The 5 Worst Productivity Mistakes in Singapore Start-Ups

Ryan Ong

Congratulations, Singapore is now one of the most productive places in Asia. All we needed to get here were work practices that would kill an ant colony. Take a look at the faces in your start-up: How many are prime candidates for a cameo on The Walking Dead? Even worse, how have you actually killed your earning potential from supposed “productivity practices”? That’s what this article’s about: Productivity “strategies” that are anything but. Take a look at this list, and for once, make sure you’re doing nothing on it.


Singapore walkalator

“You know what’d be productive? Shove the office down the far end, to remind everyone of our ‘longest journey’ mission statement.”


1. The Need for Speed 

If you have an actual product, you know not to blitz your production. Because if production doesn’t match sales, all you’re doing is racking up inventory costs. But what about the service sector, where no actual “product” is made?

Well, this strategy is even worse. When you start charging around like a bull with its nuts on fire, the only thing your clients will do is run the heck out of your way. Speeding up a service process (like retailing shoes, or setting up websites) means streamlining and standardizing processes. That makes you faster, but less flexible.

Keep telling clients: “Can’t do that, it’d take more than two seconds” and your business will crash faster than a tour bus from Genting. Also, know when to draw the line when developing sales scripts: It may be fast and easy, but it strips your personality like paint thinner on lacquer.


Cordless telephone

“And in the next four seconds, explain to the customer about the property market since 1978.”


2. A Mail Obsession

Admit it, responding to E-mail can be a real pain*. Even big MNCs gripe about E-mail queries, and start-ups view them as a combination of diarrhoea and sandpaper toilet rolls.

As a productivity “rule”, some companies institute systems where E-mails are answered within a time limit. Like one day, or five minutes, depending the extent of the bosses’ devil worship. For large companies, who can afford call centres to implement this, it’s a viable idea. For start-ups, it might be stupidly unrealistic.


Burly guy checking E-mail

Since the picture of our tech support went up, our complaint e-mails halved. And now end in “please”.


Yes, it proves your responsiveness when you check and respond to E-mail every five seconds. But when it starts interfering with your core product, you have a problem. Time spent on E-mails should not eat into time spent on products and marketing. If there’s a hall of fame for “Stupid Reasons to Go Out of Business”, this would be the grand prize category.

Allow a decent amount of time (say three days) to respond to each E-mail request. Expect that sometimes, important things will cause you to be late. In which case, send a message that says: “Hey, we haven’t forgotten you, we’re going to get back to you.”

But don’t skip an important staff meeting because “I have all these E-mails”.

*EDITOR’S DISCLAIMER: Except at MoneySmart, where we love reading and responding to E-Mails. We’ve never been like normal people. Even as children. 


Smashed PC on the ground

I WAS responding to the 4,756th E-mail. It’s just that I “responded” with a golf club.


3. Contingencies Within Contingencies

You know what helps productivity? Contingency plans. If there’s a process for every conceivable situation in the universe, think how fast decision making would be!

That’s the sort of thinking that’s accompanied by blowing $5000 on ring binders. It’s a common trait of former corporate execs. Just like the big companies they’re familiar with, they want documented solutions to every imaginable scenario.


Robot resting on a notebook

MoneySmart’s contingency plan against piracy is the plot of 26 sci-fi movies.


Except the founders of those big companies didn’t sit on their asses for 10 years, and write a billion pages of back-up plans. Those contingencies came from direct experience, and a start-up is going to have to walk the same road: No matter how many contingency plans you have, there’s going to be something you missed.

So have one or two simple contingency plans. Anything more is a time waster. When the crud hits the fan, you’ll be forced to act fast anyway; and overly-detailed contingencies are nigh impossible to execute.


4. We’re Missing Seven Cents, Shut Down Everything

Accountability is important. Accountability with money, even more so. But some start-ups are inches away from buying vaults, and guarding them with every weapon the Geneva convention wants to ban.

When it comes to accountancy, “sophisticated” is not the same as “productive”. Maybe you have a wholly integrated budget approval system, with request tickets and built in back-massager. But If your web developer needs to spend two days getting $50 for a router, how much money will your online business lose?


Man fighting the minotaur

A pictoral guide to MoneySmart’s budget approval process. Simple, fast, and weeds out the weak ones.


When approaching an accountant, start-ups must raise requirements beyond security. Accountants need to know how much speed and simplicity you require; don’t clue them in, and they’ll design a system so airtight your workers will suffocate to death.


5. Follow the List

In order to build productivity, you need lists. Lots and lots of lists. Preferably, the lists should tell everyone exactly what to do, along a ridiculously specific timeline (e.g. It’s five o’clock, time to exhale)

It’s a common mistake to think lists = delegation. But writing 40 page “to do” E-mails is not the same as assigning tasks. When you’re up till 4 am writing lists, working out every single step, you are failing to delegate. You’re not assigning someone else to resolve a task; you’re just using them to execute a range of motions, like a human sock puppet.



“I don’t like employees doing anything without my hand up their…without close guidance.”


So don’t give endless point-by-point breakdowns on what to do. Instead, just explain an intended result, and let your employees figure out how to get there. And if they’re too daft to do that, maybe you should start interviewing some new applicants.

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Image Credits:
eefeewahfah, rejon, DBDuo Photography, Le Ciel Azure, Metro Centric, Pranksky, digbygraham, mbrochh

Have you encountered any productivity mistakes in your start-up / side business? Comment and let us know!

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