Open to Surprises: Lessons from This French Banker Turned Entrepreneur

UShift’s Robinson Blanckaert says nothing turns out exactly as you plan.

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BY Adelle Chua - 11 Sep 2017

lessons on life

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Robinson Blanckaert grew up in Paris and was all set to be a finance professional. He obtained his degree from Paris Dauphine University, and then moved on to Boston University and Brandeis for his masters. He thought he was on track for a banking career, starting with Societe Generale.

Despite these conventional career moves, there was a persistent little voice in his head that told him to veer away from the path his friends took — the one that brought them to London or New York.

This voice told him to ask his bank to assign him someplace different — Moscow, specifically. “I lived there for one year and loved every aspect of it,” he says. “During this time I had the opportunity to travel to the most remote places in Russia.”

Even when that year was over and he had moved back to Paris and on to New York, Blanckaert always knew he wanted to do something different and go someplace unfamiliar.

“It took me a few years to make the move,” he says, but even then he always knew, at the back of his mind, that he wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Shifting gears

Blanckaert is now CEO of UShift, a Singapore-based start-up he describes as an online marketplace of locally available and previously vetted hourly workers that businesses can hire for a specific job.

His training as an astute, empirical banker told him he needed to have sound evidence before embarking on a big decision.

And so he gathered. “There are 350 million temporary overseas workers in Southeast Asia.  Over 60 percent of businesses in fields such as F&B, retail, and hospitality use flexible work.  Still, there is no specific online solution helping businesses to find and manage temporary workers.

“As of today, over 400 companies rely on UShift in Singapore and over 10,000 workers got vetted and approved on UShift. Many well-known brands such as Puma, SPH, and Mexout are using UShift daily,” he says.

Blanckaert seeks to provide affordability, convenience, and quality to their customers.

What sets Ushift apart from the others? Primarily, it focuses on temporary jobs for hourly workers. “UShift matches jobs according to jobseekers’ interests and qualifications using machine learning algorithms that consolidate the data of worker's previous job experiences and performances,” Blanckaert says.

As a result, over 80 percent of jobs are filled in less than 24 hours.


Lessons on life, and otherwise

It’s been a constant learning experience, Blanckaert says, and he does not think he would stop learning anytime soon. These are some of the lessons he has picked up over the years.


1. Expect to be surprised

“Whether it is your first company or tenth company, what comes along the way of building a company from scratch is never what you expected,” he says.

Ushift is Blanckaert’s second start-up.  His first was Vaniday, an online place to find and book beauty treatments. It is now operating in five countries and is quite on track that he felt he could move on to catch another opportunity.

“You might start with a clear vision and think that everything will be awesome. And then at some point, you get the wake-up call and start struggling. Everyone struggles. Everyone makes mistakes. What is important is to learn fast from them, improve constantly and adjust all the time.”


2. Not everything is found in the resume

Ushift is a relatively small team of around 20 people dispatched between Singapore and Hanoi. 

“The hires we do are crucial in that they set the tone of the company culture,” Blanckaert says.

So what is the ideal Ushift person? Experience is important, of course, but he says he looks for people with values and intangible qualities that they share, not necessarily clones of themselves.

Some of these values are curiosity, genuineness, and reliability. “These cannot be found on a resume.”


3. You can find great support from your investors

It is easy to typecast investors as meddling entities who watch management’s every move and control their actions. For Ushift, lead investor Rocket Internet has been supportive from the start.

“Whenever you face challenges, either tech- or business-related, Rocket has most probably been through that with another company. The support is immediate,” Blackaert says.


4. Work with the numbers

He has more things to say about Rocket. “The network is also very valuable for aspects such as recruiting or intros to potential partners. I hear often that they are more data driven than anyone else.”

Data is good, of course, especially for someone with Blanckaert’s finance background.  “It is correct that we spend a lot of time on collecting and analyzing data sets. This is definitely beneficial for the company as much as it allows us to understand better the behaviors and the market in general. Then we can adapt quickly.


Settling in Singapore

Blanckaert had no difficulty adjusting to life in Singapore. “It is a great place to start a company and a perfect launch pad for the rest of Southeast Asia. The government is definitely willing to attract entrepreneurs and make it as easy as possible to start a business. Moreover, there is a strong expat community that is very accessible.”

But there must be something from home that he misses. “It’s constantly warm and humid in SG and I need cooler weather at times,” he says. But that is expected: Beyond the weather, he’s perfectly fine.