(#9)HAK podcast: Methodologies for prototyping & validating early stage ideas at a low cost: A conversation with Mission.Plus's Nick Martin
Nick Martin is the CEO of Mission.Plus, a digital innovation studio that combines engineering, design agility, expertise and commercialization to deliver market ready tech products.
In this episode we will deep dive specifically into methodologies for prototyping and validating early stage ideas at a very low cost.
Website URL: https://www.mission.plus/
Nick’s LinkedIn: https://sg.linkedin.com/in/nicholasrjmartin
Andries De Vos: What was your founding vision for MISSION+, and what was the origin story behind this?
Nick Martin: Every journey has a starting point.
For us, one of the reasons we co-opted the word “mission” into our company name stems from the desire to understand our intrinsic motivations or purpose. At this point in our journey I would say it’s still evolving from the genesis stage.
If I go back to my personal story, I was struck by herd mentality and I went into a bank, and then I broke away. Then I fell into a startup that I really enjoyed working on. We were issuing Visa debit cards as a non-bank. There were a number of achievements, and there were a lot of mistakes, a lot of learning. We were lucky enough to get to a stage where we could sell it and move to the next chapter. I really started thinking a bit more deeply about what was going to drive and motivate me when I was offered a role to work in the Investment team of an early stage investor.
One of the reasons I joined was that I was interested in sharing but also increasing my learnings. An attraction point was the asymmetrical access to the number of different people that you meet as an investor, who are starting companies at different stages, with different business models, in different industries, with various strategies to grow, the pure volume of what comes across your desk is overwhelming but I was inspired to see if I could make sense of it.
It was actually during that period that the fund, which had invested in about 50 companies at the time, was keen to evolve into a venture builder. So, I was asked to work out what the model meant, and how the team could support it. Later on, I was also encouraged to start a new company, which is today MISSION+.
I think having a safe space to work on something while not taking too much personal risk actually allowed us to evolve MISSION+ differently. I admit to being more conservative with it, but not because I got scared by the risk that I see a lot of founders taking. I felt I had to start MISSION+ as a boring business model on day one, doing things like building technology for other people, using the skills that we had and what was around to generate value. In terms of what we offered to the client and delivered on software engineering, it was achievable. On the flip side, it gave us an opportunity to make sure that we generated the right cash flow so that we could develop operations experience. It gives us space and time to determine our own mission and work out what it is that we want to do.
Andries De Vos: So where are you landing with this? Did you figure out where you take this next? How is your vision evolving?
Nick Martin: One of my friends has recently said, “Look, I like the Ocean's 11 thing that you're doing.” I hadn't thought about it, apart from the fact that he made reference to a movie, that what we've been doing is assembling a lot of people that we've been inspired or interested to work with. It's not always the case of “can we afford them?” It’s about what motivates them to give up what they're doing and work with us.
Right now we're still in the stage of just ensuring delivery for client satisfaction. Have we got to that next stage yet of where we're taking bets outside of the professional services? We are slowly getting there. I'd say probably our first is in prototyping, but there's probably other areas where we're cautiously dipping toes in water as well.
Andries De Vos: Is there something that you guys think you understand that others haven't? Or is there an assumption behind the MISSION+ that is guiding how you're building your business model?
Nick Martin: The initial goal was just sustainability via earnings, making sure there’s the financial base. I think that P&L stability allows us to take small bets to test ideas, because right now we're not building IP as much as delivering IP for others. I think having a roadmap that allows us to look after clients while testing other strategies will be what defines us.
Andries De Vos: What is the economics behind this? How much retained earnings do you think you need to have in order to make how many bets? What does that ratio look like?
Nick Martin: Right now, we make sure we're comfortable with taking money out of retained earnings to test something and decide how long we want to test it. With prototyping in the last part of 2020, we knew we were going to hire people but we decided to not have full paying clients. Without full paying clients, we didn't have to offer any warranty on the output, because we're still learning in this example. We hired people in Singapore, which comes up sometimes at a higher rate of monthly expense than other countries, but we wanted them to be near.
We took risks on people at different stages in their career to see how they would deliver in a space that we were not really clear about.
This is possible if offset by areas where we're growing, making sure that if we've got $100 right now, for our next wave of clients to support that, the next contract value should be somewhere between 5% to 20% of that $100, this allows us to incrementally improve our run rate.
At the moment, we're just keeping an eye on the original business but making sure that through putting those numbers away, we can say where we want to make bets.
Andries De Vos: Have you conceptualized how big the bets need to be? It is 20,000 per bet, 60,000 per bet?
Nick Martin: I'd say we haven't had enough bets to conceptualize the range. It was commented on by someone whose opinion I value, who said ”Oh, look, your sample sizes are too small.” That's probably where we are. I think what we'd probably do instead is not constrain ourselves but do what makes sense for the risk that we're taking. Obviously, at some point we have to be critical about looking back and reflecting on the evidence of what we've achieved. In one case we were pitched a partnership opportunity, someone had come to us and said, “Look, we like what you're doing. If you can invest time and resources with someone that we think has some promise, would you be open?” It's an area where we think the business model has an option to scale but we're not really sure if that's the case just yet.
Andries De Vos: Do you have things that you're not doing in your model?
Nick Martin: One thing that we don't touch is non technology delivery such as customer validation. This may be a bias that I have from when I was working as an investor. You could continue providing an offering of services and then at some point, you are doing the job of the person that you're being paid to support. We highlight the many tools around. “Now that you've got this product, this is what you should think about - how you go out and get it in front of your customer”.
We believe the client has to develop the ability to talk to their own customers, solicit feedback so we can improve collectively. It's a line that we don't cross at this time.
Andries De Vos: That's a great point, because we have a similar philosophy but a slightly different take on the asset that we're building at Slash. For every single capability, we're building a specialist in such a way that we can externalize the capability - a bit like Amazon did with AWS. If we build a growth team for our own company, it can provide service to our portfolio. I take your point that at some point, you have to draw a line, which is what the entrepreneur is expected to do. We've taken a fairly ambitious view, an empire building view that we can build more and more capabilities that we can offer, in whichever format. That's a commercial negotiation whether it's a fee or equity, or something else based on our own ideas. It's a big part of the package, if we factor it all in from a financial standpoint in order to de-risk our equity portfolio, but indeed, there has to be an expectation setting with the founder. That's essentially the direction we've been taking so far. It's quite interesting to see we're now in the early stage of that process. I think pre-typing and prototyping is fascinating. I see you're positioning more in the prototyping phase space, but help me understand how you came up with it. When was your “Aha!” moment when you started prototyping?
Nick Martin: I would say it actually came from two different angles. One was our technical adviser Ned's, and one was mine. We weren't even looking at it as an “Aha!” when I was at the investor but a lot of people were coming to us asking for a lot of money to build something that they hadn't yet gone out and validated. It could be a $300,000 raise with $50,000 of that going to building this two-sided marketplace MVP as one example. We thought, before you go and build a two sided marketplace, shouldn't we get some guarantees or commitments that the two-sided marketplace is what the customers want? I kept going back and forth with a lot of founders on this same topic.
Unfortunately, the market was quite frothy, and a lot of people were getting offers or interest to go build things elsewhere because the two sided marketplace business model was going to scale the investment if it worked, whereas we were being a bit more practical and prudent about growing the business idea a little more sustainably. I think we were a bit of an outlier. We thought, “what if we just validate this so that the person either gets the guarantee or we get the guarantee together?”
The first time I ran a design workshop, I really hadn't spent a lot of time with the process, but it was just reading the book and saying, “Okay, well how can we do this with three different founders, just to see if we've got enough certainty on whether we want to work with them and what they want to do?” The problem/solution and decision steps that you see in the design thinking process were relatively well-run with the band that we pulled together.
However the prototyping step was terrible. There was actually limited to no prototyping capability amongst us. If you've read the stories about how the example of the robot gets built overnight in the hotel, these prototyping steps evolve very quickly. You either need someone who can do something very fast or, in our case, you have to rely on smoke and mirrors.
We finally got the person with the marketplace idea around to the idea of testing before building. She couldn't co-opt her technical founder to spend any time on it, so we ended up looking at an equivalent website that existed in the U.S. and getting her to just cover the name of that website, go to five customers to present it as something she had built, and ask for feedback.
In that case, it was really important because the assumptions that she had actually developed, which were true in some cases were generally dispelled. If anything came out of that exercise, it was just an “Aha!” moment when we realized $50,000 was not needed to build an MVP at that stage. We continued a few more design thinking sprints with limited to no effort on prototype, just because again, we didn't have the capability. As MISSION+ was evolving and I was telling these stories to Ned, he thought that it was actually more achievable, not just with our team, but with the low code tools. That's when we started first, taking prototyping to low code.
Andries De Vos: Do you want to tell me a bit more about those tools and how they have matured over the years? I’d say five years ago those tools were on very few people's radar. Now it seems that the market is evolving so rapidly that they're becoming more and more solid, mature, ready both for budget startup-type projects and enterprise-type of projects. You now have almost a segmentation of tools for different purposes. What's your philosophy on that? What's your take on how that will evolve?
Nick Martin: I'd say that probably 10 years ago, there was a period when I couldn't build a website, and I'd have to hire someone. I'd have to describe my needs and have that whole process of coming back in a few weeks with comments. There were a bunch of cycles, and the project would ultimately land somewhere close to what I need. Then, a website would be there for nick.com to sell whatever it is, for instance.
When I started speaking with Ned about this he said that rather than asking what low code is, we should think about what the problem with this is. The problem that he came across from all of his time as a career systems architect and engineer was that the requirements for those ideas had always been based on interpretation. The gap that he talked about a lot was either he or his team didn't understand the domain, the business user, or the business unit had poorly articulated the requirements. In total, there was just generally a poor comprehension of requirements. While agile methodologies tighten the loop, there was always this wastage that he used to live with.
When we were looking at his experiences and at low code tools, we just became a bit bullish on the idea that this could usher in a world where a business user could build their own applications. We just realized this couldn’t happen today. We looked at low code tools such as bubble.io and they have a very sharp learning curve, even I stopped and said, “Look, I'm not going to jump into this as a non-technical participant, but in time that will eventually improve.”
There is a transition period now, where it's worth it for us to have people at MISSION+ who can become familiar with those tools and then shorten the validation cycle to develop prototypes for our clients to get enough signals from internal stakeholders, customers, investor - whoever it is that you're trying to get feedback from, to get the confidence before you go to full development.
Andries De Vos: Oh, that's brilliant. I agree. Do you offer this primarily as a service towards new ideas of young startups or do you also offer this for large enterprises? And when you do, how is that different as an engagement? What are the challenges of each?
Nick Martin: Yeah, we've offered it successfully to one large enterprise and worked with about five startups. We chose the startups because they had time and no money. We said, “Look, if you want to test this with us, we're not going to charge you,” or we just priced it to the point where we got their participation and commitment because they felt like they were getting something that was worth the value.
During those experiments, we were testing if the output was going to meet the user requirement for clickable prototype. From our business side, we were asking, can we make this a viable business? If not, what's the cost structure for this in the future? We tested the cycle of what we could do and how much time it would take to deliver a prototype.
So what actually evolved? We decided on the first day, whether it's with the institution or the startup to just to absorb as much information around the idea and the problem solution as we could. Unless the client was really unsure themselves, we would remove the debate and the noise around the problem/solution and just make quick decisions.
We felt that if we could remove a lot of the interpretation or the need to get to an answer in a short period and just start building, the output would actually get to developing some wireframes where we'd have a better conversation. Now, invariably, day two or three (or one rapid cycle of wireframing and prototyping) didn't yield a lot of positive response, but on day five and day seven, a path was starting to evolve. And we found that clients by two weeks got to a point where they were comfortable with an output, which in most cases was just a low-code, clickable prototype.
In some cases, it was built withbubble.io or figma and in some cases, we had to develop a hack together with some basic code. We didn't define the point of how we produced, we were making decisions in each case. It gave us a point of stop-and-handover as in you can now go and talk to someone about this and come back with better feedback.
Andries De Vos: What's the learning curve on these types of tools? Is it something that's in the process of a two-week process the business user can then take it for the next iteration, if they are committed to it and invested in that methodology? Or, do you think it's still too early and they will always need external support?
Nick Martin: At this stage, we find that they still need external support. Only one out of five said they would go and get their hands dirty and use the tools. For others, there is still a gap. It's not like me jumping into Squarespace to build a website by the time we finish this conversation, it's not there yet.
What we were really trying to do is also evolve the mindset of spending as little as possible to get to a point where you validate, test, and come back with confirmation before you commit resources.
Now, I would caveat all of this by saying that it is not viable for us to continue doing this with a parallel business, which is professional services. In some cases, we were stopping ourselves from doing the next round of launch. But it’s the right thing to do. We had one person who was quite committed to deploying their own capital towards building an idea before the two week cycle. At the end of the prototype delivery two weeks later, we felt the client disappointment that washed over the room. Our team was quite dejected at the lack of response from the client. In the end, that person said, “Look, thank you, this is really good, because in this case, I spent $2,000 instead of $50,000,the idea was not as it's not as contagious as I thought it was going to be”. We were thankful there were clear takeaways for this founder around how to make it more creative, more interactive, more gamified, but also an awareness that it was going to come from someone else, and they shouldn't proceed further until they'd solved that part of the problem. If we did this every day, and then we only relied on the one in five to go through, it would change the business model. How do we then put this in a place where we're happy for it to operate, so we can do better by the world but then still work on full service projects that people have certainty about? That is the aspect we're still working out.
Andries De Vos: What venture building models and MISSION+ like models do you find interesting out there and why?
Nick Martin: Where all the buzz is usually around startups, I realized that there's a lot of venture builders out there now, who are taking all of their skills and learning and applying it to corporates.
If we think about it, these corporates still maintain and dominate a big percentage of the global GDP, the Fortune 500 probably owns a majority percentage of it. I think the efforts in the future will come from companies that refine their approach with corporates.
There are some venture builders that we are watching and working with who seem to be getting in and around corporations and saying, “Look, it's not going to be one business that gives birth to the next.” And then there's going to have to be a process for us looking at the value chain and deciding what the segments are, realizing that there's going to be some capital spent even if we don’t find them, but maybe only one of them at best will get you to that next business that generates a new line.
I find that whole area interesting. We see a lot of people out there that are starting to walk that path and for me, that's a really interesting area. We want to spend more time getting to learn more about it.
"Bootstrapping your startup" event, which was organized by Slash and HAK, gathered the online audience on May 19, 2021 to hear from expert David Shelters on various types of bootstrapping decisions and opportunities.
According to the speaker, those decisions and opportunities serve as a basis for formulating a bootstrapping strategy. Very few startups will be able to go from incubation to exit via bootstrapping and deciding when to abandon the bootstrapping strategy and proceed with fundraising is one of the most important decisions a founding team will need to make.
David Shelters has over 25 years of entrepreneurial experience as a co-founder, board advisor and mentor to numerous tech start-ups in both America and Asia. For the previous 12 years David has been an active community-builder and advocate in the Thai startup scene. Since January 2020 David has resumed his community-building efforts in the emerging Cambodian Startup community.
If you have missed the event, you can check out the event video below.
Check out the upcoming HAK events here.
The online audience came together on May 5, 2021 for a session led by Slash CEO Andries De Vos.
The event, which was organized by Slash and HAK, focused on the concept of venture building, which allows businesses to explore and own new strategic growth areas.
The audience learned about the key questions to answer in order to systematically architect and build startups, and eventually set yourself up for success.
Andries De Vos is a serial entrepreneur and investor who builds and grows businesses. He and his team at Slash focus their venture builder on developing startups that can become vertical leaders in the B2B and B2G domains.
If you have missed the event, you can check out the event video below.
Check out the upcoming HAK events here.
On April 28 Vahagn Khorotyan, software engineer at Slash shared his extensive knowledge with the audience during the “Introduction to Blockchain: Foundations and Use Cases” online session.
Organized by Slash and HAK, the event focused on methods on how blockchains work, including how they use hashes and how transactions are made.
The audience also learnt how blocks and proof-of-work consensus algorithms are used to build distributed ledgers.
Check out the upcoming HAK events here.
(#8)HAK podcast: Matas Danielevicius, Whatnot Co-Founder on Methods to De-risk Corporate Venture Creation & Entrepreneurs-in-Residence
Matas Danielevicius is the co-founder of Whatnot Startup Studio, a venture studio focused on building scalable and investable corporate ventures that originate from Thailand. WhatNot brings in experienced teams and founders to create and operate corporate ventures and provide support services like legal, HR, and Fundraising.
In this episode, we will discuss methodologies to de-risk the creation of a corporate venture, the role of entrepreneurs-in-residence, corporate sponsorship criteria and much more.
Website URL: https://whatnot.co/
Matas's LinkedIn: https://th.linkedin.com/in/matas-danielevicius-419ab6aa
Listen to the Podcast
Andries De Vos: Matas, welcome! If I think of the venture building process, I see it as a methodology and a capability to de-risk the creation of a business, which is the definition of a risky process. If you had to extract the key steps you undertake to de-risk a venture, what would they be?
Matas Danielevicius: That really depends on the market. Local startups are not capable of producing investible solutions, so a lot of local corporates do their own CDC funds. This ecosystem is being shaped right now. Local corporations are forming CDC funds, and looking for ways to invest their money, but nothing yet is coming out of the ecosystem. Corporates tend to go outside of Thailand and invest in Silicon Valley or China, but once they go to Silicon Valley, they are just some investors from Thailand, so their networks and strength are very limited.
Our proposition is this: why don't we use some of these funds to build a venture in a less risky way and have it managed by a professional team, which we believe we are? We have experience in building the process, we have our own methodology, and we have an in-house team that supports every single step.
We also propose to rely on professional entrepreneurs who have a proven record of building businesses before rather than on a random startup team, which usually, in here, is a group of friends. When working with the startup team that is formed by a group of friends, we tend to see that later on in the development, there are weaker links in the chain, which are not able to produce but still have a big chunk of equity in the company, and it just drags the startup down.
That is a very common scenario: startup teams are formed by groups of friends rather than professionals selecting support, and the teams are not balanced. We see that there can be three marketing professionals or three engineer guys doing a startup, where they have in-depth knowledge of certain areas but no knowledge of business development or brand value. We help declutter that whole mess.
Let's say, we go to the corporates and understand what challenges they have. We see if there is any solution in the market that could help them or if there is a gap, a space to build something outside of their structure, which would help solve their issue and be able to solve similar issues for other corporates in the region. We offer workshops and just general conversations, where we bring people from certain industries to share their opinions in order for us to see if there is something we can help with, and then we come back with the action plan.
This is quite a tricky part because there is no set model. We have to improvise. Corporates have different challenges, different ways they want to work with. Some of them want an all-in solution, i.e. we execute everything and they just sponsor the venture. Some corporates want to introduce their own entrepreneurs, which means we have to work with their own in-house teams and rely on our entrepreneurs or residents to coach them. This also involves a selection process: we have to select and balance the teams from the pool of corporate talent. In some cases, we are able to build the teams from scratch, but to be fair, we rely a lot on entrepreneurs in residence.
Once we sign the contract with the corporation and we know the challenges we are going to work on, the most important bit is to find the right person to lead the project.
Andries De Vos: Give us a flavor of how industrialized this is already. How many have you done approximately in terms of such programs with corporates? How big of a team is employed? What is the economics against this?
Matas Danielevicius: It depends on each corporate individually. We started a little bit over two years ago, and we have already had 5 large corporations that we did innovation and venture building with at different levels. Currently, we have two real estate companies, who have different challenges, and we are scaling the projects. We started with one real estate firm here with 3 venture building projects, each of them had its own budget, and the budgets were decided depending on the size of the issue and the market opportunity. One large corporation can scale up to 10 venture building projects. Each has its own budget and limitations, each has its own opportunities, but we usually provide predictions before we start.
We calculate the cost of the project, the management cost, the entrepreneurs' residence costs, and the facilities- because we all have our own offices and space to run these projects, and we need to pitch project by project. Ideally, what we would see is that would start one project, it could be a launch from around USD 150,000. What we promote is that eventually, the entrepreneur would get up to 60% of the equity of that venture. It is an ideal scheme we are looking into. We would love the corporate to own 20-25%, the entrepreneur to get up to 60%, and the support team, us, and other outside investors could get a share.
Andries De Vos: Do you have restrictions for the corporates? Do you accept any restrictions they impose on you on how this new product or business can be commercialized? For example, you cannot sell to a competitor or, in the governance structure, you ensure this never happens.
Matas Danielevicius: We do get that at this stage. Again, the ideal situation would be working with open ventures, but the ecosystem is just being shaped now, so we have to be diplomatic and negotiate for certain things. We see that once the corporate gets the taste of it, it becomes more and more flexible for the next batches of ventures they want to build.
In the beginning, if we look into local corporations in Thailand, they are very conservative. Usually, it would be a family business. It is a challenge, which we trained ourselves for years, to negotiate and to prove them things. It still takes time, but we see that - and COVID was actually one of the reasons - they are forced to innovate. As we would see before 2019-2020, a lot of innovation was more of a theater performance: organized events, debates, accelerators, big awards ceremonies, a lot of pitching competitions and media attention, but the scale of the startup is still nothing to be compared with Singapore, Malaysia, or Indonesia. Now, because of the pandemic, the core businesses are suffering, so they have to find ways to solve their issues, ways to improve, stay competitive and actually stay in the market in general.
These Dutch real estate companies that we are currently working with, two large corporations, and oil refinery corporations - their core businesses are being attacked heavily, so they have to find ways to change that.
Andries De Vos: On the USD 150,000 side, what is the deal after that? Is the plan for the corporate to keep financing it or to find external funding?
Matas Danielevicius: We would encourage them to find external funding as well, but some of them would rely on funding the ventures themselves, especially the more conservative ones, which have their own entrepreneurs - they tend to want to keep more power in their hands. However, we would argue that in order to make it more successful, we would negotiate and try to convince the corporate that the venture has to be funded from outside as well.
Andries De Vos: Do you have stage gates between the discovery, the MBP, the company formation? How structured is this? Is this bite-sized when you sell it or is it in one bulk?
Matas Danielevicius: We sell it as one bulk, but we go stage by stage. At each stage, we have drop-and-go options as well. If we sell a venture building project, we promise certain outcomes like product-market fit, and we usually divide it into 6 steps. We have market gap analysis, RND where the development starts, branding, marketing, and through to the market and business development stages. Each stage has its own structure and map, and each stage has the option of drop-and-go, where we evaluate with the corporate if it makes sense to continue. If you want to continue, our job is to make sure that the entrepreneur is able to push it further and to convince and prove with data like consumer feedback that this is a valid idea and it could potentially work (they need to find examples in the market in or outside of Thailand). It is a lot of research and competition analysis, and design thinking - empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and repeat. Each stage goes through the same process where we sort the problem we need to deal with, consumers (B2B, B2C, etc.).
Andries De Vos: It is already a challenge to get alignment in early-stage startups of the group of friends, let alone when you have vested interest and corporate politics in the board room. As you are selling this to the corporates, what are the signals you are looking for in the corporate? What are the criteria for the corporate sponsor? How do you determine if the corporate will actually sponsor USD 150,000 and support the venture?
Matas Danielevicius: To help us to decide whether to turn down, first of all, we just do not jump into a venture building project. We have workshops that we offer before that, so we tend to know the theme, we tend to know with whom we will be working, who the decision-maker is, how many management layers we need to go through to convince the corporates to make certain decisions. The higher we can pitch, the higher we can get feedback forward, the better for us to decide if the project would actually work.
In some of the cases that we had, we tend to say that we are going to innovate outside of the corporate structure, which is a much faster way because of the corporate management layers and things like that. But once we start doing it we get stuck into the corporate vehicle because each decision has to be made by the supervisor and the supervisor's supervisor, and then it has to reach the CEO at some point, who is a very busy person, so feedback and decision making slow down and we become just another business unit in the corporation, which is exactly what we do not want to do.
One of the core things is that we still need to negotiate the power to make major decisions and find a way to get feedback as fast as possible from the corporate side. It also depends if we work with inside teams or we just build it outside.
Andries De Vos: There's a huge debate going on right now in the consulting industry and, to a degree, in the venture building industry about whether you can be sector-agnostic in the space. Is having a methodology enough to add value as a framework, as a facilitator or do you need to start adding domain-specific expertise to the process? Where do you guys sit on that?
Matas Danielevicius: I would argue for both sides, but we tend to see that it is quite a universal process. We work with the food and beverage industry, oil and gas, real estate, because the challenges and things they want to solve cannot be directly related to their core business. They are willing to expand opportunities, and we just see that we better find the people who would help us with domain expertise at certain levels but we still do the whole process of building a tech company, our solution outside of the environment. Then, it’s up to us to recruit the right people to push it forward and to give us the knowledge.
This is also one of the reasons we are part of the Knowledge Exchange, which is an innovation center here in Bangkok. We collaborate with them as well, so we have access to university talent and research and the center's network, so it's easy to get government support for our projects. We can rely on the pool of talent coming out of technical universities.
We as venture builders try to be ready to sort out these issues, but I wouldn't say that we would not work with certain industries at this point. If we are capable of building the team and finding the partners to execute the plan before we jump into it, of course, we will work with any industry.
Andries De Vos: Do you ever feel that this business is becoming easier to run? In other words, are you pushing the business downhill and it just gets gravity and rolls, or do you feel that as time progresses, you need to just keep pushing uphill?
Matas Danielevicius: We have been around for two years, and the first year, of course, was a struggle and we needed to push uphill because we needed to build a case study specifically for what we provide. We had some networks, some connections, so we got our first contract and started to work with the first corporate. To convince, to prove, to get the budget - it is a very lengthy process. Suddenly, last year COVID happened and we had a moment when everything stopped, nobody knew what was going to happen. We kept on improving our own operations and content, working on the tools that we have. After that, we saw more and more interest from local corporates.
At this point, I could say that we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, as now it is not only us reaching out, but the corporates are also getting in touch with us, trying to find venture building solutions. That is interesting, as three years ago the term was something no one used, at least in Thailand.
Now we hear about venture building in a lot of different ways. We see more and more demand, and what is good for us and what helps us give motivation to our entrepreneurs, residents and co-founders is that our current clients are asking for more. This is a really good proof of concept for us as well, because we started with few projects, now the corporates want to add several more, plus we are already thinking about the second batch and scaling the batches, not just duplicating them. It gives us more confidence, helps us hire better talent.
Andries De Vos: Typical agency makes around 50% project margin and maybe 25% of net margin as a company, depending on the situation, you could maybe stretch it to 30% if it is a good year. If you have a bad year, it could drop to 10%, so you could keep a cash reserve. That is the agency model, it is fairly well-documented, but it is not very scalable. In other words, there is a natural range, through which you can grow that.
Compare that with a product studio or an equity play where it is exponential if you are lucky, and if you are not lucky, it dies. What do you think of your numbers? Let's say, if you take 25% company margin, how much percentage do you feel you are going to take off the top to invest in your side projects? How much are you betting on the fact that your portfolio of corporate support teams will potentially create value? What do you think about your model?
Matas Danielevicius: Your assumptions are pretty correct, as the typical agency model is 50%, something that we would see now. We are trying to decide which direction to take because, in the agency model, we would build the brand value, the methodology and become more of a consulting, training agency that lives from the fees and helps to support our teams and the company's growth. Speaking of our own ventures, it really depends on founders, because we have a couple of ventures on the side and we fundraise for them outside of the structure, looking at them as separate ventures.
As an agency, we do consulting and get fees, we are a corporate venture builder, that is why we position ourselves in that way. We build startups as a service, so we are service providers, we help to find the talent, execute, hire teams, and we do it all for a fee. That is how the model works.
Andries De Vos: Do you give yourself a minimum size for agency and afterwards it doesn't matter anymore, it lives a life of its own and you won't push harder for growth, because you can maximize your time on other ventures? Or do you want your agency to continue growing and become a huge system so you have more freedom, but then building that system means more investment?
Matas Danielevicius: Of course, we see limitations of the growth, so we would probably look into the regional scale and find local partners in each market, and then consider each market individually. Some models might work in Thailand and not work in Singapore. It is building the brand value that is important to us, so we want to be recognized as a venture builder. Each individual market could have its own structure that would be built depending on who we would partner with. I'd say we would need to find strong local partners with their own networks in those markets. It is probably more of a creative agency scale, where you bring in the methodology, the expertise, the talent, and the pool of clients you have been working with in different markets, and then find local partners who can help with their networks to introduce the methodology or certain assets that we have.
Andries De Vos: You mention a lot about entrepreneurs in residence. What are the traits you are looking for in them, especially if you expect them to run a new startup? What are the characteristics that you would consider a red flag?
Matas Danielevicius: This might sound stupid, and I don't know how the corporates would react, but if we click, we click. That is the key.
The person has to be someone we feel confident about, but that, of course, consists of many different things. First, we would like to get applications from people who have a track record of building their own ventures. Whether the ventures were successful is secondary, we want to have someone who has already tried. That is what we call the entrepreneur in residence.
Usually, we get applications from people with a corporate background, someone who has been working in corporations. It is not a red flag, but we would investigate that applicant much more than someone who says they have worked on their own three startups and nothing came out of it. The latter is someone who did the research, raised the money to start the business - this is what we are looking for. We need the hustler, someone who would be doing work, we do not want only strategy. It has to be someone who buys lemons, cuts them, and makes lemonade when they decide to sell lemonade. It is also university projects, internships, something in which people are proactive. We also try to see how applicants see themselves, what aspirations and dreams they have, what they want to learn from the venture building processes. We just want real people, and the rest we can help with.
We want entrepreneurs to be entrepreneurs. If they need legal help, we provide that, if they need methodology and tools, we provide that, but we need someone who says "I know someone, I can call them!" or "I'm going to do the research!" when they need to get something.
On March 31, 2021 HAK audience gathered for an interesting session on "Cross-Platform Mobile Development 2021: React Native vs. Flutter", led by Henry Seng, an experienced Senior Web & Mobile Developer.
The online session was organized by Slash and HAK and focused on the ways to develop apps more quickly.
The participants were introduced to technologies that are the best to reduce costs with cross-platform development.
Henry Seng talked about two hot cross-platform app development technologies: React Native & Flutter and shared his tips on how to achieve success with both.
Check out the upcoming HAK events here.
(#7)HAK podcast: Björn Lindfors, the Partner at Antler on Best Methods For Attracting Talent & Future of Venture Building
Björn Lindfors is a partner in Antler Singapore. Björn works with a global team dedicated to developing the next generation of world-changing companies and creating a global pipeline for top talents to pursue a career in entrepreneurship and innovation.
Björn is a seasoned chief technology officer with experience across startups, mid-market multinationals, and global technology firms. Focused heavily on product and growth, he has managed teams in Malaysia, Singapore, Ukraine, and Turkey.
In this episode, we will discuss the best methods for attracting talent, the future of venture building, and the essential skills of founders.
Website URL: https://www.antler.co/
Björn's Linkedin: https://sg.linkedin.com/in/bjornml
Listen to the Podcast
Andries De Vos: Great to have you on the podcast, Bjorn. So let’s kick off this conversation. What is it in the founding vision of Antler that was so original and innovative?
Björn Lindfors: The fundamental hypothesis behind Antler was that given the right talent and structure, people could actually go out and build amazing businesses. I think since we have started in Singapore back in 2018, we have proven this to be true. Through our programs, we have processed hundreds of people. We have 14 locations all over the world, and now we are building an office in India, trying to structure our first program.
Andries De Vos: Could you paint a picture for me of where you see Venture Building in the next 10 years or so? And perhaps more specifically, how do you see the Antler business evolving in the next 10 years? And for the listeners out there, for perspective, Antler has really only been around for 3 years.
Björn Lindfors: Let me tell you what I love about the world of venture capital at the moment: like many other things on the planet, it is becoming increasingly more competitive. It's no longer a group of ex-bankers sitting in an office somewhere and looking at a spreadsheet, but you actually have to find additional ways to add a significant amount of value to see relevant inflow. I think that is where we are heading.
Whether you are an early-stage, a seed-stage and even a late-stage investor, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to add additional value to the portfolio above and beyond the capital means. I think that is where the VC world is heading in general.
Antler's mission is that anyone who ever considers starting a tech startup will think about us first and use us as a tool to get themselves off the ground and make that initial success. What follows naturally is probably a long series of opportunities that will also be structured in many more thematic accelerators. That provides additional value, probably around particular themes, as we have already seen. You have your fintech accelerators, health tech accelerators, etc. I believe we will see a continuation of this, but perhaps even more specialized than we are seeing now.
It could, for example, be in collaboration with industry experts and companies with investors who have been living and breathing it their entire lives and are now ready to see someone else step in and disrupt.
Andries De Vos: Let's talk about talent. What is the hardest part about attracting the best talent for the Antler program?
Björn Lindfors: If you look from the skills perspective, any organization, large or small, will struggle to attract qualified tech talent. We spend a tremendous amount of effort sourcing and qualifying technical talent to fit into the program. That, I think, is one of the struggles. What we have observed over time, interestingly - and I am not sure if this is what the industry is like in general or if it is specific to Antler - is that more and more senior people applying, more and more people who built companies in the past (successfully or not) are joining our program. The level of seniority is increasing.
The time frame is a struggle. Right now we have three months per cohort, and each cohort wants to have 60 to 80 people, so finding 80 highly qualified and entrepreneurial people who can build businesses together is always a challenge. Silent applause for our recruitment team for making this happen every 3 months! It's an unbelievable feat, honestly.
Andries De Vos: Ok, here is a bit of a funny one. Imagine a massive billboard on the highway. If you could have a billboard for anyone who is trying to build the next Antler or the next venture builder, what would that billboard say?
Björn Lindfors: It's a tricky one. It's a one-liner, and I would say: "Capital isn't everything." I don't know what I would put as a subtitle. It's a point that I keep coming back to. We provide mentoring and support, and of course, capital at the most essential stage when you need it, connections to advisory venture capital networks. That, I believe, is what makes the difference.
Let me summarize this entrepreneurial board for someone who wants to copy Antler. I would say: "Talent is everywhere, it's up to you to make sure that the talent of this planet is put to good use."
Andries De Vos: You guys, in many ways, are unbundling the value chain of creating a successful early-stage startup, with “success” at the early stage being defined as product market fit and follow-on capital. Not yet liquidity. You see many entrepreneurs pass through your programs. Do you have a point of view on whether entrepreneurial qualities are born or nurtured.
Björn Lindfors: Personally, I think it's a combination. Take me, for example. I'm an engineer by profession. A lot of people grow up and they have absolutely no interest in being an engineer. You could say, of course, this is due to my upbringing - I have been nurtured to be that way, but I don't think that is entirely true. I think my personal interests have simply put me on this path and guided me to pursue the career that I am currently in.
I think it is no different for someone who is trying to start a business as well. There is a degree of "I have been wanting to do this for a long time," or "This comes very naturally to me, so I want to do it." This is from the will and drive perspective. But if you look at it from the skills perspective, those are things that you can definitely nurture and build.
Part of this are things that we enable: you have masterclasses on fundraising, marketing, other useful and functional topics that people need to have a fundamental grasp on in order to be able to build a business. I think that is where what people nurture is important. Someone who is really driven will, of course, identify the points where they think they need to improve and read up those points a little bit. However, there is also always the point of "I don't know what I should be good at," so that is what we try to help with, by providing a structure for you to at least be aware of those points.
Andries De Vos: What do you look for in founders and how do you measure or quantify the traits you are looking for in them?
Björn Lindfors: I don't think anyone truly understands what it means to be a successful entrepreneur; they come in so many different shapes and sizes. I would lie if I said we had a fixed recipe that leads to success and makes you a good entrepreneur.
For us, it has a lot to do with measuring the performance of people in the recruitment process and then continuation in the program. Then, whether we invest or not, if we discover that the recruitment decision was poor, we go back and try to learn from it. We have a structured learning process around what we consider to be a good founder. The one quantifiable metric with the most significance, which should come as no surprise to anyone, is whether the given person has built a company before. That is the one that has the most impact.
Then, we have to look for functional skills that we think are going to matter in a startup. Are you a growth hacker? Are you a computer engineer? Are you someone who has spent 15 years of your life in the supply chain? Basically, can you unearth a problem that the world will find interest in seeing solved? These are all things that we try to stress test during the recruitment process.
Andries De Vos: It sounds like those are very soft traits. Are you also looking at psychometric assessments to give you an additional depth into someone’s personality?
Björn Lindfors: I would not say that. We measure, of course, such things as communication, etc., and I would like to add that each of us has bias - conscious or unconscious - which comes into effect a little bit in the personality assessment. They call it the beer test. Do I want to sit down and have a beer together with this person? For us as well, we prefer to attract people we can work well with, and to work well with someone, you have to have a positive working relationship. From that perspective, personality does matter. If someone treats me horrendously during the interview process, naturally, my eagerness to bring that person in will be diminished.
Andries De Vos: It sounds like those are very soft characteristics (likability) and soft skills. Are there psychometric assessments that you apply as well to give you an additional depth into someone's personality?
We conduct psychometric assessments, but not as part of the recruitment process. We do not base our recruitment decision on anything like that. We use it from time to time in the early stages of the program, when founder matching is very important. People coming to the program are looking for a cool founder, of course, to build a business together, and that is when these things become an important tool for the founders to shortlist those they think could have a matching or complementary personality.
Andries De Vos: .I’d like to talk about founder matching. This is the core part of the Antler value proposition. What’s your approach to match founders and to minimize mistakes or mismatches? And how do you deal with founder conflicts?
Björn Lindfors: Let me put this into context and replay the first day of the Antler program from the founder's perspective. Imagine you are sitting in a room together with 75 other people from various backgrounds. Usually, around 40% of these people would be engineers, and the remaining 60% would be either general business or domain experts, maybe someone who has spent 15 years in the supply chain.
The question is what happens next? How do we facilitate these people meeting and forming relationships that ultimately lead to them building a business together? The answer is that there is a forcing function: we say at the investment committee - it is two and a half months later - that you need to find a co-founder. If you don't have a co-founder, we are not going to invest. So, there is a very strong forcing function on the founder's side to try to find a good match in the cohort, someone they could see themselves working with. We provide data, and as I said, there might be psychometric assessments. The founders will have stated their general interest areas, they have each other's LinkedIn profiles, etc. All these are things they can use to shortlist, for instance, 10 to 15 people in the cohort that they could potentially see themselves working with.
Then, we provide some structured exercises, particularly in the first two weeks - for instance, boot camps where you have to work 24 hours together with another founder to stress test what your working relationship could be like. During this time, if they see yellow flags or red flags, if their gut tells them it might not be the person for them, we encourage people to very practically break up. In fact, we celebrate split-ups, we have a big round of applause usually. The idea is that we want people to be able to try a few different team configurations and figure out something that works for them.
We don't, for instance, require that an engineer has to pair up with a business founder. It really is about what is required for the business they are setting up. If you are building a data seeding business, we would like to see a very different team from the one that is building a deep-tech blockchain business.
Andries De Vos: If you would start Antler today, what would you do differently?
Björn Lindfors: There are big things and some little things. Our headquarters is in Singapore now, and there are many things we have learned over the last few years. To me, a relatively significant change we have made to the program is the introduction of something we call "the pre-IC". Historically, the founders are optimizing for the investment committee. They know it's one point of accountability that is not going to change, everyone fears that day and looks forward to it with excitement (a combination of both).
What is a little bit unfortunate, when you have a 2.5-month program that ends in a singular investment committee presentation, is that some people might not be ready. Some people might have been working on an idea, and despite us telling them to pivot and change the idea, they insist on working on it. That is very unfortunate because in these configurations you have talent that we simply cannot invest in. What we have done then is introduce a psychological point of accountability slightly earlier in the program. 3-4 weeks before the actual IC we have a pre-IC.
There is still the threat of rolling heads in that usually at that point, we will eliminate the bottom-performing 10-30% of the cohort. This means we can refocus our efforts on the rest, and we also have a very structured feedback system, so we can tell the participants that as an investment committee, we think you are not working on something we can fund. However, we tell them, with the following alterations you will put yourself on a path where you are much more likely to receive our investment.
Basically, we give people a chance to pivot and rethink, and fundamentally change their business in the cases we have someone brilliant but a little too stubborn to make changes early on.
Andries De Vos: What is that motivates founders to pass the IC? Because in a way, the amount of money Antler invests is quite nominal compared to what you can get out there. So why would a founder bother to pass the IC? Is it that they really want to have the brand of Antler on their resume, or that they are competitive and feel the urge to “pass the IC test”? What is it?
Björn Lindfors: I would love to say it has something to do with the brand, but I don't actually think it does. The reason I am saying that is because the very first cohort we ran back in 2018 fundamentally had similar dynamics, tension and stress that you can find in the founders today leading up to IC. I think it's a relative thing. Imagine it's the first day of school and you are trying to pass exams or whatever challenges are put in front of you - it's a stressful time because that is your world then, your existence in that very moment. It is the same for people going into this program. They want to build a successful business, and the first step toward that is to pass the investment committee. It’s very much about human psychology. When you put 75 to 100 people in the same room together and ask them to build a business, there is naturally a lot of competition and peer pressure that emerges as well.
Andries De Vos: And here comes my last question. What models out there, whether on venture capital or on venture building do you find interesting and why?
Björn Lindfors: In theory, corporate venture capital (CVC) should have an excellent capability of venture building. Anyone that's been in the industry knows that unfortunately, it is often not the case. It could have to do with flawed incentives or a little bit of shortsightedness in looking for an early acquisition or not selling to their competitors, etc. We know that they have many issues, but theoretically, CVCs could be super exciting. You do have people that have a very deep understanding of a problem or who have been operating in it for a very long time. If they could enable people to disrupt their own space, I think that could be very impactful.
As part of the communication tips parcel, Slash and HAK organized “How to Communicate Effectively with Your Remote Team” event on March 17.
This event, held online, focused on the communication within remote teams and the specific skills employers of such teams look for in candidates.
The person to share this knowledge was Operations Manager Chitra Sen. In addition to vast experience in remote communication and work with cross-disciplinary, distributed teams, Chitra has significant expertise in client and team management and group facilitation skills.
The participants learned how and why to optimize communication for remote teams, maneuvering the differences in time zones and cultures.
Check out the upcoming HAK events here.
Former US President Barack Obama once said that “change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”.
This may have never been more true and yet more challenging.
Organizational paradigms and rise of algorithmic organization
Homo Sapiens are social creatures. Since our origins, we have always survived by organizing ourselves in groups. The way we have organized ourselves has evolved from our hunting-gatherer days to our agrarian societies, to our first multinational organizations, to the rise of the internet and now - to the rise of algorithms.
Each successive organizational paradigm has enabled us to handle more complexity and propel society into ever greater levels of industrial and economic productivity.
Today, every paradigm is still in use and valuable to get specific jobs done. Think of these paradigms like “social technologies” or tools that are still continuously being perfected and improved by an army of academics, authors, business leaders and politicians.
In less than 8 years, analysts expect that the remaining 4+ billion people will be connected to the internet, thanks to advances in broadcasting 5G internet from satellites, suspended balloons and abundant capital from private investors and philanthropists.
All this data will be ingested by our AI algorithms to make sense of the world, and to start managing the world for us - initially with humans making the decisions (“humans in the loop”), and then perhaps without humans in the loop. What is the role of human leadership in a world where algorithmic decision-making takes on a larger role? As AI becomes stronger, will we increasingly have “weaker” human leadership?
These are hard questions to answer.
Strong vs weak leadership
We take a pragmatic starting point to explore this.
We can speculate that AI will at some point in the 21st century have the super-human ability to reason but may not have the ability to be sapient (“feel”) anytime soon. This will leave plenty of room for human leadership to flourish.
The challenge for human leaders will be to have the intellectual and emotional capacity to integrate AI in their workflow and then to adopt the relevant organizational paradigm and accompanying leadership style for the job to be done: meaning-making or consensus (choose the Circle), crisis management (choose the Pyramid), complexity (choose the Organogram), drive collaboration or innovation at scale (choose the Network).
We, therefore, believe strong human leaders will likely remain a fixture in our civilization for some time, still.
And ironically, this brings greater dangers. While AI may not be able to feel, it sure will be able to reason and influence or even persuade human leaders’ decision-making process.
This will pose great challenges to our notion of “human agency”, our capacity to make free choices and to impose those choices on the world. Perhaps never before will we need strong compassionate leaders, who have the courage of their conviction, in the face of strong AI.
The “How to Really Finish Your Project” event gathered the online audience on March 3, 2021 to hear from experts about the best methods of completing projects.
The speaker invited for this event was Aria Hadi Wardhana, Agile Coach and Founder of Agile Academy Indonesia. His colleague, experienced IT knowledge worker Najla F. Seff co-facilitated the session.
The session, organized by HAK and Slash, presented guidelines on how to reach an understanding with clients, team and stakeholders on the point when the project can be considered finished.
Another area of focus was the alignment of the finished result with the initial project goal in a way that meets the expectations of the client and the stakeholder. During the event, participants were divided into groups for discussions.
Check out the upcoming HAK events here.
(#6)HAK podcast: Valerian Fauvel, Jumanji Studio co-founder - Building impact startups for a sustainable future
Valerian Fauvel is the co-founder of Jumanji Studio, a Singapore-based startup studio building solutions to accelerate the world’s transition towards a sustainable future.
In this episode, we will talk about the company’s philosophy, the challenges of the sustainability industry, the best business models around sustainability and how to grow a startup studio.
Website URL: https://www.jumanji.studio/
Valerian’s Linkedin: https://sg.linkedin.com/in/valerianfauvel
Listen to the Podcast
Andries De Vos: When you started Jumanji Studio, what is it you understood that others didn't? What is the assumption behind Jumanji Studio that makes it work?
Valerian Fauvel: We understood that there was a real opportunity for a group of entrepreneurs to scale our skills and ability to build things across not one but across several startups. If I take my own example, I was at a VC fund before starting Jumanji, and my background is more in finance, fundraising, strategy for markets. If I was going to do that in one single startup, I would realistically spend 10-20% of my time on it. Plus, I would have to learn a lot of other things. But if we got into a set-up where we could spend 70-80% of our time on what we're really good at, we'd still have the learning but we'd be a lot more efficient with our time at building more startups. When your objective - like here in Jumanji - is to have as much impact as possible, it makes sense to start looking at how we can scale this together.
Secondly, there was a bit of a defense mechanism in setting up ourselves as a studio in the impact space, because the ecosystem is weak, there aren’t many investors, incubators, accelerators or entrepreneurs. By building the studio, we're replacing an ecosystem that was missing. That's why we're able to bring capital so that we don't need the basic "love money" that some entrepreneurs need. We're able to look at different themes in sustainability, circular economy, climate change, etc. We were able to surround ourselves with a community - a group of 60 industry experts, investors and entrepreneurs who like what we do and contribute in different ways. We were able to build stronger gravity around our purpose that we couldn't have gotten if we were pursuing a single startup.
Andries De Vos: Let's talk about economics. From beginning to end, how much money do investors successfully initiate and validate for a startup idea until the point where you bring the CEO onboard?
Valerian Fauvel: We've put the cap at $200,000. We have money in our reach to double that amount, but we are not going to do it until there is a very thorough assessment of why we're doing it, and we ask for our investors' approval. Ideally, we raise funds for the startup and reach financial independence for it, at which point the studio doesn't need further investment in the company. We keep these unallocated resources more tactically as a shareholder. If there is a crisis, we ask ourselves if there is a reason why we would want to defend our ownership. This pool of funding is there really for tactical allocation. For me, it's very important to make sure that we are not going to put all our resources in one or two startups.
For now, the most we've invested in one startup is $90,000. We've been super careful with our funds for a few reasons. One is that we didn't have that much, we raised around $500,000 the first time around. We know we're in a space with not as much funding; we aren't in deep tech, we don't have so much access to that type of investors and grant funding. I would say there are few steps in the validation. One is whether we like the idea enough and have the first clients for this potential company that we would like to incorporate? Incorporating in Singapore can cost a few hundred dollars, but it’s a huge milestone - we inject money not from the studio directly, we just invest money from the studio in the startup and then run the startup.
I think we invest up to maybe $20,000 when we build a company we like, we get the first clients, the product/MVP is okay, and we're not shy to pitch this company even if it's not completely ready. In what we do, $20,000 is feasible. We talk to investors, and then we decide whether to invest more in the startup and we go to $100K or $200K. It might not be a heavy investment, but it's a lot of money for us, and it's a commitment of the studio to one company.
Andries De Vos: You and I had a brief conversation about the possibility of creating subsidiary labs. Tell us about that model.
Valerian Fauvel: It is for scaling our team operationally, to be able to do several things. One is to have a bigger impact on our startups, more directly from the studio.
We want to scale our team so that we can operate across more startups. Labs themselves would have a certain degree of independence, so they would have the potential to become their own startup. The same way you build a studio in a circular economy, you can build a growth team or a growth company, a product with good credentials and track record in some circular economy or climate change, etc.
It's quite exciting, and this is our plan to scale our team once we raise the funding this way. We really want to test it. We're convinced about it and we can find the right people as well, that have the right mix of industry expertise and the willingness to start their own thing but also come forward with a less scalable type of startup - a more consulting type of startup.
Andries De Vos: As the startup becomes bigger, is it easier or harder to run for you? Do you feel like you're starting to push the business downhill and you’re getting momentum, or is it the opposite - you feel like you need to push more uphill?
Valerian Fauvel: For me, it's more of a value thing. Now we're uphill because we're 6-8 months after our first fundraising round so we have a bit less money, we've built more startups. Resources are needs are starting to be a little tense. It's uphill, but really stressful. We hope to be a little alleviated when we raise our second round. Downhill was after the first round when we were established and had visibility for 12 to 24 months. We've built 3 new startups. We know what we want to do and we're super excited about it. Now we think it's time to get the resources we need to continue the second chapter of the book.
Andries De Vos: What do you look for in your CEOs and founders? How do you measure, quantify the traits you are looking for? Do you have any rules?
Valerian Fauvel: For me, energy was what came first. I need to feel that the person has the energy to carry a business and lead a team for a fairly long time. In our case, an important trait is a very strong alignment in values. All our entrepreneurs have demonstrated huge engagement in building something that has a different purpose which is building a business and making money. We also look for a strong willingness to work, understanding that it's not going to be easy, having a strong drive.
We test this in the beginning. We never start a relationship with a CEO without telling to change something and then come back to us. We see if they are able to start the machine on their own and get back to us and challenge us.
Obviously, the ability to grow is important, but I would say we are ready to take some risk there. We accept that we're not hiring Steve Jobs all the time. We compensate this with the larger equity share for us at the beginning, so that we can have the munitions to bring other people down the road.
We don't ask our co-founders to invest in the business. In our case, they tend to be first-time entrepreneurs. Their experience needs to be somewhat relevant to their business, ideally complementary to the skills we bring in the studio, as a good match for the team. How do we assess it? At this point, it's spending as much time as possible throwing them into the pool and seeing whether they swim. We put a huge emphasis on someone challenging and pushing us. It's the best sign that we got CEO material for that business.
Andries De Vos: What models of startup studios do you find interesting out there and why?
Valerian Fauvel: I've always been fascinated by the idea of Rocket Internet - one model we can replicate million times, each time better. I think there is beauty in pure execution. We're not taking that route, we're more literal in what we do, and maybe later down the road, when we all have our experience and we've learned enough, we can work this way. When your goal is to have a tangible impact, the idea that you can scale a billion-fold is exciting.
In underdeveloped ecosystems, the idea of startup studios is an excellent way to innovate. It's an ideal model for creating startups that are resilient and strong, avoiding common pitfalls and failures. I’d really like to see more of them.
Andries De Vos: Paint me a picture: what will business building and venture building look like in, say, 15 years from now?
Valerian Fauvel: Venture building for me is startup studios doing their own thing, and then there is a service aspect to it, which is working with corporates. We initially tried the corporate model and decided not to do it. When we started, we looked at the existing models and at how we could build our own. Basically, we decided we would do less startups, but better ones.
The way we see now our first 4-5 years is to build a portfolio of 5-7 startups out of 20-25, and we need to find a way to reject quickly the wrong ideas. Among these 5-7 startups, there are going to be those that are more advanced and those that come in later.
The first year we had two startups. Now one of them is financially independent, it has its own team and investors and it doesn't require capital from the studio. Another one is going to get there soon. To build these two, we rejected about five to seven other ideas. For the second year, we built three more startups that are younger. We have CEOs and early clients for two of them, and things go well, so we do not need to invest more in them. We have room to add a few more startups.
From here, the ideal vision for us is to have 4-5 successes out of this and get 1-2 to exit quickly so we recycle this capital. For fun, I tell our investors that our plan is to invest in one company, repay you, then exit and never speak to investors again. This would be ideal, because we can have both the ability to build new businesses on a regular basis and the thrill of invention and creation but also time to go deep into a business.
There are two other possible scenarios: one of these companies can become a hugely successful company and we become a holding company with the shares of that very valuable company- we don't want this, but it could happen. The other scenario is doing a lot more startups.
Andries De Vos: If you could have a massive billboard with some advice for anyone trying to build the next Jumanji Studio, what would it say?
Valerian Fauvel: The first big decision, if you're in the impact space, is whether you will do it with investor money or grant money. The kind of impact themes you can address depending on the type of capital you're going to raise is quite different. I was in the social impact space before, in poverty alleviation, and I could not do a studio building early-stage social enterprises with investor money. The only way to do it is through grants, I hope it won't be the case one day, but today it is. So, the first big question is what kind of impact you want to have.
There is some complexity in a studio that you don't have in a startup. It’s important to work on your governance tools, decision-making and set the principle for what happens if someone leaves because that completely changes the team dynamic. It's important to treat your governance very seriously, see the studio more as a fund than a startup.
For each founding team I execute, I do more and better than I have done in the past and I build value from this. The learning aspect is in how far I would go out of my comfort zone to discover and build a new type of value that I was unaware existed.
It's interesting to decide what camp you are in, because if you only do discovery, it is very dangerous, and if you only execute, you might get bored. For me, it's important to choose your investors super wisely.
Of course, money gets people excited and you feel like a genius when people give you money, but the fact is that the work is on your shoulders only, no one - especially private equities - will bother with it, so it's okay to say no to money. Be prepared to do it or at least seek investors who you really like and work with them.
2021 is well underway now and we finally managed to take the time to look back at our previous year and capture some of our highlights. Uff, talking about being busy! (Read PART 1 here).
Highlight 4 - Communicating our content and brand
In 2020, we refreshed our external Slash brand: we released a new website (www.slash.co), the HAK blog (www.slash.co/hak) and HAK podcast on the impact of venture building in the world of corporate innovation!
✍️ HAK blog is the place to find engaging content on venture building and corporate innovation. Here, we post articles on topics ranging from productivity to innovation along with in-depth analyses of relevant trends among other types of content.
🎧 HAK podcast, which we launched in December 2020, we speak with brilliant minds in the venture building ecosystem - what makes them tick, their challenges and models, and the impact of venture building on corporate innovation. Every week we release a new podcast. Subscribe here!
We’re excited to continue building a meaningful brand as Slash, to develop our voice as Slash and original content.
Highlight 5 - Many more Client impact stories!
On the consulting side of the business, we thrive on our client success stories. Despite the COVID-19 challenges, 2020 has been rich in stories where we helped solve significant industry problems as an entrepreneurial technology and hands-on transformation partner.
Here are a handful of public highlights:
📌 We completed and deployed the flagship United Nations World Food Program “PRISM” in Cambodia and are now maintaining it as it scales across all of Asia Pacific, from Pakistan and Papua New Guinea to Mongolia. PRISM provides a near-real-time map of the impact of floods and droughts on vulnerable agricultural communities using satellite data and remote sensor sources. Here is PRISM in the news.
📌 After an incredibly intense 12+ months, we completed EedenBull’s flagship QBusiness platform in collaboration with 65 regional banks in Norway. We then helped EedenBull build their in-house tech team in Edinburgh, UK, and over a period of 6 months empowered them to take over the solution. Since then, Edinburgh has been growing from strength to strength with headline-grabbing press releases in Europe and Asia.
📌 For the last 4 years, we have been supporting AXA’s Innovation team with their products and core tech. Several new products have been launched under our watch and it’s exciting to see how our partnership evolves.
📌 We built the next version of Supermom, the largest online mummys' shopping heaven in SEA. Supermom is a founder-led business and has an incredible passion for its mission.
Highlight 6 - Building the Rocket
In the theme of our year, "Building the Rocket", we always intended to make 2020 the year where we would focus less on growing the company and more on building the foundation for Slash to scale to greater heights in the coming years.
In that context, we have been working hard on systematizing the business, with 120+ playbooks to streamline the processes and capabilities of our team across every single area (from finance and HR to software development and product), to assign management roles better, to conceptualize our Slash Experience & Learning Environment, etc. 📚
While more work needs to be done in 2021 to refine these playbooks and get everyone onboard across the organization, we're excited to see "Slash 3.0" as our delivery team’s operating model come to life and deliver consistent value to our clients.
🎓In addition, several members of our team started their AWS Solution Architecture certification and got certified under R3 Corda blockchain. We also joined Google Cloud as a partner. New Year, new doors with opportunities!
Highlight 7 - Our sales machine
We are making good progress in building our Slash "sales machine", from lead generation to appointment scheduling, and closing. 📞
🤝 We find that our Slash value proposition of building autonomous scrum teams (what we call “squads”) is well received by corporate innovators and changemakers. What sets us aside is that we bring experience as serial entrepreneurs and product & tech operators scaling digital products and teams; something that many consultancies or tech shops lack.
In 2021, we are scaling these sales processes and teams further.
Highlight 8 - Tech for Good
We became entrepreneurs to have an impact. This culture permeates through Slash and translates into a variety of community and social initiatives.
In many ways, COVID-19 put this commitment to the test: with our pipeline hit and many communities at risk, could we step up and support where needed? We definitely did! ⬇️
🔥 The online hackathon in Cambodia, HacKH-the-Crisis 💻
Held 3-5 April 2020, this online hackathon united the local community to create unique solutions to the challenges that Cambodia is facing due to COVID-19 to save lives and save businesses.
The initiative gathered 206 participants and 56 mentors (local and from overseas), who worked together on 79 pandemic-related challenges.
HacKH-the-Crisis was initiated by Slash and co-organized by Impact Hub Phnom Penh and the state-owned NIPTICT university. We were supported in this project by Cambodia’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunication (MPTC) and Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MEYS).
Out of the many initiatives that came out of it, one to highlight is the COVID-19 Broadcast Solution to help the Cambodian government speak with a unified voice and disseminate official COVID-19 information across all their social media channels. Slash developed this solution pro bono together with our venture partner Clik.
Other ideas that came out of the hackathon can be found here.
🔥To support regional SEA startups, Slash helped a group of regional VCs (Openspace Ventures, 500 Startups, Cocoon Capital), to launch the Support Startups website across Southeast Asia.
The website’s primary task is to assist startups across Southeast Asia with the release of their promotional activities and discount codes for the customers looking to buy products and services from startups, supporting them along the way with their consumer purchasing power.
🔥 In January, Slash organized and held AWS re:Cap in Cambodia. This event gathered over 100 participants, who arrived to discover the newest and biggest announcements from the largest Cloud event of the year.
🔥 In 2020 we also conceptualized and launched HAK Weeks (URL: www.hakweeks.slash.co or www.slash.co/hakweeks), an online corporate hackathon initiative that brings the best of Slash internal capabilities, paired up with our associates in the innovation strategy and facilitator space, to run high-impact online hackathon programs in “1 week”.
HAK Weeks started off as a social idea to help businesses during COVID-19 pivots and is now a standalone service offered to corporate heads of business units who struggle to get their HQ support to digitize elements of their client-facing and internal processes. Through short rapid prototyping programs, they get clarity, can inform their transformation roadmap and train their team on the key agile and design thinking skills needed to take charge of their transformation.
In 2021, we can’t wait to continue building on our mission of “Teams to Innovate”. We are systematizing every aspect of spinning off venture and engineering teams for our clients and our own portfolio.
Dr. Mitsy Chanel-Blot shared her extensive knowledge in making presentations during the online event “Putting the "Pre" in Presentation” on February 24, organized by Slash and HAK.
According to Mitsy, preparation is the secret to a memorable and engaging presentation. Her workshop focused on key elements of the preparation process, which she believes everyone needs as much as a good slide deck.
An expert in public speaking, improvisation and training, Dr. Chanel-Blot currently works as a senior lecturer at CamEd Business School in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She builds up individuals and teams’ skills in communication and supports their professional growth. Mitsy is also a volunteer at presentation platform Nerd Night and the creative founder of the monthly storytelling event "Verse in Prose".
The final part of the event was dedicated to a Q&A with Dr. Chanel-Blot, during which the event participants were welcome to get more recommendations from the expert speaker.
2021 is well underway now and we finally managed to take the time to look back at our previous year and capture some of our highlights. Uff, talking about being busy!
Here are 8 highlights of our 2020.
Highlight 1 - Productive year and a bigger portfolio
🏆 Across our portfolio, our startups raised ~US$4.85m in 2020. We have several startups that launched in 2020 (Sharelook, Augmented Tribe, 360 Sports), and others will pilot or launch in the first half of 2021 (Clik, TripTax, Acropolis, Hourvillage). Most of our startups are expected to hit revenue in 2021! Our portfolio of early stage startups is slowly hatching ;-)
🚀 Currently, we have 8 startups in our portfolio:
➤ Sharelook - Netflix for Corporate eLearning. This mobile e-learning platform is designed for trainers, teams and organizations looking to enhance their knowledge through online courses. Sharelook offers integrated live video broadcasting (the only one of its kind to do so now) and course builders with user-generated learning mazes along with advanced analytics, 3D avatars, and more.
➤ TripWorld - The startup develops travel solutions for global conscious citizens. The pandemic might have hit tourism hard, but travel is starting to recover. TripWorld’s flagship, deep-tech solution TripTax, is the solution for travelers searching for a faster, cheaper, and safer way to do tourism tax refund while skipping the queue at the airport.
➤ 360 Wellness - This addition to our portfolio has introduced an end-to-end solution to help fitness & wellness professionals run their business online in a post-COVID-19 world. They can use 360 Wellness to broadcast live classes or coaching sessions, do the monetization & invoicing, put together schedules and follow-ups, retarget, and set up personalized programs.
➤ The Hourvillage - The startup provides a CSR solution for corporates to connect employees with charities & causes. It operates as a social equalizer platform, where one hour equals one hour-time regardless of who you are.
➤ Acropolis - Sell your international properties & land to Asian investors faster in one easy-to-use, unified conveyance platform. We enable digital ownership of cross-border property investments, and the users do not need to travel. The startup also provides a secure & immediately verifiable chain of title, super-fast transactions (~2 days) and cheaper transaction costs.
➤ Clik - This startup has created an award-winning unified payment, credit & loyalty solution for merchants and consumers in the Mekong Region. It is available online and offline, with advanced eKYC/AML-CFT and data-driven micro-targeting and loyalty schemes. The solution’s rich variety of functions includes a seamless consumer experience that also enables lending.
➤ Augmented Tribe - The startup has established a social learning platform for professionals. The app is organized around learning spaces to accelerate the know-how. It comes with structured curriculums, real-time collaboration, and on-demand experts. Augmented Tribe is a joint-venture with global business school IMD, operating in Switzerland/Singapore.
➤ Trust8 - It provides secure risk management & facility management dashboard. This startup’s primary goal is to help companies manage their back-to-work policies during the COVID-19 crisis. Among other key features, Trust8 also enables integration with an ecosystem of secure, trustless, private wallets to handle employees’ health data.
Despite the general volatility of 2020, it was a productive year for our startups. We are already working on a new stealth-mode startup, so stay tuned for announcements in the upcoming months! After this progress in our portfolio, we expect that our startups will be more visible in 2021 and generate more engagement opportunities for the core Slash team.
Here is a number of public achievements our startups recorded in the last 12 months:
📌 Augmented Tribe has conducted a successful first user pilot with the Civil Service College Singapore, the college for government employees in Singapore.
📌 360Wellness.io was founded and launched in less than 9 months.
📌 Clik raised USD 3.6m round and got its payment (PSP) license from the National Bank of Cambodia.
📌 Sharelook closed a major deal in Africa and we helped them build their team in Nepal.
Highlight 2 - Expanding Slash family in Asia and Europe
2020 was a year of growth for Slash. Guided by the commitment to increasing our geographical reach, we expanded in 2020 and entered into 2021 as a larger family with now 3 hubs: in addition to our Cambodian (Phnom Penh) office, we launched our Bali hub and the Armenian outpost by building our initial team in capital Yerevan!
By extending our geographical reach, we access more diverse and deeper talent pools, more time zones and cultural coverage for our clients, and more opportunities for our teams to experience life in different countries. We can't wait to try to get everyone in one place for a celebration!
🌎 The choices for the locations were not random, as we always look for diverse talent pools and more cultural coverage. We are currently attracting the best local talent in each hub.
📌 Singapore is our oldest office and our headquarters. It’s the perfect launchpad for our global portfolio of companies and supports our global clients on the IT consulting side. Our team consists of senior executives and our financial team.
📌 Our first hub in Phnom Penh is significant with its strong L&D environment and community engagement. We have a mature team in the Cambodian office, with 3+ years’ longevity at the company. This impressive Phnom Penh team consists of many senior software engineers.
📌 Our second hub is in Bali (Indonesia), an attractive workplace both for local talent and high-skilled expats. It is also a fantastic place to live and work, as the pictures of our Bali office illustrate clearly! ;)
📌 In 2020, we welcomed a new hub to the Slash family, our third one - Yerevan. It boasts strong STEM talent thanks to the Soviet Union heritage and westernized culture with good English. Its location in the middle of Asia and Europe makes Yerevan the perfect hub to provide support to our Eurasian clients.
Highlight 3 - New services, new capabilities
In 2020, we expanded our Product Team at Slash and decided to start externalizing our product strategy & research and product design services to offer them to Clients. Previously, we primarily focused our Product Team on our own startup ideas.
By externalizing our product capabilities, we now offer end-to-end digital product development services from idea to engineering, and thereafter maintenance & scaling.
In the process, we are systematizing and refining our product methodology and improving how we build our internal ideas. This will also provide opportunities for the Slash team to extend their skill sets.
Part 2 is coming soon!