Executives in Southeast Asia are giving up the comfort of plush corporate jobs to become fund managers as the startup ecosystem in the region is throwing up significant investment opportunities.
Bob Rosin, partner at early-stage venture capital (VC) firm defy.vc, describes the trend, particularly in the high-growth technology sector, as a natural one.
“Corporate giants look at opportunities from a global perspective and that opened up my outlook as an investor,” said Rosin, who was most recently the head of partnerships at Stripe, a technology company that builds economic infrastructure for the internet.
Before joining Stripe, between 2011 and 2018, Rosin worked with some of the largest US-headquartered tech firms including LinkedIn, Microsoft and Skype.
Rosin was also a serial entrepreneur in his earlier days, having founded several startups where one was acquired by Skype.
“I have met hundreds of investors (as an entrepreneur) and always wanted to find one who had been there, done it before and could really give me good advice,” he said. “I think a lot of founders are realising that if you have someone who has real operational skills, that person can potentially be a lot more helpful.”
Defy.vc currently has assets worth $413 million under its management – it recently invested in Indonesia-headquartered earned wage access startup GajiGesa. The firm’s other portfolio companies include Nautilus Biotechnology, and time-critical logistics service Airspace Technologies – both based in the US.
“It’s a natural path where people who have a lot of experience building and scaling teams, go on and join VC firms,” said Gaurav Bubna, co-founder at spatial data platform NextBillion.ai. Bubna was formerly the head of product at ride-hailing giant Grab.
‘Been there, done that’
“When I look around in my own circle, most investors I know come from [business-building] backgrounds. I think it’s a natural progression,” said Erik Jonsson, partner at Antler Vietnam.
James Tan, the co-founder and managing partner of Quest Ventures, is one such investor. Tan earlier co-founded and served as the COO at NASDAQ-listed e-commerce company 55tuan in China.
Under his leadership, the company grew from a five-person operation to one that had a headcount of 5,000 employees across China with a presence in over 200 cities.
55tuan then went on to become the first and the only group-buying startup to make a debut on NASDAQ in 2015. Its investors then included Goldman Sachs, Zero2IPO Capital, Sky Blessing Investment and CDH Investments.
That experience was significant, Tan said. It helped him understand the impact that private capital and technology can have on any sector that eventually led him to launch his own VC.
“Unless you are deep in the trenches with the startup, you can never have an understanding of what they are going through. What an investor has is at best an expansive yet in-depth theoretical perspective of the startup at a point in time, usually monthly, mostly quarterly,” he said.
Another operator-turned-investor is Vorapol Supanusonti, co-founder and managing director at Asia Partners, a Singapore-based private equity (PE) firm that announced the final close of its debut fund in March with $384 million in commitments.
Its portfolio companies include budget hotel startup RedDoorz, online used car platform Carsome, and SCI Ecommerce.
Before joining Asia Partners, Supanusonti was an associate director of corporate development and strategy at tech giant Sea Group where he worked for a year-and-a-half.
During Supanusonti’s tenure at Sea Group, he saw the Southeast Asian company launch its IPO in New York, a first for the region that he describes as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … to be a part of that progress and help drive that, it was pretty cool.”
Interestingly, it was his co-founder at Asia Partners Nick Nash who had steered Sea Group’s IPO in 2017 on the NYSE, as its president.
Before Sea Group, Supanusonti had held investment roles in Temasek Holdings, General Atlantic (where he met Nash) and TPG Capital in a span of eight years. He saw the development of technology in Southeast Asia from the time Grab was still MyTaxi and Gojek was non-existent to the current times when blockbuster developments are gripping the burgeoning startup ecosystem.
“It is an interesting time to be in this part of the world, to be able to help more companies and get rewarded by doing good work in investing in good companies,” said Supanusonti.
For Olivier Raussin, co-founder and managing partner of early-stage venture capital fund FEBE Ventures, it’s all about understanding the nuances of entrepreneurship and investments together.
“I realised that I was never surrounded by so many smart people until I was at Google,” said Raussin, who earlier served as the head of Google Display & YouTube, besides being the business director at Microsoft Msn.
“These people have crazy stories, crazy experiences and you receive different ideas every day,” he added, highlighting how his stint at the tech behemoths had opened his perspective.
Some of the tech giants such as Facebook and Google even have startup accelerator programmes that eventually encourage people to start their own ventures.
After leaving Google, Raussin had joined Berlin-based Project A Ventures before he started FEBE Ventures in Vietnam.
FEBE currently manages a $25 million fund and its portfolio companies include dental startup Zenyum, plant-based food startup Next Gen and earned wage access firm Nano Technologies.
On a weekly basis, he meets about 20 different entrepreneurs – people who want to change the world. “They have a lot of energy, a lot of passion. Most of them are very smart,” said Raussin, who founded his own startup in 2006.
From then to now, however, the sector has evolved significantly, thereby creating opportunities for investors.
“We get new ideas from meeting new founders every day. You don’t get this opportunity as a founder,” said Quest Ventures’ Tan said.
Adding to that, Jonsson, partner at Antler Vietnam, said: “This part is amazing. It is unlike an entrepreneur, who usually only does PR or takes external meetings when they really need to.”
Jonsson was earlier the co-founder and managing director of Rocket Internet-backed fashion e-commerce startup Zalora in Vietnam for close to two years. He has also dabbled in several other startups after that before finding his calling in venture capital.
“Having once been an entrepreneur you’re likely to be an “evergreen optimist-type of person that wants to change the world. Having crashed and burnt, you are only likely to become much more vigilant about certain warning signals related to venture building and scaling,” he added.
Notable corporate honchos turned investors
|Investor||Previous role(s)||Current role|
|Bill Gates||Head of Microsoft||Founder of Cascade Investment LLC
Founder of Breakthrough Energy Ventures that invests in clean-tech
Has made numerous personal investments in companies over the course of his career
|Jeff Bezos||-||Founder and executive chairman at Amazon
Founder of his personal venture capital firm called Bezos Expeditions
|Peter Thiel||CEO of PayPal||Co-founder and chairman of Palantir Technologies
Co-founder of Valar Ventures and Founders Fund
|Jack Ma||Executive chairman of Alibaba Group||Co-founder of private equity firm Yunfeng Capital|
|Richard Liu Qiangdong||-||Founder, chairman and CEO of JD.com
Co-founder and managing director of Morningside Venture Capital (5Y Capital)
|Ma Huateng||-||Co-founder, chairman and CEO of Tencent Holdings
Angel Investor in companies like Xiaomi Technology
|Kai-Fu Lee||Vice president of Microsoft and Google China||President and CEO of Sinovation Ventures|
|Chamath Palihapitiya||Vice president of Facebook||CEO of Social Capital|
|John Wu||CTO at Alibaba||FengHe Group|
|Patrick Grove||-||Co-founder of iProperty Group, iCar Asia Limited
Co-founder and CEO of investment firm Catcha Group
|James Tan||COO at e-commerce group 55tuan||Co-founder and managing partner at Quest Ventures|
|Justin Choi||Group head of corporate development at Gojek||Managing director at CVC Capital Partners|
|Amit Jain||APAC head at Uber||Managing director at Sequoia Capital|
|Alan Hellawell||Chief strategy officer at Sea Group||Partner at Alpha JWC Ventures|
|Peter Park||Founding director and CBO at LINE|
Vice president of business development at LINE Pay
|Investment director at SoftBank Group|
|Huey Lin||Founding chief operating officer at Affirm|
Several key roles at PayPal
|Venture partner at GGV Capital|
|Anish Acharya||Several key roles at Google||General partner at Andreessen Horowitz|
|Olivier Raussin||Head of Google Display and YouTube and business director at Microsoft Msn||Co-founder and managing partner of FEBE Ventures|
|Tito Costa||Managing director of Zalora Group|
Managing director of Rocket Internet SE
|Partner at Global Founders Capital|
|Vorapol Supanusonti||Associate director of corporate development and strategy at Sea Group||Co-founder and managing director at Asia Partners|
|Nick Nash||President at Sea Group||Co-founder and managing partner at Asia Partners|
|Pandu Sjahrir||-||Board member at Gojek and Indonesia Stock Exchange
Chairman of SEA Indonesia
Managing partner at Indies Capital Partners
|Achmad Zaky||CEO at Bukalapak||Founding Partner at venture capital firm Init 6|
|Bob Rosin||Head of partnerships at Stripe|
Vice president at LinkedIn, Microsoft and Skype
|Partner at Defy.vc|
|Erik Jonsson||Managing director of Zalora Vietnam||Partner at Antler Vietnam|
|Pachara Lawjindakul||Head of GrabBike/GrabExpress Thailand||Vice president at Lightspeed Venture Partners|
|Vy Le||CEO at Vietnam's largest private conglomerate Vingroup||General Partner at Do Ventures|
|Khanh Tran||Country head of business development at Grab and country director at GoBear||Managing partner at Touchstone Partners|
|Abheek Anand||Product manager at Facebook||Managing director at Sequoia Capital|
|Sudhanshu Nath Mishra||Product manager at Uber||Investor at Sequoia Capital|
|This list is not exhaustive.|
Good for the ecosystem
It’s not operators alone who are turning into investors in the VC space. Tech giant alumni are also investing in each other’s companies.
“This is a good sign of a thriving ecosystem,” said Supanusonti. “People don’t want to remain in first-generation companies forever. They want to fulfill their career aspirations. I think the key trigger is obviously going to be the big exit portion.”
For example, GajiGesa’s co-founder and CEO Vidit Agrawal and Rosin had known each other since their Stripe days, where Agrawal served as APAC head of business development. Rosin later co-led GajiGesa’s $2.5 million seed funding round in February through Defy.vc.
“He [Agrawal] didn’t need to have a whole process to raise money because we immediately knew we wanted to work together,” said Rosin.
In the US, one of the most high-profile executives-turned-investors of all time is Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Some of his recent personal investments include cloud-based digital manufacturing ecosystem Fictiv, surgical robotics startup Vicarious Surgical and plant-based meat products Impossible Foods.
Then, there is Chamath Palihapitiya, CEO of Social Capital, who has been at the forefront of the SPAC boom in the US. He was earlier the vice president at Facebook.
Social Capital has invested more than $1 billion in private technology companies since 2011. Its portfolio companies include aerospace manufacturing firm Relativity Space, AI chip startup Groq and global precision oncology data-sharing network Syapse.
In China, billionaire entrepreneur Jack Ma, co-founder and former executive chairman of Alibaba Group, has actively invested in companies via his private equity firm Yunfeng Capital, besides putting in money through his personal capacity.
While Yunfeng bets big on healthcare, it also invests in technology, financial services and media.
Among others in the country, Kai-Fu Lee, president and CEO at Sinovation Ventures, too, spots a big opportunity in the startup ecosystem.
Lee currently manages a $1.7 billion dual-currency investment fund – he had earlier served as the vice president of Microsoft and Google China.
Other investors on the list across the region include CVC Capital Partners’ Justin Choi who was group head of corporate development at Gojek, Sequoia Capital’s managing director Amit Jain who used to be Uber’s APAC head and Alpha JWC Ventures’ Alan Hellawell who served as Sea Group’s chief strategy officer.