Down to half-time at PropertyGuru, co-founder Steve Melhuish is ready to give back
For Steve Melhuish, the idea of starting from scratch had always been appealing. Even during the first ten years of his career, spent in a corporate setting, he had been involved in “building something new.”
“I was launching a new business unit, exploring new markets – always building or starting,” Steve recounts. “That has been the consistent theme throughout my career.”
Unsurprisingly, when he consulted a career counsellor after a decade of corporate life, Steve emerged with a determination to become an entrepreneur. “Pretty much what I had always been doing.”
“What I didn’t enjoy was the large, slow-moving, and bureaucratic nature of working at a corporate,” he adds.
From corporate to startup
While working at UK-based telco Mercury Communications (now Cable & Wireless), Steve was already getting a headstart on his soon-to-be entrepreneurial life.
“I was running a sales and marketing team working with a variety of companies, including Internet ones,” he recalls. “It was during the dot-com boom and it was especially exciting for those working at telcos which were helping to enable the boom.”
Having had a taste of the Internet industry, Steve was hooked. That was around the time he started working with a certain tech startup called Skype.
“I was doing a bit of work for an investment advisory firm in London, which was focused on helping digital media startups fundraise and bigger companies like AOL, Vodafone, and British Telecom invest in smaller companies,” says Steve. “I was introduced to a company called Skype, who needed telecommunications-related expertise, so I helped out and that was really exciting.”
During this period, he had the opportunity to meet a number of “amazing founders, venture capitalists (VCs), and look at hundreds of business plans […] I learned an enormous amount.”
After leaving his corporate life behind, Steve and his then-girlfriend went travelling around Southeast Asia for six months.
“We visited some of the emerging markets – Nepal, Laos, Cambodia – and became really excited about Asia,” Steve recounts. “In fact, I put a post-it on my wall with the words ‘startup, digital, Asia’. It’s interesting how having a goal like that leads you down the path!”
Things started to fall in place soon after. Steve’s wife was offered a role in Singapore. Concurrently, he was talking to a number of VCs and startups in Shanghai. “We figured it would be easier for me to travel from Singapore to Shanghai as opposed to from London, so we came over in 2005.”
At that time, Steve had also made a small investment in a mobile content business in Singapore, and was asked to help run the company. Unfortunately, the founders and investors fell out with each other soon after, and the business went sideways.
Then, the 2007 financial crisis happened. The property market exploded. “That’s when I started PropertyGuru,” says Steve.
PropertyGuru is an online property portal that started out with $300,000 in seed money back in 2006. Since then, it has raised a total of $183 million in funding, making it the 11th best-funded startup in the region.
The six-month trip in Asia served as a “real wake-up call” for Steve. “While I fell in love with Southeast Asia, I realized how underprivileged a lot of people were,” he explains.
Coming from a wealthy city like London, he experienced serious culture shock. “Going to the hill tribes of Laos and seeing large families with few survivors, bad water, no nutrition, no electricity – it hit home how unimportant owning things was,” says Steve. The fact that these conditions were experienced in a country so close to developed economies such as Singapore made the gap even more apparent.
“A big part of starting PropertyGuru was thinking about how we could eventually give back,” he continues. “This still shapes my thinking now.”
Steve has given back in a big way to Singapore’s startup ecosystem, mentoring entrepreneurs and making angel investments. Beyond that, however, he had an even greater mission: to “give back” to his family and spend time with his children.
“The first six years of working at PropertyGuru, I was there seven days a week,” he recalls. “[My wife and I] had twins in 2012. That was the same week we had our first serious funding round validating us as a serious business with a proper valuation – our Series B round at $55 million.”
Because of this, Steve’s wife could now take a proper salary and have time to look after the children. When his children turned two years old, however, Steve came to a realization that he “had not really seen them for these two years.”
“I was still knee-deep running the business. So I said to my wife, by their fifth birthday, I’d be out of the day-to-day operations.”
So Steve sat down with the board of directors and laid out a three-year succession plan.
“We said, firstly, we’ll hire the executive leadership team. Secondly, get a good management team in place. Thirdly, define and execute part of our strategy around property developers. And finally, find a CEO,” he says. “And that’s what kept us busy up until the end of 2016, when I handed the CEO role over.”
2017 was spent doing a proper handover to PropertyGuru’s new CEO, Hari V. Krishnan.
“Now in 2018, I’m down to half-time at PropertyGuru,” Steve says, with a smile.
Now that Steve is spending 2.5 days a week at PropertyGuru, he’s spending the rest of his time taking care of his health, spending time with the family, and making plans to give back even more than before.
Because he has been angel investing since 2004, it came as no surprise that he decided to join Wavemaker Partners as Venture Partner this year. “When it came to thinking about what I should do in the startup space, I decided it would be most prudent to invest in and then support a fund,” Steve explains. “More importantly, to support its portfolio companies.”
Some of the areas he is keen to explore are property, blockchain, artificial intelligence, life sciences, and education. In particular, Steve is a huge advocate of B2B startups, which puts him squarely in place with Wavemaker’s investment strategy.
“I think it’s underserved even if, in many cases, it has the fastest path to profitability and to going global,” he says. “For consumer-facing businesses, it’s usually harder to scale beyond borders, and requires a lot more capital.”
“I’m not in a massive hurry […] Right now, I’m just spending time talking to people and figuring out what’s next,” Steve explains. “I’m keeping my mind open – looking for conversations with people who are doing something good.”
A recent example of this is when he worked with the Young Founders School in Hong Kong earlier this year. Created by Credit Suisse as an education charity to help children explore entrepreneurship as a career option, they run weekend programs for 12 to 17 year olds which typically conclude with a pitch session.
When Steve chipped in to help out in one of these programs, he was “blown away by the creativity, confidence, and communication skills of these kids.” In fact, he considers almost a third of their pitches – delivered to a panel of three VCs – to be better than what he normally sees at regular startup pitch sessions.
Indeed, Steve is still very bullish about the Southeast Asian startup ecosystem. With one chapter of his life closed, he’s ready to build something new – both in the startup community, and at home.