What does it take to build a business and community in 140 countries?
In our conversation with the CEO of ADPList, Felix Lee shares his inspiration behind the global platform and his vision of democratizing access to mentorship on a global scale. Growing up in Singapore, Felix recognized the impact of social privilege on career opportunities and set out to break down the barriers that limit access to influential networks. Felix delves into ADPList's global success, the challenges of driving adoption, and lessons learned along the way. But ADPList’s rapid growth is more than a result of excellent product-market fit or intuitive user experience. Felix’s ambition, conviction and keen understanding of human behavior are essential ingredients. It takes something very special to accomplish their mission: to democratize mentorship for all.
Aspire: What inspired you to create ADPList and democratize mentorship on a global scale?
Felix Lee: ‘Democratizing’ is a very powerful word. Whatever our beliefs are on democracy, a lot of people want a democratic society, much like Singapore or the US. Growing up in Singapore, I realized there are different social privilege groups. If you grew up in an educated household, or with wealthier parents, your parents know exactly what the society requires for you to succeed, because they’ve been there and done that. I had friends in those circles. When they get into that circle, they get to hang out with more of those successful people. So, your network naturally becomes that.
But I wasn't a part of that, I went to a neighborhood school and my parents were bakers. Growing up, that’s the world you see, and I started questioning that. One of fundamental beliefs is that everybody is somebody in society, and everyone has a role to play.
We often put people in a mold, saying you need specific attributes to succeed. For instance, if you want to be a minister, you have to go to Harvard. I don't believe in that. That's where ADPList comes in — as a bridge to that personal mission. What if we can break through that status quo, break through that network, and say that you might be from a certain less privileged group, but we can share access across the board. I believe most connections come from your network, and not from money. So if your network is powerful, and if someone who wasn’t as privileged can get the same access to that network perspective, that's powerful. ADPList is not a shortcut to success, it's a tool to give others more opportunities.
Aspire: For you to start this mentorship community, you must have had your own personal mentors who influenced your personal growth and maybe even helped you with ADPList’s development. How have your mentors helped your business grow?
Felix Lee: I’ve had many mentors that helped me throughout my short career. I take a lot of inspiration from them and their perspectives, where they not only give me advice, but also serve as a sounding board. More specifically, they amplify clarity. They can challenge my perspective, or give a different perspective. Fundamentally, they listen. And as I’m sharing, I also reflect, and so it becomes a very conscious thought. When they listen, there's a sense of reflection. The whole process of mentorship helps to amplify clarity for me.
People management is something that I’m still learning. I don't think most founders are very good at that. One of my mentors in San Francisco, Wendy Johansson, taught me the art of communicating with the leaders and employees I work with. How can I be authentic, yet firm? One of my challenges was deciding if underperforming staff should still be with the company. I had no experience of letting anyone go. She shared a very concrete framework of approaching the conversation, and how to plan performance reviews. I would’ve had to read an entire book to learn all that she’s taught and shared.
Aspire: ADPList is such a global success. How do you navigate this journey of driving global growth and adoption?
Felix Lee: Let me start with a story about why ADPList is global in the first place. As a Singaporean, when I look at the amazing companies in this region, like Aspire, Carousell and so on, we always strive to be something for Southeast Asia. I’ve always questioned that since I was 16. Do we think that Americans are more capable than us in producing world-class companies like Meta and Google?
What do they have that we cannot do? So I saved up enough money and took a one-month trip to the Bay Area when I was 18. I was so poor that I had to stay in a tiny room with two other people. My goal every day was to meet three people working in tech to understand their mentality. My takeaway was that Singaporeans are equally as smart as them. But they had this lovely ambition: if I do something, it’s going to change the world. When I came back to Singapore, I was very firm about an idea: If I create my next company, it should never just be a Singapore or Southeast Asia company, it should serve the world. If I'm going to spend 24 hours of my life and sacrifice so many things, I cannot with good conscience say I’m only doing it for a small group of people.
So when we started ADPList, the global ideology was there from the beginning. At the same time, every country has a different level of maturity. What if we can extend the maturity of San Francisco to India, so that Indians can be inspired and elevate their standards? For Americans, they might want to be inspired by Indians or Singaporeans, and learn a different landscape. What if we can help with that connection?
That was our basic idea and there was a need for that. The majority of my friends on LinkedIn were from the US and India. So when I posted on LinkedIn, it gained traction.
Aspire: That’s a great perspective on inspiration and ideation. It's not easy growing a business in one country, much reaching 140 countries. What was your journey when it came to execution and driving global adoption and reach?
Felix Lee: We have to be idealistic and pragmatic at the same time. When we look at the world, you have to mesh geopolitics into your thinking and strategy, and consider the way people think. In Southeast Asia, many people look up to the US. So, to me, the US had to be our number one market. We know that people look at the US in two ways. First, anything produced in Silicon Valley is considered high quality. Second, they are smart people whom I want to learn from. If I position ADPList with 40% of our mentors from North America, I believe people from India and Southeast Asia would want to be a part of it.
I don't know why we look up to the US so much, but you have to play to human nature. One of the reasons I moved to San Francisco was positioning and brand perception. So that was how we expanded. It also comes from building a great product that transcends culture and language so people can come together.
There's three types of graphs that I frequently use. First, the social graph like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, where you connect with people you know. Then there's the interest graph, where TikTok is doing well. You rarely see people you know on TikTok, but you see things you're interested in. Third, it’s what we call the expertise graph. This means you are learning from people within your expertise. It's people you don't know, but whom you share expertise with. So we use the expertise graph to connect people from different countries.
Aspire: You're in the business of building expertise for professionals, and facilitating learning. It's incredibly hard to build a successful global company. What do you think are key lessons that you have learned?
Felix Lee: We are far from where we want to be. When we do get there, we will strive to be the biggest from Asia and hopefully we’ll rival the American companies from Singapore. That's my dream. We deserve a beacon of inspiration.
The first lesson I've learned from building a global company is to empathize. We have people from very different cultures and backgrounds. We are connecting a 1:1 conversation between two completely different strangers over the Internet. Anything can go wrong on the call.
Initially, the key challenge for us was around designing an experience that is universally accepted, such that people would say, “OK, I'm going to give it a try”. We spend a lot of time talking to our users. One of the things that I still do today is send a very personal, automated email to new ADPList users. If you reply, I actually reply to that message. If users have a bug, I solve it immediately. If they have a design issue, I take the feedback immediately.
From an executive and leadership level, you should continue to behave the same way you do at day 1000 and day 1. A lot of things change when your company starts growing. But we should never forget the most fundamental thing: we should not just make decisions from an executive position, but also from a very ground-based level. You can get product intuition when you talk to enough users.
The other key to success is not very quantitative: the ability to observe human behavior. I'm thankful that I'm born with a knack for observation. I love to be curious, and I think that building great universal products requires a lot of observation. It’s also important to understand human behavior for what it is, and not what you think it should be. For example, a lot of companies do something and they think that the world revolves around them. They put out the product and they think, ‘OK, you guys got to use it.’
But we all have families, friends and personal lives — that product is a small fraction of their lives. Someone could be using ADPList now, but they’ll go on with their lives after that 30 minutes. Recognizing that helps us to understand that we're not a big part of their lives. So, how do we make that 30 minutes the most perfect experience for them, but at the same time, how do we strategize our product to extend beyond that? How can I expand the importance of our product in their lives?
A lot of people start by thinking they’re important, and that they’re solving an important problem. But in reality, the world could live without you. When you have this mindset, it allows you to continue to strategize.
One of the things that we’re considering is that a 1:1 mentorship call is not enough. Why? Because we recognize that mentorship is not a frequent enough use case that people seek mentorship daily. How do we become the de facto source of professional truth whenever you need an answer to your work or career life? We want to be useful even without a call. That’s when you expand your pie. Let's say we become the de facto source of truth, can we then step into their careers to help them find jobs, strengthen their global network, and more? We’re starting from somewhere small, but that human observation of someone's life allows you to think deeper.
Aspire: Introducing Courses is linked to the idea of expanding your pie. As a big addition to your core offering, it also introduces a paid element. What considerations led to the introduction of Courses and this new revenue stream?
Felix Lee: In many ways, Courses is still an experiment. The thought process behind expanding courses was that mentorship is similar to learning. 1:1 mentorship is a format, and we want to introduce new formats as we're in the business of communal learning. We want to bring people together to learn. If you want to learn alone, you can easily do so. But 1:1 mentorship works because we have created a network and community of learning. Now we're starting to think about other formats that go beyond the 1:1 model, and include a multiplayer element. That’s when the idea of courses came up.
This is the most straightforward option, but it's also extremely operational intensive. So we said, ‘Let's try it out and see how it goes.’ It’s proven to be a strong revenue stream, but challenging to coordinate. Brands like Instagram have evolved in similar ways — they introduced different formats of communication. A post is one format, and then Instagram stories is another. There's so many different ways you can engage with friends on Instagram. Similarly, we’re introducing different formats that allow people to learn from one another.
Aspire: When it comes to product development or design, do you approach it with a specific kind of learning mentality?
Felix Lee: We take a very experimental approach. We change a lot of things almost every single week, but it’s not always drastic changes. We make quick iterations to our hypothesis, and we adopt a design thinking approach. What is the ideal state that the user should be in, and what is their job to be done? Then we work backwards. How do we create something that is obviously simple enough for users, but also simple enough for us to build quickly.
So we consider all these from a design perspective, and then we begin. We run weekly sprints now, with weekly reports and syncs. It's a high stress environment, but it works for the team because they're learning fast, and more importantly, it works for the consumers we are serving.
Aspire: You're in a very competitive space in online education. How do you distinguish yourself from other players?
Felix Lee: I look at ADPList as a social network company, more like a community platform rather than strictly an education business. Externally, we would be seen as an education business, but the irony of an education business is that your most successful customers are your highest-churn customers — if I graduated from your program, I'm never coming back because I'm successful. I don’t want to build a company like that as I don’t believe it will be big.
So for me, the goal is to help people grow through a network. In this competitive space, one of the things that makes us stand out is just how good the team is. Some companies have entire teams building educational courses, but we just have one person driving it.
We are still experimenting and trying to find that one factor. I don't think any company has found it yet. Linkedin can be very noisy, and it’s hard to ask a question. That's where we are trying to differentiate ourselves from an education network perspective. We want to get to the answers because people don't just come for the network, but for the answers they’ll get from the network. That's what we believe.
Recently, I had a conversation with one of our investors who asked why we’re going for monetization when we are a network business. Because I grew up in a humble household, every dollar is important. And when we received our $1.3 million funding, I didn’t want to waste any of it. When the market is bad, my instinct is to monetize. But the investor said, “You have to know what game you’re playing, because if you're in the game of education, you might make $100,000, but you’re just going to be like any company out there.” I took that personally and said, “Do I have your permission and support to pursue the path of network, and the path of growth?” And he readily agreed.
If I do that, I will either be a spectacular success or a spectacular failure. But if I don't do that and focus on monetization instead, I will be a mediocre company, with maybe $200,000 in revenue. Maybe I’ll raise a small series A. Should I spend the rest of my career in my 20s building a mediocre company, or go all-in and either witness spectacular success or learn spectacular lessons? To me, a mediocre company is worse than anything. That's why I chose the path that we're on. That was a very important inflection point for ADPList to choose the path of network and growth.
Aspire: ADPList has grown to over 20,000 mentors and 100 million mentoring minutes in 140 countries. What do you think is the single most important factor that has helped contribute to your success?
Felix Lee: If I could sum it up, it’s having both strong instincts and opinions that are loosely held. This has to be held by the founder and CEO alone, at least in the early days. You need a strong instinct for your community, the user base, and the world.
But you also need to develop opinions that are very loosely held. While you have strong instincts of where the world would go, you need to be prepared to be wrong, and that means a no-ego approach to your opinions. You need conviction — without ego — and that's extremely hard for anyone.
See how ADPList is democratizing mentorship for all, and join their global community at https://adplist.org/