People In Farming

Jacie Tan catches up with Stuart Thomas and Abang Dzulqarnaen, the founders of a hydroponic startup, to see what they look for in the people they want to grow with.
Jacie Tan Cheng Hwee

The first thing I feel when I pull up to Babylon Vertical Farms’ headquarters in The Garage KL is serious location envy. Built from repurposed shipping containers, it seems the perfect place for an environmentally-minded, sustainable business to grow.

The team

‘We’re really lucky to have found this place,’ says Stuart, co-founder and finance director of Babylon. ‘It’s twenty minutes away from the city, we’re having our first vertical farm here, and we’re in talks with the owner of the café about our office area.’

‘We’re even making the most of our space by building living quarters for our team on-site,’ adds Abang, fellow co-founder and head of operations.

Stuart and Abang have known each other since their kindergarten days, with similar ties of long-standing friendship with the rest of their five-man-strong team as well. I ask the obvious question about what they think of friends going into business together.

‘They say don’t get into business with your friends, but it’s really about what kind of friends you’ve got,’ says Stuart. ‘If they’ve got integrity, then I’ll know I can trust them, and that’s what’s important to me. I’ve known Abang and Joel for years. Ollie and Eshton are martial arts students of Abang’s, and my trust in Abang’s recommendation of them has completely paid off.’

People and growth

‘The number one thing we look for is coachability – your ability to be coached,’ Abang declares. ‘You have to be willing to learn and put your belief in those who teach you.’

‘It’s in integral part of our hiring criteria,’ Stuart agrees. ‘You can hire the smartest person, but if they think they know everything already, they’re not going to get far.’

‘Whenever we approach someone new, I like to use unconventional methods to figure them out,’ shares Abang, who studied psychology as part of his degree. ‘Body language, colour preferences – all these small things enable you to judge what kind of person someone is altogether. Psychology is as real as any science out there.’

‘Babylon is a company that places heavy emphasis on HR,’ he continues. ‘It’s important to have the sensitivity to pay attention to team dynamics and working environment in order to maximise human efficiency. For example, I always recommend that we eat together as a team to foster togetherness, the way families would. The way our working space also plays a part in team motivation – this is another thing companies overlook to save cost, but you can always do it in a cost-efficient way.’

Taking risks to find fulfilment

‘Human psychology and efficiency also relate to fulfilment,’ says Stuart. ‘I have friends who work five days a week in jobs they don’t like and spend their weekends partying hard, but when Monday comes back around it’s just back to the grind for them. That’s not how you become your most efficient self.’

‘It’s not a matter of the working hours, either. There are days where we have worked for 14 hours straight. I once had to do a pitch for Babylon whereby I didn’t sleep the entire night and day before because I was preparing for it. We were working on it the whole day and I didn’t get an hour’s rest, but I felt more alive than ever. I didn’t care that I didn’t sleep because of the fulfilment I got from it, believing that what I was doing will make the world a better place.’

‘Your fulfilment needs to come from yourself, so that you can have internal control over your own life,’ chips in Abang. ‘Don’t just follow the path your parents chose for you. One thing I feel fresh grads should know is not to be afraid of failure. Don’t play it safe so you never cross any bridges to try for something better. Failure isn’t the end.’

‘It can be difficult with families who encourage you to take the safer option with your career,’ acknowledges Stuart. ‘They’re coming from a good place, but you need to decide what you want to do with your life. If you don’t take risks, it’s far too easy to get sucked into a pattern where you’re not being fulfilled.’

With their very first shipping container farm soon ready to go, and most of their team fresh out of university, it definitely will be an exciting road ahead for the guys at Babylon. Having experienced their enthusiasm first-hand, I have no doubt that they’ll practise what they preach and truly relish the hard work that comes with a fulfilling job.