Lessons from scaling a startup movement 10x in 3 years: A conversation with Durwin Ho, CEO of StartupX

Written by
Aaron Oh
Last Modified on
February 27, 2024

Ever dreamt of scaling a startup movement 10x in just 3 years and growing from 30 to over 750 participants? Durwin Ho, CEO of StartupX, did just that, and his secret weapon wasn't a million-dollar funding round or a viral marketing campaign. It was something far more fundamental: consistency. In this exclusive interview, Durwin shares the power of showing up every day, the art of building lasting relationships, and how StartupX is becoming an ecosystem to power the next generation of businesses and innovative ideas.

Aspire: From growing Startup Weekend over 10x in 3 years to being involved in nearly 30 hackathons, what was the most valuable lesson that has helped with your StartupX founder journey?

Durwin Ho: For context, Startup Weekend is a non-profit, voluntary, community-driven programme that we ran for almost 11 years. The idea is to help anyone start a company over a weekend. It's that simple. We wanted to have fun with it, be exciting, and attract people from all walks of life. We grew it 10x across many countries and even had people flying in to participate.

If I can summarise a decade’s worth of journey in one word, it would be consistency. It applies to your personal life, career, health, and any journey that you go through. Consistency is about putting in the effort and showing up every day.

This means consistency in growth, learning, communication, and every other aspect of a founder’s journey. 

So, when building our programmes with StartupX, we try to keep them consistent in terms of quality, keep founders and attendees at the forefront of our minds and give them the best experience, regardless of what programme they go through.

Aspire: Along with your co-founders, you all possess a wealth of experience. How do you manage to relate to each founder, regardless of the different stages they’re at in their entrepreneurial journey?

Durwin Ho: You have to put consistent effort into good communication. One of the key factors to why startups fail, besides funding and money, would be infighting. We're all humans. We have our proclivities, inclinations, likes, dislikes, and how we communicate and work with each other. Inevitably, conflicts will occur. 

What has worked for us is being consistent in our efforts at communication. Having that mechanism and a ground layer of good communication has enabled us to effectively engage and build better relationships with founders.

Aspire: Managing expenses and financial workflows efficiently is critical for startups. What are some good and effective strategies that can help growing startups streamline their financial operations?

Durwin Ho: On social media, we see how flashy and nice it is to be a startup founder, but people fail to realise that startups are ultimately experiments trying to be a business. Business fundamentally has the other 759 things which are fintech, financials, operations, manpower, and HR. These are things that people don't see. 50% or 60% of a business is not just about the product, or the customer, but the backend operations. 

From personal experience, in the first 3 years, it never occurred that we were running a proper business and had big clients depending on us. But over time, I learned that it's best to have a partner that you can trust to manage these details at a granular level.

We benefited from using finance tools like Aspire, which allows us to present all our FinOps very neatly. And while I don't exactly handle these matters directly, it makes my life a lot easier because I get an overview and everything is much more streamlined. That’s why we’ve been using Aspire for years now. 

Aspire: Having forged global partnerships and sponsorships with big names like Temasek, what do you recommend for startups seeking to establish fruitful partnerships, both locally and internationally to drive innovation?

Durwin Ho: Getting to the top guys and big names took a lot of consistency over many years. When I joined my first hackathon, I thought, ‘Wow, that's pretty cool. People actually come together, eat burgers and pizzas and drink Red Bulls, and they build companies overnight.’ I looked into it, brought it back to Singapore, and started my first Startup Weekend. And over the next 10 years, I've been doing it consistently.

What allowed me to gain good partnerships and bring in the big brands is that every step of the way, I think about how I can add value to the participants. I want them to have a great time. Everything flows from there. So every Startup Weekend, we give them a good experience and we try to bring in bigger and bigger names. That's how we slowly built up the relationships. It takes consistency in our events, programming, quality, and communication. 

Aspire: When you meet these founders and start building this relationship, how do you decide if they're the right person to bring on as a partner?

Durwin Ho: You will never know if they're the right partner or not. Be open-minded, and understand where they’re coming from and what they're trying to achieve by partnering with you. Think about your goals and align your objectives. 

It's not rocket science. It can't be 100% accurate all the time. Like the 80-20 rule, do your due diligence. For the last 20%, if you can't decide, it's a leap of faith. It’s risk-taking, but it's about having that understanding of what is there to take and not.

One pro tip I can offer is to just work on something with the potential co-founder or partner. The harder the project or task the better, as it would flush out all the disagreements, misalignments, character flaws, how they communicate, and so on. All the necessary ingredients need to be understood between co-founders before real growth and synergies can occur. That is why hackathons are so powerful, they condense all of that into a weekend.

Aspire: Amidst global shifts like the post-pandemic changes, how should startups adapt their innovation strategies? Are there specific areas or approaches you believe are particularly promising for the coming years?

Durwin Ho: One of the things that we learned was that remote work is inevitable. Things change, humans change, people change, and society’s values will similarly change. Companies should embrace remote work intelligently. There are many overseas talents out there that you can leverage on whether it's from a cost or efficiency standpoint. Every entrepreneur should be open to that idea. 

Another thing is to embrace AI. Embracing AI also means being curious, learning, and experimenting. It will lead you down a path of curiosity and growth. Fundamentally, it's about staying curious.

Aspire: Mentors play a crucial role in StartupX’s initiatives. Can you highlight a mentorship success story that particularly stands out, showcasing the tangible impact mentorship can have on a startup’s growth and success?

Durwin Ho: One example is Daryl from Augmentus. He started as a participant about 4 or 5 years ago at one of our Startup Weekend. Daryl was beginning his startup journey and trying to find an idea worth working on. Through that process, he joined a variety of accelerators and pre-accelerators that we have, where he met Will and Michael from Cocoon Capital. They hit it off and look how far they have come since. 

Aspire: StartupX has shown a commitment to sustainability initiatives. Can you elaborate on how startups can balance profitability while addressing social or environmental challenges?

Durwin Ho: It’s not true that sustainability initiatives and projects are not profitable. If you're solving a real problem, and it’s a painful one, it doesn't matter which field you are in. Regardless of whether it's sustainability, blockchain, fintech, or any other field, people will be willing to pay for it. You have customers, traction, revenue, and profit.

The second thing is we cannot go on speaking about sustainability like it’s an afterthought. It should be at the forefront and integrated into all our daily activities. Regardless of whether you are a sustainability startup or not, it should be part of our lives. 

As an example, we’ve had two sisters who are in a very traditional industry which is building roads, asphalt in particular. In their final year project, they created a way to recycle plastics that are specifically hard to recycle and can be reused for road building. Generally, companies prefer recycling the easier types because it’s less costly, time-consuming, and resource-intensive.

In their case, they were able to break down plastic into polymers and mix it with asphalt premix to create a new bitumen product for roads. This resulted in a more durable and sustainable material for building roads.

I like the idea because it not only targets plastic recycling, which is a huge problem but also offers a solution to a painful part of that process. They then convert it into something that every country and every city needs. So you have a big market and a good supply. On top of everything, it's sustainable. They’re working towards a good initiative. It’s a plus to the ecosystem and the environment.

Aspire: What is the single most important factor that has contributed to StartupX success?

Durwin Ho: On top of consistency, culture, and having good communication, a key factor is the skill of relationship building. It’s the ground layer that we have right now and it’s something that we try to inculcate within our founders and team.

Relationship building is like watering a plant. You don’t simply watch it grow. You water it, you come back once in a while and then water it again. You have to sow different seeds at different points of time in a founder's journey.

Not everyone that you partner with this year is going to make you millions next year. Some of them will take some time. Relationship building is about sowing that seed and being positive that it will grow, regardless of whether it actually does so.

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About the author
Aaron Oh
is a seasoned content writer specialising in finance, insurance and tech industries. With a writing history at S&P Global, EdgeProp, Indeed, Prudential, and others, Aaron leverages finance knowledge and business insights to help businesses improve productivity and performance.
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