Humbled by Honest and Courageous Founders

Last week, we had our first event of the year for Founder Institute Singapore 2014, entitled "Making the Leap from Employee to Entrepreneur". It was the first time for the past 4 years with this particular event content. I invited 3 of my recent FI graduates to talk about their founding journey.

What transpired during the 2 hour session totally overwhelmed me and brought me  to tears more than once (especially Rishi's talk). 

I hereby salute all founders who have made the decision to make the leap. You will always have my respect.

Our next 2 events before starting the semester can be found at www.fi.co/join

Founder Institute Singapore - Rewired Summer 2014 (Launched!)

Founder Institute Singapore Summer 2014 is Launched and Taking Applications! Go to www.fi.co/join (select Singapore)

The next Founder Institute Singapore semester - will be tentatively called "Founder Institute Singapore Rewired 2014". I have been directing Founder Institute Semesters in Singapore for the past 4 years and mentored and helped start several chapters in Southeast Asia. Our cohort of alumni is the best group of people I have gotten to know ever. No assholes so far (which is what I am proud of), all real mofos who would not take no for an answer as they navigate the startup maze. I hereby salute you all.

I have invested in quite a few of you, exited one, mentored and advised a bunch. The feedback from the market on Founder Institute graduates are impeccable but we are not going to get big headed. Founder Institute founders possesses the founder DNA when you first enter the program, the rest is the idea, the tools, the push and the tenacity to get things done. I know roughly what will succeed now after all these years. So lets get down and do this shit.

There will be 2 main changes coming up (which are in the works but will be implemented in a form that I see fit once the semester starts, this is my FTM - fuck this moment):

1. We will focus a lot more on the first 5 weeks of ideation than ever before. In addition to the mentors' rating and special assignment grading of the founders at the 2 mentor review sessions. I will also give my input from the start and actively kick people out no matter what the mentor rating is. 

The criteria is simple: focus on the mission and ideology of your company and clearly articulate the problem statement against your own personal founding story.

If the general direction is game changing, and may move me to think of quitting my job (hypothetically) to join you. You will be safe and will remain in the program.

This semester will be epic! Hang on, embrace yourself.


Close Encounter of the Hard Science Startup Kind

For the past 2 months, I mentored a group of over 40 scientists and entrepreneurs in the water technology industry (wth? you may ask) and put them through an entrepreneurial fast track program (condensed version of the Founder Institute program) with the purpose of potentially spinning out high growth water startup companies. The results were rather amazing. Not in terms of which teams were selected to pitch at Hydro Pitch Day on June 2nd, 2014 as part of the Singapore International Water Week, but in terms of how they have grown and how they have bonded and helped each other out in a short but definitely interesting 8 weeks.

I took up the challenge because it is precisely what I am uncomfortable with; dealing with PhDs and patents. Only in uncomfortable situations where you learn the most and ask the most interesting hard questions. Hard science and entrepreneurship, marrying them together is a pretty challenging task no matter who you are. Research institutes around the world are battling the "Return of Investment" question surrounding R&D budgets allocated over and over again, universities tries very hard to emulate MIT and Stanford and work on spinning out companies as part of their technology transfer KPIs. Singapore is no stranger to this.

Here are my summary of findings and take aways after working with the teams for 2 months. I hope my "outsider" perspective can shed some light.

Finding 1 - Technology chasing a market. Academic researchers tend to surround themselves with seemingly "great" intellectual property looking for a market to sell to or apply. A primary reason is because they do not have a well rounded complementary team who are able to hustle and research their way through the maze of customer development and very few are from industry. Most technology transfer offices are also weak at that because of the wide range of technologies they have to deal with, it is hard to be strong in a vertical when you are spread too thin.

Finding 2 - Seemingly "great" technology in the eyes of the inventor are technologies that are not validated yet by anyone that matter. Very few have begun trials with a prospective customer. They seldom have the time or know how to step back and reconsider whether what they have invented is indeed revolutionary or simply just incremental. The technology's strength and differentiation compared with other university technologies, startups who have been funded or in stealth mode or large company research labs has never been truly tested or benchmarked against. 

Finding 3 - Most teams are weak in understanding who their actual customer and the form of their product. Without this clear understanding, it is difficult for many of them to clearly articulate the true market size and opportunity. However, it is due to the early stages of commercialization that they are in this predicament, this is also the precise stage to have people from various disciplines to be involved and infiltrate new ideas and ideas combinations to spark innovative "What if" questions.

Finding 4. Without special interventions from mentors, investors and "an ecosystem", hard science spin outs will take time and will continue to face challenges.

So what can we do to change this situation in addition to running entrepreneurial programs like the Lean Launch Pad, here are my preliminary thoughts (perpetually in beta) ;)

1. Research institutes and universities should carefully curate a panel of advisors that consists of;

a. World class (no geographical restrictions) hard science venture investors who invests in seed stage (writes the first check) who has seen, invested and worked with various technologies and scientists/entrepreneurs at a global level over a few cycles and/or decades;

b. Operational executives from potential customer segments who has experience procuring technologies and finally; 

c. Founders operating in the same vertical who are not jaded (and hence become naturally pessimistic) by the industry, or the entrepreneurial process. Find recent entrepreneurs who are excited and upbeat about what they are doing to change the world.

Have them meet twice a year to look through potential research and patents. Each technology vertical should form one panel.

2. Research institutes and universities need to foster a culture of clashes of students, faculty from different disciplines, and the entrepreneurial community. 

a. Run meet ups (in the central part of town please) where entrepreneurs and scientists gather, but not pitching the final business case rather to explain what the core technology does. Seasoned entrepreneurs who dare to ask the right "What if" questions will challenge all forms of thinking and seed new ideas. Let the question-storming start and foster among the community and do not constrain the process. Have someone facilitate the process who really knows how to foster creative questioning.

Finally, it has been a pleasure working with all of you at the Hydropreneur Program. I gained many new friends but importantly a new found respect for all of you. Your work, passion, expertise and sheer genius sometimes blows my mind. I enjoyed our crazy discussions and banter over the weeks. There are a bunch of you I would love to work with in the future and perhaps fund your new ventures if the investment criteria fits my fund. Till then, stay crazy, optimistic and keep asking crazy "Why & What if" questions.

Catch you all soon and keep in touch.

p.s. Good luck to the 6 finalists at Hydro Pitch Day! I will be cheering for you, and this time with no expletives. I hope.


Uncontrollable Phenomenon

After a long day at work and arriving home past Justin's bed time, I notice an interesting phenomenon. The moment I laid my eyes on him, a smile appears on my face for which I have no control over. I was clearly smiling because my eyes are looking down my cheeks but my brain cannot comprehend why.

A smile from the heart.

A phenomenon that is new. 

I can get used to this.

~Good night, my little man. See you tomorrow.




Choose your beach head market wisely

Startups and movies have quite a bit in common.

Los Angeles, the Entertainment capital of the world. 

San Francisco Bay Area, the Startup capital of the world.

We know that to some extent but somehow it does not truly hit home.

If you produce an English movie in Singapore looking for worldwide adoration and box office revenues, it usually ends up with limited distribution (classified a foreign language film) and screened in film festivals with limited distribution outcomes. 

Sounds familiar?

How do you choose the right beach head market for your startup that you can readily dominate that makes sense from where you are and move on from there?

If there are essentially 3 types of major major markets, categorized as:

  1. English speaking - SF Bay Area as the hub
  2. Chinese speaking - Beijing, China as the hub (because China is indeed special)
  3. a) Rest of World (Developed) b) Rest of World (Developing) 

Then, starting out from Singapore with limited resources, capital, talent and rising cost is pretty challenging from the on set. Where is then your beach head market? What is your move, chief?

It goes back to the founding team especially the CEO and what his or her personal situations, ambitions, knowledge, connections lies. Some founders put the company ahead of themselves and consider what market is best for the company and go to where it brings the largest impact. Some founders go with what they are comfortable with and capitalize on the opportunity that they know they can achieve. There is no right or wrong answer here, that is why the startup game is incredibly hard.

If you have something game changing, or you are 1 of 3 companies in the world that do what you do, and/or you can demonstrate a 10x differentiation to your closest competitor or simply, you know something that no one else in the world knows, chances are there are only a small number of places that will understand you, appreciate your venture's risk reward profile and have the ready ecosystem that will surround you to make things happen. Go to where they are.

If your beach head market is not ready, changing customer behavior where early adopters are not abundant makes achieving escape velocity a lot harder. It usually takes more time than you think. If investors in that region do not have the time to wait for escape velocity to arrive, you will likely throttle down your ambition and iterate to fit a market that understands, engages and pays for what you have. 

Therein lies the rise of clones and me too companies. 

Trust me, they are equally as hard to start and run compared to companies with breakthrough ideas. However, if you have ambitions to solve local or regional problems using or applying solutions or products that people resonate with, where a lot of guess work has been taken out then interestingly timed products that will achieve traction will surface. However, these founders have to realize that because they have chosen this path, their markets maybe limited, with intense competition close by. They have to execute even faster. 

Achieving a break through idea is hard. Everyone is trying to do that on a daily basis everywhere in the world. Courage and genius are still needed to pull it off. 

Nobody says startups are easy. Choose your beach head market wisely. 

So what is the purpose or role of Singapore then?

Personally, I think for now, Singapore is a special enough place that helps stitch Southeast Asia closer together and makes it easier for entrepreneurs to do business in the region (i.e. Rest of the World - Southeast Asia). 

p.s. More on startup ecosystems coming up soon especially ours (Singapore). 
p.p.s If you like this post, please Like or Tweet it. 

First MIT Visit and Takeaways

I recently went to MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the first time to attend a 3 days executive education program at MIT Sloan School of Management called MIT REAP, more here. More about the program in my next few posts but in short it has something to do with developing our startup ecosystem in Singapore.

Almost 26,000 companies are founded by MIT alumni that still existed in 2006. If they were a country, it would have the 11th highest GDP in the world. My first impression was that MIT churn out great technology companies from their licensed technologies, but that is not the case. Most of the 26,000 companies founded by MIT alumni, very few (about 10%) are from MIT-licensed technology. But don't get me wrong, there are still about 20-30 companies spun out yearly from MIT. It finally hit home after speaking to Dharmesh Shah from Hubspot that most software startups started by MIT alumni are not MIT-licensed.

After an informative and definitely transformative 3-4 days at MIT, here are my three takeaways with regards to startups that are associated with MIT and why they interest me:

1. People

A predominantly engineering university with a cluster of engineering disciplines creates tremendous network effects. World class in research, both in reality and in perception. I can feel my IQ rise as I wander around the campus, eavesdropping on conversations. No doubt, they have skills, some probably harbor world class skills of varying depths. Over the years, the history and performance of startups from MIT faculty and alumni further shaped those who enrolled, those who researched, and those who taught.

2. Culture

I ran into at least 4 professors who are entrepreneurs many times over or "have helped to start 12 companies". That is a pretty rare occurrence as compared to where I am from. The culture of collaboration, experimentation, and the courage to change the world seems to be within the culture of Cambridge and MIT. The desire to learn, improve and do forces everyone in the system to be better. It fosters "creative confidence" and the courage to explore paths to bring a product to market.

3. Collision 

The most unique thing that caught me that were constantly being emphasized, was the way the campus is constructed to encourage "collision" amongst students, professors, post docs, and alumni. The famous MIT Media Lab is designed and located specifically to create "creative collisions". They even conduct entrepreneurship classes at the Media Lab, see https://www.media.mit.edu/about/ventures.

To add on to the 3 takeaways above, the talent pool in Boston/Cambridge is one of the best in the US, the availability of early stage capital is second only to Silicon Valley and co-working/collision spaces like CIC it only helps to support more creativity and courage to start companies.

My conclusion is, with enough density of people with the right entrepreneurial DNA and skills colliding together in a supportive ecosystem, amazing things will happen. What does this mean for me or Singapore? Stay tuned to my upcoming posts.


Other references:
MIT technologies are readily available online http://web.mit.edu/tlo/www/industry/inquiries.html#SelectedTechnologies.
An inventor’s guide to startups for faculty and students http://web.mit.edu/tlo/www/downloads/pdf/Startup_Guide.pdf

Southeast Asia Series A Crystal Ball Report

I don't know about you, but if you are an early stage technology entrepreneur in Southeast Asia raising venture capital to fund the growth of your business, you will likely have no idea what the cross section of institutional Series A investors in the region are looking for. 

We are not talking seed or angel rounds, but professional fund managers managing other people's money.

What I found in the last 2 years of investing in Southeast Asia is there is a gap of knowledge of what metrics or criteria these fund managers are looking for before even perking their interest. 

Many founders will be looking at raising their first institutional round this year. In order not to get caught in a tail spin and getting sucked into doing bridge and/or down rounds, we at Golden Gate Ventures wanted to do a survey amongst most if not all of the Series A investors that we can hustle our way into.

If you wish to help refer investors please drop us an email at info@goldengate.vc.

If you wish to read our findings in a report, please leave us your email address below.

Thank you.

Leave your email here

Your startup life in 2014

A few words about Lunar New Year Resolutions (if there is such a thing) that I will lay down for myself and I hope you will like them too.

Back in 2009, there was a huge gap of qualified startup mentors that are able to help first time founders (especially) or serial entrepreneurs building product companies for the first time. The FTM (fuck this moment) came when I see too many sub-par quality companies funded and fail (a total waste of money) and hence sparked the creation of Founder Institute Singapore in 2010 with huge support from the IDA and Spring Singapore. Since then, we are crushing it, thanks for asking.

Four years later in 2014, the mentorship gap has narrowed considerably although never completely, we now have a new, and flourishing startup ecosystem that I am proud of. However, the evolution of founders has brought them to meet different challenges especially people management, setting a vision and direction, work life balance and defining the culture of their companies.

What is missing is the next step of founder coaching. Whether they come from the board, advisors, or fellow founders or even full-time executive coaches focused on startup leadership. Our fraternity should come together to help like-minded folks to plough through the good and mostly tough times.

Back in 2010, I gave away some internal secrets on how to build relationships in business (probably not much of a secret). I spoke about it only once publicly in a SMU lecture. Here are the highlights:

The way to build relationships with anyone in business is to know how to (in that order) take care of their:

  • Love/Family Life (especially Kids - their health, education and/or love life)
  • Physical, Mental Health (especially physical health - a thought, an action will change perceptions deeply) 
  • Money matters/Career (especially making them look good and proud of their achievements)

So taking a page above, in 2014, founders please:

1. Take care of yourself this year. Do not let your startup and milestones consume you whole. Slow down and look up at the blue sky once in a while and take a deep breath. Look at your love ones and be clear on why you are doing what you are doing.

2. Seek out a small fraternity (less than 5) of like minded founders that you can chat, update and share your journey with. Grab dinner with them once a month, create a Whatsapp/FB Group Chat, connect and share. Startup life is hard, period. You need an outlet and a sounding board.

3. Focus on your job at hand (money matters/career), have a personal life (love/family life), and have a side interest/hobby (physical, mental health). And lastly, workout (preferably in the late morning or early afternoon, a few times a week).

No matter what your situation is, founders are a different breed of people whom I have the good fortune to meet, train, (occasionally scold), and invest in. Stick together to help one another. Be blunt. Remember, there are people around you who is there to help, support and lend a helping hand. 

They do care about you no matter what you may think. Sometimes a text, a message, a nod will trigger a catch up that is long awaited. 

Sometimes just knowing that they are around is all you need.

Blogs I found that you might like to start with:

http://scott.a16z.com/2014/01/17/success-at-work-failure-at-home/

http://www.themonsterinyourhead.com/

Books:

Startup Life

(of course there are plenty more...)

Happy Lunar New Year to one and all. (This post was inspired by this song below, hope you enjoy it).


Comments on Singapore's Wishlist to Elevate Singapore's Startups


Techinasia recently covered the outcome of ACE's 6 month discovery process of the state of Singapore's startups and came back with 10 recommendations. The full post is here to help with the context of what I am commenting on below.  I have been known to chime in on such matters from time to time.

So let's do this.

1. Let private sector partners play a greater role in developing the entrepreneurial community.

Easy to delegate but this needs a clearer strategy with stretched goals as resources and commitment from the private sector are limited. Work backwards from what we want to achieve and figure a way that both public and private sectors can work together in a realistic form and attacking small goals within a reasonable amount of time.

2. Double the number of youths in overseas immersion programs to 400 annually.

Agree with this fully as I have seen and have funded great talent coming out as a result of these programs. However, not all programs are designed well, do regular 360 reviews of such programs, and keep improving them.

3. Encourage schools to introduce tinker labs.

To create interest in science and technology is an excellent goal. Tinker labs should be one of the many items on the list to try to hit that goal. 3D printing and the like is the flavor of the year, try not to be too caught up on it. I do support any creative ideas to interest students. We have some programming workshops and road shows (educating students on the startup culture and job scopes) planned at polytechnics and universities at Startup Academy in 2014, it is one of our small tried and tested way we know how.

4. Unlock corporate venture capital and other private financing options.

Totally in support of this move to unlock more financing structures for startups, be it venture debt or tax incentives for large GLCs or private corporations when they invest. Government should also engage large corporations to invest and support Singapore based venture funds. This could be an indirect way to help serious corporates who are looking to set up their internal corporate venture arms.

5. More collaboration between large corporations and startups.

Agree. However, online platforms will not work in the short term. Do it the old fashion way. Curate the startups and qualify the large corporations with their interest/objectives/problem statements and make sure the decision maker sits in during the pitch meeting. Figure out what his or her agenda is within the large corporation (dig it out) to make sure no one is wasting the entrepreneurs' time.

6. Make Singapore a crowdfunding hub.

Agree. Why not? Whether its crowdfunding of projects like Kickstarter (not very likely to scale due to our market size) or equity crowd funding (if MAS allows). Singapore should be the epi centre for such model innovation. We would love to have Angellist base themselves in Singapore addressing Asia.

7. Help startups get better access to talent.

Agree with the intention and several suggestions. However, we do need more resources on the ground to train our next generation of innovators (like coding, ui/ux and growth hacking schools). That is more important than relaxing foreign employment regulations (although that needs a re-look right now).

8. Grow the physical spaces for startup activity.

Agree as well, this looks to be better suited as a Public/Private Partnership. The government subsidizes, the private sector design, build and manage. Just take note of the eventual location. The top locales so far are still: Blk 71. Chinatown/Tanjong Pagar/Raffles Place. Arab Street/Bugis/Middle Road. I think other hubs in other locations will be hard to achieve stickiness. Focusing on 1-3 hubs will suffice.

9. More government funding in nascent tech sectors.

Agree as well if there are deserved entrepreneurs with great ideas, they should be able to receive the same incentives. However, reality is harsh at times, it will take a while to move the needle.

10. Enhance programs that help startups expand abroad.

Well, I raise both my hands and feet. We are planning something big for IntroduceStartups.com tour soon. We have always advocated to startup founders to travel more and meet like minded people. 

"Amazing shit happens when like-minded people meet". ;)

There you have it. Pretty mild thoughts from me this weekend.

Have a great weekend.

Gif source: allyourgifrelatedneeds.tumblr.com

"Are you wealthy" Tokyo Tour 2013

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Golden Gate Ventures were invited to speak and attend several startup conferences in Tokyo in December 2013. So we thought why don't we make this trip an off-site for the team and that became a business development and fund raising tour for our portfolios and finally morphed into a formal IntroduceStartups.com Tokyo tour with ourselves, portfolio company founders and some entrepreneur friends. A total of 9 of us headed off to Tokyo filled with excitement and anticipation. 

We booked 3 apartments on Airbnb (under the same owner) in the same apartment building in Roppongi, a block away from Ropping-Ichome Station. It was nicely situated in a residential community that is not too far a walk from the subway station or the main street of Roppongi. Highly recommended for traveling groups or families (business or pleasure). The apartments have between 2-3 rooms of both tatami and modern configurations, a shared bathroom and dining/kitchenette. Spacious for central Tokyo apartment buildings and very local (an experience modern hotels do not give you). The group came together mostly as acquaintances/strangers but we quickly gelled after the first night of work and play. Over the next week of living and working together (and crazy texting on Whatsapp), we bonded very quickly and I am sure we all miss some of those crazy mix of night outs, pitch meetings, great food and conversations. Special shout outs and thanks to a few people who made our trip superb! Eugene (Always our buddy and brother, love that 500 Yen Karaoke Bar at Shinjuku and best of luck at Rakuten!), Reina (Amazingly smart and funny surgeon/entrepreneur! You have taught us a thing or two about business in Japan and for that, thank you 0.01!), Batara-san (You are the man, enough said!), Moo (Superb to meet you in Tokyo and thank you for the quick introduction to a potential investor via Facebook, you the solid), Masaru Ikeda (What else can I say, thanks for helping and hanging out with us and am proud to be an advisor to The Bridge, see you in Feb and to a great 2014 to you and your team!), Takeuchi-san (My long-time friend who is a tireless International Business Developer, always there to help with introductions, thank you so much!) and our super associate Justin for all his coordination, scheduling and Google Map Ninja-ing. 

Some of our tour highlights are listed below (some events, meetings are omitted for "privacy" reasons). Pictures are embedded towards the end of the post. 

Main Events: 

Innovation Weekend 2013 Finals (by Sunbridge Global Ventures) - thank you Hiraishi-san for the invitation and slotting our portfolios to pitch, truly grateful! It was an excellent event! 

GlobalBrains Alliance Forum 2013 - thank you Yurimoto-san for the invite and last minute passes for our group. Learnt a lot at the conference, it was full of great content, at a remarkable venue ended with a great dinner party! Some coverage of it here on Techinasia.

Golden Gate Ventures Investor Dinner- An invite only event with investors, friends and partners held at Gonpachi. Thank you to all who came to share Golden Gate Ventures's short journey in Southeast Asia, it was really nice to meet all of you. Look forward to more good times ahead. See you all soon in Tokyo and/or in Singapore! 

Some company visits include:
- KDDI
- Rakuten
- Monoco.jp
- Digital Garage
- Transcosmos
- Samurai Incubate
- ntt docomo
- CyberAgent
- East Ventures Japan
- Qualcomm Ventures Japan
- Mentors and private industry professional meetings
and many more... 

 In the short time I was there in Tokyo, a number of takeaways that maybe useful to you.
- The startup ecosystem is back in Japan! Lots of innovative ideas with exquisite design tastes and plenty of passionate founders. Not in complete full swing but the momentum is there.
- The stock markets are also back with a vengeance. IPO exits are back and have provided great exits to many investors.
- The Japanese government is supporting startups and SMEs with massive budget allocation earmarked for growth. Somewhat familiar in Singapore's context but with more vengeance.
- B2B is bigger than I thought here in Japan. Lots of opportunities for enterprise startups if you know how to navigate the Japanese market. (many Unicorns lie here).
- Southeast Asia on the whole will be a topic of discussions in board rooms in Japan in 2014. We are co-organizing an invite only conference in Singapore in Feb 2014 as one case study to kick off that discussion.
- Golden Gate Ventures will definitely have more things planned for Japan in 2014. Stay tuned.

And that wraps it up folks. Tokyo is indeed a unique city. We all miss it the moment we reached the airport to leave it. But we will be back and that is a definite. See you all soon my lovely "Are you wealthy?" mates! p.s. for those interested to know why we name the tour "Are you wealthy?", ask anyone of us from the tour. 

Kokorokara honto ni domo arigatogozaimashita! 心は本当にどうもありがとうございました! 

Stay tuned for our next tour to Bangkok in 2014!