Q&A: Kumu exec Crystal Widjaja on making connections, battling burnout, and picking yourself up 2
Kumu Chief Product Officer Crystal Widjaja. Photo courtesy of Kumu

Q&A: Kumu exec Crystal Widjaja on making connections, battling burnout, and picking yourself up

As Chief Product Officer, the Indonesian import is expected to take the highly successful Filipino livestreaming platform to unexplored heights   
JEROME B. GOMEZ | Jul 04 2021

There’s a slight disconnect between the image of the lady in the photo above and the lady we are interviewing over Zoom. 

The woman in the photo looks like someone you’d think twice bothering with your nonsense—despite the hint of smile both softening and lighting up her expression. She also looks like the kind of girl who can get you out of a situation in the most sober, non-threatening way. 

The woman we’re chatting with onscreen, however, is like the go-getter office friend you have lunch with, the one who sparks conversations with cab drivers and always knows how to explain the most complex concept to you in the most illuminating manner. 

Both kinds of women you’d be lucky to have on your side. 

Q&A: Kumu exec Crystal Widjaja on making connections, battling burnout, and picking yourself up 3
"I really love building teams, I love building rigor process, and sustainable practices," says Crystal.

So imagine the great fortune of Kumu, the wildly popular live-streaming platform, for having these two ladies in one person join the company recently. And she goes by that firecracker of a name, Crystal Widjaja—which sounds both bright and exotic and capable of all sorts of wonderful things. 

Crystal is Kumu’s just-recruited Chief Product Officer. “We believe she is the transformational partner that we need to get to the next level,” says Kumu founder and CEO Roland Ros. Clearly, he’s heard of her success at Indonesia’s Gojek which started as a call center that hooked up Indonesians looking for delivery service to motorcycle taxis. 

“Widjaja joined Gojek as its first technical data hire and helped grow Gojek from a Series B startup to a decacorn,” says an article in Adobo Magazine. “As SVP of Growth and Business Intelligence, she led the team of engineers, analysts, and product managers responsible for growing from 30,000 to over 5 million orders per day. In the process, Gojek transformed from a call center to a super app at the heart of Indonesia’s largest technology company.” 

Widjaja is Indonesian but she grew up in the US, in San Jose, California surrounded by a strong Fil-Am community. She says she’s really looking forward to moving to the Philippines and work for Kumu. In our interview, she talks about her new role, developing relationships online, how she picks herself up on days she doesn’t want to work, and what it takes to be successful in her field. 

ANCX: So you're now Kumu’s Chief Product Officer. What does that mean in terms of tasks and goals?

Crystal Widjaja: That's a really good question. The goal is simple: provide value to our users. And that means solving problems that they have, and even problems that they didn't even know that they had in the first place. In terms of tasks, a lot of what that means is working with product managers, engineers, designers and researchers, to figure out where our product is working the best, and how do we make that better. And then talking to more users, figuring out what do they still have problems with. Where is the app not working for them? And for what types of people is the app not working for. For example, if we're perhaps a good enough app in places with really good internet connectivity, but when you go out to the provinces, it's impossible to use the app. Those are a new set of users that we need to be able to design solutions around.

ANCX: So Roland Ros, you're familiar with him, right?

CW: Of course—

ANCX: Because you've already been working with them, actually, as a consultant. 

CW: I was advising them for a couple of months before I joined.

Q&A: Kumu exec Crystal Widjaja on making connections, battling burnout, and picking yourself up 4
Spending her birthday at the Gojek office in Indonesia. 

ANCX: When did you join exactly? 

CW: I think the official date is May 24th. But I've been advising them since, I want to say, maybe six months ago?

ANCX: And prior to that you already knew you were joining them?

CW: Not at all. I think advising is one of the ways that I use to kind of try before you buy. You only get one shot at your career, it's really important to make sure that you know the people really well, you know the problems that they're working on. So I got a good chance to meet them.

ANCX: Well, Roland Ros was quoted as saying, talking about you, “we believe she is a transformational partner, we need to get to the next level.” What are you supposed to transform Kumu to? And what is that next level? 

CW: In any startup, there's this period of time where you're just trying everything in the world to see what works, you're trying to get the product to market-fit. And I love working on problems like that. But I really love building teams, I love building rigor process, and sustainable practices. So the next level for Kumu is, ‘Hey, we've already got such a strong user base, what do we do now? How do we really make sure that we get as much out of our business as possible? How do we get as much of this value to as many users as possible?’ 

And so what I end up doing in these cases is working on understanding the problem at hand. It's figuring out which of these million things that we did, which one of them worked, and what do users love about it? What do we have to preserve? Who do we have to keep close to us? And who's the next target market? What's the logical extension of the product strategy moving forward? Because you've tried a bunch of things and maybe some of them didn't work back then. But now that we have this core user base, there are certain experiences or products and behaviors that we could unlock given we have a new set of strong retained users on the platform.

ANCX: Do you see Kumu becoming something else than an entertainment entity?

CW: So a lot of people will say, oh Kumu is just entertainment. It's just, you know, content. It's frivolous. And I think that maybe that's how it started early on. But what was always there was really a sense of passion, community and connection. And it's really making sure that we design the right product features, onboarding experiences and narrative. So people really see it for what it truly is, what it really, truly could be.

ANCX: Have you been to the Philippines before?

CW: I have not. But I'm excited to be living there soon.

ANCX: You’re Indonesian but you grew up in the US.

CW: I grew up in the US, in San Jose, where many of the co-founders did as well. We apparently lived several blocks from one another. And there's a pretty big Filipino-American community. I was always kind of around it in San Jose. But this is kind of the first time I'll be in the Philippines, specifically. I spent five years in Indonesia. Both of my parents were born there. But I had never been back until 2015.

ANCX: What was that like, coming back?

CW: I definitely thought I knew more Indonesian than I really did. But it was an amazing experience. I mean, I consider myself having grown up, either on the internet, on internet forums and just meeting other people in games, like Ragnarok. Online. It's kind of like why Kumu appeals to me so much, actually, there's a lot of amazing friendships that can be developed on these types of platforms.

ANCX: So you’re not one of those people who look down on friendships and relationships that were developed online. 

CW: I actually think they're oftentimes much more valuable. A lot of friendships that you develop in the real world are a matter of convenience—you happen to live near them, you happen to go to the same school. But online, you actually have to seek people out. You have to make time to get to know them. You have specific interests that brings you two together. And some of my best friends are actually people that I met playing games, or on faction forums and places like Soompi.

Q&A: Kumu exec Crystal Widjaja on making connections, battling burnout, and picking yourself up 5
"I really get driven by a sense of purpose and a sense of social impact," says Crystal.

ANCX: And you do meet them in real life?

CW: I have, yeah. A lot of them are still my best friends today.

ANCX: That's great. Were you already like a big achiever as a young woman, a go-getter? And where did you get that from?

CW: I don't know that my teachers and my parents would have thought that. I think that they knew that if I cared about something, I would get almost too deep into it. I would spend way too much time on things that I found really interesting. And they always would say, like, you're being really weird, that I should probably do more things, have more varied interests. But I do think, you know, I really get driven by a sense of purpose and a sense of social impact. At Gojek, one of my greatest joys was really taking a Gojek to work every single day and back home because you got to talk to the drivers, and hear about their stories and their lives. And I think that's just really transformational.

ANCX: How long did you stay in Gojek?

CW: Five years.

ANCX: And every day you took Gojek?

CW: Every day, yup, motorcycle taxi. Initially, my grandparents would say, like, ‘Oh, you shouldn't be doing that. You should be taking the car. It's not safe.’ But it was so much faster than the traffic. That and I really just enjoyed it. It was an amazing experience.

ANCX: What are your best Gojek stories? I mean, do you have any anecdotes?

CW: So many! One time I was on a call with a Gojek driver. I was trying to order food. And, you know, I'm speaking my somewhat broken Indonesian and you can really tell I haven't grown up in Indonesia. And he interrupts me. He says, ‘Wait, Miss, do you speak English?’ And I was, like, ‘Whoa, do you speak English?’ And he was, like, ‘I have learned English by playing video games.’ And we had an amazing discussion around just, you know, the different games he was playing. He was saying that he would play online with other people. 

I've met teachers who are Gojek drivers, people who were just incredibly, you know, working through hard times, and they needed to make an extra income because their partner was sick or their child needed more funds for school. And so through all these stories I got to really understand what an impact and what a difference we were making in these people's lives. It was extremely powerful.

ANCX: And these interactions inform your decisions at work. 

CW: Of course. You know, especially in the early days, my philosophy was always that the supplier knows best. The drivers have been doing this work for years. It's not a new industry. And so they need to tell us what they need from the platform. And we need to be designing around those requests. And as the platform gets bigger, as it becomes more of a marketplace at scale, you start to think a little bit more about, you know, how do you make this work for everyone? How do you make sure that you don't allow bad behaviors to happen? How do you solve for these cases that become more important to prevent when you're a large company? So there's a lot of this scaling of experiences that also came with it.

Q&A: Kumu exec Crystal Widjaja on making connections, battling burnout, and picking yourself up 6
Future trailblazer. Crystal in her childhood years

ANCX: I think you also have this kind of passion for making connections. When people use that in press releases, it sounds cringey and fake but not with you. It seems authentic to you. 

CW: Aww—I think I really love just being a part of everyone's winning story. I think Southeast Asia in general, a lot of people underestimate it, they don't give it its fair chance. They don't invest in it. There are a lot of amazing people that I've met in both Indonesia and the Philippines. They were exceptional. They caught on super-fast. They were extremely smart. But they had never been given the opportunity to learn or to get exposure to what excellent product management or product strategy could be. And they had to kind of fend for themselves and figure it out on their own. Whereas in Silicon Valley you like almost like, by osmosis, just see what a good technical spec looks like. You have a template that the company already provides you with. There are all of these helping hands. 

ANCX: Yours seems to be this highly creative job in terms of solving problems and strategizing. What fuels you? What inspires you and how do you protect yourself from burnout?

CW: That's an extremely good question. And especially in these times, I don't have a perfect answer for you. I think that I'm still working on this as well. I think I'll oftentimes feel too compelled or feel like I have too much of a responsibility to answer that last email or get back to someone on Slack. But I really love just going on the app and talking to people and I have bribed a lot of people on Kumu, in the app, to get them to talk to me. Before my role was announced, I would kind of sit in, in live streams and I'd ask, I'd say, Well, how did you all meet? Did you all meet on Kumu? How did you find each other? And just hearing people's stories? That's what really energized me— hearing people meet one another who would not have had the opportunity to do so before. And seeing the team at Kumu, the product or the design org, do amazing things. I think there's so much potential here and there's so much we want to do, then it drives me still, I’m very excited.

ANCX: What does it take to be successful in your field, Crissy?

CW: Oh, wow. I think what I've noticed as a pattern is just the curiosity, the wanting to learn, to discover, to figure out why something doesn't work, to figure out how you can make something work from scratch. 

ANCX: Is being curious something you can push yourself to be?

CW: I think that's a tough one. I think that we have to make people feel the psychological safety to be curious. Too often you find that you don't know how to get the right answer. Or when you do find the answer, people don't care. That really erodes that trust in the process, and in your environment. And so I do think it is important to facilitate curiosity. And that means rewarding people when they look things up or when they've sought out an answer on their own and really showing them that you appreciate that.

Q&A: Kumu exec Crystal Widjaja on making connections, battling burnout, and picking yourself up 7

Having lunch with initial Generation Girl class cohort. 

ANCX: Are you always working, Crissy?

CW: People will say that I am always working. So yes, my good friends at Gojek would often message me around dinnertime and say, please don't work all the time. But that is kind of what I'm known for.

ANCX: What is your idea of not working? What is your idea of unwinding? 

CW: I'm very lucky in that I genuinely really love what I do. And so oftentimes I don't consider this work. If there's someone really smart that I can talk to who wants to talk about strategy, and brainstorm, I find that a delight. And I'll say, Can we please do that for two hours on Saturday? I'm very excited to do those things. But for me, I think it's really important to have that creativity. And that comes from doing things outside of that core work. So I'm still advising other startups, other early stage companies with what they're trying to build. I’ll read lots of different books, because I really love reading, especially like science fiction books, or even biographies about, you know,  Steve Jobs. I hope I can be a much better, kinder leader, but his ability to really understand product and people has always fascinated me.

ANCX: Have you found it difficult working from home?

CW: I am not a fan of working from home. Initially, I thought I was. Because I'm very much an introvert. But it's really hard to be innovative when you're all kind of hidden behind the screens. You can't bring people together as much, you get tired talking to a camera all day. So absolutely. I'm very excited to get back to the office, to be honest.

ANCX:  How do you pick yourself up on down days? I mean, on days that you don't want to work. Are there days like that?

CW:  Absolutely, there's always going to be days like that. There's days where we launch an experiment, and it goes terribly. And we were really confident about it. And we have to start from scratch. I think it’s important to kind of just go back to the team and think about what we learned? Did we learn something meaningful? I think there's always something you can learn out of every experience. And the only wasted experience is one where you don't reflect and try to have some gratitude for what you've just done. So I try to do small gratitude reflections. I've been journaling a lot as well. I think that helps to just be mindful of the experience. And then sometimes I like to just browse random live streams on Kumu. People do all sorts of fun, talented things. And that's always really cool to see.

ANCX: Do you Kumu? Do you livestream as well?

CW: I have been doing some live streaming. My live streaming content is probably really boring compared to most people. I don't have a specific talent. I was watching someone who could like dance with their hands. And I was like, that is amazing! I can't do that! But I will totally watch someone else do it.


Photos courtesy of Crystal Widjaja