Recently, he invested in US company Baydin’s seed round with Dave McClure and other notable investors. Baydin does a GMail plug-in called Boomerang that allows users to schedule their email messages, among other things.
e27 managed to grab Meng for a short chat about his thoughts on his latest investment and other future plans.
How did the Baydin investment deal began?
I first heard about Baydin by, I think, reading TechCrunch. Right away I got what they were doing, on a technical level – I’d been helping a local startup in Singapore build a GMail app, so I understood how Baydin worked. And, having spent my entire career in email, I have a soft spot for email startups. I co-founded pobox.com back in 1995 and then I got into anti-spam in 2003 with SPF. It was because of email that I fell in love with the Internet, and I would hate to see it fade, for all kinds of reasons, emotional and ideological. So any startups that try to make email better are already on my good side.
Baydin said they were still looking for other investors to close the round, so I emailed Alex Moore, CEO of Baydin, and said I was interested. I passed the opportunity along to other members of BANSEA.org, and a buddy of mine joined in. Of course what really got the ball rolling was Dave McClure. If he hadn’t led the round I wouldn’t have joined.
But it goes to show just how dynamic the US investment ecosystem is: these kinds of things happen organically, stochastically, and while there are certain elements of Singapore’s ecosystem that understand this, it’s very hard for the bureaucracy to support anything that doesn’t look deterministic.
Email is important because it represents openness. There are a lot of forces trying to make the Internet relatively closed. Sure, the pendulum never stops swinging, but as Tim Wu showed in his book The Master Switch, media have a natural tendency to fall into monopolies. A lot of English-speaking countries, at the moment, are succumbing to the copyright lobby: Canada, UK, even New Zealand are doing very dangerous things with regard to access to the Internet. I know this is an unpopular position but I honestly believe we’re very lucky in Singapore to have technocrats in charge at the IDA, because the regulators tend to understand the fundamentals of political economy. They learn from history. Aside from the symbolic 100 blocked pornsites, they wouldn’t, for instance, allow Disney to turn off your broadband just on their say-so. In the West they seem to have forgotten Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat (the principle that one is considered innocent until proven guilty).
Tell us about the terms of the investment and your part in it.
The terms of the investment? The standard structure in the US for angel deals like this is a usual convertible note with a discount. Dave negotiated the terms, I just signed on the bottom line.
On top of that? I can’t disclose specifics, but I put in more than a USD1,000 and less than USD100,000.
Which attracted you more about Baydin? The team or their idea?
I spoke with Alex. His team are pretty sharp: MIT boys. And while they’re still pretty green – this being their first startup – they’ve got passion, they’re smart and able to learn, and they listen to advice. Of course in the Valley that’s par for the course. Investors look at team, idea, market. And the market for improved email is definitely there. Just look at the number of third-party Gmail apps who are having a go.
If they hadn’t been focused on email, I probably wouldn’t have made the investment. My background is in Internet startups which makes me surprisingly sector-specific. I know what I don’t know. But I’m young. More seasoned investors would probably bet based on the team. Unfortunately, this is a team I’ve never met; I’ve only spoken to them on the phone. I bet based on the opportunity.
In Singapore there are teams I would bet on, just because I know and respect the founders. I didn’t know the Baydin founders well enough so I trusted Dave to make that call. But any investor still has to buy the premise, the opportunity area, even if the startup ends up pivoting on product.
Is there a lot more that can be done in the email space?
Oh, I think there’s plenty to be done in email. Email was the first social medium. And the forms of media are as old as humanity; every medium we have today has ancestors that go back hundreds or thousands of years. In the periodic table of protocols, Twitter is just one row down, but in the same column, as IRC. Email and IM and Blogs and link-sharing are fundamental modes of communication. So, whatever email evolves into, Baydin will be there to help users sort, prioritize, time-shift, and manage communications.
That’s a niche that’s not going away. I’ve been talking to Mozilla about what they should be doing after Firefox, and those conversations have produced a number of concepts that are appearing in Baydin.
The idea of setting something aside for later, because you can’t deal with it now, is fundamental to the modern human consciousness. Youtube just rolled out the “watch this later” playlist concept. So it’s a pattern that recurs in many media. And Baydin can implement that pattern in email, in IM, in anything really. And that’s just one of the patterns they’re exploring.
Any plans for investing in startups closer to home?
I’ve invested in startups in Singapore, China, US … I wish I’d gone in on TenCube when I had the chance. There’s actually a very small window for investors like me to get in, because deals above a certain size are too big for me.
I wish I’d gone in on Brandtology, too. I knew it was going to be a success, but for some reason I wanted to keep my powder dry for other things.
The Singapore scene is POISED TO EXPLODE. With folks like MOL showing up in Singapore, and predictable successes like Mig33 to look forward to, not to mention folks like Eduardo Saverin locating and investing here, we’re beginning to see a new generation of angels with the right kind of DNA giving back. Darius Cheung (of TenCube) has already had his exit; Bernard Leong (of Chalkboard) will soon; and then there are the new folks like InsyncHQ.
There’s also an active generation of respected grayhairs who are all doing their thing, too, and they tend to be so intensely focused they might not talk to the media very much, but they move more money in a month than I do in a year.
What are you working on right now? Any interesting future plans?
What’s keeping me busy at the moment? Well, Dave McClure is doing 500 Startups; Y Combinator is going gangbusters; and TechStars just got a shout-out from the White House as a force for entrepreneurship.
You know how Singapore is famous for being one of the best places in the world to set up a business – partly because it’s one of the easiest places in the world to set up a business? You log in with your Singpass and 2 hours later you’re done, and you’re still on your first cup of coffee.
Well, a lot of innovation is happening in seed incubators: The super-angels are disrupting the VCs, and the accelerators are disrupting the incubators. I’m working to put together Singapore’s answer to Y Combinator: we’re calling it JFDI.Asia. Major players like Singtel, MDA, and SPRING want to see this happen, so I’m optimistic.
Singapore’s got all the pieces in place. We have a hackerspace, we’ve run umpteen Barcamps (hello, Preetam), and we’re even going to have a SuperHappyDevHouse soon. I’ve been doing my bit as a mentor with Founder Institute, with Seedcamp, with Startupweekend; the only missing piece really is a 100 day bootcamp with a Demo Day at the end. I want to see that happen, and with any luck our first batch will launch later this year.
So if we manage to get JFDI.Asia off the ground, we’ll have moved the state of the art forward: it’ll be easier for founders to get through those crucial early months, and they’ll be footed firmly on business strategy, marketing priority, customer development, execution risk … all the things investors are looking for.