that interest you?

I've worked on pretty much all facets of marketplaces, from acquiring supply, to driving demand, to thinking about how one governs and polices a marketplace. What draws me to marketplaces is that they are complex to establish. They are comprised of two or more moving parts that need to work harmoniously, and it takes a fair amount of skill (and luck) to get one to reach a certain scale. What keeps me interested in marketplaces is that they are organic and constantly evolving. You can't rest on your laurels or you'll miss an emerging trend. Done right, they are highly profitable businesses that are somewhat self-perpetuating and almost self-regulating. Marketplaces can be quite efficient if properly established.

With marketplace businesses there is often the chicken or the egg dilemma – focus on supply first or demand? How do you approach this dilemma from an operational perspective?

I take a pragmatic approach to this and try to assess whether a given business model is supply or demand constrained. In general, I've found that most business models that I’ve seen are initially supply constrained. That is the case for both Uber and Udemy and to a lesser extend eBay – simply put, you can't sell what you don't have. Ultimately, both supply and demand work in tandem to spin the flywheel of a marketplace, but the trick is getting one of them to catch first. It takes a good planning and a concerted effort to get that first piece right.

Which of your pre-Udemy experiences do you feel best prepared you for your current role?

I draw a lot from my years of experience at Ebay. It was where I cut my teeth coming out of business school, and I happened to join the company during some tough years in Europe, when there was a "turnaround" in the business. I had the opportunity to work alongside very bright and inventive people who helped me learn a lot about how to approach situations where there was either infinite information or virtually none. In either case, decisions often needed to be made.

Having said that, working at Uber was also an amazing experience. The pace was incredible, and the sheer talent and willpower of the team was equally impressive. Working in that ultra-high growth company taught me many things, one of which was the importance of hiring correctly and not quickly. In a sense, both experiences have helped me prepared me for my current company where we are moving fast in a similarly nimble and entrepreneurial manner, often having to make decisions with incomplete or imperfect information.

Given that you’ve led large teams that haven’t necessarily been in the same location, can you share some strategies you’ve used to encourage cohesiveness and alignment?

The first tip is probably the most basic and universal which is you need to hire good people – especially those that are team players who are almost overly communicative and entrepreneurial. With distributed teams, you want people who will take the initiative to reach out and engage rather than retreat to their silos when times get tough.

The second tip is to set the team up with clearly defined shared goals. Establishing a common sense of purpose and clarity around how each member contributes to the overall mission helps to create accountability that is key to distributed teams.

Finally, it’s important to establish and nurture strong communication channels and feedback loops - give folks access to pertinent information and give them channels to flag their concerns when things aren't working. Without feedback loops, even the most talented people on distributed teams will falter.

I understand that company culture is important to you. In your experience what types of cultures and leadership styles drive the best results from employees? What about the worst?

In my experience the best company cultures to be a part of are ones with…

…a singular inspiring vision.

…a team of strong leaders who truly value developing people.

…an emphasis on transparency, especially around decision making.

…an orientation around achieving results rather than processes.

In terms of the worst environments, I suppose those would be the opposite characteristics of the best environments. I’d also add that I’ve seen environments where face or office time is still upheld to the detriment of everyone.

When you think about hiring for your own team, what professional skills or personal qualities do you look for?

Skills can vary by job but there is a common set of personal qualities I look for include:

  • An entrepreneurial spirit: a self-starter who's not afraid to jump in and get their hands dirty
  • Self-awareness: someone who knows their strengths and weaknesses
  • Empathy: someone who can see something from multiple vantage points
  • Decisiveness: someone who can develop a position and advocate for it

Do you have a favorite interview question?

My favorite question is: Tell me about the last time you failed. It's particularly insightful because it gives me a sense of how one defines failure, how much they own up to it versus deflecting it, and importantly, what they took away from it. We all make mistakes but not all of us take the time to reflect and learn from it.

What advice do you have for young professionals who desire to pursue a similar path as yours?

Well, I'm not sure my path is for everyone – it has been somewhat serendipitous at times. That said, my advice to young professionals who want to pursue a GM path is:

  • Get out and see the world. It's a lot smaller and larger than you think. Those who travel will understand this statement, and those who don't won't. Living and working abroad was one of the most enriching experiences of my life.
  • Don't be afraid to challenge yourself and try lateral moves occasionally - particularly those in areas outside your comfort zone. These moves help one develop a multi-dimensional view, and it often opens more opportunities down the line.
  • Your career is what you make of it. Plot a path and take ownership of it. If something isn't working, don't get stuck in a rut, find a way through or out of it.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. You can't always do everything on your own. Be thoughtful of what help you need and seek out people who can help you get to your next destination.

As we wrap up, what resources (books, blogs, podcasts, events) would you recommend to folks who want to expand their knowledge about operations, strategy, or general management?

There is so much literature out there that it can certainly be overwhelming. I can't help but include a shameless plug for my current company, Udemy, which is an amazing resource with fresh, engaging and quality courses on these topics. We have over 65,000 courses in our marketplace.

Aside from that, I generally recommend people to read very widely across multiple mediums (news, books, magazines, podcasts, etc). Particularly in my field, technology, laws and strategies are evolving at such an alarming rate that due to long publishing cycles, some books tend to be outdated by the time they are released.

You can often find me reading Harvard Business Reviews, Wired, or Economist articles, and I tend to read books that are outside of tech to broaden my mind like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, or any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books.

Finally, what is the best way for people to connect with you?

I'm a bit old school in that I prefer LinkedIn for professional contacts – feel free to reach me there.

For more Bay Area Career Life Stories brought to you by Robert Walters, check out these interviews from other key players in our tech ecosystem: Emily Eagon from MediumAnjali Jameson at Rally Health, and Caroline Ingeborn at Toca Boca.