Above: John Lim, ARA Asset Management (photo credit: DealStreetAsia)
We packed our bags and headed to clean and pristine Singapore to meet with and hear from leading regional investors and founders at the DealstreetAsia™ PE-VC Summit 2019. Arriving at the conference, we quickly noticed that we were in a very select minority of investors from Myanmar – an indication of the country’s early frontier status. People were curious about Myanmar and excited to hear about our work and our incredible portfolio companies. Over copious coffees and one or two beers, we shared, listened and learnt. This short post summarises some of the key insights from the presentations, conversations and gentle persuasions of the event. Underlying each of the following points are three core values we observed from the summit: know your customers and put them first, work hard and smart, and lastly, find an investor you can build a relationship with.
Lesson 1: Don’t Try to Make Money
One thing we weren’t necessarily expecting to hear at an event where the total assets under management of all parties was over $100bn was “don’t try to make money”. However, founder and CEO of Deskera, Shashank Dixit told a roomful of investors and founders to focus on building great companies that serve customers and let the money follow. We see value in this sentiment: startups need to deliver outstanding value to their customers - with scaleable unit economics - and if they succeed then exponential growth will happen. Once your product or service is too good to be without, you’re on set on a course for scale; so long as you scale with the right unit economics, the riches will come. Focussing on making money, on the other hand, isn’t putting your customer first and introduces short-termism that could prevent you from building something great. Indeed, EME’s permanent capital approach (rather than a fund with an exit deadline), means that we can work with entrepreneurs to build great companies and take a long-term view with founders.
Lesson 2: The Importance of Trust
One of our favourite one-on-one on-stage discussions was the interview with John Lim. Son of a schoolteacher, John Lim is the cofounder of ARA Asset Management which has $58 billion in assets under management. Lim spoke about how crucial trust was in long-term business relationships, citing that he had a long-term multi-billion-dollar arrangement based purely on a handshake. This introduces an interesting thought experiment: would you trust your partner to honour the agreement purely on a handshake? Often the answer is “no”, which is why we have contracts and may be fine for short-term transactions. When it comes to investing, though, we want to be able to treat contracts as a formality, understanding that there is an enduring trust between us and those we invest in. This approach forces transparency, accountability and integrity on all parties, which can only be a good thing. Keep this in mind next time you review a term sheet.
Lesson 3: 007, not James Bond
China’s growth has been built in part upon the 996 model: people working diligently from 9am until 9pm, six days a week. This might feel quite gruelling for the employed, but for founders John Lim says they should be following the 007 model. 007, in case you haven’t worked it out yet, is 12am-12am, seven days a week (i.e. 24/7). Of course, even Elon Musk sleeps (a little), but the sentiment is that to build something great, founders must commit and put in the work. In fact, when asked about the secret sauce for founders, Lim offered: there’s no secret sauce for startups or CEOs. They must be passionate, know their stuff, be patient and work hard. He added: “Don’t open a restaurant because you love food. If you want to start a restaurant, work in one, understand the customers, the supply chain and the problems; after a couple of years, only then might you be ready.”
Lesson 4: Vision Without Execution is Hallucination
Southeast Asia is creating more and more unicorns (startups valued >$1bn), but these companies are coming from great execution more than they are fresh innovation. Given that SEA is quickly developing, there is significant scope to take models born in Silicon Valley or elsewhere and transplant them into these markets. Investors and founders at the event agreed: SEA is an execution game. This is as true in Myanmar as anywhere else and perhaps even more so given the country’s only very recent emergence from military rule. In Myanmar, there are plenty of opportunities to disrupt traditional business with nimble ideas from other markets. How to execute? This requires excellent founders who can deliver on their strategies, who can roll up their sleeves and make things happen, who have a drive and determination to ensure dreams become reality. Decisions might happen in the boardroom, but the real work takes place on the ground.
Lesson 5: The days of investing and taking a backseat are over
Investing in startups is becoming increasingly competitive. With a challenging global economy and more funds available for a greater array of startups, investors are reflecting on the role they play. Across many conversations and panels, a theme emerged that simply betting on a founder and walking away, hoping they succeed, is a dying strategy. Founders expect their investors to become partners, not just cheque books. In Myanmar, there is less capital than most markets in SEA but this doesn’t mean founders need to be happy just accepting cash. In fact, EME’s model is based on investing capital and significant time into our portfolio companies – helping them to overcome their challenges and find a pathway to scale.
Agree, disagree or have additional lessons to share? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!