Grace Sai, co-founder of The Hub Singapore: 400 coffee chats to understand pain

By: Grace Sai, co-founder The Singapore Hub.

Grace Sai, co-founder, The Singapore Hub.
Grace Sai, co-founder, The Singapore Hub.
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In the two years that The HUB Singapore (a community and incubator for purpose-driven entrepreneurs) has been operating, many have asked about how I started The HUB, expecting a pretty complicated answer. While there is a level of science and complexity to creating a collaborative co-working space and building Singapore’s largest impact entrepreneurial community, I am almost certain that the real secret sauce of its inception and subsequent relative success is I am afraid, pretty low-tech: I had 400 coffee chats in seven months. Physical face-to-face chats in real cafes with 400 people.

As social entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs, we made it our lives’ calling to solve problems. For social entrepreneurs especially, we tend to get excited by problems that are important, neglected and have a positive spillover effect; which often involves pioneering new solutions to old, stubborn problems. However, the quality of our solutions can only come by getting to the crux of the problem, not by assuming that we think we know what we know.

‘Superficial’ won’t last 

When aspiring entrepreneurs rock into the room and claim that they have a solution to an important problem, I get optimistically pessimistic. In my six years in StartupLand, I have heard hundreds of pitches and only a handful are notable. Those who are, have either experienced adversities in their lives related to the problem they are trying to solve, or they have spent years internalizing the problem. What they have is an insider’s insights of a problem. You can’t solve a problem if you have not internalized it. Some call it empathy, others call it customer-centric. I call it pain internalization. Only when you care enough for a pain point, will you work enough to know everything about it: industry dynamics, existing solutions and players, where the gaps are, why aren’t they solved, your solution in relation to the pain, customer adoption and user experience of it, and why you are the best person to solve it.

You may permute and combine the above, but if the internalization of one of the components is missing, you have some work to do.

Here are a few scenarios of low levels of pain internalization and subsequently weak responses:

1) Entrepreneur: “My solution is to create a website where second hand goods get a second life”.

Mentor: How are you different from Craigslist?

Entrepreneur: Craigslist?


2) Entrepreneur: “I want to create a financially sustainable cafe that promotes social issues”.

Mentor: Why a cafe and why that theory of change? Do you know how many cups of coffee you need to sell to break even in the cafe industry in Singapore?

Entrepreneur: (Silence).

Mentor: 250 cups per day. What would make you get 200+ people into your cafe per day?


3) Entrepreneur: “Our website groups disabled artists and showcase their work and creating access to market for them”.

Mentor: Have you asked disabled artists if they want to be segregated into a group, or be included in mainstream market channels?

Entrepreneur: No, but they don’t have market access right now, and we are providing that.

Mentor: Talk to 50 of them and see if they want to be mainstreamed or segregated.


(Note: Verbatims represent the gist of actual pitches, but are completely written by me). 


Get real and go deep 

Staying behind your MacBook Air and the comforts of your PPT deck will only get you so far, and by far, that would be five percent of the journey.

To make your venture worthwhile investing the next few years of your life in, you need to have made your rounds. Have you spoken (and listened) to these folks:

– customer (the one who decides whether to part with the money for your value proposition or not)

– user (could be different from customer)

– beneficiaries (is your intervention really impactful to them?)

– competitors (what’s currently out there, what’s the gap, why aren’t they solving it?)

– funders (what types of returns or impact are they looking for? Is yours the right balance?)

– corporate/ gov partners (for public-private partnership models)

– potential team (important test: are there quality people who will buy into your vision enough to work with you on it?)

Start making a list of folks you need to gain insights from, and line up those coffee chats. It was through those 400 coffee chats I had in seven months that I knew with confidence that The HUB is selling courage, not real estate. This changed the entire story.

To the trained eye of an experienced entrepreneur, mentor or investor, superficiality won’t last. Not even beyond a 30 second pitch. So, get deep, press it where it hurts. No customer or investor cares about your business model, they only care about how it affects them. Get to the crux of it.

About the author: Grace Sai is the co-founder of The Hub Singapore, a community and space for purpose-driven individuals, and the Head of Singapore, Toniic LLC, a global impact investor network investing in impact ventures. She also sits on the steering committee of the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia, a competition for early-stage social enterprises in Asia. If you have an impactful idea, submit it before the deadline of 28th January 2014. Find out more at or follow @DBSNUS.


Follow on Twitter: @GraceSai

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