Mary at Wit Singapore: Founders' Fireside Round

At the WiT Bootcamp 2018, Mary Li, Co-CEO of Mystifly participated in a panel discussion alongside Steven Pang, Vice President - Product, Skyscanner and Tushar Khandelwal, COO & Co-Founder, Voyagin. The theme of the discussion centred around the path of a founder from the birth of a start-up to its acquisition and their journey thereafter. It was an interesting discussion with thought-provoking answers. We've compiled Mary's answers and presented them here for the Mystifly World! Read on to follow Mary's journey...

Q1: All good stories start at the beginning … with Once Upon A Time.

Once upon a time, I had the opportunity to meet with the founders of Uniglobe Travel. While speaking with them, I realized just how dynamic the Travel Industry is and that excited me. I did a little marketing research on the industry scenario in China and found that the technology, especially in air ticket bookings was not up to par with countries like the US or UK. But, the question was – what kind of technology did I want to focus on? I decided to start with Data Processing. I was convinced that data processing would one-day support and enhance online booking. That initial excitement and the belief that technology could revolutionize the Travel Industry is what started ASLAN.

Q2: What was the biggest challenge you encountered in the first years of your start-up?

Personally, the biggest challenge for me was my transition from a full-time mom to an independent business owner. It was hard for me to leave my daughter behind at home. From one-day taking care of my daughter, cooking for her, helping her with her homework, to not being able to find that same kind of time with her – it was difficult. Work-life balance was the biggest villain I encountered.

I always made it a point to spend at least an hour of quality time with my daughter. More than just a caregiver, I wanted my daughter to see me as a role model. I wanted to show her that a woman could live an independent life too. Of course, there are still times where I feel sad for not being around for my daughter as much as I could. But, I am incredibly proud of the woman she has turned out to be.

Q3: All good stories must have a savior – in your case, an acquirer. Tell us about the first approach and what went backstage to make the deal happen?

The boss of ALITRIP and the representatives from their investment department visited ASLAN several times before the talks of a deal came about. Because I was quite busy on a daily basis, I could not meet with them during those visits. However, when we finally did meet, I was not prepared with an investment plan. I explained to them, our business model. I spoke about how we operated as a company and how I managed my team. I remember they were impressed by the efficiency of ASLAN and the way that I ran my team. The deal of acquisition followed immediately after that meeting.

Q4: Mary, what motivated you to join Mystifly? What’s the culture fit been like? Any challenges in the beginning?

What motivated me? It’s the vast difference in culture. In India, family, religion, and heritage – all of these play a very important part in people’s lives. I could not understand this at first because, in China, it does not matter that much. This gave me a sense of belonging. That is what motivated me and it continues to do so, even today.

The challenge for me initially was learning to respect and accept the culture. It’s definitely a culture shock. But, once you begin to understand the culture and people – it opens your eyes to everything you’ve been missing. Secondly, it was sensitizing my team to Chinese culture, because we do have Chinese talent as well. I find that we are all able to co-exist, accept and respect each other – that is very inspiring for me.

Q5: All good stories have a superhero – other than you. All of you were bought by companies with charismatic founders – Gareth Williams, Skyscanner; Jack Ma, Alibaba and Hiroshi Mikitani, Rakuten. Describe your first meeting with them and the biggest lesson you’ve learned from them.

The biggest lesson I learned from Jack Ma is the importance of strategy for a business. He always set very comprehensive and advanced strategies to ensure ALIBABA’s growth. The second thing that I learned from him is how to create heroes. Jack Ma always attracted top ranking talent. They always wanted to work with him. More than just being a hero, it is also important for a person to create and build heroes of the people around you.

Q6: All good stories have a happy ending although real life is messier. What’s the happy ending you want for the business you’re running today?

Honestly, if you reach an end, it means you’ve reached your limit of growth. My vision for Mystifly is continued growth, new milestones, and new benchmarks with each passing day. There’s never an end to how much more we can achieve. If we reach the stars, we can always reach higher.

Q7: Since we are talking good stories, what’s the best book you’ve read that made you a better entrepreneur/person?

That would be ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand. The book follows the life of an architect, Howard Roark, and his struggle to achieve success on his own terms. I was able to connect with the character because we both faced similar struggles. It taught me never to give up. You must definitely read the book if you get a chance.

Q8. Finally, if there was a movie made about your life, who would you want to play you?

Have you watched Grey’s Anatomy? I am very inspired by the character, Meredith Grey. She’s such a strong and independent character. In the face of so many circumstances, she still perseveres. If my life was ever made into a movie, I would like Ellen Pompeo (the actor who plays Meredith Grey) to play my character.