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Cheng Zishuang: Bad Silicon Valley Advice, Hustle Porn & SE Asia Media vs. Creators

· Podcast Episodes,Venture Capitalist,Founder,Singapore,Content Creators

At the end of the day, it's more writing for myself, but the whole hustle porn thing, whereby people believe as long as you work hard, you're going to make it. But that's not the truth, especially in entrepreneurship, and I think you can debate all day, whether it's 50% luck or 80% luck, I don't think there's any real way to prove it, but at the end of the day, it's something that comes into play. And second of all, if you're born into the right family, with the right connections or you go to the right schools, that tends to help a lot. And if you tend to study like all these founders who make it, there is that common thread among them. - Cheng Zishuang

Zishuang is currently spending time writing about tech startups in South-East Asia at https://zishuang.substack.com/ . More than the act of putting out his thoughts, he appreciates the feedback he gets from it. 

He's also spending time as a Venture Scout with Saison Capital which is an early stage venture fund with a focus on SouthEast Asia and India. In this capacity, he works with the fund to fund the best startups and understanding what verticals we should bet on. 

Prior to this, he was the Country Launcher at Circles.life, a startup backed by Sequoia and Founder's Fund. He also founded a few startups which was a journey of many lows that made the highs extremely fulfilling. 

This episode is produced by 

Jeremy Au (00:00:00): Hey, Zishuang. Welcome to the show. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:00:02): Thank you for having me, Jeremy. 

Jeremy Au (00:00:04):Yeah, I'm so excited to not only feature obviously your great thought leadership on Southeast Asia but 

also hear who you are and go deeper into your perspective on Southeast Asia. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:00:15): Excited to share. 

Jeremy Au (00:00:17):For those who don't know you yet, tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:00:20): 

I spent most of my career as an entrepreneur, probably about seven, eight years. And in about 2019, I joined Circles.Life as the country launcher. The market I launched was the Taiwan market, lots of learning over there. And after that, probably for the last two months or so, I've been spending some time writing. The reason why is I think I've collected a lot of thoughts on the industry, which is startup land in general, tech startups, with a focus on Southeast Asia. The reason why is there's a lot of thought leadership and a lot of opinions out there but it's mostly related to the west. And when I say the west, I actually probably mean North America, because most of your writers are from the Valley. Even Europe, you don't have too much going on. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:01:12): 

And in terms of Asia, the people who write are journalists and I don't think you get too many professional journalists writing on startup either. Most of your professionals end up in your Bloomberg or your Wall Street Journal and I can see why, because probably they pay better. And I don't fault them for doing that. What happens is the quality of writing comes from a person who hasn't really done anything. How this first struck me was I noticed how sports commentators, those who have been athletes or coaches, the insight they provide is a lot more interesting than a professional commentator, a talking head, so to speak. And I thought myself, maybe I can give it a shot. I'm not the best writer out there but at least I have the inside perspective. 

Jeremy Au (00:02:05): 

Awesome. And you do have that inside perspective as a founder, as a market launcher. Tell us what it means to be an insider. What experiences from your career would you say particularly informed the way that you write? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:02:25):I think if you read your general tech blogs, they tend to cover topics which make for good headlines, like the largest funding rounds. But for someone who's just starting out as a founder or a tech executive launching a new product, that's not very useful. I mean it's cool that Grab just raised $1 billion or they're talking about how are they going to scale throughout Southeast Asia and all the problems doing that, but that's not applicable to 99.5% of us. That's why I started off with your first 1,000 users because that is the problem that 90% of founders face. My next one, I'd like to have an extension of that. How do you scale after you get your first 1,000 users? How do you deal with retention? I also had an article that did decently well, which is your first dollar in, in terms of funding. And again, the reason why I wrote about that is because that is the problem that 90% of founders face. Most of us don't really care about the $100 million rounds because we are quite far from it, if I were to be honest. 

Jeremy Au (00:03:36): 

Awesome. So I think what's interesting is you're saying that your experience as a founder lets you not only think about problems differently, but also have a taste for different headlines, and I agree with you because a lot of what we see in the regional tech blogs are very much either press releases with a and one or two paragraphs to say and they had previously raised X and Y, Z money, or it's a very what I call landscape views, which are very good for people who are new to the sector or new to the geography, but doesn't really hold up deeper tastes. 

Jeremy Au (00:04:16): 

And I'm not saying that they don't add value, they do add value, but I think you just have to remember I think they're good for fast news and they're also good for breadth news, but they're not deep. And I like what you have been writing a lot, and that's what struck me a lot was the way you wrote deeply. And your first article that seemed to go viral, at least within the tech sector, was your first 1,000 users. So can you tell us a little bit more about your thinking process behind writing that? And then later on, we'll talk a little bit about how that distribution thing kicked off, but how did you go about creating it? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:04:52): 

Well, to be honest, there's a writer in the US. He was a former PM at Airbnb. His name is, I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing his last name correctly, Lenny Rachitsky. He has a blog called Lenny and I've been following it. He's been writing some pretty useful stuff and he did write about how you get your first 1,000 users, but when I looked at it, I think the way a lot of American companies or startups, so to speak, collect their first 1,000 users is very different from how we do it in Southeast Asia. 

Jeremy Au (00:05:25): What's the difference? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:05:26): 

They tend to have a lot of very "smart hacks", so to speak, and in Southeast Asia, we are a bit more brute force and we really have to run extra fast. That is the end result. The reason why, I'm not too sure. If I were to speculate, I think it's because we have a pretty nascent scene down here and that means our talent pool isn't as deep. And in the US, they have probably what? 60 years, by now, of developing Silicon Valley. So it's gone through many iterations, and the talent pool has been recycled over and over again, so you have a lot of guys and girls out there who can think very deeply, they can draw from different experiences. But for us, myself included, by the way, you just have to really brute force it, and just figure everything out, and try everything that works or doesn't work. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:06:19): 

Although, most of our stuff isn't that new or creative, if I were to be honest, but that is fine because at the end of the day, you just have to do what works. And I think what we need out there is something that's more contextual to our region. And if founders are just reading what writers from Silicon Valley write and try to action on that, I think most of the time it ends up in tears. I find most of my learnings actually is from conversations with other tech executives, other founders, other operators, basically, people who have done it in that area, because Southeast Asia, as we know, in terms of economic development, in terms of taste and preferences of consumers, in terms of how the technologies have developed is very, very different from the US. And I don't think we can use what's worked over there to apply to what is going to work over here. 

Jeremy Au (00:07:16):Any pet peeves around US advice that doesn't localize well or apply well? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:07:22): 

So I think a lot of advice out there is about choosing investors. And the thing is in Silicon Valley, they have what? A hundred other VCs, maybe a few hundred? But when I started out, probably about close to 10 years ago, we had 10 or 20. And I remember I was joking with a friend. We were reading about, I think it was Airbnb, where the founder was saying something like, "Oh yeah, we had to talk to 70, 80 investors before we closed that round." And me and my friend were like man, if we had 70 or 80 investors to talk to, it would be a very different story. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:08:01): 

I mean now, you have a lot more VCs down here. I think you probably have at least 50 or 60, but at the same time, it's a fraction of what's available in the Valley. The options the founders have here isn't the same as in Silicon Valley. I think it's changing already, it's changing rapidly, but that goes to show the level of development in terms of the ecosystem is very different. And if that's the case, you cannot apply those lessons. It's just the same as you can't take the lessons of a developed country to apply to a third world nation. And not to get too much into politics there, but when America preaches their political systems to countries like Haiti, you see what happens over there. 

Jeremy Au (00:08:47): 

Yeah, that's a very fair point. And not only is the pool different, and I think obviously Southeast Asia has deepened, in terms of pool, its VCs, but America, at the same time, has also accelerated in its pool of venture capital at the same time, so I think the relative gap still exists. So I think a lot of fundraising advice assumes that very deep pool of VCs, but also I think a deep pool of VCs actually creates some interesting spread where, on average, I believe that it creates more competition for VC capital within VC firms. 

Jeremy Au (00:09:23): 

And it also creates more good faith behavior, it creates more information symmetry across the markets, and that's not necessarily true in Southeast Asia at a regional level, let alone, I think, if you go outside Singapore, Indonesia, if you go into the smaller markets, then the pool gets much more shallow very quickly. And then information asymmetry grows very fast. And so I think a lot of that advice assuming information symmetry, good faith actors, deep VC pools end up flying out the window a little bit. So I think it's just better to be aware than not aware, and I think this is not really talked about. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:10:11): 

Yeah, and not only that, I think this is changing very rapidly as well, but probably about seven, eight years ago. Most venture capitalists were not formal operators, most of them were consultants or bankers who managed to raise a fund. And although I know the data suggests differently, but from a more anecdotal perspective, a more personal experience as a founder raising money, when you talk to a venture capitalist who wasn't an operator and who wasn't an operator is world of difference. And that's why I think you have a fund like [ Monk's Hill 00:00:10:45] Ventures, where it's very operator heavy, even [Saison 00:10:50] Capital. The empathy for founders is very different and the advice they can give to founders is very different as well. 

Jeremy Au (00:10:58): 

Yeah, I think it's basically the function of specialization, which I think there's a lot of great VCs that specialize in based on certain domain expertise. So Saison for FinTech on a global stage, and they have the supporting LP, which is Credit Saison support as well. So I think there's a very deep stack where they all reinforce each other. A single LP, there's a financial institution backing a FinTech focus fund that is allowed to therefore specialize without too much concern about immediate return, allows them to be very helpful to founders who need that FinTech angle and have that empathetic advice. And then, I think for Monk's Hill, I think the interesting thing is that I was attracted to them because they were all former operators. I wouldn't have joined, honestly, if I didn't hear that initial message about the importance of being founder friendly and also the good reputation I had heard about them from other founders as well. 

Jeremy Au (00:12:00): 

And I think going in, one interesting thing was understanding that what we look at them is it doesn't specialize. It specializes on Southeast Asia. And I think that's actually underweighted because it's a regional VC but everybody in the team is obvious Asian. And that makes a huge difference, I think, because there are regional VCs that don't have that deep root on Southeast Asia, and so they don't have that local context. And then the second specialization that exists is the founder component, and it doesn't show up so nicely on a stage because every VC will state that they are founder friendly and understand founders. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:12:39): Of course. 

Jeremy Au (00:12:44): 

But I mean you've got to look at a profile of who's actually talking to you across the table. Have they actually had founder experience or not? And if they do, they can do that. And if they don't, they can't. And what's interesting is how it shows up in different ways. I think it shows up not in a nice slide to be like these are the five things we can value add, but it shows up as understanding fundraising is tough and therefore I should not waste your time, understanding that you are the subject matter expert on your company and, to some extent, your domain, and therefore I should know when I should shut up and just prioritize my advice and say, "This is the stuff I know versus the stuff I don't know but I read," which is actually really important. 

Jeremy Au (00:13:32): 

And then thirdly, it's just understanding that startups are tough and therefore I shouldn't be an asshole. I should always approach from a position of empathy. And that doesn't show up nicely on slide. And I think it's like honestly, I always tell people as the first time founder, I'm not sure if I would've valued that set of specializations because I was very focused on maximizing financial return in the sense of it's much easier to tell if you're diluting 25% versus diluting 20% versus diluting 18%. And that's stuff that shows up well on a blank piece of paper and not everything else. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:14:17): 

And I guess at the end of the day, that's what the LPs care about. But if you look at it, I think in the past, you have very successful non-operator venture capitalists, and this time I'm drawing experience from Silicon Valley, where you have your Michael Moritz or your John Doerr, but now I think the kings seem to be guys like Andreessen Horowitz. And I'm not sure why, or maybe we're both wrong on you need to be a founder to be a good venture capitalist, but from the founder perspective, it's a lot more comforting, and you feel at least that you learn a lot more when you speak to a former founder or operator. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:15:03): 

And I think one thing we mentioned was Saison Capital, and something I didn't mention about myself earlier, I've recently joined their program as a venture scout. And I've got to look at things from an investor's perspective for probably about, I don't know, three or four weeks, and the feeling's really very different when you can take a very divorced view, because it's not your company or your friends' company, a startup. And you talk to your fellow scouts and the team at Saison, and understand why they may or may not like a certain company, what are the incentives for them, and what might work for the company might not work for them. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:15:43): 

And to be honest, it's pretty ironic that after I've got more involved in a venture capital firm, if I were to ever found a company again in future, I'd be very wary of taking venture capital, not in the sense that I think venture capital is evil but I think your incentives have to be very aligned to the venture capital firm, meaning that you have to be truly a fast scaling company that can hit a certain valuation before you take that sort of money. But the thing is I know this is advice that's not that new, but getting 5 to $10 billion a year with your "small business" is pretty life changing for most people, and that's nothing to spit at. But at the same time, if you truly are lucky, and I say lucky because I think you can work very hard but there's still an element of luck to hit gold, so to speak, on a certain company, like Snapchat or Facebook, that's where I really would take venture capital. And I think that's one connection that you and I have actually, because you are a former scout as well. 

Jeremy Au (00:16:49): 

Yeah, I was a former scout with Saison Capital as well, and I'm also good buddies with, he was a podcast guest in a early episode, and also collaborate on a bunch of articles that we've been helping each other with. And I think what's interesting, like you said, is there's a interesting other side of the table that you get to do, which is as a scout, you get to see how the VCs are thinking about Company A, Company B. I think for myself, I think that was the first step, and then eventually I joined Monk's Hill as a VC, so I got even more embedded in the other side of the table. 

Jeremy Au (00:17:33): 

One thing I'm interested in what you said was understanding whether you are the right fit for a VC. That's an interesting statement because that's not a common question. I think the most common question is how do I get VC capital, and then the second question might be how do I position myself to best receive and attract VC capital? I think that's the level two. And then the deeper question after that is am I a right fit for VC? So there's the three levels of Kung Fu. So if you achieve transcendence, like where you reach level three. So let's talk about that, how should founders think about whether they're a right fit for VC? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:18:18): 

Well, I think you have to look at the size of the fund as well. So if you're raising from a $10 million fund, or $100 million fund, or $1 billion fund, the returns that your investors will expect out of you are very different. So let's say you're raising from a $10 million fund, you don't have to be a $1 billion company because your investors only have to return their investors, what 30 mil, 40 mil, correct? Because generally it's probably about three X. And that number increases by an order of magnitude each time your fund gets bigger. What does that mean? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:18:58): 

So if your business is one whereby there is a very slim chance, or rather it's almost impossible for you to be a unicorn, because that's what your investors need, you're going to find it very, very painful down the road. And not only that, I think what was very eyeopening for me was when I read that report, actually, that you guys came out with, Glimpse. And I looked at, A, what founders at C, D stage companies pay themselves, and I was like oh my God, it doesn't increase as much as I thought. I thought back then, when I was paying myself that pittance that I won't even mention, that would change as I actually raised more money, but it doesn't change as much as I thought it would. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:19:46): 

And the opportunity cost is very high given that, to be honest, you can raise a lot of money, you can get your company to near unicorn value, and the whole thing can still come tumbling down. And I'm not talking about something where it's an off chance, but there is still a good chance that your company may not get anywhere. And the reason why, especially in Southeast Asia, is because there's just not many opportunities for exits. And once you get past a certain stage, you have to IPO. And if you're not making those sort of revenues, do you really want IPO? Do you dare to show everyone your figures? I think these are some things that founders need to consider, but I think the reason why a lot of founders instinctively think of getting venture capital is because it is a "easy" way to get your first bunch of money, and to get resources, and to pay yourself a living wage. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:20:51): 

And I've gone through that myself, so I'm not shitting on it, I'm coming from a very empathetic point of view that it is a pretty shitty experience, when you're eating ramen literally and your friends with investment banker salaries are doing what they do, and you just want to be able to survive. That's why you go and raise venture capital. But one way to think about it is if your business can't even make enough money to provide you a decent living, is it really something that's worth doing? And this is where the situation differs from Southeast Asia and the US. In the US, you have the opportunity to build a Facebook of sorts, whereby you can scale and scale and scale, not make a lot of money, but eventually have an exit. But having said that, Facebook may not be the best example, because from what I understand, they were actually making money from pretty early on from ads and all, and it's actually a lot more conservative than what a lot of people think. What are your thoughts about that? 

Jeremy Au (00:21:53): 

A lot of thoughts. Yeah, I think the big one is, I think, totally fair, which is I think founders say okay, I want to set up a startup and therefore I need to go out and raise venture capital, and I need to quit my job. And I'm like hold up. My friends ask me that question, I say do you need to quit job right now? Could you test some milestones, experiment, figure out Point A to Point B at least before you make that jump, because you draw a salary, and don't do a hobby over the weekend, and use that time to de-risk the company to the point of whether you decide, like you said, whether the company's worth being a venture capital funded path or not, let alone product market fit. So I think a lot of people box themselves into saying the only startup that exists is a venture backed one, and therefore I need to quit my job to be venture backed, and therefore run a startup. 

Jeremy Au (00:22:57): 

And I'm like whoa, there's a lot of conflation. And I think that's what I like about your articles is because the way that you increase the level of resolution on the founding year of startups in terms of their first 1,000 users, in terms of their first dollars in actually helps disaggregate those conflations that are often conflated at a media level. Because for them, it's like this guy's a unicorn, so I'm not going to write two, three paragraphs on how he did this first, three months before that, before beating his co-founder, before hitting a certain number of traction, before hitting a certain level of profitability, before he raised proper VC capital. That's six months to one year of time that everyone's just going to hand wave over, and I think a lot of people therefore end up consuming that chunk, that distillation, and say I've got to do all those things together. And I'm like whoa, nobody says you're an amateur, you've never scuba dive before, and the only way for you to scuba dive professionally is to quit your job and then jump straight into- Koh Samui, right? And just go diving by yourself. It's like that's a bad combo. It's like then the professionals all be like, " Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold up. You need go do your.” There's a bunch of stuff and you increase the resolution. It's like, you have the barring classroom lecture about oxygen and da, da, da, gear. And then there's this issue about gear checks and they put you in a swimming pool. I think that's that level of resolution I like about your writing. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:24:38): 

Thank you. And I think I'd like to add onto that point about not quitting your job and giving up your salary. I think the common thought out there is if you don't quit your job, you can't focus on your startup, et cetera, but not to say that's not true, but at the same time, if you're drawing a salary, you're probably in a more stable, psychological state to make better decisions. 

Jeremy Au (00:25:02): 

That's totally true. And I think one way I think about it is one interesting thing is that friends often tell me like, "Hey, I've got six months of saving therefore, there is enough time to run a startup." 

Cheng Zishuang (00:25:14): Very bad idea. 

Jeremy Au (00:25:15): 

one year. And I'm like, "You already quit your job? Are you sure? That's not enough." And they're like, "Well, what do you mean by not enough? Six months is so long, I can totally crush two company initiatives within six months." And I'm very much like, "Well, firstly you assume you can live at a lower cost of living, but I think it's tough I think to really do that. But two as well, it's hard to predict what milestones you need to do and whether you actually achieve those milestones within a timeframe to be successful, because experiments may fail and then it takes more time than you'd expect. And then thirdly, it takes time. Even if you succeeded within say three to six months of de-risking the milestones, it may take you three months to fundraise, so you get your head around it, which is a giant pain. And then that blows a timeline. And then on converse side is like, when you start drawing down your savings down to like say the three month level, you actually tell yourself like, hey, I need to start looking for a job." 

Jeremy Au (00:26:23): 

I need to start looking for a job, that takes away even more time from the fundraising and the company building process. And so as a result, people often die at that stage because it's just under budgeted that the final transition of the three months and they end up quitting the startup. So I think it's a common problem. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:26:45): 

I think not just that. I think people tend to underestimate how much time software development takes and the amounts of problems that would just crop up. And what's the best part is even the developers will underestimate what they themselves can achieve. So I usually tell people just whatever your developers say, just double the amount of time that they say. And usually, that's probably not good enough. 

Jeremy Au (00:27:13):Yeah. That's so true. What advice do you normally give to founders who are kicking off a new venture, a new stage?

Cheng Zishuang (00:27:22): 

For the first time founders, I think the usual problem is A, they totally underestimate everything that we just talked about, especially development time and B, I just don't understand why like with all the amount of literature out there, people will still have this belief in their head that the idea that is in their head and what maybe they've observed anecdotally will work, and they don't tend to validate their ideas enough. A lot of times for fear of the idea of being stolen. I think that's a very low hanging fruit in the sense that like if let's say do that, I think you are better than 50% of founders already, first time founders. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:28:13): 

And the second thing, I think it's easy to say, but very hard to do I think even for myself to be honest, is to be just very customer focused. I think you have a lot of founders out there who obsess over what their competitors are doing. And I truly honestly do think that for most products out there, if let's say you can develop something that your customer truly loves, half the time your competitors probably won't even touch you, right? 

Jeremy Au (00:28:45): 

Yeah. I think one thing that was interesting about what you said was really about the fact that it takes a lot of work and a lot of help to get stuff done. And if you ask everyone to sign NDAs, I'm not sharing ideas, et cetera, I think you just close yourself off from so much help. And help is much more valuable at a founding stage than anything else, even like money honestly at that stage. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:29:15): 

Agreed. And not only that, I think what I'm doing right now at the same time is just repeating a lot of advice that's out there. But I think at the end of the day, that's the thing with advice, right? A lot of advice tends to cycle itself. The hardest thing is for the person to actually do it. But what I'm about to say is that a lot of times you should just launch early, because you just don't know what works, especially for consumer startups or what doesn't work for that matter. 

Jeremy Au (00:29:42): 

Do you think Southeast Asian founders accept advice less or it's because of the fact that a lot of the advice seems very American centric? Do you think that's a reason why we end up repeating ourselves and maybe having a more Southeast Asian phase localizing that knowledge will make it easier for founders to swallow? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:30:02): 

In my experience at least, I don't think that Southeast Asian founders accept advice any less than their American counterparts or their European counterparts. Is that what you've observed at least anecdotally? 

Jeremy Au (00:30:20): 

Yeah. I think there was maybe a poorly framed question and assumption there. I would say that I think advice is better when it comes from someone who has similar experience and is able to contextualize that to the region. It's just the difference between well-framed and position advice versus what seems like irrelevant or out of touch advice. And I think that's something that you wrote about the first 1000 users, it felt like a great way to contextualize and felt much more effective I would say, as advice in getting your first 1000 users compared to new and American articles that say the same thing over and over again. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:31:06): Yes, that's true. 

Jeremy Au (00:31:08):One of the interesting things is that you've transitioned from not this, being founder and operator, but 

also a content creator and writer of what you've observed in startups. How has that been going for you? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:31:20): 

It's been going pretty well to be honest. Maybe let me just share a little bit as to why I started writing. I would say a few reasons. One of them would be to structure my thoughts a little bit more. And I was hoping once I put out my thoughts, I would get some good feedback which I have. And number two, I think there is some value as to creating a bit of an online following. I've gotten a lot of interesting conversations and interestingly, a lot of people have reached out to me to either advice me of startups or to invest in their startups, which is quite a new experience for me, because usually as a founder or as an operator, you are the one doing the reaching out. 

Jeremy Au (00:32:05): 

So you're not only been a founder and operator, now you're a writer as well with some really a decent writing that has gone viral in the south circles with the analysis on how people get their first 1000 users, how they get their first checks in, NFTs and everything from a Southeast Asian angle. Tell us more about your journey for that. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:32:29): 

Thanks for the kind words there. I would say there are two reasons as to why I started writing. The first one would be to structure my thoughts a little bit more, put it out there and see what feedback I get. And the second reason would be, I think there's a little bit of value to building an online community and following. I'm not sure what the value is yet, but it's a wait and see approach. And it's been interesting. One interesting thing is that right now I have people just reaching out to me randomly to either invest or to mentor their startups. Second interesting thing is I've got a lot of interesting conversations out of this writing thing. I have people writing in and share their opinions a bit more privately and this has extended into hours of conversation offline. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:33:21): 

And I think the benefit I'm getting out of that is I could look for potential collaboration at different things, or perhaps you could get me an interesting venture next, or maybe a new role of a new company, I don't know, because I'm at this stage of exploration. So I think this writing thing has been immensely beneficial to me. And number two, I think what's been interesting as well is to see the kind of articles that are more popular with different people. I think what surprised me is the articles that I didn't think would do that well have done a lot better than the articles that I thought would do a bit better. And what is the difference? I think the articles that I thought would do better are those that have gone may be where I put a bit more thought and gone a bit more in depth, but the ones that do better actually are the ones that are more easy to read and are easy to skim. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:34:15): 

And if you really think about it, that shouldn't be too surprising. And when I was thinking about this, it actually reminded me of a John Mayer interview. And he was talking about the songs that became hits and the songs that didn't become hits. And what he realized was that the songs that he thought were really good are those that he put a lot of thought into and he thought they were really deep, but you can't expect that to be a hit because what becomes popular is what is easily digestible to the masses. And if that's the case, he had to dumb down the songs a bit, be a bit more poppy. And those were the songs that became hits for him. And I was thinking yeah, actually I wouldn't put myself as a big time writer or anything, but among my small sample size, the ones that have done well are those that have clear ideas and maybe you can call it click baity in the titles, like five ways to get your investor, or five ways to get your first 1000 followers. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:35:20): 

And once you tag on big companies, that catches people's attention. And the one that was my biggest hit as I mentioned to you earlier, was my very first article, the one where I talked about how the biggest unicorns in Southeast Asia got their first 1000 users. And I think why it did well was because that's the problem that most people face, most startup founders. How do you get your first 1000 users? It's not about how you get your first 100,000 or your first million. It's really getting your first 1000 proper users who are active and really like your product. I think that was that Kelly campaign or something, where he wrote this article that went viral on Silicon Valley about finding your first 1000 true users. And I think that's because that's the problem that most founders face and it resonates with them, and yeah. 

Jeremy Au (00:36:16): 

So that's interesting about the difference between what readers want versus what you want to write, which is I think the crime that every artist performs in order to make it there. I think there's always this tension. So what do you think it is that Southeast Asian readers want to read? What aspects do you think it is? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:36:38): 

I think at the end of the day, people want to read things that they can relate to. And as we discussed earlier in the podcast, most articles out there is written for the big markets. And especially if you're an English reader, it's all a very American, very Californian context. Southeast Asian readers want to read about companies, products that they can relate to and what they see around them. And the sources that we have right now cover these companies and products on a very slightly more narrow focus. And that narrow focus tends to be around fundraising and founder stories, which are probably cobbled together by their PR team. And what readers want to read is what's actionable to them and deep analysis, which I think some people have written, not myself yet on Southeast Asian companies. 

Jeremy Au (00:37:40):When you do your research, what has struck you as the most surprising out of everything that you've written? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:37:45):I think something we talked about earlier. I'll say it's my second article, when I was looking at founders of the most successful companies in Southeast Asia. And the story is very different from the ones in  Silicon Valley. So what is the difference down here? And I think this is a little bit more counter intuitive as to what the tech media tends to portray out there. And the difference is that most of these founders actually self-funded their very first dollar, even up to your first 50 or $100,000. Think about dollars. And it's not the same as in the US where you have an idea and you raise your first half a million dollars, and then you start scaling out. And there could be a multitude of reasons for this, mainly because the most successful companies that were founded or the most successful companies today were founded probably anywhere from five to eight years ago. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:38:42): 

Grab is like what, an eight year old company, nine year old company? And during that time, the ecosystem was a lot less developed and venture capitalists weren't as confident in putting out risky dollars. I think things are changing a lot right now when you're looking at $1.5 million seed rounds with sometimes not even much of a product. That's very different from the landscape back then, when even if you have a product and some traction and you see like one, $200,000 rounds. Things have changed a lot in the last, I'd say five to eight years. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:39:19): 

So I think if we revisit this topic probably in about five to eight years time, we're going to have a very different conversation altogether. Southeast Asia is probably going through different iterations and versions of a development as a startup ecosystem. Because if you look at Silicon Valley, they've had like what, 5, 6, 7, 8 iterations if you track all the way back to the fifties, when they started with the chip processes and everything, right? And things started accelerating a lot more during the internet era. And that's been the most counter-intuitive thing for me. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:39:54): 

If you look at the background of the founders, they all tend to either come from wealth or they tend to have very well paying jobs. And that's why they can take that risk to put in that capital and goes out salary for about a year or two. Yeah. So that's the most counter-intuitive thing. I'd love to see what would be the most successful companies in about five to eight years time and doing that same study, evaluating the founders, what was their first round like, what was the whole process like? I think it's going to be very, very different to be honest. 

Jeremy Au (00:40:27): 

Yeah. Is it really that counter-intuitive that if you're well off, that it's easier to probably correlated with on average, better education, better networks, a better ability to get funding out of your own or true friends or family or out of your own pocket. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:40:45): 

Well, if you look at the American and the Chinese story, you have a lot of founders who were dirt poor. I guess Steve Jobs didn't start off with a lot of money. I guess you have Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, they were well off yes. Elon Musk cobbled his way through. I can't remember well who has that Chinese founder, but I think it was Meituan or something. There was this guy, he left his village and went to Beijing with like 500 renminbi and like 17 or something like that. So that's a very, very different narrative from Southeast Asia. 

Jeremy Au (00:41:19): 

Yeah. I think it is a very different narrative. I think that the law of large numbers, I think there's always some good stories there. And I think everybody well off also works very hard to portray themselves as coming from... It's the joke about every politician or every politician is the son of a taxi driver and eats at center. And the everybody is like, well sure, but you missed out AB part of your story. So there's a lot of rewriting of history I think. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:41:52):That's true. I think don't believe wherever you read, including what I write. 

Jeremy Au (00:41:57): 

I think what's interesting about that article is that you actually went deeper into it and it feels very different. And I've shared this to you that, that was a much stronger article because it is contrary to what most people believe happened for the fundraising journey and how the first checks happened for these companies, like Grab and other companies that you looked at. And to some extent, it's quite different from what the mainstream media portrays it as, as well. Not out of commission, but just out of omission. And so I thought that was the interesting part that you wrote. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:42:37): 

Well, thanks. And I think that goes back to one thing. Maybe you found that interesting, but the general reader didn't find it as interesting. I don't know why. Maybe because it didn't suit the narrative that they're used to, maybe it's not something that was as clickable. And that's the thing about media nowadays. It feels like the headline is more important than the content itself. I don't know. Do you feel that way? 

Jeremy Au (00:43:05): 

So let's brainstorm some articles together. So it sounds like you're saying that Jeremy is a hoity-toity person, who reads these articles over a cup of tea and a pinky out, and I'm not the mainstream reader. Okay. All right. So what are some headlines do you think would have worked well? So let's brainstorm. How about seven uniquely Southeast Asian growth hacks? How about that? Is that a good title? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:43:34): 

No. I think you want to look at what founders... The problems founders really face. And you got to look at who your audience is. I think if it's something along those lines, it will probably be like seven hacks to raise your first round of angel funding. 

Jeremy Au (00:43:50): In Southeast Asia. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:43:51): 

Seven hacks on how to get your first in Southeast Asia. And if you want to localize it even more, because the thing about Southeast Asia is really a very diverse region. It's not like the US or anything, or even like the EU. So what I would do is seven things Indonesian major investors are looking for, or probably like 10 hacks that startup founders in Singapore have raised their first $100,000 through. Something along those lines. 

Jeremy Au (00:44:22): 

So you wouldn't even use Southeast Asia, you would use like countries? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:44:26): 

Yes. If let's say your goal is to get the most number of clicks, but for me that was never really the case. For me, it was really just to put my thoughts out there and to, I don't know, talk to maybe hoity-toity people. 

Jeremy Au (00:44:41):Like, let's go more hoity-toity in this conversation. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:44:52):Yeah. And I think I've got to achieve my goals in that sense, because I think that's how we met in the first 

place. Which article was it that you noticed? I can't remember. I'm not sure if you do. 

Jeremy Au (00:45:02): 

I read 1000 users for sure, but when I read it, it didn't feel very, and I call it... There's a genre of a trend that I call success pornography. And it's always the story about like it's odd to say rise, it's very like the one thing that entrepreneurs do, kind of thing or there's that bit of a hustle porn I need to call it as well. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:45:31): Hustle porn? 

Jeremy Au (00:45:32): 

But it's very like if you hustle hard enough, you can do it, which I think is so true. You have to hustle. I just don't like the part where they make it feel like that's the only reason they succeeded. And I think it just plays to what people already believe. 

Jeremy Au (00:45:49): 

And yeah, maybe it's just like, again, maybe I'm just being hoity-toity, but I'm just like trying to be like, whoa, I like the techniques they described, but I'm not sure about what a key takeaway is because a little bit more complex or full featured than that. So I think when you wrote the first number of users, I thought that was really good from a landscape perspective, and I think it was very fair treatment of it. I wasn't thinking it was any kind of like hustle porn or anything, but it was just like when I read it, I was very much like, okay, I've seen this again and it's a lot of what I call like it's very similar to what you see in Silicon Valley, et cetera. But I think your first check in article was much more contrarian I would say to what the popular perception is. And also, I think very uniquely Southeast Asian. So I thought that was a much stronger article from my perspective. At least that's my 2 cents. I'm sure lots of people felt differently maybe. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:46:50): 

No, thanks for the feedback. And to be honest, I think it comes down to again, why the person wants to write. And I don't work for Tech in Asia or anything where the goal is to maximize your number of readers. For me, I'm really just trying to get to the right people. At the end of the day, it's more writing for myself, but you brought up an interesting point about the whole hustle porn thing, whereby people believe as long as you work hard, you're going to make it. But that's not the truth, especially in entrepreneurship, and especially if let's say you're trying to build a consumer tech company where a huge element of luck is involved. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:47:31): 

And I think you can debate all day, whether it's 50% luck or 80% luck, I don't think there's any real way to prove it, but at the end of the day, it's something that comes into play. And second of all, if you're born into the right family, with the right connections or you go to the right schools, that tends to help a lot. And if you tend to study like all these founders who make it, there is that common thread among them. I'm not sure things are going to change anytime down the road. 

Jeremy Au (00:48:03): 

It happens because it's a very easy thing to produce. Came from nothing and then figured X out, became something. The storyline writes itself. And well, not even figure something out/work really hard. It's a beautiful story. It fits in like 200 to 300 words. And I think there's also a huge demand for it, because I think everybody- 

Cheng Zishuang (00:48:23): It is. 

Jeremy Au (00:48:23): 

Even myself, I love reading this stuff because I'm like, okay. I've originally read articles like, two things that Jeff Bezos does differently, and I'm like, being a night owl or writing stuff in minutes instead of in PowerPoint decks. And it's easy to consume sure, but I think it's also very affirming to read. So at least that's how I think about it. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:48:46): 

Well, if I would be completely honest, that was my very first article and I was just trying to push something out. And I wasn't releasing anything in any particular order, but you've got me thinking a little bit as to why people like reading such stories. Is it because if you see a case of success, you believe you yourself can make it, you know what I'm saying? That as long I put in the work and as long I do what they do, it is possible. And of course the rags to riches story is evergreen because it gives people hope, that they can come from nothing and get to somewhere. 

Jeremy Au (00:49:19):Yeah. It's like what Disney does it. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:49:25):I love the way. 

Jeremy Au (00:49:25): 

It was like the happily ever after. It was like happy ever after. Okay. Here's an example. Most VC backed startups fail, for example. So it's like what, 90% over. And so if you think about it, if I read about VC backed startup, 90% of the article should be negative and 10% of it should be positive, just by like saying the ratio of whatever it is. 

Jeremy Au (00:49:57): 

And I'm not saying that when we talk about failure, we're talking about, oh, you're a bad person or you feel blah, blah, blah, but more like, okay, this is what happened, and these are the things that we learn A, B and C. And if I saw that, then I would be reading it and I'll be like, okay, I read, I don't know, that 90% of failures from a considerate and considered and thoughtful perspective and 10% are successful, I think I have a much, not only like moralistically have to learn about my personal odds, but also I think honestly, better preparation to be a successful founder, because now you know how people feel and you kind of... Running a startup is just as much about avoiding failure as it is about pushing for success. 

Jeremy Au (00:50:41): 

And I think the common media component is probably the total opposite. It's probably like 90% success stories and 10% is evil CEO. Not too many incompetent/companies growing faster than the company CEO can scale versus all kinds of more real archetypes that happen. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:51:05): 

Yeah. It's classic survivorship bias. And the problem with survivorship bias, it's quite hard to get the data of startups that fail, for one because it's quite difficult to track who failed because if they failed, you would never have heard of them. And B, there isn't really an incentive for these failed founders to go out and tell their story. I remember back then, I'm not sure if it's still going on, there's this thing called FailCon, do you remember that? 

Jeremy Au (00:51:33):Yeah. What happened to them? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:51:35):I don't know. Maybe that says something. I think there was this thing called Fuckup Nights as well. 

 

Jeremy Au (00:51:41):I remember those. Those were in Singapore. Yeah. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:51:44): Yes. 

Jeremy Au (00:51:45):Global. Yeah. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:51:46): Yeah. It definitely was in Singapore. I'm not sure if they had anywhere else. And maybe people just don't 

want to talk about their failures because there's a penalty for it. 

Jeremy Au (00:51:54): 

Yeah. I think it's totally true. Yeah. That reminds me, I think there's a Harvard business professor who focuses a lot on entrepreneurship and he just wrote a book on startup failure. So professor Eisenman, definitely recommend that book. A ton of great insights in his analysis on how startups fail, which is most companies. Our founders believe there is a function of competition that kills a company, but actually by statistics, it's mostly implosion, self-inflicted wins, like founder departure or mismanagement, as well as a speed trap, I think we're just like the mismatch of what you talked earlier about, which is investor expectations versus operating reality and like not managing both sites well enough to make them part of the same reality. So I think it's something that's interesting, and hopefully we get to talk more about it over time. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:52:50): 

Yeah. Anecdotally, I completely agree that most companies die from suicide and homicide. But the strange thing is that I don't know why despite all the literature out there, you still have a lot of founders who are very afraid of their ideas getting stolen. 

Jeremy Au (00:53:08): Yeah, for sure. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:53:08): 

Or competition is going to kill them, that they focus more on the competition rather than getting the company right, making sure their products serve users, all that kind of stuff. I'm not sure whether it's a basic instinct that humans can never get over or is it only the best founders can do that. And just being able to focus can enable you to beat 90% of the competition. 

Jeremy Au (00:53:34): 

Yeah. I think it just humanizes the stop struggle, because it's way easier to have a competitor that you're trying to beat than it is to achieve your personal best as a company. It's why when we watch a marathon, everyone's running at the same time rather than letting them run their own time on target and then. It's just better TV and like you said, maybe it's just human nature. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:54:01):Yeah. I guess people would rather watch gladiator sports than marathons. Marathons are so boring to watch. 

Jeremy Au (00:54:08): 

Or the marathon just like, I can't believe this hoity-toity person right there who doesn't understand the true joy of marathon writing, but yeah. I definitely watch probably more MMA than marathon writing for sure. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:54:24): 

MMA is probably at the core of human nature to people fighting. 

Jeremy Au (00:54:30): 

Yeah, exactly. Just stick them in a room. When you think about artists, digital media, and what are your thoughts about the creative economy as well? Like the rise of writers like yourself, how do you feel about that trend? 

Cheng Zishuang (00:54:44): 

Long and short of it, I think the creative economy as a trend is pretty cool. I think this term bubble probably in the last six months or so, maybe to be generous maybe 12 months. I am still looking at it very cautiously, but optimistically. I think there's value to be being part of an institution. Be it if let's say you are a writer or a singer or whatever it is, because institutions are able to bring together expertise together, right? 

Jeremy Au (00:55:18): Right. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:55:19): 

At the end of the day, you need the best teams to produce the best products. But at the same time, I think as for the creator economy, there are two segments that have been very successful. And perhaps it's because in these segments, you don't really need a team. The first one is the adult vertical. OnlyFans really, really took off during the pandemic. And it probably showed you don't need a whole studio to actually provide joy to your end user. The second one... 

Jeremy Au (00:55:55):Wow, that was... That framed as it could be. All right, yes. Keep going. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:56:02): 

The second one, your writers. And the reason why it's probably a lot of the times the writers, they probably... I've never been a part of a writing team. So I don't really know how it works, but I can assume that going through your editor, having to craft a narrative that is in line with the publication that you work with, can be a very painful process. And this disintermediation has given the writers a lot of freedom. And that's why you're seeing a lot of cool stuff coming out on Substack. And at the same time, the problem with journalism today I think is, journalists aren't compensated very well from what I understand, unless you're working at a place like the New York Times, where you get a proper six figures or a salary. Other than that, most journalists probably make, let's just say not what the value is. But when they can go freelance and monetize directly from their audience, their audience are pretty much voting directly with their dollars. And the best journalists do get compensated very well. And those that don't, probably just aren't writing what people want to read about, right? 

Jeremy Au (00:57:17): 

Yeah. I think there's a lot of truth there. And I think at the end of the day, internet is letting people just unbundle themselves. I think the key thing about the writing industry is like yeah, all these writers were bundled. The Young aspiring writer, the pretty decent mainstream writer, and a superstar writer all got bundled together in the same in a blog called the newspaper. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:57:39): 

Yes. 

Jeremy Au (00:57:41):So you're overpaying for the junior folks, you're paying the nicheing folks that's right, and you’re underpaying the top folks. And now your top folks

Jeremy Au (00:57:49): 

Ability to... Yeah, exactly. My joke in my head is like for The Straits Times, the superstar writer Sumiko Tan, because he's the only person that anybody can name, who was a writer at The Straits Times. Can you think of any other person who writes The Straits Times? It is effectively a big fat zero for me, and so time probably appeals to a very... Targets that type of persona. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:58:16):Well, not to bash too much on The Straits Times, but how many people do you know pay for The Straits Times? 

Jeremy Au (00:58:21): 

Well, it's like my parents and my in-laws and I guess I did subscribe for the digital subscription because of COVID. So there was enough articles for me to follow for the introductory offer. But I also do subscribe to, which is the Chinese equivalent of FT, Financial Times, which is really good business writing and analytical stuff. And then I do subscribe to The Economist. I've canceled my subscription to FT itself because not too much value there. I am subscribed to Tech in Asia and The Information and The Ken. So yeah, actually I do subscribe to a lot of stuff. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:59:09):You subscribe a lot more than most people. 

Jeremy Au (00:59:11):I subscribe to Trends, and as well as probably The Ken as well. Okay. Yeah. So maybe I need to like reevaluate my news budget. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:59:24):That's easy. Like one 200 bucks on new subscriptions, right? 

Jeremy Au (00:59:28): Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (00:59:29): 

But I love reading. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:59:29): That's good. 

Jeremy Au (00:59:31):I guess maybe the hoity-toity person, it's just like, oh you read The Economist. Okay. Oh no. That's why you liked this is. 

Cheng Zishuang (00:59:44):Well, maybe what you tell me you read it in The New Yorker, that's when I consider you a bit more 

hoity-toity. 

Jeremy Au (00:59:50): 

I don't read the New Yorker or The Atlantic. Obviously, I read some stuff that happens along the way, but not that... I'm sure everybody reads New York Times when it comes up on Facebook. Probably Facebook and Twitter is probably like the biggest news source for most folks, right? 

Cheng Zishuang (01:00:05): 

For sure. But back to your point of the creative economy and writing, we're noticing like the top few writers making a ton of money, but at the same time that this is going to be like most platforms, you're going to have 1% of writers making a lot of money and the rest aren't going to make anything or barely surviving at all. But the cool thing I guess, is that this probably provides some sort of competition for the mainstream sort of publications and it probably changed the way they operate. How so? I'm not sure. I'm not sure whether they will really seeing the effects right now, because if you use America as a comparison, I think the New York Times, they lost quite a few big time journalists. How has that affected the publication? I'm not too sure. I didn't really follow that much. Did you? 

Jeremy Au (01:01:01): 

Not too much, but I think there's been a lot of generations in the market around the US around how to defend or attack versus Facebook and then Substack and these other different folks. Actually, let's focus the conversation a little bit more. So what do you think about Straits Times? So recently, the local part of the duopoly in terms of news in Singapore has been around for, what, 200 years typically. And it just got nationalized into the Singapore government as a company limited by guarantee. And then obviously, there's been a lot of noises around digital disruption, landscape, there is a lot of conversation about umbrage and the CEO. So what do you think about all of that in the context of what we're talking about? 

Cheng Zishuang (01:01:50): 

The Straits Times, it's a really unique case. The Straits Times has traditionally been, I don't want to say a government mouthpiece, but I would say it's along those lines. And its main role is to provide an avenue for the government to push a message. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because at the end of the day a nation does need some sort of a coherent narrative. But at the same time, I think when this has been used too aggressively on a population that is not dumb, it becomes a bit of a joke. I'm not sure how else to put it nicely. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:02:40): 

And especially in a day and age like today when you can get new sources anywhere in the world through the internet, as compared to when you and I were up, when there were no other new sources and you can only speculate what's out there, or maybe you can get a physical copy of the New York Times or The Economists and make a comparison. But right now it's just so easy for anyone to see that it's making in comparison at least what The Straits Times has been putting out, is looking more and more like a government mouthpiece. And people just don't like that. People don't like being told what to do inherently. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:03:19): 

And I think they're going to struggle a lot. Maybe what they should do is just focus on local news because that's what no one else can do. Maybe they should just be focusing on releasing government PR statements. Maybe that's their role. I don't know. I think if they're trying to it to anything else, it's a bit challenging. But actually now that I think about it, maybe they should just be providing food reviews. They do that pretty well. 

Jeremy Au (01:03:47):They do a great food review section, actually. I think actually, now you mentioned it, I do read their food reviews quite often. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:03:59):It's sad it comes down to that's what they are good at. 

Jeremy Au (01:04:02): 

It's more like every newspaper is a bundle, so you have your sports, you have financial news, you have your arbitrary, you have your government announcements of course, you have your food reviews, you have your lifestyle section and you have your op ads, you have your reader letters. So I think it's always about our bundle, so our portfolio. So I wouldn't necessarily say that looking at newspaper and say that the food reviews are good. I wouldn't actually look at it as like a backhanded compliment. I would just say like, ah, that's good. Because it's like saying like Disney has great kids' movies. Yeah. Disney has got Mandalorian and Star Wars and Clone Wars, which is actually a very different target audience because it's pretending to be for kids, whereas actually for middle aged guys like myself. 

Jeremy Au (01:04:48): 

And I tell myself that I'm watching it for the kids, it's just a big show, blah, blah, blah. And I'm like, no, it's very different. So I wouldn't look at it as a backhanded compliment. But let's talk about the bias piece, because like New York times, definitely a liberal bias in terms of the social liberal and economically liberal, everybody knows that. You see obviously Fox News on the other end of the scale, you'll see obviously past US administrations being defensive or offense being on attack against media that they consider like biased towards one side or the other. And of course in the middle of that, you have NPR, which is also seen as bias sometimes on both sides, depending on how they're looking at it. 

Jeremy Au (01:05:41): 

But it's probably the closest to American BBC equivalent. The British BBC also has it's... It's also like a public trust dynamic, also has it's own set of biases obviously, very pro British point of view. But strong editorial as well. We've talked about Guardian being part of a public trust. We know that SCMP enticing obviously you have to abide by Chinese regulations around what's inbound that was out of bounds. Al Jazeera as well has also been booted out of a couple of middle Eastern countries for being slanted one side versus the other side. So is it hypocrisy? Does it say like there's a slantor that we don't like? 

Cheng Zishuang (01:06:26): 

I think the thing is that all the journals that you've mentioned, yes, they have a strong slant and so does The Straits Times, but the more I think about it, I think at the end of the day, it is the quality of writing and the quality of thought that they put out. And when I was thinking about what kind of quality of writing in terms of social issues in a localized context, when I say localized, I mean Singapore, is actually really good. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:06:54): 

Actually, I'm not sure what you think about it, but I think Rice Media does a pretty good job. And interestingly, I went to school with the guy who founded Rice Media, a few of my friends actually, they founded it. And when it first started out, I think they wanted to write something that was of good quality, something that Straits Times would never write, they'll cover issues that the Straits Times doesn't dare, because at the end of the day, I think the Straits Times also has a bit of a moralistic slant to it. And it wouldn't cover certain issues that they are afraid would offend a certain segment of traditional society in Singapore. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:07:33): 

If you look at Rice Media, they cover stuff in the red-light district or trans issues. I don't think that's something that you'll see the Straits Times ever cover. And at the end of the day, people nowadays have a ton of things to read about and people aren't going to settle for bland news. If the Straits Times wants to carry on doing well, maybe they should just buy Rice Media. Maybe they should buy the ship. 

Jeremy Au (01:08:05): 

Yeah. Now that you mentioned it, if we talk about it, so does this global narrative, which is like, oh, media is tough times, but there are some winners, but they are really rare and far between, which is I think the narrative that we've been reading half of the Straits Times about. Why they're struggling as a paper. And I think that's a great analysis by Brian Shew, the founder of TheSmartLocal. And he was just basically saying like, hey, okay, but the other way to look at it, it's not that everyone is struggling and a few succeeding, but hey, a few are succeeding in the midst of all this change and what differentiates them is the ability do digital transformation. That's one level. 

Jeremy Au (01:08:49): 

And actually, there are lots of local media outlets that are doing well and profitable like TheSmartLocal and Mothership and Rice. Not everybody is obviously doing well, but obviously as gag is a form of news]. I think so yeah. If you've read some of the stuff, I think you know how they are like. I need to get a core of the humor of a new story really fast the second they break their announcements. 

And you do see those articles getting re-shared or done over and over again. I've definitely used TheSmartLocal for reviews of local products, similar to how I use Wirecutter by the New York Times in the states or Consumer Reports in the the states. 

Jeremy Au (01:09:36):I do use Mothership because people love to reshare Mothership articles as well as Rice Media articles to a slightly smaller extent, right? 

Cheng Zishuang (01:09:46): Much smaller. 

Jeremy Au (01:09:47):So I definitely see the Straits Times articles getting reshared now that I think about it, unless it's mentioning their own company. Yeah. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:09:54):Did you say that you rarely or you often see the Straits Times articles getting re-shared? 

Jeremy Au (01:09:59):Rarely see Straits Times articles getting re-shared from my perspective. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:10:02):Yeah, that's true. I think you brought up a good point in the sense that they don't understand how to do digital as well, right? 

Jeremy Au (01:10:08): Right. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:10:09): 

And at the end of the day, the main problem is if you look at something that's very, very mainstream and where the idea is to get a lot of clicks, like Mothership, they do that very well or for Rice, where they're doing very in-depth thought pieces, which is very good and caters to a certain segment. But at the end of the day, they are catering to their reader. Yeah? And they're writing what people want to read about. But the difference with The Straits times is they're pushing what they want onto the reader. And that's not appealing to anyone. So The Straits Times probably needs to adapt, not just digitally, but culturally, and they have a lot to figure out. 

Jeremy Au (01:10:54): Yeah. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:10:55): 

And the problem is the people they are putting in charge of this, I'd like to be proven wrong, but I don't think that... I think this would be a repeat of how when the American Congress summoned all the top tech startup CEOs, if you get my drift on this. 

Jeremy Au (01:11:16): 

Yeah. I think the way that it was framed was like the previous administration of The Straits Times had neither done a digital industry nor done any successful transformational work. So they walked into a industry they thought was stable and going to keep going as it was for the past 100 years of dividends and profitability, and didn't see the need and eventually could not successfully execute the two parts of it, which is understanding what it needs to be to become additional player. And then secondly, the successful transformation needed to do that, which is investing in writers, we talked about it, to create quality journalism, investing in the technical work needed to get clicks, investing in the reputational work needed to expand the imbed from this Singapore audience of a couple million folks to being a regional player, similar to Al Jazeera for obvious Asia. Because I think in contrast you see Channels News Asia is doing pretty well being that regional trusted source of news, which is a quite an interesting dynamic actually. So I think it's something that I'm quite mindful about and I think that's why Brian choose writing was pretty good was about that aspect of there are successful local benchmarks, there are digital players. 

Jeremy Au (01:12:47): 

And Mediacorp has also made that transition as well, actually. Because I've definitely watched a lot of content by their team actually on YouTube as well. To be honest I think I was watching one on air fryers and if they work. Another one was whether the intermittent fasting works. And then another one was walking around Singapore. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:13:09): This by Mediacorp? 

Jeremy Au (01:13:12): Yeah, Mediacorp. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:13:12): Oh Wow, okay. 

Jeremy Au (01:13:13): 

And of course I think this, we see some independent journalism. For example, with SuduaTV.com, he's an independent journalist. He was a previous podcast episode here. We'll look into it in the show notes. I think his approach is very much like what you just said, he has a very specific niche and he appeals people of that niche to come in and listen to what he's saying.I think Bertha Hansen is another independent journalist, who has a very clear point of view and she has a ton of clicks and views of what she's doing. And in some ways it's interesting where she's most successful as an independent influencer and taught leader versus her previous work to build at a time the middle ground, which was the attempt to build centrist newspaper. I think there's a very different approach where you're like best of breed of different niches and then putting them together under one table versus lowest common denominator approach for the masses, which is very different. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:14:21): 

But at the same time, do you think The Straits Time should be going regional or should be competing on those levels when it's not in their DNA? Because the way I see it is the more I think about it right now, now that you're forcing me to think about it, what's The Straits Times good for. I mean, other than food reviews. They're good for relaying important news to the public, right? A and B, reporting on very local news and this is something that CBOG going to be interested in reading no matter what, no matter how international, no matter how good other stuff there is out there. So maybe at the end of the day we should just make it a, I mean it's already halfway there, right. It should be a public utility and the government should just pay for it, and if you want anything on COVID or like crime scenes in Singapore or if Indonesia is burning their forests and like what's the PSI index you just go to The Straits Times. Maybe that's its fate. 

Jeremy Au (01:15:26): Oof. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:15:27): 

No, no, I'm not trying to be insulting. I'm not trying to be insulting down here, but I'm saying you want to focus on what you're good at, right? And it's a skill to present all this sort of information an accurate manner and they have no incentive to. If you remove the profit incentive from them and all they have to do is just report news accurately and removing the journalistic sort of element from it, that's what they've been really good at and that's what people turn to them for, right? Do you, do you really go to The Straits Times for anything thought provoking or journalistic? It's mostly for the reporting, right? 

Jeremy Au (01:16:06): Oof. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:16:07):No, I'm not trying to be insulting again. I'm just saying that's where the core competency is. 

Jeremy Au (01:16:14): I agree that. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:16:15):  You're being so cautious down there. 

Jeremy Au (01:16:17): News is one of. 

Jeremy Au (01:16:21):I mean, okay, I agree that local views is one of the pillars of what they're good at. And there is a clear need for it because if I want to know what's happening in terms of the local murder at block 457, no one else is going to report about it which is interesting too. Everybody in, not just obviously at block 457, but also the whole block, the whole area and the whole country and it's never going to be reported in New York Times because one murder is not very dramatic thing from New York Times zone from this perspective. Whereas the Singapore is like,"Whoa, how many murders are there at a year?" It's actually, "What, there was a gun involved?." That's probably like, "Wow, that's like really amazing," because there are so few of those events that happen a year. 

Jeremy Au (01:17:12): 

So I think there's something around that nicheness of that local news that obviously there continues to be demand, but also continues to be some nicheness to do something in. So I think there's that. It's just that I think you have that core and you still have that capability to be beyond that. I mean, at minimum you should be targeting the Singapore and Dispora as well. I think you also need to be targeting different tiers of the Singapore reading audience because I think even like the Singapore market in terms of newspaper there's only two tiers: there's free, a certain number of articles per day, and then they have introductory tier into some sort of longer term digital subscription, and I think they have a paid newspaper thing that's caught happening in parallel. 

Jeremy Au (01:18:02): 

And then I think kind of missing a third tier, which is like what we talked about which is you're not just paying 20 bucks a month or whatever it is but paying like 50 to a 100 bucks a month, right? But that staff needs to be super solid. And I think that's what I think, I feel like. In the Singapore it continues to be a financial hub for service Asia. I think it continues to be a driver of a lot of financial activity, a lot of startup activity. I don't see why we have to be defeatist about The Straits Times capabilities to broaden that out. But I do agree with you that may not be the strategy that is going to be undertaken moving forward. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:18:44): 

I want to clarify, I'm not being defeatest down here. It's just being focused, realistic. Because if you think about it, I mean, you've mentioned unbundling a few times and what happens when thing gets unbundled? People get very good at their niches and a few of those people that you've mentioned, some of their work is truly outstanding. And I mean, it's sad to say I've not seen that quality of work from The Straits Times in the last whatever. I don't know, but I know what I go to The Straits Times for. So in a time when everything's unbundled, maybe you should focus on what you're really good at. If you don't focus, you're just going to get slaughtered, because we are living in this world. 

Jeremy Au (01:19:30):So these are the two people who are pitching at a bot meeting right now, right? 

Cheng Zishuang (01:19:35): No, no. 

Jeremy Au (01:19:39):We got to continue cost cutting. Screw this deep writing, let's focus on block 445B, 447 murders. Let's focus on that and more press releases. I'm the guy who was like, "We need to go regional. We need to win on the business users and have more price tier and innovate and have better writers." Do you think that's a fair comparison of our positions? 

Cheng Zishuang (01:20:08): 

What I would like to say is if I was working at The Straits Times, I would never say what I'm saying now. I would go with your approach because the Board is never, ever going to swallow what I'm suggesting. I'm saying maybe two friends down here, I think that's probably what they should do. Although realistically speaking, knowing who's on the Board of The Straits Times, they're not going to go for that. I mean, it's just too much of an ego crusher, right. 

Jeremy Au (01:20:38): 

I feel like it's opposite. I think that if I was a Straits Times, I would not say what I just said, because I want to keep my job and to say we focus on what we're doing this. If feels is like a more straightforward path to slash your way to profitability. If you worked for NOL, why wouldn't you work for The Strait Times, Slash S. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:21:01): 

Can you imagine these government scholars on the Board they're being pitched that and they're listening, "Yeah, let's reduce The Straits Times to this: food reviews and local news. And no journalism, just straight out reporting. And the digital elements of it is people probably just have an app and they just get some daily updates. It would be like a COVID update app, but then you just get something of local news." It's very unappealing, right? 

Jeremy Au (01:21:31): 

You know, if you look at BBC and NPR, that's a lot of their bread and butter. Nobody in Southeast Asia listens to NPR, but Americans listened to NPR which is massively government subsidized and funded. And then you look at BBC. I mean, sure, we read a lot. My dad used to like switch on a radio to BBC because he would always coin knew ones like, "We need to have BBC and we need to keep it on air no matter what." And so my dad would always in the car would always be like "tune to BBC." I can remember the startup sound, it's like, "this is the BBC." And he was just tune in all the time for the BBC news, but you look at BBC news or so that they talk heavily about everything from a very Anglo perspective, but they do the local news and they also do the global take. 

Jeremy Au (01:22:21): 

I don't know. I feel that maybe I more optimistic is that I feel like there's an audience for a Singaporean point of view on the world that's like independent, not to America, not to Chinese in focusing on obviously Singaporean news as one pillar. I think a regional, a channel using Asia's take, investigative or clear journalism in a region, and a Singaporean take, a Pan Asian take on the world news. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:22:52): 

My optimistic point of view, now you've painted me as a eternal pessimist. My optimistic point of view is that I think what Singapore does very well is that we straddle east and west pretty well. And even more so than, let's say an Asian American whose parents from China and they grew up in the US. At the end of the day. they still have a lot of an American perspective. I think the nature of being a small country and the way that our country was structured was that our bread and butter is being able to straddle both cultures well. And not only that, we don't really have a real stake to take sides from the US or China, the two big boys. We're kind of that small boat in these two cruise liners. And our point of view is what's very needed in the world today where it's very polarized. I think our point of view is the centrist point of view. And if anything, I think maybe that's an opportunity for a Singapore media entity to push. 

Jeremy Au (01:24:07):Yeah. You know, I think there's something to it. I just feel like, this again. I say, this is like, what? Just eat this, a happy ending. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:24:20):Maybe, maybe. What would the happy ending look like for The Strait Times? 

Jeremy Au (01:24:24): 

That's a good question. I mean, in my brain it's like Al Jazeera for the region I would say. That's how I think about it. I read Al Jazeera for an alternative take to New York Times as well as other like Washington Post. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:24:40): Washington Post. 

Jeremy Au (01:24:42): 

Yeah, probably, and BBC. I think Al Jazeera does some really good investigative journalism. So I mean, obviously I don't pay for them in this case, but I can see if I was much more intertwined with the region and topics, I would definitely be a regular subscriber in that sense. BBC or Al Jazeera for the region probably be the happy ending for everybody involved, like the Prince is, you know, couple one to save the day. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:25:14): 

Maybe, maybe let's hope so. I think they'll have to find a way to attract the best talent to work for them. Singapore government has always found a way to do that. Maybe there'll be a scholarship. Maybe some government scholars will want to be reporters for The Strait Times instead of working at the EDB. Find the best brains to work on that, give them the freedom to operate. Boom. Singapore becomes the Al Jazeera for Southeast Asia. 

Jeremy Au (01:25:43): 

Yeah, I think so. I think there's a strong possibility, right? At least that's what I think. And I think there's a lot of great talent and I hope they also pull in some talent form the local digital players. Start pushing some people, I guess, from Vice and Smart Local and everybody. And then go multi channel because if they produce something on the article doesn't mean that like what you and I know now, which is you can also go via podcast. You can go via YouTube, right? The same content can travel many different ways. And also like you and I both know, and we've heard multiple times that Strait Times digital capabilities are also pretty weak technically. Sometimes we talk about the big strategy piece, but also if you're just not doing AB testing regularly or having the fundamental thoughtfulness around what makes a good hit line for the digital age and how to gain a trash hold properly it's also a big problem as well. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:26:43): 

That's very true. Actually one company they can learn from is the SCMP. The SCMP, the current CEO is, I can't remember his name, but he was the former CEO of Dig actually, obviously after Kevin Rose. And I think he hitted Spotify's innovation lab or something like that. And he's managed to turn the fortunes around. And I'm not sure if he followed the SCMP, but I think they produce some pretty good stuff. They clearly got a very bright guy who understands how a consumer tech business should operate and media actually in the modern day and age. So I think the first step for The Straits Times, if they were to go down that route at least would probably be to bring in a big heavy weight like that to transform the company. 

Jeremy Au (01:27:32): Yeah. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:27:34): Who would you get? 

Jeremy Au (01:27:36): The SCMP guy. 

Jeremy Au (01:27:40): 

I'm just saying, I mean, you want to buy someone who's done it before. In the perfect world, you always try to say, "have you done the exact same thing before for the exact same type of company," which is a digital transformation of flagship newspaper. In this case, SCMP is great, maybe someone from Al Jazeera, but I think SCMP probably would be a little bit palatable I think as an owner. I think there's a lot of great talent out there, honestly. I think we just have to be okay with that. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:28:13): Well, not we, but yeah. 

Jeremy Au (01:28:15):I was like you and I actually go off and it was just like, yes about doing key podcast and newsletter audiences. And we're like, yep. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:28:25):I think we should start a movement. You should get all your guests and I'll get all my readers to actually go behind this. Maybe we could do something. 

Jeremy Au (01:28:34): 

Well, the truth is there's a lot of great emerging journalists and writers out there, content, creators, and just doing it themselves. So let me ask a question. Who do you think is going to win: the Smart Local or The Straits Times? 

Cheng Zishuang (01:28:48): In terms of? 

Jeremy Au (01:28:51): 

Whatever way you try to decide it? 

Cheng Zishuang (01:28:53):I think if I would bet on who readers in Singapore prefer to read or who they turn to when it comes to more entertainment sort of news in Singapore. I guess the Smart Local would win by a mile. 

Jeremy Au (01:29:08):I mean, of course today by 10 years. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:29:09): Oh, 10 years. Jeez 

Jeremy Au (01:29:13):I mean, obviously now everybody knows what the answer is. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:29:19): 

10 years is a bit too far ahead. Let's talk five. Five years I'd still say the smart local and I'll tell you why. I think 10 years is a bit too hard to project. I always say three to five is a bit more realistic because looking at who they brought on The Straits Times, it's more of the same so I don't think the thinking is going to change very much. And the Smart Local guy, Bryan Chu, right? 

Jeremy Au (01:29:44): Yeah. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:29:45):I met him like about 10 years ago, smart guy. And he's young. He understands how things work, very 

focused. And I don't think you can compete with that unless you bring in someone like him. 

Jeremy Au (01:29:58):Yeah, or you acquire him, I guess. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:30:02):Oh my, he would love that. I bet he would love that. It was like. 

Jeremy Au (01:30:06): 

He could take in charge of digital. No big one. I think right now he's like, we just podcast episode comes up just to him say, "Hey, we think Straits Times should acquire you too. That's our recommendation to Straits Times" like in our very like considerate, commentary / expert recommendation. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:30:27):You know what? We should probably start like a podcast together recommending acquisitions. 

Jeremy Au (01:30:32): 

I recommend acquisitions. 

Jeremy Au (01:30:36): 

I mean, like you said earlier, I think Straits Times might as well acquire Mothership. I think Mothership has done a better job with infographics and its explanation of circuit breaker restrictions than The Strait Times by far. On WhatsApp, I consume so much Mothership stuff because Mothership has the articles on the powers, on what people are actually thinking about today. And writing it today. You know, like authors eating fish, like in someone's backyard and I'm like that's highly engrossing material that's not a murder of a gun at block 457 but it's really interesting 

Cheng Zishuang (01:31:17): 

I think because they get to publish whoever they want right at the end of the day. And my suspicion is you have some very smart people in The Straits Times who are equally cheeky, like the people at Mothership, but whatever they want to write probably just doesn't pass editorial verification or vetting, so to speak. 

Jeremy Au (01:31:37): 

I think the assumption here is just like, if you are building something for a certain number of pages of newspaper, you need to have all the various teams write a certain amount of copy. And then those that make the cut, make the cut and those that don't make the cut, don't make the cut. But I think in the online world where there's no limit to how much paper you can print, because it's a webpage, it's all bits, you should just publish everything you write, no matter how weird or no matter how quirky it is, it's just a matter of packaging it in a way it finds his audience and gets there and gets reshared. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:32:17): 

Yeah. But at the same time, you can imagine The Straits Times has a certain image to uphold. So you're not going to publish things that are too quirky. I think that is the problem. And people don't want to read blind shit nowadays, I think. 

Jeremy Au (01:32:30):Well that would add media on The Straits Times podcast, but here you can go ahead. So for those who 

want those little juicy exclamation, there you go. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:32:46):Also last thing to wrap things up, you know, what tip would you have for content creators to be brave? 

Cheng Zishuang (01:32:54): 

To be honest, so I've spoken to quite a few friends who've wanted to start writing and a lot of them don't start. And to be honest, it took me a few weeks to get started as well, because you write something and you look at it and you're like, "Oh, this is not good at all." You end up with a Google Drive of half written pieces. And I think the most brave thing you can do is just to publish your work that you think is not that good because at the end of the day, most of us, we're just too harsh on ourselves. 

Jeremy Au (01:33:32): 

Awesome. Well, thanks so much. I appreciate you coming on the show. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:33:35): No, thanks for having me. 

Jeremy Au (01:33:37): 

I really appreciate it. I think three parts that we talked about, right? So the first part is your personal experience as a founder and how that translates as advice to first time founders and some of the mythology and the real reality of it. The second thing I really appreciated was your personal journey in terms of content creation and your personal taste as John Mayer, as a writer, and your thoughts about what the audience wants versus what you like to write versus what the best approach to thinking about it. And then thirdly, I enjoyed a little banter around Singapore press holdings and how they would survive the great unbundling that's happening in the digital media age and how there could be different approaches to it for better or for worse. And hopefully there's a happily ever after for the story, for all perspectives. And we'll see how it goes in the future. 

Cheng Zishuang (01:34:33):Thank you for having me. You've been a very good host and I've enjoyed our banter and the opportunity to share my experiences. 

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