Reading “Nadiem Makarim”

Last Friday, Khairul (the CEO of lent me a copy of “Nadiem Makarim”.


It is the authorized biography of the founder and former CEO of Gojek, the Indonesian startup unicorn, and currently the Mendikbud (Menteri Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan) of Indonesia.

Khairul told me it is not easy to read because it is written in BI. What’s the big deal, I said, I can read English quite well. It turned out that he meant Bahasa Indonesia. OK, I can still read Bahasa Indo, but I admit that some words I don’t understand so I have to guess what they mean. Safe to assume I understood 99.9% of the content.

Here are some takeaways:

  1. Privilege is the surest path to success, and early privilege is the best advantage that can be bestowed to a person. The world is unfair, and whether we like it or not, privilege matters. Nadiem had a privileged background (a grandfather who was part of the Indonesian independence movement, a father who was a distinguished lawyer, basically a wealthy and socially influential family). He went to the Dalton School in New York for secondary education and the United World College in Singapore for pre-university education. That leads, later, to an Ivy League university, then McKinsey, then Harvard MBA, the whole shebang. He was set up early for success. This was spelled out unapologetically in the first few chapters. Of course, a privileged upbringing is not sufficient for success in life, as the many people with similar pedigrees but much more modest achievements can attest. However, and this is my point I’d like to emphasize, more than intelligence and work ethics, the most discerning factor that determines success is the early advantage that comes from a privileged upbringing. Take note, parents.
  2. He is deeply patriotic. He spent most of his youth outside Indonesia but have never lost the deep desire to serve his homeland. He would’ve had a high flying career with any foreign company he cared to join, but he staked his early professional life on a fledgling startup whose objectives are to serve fellow Indonesians and make Indonesia a better place.
  3. Gojek started slow but grew fast. The company was on concierge mode for the first few years of its existence: Gojek employees would take calls at its call center from people who want to order ojek (motorcycle) to go somewhere. Gojek grew organically for the first 3 years, yet a huge part of Gojek success later can be attributed to their early days, where it is more a consumer-facing company than a technology company. Once they move on to the ridesharing app model, the exponential growth started, and within a few months, the number of drivers increased more than a hundredfold.
  4. Nadiem has extraordinary people skills. He is as comfortable dealing with Gojek drivers as he is with his Harvard classmates or the tech types or the Indonesian elites. Great choice as Minister whose mandate is to serve the public.
  5. He works hard for Gojek and would stop at nothing to ensure its success. In a later chapter, there is a story of how the Indonesian government once tried to shut down Gojek. Nadiem and his team did whatever they could and pulled all the string the could pull to keep Gojek from going down. Finally, he managed to secure a meeting with Presiden Jokowi, and made an impassionate plea to him, which resulted in the Ministry of Transport rescinding their earlier decision to ban Gojek.
  6. Sometimes, you need to watch from the sidelines. When Gojek operated in its early years, Nadiem was often away working at other companies (first at Rocket Internet, and then later at Kartuku). He was the CEO of Rocket Internet Indonesia, and while working there, he can only manage to work on Gojek part-time. Yet, the experience and perspectives he obtained outside the company helped him to steer Gojek to greater heights when he returned to work full-time at Gojek.
  7. Get creative types aboard. Gojek is the brainchild of Nadiem and two co-founders that he met at Harvard Business School (where he was also classmates with the two future founders of Grab). The three Harvard founders of Gojek have technical and business backgrounds. So, one of their earliest decisions was to bring in a fourth co-founder who has a design background. He came up with many of the Gojek brand identities which are still used until today. A good lesson for startups.

Verdict: A good read worth spending a couple of afternoons on. Candidly educational for startup founders like me. Though at times the writing feels too hagiographical.

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