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Everything you need to know about being a startup founder with Jeremy Au

In Episode 10 of Coffee and Communications: The Impact Cast,  Jeremy Au 区汉辉 joins host Mark Johnson to cover a wide variety of topics, from the evolution of the startup scene in Singapore and the USA right through to how a startup should view its relationship with investors.

Jeremy brings significant experience to the episode, with a background that has spanned multiple geographies, seen him launch his own startup and successfully scale, become a prominent angel investor, provide guidance to startups, and much much more.

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See Transcript of the episode below:

Mark Johnson:

Hello everyone. And welcome to Coffee and Communications The Impact Cast. I'm your host, Mark Johnson. And today, I'm delighted to be joined by Jeremy Au, who is the head of strategic projects at Monk's Hill Ventures. He is also, I think, a multiple angel investor. And I'm sure he can tell us more about that. He previously completed an MBA at Harvard Business School.

And also, very exciting to me, because I've been on this, he hosts a podcast called BRAVE, which looks at founders, investors and rising stars in the Southeast Asia tech landscape. And I am going to do a bit of a plug for it right now. It is fantastic. There are so many episodes, so there is something there for everyone. And Jeremy's a fantastic host. So welcome, Jeremy, how are you?

Jeremy Au:

Awesome. I think it's a wonderful week indoors. It has been for the past two years. I'm glad to be here, Mark.

Mark Johnson:

Yes. I'm absolutely delighted you can join us today. So, we're just going to dive straight into it. We've got a lot of ground to cover and there's a lot of what I think people can learn from what Jeremy can talk about today. So, your background is very interesting. It's kind of this consulting, there's a lot of startup work. Can you just talk us through a little bit about your background and what led you to where you are today?

Jeremy Au:

Yeah, happy to do so. Frankly, I grew up in Singapore then national service, UC Berkeley, focusing very much on technology economics and business as my majors. My honors thesis was on how technology ripples across the board and how that's impacted by literacy rates. And so, I've always been interested in technology from a long, long time ago. And then I interned at an education tech startup in China, which was a blast.

And then I eventually worked at Bain as a management consultant across Southeast Asia and China focusing very much on consumer and tech. And before leaving to basically found a social enterprise, which was an impact consulting platform and grew that out to over 100 clients and [inaudible 00:02:10] profitability and then hired a new CEO to take over.

And I went off to Harvard to do my MBA and there, I continued to focus very much on technology, the founder life, entrepreneurship. And there, I ended up building a second company, which was in early education marketplace, very much focused in Boston and then we expanded it to New York. We grew that out to millions of dollars of revenue.

If we raised a pre-seed in USA, we expanded from Boston to New York. And I eventually we sold to a global education chain. And then there, I served as the GM for a year before eventually joining and being poached to join Monk's Hill Ventures as a head of strategic projects, which is where I am today. Yeah.

Mark Johnson:

Fantastic. And yeah, there's a lot to unpick in that background, but one part that specifically makes me pause is just, what's being an entrepreneur? What's that journey, that jump? Was that something that's always been there for you? Is it something that was inspired through your kind of education? Can you talk us through about that kind of transition?

Jeremy Au:

Yeah. I think growing up, I really had the benefit of a lot of role models who were in business. So, either as owners or as executives. And I think it was just nice to grow up because just being aware about that, and the funny thing I always talk about is that in my schooling in the Singapore system, I was part of the same school system called the Anglo-Chinese School System, which is very focused on, not very good at scholars, although we try to be, but also very good at business as a career as well.

Jeremy Au:

So, I think there's a long vein of that role models that they brought out. Founders, owners, things like that. And I think one interesting thing that I came into it along the way was that I went off to UC Berkeley, I was not specifically thinking about technology or building a business. I went to Bain, I was not exactly doing that either.

And I think I realized that I fell into it because I was just really seeing a problem that I felt very frustrated by, which in that case was the lack of very good consulting services for the social sector in Singapore. And so, from that dynamic, I was very much like, "Let's figure out how to solve it." And so, I think I accidentally fell into becoming a founder in that sense, because I was just motivated to build something that I could be at.

And it was only years later before I realized like, oh, I was being a founder, back in 2011 when I founded Conjunct Consulting. None of us called ourselves founders back then. It was very early in the ecosystem. The first coworking spaces had opened up in back hub Singapore by [Gresai 00:05:09]. And it was just a very small, tight community of people. And many founders at the time didn't call ourselves founders.

We called ourselves president or CEO or chairman of these very small teams because calling ourselves a founder would have been weird. At least today now, it's still weird in some circles, but it can be cool. Right? Some people find it cool. Back then, nobody found it cool, except at BLOCK71 in [inaudible 00:05:41] Singapore. And we knew everybody back then.

And yeah, years later, I think that's when I started to consider myself, as I started building out Conjuct Consulting over the years, I started to realize that, yes, this is something I do enjoy. This is something I do like a lot from a workflow perspective, but also from a creation perspective.

And I think what's been very useful for Silicon Valley and a lot of the thought leaders out there has been really not just systemizing what would have been called a passion or an activity, but making it much more structured, more systemized, having a code of books, but also a code of behavior. And also making the role a distinct thing, right? Because in the past, if you were a founder for a law firm, you wouldn't call yourself a founder.

You just call yourself a lawyer creating your own law firm. If you were building a new business in oil and gas, you wouldn't call yourself a founder. You just call yourself an oil and gas guy who's setting up a thing. So, it's really been interesting to see that recognition of that life stage of the company where it's really about zero to one and about one to 10. Before eventually we all become executives and consultants for the 100 plus 3%, the 5% growth a year.

Mark Johnson:

Yeah. Something interesting you said that obviously when you started, the landscape, especially here in Singapore and Southeast Asia was tiny, it was a small community. So, just very quickly, how different is it today compared to then?

Jeremy Au:

Yeah, I think there're three major differences between 2011 and 2021. I think the first is really about the perception by society, right? I think 10 years ago Singapore and Southeast Asia was very much like, why are you being a founder? Again, they wouldn't call you a founder, but why are you setting up a business when you are so young? Right?

And I think the big concern for everybody would've been like, well, it makes sense for you to set up your own business when you don't make partner at your consulting firms so you set up your own consulting firm. Or when you're very experienced or old, that I would be able to get. It was like, you set up a business like my grandfather did, like when you have no choice. Right?

When you had to make ends meet, everybody was a founder and making their own little provisions shop, right? Mom and pop shop selling stuff. And I think the emergence of this class of occupation called the founder and the VCs supporting the founder and executives and early employees who joined the VC's funded startups, that just did not exist in any appreciable number.

And therefore, was also not really recognized by the rest of the society 10 years ago. And so, talking about those things, it wasn't seen as crazy, but I think it was seen as very new, very novel, very American, if that makes sense. And so, all the benchmarks would be like, okay, at that time, the Glints founders wanted to drop out of college and build Glints.

And I remember in the same year that they founded, I was also profiled in the same newspapers as them, same articles and so on and so forth. And they described it as like, this is a very American trend, right? A very American thing to do. Have you ever heard of an Asian dropout? They're not supposed to be successful. And today is different, right? I don't think dropouts is a such a big thing.

I don't think that's the point. But the thing is, if you want to be a founder and you want to start working on a side hustle or anything, I think it's become more mainstream. It's more understandable. I think there's a lot of material out there that's even like positive themes and culture support for that. The ecosystem is more larger. So, I think it's just more accepted today. And that is also more desirable as well.

And I think the second big difference is the sophistication. So, the first 10 years ago, the startup was coming into existence and really percolating in the system. But it wasn't really systemized. So, there's a lot of basic stuff where people are just learning about product market fit, customer acquisition costs, all these terminologies that today would be like just a Google search away, right?

10 years ago, I think people were really training and teaching each other that stuff. And obviously, we were still using Google as well, but there wasn't that wealth of thought leadership online explaining it from a blog or a podcast form or perspective. It was all very, very book driven. So, it was like, if you want to learn about MVPs, minimum viable product, you read then start up.

You want to learn about growth, you will learn from crossing the chasm. Whereas you fast forward now and you're like, yeah, there's so much bite-sized material where people honestly summarize and paraphrase and build upon these previous concepts, and they make it very relatable.

And I have met university students today who are just as familiar with the online landscape of resources around those terms that I had no idea [inaudible 00:11:24]. I have the benefit of 10 more years on them today. Anyway, I think the learning path sophistication is much higher.

So, pound for pound, if you put in a 25-year-old in 2021 versus a 25-year-old in 2011, I think the 25-year-old today in 2021 is more sophisticated for the same age group. Although of course they look like they are less sophisticated than someone who is now 35. Right?

Mark Johnson:

Yeah.

Jeremy Au:

And then the third thing very quickly is just that I think the fundamentals are stronger as well. What I mean by that is that 10 years ago, just a lot of basic stuff was just getting built in. I think today, the unicorns we see today are very much built on that understanding because like Ninja Van and these other logistics companies have been built, right?

And because logistics infrastructure does not exist, well, did not exist in a significant tech enabled way 10 years ago, but now they do. And because they exist today, a whole bunch of new verticals can exist. You have direct to consumer exists because you have return service. You have all these amazing direct to consumer brands, Secretlab, Omnidesk, all these great companies that are built on the assumption that there is good logistics infrastructure in Singapore.

And you look at other companies like Reyna and other things that built on top of [inaudible 00:13:03]. So, just a lot of fundamental infrastructure has been built. And obviously that's unevenly distributed, right? Obviously, Singapore has had that built out to a much faster extent because it was a smaller geography.

And I think Indonesia is not far behind, and Vietnam as well, and Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines. All of them are really building out those fundamentals very, very quickly. And so, it's been interesting where today, in Southeast Asia, I think you can build things that are built on those preexisting stacks, which is amazing. Yeah.

Yeah, no, absolutely. And I completely agree with you, especially on the acceptance level. It's just, you just have to walk around BLOCK71 to see the general age of people who are working in the startups, founding startups. And the fact that now it's seen as an okay thing, that that is a career trajectory, even if maybe it's a side hustle or whatever it would be, that's okay.

And I agree that it wasn't long ago where that would be, "What? You're doing that, and you're not going into something stable? What are you doing?" So, I completely think that's absolutely right. I just want to talk a little bit about obviously the Monk's Hill Ventures, what you do there and how has that learning and your experience helped you understand the opportunities and challenges that startups have, especially from a viewpoint of what you do there.

Yeah. I obviously head strategic projects, and what that means is that on one hand I obviously am an investor looking at new deal flow and opportunities across Southeast Asia and very much my email and my LinkedIn, they're still very much open for anybody who wants to reach out to me now.

And then of course the second part is very much about also working very hard to really continue advancing Monk's Hill in terms of how we continue to maintain our leadership position across Southeast Asia in terms of being a tier one VC. That means we are looking at improving how we are aware of feedback from the community all the way to top leadership to different things that I can't really disclose.

But it's been an absolute blast. And I think what's been interesting to learn of course has been really being and sitting on the other side of the table. I think when, as a founder or very much as someone who was fundraising capital from venture capitalists, et cetera, I think there's a very understandable tendency to be very much like, "Okay, these are a bunch of stakeholders that I need to manage, nurture and go look for cash."

Right? And I think there's that understanding as an entire category. And of course, you know people who are at the individual human level, right? So, you meet this person, now you know that John Debussy is still drawing. Right? I think what's been interesting is very much sitting on the other side of the table and I think understanding what VCs look like at the organizational level

So, somewhere in between the industry level and the human level, but organizational VC behavior has been interesting. But also, conversely actually, it's also added a new dimension on looking at my personal life as a founder. It's interesting to see, lots of founders come in and share about their challenges, need brainstorming and helping out, and also frankly, evaluating as well.

And in that perspective, I also remember what I was like, and so sometimes I just sit down and say, "Oh my gosh, I too remember what I was like pitching. How would I evaluate myself today at one level?" But also, being mindful and saying like, "If I was on the other side, how would I want to have this conversation?" And having that amazing amount of empathy, it's something that is not easy to remember.

Because I think obviously, you're both time compressed, the sort of transaction that can be felt at a core of it. But there's still at the end of the day, if you choose to work together or even you choose not to work together, you're still in the same ecosystem. It's still relational dynamic there, right? And we're all human beings.

And I think there's something that I do think quite a bit about, which is, "If I was on the other side of the conversation, am I speaking? Am I collaborating? Am I helping in the way that I would have appreciated?" And so, it's interesting to see the learning go both ways, right? Like my reflection on how I was as a founder and how I changed, but also guiding how I think about it, how I act and operate as a VC supporting founders.

Mark Johnson:

Yeah. And I think that's very interesting, because I think it's, as you say, because the time compression, but I think the danger is as you get a bit older, you often lose that kind of empathy or just remember what it's like when you were transitioning through your career. And by doing that, that doesn't necessarily help people grow who are trying to learn from you as much as you're trying to learn from them.

Another thing I wanted to ask you actually, and you mentioned it when you said at the beginnings, this was a U.S. thing to do. I want to flash forward to today because you've got expertise obviously in the U.S. market and you've got expertise in the Southeast Asia market, can you tell us what the startup scene, how different it is at the moment?

What are the major differences? Do your expectations change when you look at startups in the U.S. compared to Southeast Asia? Yeah. Can you just walk us through that a little bit?

Jeremy Au:

Yeah. It's a great question. And I think there are more similarities than differences. Maybe that's a disappointing answer.

Mark Johnson:

Not at all.

Jeremy Au:

I think what the similarities are, it's just like, I look at internet and technology as the same revolution that was when electricity came on to the world. When electricity happened, it started happening in America but it just changed the whole world. And the change was unevenly distributed, but eventually everybody got there. Today, every country has lots of electricity in different energy mixes.

And we forget how much the end point is the same, in a sense. And same as my undergrad thesis on how technology ripples across the board, it doesn't need to start in America. It can start in Asia as well. I just happened to pick American technologies that are more obvious to tell like broadband and mobile phones and then lines. And so, I think the truth is the world is flattening very quickly

And so, I think what I'm trying to say here is like the end point for the U.S. market and the Asia market will be closer and similar than we are today. And this is really important because that creates two sets of opportunities. I think the first set of opportunities of course, is that at one level we see a lot of catch-up growth on localization.

For example, something has been innovated in America like Uber, and then people who were studying at Harvard Business School, two sets of founders go back to Southeast Asia for the MBA program and one sets up Grab, and one sets up Go-Jek and turns out both of them outcompeted Uber on their local turf. So, that's that localization dynamic here. And in many ways, it's always catchup growth, right?

Because Grab and Go-Jek grew much faster pound for pound compared to Uber in many ways. Of course, Uber was growing aggressively globally because they also wanted to squeeze out localized competitors as well. Then the truth is, all that catchup growth is happening. Uber building out local operations in different regions in the world. And the second being the local domestic operators who are building out and growing very fast.

So, this is off catchup growth, that's one level. But the second level is just like, I think I really look forward to innovation that really go both ways. And I think we see America learning about super apps, for example. Again, learning about how to tackle the unbanked and getting inspired by the mechanisms that have been pioneered in emerging markets as well.

So, I think we're really going to see more of a two-way flow. We're already seeing that today. I think we're going to see more of that as talent continues to be mobile, as Zoom calls and online technologies allow people to collaborate faster and better, and team across borders, I think we're really going to see a massive amount of arbitrage and therefore flattening of it.

And the end point there for an award is everybody's going to have electricity as we do today, everybody's going to have technology at the end of the day in every vertical, in every geography. So, just thinking of what the similarities are. Happy to go into some differences if you want.

Mark Johnson:

I think that's a great answer because I think that's generally the long-term vision of like, and as you point out with electricity, when these things work, they get adopted by other places. I'm always amazed when I go back to the UK, I've got a small hometown that I go back to, and I'm amazed by what doesn't happen there at the moment and how I'm like in a kind of futuristic technology world in Singapore compared to ... but it will happen because it makes life easier, it's convenient and all these different things.

But maybe talk about some of maybe the differences in terms of the challenges maybe that founders have when just doing that initial phase maybe within the U.S. versus the Southeast Asia. Is one slightly more difficult to develop a startup and get things moving? What's the ecosystem like in both areas?

Jeremy Au:

Yeah. I hesitate to say that it's more difficult because my assumption is that if you are a Southeast Asian founder tackling Southeast Asian markets, you're going to be pretty aware of these limits altogether, if that makes sense. Versus an American founder will also find American market just as challenging because they're built up for there.

What I mean by that is, I think there's a bunch of obvious ones, which if you hear me talk today in the other podcast, I'll tell you [inaudible 00:23:21]. I think the first one of course is the fragmentation or siloing of the markets in Southeast Asia versus that of America. Long story short for that is that America has 300 million people and they all have, on average, one culture, on average, one rule of law.

And therefore, I think market expansion is simple. Like if you can prove something on Boston like we did, you can expand it to New York and you can go from there. Eventually we pushed out and got childcare pods legalized in multiple states, right? California, Texas, New York City, just because there's that model culture, or at least that similarity in the cultural conditions.

Southeast Asia is an order of magnitude bigger. There's over a billion people. Indonesia has 300 million, right? But Indonesia is very different from Singapore, which is three million people. And then Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, are somewhere in the spectrum in between in terms of population size and also in terms of their GDP per capita.

And the other way to think about it as a result is, you look at all of that and you're like, "Okay, if I prove something out in Singapore doesn't mean it's going to work in Indonesia. Maybe it works better in Jakarta, which is a bit different from Indonesia as a whole." Singapore has some similarities with Hong Kong as a city, right? Two cities. But Singapore as a country is actually different from Philippines as a country.

So, Singapore has to be a city and a state. And so, the analogies can be quite tricky for people who are not thoughtful about that. Of course, any local Southeast Asian would know that at the back of their mind, right? I normally repeat this advice primarily for people who are new to the region because they're like, "Oh, if I can work from Singapore, I'd tackle the Vietnamese market.

"And from the Vietnamese market, I can go to Indonesia." And I'm like, "Whoa, you are making two huge jumps." And anybody in Southeast Asia would know that automatically. And I think the challenge I always tell people is like, even though there's a difference, it's also an opportunity. The fact that each market has their own slice and dynamic means that to some extent you are sheltered from competition.

That is how we look at it is that if you're building for the Vietnamese market and you can build X for Vietnam, right? Just because someone is building X for the Philippines may not necessarily mean they can go into Vietnam. And so, you have that very strong, steady position. Now, and that could be a great business for a founder, what of the VC backup or for unicorn valuation?

That's a secondary question. And that's something that VCs are concerned about. But if you, as a founder are building out, why not? Protect it from competition in that sense. You have a little bit more time, right? And lots of great businesses that are Vietnam only, Indonesia only, Thailand only, is just about how you choose to build them.

So, I think the big part, I think, where people mess up on that dimension in terms of the differences between America and Vietnam is ... sorry, America and Southeast Asia is when you take that thing and you say like, "Okay, America, people can blitzscale from one city in America to the rest of the other cities in America, right? 200 million folks."

And then if you go to Southeast Asia and you're like, "Okay, I proved this out in Ho Chi Minh City, and I want to blitzscale this to the rest of Southeast Asia." Then you improperly applied the blitzscale dynamic of America to the city and regional differences of Southeast Asia. It's not to say they can't blitzscale, but you have to be an order of magnitude more cautious in market selection, market entry and market execution than you would be in the U.S.

So yeah, so that kind of error could be done in two ways, right? Either you're an American type of founder who wants to enter Southeast Asia and still have that plan, or you are someone in Southeast Asia, but you're reading too much American tech news. Also, because there isn't a lot of good Southeast Asian top leadership either. But that differentiation can be tough to figure out.

I think that's one difference. I think the second difference of course is just, simply put, like even though Southeast Asia's ecosystem is matured, it's still not mature to the same level as America. America, I end up seeing a lot of cheesy stuff, but there's a lot ... I think one level you can think about is failure is more widely accepted.

But I think the other way I think about it is more like if you do fail, there's still a lot more exit opportunities. What I mean by that is there are lots of startups that will be willing to hire founders. There's a lot more VCs who are willing to bring in entrepreneurs and residents. There're a lot more large tech companies and large companies that are willing to bring on founder talent. There's also incubators and accelerators to get started.

There's lots of VCs to put money on new bets for founders. And so, the consequences for failure is of magnitude less. Right? Whereas I think in Asia, you can say like, okay, failure is more stigmatized. And I think that's a level one answer. I think the level two answer is actually that failure is actually more painful in Southeast Asia.

Because if you are a founder and you exit and you fail, it's a bit harder, I think because there isn't that widespread employer substance of rehome as much a founder. I think it's growing, but it's a bit less. And everything else is less in the ecosystem. And again, you've got to look at it and say, is this a problem or is this an opportunity?

I think it's a problem and say like, "I want to do this. And that's that." And I think if you look at it from another way, it's like amongst the ventures, everybody who's a VC has been a former founder. Very much, often, most of us have U.S. experience as well. And so, we see it as an opportunity to help grow and nurture the ecosystem. And we think that's a win-win for everybody, right?

That's the kind of place where you want to be part of. That's the kind of country and culture that we hope to see in every country in Southeast Asia. And it's also an opportunity to build something that already exists somewhere else in the world. And so again, I think we can look at it as a problem that is less mature, or we can look at it as an opportunity that there is more opportunity to grow the ecosystem here as well.

Mark Johnson:

Yeah, absolutely. And I will say to anyone listening, don't worry, people making the mistake when they come from the U.S. to the Southeast Asia or APAC in general and making that mistake that you're talking about, happens not just to start ups. There are plenty of larger companies that have still struggled with that market entry because they make the assumption that it's like America.

And I could name quite a few because my friends work there, but we won't go down that route. One area I want to dive into now, because it feels like everyone talks about it, maybe sometimes misunderstood what it means, but it's about impact. So, there is a lot of talk around startups and companies having impact and what does that mean?

And it seems to be a growing trend, especially within the startup space that companies or startups must have this positive impact on society fairly directly rather than indirectly. So, can you just talk us through what you've experienced in your position, how you see that playing out and just your thoughts on it being a fairly buzzy word right now?

Jeremy Au:

Yeah. It's funny you say that because when we started out, the early ecosystem in Singapore, at least in 2011 was we were all impact-oriented folks who were becoming founders because we wanted to create an impact. And now it's almost like, the pendulum has swung where founders are looking to become more impactful down the road. And I think it's not a binary thing.

This is a cheesy guy, Venn diagram of like, what do you love to do? What are you good at? What does the world need? What can you get paid for? And just figuring out what that intersection is. And I think that's the truth of the methods that there are different ways to inject meaning into different startups. I think at one level, a simple one is first, do no harm. That's my advice to a lot of folks.

Like, when you are a manager and executive and founder, you are making decisions for your employees, for your customers. So first, do no harm. Build the business to the greatest extent possible. Build it in a way that you all would be proud of. That's not easy. And I'm not pretending it's easy. There's a lot of tradeoffs that happen.

There's a lot of [inaudible 00:32:38], there's a lot of circumstances that are beyond your control. And I think in good times and bad, right? So, if things are going well, how do you, again, first do no harm? How do you take care of the people who have supported you? How do you rotate in a new team in a fair way?

How do you phase out and find new homes for the old guard? As you are successful in there. And do it in a way that you're proud of and that they are proud of you about. But conversely when times are bad, how do you feel gracefully? How do you restructure gracefully? How do you give bad news gracefully?

Look, no one's going to be happy, and those things happen. And truth is, you may not get credit for doing your best. But first, doing no harm is really a good part about impact, I think. A lot about it. And I think the second part about it is very much like, yeah, how do we then therefore, the opposite angle of that, how do we inject more purpose into the startup that you're building?

Or how do you go for an impactful startup to build? To inject more meaning to your startup, the truth is motivations change, right? What drew you to the problem back when you founded it 10 years ago may be very different from how you see yourself in five years versus how you expect yourself to change in 10 years. And so, motivations can change, skills can change.

So, it's really about being mindful and thoughtful about bringing your best to the office in that sense. But also, finding meaning about what the impact truly is. And so, I think a lot of folks end up saying like, "Oh, it turns out my work is not as impactful after so many years." And sometimes it's code for like, "I'm no longer as motivated or inspired by what I'm working on."

Rather than if you actually have that conversation and you're like, "Well, you are creating a lot of meaning. You're helping these people have jobs. You're helping customers have much better experience. And of course, there's a few things you can do as well. Like myself, I donate to Founders Pledge. You can basically dedicate a percentage of your personal equity or your different approaches of it.

"The 1% pledge. You can donate a percentage of your team's time and profits and structure to good causes. So, that's another way to inject more meaning into your current company." And then of course, the last category is like, you are off to build something new and you're looking for something that's impactful.

And a thing I tell people a lot is that, on average, highly correlated, not causation, I'll say this, but in general, if you're creating an impact on people, it should have some level of monetization capability. And then vice versa, you're able to monetize something, it means that somebody's willing to pay you something to have that problem solved, right?

Which is I think the fundamental transaction or relationship in economics today for all trade and commerce and with doing agreements. I think the tricky part is that just because it's monetizable and just because it's impactful does not necessarily mean it's VC backable. In other words, that it should be driven towards a unicorn outcome on economic side.

And so, I think a lot of people are like, "I can build this great small business that's very impactful, very meaningful for me and is going to be profitable because it's a real problem that people are willing to pay money for and I can get value for that. But I don't want to work on it because it doesn't feel like a unicorn idea or is going to be funded by VCs."

And I'm like, "Whoa, just because it won't to be funded by a VC doesn't mean that you throw away those two very good things. Because the truth is you could be working on an idea that you don't love and you don't feel is impactful and be VC funded and it'll be far worse a life." Because you have employees, you have stakeholders to manage, even your personal reputation, right?

And so, I think this is why I'd be saying like, building a business is tough. It's tough today and this year. It has been tough for the past decade. It's been tough for 100 years. It's been tough for 1,000 years. Building a business has never been easy in the history of mankind. So, build something that you find meaning in.

It could be because it provides food for your family, because it provides food on the table for employees, because it's creating impact in the world. But you just got to find that meaning. Otherwise, there're so many better things to do. A job at Google, or jobs at Microsoft, there's lots of great things to do as well in life. Yeah.

Mark Johnson:

No, absolutely. And I think you're right. I think looking at impact in a number of different ways, and it's not just driven by the directing part of the startup, but also what impact you can put into your business. And what your staff and yourself do, I think is actually fantastic advice because I think everyone goes through that, even as a founder, kind of that melee sometimes.

Things slow down, things just get a bit slow and finding meaning in different ways is very, very important. It'd be a miss if I didn't jump on the VC part there, because there's something I really did want to ask you because it's something I have discussions about.

Less so from our side, but more so from the company side is, so how should startups approach their relationship with a VC? How do they manage expectations around that relationship? I think you're in a fantastic space to be able to give some very frank opinion on that, so I'd love to just hear your opinion.

Jeremy Au:

Yeah. I've been on both sides of the table and my thinking has evolved over the years as well. I think the most important thing is that the fundamental heart of the issue is, what is the business being built? What is that impact on what is being built? What are the economics of that? It's the business, right? And that's the heart, the engine of whatever it is. Is the founder in charge, is it CEO or the CTO or the COO?

Whatever it is. But that team is really in charge of making and creating that value. And so, I think the founder is king, from my perspective. And never forget that. That's my advice to founders, it's like, you're the one building the business. You're the one talking to customers. You're the one running the team. You're the one screaming in conversations with VCs.

It's not the other way around. It's not the VCs selecting businesses. It's not VCs picking founders. It's not VCs driving the business strategy and thought. You get what I mean? And bad things happen when for whatever set of reasons, VCs claim to be that heart. I personally don't think so. I think VC is a source of capital just like a bank loan, just like government grants, just like capital from friends and family.

It is an input into the core engine of what's going on. And as a result, my biggest advice to founders is really like, when you're talking to the founders in ... sorry, if you talk of other founders, you're always talking about other investors and source of [inaudible 00:40:12]. The question I'll ask is this, beyond the fact that you're pitching them for money, which can feel like a power distance, right?

Like they are in charge and you're pitching them for cash, et cetera. Really focus first on saying like, what is my business and how do I make sure that this business can do well in any weather? With VC money or without VC money. That's really key. Because if you have that awareness, then you're truly the captain of the ship.

And I think the second aspect about that is therefore the question of saying, how do I [inaudible 00:40:50] bring on the best investors to support this economic engine, this heart of the business? And a simple way of saying that is, yes, they're providing money. Would you hire them to be part of your team? Would you be excited to hire them? And that's a really important question, especially at the earlier stages, right?

Maybe less so at later stages where it feels more transactional. And it's more of a hands-off relationship for everybody. But it's just like, would you hire this person? Would you be excited to bring this person on as a senior executive, as a co-founder, as a business partner? And if you're not excited to bring on this VC, apart from the money, then something's amiss. Does it make sense?

Mark Johnson:

Yep.

Jeremy Au:

Because that means you don't expect to see value which is the upside dynamic. But I think the biggest issue actually is that if you can't imagine hiring them, there's actually a high risk of downside risk, right? Just that they may not be aligned with business and because they have some level of control rights over the business, they may choose to push the company in the direction that you may not want them to do.

And so, that's a problem. And so, I really recommend that founders just sit down and just be like, would I hire this VC, this person? Would I hire Jeremy to be part of the team? Because we're so picky about who we hire. We were like, "We want 100 resumes and we want to pick the top one out of that."

And a VC is almost the other around, which is, "We're going to pitch 20 and whoever gives me the money is the money I take." Which is I think not bad process, but imagine what a better position if you were where you're like, "Out of the hundreds of VCs, these are the five or 10 that I really, really want to work with because I would love to have them as part of the team because of their prior expertise, because they're all founders before, because they know my position, because we have a good chemistry. And I'm going to build my company in a way that's attractive to them."

Well, it's not attractive to them per se, but it's attractive to everybody with two eyes. Or one eye. And therefore, these five people will want to be in no matter what. That's a totally different way of business. And then it moves the locus of activity and control from, how do I position my company best for fundraising?

To how do I build my company best in a way that allows for a no-brainer fundraising process from the VCs that I would love to hire? And I think I want founders to be more picky, more selective.

Mark Johnson:

No, that's great advice because I do think that that element of control where you're actually, from the side of a founder, that I want to be able to pick what matches what we're looking for is that, like you say, a great way to look at it is, would I hire this person? And I often think that in the rush of just trying to get money, they often forget to be a bit more choosy.

And then that's where you end up in a situation where the relationship just doesn't work. You get pushed in directions you don't want to. So, I think that's really, really fantastic advice. If at the very least they do that, that at least gives you a good start to a more fruitful relationship, especially at the start.

So, one of the last areas I actually do want to touch on, it's something we actually talked about during our podcast together, and we had a very frank and honest discussion and you pushed me on it quite a lot as well. So, I just wanted to ask from your perspective, because obviously we had this discussion, it's about communication, obviously that's my background.

Just what are the things you think are necessary for startups to think about when they're thinking about communications and PR and how to approach that? Whether they get an agency to work with and maybe what they maybe get wrong or right basically. So, just from your point of view of having been in the industry for a number of years.

Jeremy Au:

Yeah. First off, thanks for reminding me about that. And for those wondering, go to www.jeremyau.com and you'll see the episode there, time to come. I know you're going to hate me for saying this, but-

Mark Johnson:

No, go for it.

Jeremy Au:

Go for it. I think at a start, and I'll say the first is when your early stage, and the second is when you reach the stage, I think when your early stage, don't hire an agency. And what I mean by that is not necessarily, it is strong words, right? But I think what i'm trying to say here is when you're very early stage, when you got a small two-man team, five-man team and 10-man team, fundamentally, the problem is not about better communicating your value proposition to the customer.

It is about whether you're building something that people want and how do you change your product and your value proposition to be more appealing to customers. And so, I think a lot of founders in the early stages are very much like, "Oh, this will totally work and this will be totally desired by the market."

They keep pushing, pushing, pushing, and they're like, "I may be a best seller." And that could be true in many cases. So, there's a possibility. It's just that that's not necessarily the most important activity. And it happens in some cases, but not in most cases. I mean, most cases you're not necessarily building a product that customers really want.

And so, I think my [inaudible 00:46:33] is like sometimes you see early founders really rush off to get a consultant and be like, "Okay, I'm just clearly not selling that hard enough." And they'll bring on a consultant to help me sell harder. And then I think the good consultants will walk in and just say like ... well, the bad consultants walk in and would say like, "Okay, let me help you sell harder and just collect the fee."

I think the good ones would be like, "Okay, maybe we shouldn't work together. We should work in a very small TOA." And I think the best consultants will say something like, "Hey, I'm not sure if the market wants what its wanting, and these are the ways I think we could potentially explore building and improving.

And now is not the right time to have us as an agency because you need that capital to continue building out your business and the product." And that's tough. That's super tough, because it's way easier for me to say like, "I'm not selling this hard enough or in a smart way" Than to say like, "I'm built or have built something that people don't want.

Or even worse, they're okay with our [inaudible 00:47:46] mildly positive about who just sold many products out there in the market. So many products that people are just mildly positive about." And so, I really push early stage founders to really be mindful and to say ... I tell people, I was like, "Sales is about selling. Right? But marketing is about understanding the market and creating the market."

I'm just going back to fundamental, the key words here. So, I think that's really big. And I think the tricky part is that of course, when you're late stage and very big, I think that's when a great PR or a comms agency is very essential. To provide value, to help support and [inaudible 00:48:29]. And so, I think every large company pretty much has a press engine. Right?

Mark Johnson:

Yeah.

Jeremy Au:

I think the tricky part is really the transition point of when is it a right time from my perspective? And more importantly than the right time, but also what is the right approach to feather in the right support. And then thirdly is to select the right support. What I mean by that is like when you start out, I would just, one, push up press later than earlier, because I think most ... the truth is, if you look at it from a customer acquisition perspective, press is not your number one way to generate customer leads.

We've got mentioned in the New York Times and it did not drive a significant number of leads to the business. It did provide a lot of credibility as we worked with partners. It helped us improve our conversion from our leads because they now saw that we were featured in New York Times. But it did not generate new leads in a significant way. Compact to working on word of mouth referral, which is very obvious, right?

Because if someone loves your product and if you're helping them also share that love, it's an obvious lead. You're going to get more leads for sure, because people love your product and they advocate for that product.

So, I always talk about how word of mouth is a way more powerful channel to build in the early days, because it allows you to keep working on the right thing, which is it allows you to keep working on the product and it allows you to work on the advocacy of the product. Whereas if you're doing paid marketing, it does not necessarily mean you're improving your product by improving how you do paid marketing.

And so, press is even further than that, right? You're neither working on product, you're neither working on a really organic approach as an inorganic site. Right? So, really be mindful about that feathering in, just that you are building this on top of different channels. You're putting on top of word of mouth channel, you're building it out on your direct channel, you're building it on your SEO channel, which could be helped by press. And then you layer on these different channels.

And so, be mindful of where press is on that stack versus your stakeholder. Right? For example, if you're in a press and you're selling something to ... if you're selling candy to kids, they don't read the press. So, a press approach is not going to be helpful. Full stop. For like a pound for pound.

But if you're targeting a global audience and your product can be bought globally and serviced globally, like you are a global podcast, of course, yeah, you're targeting a Financial Times subscriber. Could work if you get a target audience. Right? And someone reading this in Iceland can still buy your product, right? Anyway, there's a lot of dynamics there.

So, I really push people to like, as a result feather in comms which means that they start out with a balloon budget, the test balloon, figure out what experiments are. Obviously, you need to do a funding press release, things like that. You need help with your press training. So, a lot of founders are not great at how to present themselves on television or on TV or YouTube or whatever.

And so, they can destroy value if they do not articulate it well. Crisis communications, so feather in that budget and work with startup specialists like Mark Johnson who understand that feathering in of the client and are flexible enough to do that because they know it's a long-term relationship rather than a short-term transactional project. I'm not sure if that's what you wanted to hear, Mark, but that's my point of view.

Mark Johnson:

No. Honestly, I think it's spot on. I think early, early, early stage, sometimes, and I had a conversation with a startup fairly recently, and they were just like, after long discussions back and forth, they were like, "We don't even think we're aligned internally over what we're doing." And they were talking to me and I was just like, "Let's talk again in the future. You guys need to sort a lot of other stuff out."

So, I think that's absolutely true. I think there are just times where there might be the odd one where you want a bit of training, I think, just to nail a pitch for something or whatever it is. But generally, yeah, you've got a lot other things that are far more important at the start, I think, very early on.

And then I agree with that feathering in approach. I think just, especially on the press side, I think it takes so long and it can eat up so much time of say founders and also the people you're paying money to for so little return that it just doesn't seem even worth it. You talk about New York Times, often the lead time of getting something placed in a prestigious place that looks great, "Hey mom, I've sent you a paper clipping. I'm on the front page of so-and-so."

But if it has no value to your business to actually driving like you say, sales and things like that, then it just doesn't matter. And also, another thing you said, it's the target audience. If it isn't the target audience of your product right now, then again, the value just isn't there.

So, I think that helps. I think in the industry when founders and consultants are honest about that relation and really portray your value and actually see where they are in their life cycle and what we can do for you and what you actually need, that can only improve the PR landscape and not make it worse.

Because I think for too long, often it is very transactional and often you get sold something you don't need that will not have any value. And there's been an age-old talk about PR value and how you should measure it, blah, blah, blah, blah. So, I just think it does a disservice to the actual industry rather than actually helping it by having companies needlessly work with PR agencies and things like that.

So, I think that approach is super smart. You do need them, so please do not not hire us at some point, but I think actually taking that thoughtful approach is fantastic. So, my final thing before letting you go, because this has been brilliant and I actually could talk to you for a lot longer.

This is just completely open. Last thing, just any general advice for budding entrepreneurs or founders, what's just one of the key things that you would keep in mind maybe as you're thinking about taking that jump?

Jeremy Au:

I'll choose to go more tactical rather than fluffy.

Mark Johnson:

Okay.

Jeremy Au:

I'll say, don't quit your job too early. What I mean by that is just like there're some brilliant stories out there in the press about how people jumped out and left a job to pursue a job full-time. And I think there's a very easy misconception, which is that they jumped the moment they had an idea. But if you actually zoom in and you actually go into the exec biography, look at Steve Jobs, right?

He was working full time and working on what would become Apple on the side. Right. It's just something that is not obvious in the 300-word article. And so, I really push people to be like, it takes time to get good ideas, it takes time to gestate, it takes time to rally resources and teammates. It just takes time. And more important with this time, you need time and funding and resources to run experiments, right?

Because the truth is, if you're choosing to be a founder, you are building something that has never been seen before in this part of the world. That's crazy. Think about it. If you told me, "Jeremy, I want to quit." If I told you like, "I, Jeremy, want to quit my job right now and I want to become a teacher." You and I both know exactly how much time it would take for me to become a teacher.

There'll be an interview process. I will go to a teacher school. I can go sign up for teacher education school. There's zero uncertainty about how much time it takes for me to retrain myself as a teacher. But to build something new that nobody's ever done before in this part of the world means that there is uncertainty. There are and there is that risk.

And so, you must run experiments to figure out whether you're right or that if you're wrong, how do you change your product so that your future experiment is right? And that velocity at time. And so, it's not just risky, which people say. But it's also like, there is a variance in amount of time you need.

And so, my concern [inaudible 00:57:04] founder has been to university and they want to drop out early or they want to get out of X or Y real quick, a job, I would say like, "Yeah, is there a way for you to keep working on this on the side on weekends and evenings and just keep running those experiments?" Maybe not as fast as you would love them to be.

Maybe you do have to make some sacrifices in terms of your hobbies, or your network, et cetera that you would normally do on the weekends or during that time. But just carve out that structured time and focus just to run those experiments. That's okay. Because you get to draw on your main salary and you also get to learn about what you're building. And thirdly, maybe you get inspired at your workplace hopefully. Right?

You get inspired by a problem or something else as well. Because I think I have so many friends who like, they quit and they tell me stuff like, "I have six months of savings." And I'm like, "Whoa, that's way too little." Because the way I explain it is like, if you quit and you live on your six months of savings, then you'll live and then you start working on a startup and it takes at best, I don't know, you had to be super good, but if you got product market fit within three months.

I'm just giving an example, like you're starting with code, that's really, really fast from my perspective. And then you've added a team. Then you do a fundraise. Fundraising takes at least three months. Right? Then you're in that weird scenario very, very quick. Right? So, six months is too short, savings, right? Because it's not as if you're going to keep your current lifestyle for six months and then find a job.

Because finding a job takes two months. Three months even. So, I think if you have six months of savings, I think it only really gives you three months of experimentation time to find product market fit and fundraise. And then you start doing something crazy, which is you keep working on a startup, but you also in parallel are interviewing for a normal job to not lose your apartment or something like that.

Or keep food on the table. And so, that's a really tough decision for so many folks. Whereas if you are working a full-time job that's putting food on the table and you're working on the side, then you have enough time. And at some point in time, it'll make sense for you to leave and join and do your startup full time. Especially when you've raised the funds, right?

And you know you've got product market fit, [inaudible 00:59:41] you've got enough resources for it. So, I think that's what I really give advice for which is, on one hand it's like, don't quit your job too early, but another way of looking at it is like, do give yourself enough space and buffer to be focused, diligent and fast about how you test for a product market fit and raise the funds that needed, or become profitable fast enough to do so. Yeah.

Mark Johnson:

I think that's great advice. Really, really good advice because I also think one thing I would add to that is when you're working a job you know, you know how to work that job so you can factor in spare time. Whenever you start a new job or whatever if you suddenly have to because money's running low, that's much harder to work out. How would you do a side gig at the same time?

So, if you're in a job that you know very well and you know how to carve out moments to be able to do your side hustle, that's a far easier position on top of all the money stuff. But anyway, I think that's fantastic advice and it's the perfect place to be leaving today. I've had a fantastic time. Jeremy, thank you for joining us. Do you want to just pitch your podcast one last time? It is very, very good. So, where can they find the BRAVE podcast?

Jeremy Au:

Yeah. Just go to www.jeremyau.com. We are featuring the brave journeys of, as you shared, founders, VCs and rising stars across Southeast Asia and we are very focused on a couple of things. Firstly, no BS on success. We talk about risk. We talk about smart ways to de-risk risk. We talk about how the world thinks about founders and we talk about how founders think about world.

So really pushing for that real, genuine, honest, frank conversation between two folks, the guests at myself. I think the second thing that we really focus on is that we're also very focused on building community. And so, we do have a forum and community where you're able to join and discuss the podcast episodes, but also access other guides and resources.

And the third thing that we're very focused on is that we are from Southeast Asia and we are for Southeast Asia. And so, a big part of it was just like, I pulled up my podcast and I was just watching too much stuff about people who are based in America, in Silicon Valley, and are just hungry.

And saw stuff or content from people who are based in Southeast Asia talking about Southeast Asia because I still keep them, but I think it's just nice to hear some of the actual things that we just discussed today. So, I think Mark Johnson, your podcast is a great example of a place that has that activity and reality about what it is like to operate and lead in Southeast Asia technology.

Mark Johnson:

Fantastic. Yep. So, check out BRAVE. It really is that good. And again, even if you've got a very niche area that you are really interested in, I guarantee you there's probably an episode. Because they're far more on it than I am when it comes to having really cool guests come on and get into production out there. So, really do check it out. Thank you very much, Jeremy. And thank you very much, everyone for joining us. Take care. Bye-bye.

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