The Innovation Blind Spot – Why we back the wrong ideas and what to do about it
By Ross Baird
In recent years, Ross Baird has built quite the reputation for himself. Entrepreneur, investor and now author. In 2009 Baird founded Village Capital, a VC with a unique peer-selection approach, and has since worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs and investors in more than fifty countries, including EME in Myanmar.
The hypothesis of his book is that innovation today suffers from three major blind spots – blind spots that negatively affect how we do business, innovate and invest. The first blind spots has to do with how we, as investors, choose new ideas; the second with where we find new ideas; and the third with why – why we invest in new ideas to begin with. These blind spots result in investors overlooking untapped companies, untapped markets and untapped industries.
How we invest: One size does not fit all.
Innovation breaks moulds, it doesn’t fit them. Baird urges investors to look beyond traditional ways of identifying and selecting startups. Investors rarely make decisions about their next investment at a pitch event. Let’s face it, people who are looking for money are going to tell the people with money what they want to hear, and most investors know that. And not all great founders are pitch wizards. This is one reason EME uses an adaptation of Village Capital’s VIRAL scorecard (see our recent blog) to give founder and investor the chance to have an in-depth discussion. Also, while many VCs prefer to hear about companies through their networks and are closed off to enquiry, our door is open and we’re very happy to meet and discuss with founders who reach out to us.
Baird pushes investors to consider their ecosystem. Myanmar isn’t Silicon Valley. Spray and pray (making lots of investments, hoping one or two make it big) doesn’t fit the same metrics here as there and expecting entrepreneurs to model themselves on Brian Chesky (Airbnb CEO) is pretty pointless. The innate diversity of Myanmar forces us to think outside the box, playing to the strengths and uniqueness of individuals, companies and new ideas. True innovation, not copy-paste from outside, takes time and committed investors.
Where we invest: looking beyond (a) location.
Fun fact: in US, more than 75% of startup investments flows to only three States – California, New York and Massachusetts – the Big Three. Baird points out that, similar to patterns known from real estate, market frenzies over specific locations can cause prices to rise rapidly, and force investors to pay a premium, for no other apparent reason than location. Does this lead to a location price premium for startups? The Myanmar Times recently wrote that Myanmar had a burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem. But, while the ecosystem is certainly developing, it’s a Yangon phenomenon, not Myanmar-wide. Is Myanmar on the path of building a Big One like the US has a Big Three? The laws of supply and demand show us that if demand outgrows supply, prices increase, allowing startups to demand a higher price for equity. On the other hand, if there are a lot of startups looking for funding and the demand is limited, prices decrease.
As rational investors, one of the things we fear the most is something called, “irrational exuberance.” Irrational exuberance is, simply put, a state of mania. In the (stock) market, it's when investors are so confident that the price of an asset will keep going up, that they lose sight of its underlying value. Investors egg each other on and greedy for profits overlook deteriorating economic fundamentals. Baird urges us to search out opportunities where others are not looking, targeting industries ripe for disruption, and where irrational behaviour is nowhere to be seen. Mark Twain summed this up nicely by saying, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect”.
Why we invest: between money and meaning.
Baird’s investment philosophy is thoroughly rooted in the impact investment tradition, and he is very much a one-pocket thinker. One-pocket thinking recognises that what’s good for society and what’s good for business does not have to be mutually exclusive. The book offers valuable insights into the rise of impact investing, mapping out its development from the start of the micro finance movement to legendary Ben & Jerry’s, and the growing field of large international venture funds devoted to one-pocket thinking. EME is not an impact investor per se, but we do seek out investments that have positive impact. We are positioned in the intersection between money and meaning, strongly committed to Myanmar’s sustainable development.
The book is riddled with interesting statistics, and thought-provoking narratives. Did you know that 50 percent of the Fortune 500 in 2000 were no longer on the list 15 years later? And that female founders are more likely to succeed than male founders? Baird is articulate and knowledgeable which makes a strong foundation for a stimulating read. This is a book well worth reading and will perhaps illuminate your very own blind spots.
We hear hundreds of pitches a year and we’ve realized there are only two elements you really need: a story, and numbers.
People love stories. They provide meaning to an otherwise disordered and chaotic world. As celebrated author Yuval Harari argues in Sapiens, human civilization developed due to the creation of ‘shared myths’ - stories that allowed large group of humans to cooperate under the banner of a common tribe, religion or civilization. As investors, we’re looking to see if you can tell us a compelling vision for how you want the world to be. If you can convince us, then you can likely convince your future customers and employees about your idea too. Steve Jobs reputedly had such an ability to persuade people that colleagues described it as a ‘reality distortion field’. It’s no coincidence therefore that Magic Leap, a company making next generation augmented-reality hardware, managed to raise billions of dollars before ever releasing a product or making a cent.
On the other hand, numbers are super important too. Nobody is going to argue with 10-20% month-on-month growth, and we guarantee that all investors will salivate over a hockeystick- shaped revenue chart, particularly if it stretches back more than 6-12 months. Numbers (particularly revenue, transactions and active users, although the important metric will vary somewhat by industry) prove that you have convinced some people, somewhere out there, to spend some time or money on your product. This means that you are creating value and it’s a necessary condition for a successful idea. Buffer is a good example of a simple idea (social media scheduled posting) with great traction and execution. In this case, the founders managed to tell a compelling story based around how quickly they were growing. Ideally, your numbers and your story back each other up.
A word of caution however - don’t try to fake the numbers, and don’t pump up growth artificially by spending huge amounts on marketing. It doesn’t take much business savvy to sell a $10 product for $1, although your numbers will look great for a little while. While these growth-at-all-cost strategies may work for the big American and Chinese startup ecosystems (think of the huge amounts spent on ride hailing and food delivery promotions), they take a huge amount of investor capital and have a very high failure rate. In emerging markets, investors are generally more cautious and want evidence that you are actually creating sustainable value for your users.
Check out this excellent gallery from Airtable contains historical examples of pitch decks from successful companies. We particularly liked WeWork, Buzzfeed and Youtube. In these pitch decks, you can just smell the potential sizzling. There’s an energy to them, generated by the combination of compelling stories and early growth that foreshadows their successes to come.
All standard pitch deck templates contain a similar set of elements: Problem, Solution, Market, Traction, Team etc. We think these are important, and you should definitely have these elements (check here for our favourite guide ). But more than that, spend time on coming up with a good story. Then generate the numbers to back it up. That’s all there is to it, really.
Evaluating early-stage startups as an investor is hard. Giving constructive feedback is even harder, at least if you want to say more than ‘Cool idea’ or ‘You need more traction’. That’s why at EME we use a tool called the VIRAL Scorecard, originally developed by the folks at Village Capital, to be more rigorous in our conversations with startups.
Before we dive into how it works, it’s worth emphasizing that this is a discussion tool, not an objective, quantitative measurement of a company’s worth. Data scientists out there may wish it was possible to measure a couple of key indicators, feed them into a model and predict which companies will succeed, but that’s not how early-stage companies work. JFDI, an early-stage VC in Southeast Asia tried to do just that with their Frog Score index, but abandoned it after finding zero correlation between how highly a company scored on their index and how well the company did later on. Instead, the VIRAL Scorecard tries to create a framework for a structured discussion about each aspect of a business.
The VIRAL Scorecard describes a number of dimensions of a business including Team, Product, Market etc. Each dimension has 10 stages, with criteria for each stage. Let’s take a look at the first couple of stages in the Product dimension:
The scores are cumulative, so if you meet the criteria for stage 4, you should also meet all the previous criteria. It’s important to note that the criteria are somewhat subjective - what is the difference between ‘low-fidelity prototype’, ‘working prototype’ and ‘fully functional prototype’ for example?
Here’s how we use the tool when we talk to a startup:
In the meeting, we go through each component of the VIRAL Scorecard, first asking the startup to share their score and reasoning. Then we’ll share our score, and ask follow-up questions. If the scores are similar, great, we’re on the same page. If the scores are very different, that tells us one of two things:
EME and the startup has access to different information: As investors, we will know less about the business than the founders, and our scores will reflect that. At an early stage, we probably won’t have seen detailed financial projections or customer feedback. Conversely, sometimes we will know more about an industry and what the competition is doing than the startup. If this is the case, we’ll have a discussion and often revise our scores.
EME and the startup have different understandings of the fundamentals of the business: Sometimes startups will try to score themselves as high as possible, in the hope that this will make the company seem more attractive. It’s a reasonable approach when faced with a scorecard, but often has the reverse effect. We want to companies to be aware of their limitations and current state. We’re less interested in the final score and more in constructive dialogue. In this meeting, we’re really trying to get a sense of how the founders think, and how we could work together. It’s a cliche that venture capital investors invest in people rather than companies, but that’s particularly true for early stage startups, which could be several pivots away from their eventual model. This conversation is potentially the beginning of a long-term relationship between the investor and the start-up, and like all relationships, good communication and shared values are essential.
These conversations are good for digging deeper into the fundamentals of the business, and often reveal things that we hadn’t even thought of asking about. The VIRAL Scorecard is also helpful in providing concrete points for feedback. Instead of saying things like “You’re too early-stage”, we can say “We’re still unsure about your business model, and we’d like to see some more work done on your unit economics”.
We invariably learn a lot from these conversations, and we think they are useful for startups too. At the end of the day, the final score doesn’t really matter - what matters is the quality of the discussion, and the shared understanding that has been created.
One of EME’s favourite taxi conversations is discussing what startup ideas could work in Myanmar. As investors, we meet with many startups and ecosystem players and have a birds-eye view of what is happening (and not happening) in the startup world. In this post, we’ll be sharing some of the business opportunities we see in the market that we’d love somebody to take a crack at.
In our previous post on the Startup Idea Matrix, we talked about how startups succeed by trying out new strategies in new industries. In Myanmar, there are many tried-and-tested startup strategies from abroad which haven’t been implemented here yet. In particular, we see a lot of opportunity in subscription-based models, which are inherently more sustainable than transaction-based models. Mobile payments players like Wave and OKDollar are beginning to find traction, and startups should capitalize on the emerging opportunity for frictionless digital payments.
As a disclaimer, each of our proposed ideas would require a lot of additional market research, brainstorming, product testing etc, and success is definitely not guaranteed. Yet that’s what makes them worth trying! Without further ado, our top startup ideas are:
EME Myanmar has invested an undisclosed amount in local call center Lan Thit Masterpiece Limited (LML), marking EME’s fourth investment to date.
La Woon Yan (Senior Investment Analyst at EME Myanmar) with Hpauje Kai Hkawng (CEO at LML)
LML offers a range of outsourcing services, including inbound and outbound customer service, sales, data entry and ground marketing. The company started operations in May 2018, and already serves several large multinational clients with significant customer bases.
LML draws on the support and expertise of its founding investors: Masterpiece Group, a large Japanese outsourcing company, and Bagan Innovation Technology, a local tech giant famous for its keyboards and e-book store. The company is based in MICT Park and headed by Hpauje Kai Hkawng, a Myanmar national who ran one of Masterpiece Group’s call centers in Japan for 9 years.
EME’s Investment Director Hitoshi Ikeya commented, “The time is right for a new call center in Myanmar. Companies are spending more on customer support as competition heats up, and consumers want better service. While hiring entry-level staff to handle customer service is cheap, LML offers a robust solution that saves money over the long term through better reporting, reduced overheads and fewer complaints.”
EME will provide LML with sales training, mentorship and introductions as part of its active investment philosophy.
EME’s Q&A with Hpauje Kai Hkawng (CEO of LML)
What kinds of services does LML offer to companies?
LML provides business process outsourcing, focusing on call center services, alongside market research, customer surveys, ground marketing, and social media management.
Why should companies choose to outsource their customer service and sales to LML?
It can be difficult for companies to build good customer service teams in-house, and knowledge is often lost when employees leave the company. By using LML, companies can focus solely on their main business, without worrying about customer service. As a specialist in customer service, LML knows customers' requirements better, listens effectively and can analyze the customer trend based on customers' feedback.
How will EME help LML to grow?
EME will help with general market awareness and economic analysis, so that LML knows which industries to target for potential clients. In addition, EME will help oversee the sales process, providing connections to international business. and potential clients.
What is your vision for LML in the next 5 years?
We aim to be the leading call center in Myanmar, known for our quality guaranteed customer service. We want to fill 200 seats, and provide high living standards for our employees.
How will LML change the customer service / outsourcing landscape in Myanmar?
Currently call centers in Myanmar are mostly one-way; they don’t prioritize listening to customers. LML will put the customer first, making sure that customers always receive friendly and trustworthy service.
About Masterpiece Group
Masterpiece Group, Inc., originally established in Japan, has over 25 years experience in BPO services. Since 2000, they have expanded throughout China and Southeast Asia; totalling 12 operating centers across 7 countries, supporting 10 languages and over 200 clients worldwide. They focus on the development of specialized BPO services in Asia centered on the world’s major languages: English, Chinese and Spanish.
Fast-growing startups have a lot to think about, survival being top of the list. Yet in the long term, the way a startup manages people is absolutely crucial for success. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Creating a productive and healthy work environment where employees are empowered is the difference between an average and a great company.
From the traditional ‘Human Resources’ to the trendy ‘People Operations’, there have been many approaches to the art of managing people. Yet they all encompass the same basic elements, summarized as follows:
Startups change quickly, and HR is often slow to adapt. A rule of thumb is that for every tripling in headcount, the internal systems of a company need to change. A one-person startup is very different from a three-person startup, and a ten-person startup is yet again different. The goal is to have a balance between structure and flexibility - too many documents, forms and policies and everyone gets bogged down in bureaucracy - too few, and nobody knows what is going on.
With all that said, here are some beginner steps to get you started on your HR journey:
We’ve also curated a list of resources that EME has used internally to learn about HR. Note that some of the policies and regulations mentioned in the resources may only apply to specific countries; it’s always worth studying employment law in the country you operate in.
From HR to People Ops: When and Why To Start a People Team
Matt Viner (Investment Manager at EME) with Loring Harkness (CEO of Mote Poh) showcasing the Mote Poh booklets
We’re excited to announce our lead investment in the seed round of Mote Poh, a Yangon-based employee-benefits-as-a-service startup for Myanmar companies, together with Nest Tech of Vietnam.
Founded in May 2018 by serial entrepreneur Loring Harkness, Mote Poh has grown quickly and now serves over 60 clients, including Yoma Strategic Holdings and MyJobs.com.mm. The company’s mission is to help companies ‘surprise and delight’ their employees through an exclusive rewards book that can stretch employees’ paychecks by hundreds of dollars a month.
As an investment firm, we’ve seen high employee churn rates across many industries in Myanmar, and it’s exciting to see Mote Poh tackling the problem head-on. We expect to help Mote Poh grow by consulting on technology and finance, as well as helping them partner with our mentors and companies in our network.
Currently based out of the Phandeeyar coworking space in downtown Yangon, Mote Poh is developing a mobile app, and expanding to other types of loyalty programs. It seeks to transform the HR industry by partnering with companies to recognise and reward employees.
EME's Q&A with Loring Harkness, CEO of Mote Poh
How did you come up with the idea for Mote Poh?
Mote Poh is a localised version of employee benefits programs that leading companies in Singapore, the United States and other countries have been using for decades.
Many companies in Myanmar provide employees with limited compensation packages: salary, personal income tax, social security contributions, and occasional ad hoc benefits like team dinners. At the same time, many companies have difficulty recruiting, recognising and rewarding, and retaining top talent.
I spoke to dozens of company owners, CEOs and HR Managers. I asked them why they didn't provide better benefits to their employees. Their answers were nearly all the same: they fear that implementing an employee benefits program will be time consuming and expensive - and that employees wouldn't appreciate it.
So I created Mote Poh - a small book full of 100% FREE items and exclusive discounts at favourite shops, restaurants and activities across Myanmar - to help companies surprise and delight their employees every month. Mote Poh makes employee benefits easy - just great benefits employees love, with no hassle and no big price tag.
What impact does Mote Poh create for companies and users?
Employees love Mote Poh because the benefits top up their salaries by MMK 50,000 - 100,000 (USD $30 - $60) every month and also help them to discover new events, shops, restaurants and experiences. Mote Poh has benefits for every taste and budget - there really is something for everyone. It’s so much fun to watch employees get their Mote Poh books, flip through all the free and deeply discounted items, and start exclaiming "Thwar meh!" ("Let's go there!”) or "Sar chin dae!" ("I want to eat it!").
Companies also love Mote Poh because it's an effective tool to surprise and delight employees - which makes it easier and cheaper to recruit, recognise and reward, and retain staff. Leading companies know that they need to offer employees a range of benefits to stay competitive and build the best teams. But they can't do it alone - they need partners like Mote Poh who can do the hard work of creating and servicing benefits.
Why did you select EME and Nest Tech as investors?
EME and Nest Tech aren't your typical "spray and pray" early stage investors. Both firms invest in just a few startups per year, and then leverage their experience, skills and connections to help startups like Mote Poh grow in the years ahead. EME will be providing us with mentoring in financial modelling and data analytics, as well as making some valuable introductions. Nest Tech is seconding us their tech lead to help us build our upcoming mobile app and create our digital strategy. These investors share our vision for exponential growth and offer support to help us reach it.
What is your vision for Mote Poh in the next 5 years? How will Mote Poh help change the HR landscape in Myanmar?
Mote Poh is currently helping companies surprise and delight their employees every month. In the years ahead, I see us partnering with leading employers to help them build truly inspiring places to work - which promote health, happiness and productivity - and then recognise and reward employees for great performance.
This is the first in a series of startup guides that EME will be publishing on key business skills for startups.
Marketing - the process of making the customer journey clear and accessible - is perhaps the most important challenge an early-stage company needs to solve. As legendary management theorist Peter Drucker said,
Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two— and only two— basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.
We have seen many startups focusing more on product than customers, and expecting the business to grow itself. While this might work in some close-knit or cutting-edge industries, most startups need to develop and master this skill if they want to scale. This is particularly true in Myanmar, where large parts of the population are coming online for the first time.
Successful marketing isn’t just about spending money to boost Facebook posts. It’s about defining and executing a comprehensive plan to engage customers across different platforms over time. The chart from Marketing MO below shows just how many business areas are related to marketing, from pricing strategy to design, social media, CRM systems and sales management.
Companies that execute a successful marketing strategy can become global stars, almost overnight. For example, ONE Championship, an Asian sports media company founded in 2011, has become one of the biggest destinations for mixed martial arts (MMA) fans worldwide. By combining savvy social media use with high-quality live events and exclusive relationships with local stars, ONE Championship has quickly built a loyal fan base and enduring reputation - read this Forbes article for more of their story.
While all this may seem like a lot to tackle, here are a few key steps to get started on your marketing journey:
We’ve also curated the following set of resources that the EME team has personally used to learn about marketing. As with anything worthwhile, some of these resources require significant time and energy. Also note that some of the content is not free, although we will provide access for EME’s portfolio companies. Books are available from the EME Library - please ask for more.
Introduction to Digital Marketing
Strategic Marketing for the SME
Digital Marketing for Dummies
Facebook Ads & Facebook Marketing MASTERY 2019
Why do startups exist? Aside from satisfying the financial or social aspirations of the founders, they play a crucial role in the wider economy. Startups innovate, by running semi-scientific experiments to test the effect of new strategies and technologies on problems in the real world. They figure out the right combination of incentives, rules and actors to generate economically valuable activity, and there’s an incredible illustration of this by Eric Stromberg on Medium called the Startup Idea Matrix.
In this chart, rows are markets and columns are strategies. Cells contain examples of leading companies that have successfully applied the strategy to the market. For example in the ‘User Generated Content’ column, we have the following market examples:
In the ‘Shopping’ row, we have the following strategy examples:
What’s fascinating about the chart is just how much of it is empty. Cells could be empty because that strategy/market combination hasn’t been tried before, or more likely, it hasn’t worked (yet). Note that over 90% of startups fail within 5 years, an incredibly high failure rate which is justified by the huge potential reward for figuring out the right strategy-market combination. Also note that this matrix can and will change over time, as new technologies are invented. For example, the smartphone brought about a wave of new companies and apps that all sought to exploit the new opportunities created by mobile internet-connected devices. Only a small number actually figured out a winning strategy on a global scale - Uber for transportation (in some places), Whatsapp for messaging, Strava for social fitness etc.
Even with such terrible odds, systematic experimentation with new strategies and technologies should be the goal of every startup ecosystem, because this produces the economy of tomorrow. We often talk about obliquely about this idea as a venture capital firm, saying “Someone should create a startup to solve X problem in that industry. It’s going to happen sooner or later.” Startups often refer to it when they say they are the “Uber for X”, meaning they are testing the strategy of Uber (on-demand, location-based) on a different market or industry, thereby solving a new problem.
Due to barriers of infrastructure and language, a miniature version of this idea matrix could be made for almost every country. There is plenty of low-hanging fruit in Myanmar in terms of proven business models that have worked overseas, and in a future post, we’ll be sharing our top startup ideas that we think could work in Myanmar. We don’t guarantee the success of any of these ideas, but we’d love to chat to anyone attempting them. Who knows, they might just become Myanmar’s first unicorn.
Fundraising for an early-stage startup is hard. Entrepreneurs spend lots of time crafting their message, making decks, networking, pitching and responding to requests for further information, all the while building a product and growing a team. And after several months of hard work, entrepreneurs may end up with nothing for all that effort.
On the other side, investing in early-stage startups is also hard. Investors meet hundreds of startups per year, and only a small fraction of them will be alive in 5 years. There is little data and lots of uncertainty, and because VCs have investors too, they look for ways to minimize risk and maximize reward.
This combination of incentives often leads to a dysfunctional system, where startups and investors both play shotgun, entering into as many conversations as possible in the hopes that one may succeed. Investors may string startups along for many months without making clear decisions, while startups may start fundraising before they are prepared and ready.
The main divide to bridge therefore becomes one of communication and expectations. In this light, we have decided to publish our refreshed pipeline process, which aims to be as transparent and productive as possible. By highlighting all the stages and requirements, as well as the decision points, we hope to contribute some clarity on VC investment (or at least, our approach to VC investment).
As can be seen from the chart, the process is reasonably complex - the minimum time for an investment is 3 months, although realistically it can take up to 6 or 8 months. There are also five major decision points, with increasing levels of certainty in later stages of the process. Note that this investment process isn’t for everyone - startups select investors just as much as investors select startups, and if some are put off by the complexity, that’s a good indication that a future relationship wouldn’t have worked out. That said, at all times we take our role in the startup ecosystem seriously and will always coach good startups through the process and provide feedback if and when we stop the process.
Taking on institutional capital is a big commitment, but we hope our pipeline process is a positive first engagement, and a taste of the value we can bring to our portfolio companies. We are thorough in our selection just as we’re thorough in the support and mentorship we provide our portfolio. Receiving investment from EME is not the end of a process, but the start of a journey of support, guidance and collaboration that is 100% directed at scaling great startups.