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Nick Nash on Generational Lessons, World's Greatest Injustices, and Curiosity as Growth Hack

(Part 2 of 2) #48

· Purpose,Podcast Episodes,VC and Angels

But the reality actually in this world is what matters so much more is not what your diploma says, it matters what the hell you do with it. And one of my favorite entrepreneurs loves to say that he went to the best university in the planet, which was the school of hard knocks. I couldn't agree more if someone can like get me like a football Jersey for the school of hard knocks, I would totally wear that every day.

- Nick Nash

Continued from Part 1 of the podcast episode shownotes with Nick Nash, linked here.

Prior to Asia Partners, Mr. Nash was the Group President of Sea, Greater Southeast Asia’s leading internet company with a ~50Bn market cap, from 2014 to 2018. Mr. Nash led Sea’s landmark initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE: SE), which raised approximately $1 billion of primary capital and which was the largest ever U.S. IPO of a company from Southeast Asia.

Mr. Nash joined Sea after more than a decade with General Atlantic (GA), most recently as the co-founder and head of GA’s Southeast Asia business. Three of Mr. Nash’s successful investments while with General Atlantic are now multi-billion dollar NYSE publicly traded companies. Prior to GA, Mr. Nash was a management consultant with McKinsey & Company in New York.

Mr. Nash was a member of the World Economic Forum’s ASEAN Regional Strategy Group from 2017-2018, is a member of the global Kauffman Society for leadership in venture capital, is a member of the Young Presidents Organization, and is a board member of Endeavor Indonesia.

He received an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in 2007, where he was an Arjay Miller Scholar. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in Chemistry and Physics, magna cum laude, in 2000.

You can find our community discussion on this episode at

Jeremy Au: [00:35:25] So let's talk about work, right? So school of hard knocks and your first school of hard knocks was I assume, McKinsey, that's your first time entering and doing a job, right? What was that like?

Nick Nash: [00:35:37] Well, McKinsey is super interesting place because it, as much as is possible in a fairly practical world of business, it tries to actually figure things out on first principles. And it's not the only shop. I mean, Bain is wonderful and BCG is wonderful and so many other firms, but for what it is individually, it is really good at trying to sort of ask questions and sort of try to build things up in building blocks, to come up with a reason for why things are happening. I just loved it.

It was a really great place, you make a bunch of great friends, my wife is also from McKinsey. My office mate introduced me to my wife. So you end up becoming part of a just a bunch of fun people to be with. I think there's a lot of similarities to almost thinking of it as a kind of a masters program, that you get to go to kind of right out of college. And then the other thing that I think you'll learn a lot about is as you're puzzling things out and trying to sort of work out the solution to something, as intellectual as that may seem and not very practical, you also learn a lot about the deep linkage between how you write things and how you think things. And that may seem kind of academic, but actually is very important. The quality of thinking generally improves if you're a better writer and the quality of writing generally improves, if you're a better thinker and no one shows up to work being very good at either of those two things.

So you end up getting a lot of practice, almost like a medical resident in figuring things out. And I just, I'm very grateful for all the training and frankly, all of the tough love that you get in a place like that. And interestingly enough it ends up giving you, I wouldn't say a versatility, but it gives you sort of a curiosity about how other things work. That's actually really, really fun.

The best McKinsey people or the best consultants in general are actually special not because of what they happened to have learned a memorized, but because of their kind of very sharply defined curiosity for figuring the next thing out. A great skill, I think to have, because you'll have to be able to walk into any dinner party and be utterly fascinated by the person sitting to your left and to your right. And that's a wonderful gift to be able to have. And consulting firms do a great job of teaching that.


Jeremy Au: [00:37:42] Well, that's funny because my wife is also McKinsey.

Nick Nash: [00:37:46] That's brilliant, that's brilliant.

Jeremy Au: [00:37:48] Well, the joke is more like I joined Bain, I looked at my partners and I said, who left their poor wives at home and their husbands at home. And I was like, "I'm not going to do that to my plus one." And then of course, years later I left Bain and years later my wife was like, "I want to join McKinsey." And then I realized I was going to be the one left at home.

Nick Nash: [00:38:08] There you go, there you go. I think you can write her a slide deck about it.

Jeremy Au: [00:38:12] Yeah. Nick, we're kind of curious, what feedback did you get at McKinsey? I'm just like, because consulting firms, they give a lot of feedback, right? Like this is what you got to work on. What feedback did he give you Nick in your first year, do you remember?

Nick Nash: [00:38:29] Man, it's been so long. I probably buried it all subconsciously. Not really sure, let me think for a second. Gosh, it's been so long, Jeremy. I think it's some of the usual stuff in a funny kind of way, maybe I can wrap into a broader theme and something that I've learned and I really encourage folks at our firm to sort of adapt and think about. There's an inherent shyness that people often have when they're starting in a new organization.

We all know the drill, you sort of show up to work, you kind of don't want to sound stupid. You don't want to feel like you're talking much when instead of it's the senior partner's job to do the talking, and frankly, even, if you don't want to sound stupid, you don't have a whole lot to say when you're just figuring things out in the very beginning. And what I learned over a lot more years, post that point was the following.

Number one, there is enormous value, so you can see we're going to this part of the feedback I got was please try to speak up a little bit more. Sort of don't be a shy and I've obviously broken through some of that shell as the years come by. But here's the interesting takeaway, I have come to sort of maybe have this view, for right or for wrong, that there's a lot of stuff that people can learn autodidactically in life that most people don't bother doing.

Let me give an example. Let's say hypothetically, you're on a McKinsey project or a BCG project or whatever. You're at a startup, you're doing something. And you've been asked to go think about some new area. Let's just say it's E-Wallet, let's pick an area that's on everybody's minds. These days, FinTech and E-Wallets. It turns out there's like six awesome books on Amazon about how visa was build, how PayPal was built, how parts of China's payments ecosystem were built, how it fits into e-commerce, how regulation works.

And if you really worked at it, you could read them all cover to cover and ingest them properly over probably three weekends. And you would not spend even the fraction of what it costs to get a Gerson Lehrman. One of these expert networks to have one of their experts talk to you for an hour. You would literally spend about $87 on Kindle expense and would walk out really knowing a lot, but no one does that which is just fascinating.

And interestingly, when I sort of came to learn over the years, is that a lot of my shyness in early meetings when I was younger was to a certain extent, maybe it's because I have a science background, I felt I didn't know anything worth saying, but if you do a lot of the work to read stuff, and then once you've read stuff, you can talk to some more people and ask them maybe one or two interesting questions and they start to open up to you.

Because you asked them a question that they thought was kind of interesting, it kind of triggered a few more thoughts, all of which cascades into actually having much more interesting conversations with people. And it's not that you want to sort of become some sort of jeopardy contestant and know what team won, the world cup in 1973. It's less that it's more like, wow, what's happening right now seems to be very similar.

Some the challenges that Visa was going through, and I'd love to ask you if there's a similarity, whatever, whatever, whatever, and kind of making this up on the fly. But you start to see the patterns of things a little bit more. And even more than that, you just start to find it all very interesting. So if there's something I learned at McKinsey indirectly, it's that the best way to actually be more engaged in a conversation in a meeting or whatever is to actually do a lot of legwork behind the scenes.

It reminds me Jeremy there's a great mark Twain quote, he used to say, "A really great extemporaneous speech requires about 24 hours of preparation." And that's obviously sort of a little bit of a, kind of an oxymoron, but it's true. And oftentimes like Steve jobs would say you discover only late in life, how the dots connect, but it behooves all of us to put a whole bunch of dots into our lives often through reading and then sort of learning about what's already transpired.

Jeremy Au: [00:42:21] Yeah. Wow. I think that's so true. You just got to do the work in, you're just always going to revert to the mean or become a politician in terms of like finding common ground, but it's hard to be spiky and have a clear point of view if you haven't done the work beforehand. For sure. Nick, I think obviously you went on to build this career in New York and you started out in the States and then you made a move to do your first ASEAN investment. So tell us more, how did you, how did Southeast Asia enter the picture for you in your orbit?

Nick Nash: [00:42:55] Well, it all began in a very unusual way. I first came to Singapore to work, not even as a tourist, in 2006. And it's a part of my story that I actually, I don't know many people know I came here to work at Lenovo, of all places. And the reason was very straightforward, one of my bosses at general, Atlantic, who is an extraordinarily interesting and fascinating and very, very thoughtful business person, his name is Bill Grabe had been one of the top people at IBM, literally top five globally for IBM.

So much so that Sam Palmisano who ultimately ran IBM after the famous Louis Gerstner, Sam Palmisano, I think it was the guy that built it hired, or at least a trained along the way. So this is just really special. He came to General Atlantic in roughly 1993 and amongst many, many things he did by the early two thousands. He had this great idea that we would help Lenovo buy the very, very famous IBM PC business.

Many will know that back in the early days of computing, there were a few different brands, Commodore, Amiga, of course the old Apple IIs and whatnot. And then out of this now legendary and famous story, out of their Florida R&D center, IBM built a PC and this wasn't IBM's kind of knitting, IBM was sort of in the mainframe and the big and iron business OS360 and the big stuff, but a bunch of guys kind of put together the first PC, the IBM PCXT on the 8088 processor.

And of course that spawned along with Microsoft, the whole PC revolution, fast forward to 2003, 2004, that business was sort of maturing, Dell and others had sort of made a lot of hay and it actually made all the sense in the world to do this wonderful East meets West merger, which of course could never happen in the current geopolitical climate. And as a part of that General Atlantic, a hundred million dollars to help Lenovo buy this business. And my boss Bill joined the board.

I was at business school at the time just after that. And my return offer to General Atlantic was conditional on spending the summer with GA ideally at a company. Then I want to emphasize that for one quick second, a bunch of folks in this call probably have a background in different aspects of venture capital or investing. What are the fun things that we've done in Asia Partners? It's central to our culture, is that no one can get to the vice-president level in our firm unless they have simultaneously done some investing work and have worked for at least two years in a line role in an operating company like a SEA or a Go-Jek or Grab, or what have you. There's a workaround to that. If you go get an MBA, then you just have to work for one year in an operating company, but we'd actually prefer it. You just do the two years and not even get the MBA if need be, but where am I going with this?

Bill's view and GA's view was, "In the same way, you're getting your MBA, but go work in a real company, go, go learn how businesses get run and managed." And they said, "Why don't we send you to Singapore? We've just bought the Lenovo IBM sort of combined business, go out and help." So I got my first introduction to Singapore in a long-winded answer to your question by running around the Funan IT Mall back in 2006, trying to figure out how we would sell people consumer PCs, because we didn't have any in Southeast Asia.

We had a nice little office at Lorong Chuan, many of you in Singapore will know, and I just fell in love with Singapore and all things Southeast Asia, unbeknownst to me, my wife also loves Singapore. That's a whole other story. And when the opportunity arose in 2011 and she goes to the office, it was an absolute dream come true. We loved it. I remember coming home to sort of ask her, "Hey, but GA wants us to move to Singapore. What do you think?"

And I'm sort of taking some creative liberty here, but the summation of her answer was, "You're numbskull, why didn't you just accept on the spot? Why did you have to ask me for permission? Let's go, let's move to Singapore." And that of course was in 2011. And I think it's a fun conversation, Jeremy, if you'd like to take the conversation in that direction, which is to talk about how much has changed since 2011?

Because we talk a lot about how Southeast Asia is having a moment right now and we talk about this golden age concept, but it didn't happen overnight. I mean, Southeast Asia has been working very, very hard to get to this point, thanks to your efforts and many on this call. So that here in 2021, about 10 years after I moved here, things are starting to really finally take off.

Yeah. I'd love to go into that because I remember that. And I moved back to Singapore about 2011 as well, or so 2012, and I remember the first co-working space opened up it was called Impact Hub Singapore by Quayside, 2012, I remember. And then Golden Gate and Jungle Ventures was running around their co-working space with me. So, but things have changed a lot. Nick , compare and contrast, what was it like then when you first moved for real with your wife versus today?

Maybe I've been talking to you about Jeremy. I'd love to hear from you and others on the call. Maybe we can all just go around and ask folks from the audience to talk for a literally give us a single sentence. Maybe we can have four or five people, what's the single biggest difference in the tech ecosystem, 2011 to 2021 in Southeast Asia? If they could say it a single sentence, maybe we can just ask folks to raise their hand. And do you want to kick us off Jeremy? You want to kick us off with an answer? In your mind, single biggest difference over 10 years.

Jeremy Au: [00:48:27] Yeah. And everybody feel free to raise your hands, we'll be able to rotate you in. I would say the biggest difference is that the word founder exists, like the word, the concept, the career, the mind share that the founder has. I mean, in 2012, we didn't even call ourselves founders because we were like, that's a weird thing to call ourselves. We need to call ourselves like president, a CEO.

I remember all our friends were like, we don't call ourselves founders nobody would take us seriously. Nobody would fund us if we called ourselves founders. And to some extent that's changed dramatically over time where people think it's great, people think it's awesome, people think it's an acceptable job. I remember my mom being very disappointed in me when I told her, I was like, "I'm setting up a business." And my mom was very disappointed because she thought I was a consultant and she didn't really know what consultant was. I told her it was being a doctor of the companies. And so that made it acceptable, but I couldn't find an analogy for being a founder at that time.

Nick Nash: [00:49:30] Fascinating, fascinating. And there's a great book by Richard Feynman, which is a quote that at the time his wife had shared with him, "What do you care what other people think?" And that to a certain extent is worth of some conversation with the group. Because I would say at least here in Asia, we think a lot about what other people think, especially our parents. And it's fine to think that way about ethics and morality and values, but in terms of like pursuing a path of creating beauty in this universe, why should you care what other people think? A great question to think about, but let's ask some other people to say, what's the single biggest difference over the last 10 years?

Jeremy Au: [00:50:10] Yeah. Melvin, you go ahead and then Oliver, and the JSP.

Melvin: [00:50:13] Hey guys, thanks for a really awesome chat. I enjoyed every minute of it, but you see 10 years or 20 years because I heard 2011 versus... Wait a moment, it is 10 years, my God. I wanted to answer this question because-

Nick Nash: [00:50:24] Hey Melvin, by the way, we have an amazing ed tech company that focuses on math, if you ever want a discount code... No, I'm just kidding you.

Fire away my friend.

Melvin: I really wanted to answer this question because I was thinking about this very recently and I'd say the biggest difference is the unicorn expectation. In 2011, I just founded my first startup and we exited to Ruckus in 2013. And back in those days like that small little teeny weeny exit was like really celebrated with family and friends. But today, if you're not doing a unicorn exit, you're like don't bother.

Super interesting, thank you, Melvin. Oliver, you want to go next?

Oliver: [00:51:01] Hey, thanks Nick, thanks Jeremy for bringing me up. I think for me the biggest difference is just the explosion of product and engineering teams based out of here in Singapore. And I think the reason that really, really matters is not only does it build a culture where people are just like experimenting and launching stuff, not just for the country, but for the region as well. Great example is how like new products like Google Pay for India and now in the US are partly built out of Singapore in addition to products that also creates like a cool pipeline of like founders, right?

Because eventually everyone will either start a startup or work in a startup. And I think it's a big major change. I was first in Singapore in 04 or 08, my first job was here and I was working in marketing analytics. And one of the biggest problems we always had was like building all of our data pipelines, we build really cool software. And now I think that's, that's less of a problem. And I think it's been a great change, great shifts, looking forward to see how that exponentially scales in the next five years.

Nick Nash: [00:52:06] Super interesting. How about JSP?

JSP: [00:52:09] Thanks Nick and Jeremy for having me up on stage. For most of you who actually have never met me in person, you might remember me from Tech in Asia in 2019 in Jakarta. I was the guy that won Nick's T-shirt for having been to the most cities across Southeast Asia.

Nick Nash: [00:52:27] Of course, how have you been? Oliver says hi, by the way. Oliver says hi.

JSP: [00:52:31] Yes, yes. I sent over a congratulatory note the other day for your raise, congratulations as well.

Nick Nash: [00:52:38] Very kind.

JSP: [00:52:38] I think the biggest difference in the last 10 years, it's possible and people are talking about it. I remember being in Bangkok in 2012 and people were saying to me like, "What are you doing out there? Everything is going to be in Silicon Valley or it's going to come out of China or India. There's just nothing going to be there." And you fast forward 10 years. And now we've talked about how many unicorns and where are they going to go public? And when's the next one coming up? So I think to me the biggest difference is, like you said before, there are rhinos out there and we're excited about seeing the next one come through.

Nick Nash: [00:53:17] I think I've been muted by a moderator, maybe it's my cue that I'm talking too much. Valerie, should you go next?

Valerie: [00:53:25] Hi, Jeremy and thanks Jeremy and Nick for bringing me up. I have two differences that I want to share. The first one is the amount of venture capitalists in Vietnam. That's where I'm from and based even currently. I talked to a few of the industry veterans and the time that I was in college, there was only one Vietnam fund, venture capital fund. But now we have at least four to five VC focusing on Vietnam and have headquarters in Vietnam.

And I can think of if every single VC fund in Southeast Asia has Vietnamese associate or Vietnamese representative, which brought me opportunity to join the VC industry as well. And the first company in my portfolio just made the first Vietnamese startup to be accepted to Y Combinator. So very exciting. And then the second biggest difference is now coming back to Vietnam to work is not considered like a loser anymore because I was bringing up that idea.

And none of my friends really considered as a career options, they always think Silicon Valley or US is a better path, but now a lot of people asking me like, "Hey, should I come back to kind of home country now? I really want to explore opportunities in Vietnam or Southeast Asia." And my family started to look at me going back to Vietnam, not as bad as before. And so yeah, I wanted to share those two things. Thank you.

Nick Nash: [00:55:00] Super insightful. Thank you, Valerie. Maybe Jeremy, should we give Rajeev a check-in and then we can all maybe broaden the conversation?

Jeremy Au: [00:55:07] Yep. Sounds good. So Rajeev then.

Rajeev: [00:55:10] Appreciate it. Thanks, thanks Jeremy. Thanks, thanks Nick. Hello again, Saw your son today at school.

Nick Nash: [00:55:18] Is your child at Little Hands also?

Rajeev: [00:55:20] Same one, same one.

Nick Nash: [00:55:21] I'm so sorry. It was raining a lot. I might've had the umbrella and didn't see you. Sorry about that.

Rajeev: [00:55:25] All good. All good. So I think the one big change and is sort of piggybacking a little bit of on all of this point, but slightly different is a good hallmark or inflection point of any ecosystem is the ability to export your tech to other parts of the world that I've seen in the last 10 years. We've sort of moved away from not only being building tech that is for self consumption, but we're starting to see quite a substantial proliferation of tech being built.

That's being exported into other parts of the world and competing and winning. And so as we sort of grow and mature, I think that's one trend that we're keenly looking at and one we're happy to see as part of a maturing ecosystem.

Nick Nash: [00:56:10] That's super insightful. Rajeev's colleague, Alex Lazarow is one of my best friends and Jeremy he'd be a killer person to have on the podcast.

Rajeev: [00:56:11] 100%.

Nick Nash: [00:56:11] Has he accepted it yet? Did he make it go through for you?

Rajeev: [00:56:11] Yes, he's on here. He's on here.

Nick Nash: [00:56:11] That's awesome. That's fantastic. He'd be great. He'd be great. Well, we've only got two minutes left, I'd love to pose a question to the group and Jeremy, maybe you can start by responding, others can as well. One final question, which is the following, markets go up and markets go down and based on our sort of feeling about these things and based on the data, there tends to be a big tech bubble roughly every 20 years. If you think about it 1969 was a very, very big tech sort of bubble.

There was obviously a massive tech bubble, maybe 15 years, there was a massive tech bubble in 83, 84, there was a massive one in 1999. This one seems to be happening in 2021. How would a 70% crash in the NASDAQ, which is already down about 20% from its absolute peak, certainly for Tesla. How would that change people's determination, grit, resilience towards building tech companies?

I'm super interested this question because actually sometimes the world's best companies get created during times of recession because it's the entrepreneurs that are truly the ones that are the most passionate, the most committed to building great companies that stick it out and see it through. And others maybe think that other career paths might be a little bit of a better way to spend their time. So just curious, Jeremy, to get your reaction, the last minute we have.

Jeremy Au: [00:57:32] Yeah. I think the data shows that great companies have been built regardless of time, right? It doesn't matter what time it is, there's a great company there. I think the interesting part is I think the whole ecosystem around it, right? I think it's more about the unthinking optimism/unthinking pessimism that tends to follow these cyclical components, right? And that can be a downer in terms of fundraising.

It can be a downer in terms of like community and personal support by friends and family. So I think that would be the biggest change I think. And it's not a bad thing because we're also going to see, there was the stories like when low tide comes, you figure out who's been swimming without the shorts on. So I think that's not necessarily a bad thing as well because for the good faith builders, they're going to persevere in good times and bad, right? So that's how I think about it.

Nick Nash: [00:58:30] Interesting. Fascinating. Well, this has been a lot of fun. I've got to go take my kids for a walk. And nice to see all of you guys here. Thank you for sharing your time with me, I learned a lot from what the group shared and I just wish you all a very healthy and a very happy 2021.

Jeremy Au: [00:58:46] Thank you so much, Nick, for spending your time.

Nick Nash: [00:58:48] Thanks Jeremy. Thanks for hosting this. See you later.

Jeremy Au: [00:58:51] Bye.

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