Hubert Burda Media

Spirit of Renewal: Silas Lee (2of4)

Our second personality in this four-part series talks about how a series of unfortunate events inspired him to launch a boutique hostel.


Former corporate banker now caters to the travel needs of millennials


Silas Lee never imagined leaving the finance industry. Having spent 25 years in the banking sector, the father-of-two was highly comfortable in his role as managing director, head of Global Corporates Asia Pacific at Barclays — until he was let go almost exactly a year ago. “At that point of time, I was questioning why, because we were the most profitable region holding,” he shares. “I was also a little bit anxious, as I had a young family and financial obligations.”

What then followed was a period of soul-searching. A devout Christian who believed that everything happens for a reason, Lee decided to turn down the job offers that soon came his way and instead turned his sights to building something for himself. Leveraging on his experience and interest in the hospitality sector, Lee founded sociatel (a portmanteau of social and hostel) COO six months later.

Inspired by functional Japanese capsule hotels and the growing trend of boutique hostels, COO aims to fill a gap created by new age millennial travellers. “It’s all about the sharing economy,” he elaborates. “They want flexibility, the ability to network and they want to explore the city on their own.” As such, the establishment is constructed around the concept of communal spaces and maximising interaction between its lodgers.

It also recently launched COO Connect, an online interest-matching application for its guests. “This way, travellers can get to know other like-minded individuals and possibly explore the city together,” he says. “We are not here just to provide functional accommodation — we want to encourage people to connect and interact with each
other as well.”

What are some of the challenges you faced along the way?

I always joke with my friends that I have never worked so hard in my life. Beyond issues with daily operations, the biggest challenge for me was the transition from corporate life to running a business. That adjustment was not easy. Another constant challenge is the bistro we are running within the hostel. The food and beverage sector is very competitive and its tough staying ahead of the game. You have to constantly create something new, without coming across as too gimmicky.

How have your perspectives changed since?

In banking, I found myself a bit disconnected from society. But now, as I go through this entrepreneurship process, I find I have a lot more empathy for people and situations around me. For instance, the staff under my care and the customers I deal with come from all walks of life, and I am starting to appreciate and understand the world around me more.

What advice do you have for people looking to go down this route?

Don’t do it as a hobby. I mean, there are people who can afford it — and that is a very different story. But even then, if you want to make a great success out of it, it’s not just about having money. Above all else, you need passion.