(#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.
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.
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.
On February 18, Slash and the AWS partner held AWS re:Invent, the annual recap event for 2020.
Over two and a half hours, AWS experts provided updates and insights for the latest cloud services and capabilities in modern application development, analytics, networking and security among other areas. This event summed up the results of the original AWS recap, held in December 2020.
Luis Puentes, Slash’s Full Stack Developer, presented both Slash and AWS in the opening keynote, and from there, the other 3 speakers took the floor. Senior Developer Advocate Donnie Prakoso, Raja SP of Senior Manager Analytics Specialty, Solutions Architect Phone Myint Kyaw and Senior Solutions Architect Frank Ang did a brilliant job, putting all updates into precise messages categorized in 4 large groups: developer experience, data and analytic, infrastructure and mobile, and governance.
Some of these updates revealed, for example, that AWS Lambda now supports Container Image, showed the group ecosystem around AWS Glue for Big Data and Data Lake architecture, and demonstrated the new instance OS type for EC2 - MacOS support (it allows to build apps online with AWS!).
The Slash team attended AWS re:Invent both online and in the office, excited to learn about the new features and services supported on AWS, and happy to have one of their own as the keynote speaker.
(#5)HAK podcast: Hugh Mason, JFDI co-founder & CEO - Lessons learned from running JFDI Accelerators and corporate startups (Part 2)
We continue our insightful conversation with Hugh Mason, the co-founder and CEO of JFDI, a Singapore-based accelerator that has built over 70 startups since 2012.
In this episode we will cover the problems of the VC market, current trends, methodologies of running an accelerator and much more. Stay tuned.
Website URL: http://www.jfdi.asia/
Hugh's LinkedIn: https://sg.linkedin.com/in/hughmason
Listen to the Podcast
Andries De Vos: If you sketched out the business plan for a venture studio, what would it look like? You have already mentioned that it would be more narrow-focused and it would give access to the first customers. What other things would be in your recipe book?
Hugh Mason: I'll give you an example. Here in Singapore, several years ago, I met a wonderful guy, who only invests in games development and all he does is casual games, these dinky little puzzly things, and the prime market for those in the West is housewives at home, who are bored. The kids haven't come home from school, they've done some washing or so, and they would play a game as a treat. They will do it through their set up box on their TV or through their mobile phone, and they end up paying to play that game.
That guy had totally understood that vertical. He knew the psychology of his customers, he knew when they played and how much they paid, he had distribution channels to get to those people. So when people came to him with potential casual game ideas, he was able to say: "I will do this if you make these changes, here's the terms of the deal, take it or leave it." And when people came in, he would act like a traditional publisher, really. I think in some ways a venture studio could be something like that, where you take ideas that have come from outside and you're a specialist with access to distribution and finance.
Another way is the way that many feature film studios work: they have independent film producers who develop a slate of scripts, raise a couple million dollars, spend it on development of 7-8 film scripts, connect these scripts with star talent through their contacts with agencies — directors and leading actors — and then go to the studio. They present this package and say:“ I've got a great script, with a great actor that's prepared to do it and a great director that's prepared to do it, will you take this on? We'll share the backend of the value that's created and in return, you put up the capital and you organize the distribution.”
Another model to do would be what film studios also do, which is to say because we know the market, because we have the metrics, the technical skills and resources in house to make things, then why don't we come up with projects internally? And then we will hire a director to direct the film, in this case it is a Chief Executive who will run the business. The interesting thing about that model is that to drive the business is the critical thing, you need to find someone who is motivated to drive the business but is not so entrepreneurial that they will get bored and go off to run another thing. So, you need to find people who are entrepreneurial and disciplined and prepared to work when they don't know the majority of the business in the early stage, potentially someone who could get it going from nothing to something and, of course, that's the Rocket Internet model.
Andries De Vos: What is it you think that is wrong with the VC market today that venture builders have understood?
Hugh Mason: Venture capital is widely recognized to have some serious challenges. There was a fascinating report by Kauffman Foundation a few years ago, called "We have met the enemy and it is us". It revealed, if you look at the statistics, the dirty secret of venture capital is that the vast majority of funds — I'm talking like 80% here — actually make a loss. If you put your money into a venture business, you get less back than you put into. There's a chunk of them, maybe 10-15% that will give you your money back with a little bit of extra, but not much more, and then there's a tiny number of VC firms which make outsize returns. Because they have that brand name and everyone wants to be associated with that brand name, of course they attract the best companies moving forward. It's a curious thing, if you actually look at psychology of all of this. There's been some great analysis done on portfolio construction in VC firms, if you do the equivalent of a tracker fund in public businesses, if you just randomly invest in a thousand startups, you can show that the results will be remarkably similar to what most VCs achieve.
This is the human need to believe that there is star talent out there that can pick winners. And then there's the whole story of adding value, nurturing, which some VCs do and the majority don't. All of this is stuff that has been well-documented and well-discussed elsewhere. What can venture studios bring to the mix?
I won't name the fund, but I will say it is an extremely large Singaporean fund that everybody's heard of. I was having discussions with a very large fund that makes tens of millions of dollars size investments and above, and they feel they are cut out of the stages of startup growth where value is created. They feel yes, they can write very large checks, but by the time they come to the party, they're not making that great of a return on their investments.
Just recently, when one of our very first investees was bought by Intuit, what I think is interesting is that in the early stages of development, when people put money into JFDI, the multiple we got on our initial investment was like 100x on that investment — a hundred times of what we put in. The folks from our investor pool, who then invested a couple rounds later, made a good return, but it was absolutely nothing like 100x, even though it was a multiple amount of what they put in. When you draw that kind of curve, a hockey stick curve evaluation growth in a startup, it is really true that the returns are fantastic if you can get in at the beginning and avoid getting screwed by later investors in terms of dilution, if you can get in early and with a reasonable deal with the founders who've got some integrity.
That means that for a later stage fund, like the one I was just thinking about, the problem they've got is by the time they come to the party, the band's already onto his last song. That fund told me confidentially they were setting up a venture studio internally. And I wonder whether this is going to be the case, whether we'll see corporates do something similar. The pros and cons of that is another discussion.
The simple answer to your question is that venture studios allow people who have access to money to get into deals with discipline and structure earlier than they would've otherwise and therefore enjoy more evaluation growth. The real thing they've got to hide if they're going to do that is their own egos.
Being a VC does not mean you know everything about starting and growing businesses. It means you know a lot about raising money from LPs, term sheets and all that stuff. It's great, we need that skill set, but it's got nothing to do with building value and a company, unless you've been a founder yourself.
Perhaps the ideal structure would be something like a venture studio with people in it, who know how to create and grow value, closely coupled to a fund which has an arms-length relations with the folk who are doing the company building, because like everybody, if you're the one doing the company building, you're going to believe all your projects are brilliant. You need to have a robust discussion with investors. So, even if it's your own fund, my hunch is that probably even people making final investment decisions need to be separated from the actual building process.
Andries De Vos: I see more and more corporates, innovation teams reaching out to us as well to explore the possibility of creating a venture studio. These trends are indeed emerging and it's exciting, but, at the same time, I would argue that the risk culture of those teams as well as their background may not be compatible with being entrepreneurs. If you take that line of thinking to the next level and imagine that you see VC as a product with a roadmap -V:1, V:2, etc, what are the versions that we have now and that will come in the future? What are the trends that you see?
Hugh Mason: One of the things I hear a lot here in Asia from partners and family offices that want to invest in VCs is that it is a tough call for people to lock up their money for 10 years in a fund run by someone they haven't worked with before, who then invests it in businesses that have got nothing to do with the investor’ group of family businesses, where their children don't get to learn from experience. If you're brand-new in VC and you're setting up a Southeast Asian office, then maybe you'll get some LPs to invest. But it's a very tough call to keep asking people to invest in it. There is a matching function that VCs perform.
In the old days, it used to be performed by those angel groups. 10-15 years ago the only way for startups to meet business angels was to go to a monthly cabaret, where a bunch of guys would be sitting and having dinner and drinks, and the startups would kind of go on stage and lap dance for them and then, occasionally, they'd write a check.
I think VCs similarly act as a magnet, drawing together money and talent. The question is whether the fund is the only way to do that. On the angels' end of things, I think it's interesting that we've seen things like syndicates forming an angels' list, where you have an experienced investor that people believe in and trust, who says I found a great investment here, who wants to come in with me? And because they've got a bunch of followers on Angellist, those people will all come around and effectively set up a VC fund. But it's a VC fund for just one investment and the lead investor that runs that will have to carry everyone's money and all usual things that a VC would do. Everyone can see where the money is going, make a decision right now - there it is, go!
You think whether you actually need all this structure of a fund, is it actually necessary to act as a magnet? If it really is about talent, if that's what investors want to follow, then you can do that as an individual.
The other thing I think is really interesting is the way we're starting to see some private marketplaces emerging now. For instance, here in Singapore we have a business from Estonia, called Funderbeam, which is a private exchange that accredited investors can join. And they can invest directly into early stage businesses. The challenge with it at the moment is that there's not so much market volume, not so much trading, so the investment in all that is liquid, that means that the transparency of pricing that you get from a public market isn't there yet. But as an idea, I find it really interesting.
If I was launching JFDI all over again, I think now that we've got a brand name and everybody knows what an accelerator is, there is an argument that maybe we should just put up an exchange trading fund that's sort of linked to JFDI on something like Funderbeam, raise the money that way and then deploy it to support early-stage startups. Maybe that's what we should do. Then at least our LPs investing in the accelerator could have a way of getting in and out.
We'd have to put much more energy into the storytelling around the performance of the startups and there would have to be someone doing market making, but maybe that's all possible. Often, in finance particularly, as it's one of the conservative industries, there are different flavors of product people come up with, but it's rare that we get a brand-new paradigm.
VCs are what they are, they date from the 1950s. Would you create VC funds in the same way today if you were inventing them from scratch? Probably not, in the same way you wouldn’t invent retail and shopping malls in the same way now that we can do e-commerce. I'm watching this, and I am a spectator not a VC, I'm an individual investor who used to run an accelerator. I am fascinated to see in which direction this goes.
Andries De Vos: With all the know-how that you've acquired over the years, do you think there is an opportunity to almost codify those know-hows and the methodologies of running an accelerator? Or you consider this a very limited added value?
Hugh Mason: When JFDI Asia stopped running its own active acceleration process and we entered this harvest mood to focus on supporting our portfolio and moving it toward liquidity, that's what we've been doing since 2015, one of the things we looked at was if we could offer accelerator as a service. Funnily enough, a company actually pitched this to me the other day. I was looking at setting up an impact accelerator, working with a large corporate venture. I found that there is a business in Europe, a fantastic software platform that's got everything you want to run an accelerator they've coded into a system. There's two or three out there now, I think. The mechanics of running an accelerator are relatively well-understood.
The other thing that's happened since we started JFDI is that some fantastic academics have done a great job to start documenting accelerators, identifying success factors. There's a great book by Mike Wright & Israel Drori called “Accelerators”, and it presents an analysis of what it takes to make an accelerator work. There's a wonderful researcher in the U.S. called Susan Cohen who's done a great job on what goes in accelerators and why they succeed, and how we can measure their success.
The know-how is open source now, the spirit of the startup accelerator was always about making this stuff open source. I think if I were going to do it again, I would focus less on the mechanics of running the accelerator and more on achieving distribution for startups and achieving more liquidity for investors.
Andries De Vos: What are some of the most interesting models you've seen, specifically in the accelerator and venture building space right now?
Hugh Mason: It's fascinating to see different rifts on the same theme. You can see something like Entrepreneur First, it's been extremely successful in London, in particular. Matt and Alice had set it up and created an amazing climate where very smart people from top universities and technical people come together. It's basically a 3-month team forming operation, followed by an accelerator. I can't see anything magical about it other than the fantastic community that has grown around it.
I think that whole area of how you form teams is an interesting one. The second area I find very interesting, I joined On Deck, which is a virtual accelerator, and while I was in quarantine as I had COVID-19 and I was stuck in a hospital, I wondered what it would be like to be in an accelerator. I got lots of friends in Europe and I got businesses there and in Asia, but I never got a business in Silicon Valley myself. Because of COVID-19, I could join the accelerator that had gone virtual and doing it online would cost far less than getting a flight to America. It turned out to be absolutely fantastic. What On Deck did brilliantly was to curate people. Going back to the point I made earlier about the quality of people coming into the accelerator, the thing that On Deck did fantastically was to get amazing people together. The conversations I've had were great. To be honest, I'm very happy to have paid that and more just for the people I've met.
Now that we have a sort of framework around how you build startups and now that we've got some common mentor models and shared language, it seems to me that the physicality of an accelerator is still important for team formation, but it's less important when you're trying to help companies and support their growth.
I don't think you need to be face to face with a mentor. I'm mentoring a wonderful eye surgeon for the moment, for example, who's left eye surgery and is setting up a very exciting business and I really look forward to our conversations as a mentor, because it's so stimulating to talk with someone intelligent and passionate. It's great that we don't have to be together. We can share business models, I can share articles and stuff I've collected that is useful for our conversation, and she shares stuff with me about eye surgery which I find fascinating because my mum had cataracts in her eyes.
A huge function of the accelerator or venture builder is to create a community. I wrote my master's thesis on what an accelerator is, back in 2011-2012. It wasn't clear at that time what an accelerator is. The thesis is called “Guilds for Geeks”, and the conclusion I came up with is that an accelerator is like a medieval guild where you bring together masters and apprentices, and the craft of entrepreneurship is handed down from generation to generation, through on-the-job training. Until recently, that had to be done face-to-face, but I don't think it has to be done that way in the future. You can have a community of mind without having a community of place. That's fantastic because it means that really talented people, wherever they are, can reach out and connect with other people.
I'm working at the moment with a Swiss-based accelerator called Seedstars and also with GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications). They run some fantastic programs across the very developing parts of Southeast Asia.
Recently, I've been mentoring teams in Papua New Guinea and Samoa. The most interesting discussions there have been with great people, as smart as anyone on this call, they just haven't had the chance to travel and to connect. There were two conversations that really inspired me. One was with a wonderful woman in Papua New Guinea, who had an idea for slaughter as a service. In her country, buying a live chicken at the market is the way that you buy your meat. You carry the chicken home, you chop its head off and then you cook it for your family — it's fantastic fresh meat. She came up with an idea of a service, when you can use your mobile phone to order chicken, and when it's delivered you can slaughter it in your backyard.
What I loved about that is that it's a business model we actually know how to do, but it was applied in a culturally relevant context. Later on in that same session of mentoring startups, a guy actually came up to me with a ring about the size of your head — a piece of string with shells threaded on it. He brought me the traditional shell money, and you can still buy things around the Pacific islands with shells like this. This dude was pitching me a blockchain business and it wasn't one of those bullshit blockchain businesses, where it's all crypto and faith in the future. It was a really solid idea. And it was amazing: here's this guy, whose parents were using shell money, and how he's pitching me a technology business. He was able, through the internet, to get access to all the same whitepapers and ideas. I thought that was so inspiring.
For me, the most exciting thing about the future of venture studios and accelerators is that wherever talent is, people will be able to connect, form teams, get together and get mentored.
I'm passionate about this because, especially in the mess that we're in because of COVID-19, entrepreneurship is a tool kit for creating possibilities in mess, in ambiguity.
Entrepreneurs come forward there is a total mess, when there are cracks in the society, and they fill the cracks and they fix things. That's exactly what we need right now, that's the “just fucking do it” spirit, which made us unite and set up an accelerator.
The reason I'm still passionate about entrepreneurship and teaching it, mentoring in it and doing it for the rest of my life is that I believe that entrepreneurship fundamentally creates the future.
The exciting thing about accelerators and venture studios for the future is that now we don't have to be in the same space and we don't require too much money to do it either. You can run an accelerator in Papua New Guinea and make a success!
(#5)HAK podcast: Hugh Mason, JFDI co-founder & CEO - Lessons learned from running JFDI Accelerators & corporate startups (Part 1)
Hugh Mason is the co-founder and CEO of JFDI, a Singapore-based accelerator that has built over 70 startups since 2012. Hugh has a colorful background as serial entrepreneur, in the broadcast industry, software and technology, as well as investor and university lecturer.
About this episode:
In this episode we will cover Hugh’s experience of running JFDI, one of the pioneers of the accelerator model in Asia, and what he would do differently today if he were to start over again.
Website URL: http://www.jfdi.asia/
Hugh's LinkedIn: https://sg.linkedin.com/in/hughmason
Listen to the Podcast
Andries De Vos: Getting started, what is the history behind JFDI and what was your founding vision?
Hugh Mason: The background to JFDI is actually a co-working space. When Meng and I got together, we realized: here in Singapore there was a fantastic intellectual capital, lots of smart people and as fantastic financial capital as well, lots of money (still is), but there was no social capital for entrepreneurship, no place where people could come together, hang out, exchange visions and so on. Both of us realized that it was a hugely important thing for a startup ecosystem.
So, the real vision for JFDI was about ecosystem building ten years ago. It seems extraordinary now, when Singapore and Southeast Asia have got so much more dynamic, but back then there was very little in the way of ecosystem.
Andries De Vos: Why did you set up the JFDI business model as an accelerator?
Hugh Mason: It was a really interesting, accidental thing. Again, very odd to think of it now, but ten years ago, we were some of the first guests of an early tech conference - it was about a hundred people in a borrowed room of a university. One of the speakers was a guy called David Cohen, who'd come from Techstars, this accelerator we had heard of in Colorado. He was really interesting, because he didn't come from the Silicon Valley. We thought to ourselves: “Well, here's a very small town with basically 120,000-odd people. It's got some wealthy retirees, it's got some nice mountains and a small liberal arts college, and somehow this guy managed to create a community which kind of spawned startups — a school for startups, like a piece of community theater that comes together several times a year.” And we thought it was amazing! If that could work in Boulder, Colorado, then surely it could work in Singapore too.
So, while our intention was community building initially and that's why we set up a coworking space, as for the accelerator, we didn't imagine we could set one up. Actually, it was David Cohen himself, who called me one day and said he had been asked to set it in Singapore and he didn't want to do it, so maybe we wanted to do it. We looked at each other and thought, well, that's a good idea. Don't know anyone who'd done it in Asia yet. So, I think, we incorporated it a few days later.
Andries De Vos: When you started JFDI, did you ever expect it would take 6 years of your life and you’d end up with 60+ startups?
Hugh Mason: Yes, we did. One of the things that was immensely helpful to get it going was the community that was building around Techstars. It got going, I think, in 2006-2007, shortly after Y Combinator, and very quickly lots of people around the world besieged Techstars, asking for information, saying: “This is great, can we do one in our city?” Techstars was setting up an international network and I remember us being member number four in that network, I think. The message we got strongly from the founders of Techstars — and that's something the other founder Brad Feld talked a lot about — is that if you're going to build an ecosystem, it's a 20-year project.
When we started, there were people like Professor Wong Poh Kam here in Singapore, who set up the business angel network five years before us, and there were many, many other people involved in seeding, so I think we came into the journey three or four years into it and it was the right time to do an accelerator. Basically, we were the right guys in the right place at the right time. It was one of those "accidental" things.
Andries De Vos: I once read that no one gets a Suzuki tattoo, only a Harley Davidson tattoo. Your brand matters. I always felt that JFDI had a strong brand. I started my startup journey in 2011 in Singapore so I probably became more aware of the startup ecosystem in 2012, which is more or less the time when JFDI started doing lots of activities. You built a strong brand. How did you create it?
Hugh Mason: Meng and I sat down and asked ourselves, what is the spirit of entrepreneurship? And we came to the conclusion that it was this phrase which many people in the west know, JFDI — “Just Fucking Do It” — because that's what entrepreneurs do. And we asked ourselves, we wondered if they would let us incorporate a business here in Singapore called JFDI Asia, because everyone in the West was going to laugh when they saw the name. We were in discussions with investors at that point, including a government-linked fund, and we told ourselves that the whole point of JFDI Asia was to help startups raise funds in a hundred days so if we couldn’t get interest from investors in a hundred days, we were totally bogus and it was not going to work.
On day 94, this government-linked fund started expressing a strong interest and we thought: “Wow, what are we going to tell them when they ask what JFDI stands for?” And we were driving through Geylang island here in Singapore which is, if you don't know, one of the red light districts on the island with fantastic food. It is also famous for a shop called Eminent Frog Porridge Shop, it sells Teochew Frog Porridge. I don't know why it just popped into my head, but I suggested just telling them it's a Joyful Frog Digital Innovation Company or something like that. We both fell about laughing hard. It sounds like a bad translation of a Chinese company name. You go, let’s say, to Hong Kong, and there are amazing companies like “The Golden Bridge Fortune, Happy Lucky Company Building”, so we thought it would sound like one of those. Then we got some friends, who were Chinese scholars, to actually translate "Joyful Frog Digital Incubator" into Chinese characters so it looked official. And everyone kind of marveled at the quality of the translation, so it was kind of a joke, basically.
The next part of the story is we were looking for logos and we found this stock art, and we bought around four hundred poses of this little frog for a hundred dollars, I think. Everybody loved it, and the great thing we found was that all around Asia other people had used the same stock art — you know, when you buy one of these libraries online. People would send us photos of a cafe in Cambodia and say this cafe in Cambodia has your logo, this is amazing, and we would say that it is really cool and ask if they would tweet it out for us. Then ,we found online some beanie babies, these cuddly little toy frogs that looked just like the logo. We bought loads of them and we gave them to senior executives from IT companies, investors, and people like that. We said: “When you're traveling around the world, please, will you take a picture of the frog in front of the Eiffel Tower, Golden Bridge, things like that?” And we would do this whole story about the frog.
Very quickly, it turned out to be a huge asset for us, because as you know, one of the biggest issues in Southeast Asia is that there are many different languages, but everyone likes frogs. Frogs are okay because nobody has bad stories or bad rap about frogs. Still to this day, if I go and speak at a conference in Vietnam or some other place and someone comes up to me, they always say: "Ah! Frog man, frog man!"
Andries De Vos: When you were running JFDI, what metrics were you keeping track of on a regular basis? What metric or metrics mattered most to you?
Hugh Mason: We realized very early on that an accelerator lives or dies on the quality of people that come into it and the quality of mentors that they have to support them growing. The key thing for us — and it's actually more important than the money and anything else that you put into startups — is that people often join the accelerator thinking how much money they're going to get out of it, but it's not about that at all. Once you've been through an accelerator, you realize it's dead easy to raise 25,000 or 50,000 or even 100,000 dollars if you know what you're doing. The key is to know what you're doing. That means you need to be surrounded by great people as your team members and you also need great mentors around you.
The key thing for us was to see if we could get mentors to come to us, create an ecosystem where mentors will come and share their wisdom for free. It was very clear to us that there was no way we could afford to pay people who were successful entrepreneurs at the market rate. We had to give them something else in return.
So, the very first thing we tested, our minimum viable prototype if you like, which we did after incorporating, was if we could create a mentoring program that will create a lot of interest from Silicon Valley in Southeast Asia. Can we get people to come from Silicon Valley, hang out in Southeast Asia and spend time with great entrepreneurs? We found that if we curated that experience and made it good for the mentors, they would come for free. We often asked to pay for the air fare, but these were usually executives and they didn't need it paid and they got their families coming with them anyway, so that was the first thing we tested — whether the mentors would come for free.
Second, the biggest metric after that was the number of people applying and the selection process. We had a rather interesting discussion on how you select people, teams for an accelerator, and I could spend all afternoon talking about that. One of the keys to it is that you need a reasonable volume of people that you're speaking with, and I think for most accelerators you probably need 15 or 20 times the number of startups that you are trying to recruit. If you haven't got that many applying, you're not going to get quality in the end. So, we ended up being more selective than Harvard or Yale, or Stanford: I think we ended up taking about 4-5% of the teams that applied, and that evolved over time. The fundamental metric for any accelerator that is recruiting startup teams from the wild is the quality of the teams that you're finding able to select.
Andries De Vos: These are fairly top-line metrics and lagging indicators. What were the signals you were looking for on a daily basis to say “right, we're on track here”?
Hugh Mason: There were several phases to it. When we were doing our very first batch of the startups here in Singapore, we didn't know whether the accelerator format was going to work in Asia. For example, a lot of Silicon Valley culture is very "rah-rah-rah", extraverts “crushing it" type of stuff, and that is not very Asian, to be perfectly honest. We weren't sure at all whether it was going to work, so our first leading indicator was if anyone cared about it, if people were engaged.
The very first thing we did was with the help of Singtel Innov8, who sponsored us to run a series of startup weekends around the region — at that time no one had run a startup weekend in Manila or Bangkok. With support from Singteland some local partners, we ran this first startup weekend in about six major cities around Southeast Asia. We were just astonished that people were so interested. In every venue, we only could take about 250 people and by the time we got 300-400 people trying to get to our startup weekends, we thought wow, the timing was right, the hunger was there for that. That was a huge leading indicator for us.
The next thing was that once we started evaluating teams that were applying, we realized we couldn't pick winners. Meng and I were involved in angel investing before and as anyone who's done that we know it's very, very hard to pick winners. You always believe that the companies you put cash into are going to succeed. In practice, the hit rates for pre-seed investment is one in ten, if you're lucky. It certainly has been like that for us. When you get it right, the returns are great, but when you get it wrong nine out of ten times, you have to think about what you are doing.
The selection process we used was a negative one. We put together a series of patterns for failure modes, things that we knew that startups get wrong, and we selected against negativity. We selected the least flawed teams and we looked for teams that were closely matched to us in the sense they had reasons to do their project in Southeast Asia, and we looked for reasons why that team is the best in the world to do this project. What is it about this team that gives them an insight?
In some situations when that didn't turn out right, it was quite funny. I remember these two guys, who were almost wearing suits, like they just walked out from the business school, and they pitched us this very MBA-style online shop of women's shoes. Meng sat there listening to them and nodding very wisely, and when the guys finished after about 10 minutes, he looked them right in the eye and asked: "When was the last time you actually bought women's shoes"? These guys had thought themselves into selling women's shoes online but they had no clue. By the way they were dressed you could tell they were like me, they would depend on a wife or a girlfriend to choose clothes for, let alone shoes. They clearly had no domain insight. Time and again, we found classic flaws like that.
One of the advantages of having hundreds of teams applying was that we got to see regular patterns, document those and then select against the negative patterns. That's how we did it.
Andries De Vos: Have you ever felt like you were pushing your business downhill as opposed to pushing your business uphill when every day's a struggle? Did you feel like you ever got to that stage where the business was just running by itself?
Hugh Mason: I think we never quite got that stage on all fronts. There were moments like in 2012, when we were completely overwhelmed by the interest. It was great, but it was extremely difficult to raise money for the accelerator, for startups. At that time, about 10 years ago, most of the wealthy families and high net-worth individuals in Southeast Asia were very familiar with bricks and mortar businesses, fast food and shopping malls, but the idea of investing in this software thing — what the hell is that?
If I invest in a shopping mall, I can get rent from the tenants every month. If I invest oil palm, I can milk the trees several times a year. But if I invest in a startup, I have to wait several years and then it might be worth a billion dollars or it might be worth nothing. Why would I do that? So, the whole idea of startups as an asset class was strange.
We actually had a very similar path in retrospect to a couple of other first-generation Asian accelerators — Pollenizer in Australia had a similar number of startups to us and then like us, found that willing investors, people who were willing to take a risk that early on, already gave what they were worth. Likewise, there were a couple of Indian accelerators that set up and did about 70-80 startups and then found it hard to sustain.
There were a few in the region: SparkLabs in Korea, again part of Techstars network that became a global accelerator network. They were able to keep raising money and are to this day successful in keeping the same model. But for us here in Singapore, we got to the situation like Pollenizer, when mainstream investors were saying to us: “Well, these guys gave you money 3 years ago, so where is the billion dollars?” It was like I gave you apple seeds last week, so where are my apples, buddy? I can understand that, because when you come from the background of investing in traditional ventures that start yielding very quickly, it's a very unfamiliar idea that you have to wait for revenue. So, we were right people in terms of the model in some ways. In some others, if we had deeper pockets, if we could go on a little longer, but I think we'd be able to double down on successful businesses and capture more value for what we created and that's just a function of timing in a marketplace, really.
Andries De Vos: At what time did the idea of doing a corporate startup come to you? At some point, you started pivoting toward that and doing programs for corporates.
Hugh Mason: By the time we got to the end of 2015, we had done about 7 batches of the accelerator, we deployed around 3 million dollars into 70 startups and we were quite exhausted. Also, there were loads and loads of copies of us appearing, which is a compliment. However, to be perfectly honest, we could see that many of them were set up by people who had zero startup experience — well-intentioned civil servants, academics at polytechnics. We just thought to ourselves that it was going to be so confusing for any startup founder. The valuations that startups are going to expect will go sky-high, and the whole accelerator scene in Singapore is going to get a bad rep because there will be loads of bad quality programs out there.
We thought we should quit while we were ahead, we had deployed the capital we raised. We had invested in around 70 companies. I think we would have liked ideally to have maybe 100-150, but we thought 70 was a reasonable enough sample size and we should have a couple of hits in there. That actually turned out to be the case.
Meanwhile, to answer your question, a completely unexpected thing that happened was that the corporates were banging on the door. For those of you listening who don't know Singapore, it's home to about 7,000 multinational corporations, and many of them face challenges in innovation, like corporations do everywhere. They came to us and said what we did was extraordinary, we were creating new businesses with revenue and doing it under quarter of a million dollars, why it took them 20 signatures at main board level and several million dollars to get a new business venture off the ground. They asked: “How can we work together?”
At the end of 2015, when we decided to stop the active acceleration process, Meng took part of the process that we developed internally and built a business called Legalese around a contract management system for startup documentation. I took interest in corporate innovation and for about 3-4 years tried to do corporate innovation here in Singapore.
Andries De Vos: You touched on the idea that it can be difficult for a corporate to build a venture or an accelerator. In particular you shared that ego is an aspect that can be challenging for corporate executives running a new venture function. Can you share some of the challenges you’ve faced with partnering with corporate venture builder?
Hugh Mason: In 2016, when I dived into the corporate space, we had 30-50 multinationals here in Singapore banging on the doors of JFDI and asking us to work with them. We had everybody from BOSCH to Whirlpool washing machines, insurance companies, all sorts of things. Very quickly, I came up with the same cultural clashes everybody meets when they try to bring startup thinking into a corporate environment. The major personal realization for me was why I hadn't become a management consultant 20-30 years earlier - it was a lifestyle choice.
The months went by and I was getting paid well for the work I did for corporations, but it wasn't enjoyable. It was like working through concrete. I started to reach out to people who were doing similar work worldwide. We realized together that everyone was meeting the same challenges. The best model I have come across to understand why those challenges occurred is called the three horizons of growth. There are many different representations of it, and the one I find most useful is that you imagine a graph. The bottom axis, from left to right, shows technology from yesterday's technology through today's technology through to future technology. It's kind of a time axis. On the vertical axis, you can imagine going from the bottom, there is stuff that we do today and markets we know up to the top being markets we've never even thought about exploring and business models we have never investigated. The vertical axis is about business model innovation, the horizontal axis is about technology.
Most people in most corporations are working with yesterday's technology and business models for customers they already know — that's how the company makes steady money. However, if you want to investigate the future, you need to push outside that bubble, you need to move into the adjacent areas of technology that's just coming on to market and you need to move into new business models and markets that you haven't explored.
You need to be mindful of horizon three, which is the weird stuff — disruptive future stuff.
Now, everything inside a corporation is designed to avoid making mistakes. One of the great experiences I had was working with BOSCH. We worked together for about 4 years and we used to have really honest discussions about the cultural differences between us. BOSCH and other corporates don't need a company like JFDI or any venture studios to do innovation in horizon 1. If you're doing stuff with your existing markets and business model and you're just applying for technology, it is innovation but it is the kind of stuff that cheap financial offices like doing — it's about reducing costs.
If you're doing innovation in horizon 2, it's the stuff that the Chief Executive likes to talk about: building on our strengths, adopting the latest technology that's already being used by somebody else, etc. What you don't want to be doing as a corporation is that weird stuff that people in R&D lab talk about. People like to wear t-shirts that say "I am a disruptive innovator", but you don't actually want to do that inside a corporation, because you're going to lose your job. It's a bit like rock stars and porn stars. We have porn stars to show us all the things we fantasize doing but don't actually dare to have a go at. The same way with rock stars, Jimi Hendrix had to die choking on his own vomit, but it was part of his destiny — I’m sorry, but if he had become old and boring, he wouldn't be Jimi Hendrix. The whole point of a rock star is that they do outrageous stuff. The whole point about disruptive innovator is that they are disruptive and they do new stuff with business model and technology that seems scary.
That's why someone like Elon Musk is sexy to the general public, that's why everybody sat in a cubicle wishes they were Elon Musk some days, and other days they look at their salary coming through the door every month and they think: “Do I really care that much”?
I've been very flippant with the way I describe that, but there is a huge cultural clash between that and what a corporation is set up to do. Steve Blank describes this very well: there are two phases of doing a business: the discovery phase when you're doing that horizon 3 stuff and trying to figure out the product's market fit, and once you've got that market fit, that's time to bring the MBAs in, bring the suits in and scale it up. For me, that's when the business becomes boring, but that's what businesses are very good and, and I'm glad that those businesses exist. I would rather have Boeing build the aircraft I'm flying than Elon Musk. Would you get in an aircraft that Musk designed? Probably not. You would if you were a person that decided to go into space, but the majority of people do not want to do that, to take that risk.
We have different kinds of people, structures, cultures. They're all good, it's not like one is better than the other. I do think it raises an interesting question, which is if you are a corporation and you need to avoid getting disruptive and you need to keep innovating for the future, how do you do innovation? What I think is that you need to create an innovation framework. It's no good sending all your staff on design thinking course and give them t-shirts saying "rah-rah-rah we're doing a hackathon", if they will come back to work on Monday and the boss goes: "Ooh, we've never done this before, sounds very risky, we can't do that." If there's no way to follow through on the idea, it's just going to die.
That is the problem. Corporations are fundamentally staffed with people — for very good reasons — who are trying to avoid making mistakes. I'm not saying startups set out to achieve mistakes, but if you're fearful of taking a risk, you won't ever get to the future. You'll just sit back and do what is comfortable. I'm very glad that there are companies there that focus on doing what we know and understand, and they do it very well. I don't want my bank taking massive risks with my money. I do want the fund manager, where I've put some of my money, I do want them to take risks, but I don't want the bank doing it.
Andries De Vos: Of course, there is a historical context, but with hindsight, were there things that could have made your life easier? Looking back now, what would you have done differently?
Hugh Mason: I've often asked myself if I was going to do this again, would I do it the same way, and the answer would be that the ecosystem is different now, very different. The mission of JFDI in 2010, when we were setting up, was first to create an ecosystem and second to get startups to investment readiness — to the point where they are investable. We had no specter focus, it was just B2C, B2B.
If I were doing that all over again, I probably would have a narrow focus on one sector where I have access to distribution, so I can promise the startups not just money but also their first customers.
I would build something much more like a venture studio, where we capture more of the value that was created because one of the things that was painful for anyone running an accelerator is that it's a bit like running a primary school: you recruit everybody that comes in with the best of hope, and startup founders are wonderful people. And sometimes you see them rushing towards an iceberg and you say guys, go left or go right, just don't go straight ahead, and they go right ahead.
Was there something that could have got us to a longer-term model? I think if we found a few more investors earlier, we could probably have kept going. Would we have gotten destroyed anyway by the fact that there were so many poor quality copies of what we created? Probably. I think what we did was the right thing at the right time. We created good returns for our investors and we were probably right to call an end to it when we did. If I was doing it over again, now it's a different environment and we know a lot more now about the process of running a venture studio and accelerator, so I think I would do it differently then.
End of Part 1