This is one of the articles belonging to e27’s Meet the VC series, where we chat with venture capitalists in the startup space to find out more about how they do what they do.
Meet KayMok Ku, Partner, Gobi Partners.
Ku handles the venture capital firm’s Southeast Asian operations, making investments in young startups like Eko, a Thailand-based communication SaaS firm looking to head into China.
For 10 years, Ku ran Private Express Inc in the US, riding the waves of the first dotcom boom. Then he joined Encentuate Inc, started by Peng T Ong, who sold the firm to IBM.
In 2006, Ku returned to Singapore and joined the National Research Foundation’s Digital Media Fund, and invested in promising, young, private companies. The department is located within the Prime Minister’s Office.
He moved on to MediaCorp, one of the two biggest publishing companies in Singapore, and worked on corporate projects like launching a mobile TV service with the three telecom companies in the country.
It was in 2010 when he took the leap into venture capital with Gobi Partners.
We chat with Ku, who will be speaking at Echelon Thailand 2015, to find out his investment philosophy and how he looks at the region.
Here are the edited excerpts
You have worked with corporates, with the government, as an entrepreneur and now you’re a venture capitalist. What is the process behind the chronology of your career?
From my perspective, generally, a venture capitalist (VC) is the last job. Actually, VCs play a supportive role, so the more diversified your experience is, the better it is.
For example, I think that a lot of startup CEOs may not have experience working with big corporations, so you have to bridge the gap. At some point, when you exit, you’re trying to sell to a big corporation, you need to understand the big companies and they are very different – the way they think. There is usually a gap.
Working with the government is also useful, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, where the government is very active.
What challenges did you face when you first started working at Gobi Partners?
The key thing is at that time; the ecosystem was not even ready. For example, since we are talking about Echelon Thailand, five years ago, when I first went into Thailand, the VCs I met were remnants from the last dotcom wave. Thailand did go through the dotcom wave; they [the VCs] invested in companies – startups during those days.
When I went to Thailand in 2010, the VCs there were trying to exit; they were trying to sell their startups to us. It was the tail end of the first dotcom wave. There was no energy. VCs were trying to get out.
Today, you see more Thai VCs, incubators, telcos getting into the game. It’s a different picture altogether. The challenge then was that the ecosystem wasn’t ready.
How would you describe the Thai startup ecosystem right now?
Today’s startup ecosystem is definitely much more vibrant. Across the few markets, the big ones are really the consumer markets, which I call IPTV (Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam).
To a certain degree, they all have local VCs operating in there. Guys like us – Gobi Partners – we take a very regional approach. So it’s a better situation. If we were to go into a whole market by ourselves, it’s challenging.
Today, there are local VC partners, it gives us the comfort to invest in the next round or co-invest with the local VC partners.
Typically, what kind of startups do you invest in?
Our fund is focussed on Series A [startups]. In Series A, the product is more or less there. For enterprise or B2B startups, they tend to have reference customers. It’s really about scaling up in the home or regional market.
In Southeast Asia, a lot of them tend to be consumer and market driven. Just to differentiate, let’s say I’m in the US, in Silicon Valley, you do see more companies that are technology driven. Investors will ask you if you have filed for patents.
Technologies are enablers, but it’s not the key piece. It could be e-commerce, game publishing where you’re taking games and localising it for the regional market. It’s more market-driven.
Tell me about a typical day at work. What time do you get in, and what happens next?
As a VC, there is no set schedule [for me]. When I first started, what I’d do is sit in a coffee shop, I base a lot of my work out of Fusionopolis (a complex in Singapore, which is across the street from Block 71 and other startup-friendly buildings). I usually hang out at Yakun (a coffeeshop). In Singapore, it’s a very efficient model. I sit at a coffee shop from 8 am to 6 pm. In Singapore, you can do 10 meetings in a day.
I cover the region so I travel a lot to Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Typically, in Jakarta, Indonesia, I’d be lucky to have two or three meetings in a day.
In Jakarta, I always bring along a swim cap. My partner was asking me about why I bring a swim cap to Jakarta. He thought it was because of the flood.
To save time in Jakarta, the best way is to travel by ojeks (motorbikes). But wherever you go by ojeks, they will give you this stinky helmet. I put my swim cap on before I wear the helmet.
What are certain traits you look for in founders?
Generally speaking, right now, the founders are getting younger and younger.
Different markets like Indonesia – you’re seeing the first wave of entrepreneurship. A lot of founders in Indonesia are in their twenties, most of the time. In those markets, we invest in younger entrepreneurs.
In other markets like Singapore and Malaysia, generally you see more seasoned entrepreneurs. Most VCs would want to go for serial entrepreneurs, but it depends on the market, so we calibrate.
Coachability is important. We do play a supporting role, so we do give advice. Whether the entrepreneur can listen to [our] advice – that’s very important.
Want to hear more from Kay-Mok Ku on how your startup can get funding? He will be speaking at Echelon Thailand this November 26 – 27. Join us as we connect the Mekong region through Bangkok, Thailand in two action-packed days. Learn more about Echelon Thailand here.