How does one feel breathing in a space that brims over with ideas? Chiah Li Ong, a Partner at JFDI, gives an insider’s view
This is in continuation of our series on the startups and the people from startup accelerator JFDI (The Joyful Frog Digital Incubator).
JFDI’s Chiah Li Ong started her career in the media sector. She saw Banter magazine grow from its infancy as a pioneer employee. Ong then moved on to become an editor at large for Pinpoint Media Group after Banter was acquired by it. She eventually joined Expara IDM Ventures, a provider of incubation and mentorship to early-stage interactive and digital media (IDM) companies in Singapore. Ong later joined Extream Ventures (an early-stage/series A fund) and now she’s at JFDI.Asia.
What are the most challenging parts of being involved in the startup sector, professionally and personally?
Work-life balance? What work-life balance? It doesn’t feel like work to me, because there are always so many new things to discover, to learn when interacting with founders and hackers, who all think very differently. I’ve never gotten bored.
The most challenging experience I would say involves government grants to entrepreneurs. When I was with Expara IDM Ventures, which operates under i.JAM, it wasn’t that easy changing midway the milestones and budget that was set at the very beginning of the grant application. I hope the conditions are a bit more flexible now under the new i.JAM Reload programme.
What would you advise startups choosing between accelerators and incubators?
Having been a part of JFDI for almost three years has changed my thinking about how to best support entrepreneurs at the seed stage. Being an entrepreneur is often a lonely journey.
However, if you are part of an accelerator programme, you have a community of people that you can rely on for help and support. For example, your fellow entrepreneurs in the same cohort, where you struggle through for 100 days, and the alumni who return to share their experiences with you. Also, the mentors and the investors who participate. The accelerator programme is very structured; we track the entrepreneurs and know what they are struggling with. This helps us help them better.
What is your most crucial role as a Partner in JFDI?
I started in this industry as an analyst and it’s a great foundation-building role. I got to read and evaluate business plans, slide decks and enjoy a lot of flexibility to build relationships with people in the ecosystem. As a partner now at JFDI, I am very much conscious now that my role has grown quite substantially.
We have a great team and I feel a personal responsibility to help them grow professionally at JFDI. Just as I was given those opportunities when I first started out. I do feel a bit anxious at times thinking whether JFDI operations are running smoothly or otherwise, and also about how JFDI is going to scale up.
How does your media background affect your perspective when evaluating startups?
I was with Banter, the magazine, from the very beginning. The experience of figuring out its distribution channels to revenue model and then trying to grow user numbers, and finally being a part of a new set-up when Banter was merged with Pinpoint Media Group’s titles help me relate to what the entrepreneurs are doing.
At Banter, we went out and did things. When faced with sticking points and obstacles, we kept moving . That’s why sometimes it frustrates me a bit when entrepreneurs talk and nothing is executed.
Have you had a defining moment with JFDI?
It feels like we are helping to move a civilisation forward; to build the future together with entrepreneurs. Startups help to advance and make things more efficient in their markets. They open up important resources to those who cannot afford them. For example, TradeGecko (graduated from JFDI 2012 cohort), an inventory and supply chain management solution along the lines of what Walmart uses. How do SMEs afford that sort of system? TradeGecko built and automated this for them and it empowers businesses, allowing them to concentrate on the more important parts of their business, like sales.
Bootstrapping – to do or not to do?
It’s something an entrepreneur has to do initially. At JFDI, we put in SG$25,000 (US$19,995) into each company, which is not a lot, but the participants learn to bootstrap and use the funds wisely to get to early traction where they will be able to raise more money after.
What’s the most interesting concept you saw that wasn’t able to reach the market?
I saw a concept where the team had the idea of an application in the cloud, where users could print documents from the cloud without using a driver. A QR code is printed on a piece of paper and you could print it from anywhere, anytime. Sometimes, interesting ideas fail because it they do not get executed well. Sometimes it’s because there’s a founders’ conflict and the team breaks up. And sometimes, the market may not want those ideas.
Accelerators or VC firms – which is more interesting to work in?
Accelerators and VCs serve different purposes. All feed into the same ecosystem. Accelerators are more interesting to work in, if that person is interested in farming ideas from the ground up (i.e grassroots of the entrepreneurship community) and exploring what is possible at the ground level.
VC, I think, will appeal to those who are more comfortable with the certainty of numbers, and have a different set of skill-sets. For example, early-stage onwards is where the role is more focussed on growth and expansion, and on how to engineer and exit/acquisition.
However, both accelerators and VCs do think of exit strategy for the investments they make, because both are also tracking the RoI numbers carefully.
Also Read: The Toad @ JFDI: Is pitching akin to acting?