Conversations with startup founders

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I met a couple of start-up companies’ founders / co-founders during these past few months.

I have emailed, contacted and reached out to a number of start ups. Consequently I have not been writing much (or talking to myself much) in my blog.

In terms of savings, this month, me and my wife decided to renovate our son’s room so that he is better prepared for the start of his school life next year (he is attending primary one classes next year). I haven’t been really successful in increasing my war-chest, and hope the year end bonus (which we normally get prior to Chinese New Year) helps to give the war chest a boost up. This year isn’t a good year for the company and for the construction industry as a whole, so am not looking forward to a big bonus.

Ok, back to the start ups. I shall talk about my meetings with 3 of these start-up founders / co-founders. However, before I start, just to give you a brief idea on why I thought about startup investing: I initially wanted to learn more about the start up scene, having spent most of my working life in the corporate world. When I first graduated, my priority then was to clear my student loan (borrowed from the bank), and have some savings (no matter how tiny) for our wedding and down payment for a flat. So the thought of setting up a business, although very tempting, was shelved. It is hard getting a job, and setting up a business, I reckon would be tougher.

Hence consequently, when I look at these start up founders, to me, some of them epitomize the dream I wished I had. Yes it is tough, but it is not impossible. However, I do know that investing in start ups are extremely risky eg. low liquidity, scams, no prior financial history…

Nevertheless, the thing about investing in start ups is that you really get to know the people behind the companies, and what they are doing. You get to see the infancy of a company, and the passion behind it.

From another angle, after I started working and earning, I began to invest in stocks. Initially I was ‘seduced’ by the fluctuating stock prices, trading in and out, attempting to do technical analysis.

After some time, I started to study more into the companies I am invested in (and the other companies listed in SGX). In gist, move away from the prices and into the business models / fundamentals. There are 700+ companies listed on SGX, many more in other markets – I started reading about them. Although I did not really looked through that many companies, but I sort of have an idea about those companies listed in Singapore. I believe in knowing what you are investing in. Foreign companies might be slightly hard to research on – esp. if their services and products are not found in Singapore.

So again, Singapore Startups offer the opportunity for me to really get to know the company (and its founder) inside out. If I am not wrong, there are 1800+ startups in Singapore. That is like New Found Land to me. The funny thing here is I don’t study business, economics, finance, etc. Neither am I in the finance sector. So in many ways I am still finding my way around.

 

Car Rental Company

The first company founder I met is a very young Malay guy, let’s call him A. A looks really young and was dressed informally. His office is in one of the cubicles partitioned out from a room (more than half the room comprises of rows of chairs, while the rest is spitted into small little cubicle, enough for a table, 3 chairs and a cupboard behind). When I was there, it was after office hours, and there was another young Malay lady and a young boy (think he is still schooling – I don’t think he is the son of A, because A himself is really young, probably 20s, the most early 30s).

A’s company deals with car rental, and he is looking for loans to finance his company’s operations. Which I find it weird, since he has really low overhead (just him and that lady I reckon) and low rental (rent per month is $400 for that cubicle). Eventually, after some probing, I was told he needed money to pay back what he borrowed when he first bought the first 2 cars, and as his company is less than 6 mths old, he can’t borrow from OCBC yet. His third car was repossessed (if I remember correctly) as he did not have the money to pay for the monthly payment. So that is the first red flag.

To start with, I like his business proposal, it sounded plausible to make money (amount spent to buy cars with less than 2 yrs left vs the rental rate). Given the hype that Uber or other taxi type apps etc is generating, there seems to be a market for car rental. To be fair, it was one of the very few proposals which actually had real tangible numbers which I can counter check on eg. rental rates for so-and-so car model with X no. of years left. Interest rate of bank loans etc. I actually had numbers and facts to work on. I am a sucker for doing business analysis.

Technically, A wasn’t looking for investors seeking to buy a part of his company. A was looking for people who are willing to loan him money (probably to tide over the next few months).

However, poor money management is something I do not like – and yes, how do you trust someone whom you do not know really well, with a lump sum of money. He wasn’t upfront with me initially on why he needed money. That was the second red flag.

I can see that he is fairly new in this trade, and did not have a well drafted contract. He offered to use his car as a collateral (get a contract signed at a law firm) but my inner voice was telling me ‘No’.

 

Short term rental spaces for companies

The next company is another interesting one. I actually met the co-founder, not the primary founder. Let’s call him B. His first impression was good. B called me up during my lunch hour, after reading my email to his company and suggested that we meet up so that he can tell me more about his company. He sounded friendly and well, I could easily Whatsapp him thereafter since I got his HP no.

So after work, I dropped by the office (well, technically not his office – because it was a meeting room below his office floor). Again it is a young man (probably 20s), Chinese, dressed casually (I think perhaps this is the uniform for start up founders – T-shirt / Jeans / Berms). However, what impressed me was B’s frankness. He got me a can of soft drink then we sat down in an empty meeting room. He with his laptop.

He told me that the company technically is not making a profit (yet). And was more keen about knowing about me and why I am interested in investing in their company. For me, I am also keen to know more about him and his business.

B was quite open about how many people there are in the company (eg. 3, one of which being the original founder who is not really involved in the day to day running of this company. He happens to own a number of offices that are vacant.), what they were doing, the support / tie up with government agencies, the competitors (whose website became inactive not too long ago), where they get most of their profit margins from etc. And B was open that he is not paying himself anything… ( think he has been doing this for free for min. 2 years).

He also told me about his own experience investing in another start-up (a company that helps interns find jobs), which turned out to be very profitable. He met those founders in a co-working place before, and just felt that the business was interesting. I have this suspicion that he is talking about Glints (read here). And I was like the typical old fashioned investor asking, “Huh, you mean, you just invest in them because you thought what they were doing was interesting…. no financials, no historical data etc…” The amount he invested was a 5 figure amount, which I thought was quite a lot for a young man like him (given it was done a few years back), unless he is born rich.

He wasn’t really pitching, and was more keen in showing me the company’s websites and business proposal, and future plans (eg. launch an App). There was no figures to show the historical traffic to his company’s website (he attempted feebly in the past, using Excel).

As much as I like the person and the business model, but without any numbers (financials) to work with, I can’t think of how to invest. My concept of investing (which is normally used for mature, listed companies) is difficult to apply here. Which B is fast to point out – startup investing is a different ball game altogether. He mentioned that startups often do not make money for years and only show a spike later (which is why he mentioned about his own experience in investing in Startups). Nevertheless, they would prefer Angel Investors rather than Venture Capital Investors (VC) – as the former tend to be have more long term views (and I also suspect offer a better valuation). VCs tend to aim for Series A (that’s when they can offload their shares).

He wasn’t worried that I might copy his business idea. And I think he said he welcome competitors which probably meant that their business model is good.

B was upfront that they were not really looking for investors for the moment, and would have probably something more tangible to show in April next year when they launch their App.

He was also interested in how I can help them in other ways. Sometime we do not know the contacts, knowledge etc we have that might come in useful for them.

He can see I am new to startups, and not into Tech start-ups, nor am I Tech Savvy. However, he is quite open as to what he knows. Eg. how much to get an App done, what startup founders want, etc. He has no airs, and was like sharing his passion.

Chatted a bit more before I went home.

Before I left, he was apologetic about his attire, mentioning that he normally dress in working clothes (eg. long sleeves shirt with pants), but since it was after office working hours, he decided to dress down to be more comfortable.

I can see why the original founder like B (and made him a co-founder).

“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.” Warren Buffett

 

A Tech Start Up

I met the founder in one of the co-working space in Blk 71 Ayer Rajah Crescent (a place built primarily for entrepreneurs).  It was after work, and he met me at around 8pm as he was coming back from a meeting. The areas outdoors were wet, and there was a slight drizzle.

Actually at this hour, you can still see a few people working inside (remind me of my varsity life). In the open discussion area, two young guys were there, one interviewing the other (whom I can tell is a foreigner), smell of coffee from the coffee machine lingering in the air, notice boards full of notes and events, a couple of young ladies were in the corridor giggling and chatting away…

Again, another young man, dressed in T-shirt and jeans. Let’s call him C.

C is a Chinese National, studied computer science in a local Uni here, graduated in 2009. C did 2 startups prior to this (which failed). He has obtained a government grant for this current startup and is also funding this startup via another company in China. He has a team of colleagues in China helping him as well. He is the only one here in Singapore. Rational being, it is cheaper to work in China. This company has another co-founder.

C was curious as to why I contacted him. I reckon I am one of the few crazy ones that go around inquiring about startups, typically at night after office hours….. No.. I am not some playboy billionaire vigilante.

He wanted to know more about me, and was really happy that I am interested in his startup. I guess I was the first potential investor to contact him.

I told him I invest in listed companies, and wasn’t really keen in tech companies in general, but felt that his business model could have a good business moat.

I asked him if there are similar companies doing what his company is doing and if they are a threat. To this he said that there is another US company doing that, but it is unlikely they will penetrate the market here. I asked C about his previous 2 startups (think one was a dating website for lesbian in China) etc.

As his company has not officially launch the website yet (not really working yet).. there is no traffic data or financial data we can use for discussion. However, C does tell me how much his monthly overhead cost is (and that includes the team in China – approx 10 people) and it is not low. The rent is probably low, as it is just a desk in the co-working space. So I guess he needed money to fund his overhead cost.

C has plans for Seed, Series A investors, etc later on. And does foresee net profit of $80k from the 2nd year onwards. He values his company at approx. $1.25 mil eg.  $250K for 20% stake. Which I think is too high at this stage, but that is the thing with start-up.. the future is always extremely unknown and vague.

I like C and his business, but his business matrix is complex. He has co-workers in China, he intend to do a similar website /business in China (so this Singapore company and the China company will be under one single entity), and is using funds from another company in China to fund his current start-up here.

As an investor, I would be wondering how much money actually comes from this particular business. And what is really happening in China. All these are not readily transparent to me. I initially hope that I can occasionally drop by to see what’s new if I do invest. To add to that, as a private enterprise, are the accounts they show us really accurate? Are these audited in the first place? Am I assured that I will get a share of the profits (if any)? If he can fund his Singapore Startup using his business based in China, I am sure he can fund the China business with the profits here as well – how to track all these?

 

In Gist

Well, this is just a short post of my encounters with some start up founders. I am always impressed with the drive of these people. There are many startups, and Singapore itself has quite a number. These companies may not have the steady recurring profits which some mature companies have over the years, but I often find their business models innovative and the founders down to earth.

They often asked me how much I am willing to invest, and what I do for a living… well, as an individual I don’t have that much ‘fund’ to invest in startups, but nevertheless they were willing to spend the time explaining their business to me.

Having said that, not all startup founders are keen to reach out to me, esp. once they found out that I am just an individual and the amount I intend to invest is small. Some of these companies are generating revenues in millions per year, and need help in other areas rather than financial assistance. They could be looking for individuals to join their team, to help them in marketing, distribution, etc. Sometimes when I talk to these founders, I feel like I am in a job interview.

For some founders, if the company is profitable and is something close to their heart, they would not sell any stake in their companies.. esp. not to some small time investors. They do not see any benefit of having additional cash (a small sum) while losing some stakes in the company. Their replies (if any) can be curt and blunt. Well, for retail investors accustomed to buying shares on the stock market, this is very different from buying and selling shares – there is normally a price for you to get a share.

mag7

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About apenquotes

Born in 1976. Married with 2 kids (a boy and a girl). A typical Singaporean living in a 4 room flat.
This entry was posted in Startup. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Conversations with startup founders

  1. Azrael says:

    A very interesting read! Ever so interested in how many entrepreneurs find certain niches in society and changes it into a business 🙂

    Like

  2. Terence says:

    If you are interested in a unique startup.. you can contact me. Maybe we can start a conversation there.

    Like

  3. Evan says:

    Briefly read a few articles in this blog. I must say I do like your style of writing. Simple, short and straightforward. Incidentally, I just became an Angel investor yesterday by investing some small amount of money in an India Tech startup. Although I see many good things about the company like user stickyness, huge market size, scale-ability etc, the main reason I invest is because he is a close friend and I have faith in him.

    “wasn’t really keen in tech companies in general”
    Being in the tech industry myself, I am curious as to why would you have that opinion? I hold an opposite opinion, if a company is not a tech company or not investing to keep its technology up-to-date, it is surely a company that is at best stagnant. Just my two cents worth. Cheers~

    Like

    • apenquotes says:

      Thank you, do tell me more about this tech firm.
      With regards to my general dislike for Tech Firm, I guess I am influenced by value investors like Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch. Basically it is beyond my circle of competence and a lot of effort (money and time on R&D) is needed to update the system constantly to fend off competitors. Warren likes IBM typically for its strong historical financials rather than the business model (and after studying the company for 15 yrs)
      Pat Dorsey has also mentioned that tech firms typically have narrow business moats.

      Like

  4. Evan says:

    I see. Not sure when did they made those statements. But lets agree to disagree then 🙂

    ps: I wonder where you are based because the timestamp seems to be London time.

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    • apenquotes says:

      I am based in Singapore. Where are u staying?

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      • Evan says:

        I am working and living in Tokyo. Rarely return to Singapore these days.

        Like

      • apenquotes says:

        I realised that it is not easy investing in Startups here.
        Maybe perhaps I am inexperienced. I lack the know how to get a contract drafted and normally a sum offered by an individual is too small. There are organisation that group angel investors for Seed finding like BANSEA, but even that require high net worth individuals and require admission fees of $600 per yr.

        Like

  5. apenquotes says:

    I am not really familiar with the Japan stock market, but did write a short post on Shimano. Am impressed by its fundamentals.
    I am hoping that the price drop so that I can get some shares.

    Like

  6. Came across this post on angel investing. You can read my experience at http://limdershing.blogspot.sg/2014/09/how-does-one-go-about-angel-investing.html

    Don’t be offended but some of what you share has wrong info inside. Eg. Seed round exit at series A does not happen often. Glint is not profitable and in fact thinking hard how to pivot their business. Psychology of wanting to check on founders is also dangerous. Angel investing is about betting on founders above exact business model.

    Anyway good luck if you really do make an investment!

    Like

    • apenquotes says:

      No worries. Not offended. Thanks for highlighting.

      I am curious as what you meant by “Psychology of wanting to check on founders is also dangerous.”
      BTW I do agree that “Angel investing is about betting on founders above exact business model.”

      I think it is important to know who you are investing in, what is their company and working environment is like before you invest. Basically I tell them my intend, and about myself before getting any discussion first. Perhaps sometimes, they might feel that I am checking up on them hahahaha

      Having said that, I do agree that as what is stated in your blog post is more important:
      Don’t just view founder meetings as potential investments. Rather try to help them with your experience and connect them to relevant people.

      Well, it is different from investing in listed mature companies for sure. Again, it is really investing in people when it comes to startup…. not as simple as clicking a mouse.
      Thanks again!

      Like

  7. What I mean is that angel investing requires a lot of trust. The founders can easily cheat you of your money if they really want whether they are based in sg or not. you should meet a few times, see their company office and environment for sure. beyond that it is still a big bet on the character and ability of the founders.

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    • apenquotes says:

      Agree with what you have said.
      Some don’t even have an office. Some doing it part time while studying. Some suspicious of your intend. Some just want a bigger investment amount per stake (or larger lump sum). Some want contacts / information.
      All I can do is leave my contacts, reach out to them from time to time, and be there when they need help (financial or otherwise).

      Like

  8. Pingback: How passive is your income? | A Pen Quotes

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