At Tech in Asia we talk with venture capitalists all the time, but we seldom get the opportunity to learn more about their personal backgrounds and their day-to-day responsibilities as investors. Partly because we love chatting up VCs, and partly because it’s March (Women’s History Month in English-speaking countries, and International Women’s Day is on March 8), we spoke with some of Asia’s leading female investors to understand why they love what they do.
Rui Ma, venture partner at 500 Startups
I grew up in Silicon Valley. My parents were both engineers and I studied electrical engineering in college. I did tech finance pretty much right after college, and I’ve always been doing technology-related stuff throughout my career, with the exception of a brief stint in real estate. The first transaction that I closed was Skype’s sale to eBay, and I helped represent eBay.
I originally moved to Asia for personal reasons, but then I stayed because it was very interesting and dynamic. I’ve always wanted to do early stage investment, but I wasn’t quite sure what the right platform was.
I started off doing late stage M&A, and it was interesting but I knew I didn’t want to do it forever and ever. And then I did PE, late-stage growth equity investing. The deal frequency was really low, with only one or two deals a year. You don’t really have much impact on the company, and you spend a lot of time negotiating these really detailed financial terms. I wanted to be working in a stage where there was more possibility for companies to evolve.
I met Dave [McClure, founder of 500 Startups] two-and-a-half years ago and we talked for a while about what his plans for China were. I ended up joining his team – which sort of surprised me, because even though I knew I wanted to do early-stage investment, I didn’t think I would be working with quite so early stage companies.
My favorite thing about the job is that every day is different. Dave gives me a ton of autonomy. i get a lot of freedom and get to set my own goals. i do have to talk to the team and go over with them what I’ve planned, but then i have to go off and execute it. I think that’s also one of the challenges. You set your own goals, so if you can’t achieve them, well, who’s problem is that?
Another tough thing is that I didn’t realize how tough it would be when the companies you have have troubles.
I’ve had conversations when I know that the company isn’t going to go forward much longer. I sort of know when those discussions are coming when I receive a weirdly-worded email from a founder in my inbox. For example, one of the investments from a region I was covering died, and one of the co-founders, who was very young, came to me. I already knew that the company was liquidating but he didn’t know that I knew. and he found it extremely difficult to talk to me, because, you know, he was a first-time founder. He put almost two years into this company so it was hard for him to say to me, “Hey, I’m sorry, I can’t really do much except give you some money back.” And he was like close to tears. and we talked for about four hours. I feel like those things are tough for both the founder and the investor. but I’m getting better at it because i’m getting to see that the way the founder reacts in that situation can tell me whether or not I should invest in them again. If they did things honestly, fairly, and learned quickly, then that’s a good sign.
Right now I’m also working on developing an AngelList syndicate for female founders. It’s through 500 Startups, me, and a few other investors. We’re trying to raise $10 million to invest in about ten startups over the next year or so. The criteria is that they need to have at least one female founder, and the ownership needs to be at least 10 percent. Syndicates have been around for a while, but this will be the first female-focused one.
One of our goals for the syndicate is to help investors invest more easily. This helps the founders as well because then they can get a larger check from us. Number two is we also want to encourage people to support women founders. That’s why we focus on women-founder themed companies. Some of our top exits in the past have been headed up by female founders. Viki had a female founder and Wildfire had a female founder. We feel like our portfolio has about 20 to 25 percent female founders or co-founders. So we think it makes sense from both a social and business perspective.
(As told to Josh Horwitz)
Hannah Nguyen, associate at DMP
I’ve deeply appreciated Digital Media Partners (DMP) for giving me a chance to learn and grow tremendously in the last three and a half years. Since I don’t have years and years of experience in working in venture capital, when I first joined DMP I found myself feeling like a tiny fish from a river that just swam into the big ocean. It was extremely exciting as well as intimidating.
Joining DMP reminded me of my first day working as a research assistant for a mutual fund in San Francisco called Parnassus Investments. It was there that I first fell in love with the investment world. Everyone on the investment team came from elite universities and had years of experience in investment banking or portfolio management. I’ll never forget watching my colleagues juggle countless conference calls, manage extremely complicated excel models, and trade stocks from multi-screen Bloomberg terminals. I learned how to conduct research, identify investment targets, and make investment recommendations to firms. Witnessing the research and decision-making process was an eye-opening experience for me, and it led me to dream of a career in the investment field.
I graduated in the summer of 2008 from San Francisco State University and found myself caught in a job market where layoffs were occurring left and right. My hopes of finding a decent entry-level job in the midst of the US financial crisis completely vanished as soon as I learned of the bankruptcy at Lehman Brothers, where I had just finished a second-round interview. I returned to Vietnam and ended up working for a startup called Webtretho, an online community for women that had received funding from IDG Ventures Vietnam
Looking back, I’m so glad that I decided to join a startup as my first job out of college. It introduced me to the tech startup sector in Vietnam. I worked directly with the CEO for more than two years – two amazing years for a fresh graduate! I got to wear many different hats, from marketing, sales, and finance to helping the CEO with investor relations. That’s where I got to witness first-hand countless struggles of an early stage startup: convincing huge clients spend their first advertising dollars with us, the ongoing threat of losing talent; meeting monthly payroll for short months, fundraising for new projects, and keeping investors happy. Intuitively, I deeply understand how precious it is for a startup to work with an investor who can add true value.
When I joined DMP, those two years of working for a startup served as a great crash course in how to be a good VC. However, the transition from entrepreneur to investor was not all that easy. I had shift from maintaining a “detailed and operational” eye to taking on a bird’s eye view that balanced the interests of many stakeholders. After my entrepreneurship crash course, DMP taught me how to add value to any startup that reaches out to us for investment opportunities. In some cases, that may involve as little as connecting them to the right people. For our portfolio companies, the ‘value add’ takes on a whole new meaning. DMP requires its team members to acquire appropriate industry knowledge and networking skills in order to help portfolio firms with hiring, PR, business development, and fundraising. This makes my learning journey at DMP seem like I can never learn fast enough. I personally find my humble background created in me an intellectual humility. That humility, when mixed with the challenge of this job, has made my journey as an investor all the more exciting.
(As told to Josh Horwitz)
Chiah Li Ong, partner at JFDI
I got into the investment world by chance, really. I attended a ‘pitch to a venture capitalist’ event where I met Douglas Abrams, the founder and CEO of Expara. We chatted further and he asked, why don’t you join me? I was given a lot of leeway, and got to learn how funds were set up and how money is raised from limited partners.
At JFDI, my role kind of changes depending on where I’m needed. I advise our bootcamp teams on what investors are seeking, and help them think about who might be investors who could be interested in their product. It’s my job to know roughly where the follow-on funding would come from to give teams a longer runway. After demo days, I will help startups with pitching to investors. The accelerator business is all relationship-based.
I’m also heavily involved in maintaining relationships with JFDI alumni. In order for an accelerator to work successfully, you need a pool of great people who have gone through the process, succeeded, and are able to come back and fund the system. If you don’t get the loop going, the network effects will be weak.
My role at JFDI is quite varied. I help on the finance side and fundraising for JFDI. I offer emotional support to our teams. Accelerators aren’t just about teaching the lean startup methodology. We work with people, and they have emotional issues to deal with. They can get quite down, especially after talking to customers and realizing they don’t want their product.
I won’t say there’s an area I particularly like doing more than others. What matters is as long as what I do triggers some kind of positive feedback, be it initiating conversations or making introductions to someone who’s good at something. As long as something positive happens, I’ll be super happy.
Our main challenge at JFDI is getting to financial sustainability. It’s something the entire Global Accelerator Network – which we’re a part of – is trying to crack. We’re trying out many things, be it operating a co-working space, running lean startup workshops, and so on.
We can’t just rely on fundraising, because it’s actually not as easy for an accelerator to raise money compared to a startup. It’s not easy for investment firms in general to raise money. Limited partners are often not familiar with the accelerator model. We’re going after something intangible, and there’s nothing at the beginning.
Fortunately we now have a track record to make things easier. There are stats we can show. Our pilot batch is 18 months old, and many of them has raised money. SingTel has been kind enough to sponsor our pioneer batch, which paved the way for us.
(As told to Terence Lee)
Click here to read Part I of this series… Stay tuned for Part III!