From 0 to 8,000 Care Professionals on Demand: How Homage’s Founder is Building the Canva for Caregiving

By
Writers@Aspire
Published
December 22, 2021

Gillian Tee, the CEO and co-founder of Homage, is no stranger to the startup scene, having launched her first startup in New York just 8 years ago.

Since then, she has always been drawn to businesses driven by social impact一inevitably finding her way to the caregiving space when she moved back to Singapore. For a rapidly ageing nation, she was surprised to find the caregiving space largely untouched by technology and in dire need of an upgrade. 

Alarmingly, there was also a shortage of top-notch care professionals. This is a problem considering more and more people continue to live longer lives一with a higher likelihood of developing chronic diseases as they get older.

If demand outweighs supply, this will not only strain families who are unable to afford caregiving services but it will also mean that the elderly will not be able to experience the quality care they need to recover with dignity.

Ignited by a vision to build the Canva for caregiving, Gillian founded Homage in 2016, an award-winning healthtech solution that combines cutting edge technology and trained care professionals on demand. 

In this interview, we caught up with Gillian to find out the biggest differences in launching a startup in Singapore versus New York, why she has a box of the incredibly rare Obama O’s from Airbnb’s early days and how her time spent in the US startup ecosystem has shaped her to be the founder she is today.


Please share with us a brief introduction about yourself, your background and your company, Homage.

I started Homage 4 years back. Prior to that, I spent approximately 6 years in Australia before running another company based out of the US; before moving home. I spent a bit of time overseas but I’m a true blue Singaporean. 

I started off as a computer scientist and software engineer. In university, I focused a lot on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Computer science was all I did so I was a real nerd in that aspect. 

However, I then switched  to the business space and did consulting so that really challenged my communication skills.  Finally, due to certain life experiences, I shifted into a more social impact space and I studied public administration.

With Homage, these 3 walls have been converged. Working on public policy and health in the public domain and working closely with various governments and regulations. And then, of course it’s very much tech-driven as it's a healthtech business that’s focused on long term care and aged care. 

Out of all the industries that you could have focused on, what attracted you to the caregiving industry?

Firstly, it was really untouched by technology and I felt that it could play a big role in really improving the solutions in the caregiving space. If you look at what's happening with us, such as ageing, the rise of chronic illness, early-onset conditions and how it's going to impact families; then you realize that it’s a huge space where a lot more solutions need to emerge and more people need to work on. It's a huge problem in many respects. 

Secondly, there's no real proper awareness and education as well as  a shortage of carers. There’s a rise in chronic illness coupled with a fast-growing ageing population and we need to build these solutions. 

Thirdly, enabling our carers with technology. This allows them to get support when they need it or when they’re  vulnerable - these are times that really matter and those who provide such care have been overlooked. Technology is used to empower these individuals 一 professionalize them, give them a career path, upscale them and give them the training they need for a great secondary income channel.

Homage, put simply, is a caregiving platform that is driven by technology and delivers a holistic and complete range of non-medical and medical support to both individuals and organizations that require them such as hospitals, nursing homes, age care centres and facilities. We built tech to drive everything from end-to-end care management for both our consumer clients as well as our B2B partners that allows for greater accessibility, greater education and greater awareness into the caregiving space. That, in a nutshell, is why I work in the caregiving industry.

So why do you think our region is facing this rapidly ageing issue more than anywhere else in the world? And do you think enough has been done to tackle this issue?

I think globally we’re facing this issue so I wouldn’t say that only APAC is facing this issue, though of course we have super aged populations in Taiwan and Japan. 

I think every country is dealing with the question of how to build sufficient infrastructure for its ageing population and how to define the right funding policies. 

Beyond just putting in place the funding policies一in Singapore we just launched CareShield Life一it's how to get those plans activated. This function of care planning and care management has become its own business and we find that it's just a very fragmented industry that requires consolidation. This leads to a lot of lost value for the end person because they're trying to figure out how to do everything. 

Take Canva for example. Back then, you used to have to go to this really clunky app for photo editing and it’s a tedious process. Canva made everything in one and consolidated all of the functions. I think there is a huge opportunity to do that for the caregiving space. From care navigation to financial stability to the matching and curation of the carer to the payments to distributing different kinds of care models to those organizations to supporting their back ops and technology一the full stack of caregiving capability needs to be built because infrastructure is lacking in most countries in the world. It’s not a regional thing一it’s a global problem.

Do you think certain countries have figured out how to solve their ageing population more than others?

Generally, it’s not that one country has everything figured out. I haven’t seen one country that has the golden standard yet as they all have problems. 

To give you an example, Australia has funding but the bottleneck is in care plan activation and being transparent in how people can use those packages. While there are many initiatives that’s being worked on, there’s a 2-month to 6-month to 1-year waitlist on that.

Different countries have done it right in some ways but generally it's still not enough for every country because if you look at what's going to happen in the next 5-10 years then you know we’re significantly behind. So what's going to happen is then there’s going to be a lot of issues of abuse and neglect. You’re going to see issues where families are struggling. Caregivers tend to be women so there will be a lot of resignations from work and then the economy suffers because there’s a cost to caregiving. You have to quit your job to take care of someone or you have to afford it and so that goes back to the carer but if they don’t have enough workers then the experience is just long-term pain points really.

You moved back here from New York, where you launched Rocketrip. What was the experience like being in the startup scene there? How does it differ from the startup scene here in Southeast Asia?

In New York, it’s a larger scene. The Singapore scene has grown extremely fast in the last 5-10 years but the scale of how many startups and investors is just much larger in New York. I think it is a very different landscape. In Southeast Asia, every country is very different. It’s like operating in 10 different markets. 

In the US, generally there’s a lot to do within the continental US because it’s a 300 million population whereas if you look at all the countries in Southeast Asia it's quite disparate. There’s higher fragmentation so your growth trajectory and the way you think about expansion is also very different. In the US, expansion is more unified because you have your territories like North-east and South-east and so on. In Singapore, you almost have to think about expansion as 80% looking at the market and about people and finding the right leaders that you can trust to replicate your playbook and then building an expansion playbook right.

I would say it's been really exciting to operate out of Southeast Asia because there’s been a lot of growth and a lot of investment interest has come into the area. Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian investors are very keen to look at the Southeast Asian landscape and so are American and European investors. I think you’re seeing this spotlight on Southeast Asia as the next emerging region and there’s a lot of interest in companies that have figured out how to expand pretty rapidly. Not just in Southeast Asia but also in Oceania, Australia, Japan as well as North and East Asia such as Taiwan. 

Starting in Silicon Valley, during the super early days like Yahoo and Netscape, it’s really exciting because you’re being a part of an early ecosystem. It’s a much tighter community in Singapore. You enjoy being part of it because you can give back and so I think that’s one of the biggest differences. Yes, there’s a community in New York but it’s very spread out because you have folks operating in Texas, in California, the Bay, etc.

Interestingly, Singapore is a startup when it comes to startups. We barely have any exit benchmarks, it’s just only the first batch and it’s a handful whereas in the US they have benchmarks for growth and scale for much longer.

Have you heard of being a “cereal” entrepreneur?

Actually, I was one of the collectors for the Airbnb cereal. I know Joe Gebbia and the other founders of Airbnb. When I was in New York, I was one of the first 20 hosts in New York City for them and we used to have this host meet-up and I won one of these Obama Os. I haven’t sold it yet though. 

Would you consider yourself a serial entrepreneur? 

Yes, I would say so as I love creating ventures. I like building something from nothing. I see myself as more of an enabler and a vessel that can pull people together to make an impact. 

Homage is solving such a big problem that I would probably work on this for a while. I feel like we’re at the base of a mountain. People always say “oh you’ve come so far” but I really feel that we’re only at the foundational level. With Homage, there’s so much more that we can do but after that I’ll definitely explore more non-profits or I’ll do some investing or create something that can help children or women. I’m not one to retire early. 

What key takeaways did you bring back from the states that have been instrumental in building Homage?

I got to witness how innovation happened一how many things that you think are impossible can actually be made possible. I think one of the biggest things is there is this huge mindset that’s being generated within the entrepreneurial community in the US which is to challenge the status quo. Just because something has been done a certain way doesn’t mean that it should always be done in that way. You witness teams of people from humble beginnings that set out with a mission and actually build something of great value not just for themselves, but for others. 

When we first started Homage, there were so many people who said “you are never going to get carers in Singapore” and “you are never going to get people who want to perform caregiving”. In fact, in every market that we entered, this always consistently happens and a lot of people say that a lot of things can’t be done but then here we are. 

When I was in the US, a lot of my mentors would tell me that there is going to be a lot of people that’s going to tell you that “this is stupid” or “this is not going to work” and I think you just have to be convicted. It helps when you have role models. Just having someone to believe that change can happen. Sounds like a campaign but you know what I mean [laughs]. 

What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced as a founder? How did you overcome them?

The thing about the title: “founder”. You’re just a regular person. You’re just someone who’s trying to figure it out一you're not a genius and you’re not exceptionally good at something. You’re just a regular human being who’s trying to build something. Interestingly, a friend of mine from 500 Startups told me once that “signing up for an entrepreneurship journey is like signing up for 10 intensive years of self improvement”一just working on all your flaws as a leader and learning at a very fast speed.

A startup is not always easy. You don’t have a lot of resources when you start, then over time as you build the business you get more resources and then you get to re-think phasing. I think the biggest challenge is just continuing to have that growth mindset and helping your team. In this part of the world, I think this mental model of a startup is more mainstream in the US and so here, we need to have a great team of people building together. I think every founder would relate to me, it’s a huge challenge now to hire and build a team of people.

Oftentimes, you get knocked in some way, you learn something and how to overcome it is to really take that step back. If someone is giving you feedback, I think it’s important to take it to heart. I think that’s the challenge. Who likes to be told that something isn’t working? But that’s the process of growth. You got to be okay with things not being perfect all the time. 

But over time, it becomes second nature. You’re human so some matters now may still get to you right even though you maintain that even keel. Everyday, build resilience so you can learn to keep your resolve. If you’re an emotional person and you get paralyzed whenever there is a really good thing or not so good thing. I would say if you want a peaceful life, don’t be an entrepreneur for sure [laughs]. 

What’s next for Homage?

Further regional and global expansion as we're expanding into more markets and continuing to build the team. We’re also really focusing on building the people team itself and leadership as taking care of the team starts with managers and leaders. 

The third thing is investing in our core tech to deepen partnerships and distributions within our core markets because we think that we can solve for more financial accessibility as well as use tech to drive a better care experience. 

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I think what’s most important is to take care of your health so I workout quite a bit, everything from yoga to boxing to dance. I also spend time catching up with all my personal relationships, friendships and family. 

I need to spend at least half a day with my mom and have a really nice meal or help her out with something. I do prioritize that every week. 

Every month, I would have an ongoing initiative. Currently I’m part of Gen E or Generation Entrepreneur. It’s a preseed group of 12 startups and it’s a Temasek initiative that supports a fledgling group of entrepreneurs. I love that kind of stuff so for example I just spend evenings sharing with them about tips for fundraising. I’m very selective on what I spend time on for those kinds of initiatives. It’s usually on causes that I believe in because I want more entrepreneurs. 

By the way, out of the 12 startups, 6 are run by women. One is building a climate tech startup and another is building a neobank for the gig economy workers. It’s really invigorating. 

Here’s to more women entrepreneurs!

We need more一not just entrepreneurs but more vocal women in this part of the world. Every part of the world but this part for sure. 

Lastly, what are your top 3 tips for aspiring entrepreneurs and founders looking to build a business?

First tip is that it's okay to not be good at something. Recognise that you are not the be-all and end-all. You need to rely on your team, rely on the people who know more than you and be more mindful of what you don’t know.

Second tip is to prioritize yourself earlier and be mindful of why you want to be an entrepreneur. Just like a caregiver, if you don’t take care of yourself you can’t take care of your team. So I think it’s important to build balance. I tend to run hard and run fast and I think one of the key things I’ve learned coming out of my first experience is also to pace yourself. If this is the cost you’re paying for the startup, be sure it’s the cost that you really buy into because nothing is worth not being well. 

Third tip is to focus on people's functions sooner. Oftentimes, you’re just trying to get market fit but really focus on having a strong, close-knit team. Hopefully, we can do even better at Homage. With COVID, it’s challenging as people are very distributed so now I think it’s very important for founders to focus on talking about culture, what they stand for and the mission with the team and spending more time building up people's functions.


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