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Chris Sirisereepaph on SE Asia VC Dynamics, Thought Leadership Via Investment Thesis & Sharing Your Secret Sauce

· Show Notes,VC,Popular,Singapore,Thailand

I do think VC is very much a people business. It's important to understand that. So, your network within the technical system is super important. Your own branding or reputation within the ecosystem, how founders can relate to you, and just basically find you a nice person that they can have coffee with and bounce ideas off with. That's very important. I think those factors would be more important than actually having some form of formal training. - Chris Sirise

Chris Sirise is a partner at Saison Capital, a FinTech-focused venture capital fund, that has done especially well in emerging markets like Southeast Asia and India. Their direct investments include Grab, Southeast Asia's largest startup and super-app, as well as ShopBack, Southeast Asia's largest shopping and cashback rewards platform. Their limited partner investments include global funds like Better Tomorrow Ventures, Quona Capital and Antler. This year they invested in companies such as Bukukas, Ula, Repute and Tazapay.

Chris grew up mostly in Singapore and graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelors in Engineering. His first job out of school was with Singapore’s civil service in Enterprise Singapore, the agency that oversees policies related to small and medium enterprises. These were the early days of the tech ecosystem starting in South East Asia and where his interest in venture capital started. After Enterprise Singapore, he joined SPH Ventures, a US-SEA media and consumer tech focused fund and also spent time at Grab launching financial services in the Philippines.

Chris is also married and a father of a very energetic 4 year old. He never outgrew his childhood hobby of playing computer games and is glad it has now become a cool thing to do.

Jeremy Au: [00:01:56] Hey, Chris, good to have you on board.

Chris Sirise: [00:01:58] Thanks for having me. Hi, Jeremy.

Jeremy Au: [00:02:00] So, what's interesting is that you've had a really incredible journey as a VC in Southeast Asia and fintech. So I'm really excited to share your insights and personal journey with everybody out there.

Chris Sirise: [00:02:11] Sure. Happy to share what I can.

Jeremy Au: [00:02:13] For those who haven't had a chance to catch a burger with you, like we just did, how would you describe your professional journey?

Chris Sirise: [00:02:21] So it's a bit of a mixed bag, like I suppose most VCs. There isn't really a traditional path to VC. So, I think mine's different from most. So, probably start in university. That's where I did engineering. I was pretty sure at that point, I was either going to public policy, or be a hardcore engineer. I was quite a technical person back then. Finance definitely never occurred to me, I didn't even know that VC as a job existed.

So, what happened was, I started my career in Enterprise Singapore, which is a government agency in Singapore that looks after startups and SMEs. And back then, that was 2012. So there was early days of the startup ecosystem in Singapore, as well as Southeast Asia. There was a lot of government intervention back then, just to get everything started.

And as part of that, I managed to get opportunity to meet a lot of interesting founders, as well as VCs. They were setting up shops in Singapore. And that was my exposure to VC. I found it really interesting. Also decided that's something that at least I could try doing. There was kind of a good blend between understanding business models, as well as some of my technical background, can be helpful. Because most of it was tech right. Most of the products were tech.

So post Enterprise Singapore, joined SPH Ventures, which is the corporate venture of the conglomerate in Singapore. That was probably one of the larger funds in Southeast Asia back then. And the interesting thing was they not only had a Southeast Asia mandate, they also had a US mandate. So that gave me an opportunity to explore the tech ecosystem in the US a little bit. I was there for a couple of years. Post that, joined Credit Saison in the corporate development team. That's where I was seconded over to Grab for about a year, to launch financial services in the Philippines. And then post that, set up Saison Capitol, as one of the founding partners.

So that was mostly my journey. It was kind of a mixture of public policy plus operation work, and then also VC work. And some of, I guess, the blender experience of everything has been helpful, including the experience of being in the US. Including experience of having some technical education in university.

Jeremy Au: [00:04:42] Amazing. You know, so many people are curious about what it takes to get into VC, or what a VC life is. I'm kind of curious. What was your first day as a #VC, like? Can you bring us to that room or that place when you first stepped into the hallowed halls of VC life?

Chris Sirise: [00:05:03] To be honest, I think I really lucked out on getting that first VC job. To be honest, I don't think I really had a good idea of what I was supposed to be doing. And so, I spent probably the most of the first day Googling. It's pretty amazing what you can learn on Google, even back then.

My boss did throw me off the cliff from the first day. So he was that kind of boss. I had started running my own deal on the very first day. So that meant I spent most of the first day Googling various legal terms, which I'd never come across before. It was the first time I even looked at a legal document, because I came from engineering school, right? Legal documents are very far from that. So that's what I spent most of the day doing.

And then subsequently, I think the biggest realization that I had, maybe a couple weeks into the job, was that VC is fundamentally a business about people, rather than about numbers. And even business models can sometimes be secondary. So that was the largest misconception I had prior to joining VC. And that VC was fundamentally a different asset class, which I did have some exposure to in Enterprise Singapore. So that realization was quite a big one. And it did actually increase my interest in VC, rather than diminish it, which was the main reason why I stayed in the industry.

Jeremy Au: [00:06:23] Amazing. I mean, first off, love Google. We all do, I'm sure. Every time I step into a new job, yeah, I think my first day or first night is busy Googling all different terms, and especially for legal contracts, right? Because the alternative is paying through the nose, for a lawyer to actually walk you through those terms as well. And yeah, I think that's something that I totally agree with you. I think that VC is very much a people business.

So, what's interesting for sure, is that you've obviously grown up in Southeast Asia and you've also looked at companies across the US and Southeast Asia at multiple VC firms, right? So I'm just curious, what do you think? Is there a difference between US and Southeast Asia startup ecosystems, and the startups themselves?

Chris Sirise: [00:07:09] Yeah, definitely. So, I think starting with the startups, in the US, I think there's definitely a lot more innovation happening. You do see a lot of new business models that you have previously not seen. Whereas for Southeast Asia, it tends to be more execution focused. So you tend to take businesses as they have already existed in other geographies, and then try to localize that in the Southeast Asian context, or in an emerging markets context. So I think that would be the key difference.

And then because of that, creates a very different type of VCs as well. So I think in the US, it's generally more common to find VCs that are more technical. So they do understand technical details. They have a more technical background, and that's important for assessing certain types of startups. Whereas in Southeast Asia, that skillset isn't really required as a VC. Because most deals here don't have that element. And so, you can have more VCs that either come from a finance background, or they were ex-founders, ex-operators themselves, or ex-operators in big tech companies. Because that type of experience is more valuable. So that would be the main difference.

And just in terms of size of the ecosystem, US is a lot larger. It's been around longer. So that also means the competition is higher. Both volume and competition is higher. I think that makes the dynamics very different on a day to day basis for most VCs. And the US, I think VCs have a much higher bar that they need to hit, in terms of the value add that they bring to founders, the type of reputation that they have in the ecosystem, their track record that they do. All those things matter more, and the bar is higher, compared to Southeast Asia.

That's just natural. I think even in Southeast Asia, the bar has steadily risen across the last decade. And hopefully it will continue to do so, because I think that's good for the ecosystem as a whole. For new founders, they are raising capital as well. So I think that would be the key difference. And then you see that playing out in a lot of different, subtle ways, right? Like, VC Guide, for example. It's been quite big in the US this year. That doesn't exist in Southeast Asia. But certainly exists in the US, and has received a lot of participation from the US ecosystem.

Jeremy Au: [00:09:29] Yeah. That's so true. First off, for those wondering what VC Guide, it's just a directory, a review site, for how VCs are performing. You can check out the link in the transcript. That's linked on the Brave Dynamics website. And I want to respond to something, Chris. I think something that is very true, and I think not obvious for a lot of people, is actually the time scale of the ecosystems, right? Which you've mentioned at every stage, is that the US started first in many ways. They invented venture capital out of the PE side, out of Boston, and so forth. And Harvard Business School.

And conversely as well, the startup side, the innovation side, they've had a longer run of it. And that changes the maturation of the ecosystems. And so, when people ask me about it, I always say, "Well, it's not apples to apples, right?" I mean, as I say, it's kind of like comparing maybe a 30 year old man's fitness with a... I don't know what the right analogy is. But I think the question is more like, what is Southeast Asia's future to play, right?

I mean, I guess, do you see a lot of similar dynamics kind of continue to play out? So, you mentioned that right. So, you mentioned a couple of key trends, right? VCs competing to higher levels of service quality. For example, value add and reputation. Let's dive into that, and then we'll talk more about the innovation side as well. So, do you see that as a continuing trend across the next 10 years?

Chris Sirise: [00:10:47] Yeah, definitely. So, I think as Southeast Asia becomes a larger market, from a tech industry perspective, then it naturally will draw investors, across the value chain. So, VCs, GPs, as well as LPs that are interested. So, that naturally will create more competition. And we've already seen that in the last 10 years. So when I started in VC, I think there was something like five funds in Singapore, that were of decent size and considered credible investors. Currently, I don't know what the number is, but definitely many multiples of five. And you're hearing about new funds pop up every day.

So I think that is a trend that will definitely continue. And just because, of course, the number of startups also increase, I do think competition as a whole, supply of capital will definitely outstrip the growth, or the growth rate of number of quality entrepreneurs in the ecosystem.

So, I think that's a positive overall. One, it definitely is a lot easier to raise capital, as a good entrepreneur in Southeast Asia. Two, also, the bar just gets higher. So VCs have to do more to get their allocation. After they get their allocation for the first round, they have to do more to justify that they get their allocation in future rounds as well. Because that's really how most funds make their money. I think that's a good sort of accountability system in place, for VCs, with their founders.

So, the standard will get higher. I think it's a good thing for system. For Saison Capital, we're always thinking about how we can remain relevant. I think demand that of founders, right? To always be innovating, and always be one step ahead of the competition. So why should it be any different when it comes to ourselves? So, I think we VCs have to continue innovating as well, I think. Us plus a couple of other funds in the region have started a scout program this year, partially adjusting to the COVID environment. And I think there'll be many more such innovations of small initiatives happening, just to remain relevant and competitive.

Something else that we also spend quite a lot of time thinking about, is how we can better value add to our founders, in a more structure. And also get them access to more networks in the region, that could be helpful for them or their business.

Jeremy Au: [00:13:09] That's amazing, because for so many people outside of VC, VCs are like demigods walking down the hallway. And I was like, "Oh wait, demigods have competition too, right?"

Chris Sirise: [00:13:20] Yeah, yeah. I mean, those Chinese fables. There's always competition. Right. I think the reality is at the end of the day, the founders are the superstars. The VCs are just there to support them. And if you are fortunate enough to get to work with a great founder, I do consider most of the founders that we have invested in to be much smarter and much more capable individuals than I am. So, I consider myself very fortunate to be included in their journey. So, it's really about how we can be a good form of support in every aspect.

Jeremy Au: [00:13:55] What's interesting is that, because you were there from the beginning, right? The big bang of VC, graciously injected and nurtured by government in the early days, to where we are today, where I think the flywheel's starting to accelerate organically, without as much capital injections and other dynamics. I think what's interesting is like what you said, is that we're seeing more capital coming in, and more opportunities for founders to raise money across the region.

But also I think we're seeing the increase of founders in different geographies, right? I mean, I think historically, they were all in the major capitals, right? They were all people who were studying in the US, coming back to Southeast Asia. The brand name universities. The Harvard or Stanford. And then now we're seeing I think more diversity and homegrown talent, rising up. And also in more distant geographies. Not just in terms of countries, but also in not necessarily the tier one, but targeting tier two, tier three cities within those countries as well. So, I'm just kind of curious. What do you think about that explosion? And what's driving that increase of opportunity?

Chris Sirise: [00:14:59] Yeah. I think it's great, because the catalyst, like you mentioned, is opportunity. So, it just means that the opportunity is there, and it's also getting more and more apparent to more people, regardless of where they're from. So you can be in India, and you see opportunities in Vietnam. Be in the US, and then you see opportunities in Singapore, like yourself, right?

So, I think it's great that Southeast Asia is getting that kind of attention, and the opportunities are so apparent to different people. Just five years ago, you would have been a long educational process to convince someone from the US that there's opportunity in Southeast Asia. So I think that's been a big change. I think that's always the driving force. So again, I think VC is fundamentally a people business, and VC works wherever there are bright, intelligent, ambitious individuals, trying to create something.

So that's good for the tech ecosystem. It's also good for the VC ecosystem. And companies get built by talent, not only capital. Capital is just a way of getting talent. So, I think more people coming back to Southeast Asia, coming into Southeast Asia, because of the opportunities, definitely will result in better quality companies. It's good for the ecosystem as a whole.

Jeremy Au: [00:16:23] It's interesting, because when you talk about that increase, it seems like there's a parallel increase, right? The capital increase of providers and increased capital on one side, funding more opportunities. On the other side, we also have more founders of different types, of different geographies, of different locations, pursuing that. So I think the overall industry is kind of accelerating as a flywheel over time.

I think one interesting thing that may be not obvious, of course, is that it's not as if the capital equally matches between all the founders. I think it feels like what's happening is more similar to the US. We see a broader spread of founders, but then the best founders have become more apparent, in that sense. And then they get the lion's share of the capital, right? In that sense. Because there's 80-20, right? Maybe 20 of them get 80% of the VC capital raised, because everybody sees they're good. There's some signal. People are competing to get in. There's a bit of an auction in the capital side. Do you feel the same, or how do you feel about it?

Chris Sirise: [00:17:24] I think there's definitely some element of that. I think that's a function of the sort of mismatch, between the amount of capital, as well as the amount of quality founders in the region. I do think one of the major bottlenecks, currently, for the growth of the technical system in the region is talent. So, like we discussed earlier, definitely there is more talent now than there was five years ago. And definitely increasing at a rate higher than five years ago. But definitely that's still one of the bottlenecks.

I think talent takes a while to build up. Education - it takes 20 years to educate a child to be relevant for the workforce. And then, but, capital takes like a day to arrive in your country. So, I think there is a mismatch. And capital has arrived faster, and talent has to catch up. I think it will, for sure, because of the reasons that we discussed earlier. And for noaw, I think the effect that happens, that's not an ideal, is that capital aggregates sort of, maybe unfairly towards those founders that are exceptional in what they do.

And in a way, it's also justified, because those founders are there because they have achieved something. They worked hard for something. And usually, that happens when the founders have a track record that significantly diffuses their risk of investing in that founder. So, that track record takes time to build, takes a lot of hard work to build, and they have done that. So, that's the pay off for everything that they have done in their life so far. So, I wouldn't say that that's completely unjustified. But definitely, I think that effect will lessen when we get more and more talent in the region.

Jeremy Au: [00:19:09] That's actually a super crisp point, and very true, which is in the US, no one would really say... I mean, obviously everyone's fighting for talent over paying for talent. But I think if someone, there was a good idea being launched, some VCs were explicit. And it was like, "Okay, I could easily find 10 people who could be inspired by this, and take this approach. A new business model and different vertical. Tackle the same vertical, but maybe with their own twist and better execution."

Chris Sirise: [00:19:37] I mean, short of hardcore, deep tech stuff, where you need a PhD and spend 20 years researching this, most other ideas, you probably won't be the only one thinking about it, right? So then it really comes down to the founder and their background.

Jeremy Au: [00:19:53] Yeah, exactly. I mean, what was interesting is that GPT-3 opened up, and actually I noticed that four companies launched at the same time, because they all realized the opportunity in using that in the marketing stack. And so, there was very much simultaneous innovation.

I think what's also interesting is that, as a result, I think converse is what I've heard in Southeast Asia, is some people say, "Oh, capital is actually a vote." Right? You know? Because of, talent is asynchronous, they are able to snowball capital faster. Because they're able to snowball capital faster, capital's actually a defensive advantage, because they're able to recruit talent faster, grow across different geographies better.

And that's a very rare statement to be had in Southeast Asia. I'm sorry, to have... it's rare in the US to do that, because when you say that in the US, everybody's thinking SoftBank. Kind of like, dropping a massive amount to supposedly kind of grow them to become like, death stars. You know? For their verticals, right? Whereas, in Southeast Asia, that seems to be possible at an earlier stage, because of that snowball and early lead / first mover dynamic.

Chris Sirise: [00:20:49] Yeah. And I think it's possible to generate that snowball at earlier stage here, really because talent is more lean. So when you get capital faster, you get talent faster as well. So you start generating that snowball earlier. But in most cases, the snowball starts with talent first, right? The founder. Without that, we can't get the capital to get it started. I mean, there are some exceptions. So, I guess politically connected individuals would be one example that also would be something relevant to Southeast Asia. Not so relevant in the US. But I think those are definitely exceptions, rather than the norm.

Jeremy Au: [00:21:33] Yeah. I think that's also a very true thing. I mean, it feels like, in the US, it's very much like, the first generation of startups, tech startups, a lot of them were connected to technology or early pioneers. And then the second generation of talent, because they were made rich by options, or they were trained by those first generation of companies, they as a result have the legwork and experience and reality needed to create and found these companies, right?

Where I think Southeast Asia feels like very much a first generation, we talked about, right? Which is, they're connected because they understand the industry, or they understand the geography, or because of their family connections. So, I think that's something that, it's not like everyone's shouting about it, but it feels like people know about it. It's like, "Oh, that's an advantage." Right?

Chris Sirise: [00:22:25] Yeah. It's like an open secret.

Jeremy Au: [00:22:28] Yeah, exactly. So everybody asked around. It's like, "Oh, okay. They succeeded because X is Y," right? You know. Or D succeeded because A is B, right? And then you're like... One thing I noticed, of course, is I think I feel like the new generation of startups are a little bit different from that. I think they tend to be a little bit more... well, maybe it's less obvious, but it doesn't feel like that's the case.

Because I think they are much more in tune. More of like, "Okay, this is the market of what they need." Right? Or, "This is what my demographic needs. This is what millennials want." So I think it feels like the asks are a little bit different, and the background's a little bit different as well.

Chris Sirise: [00:23:01] Yeah, yeah. That's true. For sure.

Jeremy Au: [00:23:03] I'm just kind of curious, because you mentioned earlier, US VCs and Southeast Asia VCs. What are trends that you see on the role itself? Because you mentioned it, it's like, you yourself in the early days knew nothing, because it was such a early role, right? And then the US already was pretty structured.

And fast forward 10 years now, and I think it feels like Southeast Asia's starting to formalize the role. And then, the US continues to formalize or accelerate even more, with like, VC credentialing and universities and things like that. So, I'm just kind of curious. What do you think about people who are interested in the VC lifestyle? How would they think about getting to VC?

Chris Sirise: [00:23:44] I do think it's definitely more structured in the US, in the sense that you can easily bucket VCs into a few backgrounds or profiles, right? So, there were guys that came from a traditional finance background. So, these would be professional fund managers, basically. That's their skillset they bring to the table, that LPs appreciate. So, they would really know how to manage a fund that scales over time. They successively raise larger funds, and still be able to be further efficient. And then build teams, around running builds, et cetera.

I think there's also the operator type VC, which is basically someone that have a very high amount of personal branding in the community. That would be the main reason why they'd get allocation for most things. And also would be the type of investor that would be very hands on with their portfolio.

And I think the third category, which is still pretty rare in the US, but definitely more common there than in Southeast Asia, would be just folks that have... so, graduated through the VC ecosystem. So, they would've started out as analysts at some point. And then made a few good investments with their partners in previous funds, and then eventually came out and raised their own fund.

So, I think Southeast Asia ecosystem hasn't been around long enough for that third category to exist. But you're starting to see at least the first two categories in Southeast Asia. So, that's generally how I look at it. But overall, I would say it's still a really unstructured environment, and there are a lot of exceptions. Pretty much, I would think a lot more exceptions compared to most other industries.

One example would be, we actually recently started hiring for an associate. It didn't work out for various reasons. One of the candidates that we were seriously considering was someone who was a founder in the past. But actually, he didn't have a university degree. He pretty much never worked in a formal job before entering the VC space. So, I think that's something that not be considered a disadvantage at all in the VC space, I believe. It definitely wasn't a concern for us at all. But I think in a lot of other jobs, it probably would.

So, I think for people that want to enter the VC space, again, I do think VC is very much a people business. It's important to understand that. So, your network within the technical system is super important. Your own branding or reputation within the ecosystem, how founders can relate to you, and just basically find you a nice person that they can have coffee with and bounce ideas off with. That's very important. I think those factors would be more important than actually having some form of formal training.

Having said that, I think there are some funds in Southeast Asia now that do want to hire people with some form of experience. And that is definitely the case in the US as well, for most of your tier one funds. But for us, at Saison Capital, we're pretty happy taking someone who has this other soft qualities, but none of the technical skills. And then we can train them in the technical skills. Whereas, I think it's a bit more difficult to train someone in the softer skills that you need for the job.

Jeremy Au: [00:27:13] Yeah. I mean, I think it's really admirable about, I think, your open recruitment process. In fact, myself, I forgot to mention that I used to be a venture scout with you all, and it was a great experience. And I really admired, I think, your culture of remote, asynchronous, getting stuff done, global mandate. Which is actually quite rare, actually, for, I would say, a company. And as a VC as well. And it's no surprise to me that it kind of ripples into your hiring process, to keep a wide aperture and be open to opportunity as it comes along. So, I think that's good on you, and thanks for sharing about that.

You know, I'm kind of curious as well, with just how to mandate on fintech as a corporate VC. And you're looking at US and Southeast Asia. So, I'm just kind of curious. How does it all work? You're sourcing ideas globally. How do you search for that? Do you like, scrape every fintech company in the world? We'll go through that. But I also noticed that you guys are very consistent about publishing your thesis, right? About embedded finance. Like, "These are the kind of startups that we're interested in. This is our point of view." You publish on Medium. It's kind of interesting to see that kind of work.

So, how does that work? Because the world is a big mandate. I mean, Southeast Asia's easy, right? Because it's like, okay, there's a couple thousand every year, that are of a certain size, for example. But globally, for a certain domain... you know. So, how do you go about it?

Chris Sirise: [00:28:35] Yeah. I think it helps that we have tried to build a brand around fintech specifically. So, we do have a sector and a state mandate. But just because of the existing brand, from our parent company being a financial institution, we are particularly competitive in the fintech space. So we decided to double down on that, since inception.

So, a lot of the content you see we publish is really around pieces as related to either fintech or embedded finance. And I think one important point to notice, that although a lot of these content pieces, when you read them now, they seem like quite duh articles, that most people would agree with. But at the point when we had come up with those thesis, they weren't so common, and that there was actually quite a bit of educating that we had to do, which was the main reason why we published it.

So, fintech as a broad example, when we had started the fund in middle of 2019, we said we wanted to start a fintech focused fund, or fintech buyer's fund. The feedback that we got from a lot of people was, "Why fintech? Fintech in Southeast Asia is exaggerated. Everything that needs to be done has been done. Plenty of lenders in the different countries." But we believed that there was more that could be done. Just looking at other markets, like the US.

So, fast forward two years, that has come to fruition. I think most people now would believe that there's still a lot to be done in the fintech space. The other thing that we are quite known for pushing in the market is also pieces of embedded finance. So, that's basically non-fintech companies that have a data distribution advantage. So, they're stacking different things within fintech products or services into their platform.

That, again, when we started pushing it, was something that people questioned quite a bit. It was also something that we had to educate people on. It was a fairly complex concept to articulate at that point. Whereas now, when you say embedded finance, most people sort of get what we mean. So, I think that's in that educating process, and that's where our content has been helpful.

And the other thing is that when we produce content that people can be quite skeptical about, or can debate with us on, it does draw like minded people to us, right? So, they would get to that content because they would be facing a similar situation that we did, which is that we believe in something. But most people seem to be thinking the opposite. So, that content causes a reaction from them, and then that's where we get to find like minded founders. So, that's been very effective for us, both from a lead generation perspective, as well as from a brand building perspective. And that's how we managed to get through flow globally.

Then, I think the other thing that's been quite effective, of course, like you mentioned, is our scout program as well. So, our scouts come from so many different countries. We have many exceptional individuals working with us, that we are quite thankful for. So, they do bring in quite the ideal flow as well.

And then, aside from that, I think just the team's background of having worked in so many countries. So, we have myself, that has some experience in the US, some experience working in Philippines as well. And then we have Chao , who used to work for Rocket . We have Long , who also is a US citizen, but Vietnamese by heritage. So I think that sort of global minded team that has really worked beneath multiple countries in the past, different worldviews, different networks, and that all gels together quite well. That's basically how we've done it.

Pretty open about it. I don't think there's anything to hide. That's been our strategy, and it's been working so far. So, it's something that we'll always be working hard on, is to be on the cutting edge of building theses and hypotheses around certain sectors or sub-sectors, especially for fintech. So that we're always finding founders that are also on the cutting edge of developing their thinking around the industry, and then that's how we get connected.

Jeremy Au: [00:32:49] That's amazing. I'm so curious, because the quality of those articles are very strong, right? I mean, I think they have a strong point of view. They are well researched. There's an effort to put it as a framework, and then you guys actually update it over time as well, based on feedback. So, I think that's really been quite impressive, and I've seen in founder groups, sometimes someone's like, "What do you think about this startup?" And then someone shares one of your articles, like thought pieces, in response to that. Which is like a framework of how to think about a startup, rather than a reaction to that startup itself. Which is really impressive. Which by the way, we'll also link to in the transcript as well here.

And I'm kind of curious. How does the team think it through? Is it like, Chris, you're just like... I don't know, you're just catching coffee with a founder, and the idea just pops in your brain, like a phrase pops up? Or is it like, individual people are running with it? Or you guys are virtually brainstorming over Slack and Zoom? How does that process cook for you guys?

Chris Sirise: [00:33:43] Yeah. So, a lot of brainstorming over Slack. We definitely have more Slack channels than I can manage, currently. And I think something else that most people wouldn't expect is a lot of these ideas actually come from our founders. So, we try to support our founders as much as possible, but I think we're also very fortunate to have founders that also support us in return. Most people wouldn't immediately think of that as something you could give. Like, founders supporting their VCs.

Our founders are, like I said earlier, all more ambitious and smarter folks than I am. And they are on the ground, so they see what's happening. They are constantly thinking about ways to make their business more competitive. And of course, they bounce those ideas with us, and then we brainstorm with them. And then some of these theses come out of that brainstorming session. And then, of course, they have to be comfortable with us sharing it. A lot of the times, it benefits them as well.

So, if you notice, I think there are a couple of articles as well where we are specifically talking about a certain portfolio company. That's also something that we intend to do in the future. I think the general lesson there is that a lot of it actually comes from our ecosystem that we have built over time. So, founders that we work with. The scouts that we work with. Of course, our personal network, friends that support us also matter. And then everything comes together to sort of help us remain constantly ideating on new thoughts, new ideas.

Jeremy Au: [00:35:21] Yeah. I noticed that you've definitely been able to not only summarize those ideas, but also create at least usable terms for those ideas, right? Which I find is such a big problem. Because it's like, when all of us around a table, as founders or as VCs, it's like, "What is this category?" Or, "What's the title of that category?" Right? And it doesn't need to be a very sexy name, but it helps to have that term. And I see you guys have done a great job, working to encapsulate that as well.

And I think in response to something you just said here, I think a lot of founders are just scared, because they're like, "Oh, I have a secret sauce." This is how I'm explaining it to pitch decks. And I very much, when I'm talking to them as a coach or as a peer that they're asking for support from, what I share with them is, "Hey, if everybody understands what your category is, at least if they believe in a category, they're going to believe in you. Because you're like, the first in that category, right? You're creating the category of that technology.

"But if you don't even have the thought leadership behind it, and you don't have time, or to some extent as well, you're conflicted right? Because you're obviously asking for investment. But if someone is willing to write a piece, let them write it, right? Because it's going to create a category and then people are going to start coming in, start understanding. Talent is going to read the article to understand what your company's about. Follow on capital is going to read the article to get smart, because they're busy Googling on their first day."

And I think that's something that I see you do a great job, actually. And I think that's relatively rare, I think, in Southeast Asia. And being executed well, as well.

Chris Sirise: [00:36:50] For sure. Both for us and our founders. We don't have to keep talking about the same things, to every person that we meet. But rather, "Hey, this is the article that we wrote. Read it before our coffee session."

Jeremy Au: [00:37:04] Yeah. That's so true as well. That's actually a really good point. And I think that's actually a good strategy for both founders and for VCs, right? I mean, because what I notice is sometimes, of course, we're busy meeting people. We're having the same conversation over and over again. So, why don't we just prepare some materials just to help people scan it, if not the day before, at least on the ride there, or before the Zoom call? So that that conversation kind of goes to the deeper, second order kind of conversation really quickly, right? Rather than recirculate around the basic principles.

I mean, I think one thing I've noticed as well is also because the norms are changing a little bit, right? Because in the past, I think if we did that, like, "Hey, read this article about us before our... you know, our thesis," it feels a little bit more rude, right? Or like, "Let's schedule stuff manually." Whereas now it's like, "Okay, here's my blog. Here's my Calendly scheduler." People kind of seem to be front loading more of interactions, or their brand, I would say. I don't know what it is. Their background or expertise.

Do you think it's because of this function? Maybe Southeast Asia's maturing its ecosystem? Or is it because we're all remote and we can be more efficient, and it's more normal that way? Or maybe because we're just more tech savvy, both on the VC and founder side? What do you think about that?

Chris Sirise: [00:38:18] Yeah. I think tech savviness for sure. So you're trying to find ways using technology to make your meetings more efficient. But I think the driving force behind that is information transparency, or less information assymetry. Which is one of the other aspects where I think the Southeast Asia ecosystem is getting more and more similar to the US.

I think in the US, these things have been common practice for a long time. One of the practices that I really like, that I see some US founders or VCs doing, which might be considered rude in Southeast Asia, is they actually send... or, there's a link in their email signature, that is basically, "Read to understand how to interact with me. So, if you send a email to me, put this in the title." Right? Or, "If you arrange appointment with me, I prefer Zoom calls over meeting for coffee. Because meeting for coffee, I would spend time queuing up for the coffee, all that. And so basically, I'm just telling you upfront that I don't find it rude if you want to meet me, and you don't want to buy me coffee. But it's perfectly fine."

So that, in the US context, works. In Southeast Asia, I would think most people would find it quite off putting, and a bit arrogant. But I think we're slowly gravitating towards being more open with our information. And especially personal information, personal thoughts, like about industry sectors, et cetera. I think some of this could be a competitive pitch in Southeast Asia, five years ago. I think now, and increasingly so, it won't be. So just like, ideas around business models. Ideas are not just ideas, but execution is 99.9% of it.

So, in the US, ideas are free flowing. There's a lot less attempt to hide it. I think that's what will happen in Southeast Asia as well. It's already happening, of course, in the operating space among founders. It will definitely happen in the VC space as well.

Jeremy Au: [00:40:32] Yeah. That's amazing, because it just struck me that one of the key phrases for Southeast Asia, actually, trends wise, is actually what you mentioned. Information asymmetry and transparency is probably the biggest trend, actually, over the past 10 years. Both on the VC and operator side. And it feels like it's going to continue going, the next 10 years as well.

So, I think that's actually a very good insight, actually. And I would just want to double highlight it for anyone listening. That's actually a really good second order insight here, about what's actually happening. Because yeah, because with less information asymmetry, you have more transparency. Yeah, it's a bad thing for incumbents, in a sense, that like you said, it becomes more competitive. You can't keep it as a defensive advantage. You're going to get more competition for your portfolio.

On the other hand, you kind of mentioned earlier there's the thing, you're seeing more founders. More diversity. More dispersion of ideas and opportunities being tackled, and better matching of capital in time to come. So, I think that thing is really awesome. I think that's a really good insight, actually.

Chris Sirise: [00:41:37] Yeah. I mean, we learnt it in ECONS 101, right? So, the closer you get to perfect competition, the less information asymmetry you have.

Jeremy Au: [00:41:45] Yeah. I feel like we have another podcast episode just talking about information asymmetry. Advanced level two thinking. People would be very attracted, and on that... I want to call it thesis, but whatever, that analysis. I guess last question. Obviously, thank you for sharing your time. It's like, if you could go back 10 years in time, what advice would you have given yourself, when you were first starting out?

Chris Sirise: [00:42:13] Yeah. So, I think when I started off my career, I was very concerned about how quickly I would make money. I don't know if it's a outcome of a Singaporean upbringing or, it's a story for another time, but I didn't grow up in a very well to do family. I grew up in a single parent, a working mom. So my brother and I had a lot of time to ourselves, with very little parental guidance and money. We didn't have financial stability. So money became very important. That was top of mind for me, when I started working.

Of course, I had a girlfriend back then. I need to get married, and all the usual Singaporean constants. So, a lot of my thinking around where I should go and what I should do career wise was around optimizing for how I could earn as much money as possible, while of course not working crazy hours, right? In such a way that it's still sustainable.

I think, if I could do it again, I would approach it very differently. I definitely would have taken more risk. So, I think starting a company would have been something that I could have tried doing earlier on. Of course, it probably would have failed. I mean, me at 25, I think wouldn't have been a founder VCs would have invested in. But I think just the experience of starting something and failing is a valuable experience, from a learning perspective.

And also, I think I would have started building my reputation in the ecosystem a lot earlier, which is something that I think my team currently... we do have quite a young team overall. I think all of them are thinking about these things in a lot better manner than I did. So, most of them are in their late 20s. They're already starting to build a really good track record, reputation among founders and the ecosystem among fellow VCs. That's something that I would have want... If I could do again, I would have put in more effort to do, earlier on.

I think years ago, when I start doing VC, I didn't have that foresight. Which is strange, right? Because I was concurrently looking at the US as well. I think it's true that change happens slowly, and then quickly. So, I always thought that, okay, we'll be as competitive as the US 20 years from now. It happened a lot quicker than I expected. And reputation, branding, these things take time to build up. So, I do wish I had put in more effort to do these things earlier on.

Jeremy Au: [00:44:53] Amazing. Thank you so much. And I think what you shared about what you would have wanted is also very comforting for a lot of people, right? Because there's a lot of people who have... thinking about setting up something, or have done something and failed, or done something and still figuring stuff out. And I think the reflection is very true, and I'm glad you got to share your story here.

Chris Sirise: [00:45:16] Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Produced by Jeremy Au & Tan Yong Quan

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