Most people who become entrepreneurs set out to do so quite purposefully. For Ren Yi Hooi, entrepreneurship came by accident.
Hooi’s education and business experiences have taken her all around the world. She went to school in the United States, earning a BA in economics from the University of California at Berkeley and a Master of Business Administration from The Wharton School, and worked in Singapore, the U.S., Ghana, Tanzania and, most recently, London.
Hooi’s background is in finance and banking. She interned at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore and was in microfinance at Village Exchange International in Ghana. She was a consultant at Bain & Company in Singapore for three years before working in impact evaluation at The Rockefeller Foundation in New York. A sales job took her to the foot of Kilimanjaro in Africa and later she had multiple roles in Singapore and Malaysia at BIMA. Then it was on to London, where she worked in product development at Railbank.
Hooi was at Railbank when the pandemic struck, and she immediately saw its impacts: People were out of work, struggling to make ends meet, and reassessing their futures. At first, she tried to find solutions to those challenges from within Railbank but then decided to start from scratch.
The specific problem Hooi wanted to address was centered around finance equity — ensuring that people from a diverse array of backgrounds have access to capital. That role had originally been at Railbank but was cut.
Hooi solved the problem by founding Lightning Social Ventures, which launched in September 2020. Lightning Social Ventures, which has raised $120,000 in pre-seed funding, “enables financially vulnerable people and organisations to receive instant support from grant providers, recover from shocks, and build lasting resilience,” the company states on its LinkedIn page. “We provide a quick and secure platform for charities and public sector institutions to easily verify financial need, reduce fraud, and accelerate payouts.”
I recently interviewed Hooi for an episode of my podcast, Back Yourself.
Running Your Business on Grants: Hooi’s Tips
Hooi might as well have a black belt in winning business grants and getting on accelerators. She’s gotten grants or assistance from Innovate U.K., Nesta, and Techstars. Her advice?
“Firstly, be good at writing,” she said. “It does help a bit to be able to articulate what you are doing.”
Beyond that, startups should be able to identify a clear problem and show that how they are going to solve it makes sense and can make a difference. Beyond that, it comes down to clear communication so grantors know there is a business solution that can make a difference.
Startups should also be able to discover what opportunities exist in the first place, which comes down to basically setting aside time to research and staying on top of the news in your industry.
Finally? Make sure you apply.
“You have to apply to be in the running in the first place,” she said.
Rise Above the Competition: How to Tell Your Story to Investors
Competition for venture money is stiff, especially for business ideas that may not be money printing machines. But Hooi has three pieces of advice:
- Find the right investors, she said, along with the right people to talk to in that company. Your message may be the best in the world, but it won’t mean a thing unless the right people hear about it.
- Tell the story and the business case behind why your idea makes sense. Just because you are in the impact space does not mean you cannot make money.
- Your company has value and can make a lot of money, even though its main goal may be making the world better. That concept, though critically important, is often lost on both founders and investors.
Growing New Companies: When Is the Right Time to Hire?
Lightning Seed is currently sitting at five employees, which Hooi thinks is a nice size. But how did she choose when to hire people?
Hooi balanced hiring by assessing her desired business outcome and the mix of skill sets that would get her there. And, of course, there was the practical consideration of how much money the company had in the bank and what it could afford.
Hooi found that hiring during the pandemic was a huge boost for her business. That’s because the shutdowns meant the office was virtual, and she could choose employees with skill sets who could get jobs done and did not need to consider what part of town or even what part of the country they lived in.
As Hooi found, great business ideas don’t sell themselves. It takes good timing, the right amount of funding, and the right staff — and something more. It takes being able to tell the story of what you are doing, and being able to tell it compellingly. So far, she’s been doing a great job, and it will be fascinating to see where the company goes.