Brian Marhsal experienced the unexpected journey of entrepreneurship. In this piece, Brian will share his journey and tips for aspiring Indonesian Diaspora Entrepreneurs returning to Indonesia.
Brian Marshal, CEO of SIRCLO and his team at his office
Humble Beginnings and “Olimpiade Komputer”
“To think that I would run my own company in my 20s is a far-fetched ambition that I would’ve never imagined if you asked my teenage self,” said Brian Marshal, the CEO of SIRCLO, an online marketplace company based in Jakarta. Born and raised in Bandung, Brian had his love for computers since his elementary school days from a happy coincidence when his uncle, who had graduated from school recently, gave a used computer to Brian. Brian coded, and never looked back since then.
“When I was in the second year of junior high school, I was thinking of what kind of extracurricular activities I should choose – I chose programming, because that was something that I was already familiar with and passionate about.” Young, talented and fervid Brian, with his aptitude in mathematics, led him to programming competitions, where he won silver and bronze medal for national (OSN – Olimpiade Sains Nasional) and international (IOI – International Olympiad in Informatics, representing Indonesia under TOKI/Tim Olimpiade Komputer Indonesia) computing competitions – and he was the best out of the best from Indonesia. “TOKI is where it all started and I still chaired the TOKI alumni network group and continue to take care of its network until now,” said Brian. But academics and the informatics competition were all that was on Brian’s agenda when he was younger.
“Did you know that I was initially rejected by NTU back then?” said Brian to me when I interviewed him. “I did not expect much back then for my higher education journey. My goal was to simply get into a public Indonesian university, preferably ITB, where I can get a quality education with reasonably affordable tuition – winning a scholarship was just a plus.” However, Brian’s astounding achievement in TOKI soon drew the attention of the NTU admission committee to revoke the rejection and take Brian to NTU’s world-renowned computer science program – with a scholarship. “I only brought SGD 1000 with me, and that’s it – I hustled, studied hard, and of course, played hard,” said Brian. Brian began his university journey through research, and was initially leaning towards academia, thinking that his success can only be measured by his academic achievement and acquired knowledge, as well as the number of degrees he achieved – the higher the school the better, in layman’s term.
PINTU President, YLI, and the Road to Leadership Discovery
Brian was a stellar ASEAN scholarship recipient and was once placed in a fast-track program in NTU. His professor back then once expressed his interest in recommending Brian for a PhD program. “Even though computing is amazing, and I might be a stellar PhD researcher… I felt… oddly unsatisfied. I believed that there must be ways such that I can do more and contribute to society.”
“But more importantly, early in my university days, I had very few friends because I was admitted to NTU through a special track where I received placement during the second semester of the academic year,” said Brian fervidly. “I wanted to meet other NTU friends, especially the Indonesian community. So, what’s the best way to make friends other than being the President of PINTU (Pelajar Indonesia NTU/Indonesian Students in NTU) Confirm, you would become the cool kid on the block”. However, through his involvement with student bodies, organizing events, Young Leaders of Indonesia program by McKinsey & Company, and getting to know the world of business, Brian adopted a new world view where he can impact the world through creating ventures that provide benefits to the society – instead of pursuing the not-so-measurably-impactful world of academia. Long story short, by his final year at the university, he decided to work in a place where he can blend his technical knowledge while honing his business acumen at the same time. Brian eventually had his first job as a data science consultant at PwC (PriceWaterhouseCoopers).
“Life was very exciting at first, and it was, and it had always been a fast-paced environment on a Big-4 advisory arm of one of the largest corporations in the world,” said Brian reminiscing about his younger years. “But things got quite… boring… very soon enough! Every time I arrived at work and engaged clients, I couldn’t stop thinking about the future on how can I move forward and making an impact on my life and others around me”. Brian experienced what many millennials do in their early twenties, where they begin to think about life goals which had never crossed their mind at earlier stages of their life. Through his experience, as well as his prior involvements with the Indonesian community, Bran increasingly felt that he has the duty, as well as the passion, to develop Indonesia’s digital landscape.
“For some who had experienced the comforts of studying in a developed country, going back to Indonesia would feel very odd and shocked by the cultural differences. But not for me. Indonesia is, and will always be, my home and where I dedicate my life to contribute to.”
SIRCLO for the Love for Indonesia
“Being in a position where I can blend both analytical and business skills provides plenty of opportunities, but it also brings a lot of… confusion at times,” said Brian during the interview. “I was about to embark on a new journey after PwC and I was at a crossroad of whether I would go full tech, meaning that to take a technical position at a tech company such as Facebook, or to shift gears and do full business consulting with firms such as McKinsey. Afterwards I had plenty of conversation with friends, family, and former brothers in arms at TOKI who ran their own technology startup, such as the former CTO of Traveloka, Derianto Kusuma, also a TOKI alumnus.”
Brian realized that, in Indonesia, the market is huge and fast-growing, with robust private capital funding where there are plenty of venture capital firms to tap into to raise funds. “I was intrigued, but I was a little bit scared too,” said Brian solemnly. “It was a 180-degree flip, from corporate and big companies to entrepreneurship. Coming back to Indonesia to start a business, without any actual planning is also very risky. But I did it anyway. Finally, I decided to return to Indonesia in 2013, with an idea that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but no business plan on my belt yet.”
Brian and his team at SIRCLO warehouse moving like clockwork
“It started out in my earlier years where I was helping a friend in making a simple website. But through that, I began to develop a vision – a vision to empower Small-medium enterprises (SMEs) in Indonesia,” said Brian. “I believe these SMEs have reliable products that can become internationally competitive, and the platform to which SMEs can bring that to the world is lacking. By understanding that gap between SMEs and their effort of internationalization, it encouraged me and my friends to initiate SIRCLO.”
Moving Forward With an Open Mind
SIRCLO has made a lot of progress since then. “Even though I was exposed to businesses, there were so many things that I was lacking in my early years of entrepreneurship – from getting funding, to marketing and client relationships, as well as employee morale and engagement. However, through experience, getting clients and investors, SIRCLO was able to grow its business.
Through thick and thin, and unwavering mission and vision to empower businesses through the platform that they serve, SIRCLO grew exponentially in 2016 when they presented a service called Connexi. Through these services, SIRCLO helps their clients who are generally big brands in the field of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) to sell their goods online in various marketplaces.
SIRCLO Team Outing 2019
Still in the same year, the number of SIRCLO users increased, namely 10,000 Starter (free-subscription) users and 500 paying users. To support their operations in the Connexi service, SIRCLO began to open a warehouse to store stocks from their clients.
In 2018, SIRCLO then rebranded the name of its two main services. For the SaaS (Software as a Service) platform to create an e-commerce website, the service is called SIRCLO Store. While the Connexi service, also known as a Channel Management Solution, was renamed as SIRCLO Commerce.
With the two services, SIRCLO was able to facilitate transactions worth more than US$ 7 million (around Rp. 100 billion) in the first half of 2018. The figure is obtained from nearly one thousand SIRCLO Store paid users who on average processed transactions worth IDR 550 million per day. On SIRCLO Commerce’s end, up to today they have been able to attract 30 clients representing 100 major brands within the FMCG, health & beauty and fashion categories.
Parting Words and a Message for Fellow Diasporas
Learning from his experience, Brian has a lot to say to aspiring Indonesian diasporas who wish to develop an impactful business in Indonesia. “Think not only the what and how, but also the why. I learned that a company does not have to associate itself purely with its products, but rather its mission – it is the most important goal. People change, the markets would change, but our mission to help brands to be able to sell online as much as possible and as impactful as possible using technology, is what keeps me and the team running,” explained Brian further.
In starting a business, there will always be a dilemma between idealism and following the market. Commenting on that, Brian has his own unique answer. “In any business, regardless of whether you would want to sell physical products, entertainment, or even in the media, I am sure that we really have to be willing to follow the market’s will. The market never lies, and they will lead you to the work that would be able to benefit others the most. “