300: Tiang Lim Foo – SeedPlus, Venture Capital, and Southeast Asia

300: Tiang Lim Foo – SeedPlus, Venture Capital, and Southeast Asia

 

Podcast highlights:

  • [06:56] People in the region seem to speak highly of the work you guys do at SeedPlus. You seem to check all the boxes for the ideal startup founder most VCs look for. -- Never referred to self as an entrepreneur. What entrepreneurs do is way, way harder than what we do as VCs. Having been in venture capital for a few years, have a greater appreciation for the dangers of stereotyping. Great founders can come from anywhere. Biases can lead to dangerous thinking and missing out on great opportunities. Empathy is probably one of the hardest skills to acquire as a VC. You need to have empathy with founders. Of course we are investing for financial gain; but at the same time we want to help build businesses that are good for human beings. An example of a company focusing on empathy is Amazon. Jeff Bezos has always been customer-first, customer-centric. This has not changed over the years.
  • [14:53] When you're chatting with a founder, what do you look for? -- It's really about the team. At the seed stage there are a lot of unknowns. This means the founder and the team have a much bigger impact on overall outcome during this early period. We look for qualities like mental agility, understanding context, market fit, displays of leadership, and just like pure grit. It's a delicate balance. When you come across someone who has an opinion about how the world should work, even if it's not correct, this suggests it's possible to have a discussion around making ideas work. It's also relevant to consider the context in Asia. To have an opinion implies you're willing to go against the grain. Asia is more conformist than other cultures, and this is not always great for entrepreneurship.
  • [45:29] A new generation of talent is wondering how they can be part of the Asian Century. What advice might you give? -- There's no better way than just being here. You can read and watch as much as you want, but it's not as good as seeing things for yourself. Singapore is a great gateway into the rest of Asia. It's good for families and it's safe and efficient here in Singapore. Immersion and acquiring a language are also fantastic ways to get acquainted with the region.

Podcast notes:

  • [00:05] Welcome Tiang Lim Foo, Operating Partner at SeedPlus, to ATP Stories with host Graham D Brown.
  • [01:00] Can you give us a brief synopsis of yourself? -- Operating Partner at SeedPlus, a seed-based venture capital fund in Singapore. We closed our first fund in June, 2017. Primarily we invest in the broader Southeast Asia region, not too much in Japan, South Korea, and China.
  • [03:50] All of the members of SeedPlus who have been on our show seem very relaxed for VCs. You all seem pretty informal in your approach to venture capital. This is not how VCs tend to operate in Asia. Is this deliberate? -- Partially it's a reflection of who we are and where we came from. [Tiang] came to SeedPlus from Evernote, the note taking software company that started in Silicon Valley. Worked for them in Singapore from 2012-2015. At SeedPlus, we have backgrounds in tech companies. It informs our dress, our language, etc.
  • [06:56] People in the region seem to speak highly of the work you guys do at SeedPlus. You seem to check all the boxes for the ideal startup founder most VCs look for. -- Never referred to self as an entrepreneur. What entrepreneurs do is way, way harder than what we do as VCs. Having been in venture capital for a few years, have a greater appreciation for the dangers of stereotyping. Great founders can come from anywhere. Biases can lead to dangerous thinking and missing out on great opportunities. Empathy is probably one of the hardest skills to acquire as a VC. You need to have empathy with founders. Of course we are investing for financial gain; but at the same time we want to help build businesses that are good for human beings. An example of a company focusing on empathy is Amazon. Jeff Bezos has always been customer-first, customer-centric. This has not changed over the years.
  • [12:41] When you think of your role as a VC, do you take on board inspiration from people like Jeff Bezos? Do you read Tony Hsieh, for example? -- That book is on my never-ending to-read list. If you think about this from a game-theoretic perspective, venture capital is one of the few industries that reward long-term strategy. Venture is a multi-round game. You want to partner with founders with whom you can have a long relationship. Reputation compounds over time. Founders may come back after their idea germinates a bit and you find it's now a better fit for the fund.
  • [14:53] When you're chatting with a founder, what do you look for? -- It's really about the team. At the seed stage there are a lot of unknowns. This means the founder and the team have a much bigger impact on overall outcome during this early period. We look for qualities like mental agility, understanding context, market fit, displays of leadership, and just like pure grit. It's a delicate balance. When you come across someone who has an opinion about how the world should work, even if it's not correct, this suggests it's possible to have a discussion around making ideas work. It's also relevant to consider the context in Asia. To have an opinion implies you're willing to go against the grain. Asia is more conformist than other cultures, and this is not always great for entrepreneurship.
  • [19:18] When you look across Southeast Asia today, do you see these qualities coming through? -- In a very macro sense, yes. 3-5 years ago if you were starting a business in Singapore, it implied you were unemployed. These days starting a business is a career choice. Across the region there is more of a groundswell happening.
  • [24:22] What's happening at the macro level with China in Southeast Asia right now? -- Historically speaking there have been very deep networks and connections with mainland China. There is still an enormous growth potential inside China. However, now we're starting to see a shift towards expanding into Southeast Asia. This is a very natural extension for Chinese businesses. It's a pretty exciting time. For VCs there are a lot of opportunities as people and markets begin to come online.
  • [28:48] How can investors in Southeast Asia manage this "Chinese effect"? -- It's not obvious there are clear answers. At the seed stage of investing, you go back to first-principles: are we investing in good businesses?
  • [33:18] The period you spent at Evernote was quite an interesting time in your career. They are a company who have tried to keep their product simple even as it evolved. As an investor, how do you manage the temptation many businesses face of wanting to move in many different directions at once? -- This goes back to having empathy for users and consumers. Most users can't verbalize their needs well. Designers have to intimately know what problem they are solving for their users. At the end of the day, the CEO must make a decision and have confidence they're making the right decision on behalf of customers.
  • [41:43] When one looks at Southeast Asia, it's possible to see a competition developing between Amazon and Alibaba. Where do you think this will go? -- It's too early to say. Also, it's not clear Amazon sees it as a competition per se. It's not just about e-commerce selections. It's also about the ancillary services around the customer. This could be Amazon Prime media, storage, etc. Amazon is a company thinking 5 to 10 years ahead. You can't do this if you're defined by competition in the market.
  • [45:29] A new generation of talent is wondering how they can be part of the Asian Century. What advice might you give? -- There's no better way than just being here. You can read and watch as much as you want, but it's not as good as seeing things for yourself. Singapore is a great gateway into the rest of Asia. It's good for families and it's safe and efficient here in Singapore. Immersion and acquiring a language are also fantastic ways to get acquainted with the region.