Have you met Nik?

We have a sweet tooth in the vicinity.

During one of our meetings at the Klinify office, Nik van der Ploeg, Klinify’s Senior Application Engineer, equipped himself with a post-lunch snack of Subway cookies. Throat sore from cracking the office up with his great sense of humour, he then gulped down the remains of my chocolate milkshake.

Which incidentally, I had offered him only because it was too sweet.

A Psychology graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Nik has been involved in web-development work for the past 8 years, 3 of which he spent in China and Taiwan pursuing a Master’s degree in Linguistics. What’s more amazing is that he is fluent in Mandarin.

Armed with his degrees in Psychology and Linguistics, Nik is at an advantage in the office, for he understands how his fellow colleagues work, and means of shaping words and sentences to his benefit. It is no wonder that Nik constantly cracks the office up and is one of the more well-loved members of Klinify.

A few years ago when the start-up scene in Singapore enticed him, and he moved to Singapore to work on a start-up business that teaches Mandarin to people in a novel manner. He met the awesome Klinify team during the second batch of JFDI Asia’s accelerator programme and was convinced to officially get on board with the Klinify team soon after.

How did you decide to join Klinify?

Long story! I’ll try to keep this to the short version. I was in Taiwan doing a Master’s degree in Linguistics, when my good friend Victor and I decided to put our language learning experiences together to start a company to help foreigners learn Chinese (Duable). We applied for JFDI’s accelerator program and got in, and moved to Singapore to take part in it. At JFDI I met the Klinify guys, Krish and Nishanth, who were also going through the JFDI program for Klinify.

Towards the end of the JFDI program Victor had to move back to Taiwan for personal reasons. It wasn’t clear if he’d be coming back to Singapore or not, and I wasn’t too clear on where I wanted Duable to be. Victor and I had started the company to make tools to help more advanced Chinese learners learn Chinese more quickly. JFDI helped us realize that our business plan had a bit of a problem – there just aren’t that many intermediate to advanced Chinese learners out there. There are more than enough to make a viable small business out of, but not enough to grow into the kind of growth-centred start-up that most investors are interested in.

In the meantime, I’d been talking to Nishanth and Krish a lot, and was liking the direction they were taking Klinify. Once Victor went back to Taiwan I was left with a choice: I could try to make Duable into a product that appealed to beginners (and to investors) on my own, or keep working on the Duable I wanted on the side while I did something else. I wasn’t too excited about making Duable for beginners. The reason I’d gotten into Duable in the first place was so I could use it to improve my own Chinese, and it’d been a long time since I was a beginner in Chinese.

In the end it was a bit of a no-brainer. Why run your own business if you can’t work on the product you want to work on? The timing with Klinify was perfect, the guys needed someone else to join the team ASAP, and I loved the idea and got along great with the team. Since we all knew each other we didn’t have to go through a formal hiring process, so I just joined right in and have been happily hacking away with them ever since.

I guess start-ups aren’t always predictable and you’ve to roll with the punches. But it seems like you fit in right at home at Klinify. What’s a typical day for you?

Most days are pretty chill. We keep flexible hours at Klinify, and since I’m a bit nocturnal I tend to wake up around 10-11. After showering, shaving etc. I usually head over to the food court down the street and have some breakfast and coffee while reading something on my Kindle. From there I take a leisurely stroll over to Dhoby Ghaut station where I read on my phone and catch up on email while travelling on the MRT.

After arriving at the office I usually make loud noises and distract everyone until we settle in for our daily merge around 1:15 where we all plan out what features we’re going to work on for the day. Once the merging is complete it’s time to fire up the text editors and get some programming done. I’ll usually work until 9 or 10 and if there’s time left play an occasional round of FIFA or StarCraft II with the officemates, then head home. If I’m feeling especially motivated I go for an evening run, but usually once home I just relax with the girlfriend and wind down.

Klinify sounds like an ideal work place! What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the past few months? 

I haven’t had to make many difficult decisions lately. Everything’s going quite well. Sadly (or perhaps, happily) the most difficult decision I’ve made in the last month or two was whether or not to spend an extra $100 to extend a Thai vacation a few more days. (Spoiler: I hung out in Thailand for the extra days)

Ahh, first world problems. Speaking of which, if you could have two celebrities be your parents, who would you choose?

Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey.

They’ve both done well on their own, but imagine what a kid with their combined skills could do! The business acumen would be coming in strong from both sides, then combine Elon Musk’s technological genius + Oprah’s ability to market and get in the heads (and televisions) of the entire US and you’d have a kid that couldn’t help but take over the world!

I know this is not the same as taking over the world, future Mr President, but it comes with the same fame and exhilaration, I suppose. What superhero would you be and why?

When I was a kid I used to play make-believe as a superhero called ‘Lightning Man’, who I still think is pretty awesome. The basic idea was that he could control electricity and lightning, which also meant he could fly by repelling himself off the Earth’s magnetic fields. He wasn’t invulnerable in the Superman sense, but in general he didn’t have much to worry about bullets or most projectiles because he could use his electromagnetism to repel anything with metal in it. His arch enemy was a super-villain called Durahell who “charged up” and grew more powerful if hit with anything electric.

As for why, well, aside from being massively biased because Lightning man was made up by my childhood self, he’s got a good balance between being powerful enough to make a difference but not so powerful that he could say, fly into space, move faster than the speed of light and turn back time. That means he’d still have problems to solve and challenges to face rather than just being a bored god in tights.

“Bored god in tights”, that’s the best description I’ve heard of superheroes ever. (I told you he’s funny.) What song best describes your work ethic?

Hard question. The first song that comes to mind is the Lazy Song by Bruno Mars, but luckily I don’t think it accurately describes my work ethic.

I think the lazy song describes all of us to a certain degree, especially on days we feel like lying on the sofa like a sack of potatoes. In your ideal world, how would people communicate?

Telepathy! I want to be a technological Professor X. Scientists are really close to being able to read people’s thoughts by attaching electrodes directly to their brains. Unfortunately, in order to attach the electrodes they have to cut your skull open first, which I can do without. But there’s also been a lot of progress on using electrodes placed outside the skull to “listen” to brainwaves. Give them another 10 or 20 years and I think they’ll have workable solutions for controlling computers and technology through thought. The WhatsApp of the future might be able to drop messages directly into someone else’s brain!

That sounds ideal for people who’re too lazy to pick up their phones and type a message! If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?

Thomas Edison. He was a childhood hero of mine. I started telling people I wanted to be an inventor when I grew up when I was like 5. As a kid I just liked the idea of thinking up cool contraptions and making them. I was absolutely certain I was going to invent a Star Trek style teleporter when I grew up (still working on that).

As I got older and learned more about how he actually went about inventing things (like he says, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration) I started to respect him more for his hard work and his business sense than for his inventions. I like the way he thinks and approaches problems and would love to hear his thoughts in person.

I guess in a sense you’re still in the innovation business, living up to your childhood dreams. Lastly, where do you see yourself and the company in 3 years?

I think Klinify’s going to be one of the biggest players in the Asian medical industry, and we’ll be dealing with other companies who are trying to replicate our functionality. Hopefully I’ll be back in the US with all of Klinify’s momentum behind me spreading Klinify into the North American market.