Return to site

Anna Haotanto: Founder Ordeals, Failure Stigma & Financial Security

· Podcast Episodes,Female Founders,Venture Capitalist,Failure Stigma,Financial Security

I think there's a lot of clarification about the success stories like Elon Musk, Jack Ma, Jeff Bezos, Zuckerberg, all these people who gave up a lot or dropped out of school, and suffered, and they attained this unattainable riches.  I think people don't talk about failures enough, especially in Asia, you're not supposed to say how much you failed, or how you failed because it's such a disgrace. I totally disagree with that because if you don't talk about failures other people will never learn, they will make the same mistakes all over again, and again. Because the truth is, most of us, we make the same mistakes, we face the same obstacles - Anna Haotanto

Anna Haotanto is the Partner & COO of ABZD Capital and the CMO of Gourmet Food Holdings, an investment firm focusing on opportunities in the global F&B industry. She is also the founder (former CEO) of The New Savvy – Asia’s leading financial, investments and career platform for women. 

Anna is part of the founding committee of the Singapore FinTech Association and was in charge of the Women In FinTech and Partnership Committee. Anna is the President of the Singapore Management University Women Alumni. Anna is also part of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry Career Women’s Group executive committee. Anna invests and sits on the board of a few startups.

Anna’s story is featured on Millionaire Minds on Channel NewsAsia. She hosts TV shows and events, namely for Channel NewsAsia’s “The Millennial Investor” and “Challenge Tomorrow”, a FinTech documentary.

Anna was awarded “Her Times Youth Award” at the Rising50 Women Empowerment Gala, organised by the Indonesian Embassy of Singapore. The award was presented by His Excellency Ngurah Swajaya. She was also awarded Founder of the Year for ASEAN Rice Bowl Startup Awards. She was also awarded the Women Empowerment Award by the Asian Business & Social Forum.

Anna has been awarded LinkedIn Power Profiles for founders (2018, 2017), Tatler Gen T, The Peak’s Trailblazers under 40 and a nominee for the Women of The Future award by Aviva. She was nominated and selected for FORTUNE Most Powerful Women conference in 2016 (Asia) and 2015 (San Francisco, Next Gen). Anna is on the panel for Singapore Computer Society for Best Tech Company to work for and Digital Proficiency Program. 

Anna was awarded Top Student (Salutatorian) for UOB-SMU Private Banking course. She completed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) FinTech course. Anna spearheaded and founded the Women Alumni group at Singapore Management University.

She graduated from Singapore Management University (Finance and Quantitative Finance), Hwa Chong Junior College. She held leadership roles – she was the founding member and Vice-President of the Quantitive Finance club, the Soccer Captain and the Vice-President of the Dance Society.

This episode is produced by Kyle Ong.

Jeremy Au (00:00:00): 

Hi, Anna, welcome to the show. 

Anna Haotanto (00:00:02):Hi, Jeremy, thank you for having me. 

Jeremy Au (00:00:04):Well, I'm really excited to see you as a female founder, and operator, and someone who is just so determined to make things work in Southeast Asia, and I'm excited to share your story. 

Anna Haotanto (00:00:16):I'm also very excited to be here, considering that many times that we have to reschedule this because of COVID, so thank you. 

Jeremy Au (00:00:27):Anna, could you share a little bit about yourself professionally? 

Anna Haotanto (00:00:30): 

I'm currently the partner and the COO at ABZD Capital, and Gourmet Food Holdings. We are actually an investment firm focusing on opportunities in the F and B industry. What we do is we actually look for promising brands, and we will invest in them and actually grow them to scale them globally. I also found The New Savvy, which is Asia's leading financial investments and career platform for women. Our mission was to actually empower women to achieve financial happiness, and to ensure that financial literacy is increased in Asia. I was also the part of founding committee for Singapore FinTech Association, and I was in-charge of the Women in FinTech and Partnership Committee. A whole other roles, and other positions, but we can speak about them later. 

Jeremy Au (00:01:20):Awesome. I'm so curious where did this entrepreneurship bug bite you? Was it sometime back when you were a university student at Singapore Management University or where? 

Anna Haotanto (00:01:30): 

No, actually, Jeremy, it's very strange. I think even until today, after about eight to 10 years I still find it very unbelievable that I'm running businesses. When I was growing up I only wanted to work in a corporate actually because my parents ... My dad is Indonesian, they have a small family business, and I think his business failed during the financial crisis, so when I was growing up it was always ... I never had my parents around. I saw the way they suffered while running their businesses. I saw how the businesses failed, and I was like, "There's no way I want to run a business." I just want a stable job, I just want a stable salary, and that's all I want. 

I did pretty well in school. I was supposed to go to law school, but I decided at the last minute to actually go to Singapore Management University, SMU, and to study finance. What was amazing is I actually found out that later on that I really, really love finance, and finance is my first and biggest love in my life. What I really like about it is because due to my family financial situation i realized that finance is actually ... an education in finance is an equalizer. I can actually make my money work harder for me, and I learned a lot of concepts that I thought were very relevant to real-life situations. 

Just a background, when I was 21, my family, we were living paycheck to paycheck, and we were renting a small HDB flat, and at that point of time I was really worried that we will get evicted out, and I felt very, and I thought to myself, "Okay." I was in class, I was a very good student, and I thought to myself, "Okay, what do I want out of life?" I said, "Okay, I want to buy my family, my parents a house, a home before I'm 30." I don't know why I have this very strange and ambitious goal. Obviously when you're young you're just very naïve, so I sat down there in class, and I actually Googled how much does a HDB cost in Singapore. Obviously I was astounded, it's almost half a million for a three bedroom of HDB flat. I asked myself then, "How can I, an ordinary 21 year old, a very, very ordinary, with no special talent, not super smart, what can I do? How can I actually earn 500,000 in nine years?" Obviously I didn't know that you can take loans, and all these financial stuff. 

I actually did a simulation of how much I need to earn, if I earn an average salary, and how much ... I realized that it's really very hard to achieve all these financial goals if you don't save, and if you don't invest, because your salary alone ... an average percent salary will never help you to reach those goals. I think that sparked my life-long journey of being in love with finance, my financial management journey. Toward that what happened was I actually joined a bank, I joined a few firms, and finally was in private banking, so I was in wealth management, and I really, really love my job, so that was the start of it. What happened was I really just ... I was really just focused on saving money to buy my family home, my family HDB, and ... Sorry, the screen went off, so I'll just continue, okay? 

Jeremy Au (00:05:24): Yeah. 

Anna Haotanto (00:05:25): 

So after that I was in banking for 10 years, and what actually made me left banking was because I had a lot of health issues. I was hospitalized twice, I had a few surgeries, and the final straw came when half of my face was paralyzed so I couldn't even smile. I can't even close my eyes, I have to my eyes when I was sleeping, and I said, "Okay, you know what? I need to take a break." This was about when I was 31, and I was planning to take a six-month break to join another bank, to join a bigger bank actually, and during this time what happened was I had a surgery. I was on two months MC, and I asked myself, "You know what, I've been very blessed in this journey so far, how can I use this to actually help other people? What have I learned in this 10 years that changed my life so dramatically?" What happened was I wanted to start a financial ... I realized something. I realized that financial literacy was lacking in Singapore, in Asia, in the world. 

We are always forced to be good as Asians, we are always forced to be good in everything, in language, in math, in technology, in everything, but nobody teaches us as kids how to manage money, how to have a healthy relationship with money, with debt, with credit cards. When I looked at my parents I realized that there were so many mistakes that they could have avoided, but didn't, so I asked myself, "Why is financial literacy not ... Why don't we focus on financial literacy?" What happened was I actually wanted to start a FinLit, financial literacy classes for children. I had a business partner, at the last minute she actually had to withdraw herself due to her family situation. 

So I went back to the drawing board and said, "I'm not an educator, I'm not very patient, I can't teach on that, what is the most underlooked ... What is the most underserved and overlooked market?" I realized it was women, and because traditionally finance, financial firms they have only targeted men. 

We can talk more about this, the difference between men and women later, but I thought that if you educate women ... women are actually learning more, going to school more, and are getting more educated and have more money, you will actually empower generations and generations to come to actually have better financial habits, and financial thinking. That was the start of my entrepreneurship journey. 

Jeremy Au (00:08:16): 

Wow, what a crazy journey. I think for so many people in Southeast Asia, I think a lot of us have big memories of the Asian financial crisis, and how it impacted our parents, what was it like watching your dad go through those struggles as a kid? Did he talk to you about those problems? Was it something that was implied by the way he was working? How was that like? 

Anna Haotanto (00:08:45): 

I think there was never a talk, but I guess children are very smart, I'm not saying I'm very smart, but in general children are very perceptive. I think I realized that when my parents don't go to work, when at one point we were actually staying in a one bedder for four of us ... in one bedroom for four of us. I think when I was growing up I always knew that I couldn't have all the luxuries that I wanted, or that other kids, other children have. Jeremy, I'm not sure, you're much younger than me, but I'm not sure if you remember it's not only the 1997 crisis where I was ... My family was in Indonesia, and it was very harrowing because it was the riot, there was the racial riot, there was all these, and my family was right in the middle of it, but it's also the SARS crisis, the 2001 crisis. There was a few crisis that actually hit Asia pretty hard, and I think for me it was much ... When I was a bit slightly older, also the impact hits on me. 

For example, I was a sports person, and I was in many different sports group when I was in school, and I don't know why I'm hearing this, but it's very strange, but I've always wanted a Nike sports bra, and I knew that we couldn't afford it. Small things like that, which I guess when you're growing up you think, "Okay, you know what, I'm going to earn money to actually buy this myself next time." I think the more relevant one for me was when my mom had to take on credit card debt. She took about 20,000, and as you know when you take on a credit card loan it's not the principal that kills you, it's actually the interest. I know that being oldest I had to pay it off. So these are the things that made me aware of it. 

Jeremy Au (00:10:53): 

Wow. Do you feel like ... I think some people in the school campus like, "You know, tough times make ... during your child makes you stronger," and other folks are maybe not right. Do you feel like it's something that was really beneficial, or was it something that ended up being something you just had to get through? I don't know how you think about it on reflection. 

Anna Haotanto (00:11:21): 

Well, I think for most part I ... Look, I think when you're a child, when you're a kid you don't really resent the situation just because you don't know any better. I've spoken about this with my friends, and when you're a kid you're so innocent, I guess, and you're just like, "Okay, you know what," you don't really care about all these. I think the things happen when you're older and you wonder like, "Okay, why am I ... There was a point of time where I wanted to resent, but I will say like, "I wish this is not happening to me." For example, I was supposed to go to Oxford to study law, and I just knew that we couldn't afford it, and I didn't want to take a scholarship. So small little things like this where it's more about  opportunities, I think, than material things that make me go and ... I want to say that it makes you want to do better for yourself. 

I think for me, personally, it has changed. I've never resented it, but it has made me think through a lot of things, and contemplate about them deeper. For example, for children for example, for me because I never had all these opportunities I always think, "If I have a child these are the things that I will want my kid to have." You know what I mean? I mean, you're a dad, right? So you should know this better than me. 

Jeremy Au (00:12:55): 

Well, yeah, I get it. I didn't mention it, but my dad was also impacted by the Asian financial crisis, and I, as a kid, actually do remember him being very devastated by the whole crisis. I, too also had to downgrade my housing situation quite a few times during that period of time as well, but I wouldn't necessarily- 

Anna Haotanto (00:13:18): Well, how did it change you? 

Jeremy Au (00:13:21): 

How did it change me? I think what happened was that my dad really didn't handle it well, and I don't think ... well, in the sense of, not in a bad way, but it's not like the whole positive psychology, growth mindset, bounce back, anti-fragile kind of way. I won't go too much to detail about it, and so it was tough on those fronts, it was tough in the Asia financial crisis from an economic and financial basis, but I think it was also tough on my dad on a psychological basis, which impacted me as a kid. 

I think what's interesting was that growing up I think I realized that I, to some extent also had the same financial security dynamic of being very clear about wanting to do differently, and in some ways subconsciously replicated some behaviors of my dad, which I would need to have to consciously unlearn. Also, be thoughtful about how I was going to be different. I think one thing I realized is that in retrospect, and then I think about it quite a bit more, one thing I've realized is that the Asian financial crisis happened when my dad was middle-aged, and now I'm approaching that ... well, I think I am middle-aged now, say that, right? I'm actually approaching my dad's age when he was during the financial crisis, and now I'm dealing with the 2020 pandemic. 

What's interesting for both of us is that I think he's handled this pandemic situation in a way more resilient, constructive way, I think, compared to when he first faced it in his middle ages. I, too, am confronting it in a different way than my dad did, for the Asian financial crisis. I like to, hopefully think about it as both of us has grown, my dad from himself, and me from watching my dad grow as well. That's how I think about it, which is like the crisis itself, as well as the individual reaction to that crisis. 

Anna Haotanto (00:15:35): 

I think it's very interesting you say that, because when I was younger I think I'm very close to my parents. I think everybody knows that, but there is a part of me that always thinks, "I don't want to be like them. I don't want to make the same mistakes." I guess when I was growing up there was a lot of reconciliation, because I didn't grow up with my parents since I was 11 or 10, they were in Indonesia, and I'm in Singapore. I've always reflected back, and there were a lot of things that they did that I thought ... You know what? My mom had me when she was 20, and I was like, "Okay, when I was 20 I think I was just partying and drinking myself silly in school." So you begin to think what life is, and what. 

life was for your parents, the type of experiences that they have, and I think as we grow older we have a more keen sense at, I guess an acceptance, and also forgiveness to the things that your parents did when they were at that age. 

You say you are at the age where your dad faced financial crisis, so now that ... It's very interesting that you mentioned now that we are in 2020 pandemic, and I look back at my parents, and I guess it's very interesting how we, in your words, unlearn the things, the subconscious things that we learned from our parents, and somehow we also ... there is a mean revision to becoming them, or to try to be an improved version of them if you can. 

Jeremy Au (00:17:13): 

Yeah, exactly. Right now, they are children growing up whose parents are going through the 2020 pandemic, and they are going to be thinking about this, and reflecting on this for the next 10 to 20 years. Yeah, exactly. 

Anna Haotanto (00:17:34):20 years later we are so old. Now you make me feel old. 

Jeremy Au (00:17:37): 

I think that's a good conversation, what are the things that you learned to unlearn? One of the things that you learned was the co-dynamic around finance skills, and one of the things that you unlearned was your feeling, I guess frustration or resentment, like you said about parents, and the growing, both of our growing understanding about who they were at this age, when they had us as kids. When you think about it ... You obviously have helped a lot of other folks through their own entrepreneurship and financial journeys as well, what are other things that you have seen that are important things to unlearn along the way? 

Anna Haotanto (00:18:23): 

Wow, a lot actually. I guess the first thing, and I have to give a disclaimer, not that I have not been that route, but I think one of the first things that I ... I guess a lot of people are actually learning this during pandemic, is I feel that as I grow older, and maybe this is a personal reflection more than others, is I think in Asia people care a lot about material things, about face, about what you work as, where you work as, and all these things, the traditional markers of success. I have to say that ... It's a few things, first, I will say that even when I started The New Savvy, even one year after, everyday also asking myself, "Am I doing the right thing? What am I doing? I shouldn't be back in the corporate job? Why am I doing this?" 

Actually, as you know on a Sunday if you're in office, I was looking at Robinson Road, and across the window I can see people partying at Sofitel, I really ... Most of my friends are now middle management, they fly business class, they stay in nice swanky hotels, for The New Savvy I actually fly budget airlines, and stay in a two-bedroom ... sorry, two-star hotel in Hong Kong. I think it was a love motel, I can't even open my luggage fully. You really ask yourself, I really actually ask myself questions like, "What am I doing with my life?" I think the first thing I would like people to unlearn is that there will be a lot of expectations set on you for your life, on what you're supposed to be, on what success is, but you really, really need to have to think what they are for yourself. You need to go through the journey and the pain of realizing what makes you who you are, and what makes you happy.

I think what people don't realize enough is you can go through life doing the things that people expect you and still try, but at the end of the day is that what you want to be doing? I think in terms of finances I will say that a lot of people go through life chasing one material things after the other, for example when you start work it's very liberating, it's very empowering to have your first salary, your first paycheck, and what people do is normally they reward themselves, especially in Asia women buy like, I don't know a Chanel bag, or men buy watches. I'm not against rewarding yourself, but I think it's very important to have a financial goal, because when you don't have one you just spent it quite recklessly, or you just think, "I work so hard for it, I deserve it. Whereas, I think for me, because my journey is slightly different, I was so obsessed with buying that HDB for my family. I just had that one goal that I saved most of my money, I invested it, and I actually reached the goal earlier. 

I think I bought my first home at 28, and I guess it's not about me, but it's more when I look back I was very thankful that I had that goal, because if not then I would have fallen into that trap of keeping with appearances. I guess to summarize, the first thing I will say is to unlearn what we are conditioned with, and to find out what your passions, and your true journey that will make you happy is. Number two, to be financially conscious on your spending on what you want, and on your financial goals. 

Jeremy Au (00:22:22): 

Yeah, you mentioned the five C's, which is I think a big dynamic for so many folks about rewarding themselves, the materialism, to reward, and obviously expenses rise pretty quickly. What's interesting is that you've not only managed your cost focused on saving for your parents and everything, but also you've managed to do so not of a conventional banking career, but also as someone who is working on investments, and the entrepreneurship side of it. Are there any specific financial advice that you give to people who want to be founders, or set up something new? 

Anna Haotanto (00:23:05): 

I think my journey is a bit different, Jeremy. I think it's a bit unfair if I just give an advice without having a background. I think I am not ... Now, I think entrepreneurship is very in vogue, when I go back to SME to give talks, or when I go back to any universities everyone wants to be an entrepreneur because they think that they're going to be the next Zuckerberg or next Bezos. They just think that it's this very rosy path to riches, but I always tell them, "No, it's not. It's painful, and it's one out of 10,000 make it there." I think, for me personally, because I grew up in the culture, and in the generation where people wanted to be investment bankers or consultants, or to work in corporate, and that's what I did for 10 years. 

When I started The New Savvy, where I will say that's my first venture into entrepreneurship, I was actually finance ... I'll say that I was financially very comfortable. I could afford not to work. I could afford to still provide for my family, and still live a modest lifestyle, a very comfortable lifestyle. I think for me, whereas now I think the founders, they start out of school, and you really struggle. You hear people really eating instant noodles, and I never had to do that. I guess my view is that if you want to be a founder it's good to consider your financial situation, and I'm talking about it in a purely, I guess in a purely "very practical way." 

I think the best way to be a founder, if I had to restart my journey again, is to actually work a few years in a startup, or in an area that I'm interested in to learn what needs to be done, to learn the culture, and all the skills that I need. Save as much money as possible, and then try to do the startup while you are still in employment, because once there's traction then you move into it full-time. I think that is something I will do if I was going to start again. The problem with a lot of founders, I think, is that we are very in love with our own ideas. 

Let's say today I wanted to start a clothing shop, a fashion platform, I'm so in love with it that I will overestimate how much people will love it, or how much they will buy. Normally you'll say, "Oh, if I start this people will start buying it because it's so awesome. There's no way they're not going to love my product." But the truth is, it's not, it's very hard to even get your first customer. It's very hard to get your repeat customers. I think that's something that we always overestimate, especially as new founders. You just don't realize how hard it is. I think people don't know how difficult it is. You're a founder, right? I'm sure you know how difficult it is to even get the first dollar in. 

Jeremy Au (00:26:14):Isn't that interesting, because I feel like I was given the advice by lots of folks, and I totally disregarded them and I still went on anyway. 

Anna Haotanto (00:26:22):No, me too, which is why it was also painful, right? 

Jeremy Au (00:26:26):Yeah, so painful. Now we're going out telling people it's difficult, but they also don't listen. 

Anna Haotanto (00:26:32): 

Yeah, but it's what we say, I mean, the truth is, I think the truth of entrepreneurship is. It's kind of a natural selection of, I guess, resilience, of mental strength, and a lot of luck. Sometimes you can be doing all the right things, and just at the wrong time, you just don't have the luck. 

Jeremy Au (00:26:57): 

Such is life, right? I think this is something very true of you, Anna, which is that it's also a probability dynamic, or you can look at it as portfolio from the VC perspective. So from a founder it's like, "Okay, one out of 10 of us is going to succeed, in some level one of a 100 will really, really succeed." Then from an investor perspective it's like that classification of portfolio risk, which is that out of this hot portfolio of 100 one of these is going to win. But it's very different if you're looking at it from the macro view versus you being one of the 99 folks who doesn't make it due to lack, or bad market fit, or poor execution, so it's a tough. I think you talked a little bit about that, that mismatch between the perceived reality of being a founder, especially from the new generation that's coming versus the actual lived reality. What do you think is driving that imagery or that perception gap? 

Anna Haotanto (00:28:06): 

I think there's a lot of clarification about the success stories like Elon Musk, Jack Ma, Jeff Bezos, Zuckerberg, all these people who gave up a lot or dropped out of school, and suffered, and they attained this unattainable riches, unimaginable, but there are also a lot of people, I think one of it is ... I think people don't talk about failures enough, especially in Asia, you're not supposed to say how much you failed, or how you failed because it's such a disgrace. I totally disagree with that because if you don't talk about failures other people will never learn, they will make the same mistakes all over again, and again. Because the truth is, most of us, we make the same mistakes, we face the same obstacles. I always believe in hacking this right, if you are not the smartest person then I'm always not the smartest person. I try to find somebody who has done it, and who has solved it, solve the problem, and ask them for guidance on how I can shorten my learning time. 

But also, I think the other part is, I think ... I've been thinking about this a lot, and actually a friend of mine, Min-Liang from Razer put me this before, "What kind of business do you want to build? Do you want to build a tech unicorn or do you want to build a business that can give you a very comfortable sum every month to take home, and a comfortable life?" There is no right and wrong. The thing is, I think because of the media, and the way we portray tech entrepreneurs or founders people only have the idea that I need to be a unicorn, but not everybody can be a unicorn, not everybody can be a Facebook, not everybody can be a Grab. Some of us, you can have a small business, you can have a business that generates a healthy revenue, and that's fine, that's okay, that doesn't make you less of a founder, that doesn't make you less successful. But I think it's very worrying to me that people think that it's either one winner or not, and I guess that's one of the things that I care about. 

I think the second thing is of course about making sure that ... I think the goal on any journey, whether it's banking, whether it's consulting, or even medical, I think a person should always have all the necessary information to understand and assess what you're going through. There will always be curve balls, but knowing what you're getting into is going to be very helpful in the long run, because at least you have some kind of mental preparation. To me, I think the gap is the portrayal in the media, and also, I guess the lack of people talking about their failures. 

Jeremy Au (00:31:26):You mentioned the stigma around failure versus actually learning from failure, why do you think there's a stigma in Southeast Asia about failure? 

Anna Haotanto (00:31:38): 

I think in Asia, or in Southeast Asia we are still very Asian, we're supposed to be good, and there's a lot of concerned. So if they knew somebody talked about their failures it's almost like, people almost get shocked by it, I think it's just a mentality. Even you're not supposed to fail in exam, you're not supposed to fail in school, you're not supposed to ... I think there's a lot of, I guess, generational thinking and mindset in it. 

We always publish stories about how people make it, or how somebody earned millions or cash out, but nobody talks about the thousands and thousands of people who have tried and failed. I think, for me it's very interesting because you learn a lot from failures. I will say that my biggest lessons are from my failures, and then my successes. The successes are always nice to have, you are proud of them, but the tough times and the times where your medal is tested, I think those are the times that will actually make you grow as an entrepreneur. 

Jeremy Au (00:33:00): 

How should people change this culture around failure? Is it like ... Because it's scary to share about your own personal story of failure, tough times. I remember this person I was listening to, and he was talking about his failure and I told him, I said, "Oh, what did you learn, and everything?" He was like, "Jeremy, frankly the only reason I'm okay to talk about my failure now is because I just have a second success, and so now I'm okay to talk about my failure beforehand." He was like, "I still haven't solved the problem yet." Because sometimes when people talk about failure it's like, "I failed, but then I learned from my failure and then I succeeded." But nobody is very interested in the I failed, in just the end of the story, kind of the message. 

Anna Haotanto (00:33:54): 

No, actually, you know, recently I read ... no, recently I listened to Justin Kan, I think he was talking about how he failed, and then Sophia Amoruso from Nasty Gal, I think they were talking about their experiences about raising lots of money, and failing. I think for myself, I don't know, maybe I'm just not the very conventional Asian because I've never been brought up that way, but I had a very major spectacular failure when I was running The New Savvy. Basically we were growing very rapidly, and we had a lot of ... we were the third biggest personal finance site, and we were going for Series A, and I think I was talking to a few VCs, and what happened is ... I'll give you a summary. What happened is my website, thenewsavvy.com was actually hacked, and we lost everything. My team then was, I think there were 12 of us, and we just lost everything. We finally had a ransom email asking us for 30 bitcoins, which is about ... I think it was about 150,000 then. Obviously I refuse to pay the ransom, but it was six months of painful suffering. 

Basically we had to script the internet, we have to find backups, it was very dramatic, and I will say that this ... what was worst for me is that I have to appear okay outside, and when people ask me, "Are you okay?" The only answer is, "Yes." What else can I say? I can't possibly breakdown, but every night I was drinking half a bottle of whiskey. I was just crying. I was just a mess. Then every morning I just have to turn up at work because I see myself as a leader, and if I can't lead my team then who's going to do it? I put the experiences, and because I was so inexperienced I know nothing about cybersecurity I just felt a great deal of shame like, "I should have known this. I should have known that. Why didn't I know that? If it was somebody else this wouldn't have happened." 

It was really ... Even though we rebuilt the site three months later, the following three months were even worse because I always, "If somebody comes to your house, tie you up, and burn the house down, it's okay because you can rebuild the whole house. You can just build a new house." But the problem is now they only burned half of the house, so not only I have to fix the unburned part, I have to fix the burned part, and that's worst. For example, my website was put on unsafe site for all the telecommunication companies, telco companies, I have to call them, and beg them and say, "Can you please put my website, take out my site from the unsafe website? Because it's not unsafe, it just got hit by a hacker." Things like that. 

The thing is, I was really a mess all this time. I have to say that one thing that I learned though is that the tech community, the developers in Singapore are very, very sweet, they all helped me. Some of them are strangers to me, I don't even know them, but they were all trying to help me resolve the issues night and day. One year later, I realized ... During this time I coped by writing, and I just wrote about the ordeal, I wrote about how I suffered, what I feel, because I felt that that was the only way I can cope. One year later, after this thing happened I went back and I saw what I wrote, and I realized that after that one year, after I read the whole thing at the end of it I was crying. I was still in tears, and I realized I've never gotten ... it's like when you fail that badly, and when you put so much blame on yourself, but you're still stretched to always run your business, to always still perform, to always hit the metric, you have not really dealt with the trauma. 

You've never really dealt with your own mistakes and acceptance of it. What I happened was I actually wrote a very long essay about this, and I published it publicly. I actually also say it like, "You know what? It's very embarrassing for me because I'm admitting that I failed. As a leader I am admitting that I failed my company, and to be said that point of time we don't have any other further successes, it's not like we never returned to those phase. Unlike your male guests we never had further successes to talk about it, I just wanted to write because I just feel that if I can't be honest about this then I am not honest about my business, and I'm not honest to myself about being an entrepreneur. Because I feel that on the media, even on panels, even on newspaper or magazine what you see is a very glamorous side of it, you always see the wins, you always see how fast you're growing or a very polished version, but nobody sees the time where you're just sitting on the floor crying thinking, "What the fuck is happening then?" 

Jeremy Au (00:39:23):Yeah, what the fuck is happening? That's so true. 

Anna Haotanto (00:39:26):Yeah, really sometimes I just ask myself, I don't even want to get out like, "Do I have to get out there now?" 

Jeremy Au (00:39:34): 

I know, I have that feeling multiple times. Wow, thanks for sharing that. As for the rough period of time, I have to ask would you ... knowing who you are now, because you're a stronger founder now, you went through it, how would you have handled the situation differently? 

Anna Haotanto (00:39:56): 

I think the first thing I did after I published the article was to actually take a coding class, so now I can say that I kind of know how to code. I think if I look back what I would have done differently, is one, again I will ... I will say that I think there's a lot of optimisms. I think to a lot of people there's a lot of optimism, and slight arrogance. When you start something, again you're so in love with it that you tend not to have other information, and that's okay because I think as founders you always don't know what you don't know. But, if I had to handle it differently I think for me it will be going back and thinking, before we do anything is to think, "What are our potential pitfalls?" 

My ex-boyfriend then, who was also a tech founder, taught me that only the paranoid survive, and I think that phrase have always stuck with me. Now I'm very paranoid, and what I look for whenever I start a new project or leading a team, whether it's in Gourmet Food Holdings, or in New Savvy is always to consider all the potential pitfalls we could have. I think that's one of the biggest thing that I learned, that I come a lot more consider. If it was in the past I would just say, "Okay, you know what? We want to do this, let's go. Let's do this. I don't care at what cost, let's just try and do it, and we'll solve the problem as we walk along." But now I will say, "Okay, if you want to do this what about A? What about B? What about C? Have you considered all these things?" It doesn't have to be a long exercise, but it has to be considered one. Actually, you know what? I've never realized that that's how it changed me until I speak to you about it. This podcast is very ... it's like therapy. 

Jeremy Au (00:42:00):Well, thank you for privileging me to be able to be part of this journey. 

Anna Haotanto (00:42:05):How about you, what were some of your failures, and what did it teach you? 

Jeremy Au (00:42:12): 

One personal failure I had talked about in the past. I think I didn't want failure, I don't call it a failure per se, but one interesting thing was I think in junior college, long story short I was at a good junior college, I was planning to become a medical researcher. Actually I want to be a vaccine scientist at the time, who knew 2020 would happen? Unfortunately, I think my first girlfriend passed away while I was in school. It was obviously catastrophic for her family and her siblings and her parents, and also for me, I think I was as grieving, and I effectively peaced out from school for the next one year. I just did horribly, I was in the bottom 1% academically, because I was just really not tuned in, just very much grieving. 

Obviously I think everything that happened to the family was way worse, and obviously it was way worse for her as well. I think for me I was very much like picking up the pieces, and trying to figure out what a life was like pushing on in that sense. I eventually went on to join national service, and spent a year running around the jungle. I think I always tell people, I was like, "If you are ruminating a lot and just thinking a lot, the army is a good place because they don't want you to think so they shout at you all the time, so you don't get to stay in bed." That's my, you don't have any time to think or dream, or have nightmares, you're just too tired from the whole day go straight. Anyway, so it was a very regimented routine, but I think after a year there I was very much like, "Okay, actually it might be good to go to university." I'm heading up, I picked up pieces. 

I decided that I will study for SATs instead of the E levels because the SATs I heard were a little bit easier to study for, MCQ and all these other things. I sat for my SATs in national service, and then I went out and applied to universities. I didn't have amazing teacher recommendation, not there's anything either, so that's why I went to UC Berkeley because it's one of the few universities that don't require a recommendation letter from your teacher as well. I remember cutting up my SAT books, and putting them in Ziploc bags so that I could carry them out into the mission, so that while everyone else is sleeping I would spend half an hour, an hour just reading the notes by torchlight, and my pencil or pen just going through stuff. That was a tough time. So that was ... I wouldn't say it was ... it was just a very tough time for me, because one part of you is just grief, and obviously a lot of sorrow for her, and obviously I'm still very intertwined with her family as well. 

Then, obviously second part was just crashing off JC, not having academic milestones like all my peers in a sense, and then also going to army without any university offers, that's another one. So then kind of picking it up, and then eventually deciding to, "Hey, I've decided that I would go to university," is one, and secondly, studying for it. I think I think I had to ... I think actually I was very avoidant with relationships for a long time as well in terms of commitment. I actually had to unlearn that also as part of that process as well. 

Anna Haotanto (00:46:25):That's really tough. I'm sorry to hear that. 

Jeremy Au (00:46:28): 

Yeah, I know. It's tough for everybody, right? I think one thing, kind of in a similar theme about what you ... new learnings when you are older, now that I have a baby daughter who's like seven months old, I think a couple of things become clearer with me. I think one thing that became clear to me is, one, obviously I was grieving as the boyfriend, but I can't imagine how much worse it was for the parent, because now I already love my baby daughter so much after seven months. What's it like to raise a kid for, effectively 16 years, and then lose a child? It's unimaginable to me from my perspective, so I think that's a magnitude dynamic as well. Then, I think the second thing I also realized was at the time I felt like my grief was very unique in that sense as a single person. 

I think at that age you don't really get exposed to death too much, obviously my grandma had passed away before, but we were not very close and everything. Maybe a family friend had passed away, again not very close. But now that I'm middle-aged, I look back I'm like two of my classmates had died in school, I know of personally, and were relatively close, so they passed away over the past 30-ish year. The school counselor who was working with me and helping me, I always thought she was very kind and understanding, but in retrospect for her she must have seen a death every year, at least not death but the same grief, and be a grief counselor multiple times a year for the school students. 

The fact that grief is so universal, because everybody loses their parents one day, everybody loses a loved one one day, and so I think one thing I've realized is grief is a really universal emotion, which I thought was very unique, and very private as a pain. But now that I'm starting to realize there's a little bit more universality, I think that's one, but it's a shared emotion for so many folks. That's something I do think about quite a bit. 

Anna Haotanto (00:48:43): 

Yeah. I think, Jeremy, I think as I grow older ... when I was younger ... I think life humbles you, it humbles you. When I was young I thought I was ... I was ambitious, I was invincible, and then I had my pre- cancerous cells which I had to actually go for surgeries. Not that I'm mid-30s I think about losing my parents sometimes, and it's like what you say, I can't even imagine the thought of it. It's just like when you think about your daughter, I can't even think about it. It's even too painful for me to think about. 

I guess going back to the theme, it makes you question a lot about your life, about what is important, whether ... I guess it goes back to my advice where I think you can prepare for a lot of things whether financially or not, because it gives meaning to ... to me, having financial security is actually giving ... it's not about having a lot of money, it's not about showing off about what you have, how many properties you have, or what car you drive, but it's about providing the kind of life that the people you love want, and to have the kind of life that you want. I think on top of it, the thing about shared grief, I guess I always thing that we are not special no matter how much we think we are, and hence we should just live our life the way we want to, which is very non-Asian by the way. 

Jeremy Au (00:50:29):Asians versus non-Asian, right? 

Anna Haotanto (00:50:32): 

Yeah, because I think it's ... When people ask me, when I go for interviews and people ask me what is your superpower, and I always say, and I actually really think this way, I think my superpower is always disappointing people. I'm supposed to go to law school, didn't go to law school, went to a university that is almost unheard of at that point of time. I was supposed to go investment banking, got into investment banking and left after a few weeks because I just felt, "You know what? The hourly pay rate is too low for me. I don't want to work like this. I don't want to waste my youth away." Then left banking at the height of my career, started a financial literacy site, so I think for me, I won't say that I'm brave in the context of your podcast, I don't see myself as brave. I will say there is a lot of stupidity, more like I'm too stupid too know how hard it is, if I knew how hard it was maybe I would have thought about it more. 

But, I think one thing that I have is I always knew what I like, and what I don't like, and if I don't know ... and most people know what they don't want to do, but I think we should all spend time exploring the things, more things in life to know what we really want to do. Because especially for people our age, we're going to live a very long life, God-willing, we are going to live to 90, the average age expectancy for most of our peers would be 80 to 90 if there is no accidents, so I think we shouldn't be constrained by what is expected of us, but to actually ... I think at this stage where we have a lot of resources at our disposal, the internet, different ways of making money, different ways of saving or making investments, we should actually look at our lives and think, "What is the best and the bravest way I can live my life to the fullest?" Sorry, I don't know why we are so sentimental in this podcast. 

Jeremy Au (00:52:40): 

No, I mean, we are in the reflection state. I think we're starting to consolidate a lot of our thinking. I think I'd love to follow-up what you said, which is that you don't consider yourself particularly having been brave, and I'm just curious if you reflect, have there been moments where you felt like you would say that it looks brave outside, that it was brave from the inside? Sometimes people outside look at stuff and they're like, "Wow, that was very brave," and then all of a sudden inside it's self-disqualifying and say, "Oh, you know, it wasn't brave, it was my responsibility. Stupid. I didn't know the risk." There's a lot of self-disqualification around bravery, but I'm just wondering from your perspective have there been any moments where on reflection you were brave? 

Anna Haotanto (00:53:32): 

I think for me would be, again, when ... I will say that my bravest moment always come from my toughest challenges. I think the one time that I was brave is not when I started The New Savvy, because when I started it was really something I wanted to do to help people, I think it was really lacking. Women are just not brought up to love finance, or to actually be attuned to finances, but the bravest time where I think that I'm brave, and other people think I'm brave is when we rebuilt The New Savvy. Because at that point of time I think this is about only one and a half years after I leave banking, I actually sat down in my crisis, in sometimes drunken mess, I actually sat down to write, " What can I do with my life? Do I want to continue this? Why the hell do I want to continue this? This is so tiring." 

I think as a founder, as an entrepreneur you will notice that most of the time it looks ... 10% of the time it looks glamorous, and people call you or you're the boss, but the truth is 90% of the time it's very, very, very unglamorous. When I sat down I actually thought about returning to a banking job. I was thinking of doing digital innovation. I think I put down 18 things that I could be doing, one of it was to rebuilt The New Savvy, 17 of it was to walk away. The 17 other choices were to walk away and to do different things. Honestly, if you wanted me to be honest, rebuilding The New Savvy was the hardest choice, and it was the least financially rewarding, and was the least, I will say by any metrics was the least of any markers of success. But I chose to actually rebuilt the site because, and this is going to sound a bit psychobabble, but it was because I really believed in the mission. I believed in what we were doing. I believed that we were actually changing people's lives, and we were impacting people's lives. 

There were so many women who actually emailed me during those times saying, "Hey, what happened to your newsletter? I stopped receiving them all." They were saying, "I'm very thankful for this because I've been in somewhat similar situation like you, and I really realize this is the time I need to sit up and watch my finances." I think for me that was the bravest thing I did, that I chose the hardest path, and to rebuilt something that I believed in instead of caving in, choosing the easy way route of having a corporate job, or even a ... an easy way out. I think for me that was very brave. 

Jeremy Au (00:56:26):Wow. Thanks so much, Anna, for sharing all of these. One last quick question is, if you could travel back in time, 10 years, to 2011, what advice would you give yourself back then? 

Anna Haotanto (00:56:45): 10 years time, I ... 

Jeremy Au (00:56:49): 

Well, 10 years ago you were very, very ... just starting out in the finance industry. 

Anna Haotanto (00:57:01):Can I say buy bitcoin? No, right? 

Jeremy Au (00:57:04):A lot of people will say that. A lot of people would say buy bitcoin or buy ether. 

Anna Haotanto (00:57:13): 

I know. I think I will say that ... I think the advice I would give myself is to always equip myself with the relevant skills, but also be kind to myself. I know it sounds very cliché, but I think most founders are hardest on themselves. I hangout with a lot of founders, to me it's a form of ... it's a support system, I hangout with a lot of female founders, and male founders, and sometimes I organize dinners. I used to organize Monday dinners called Wining and Dining where we just wine and dine, because only founders understand the pain of another founder. I think I will say that the most important thing is to actually really equip yourself with the relevant skills, and be kind to yourself, but also have a support system. I think I wouldn't have gotten through this period if I don't have any support system. I think having a constant support system, having mentors to teach you, to guide you is very important, and to always be humble because no matter what you have achieved some things are going to blow up and to explode next, so just be prepared. 

Jeremy Au (00:58:30): Wow, powerful. 

Anna Haotanto (00:58:32):How about you, what advice will you give yourself? Other than buying bitcoin. 

Jeremy Au (00:58:38): 

In 2011, you've beat me to the punch. All of us should have bought bitcoin. I think 10 years ago, I think the advice I would give myself would be ... I think at the time I was, I had to plan everything, I probably sit down with myself and just be like, "Hey, Jeremy, I think you have this plan for your life, and some of it is going to be better because you planned for it, and some of it you're just going to be pleasantly surprised. Some it you're going to be unpleasantly surprised, so keep the plan, it's good to have that, and just be ready to have some equanimity. Do some meditation. Learn some living in the moment, resilience skills because the plan is going to have to change. Life is going to be very different, and you're just going to have to roll with it, both the very unpleasant surprises, and also the very pleasant surprises." I think that's the advice I would give myself. 

Anna Haotanto (00:59:47):That's a very good one. Thank you. 

Jeremy Au (00:59:51): 

Yeah. Anna, thank you so much for coming on the show. I want to paraphrase the three big themes that I really got away from this. I think the first is, again, thank you so much for sharing. I think you had told a story from growing up in the context of the Indonesia crisis, as well as the Asian financial crisis, and SARS, and how do circumstances played a sub context and role for how you grew up, and the motivation you had to focus on financial reality and dynamics to focus for your family. I think that was an amazing set of story in retrospect, and I really thank you for just exhuming and showing how painful and tough it was from the inside, in the ground floor, and how that led you to join finance, but also eventually become a founder yourself. 

The second thing I really appreciated was you giving a lot of very savvy strategic and tactical advice for founders, especially around at one level what is the financial/operative reality of being a founder with your own personal anecdotes versus, I think, the perception, and the glam nature of entrepreneurship that's in the culture today. I think I really appreciate your good advice around how to be thinking about be a founder, and how to do it in a way that's smart and savvy, in a way that makes sense for everybody. 

Last one, of course is thank you so much for being so open about all the adversity and failure that you've encountered, and even though you said that ... even though you say that you were stupid, I just want to say that I thought you were very brave, because knowing how savvy you are now, and how savvy you have been in the past about risks and failure, and all the tough times, I know that you're brave and you pushed on multiple times, and I think that ... Sorry about the fact that you did so much fighting, especially in the context of rebuilding The New Savvy, was a really personal and true story, and I appreciate you for being brave then, and also being brave now to share that with other folks who could find it useful for their own adversity and journey. 

Anna Haotanto (01:02:16):Thank you for saying all those words. You're so sweet, and I learned a lot from you too, Jeremy. It was really good speaking to you. 

Jeremy Au (01:02:24): Thank you so much, Anna. 

Anna Haotanto (01:02:26):Thank you, have a good Sunday with your family. 

All Posts
×

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!

OK