Updated: May 21, 2020
Mohan is is the founder of e27, a media company focused on Asia's technology startup ecosystem. e27 covers the latest news on emerging and disruptive businesses across the region.
(1) What is the inspiration behind e27?
e27 was initially started by a group of people who had spent time in Silicon Valley, as part of the NUS Overseas College program. My cofounder and I were on that program as well, though not at the same time. The goal was to bring together a group of people passionate about building tech companies and startups. The initial idea was to start out as a community initiative. We did not intend to start a business or make money. But it slowly took off and more people started working on it.
For a few years, I was doing different consulting work. I had a gaming company. My co-founder, Thaddeus, was working at Siemens as an engineer. All of this was while e27 was still a community organization. In late 2011, we decided it might be a good opportunity to turn what we built at e27 into a full-fledged business. e27 was primarily driven around supporting startups and helping them grow through the provision of tools and services. We figured the starting point would be content first. This was due to Southeast Asia coming up and not many people were writing about what was happening or telling the stories about the founders or writing about the investments. It was also the easiest way to give visibility to the startups in the region, something they needed at that time.
We took a very media-centric route (even though it was not part of our training or background since Thaddeus and I were engineers) because we felt the information layer needed to be built up first. Subsequently, over the years, we started to add to that based on what our users asked for (startups, jobs, and investor databases). That was the starting point. It was meant to be community-centric first, and then we saw a business opportunity and built it as a company.
(2) How did Paul Graham’s essay “Why to not not start a startup?” speak to you?
Paul's essay was a heavy inspiration for the name e27. Pauls’ view of building companies has always been and is still quite unorthodox and radical.
First, the path that identified with us quite well was that he acknowledged that the best founders to invest in from an investor standpoint are those below the age of 27. It’s mainly because if you look at the tech companies that were built in the early 2000s, a lot of them were disrupting existing types of businesses and models. His logic was that you needed someone who was younger who ideally did not have the knowledge and understanding of the existing system. They have nothing to hold them back or they don’t get stuck on the current ideals of the industry.
Second, with these kinds of organizations, you need a good 10-15 years to build out the plan. You need people who are young who have the energy and the long term vision to see it through. If you look at it, he is not 100% right. Statistically speaking, the average age of a successful founder is actually 42. However, the founders of Facebook, Dropbox, Box, Airbnb fit into this segment of people that he talked about. When asked many years later if he would have founded his business all over again given the evolution of banking as we know it, even co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, said: “absolutely not”. When you know enough of the system, then you have a lot of things holding you back and this dissuades you from taking risks and going in with crazy ideas. I think that is what is needed if you really want to disrupt existing industries. If you look at Elon Musk, the reason why he was able to build the rockets and cars he built was that he did not have the baggage of being a rocket engineer for many years. Neither did he have the baggage of being a battery engineer. Everything he did, he went in with a fresh perspective and a fresh set of lenses that allowed him to disrupt all the existing models. The one thing he did right when he got into those industries, was to read a lot, surround himself with the right people with the deep expertise and go deep into learning the fundamentals.
Third, being young, they have a less likelihood of having financial baggage or family commitments that would hold them back from pushing very hard. It’s hard building a company, and even harder if you don’t have the ability to give your full self to it. It’s not impossible for older people to do, but the challenges are different.
(3) You mentioned “e” stands for entrepreneurs, while 27 is the median age of entrepreneurs. In an academic centric society like Singapore where many pursue the paper chase, would you personally like to see younger people start companies? No, I actually don’t. I don’t think entrepreneurship and starting companies is for everyone. The last thing I would like to advise people is to start companies because it might be the new, cool, sexy thing to do. I think entrepreneurship has to be driven by the problem you are solving.
The problem that you have is regardless of the age that you are in. It so happens that you are a young person and you identify a problem you are passionate about, that you want to tackle, then good. But you could be much older and realise that there are problems you have witnessed that you believe you can solve and tackle them. Entrepreneurship does not necessarily have to be dominated by the younger folk. There will always be certain sectors, certain verticals, that the younger folk will be able to dominate. But in most cases, that is not the case.
A very famous example is Marc Benioff. He spent a considerable amount of time at Oracle (13 years) and then started Salesforce, which is now one of the largest publicly listed enterprise software companies. He was very much older when he started Salesforce and was able to disrupt the entire market. I think he started Salesforce in mid-thirties (35 to be exact). Entrepreneurship is extremely demanding, personally, mentally and physically. It’s not something you do because it’s fun and cool. You are dealing with hiring people, taking investors’ money, and if you don’t have the mental and physical tenacity to see things through or the maturity to handle challenges, then you will be a lot of people’s lives at stake around you. I think that is very important and something entrepreneurs should be mindful of.
(4) What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an entrepreneur but is too afraid to step out and take the leap of faith?
There are various action steps one can take to start the entrepreneurship journey.
First, assuming someone has a nagging problem he wants to fix, he can do multiple simple things first. The one recommendation I have is to turn that entrepreneurial idea into a side project first. One can think of it as a weekend kind of project, or an evening kind of project. It allows you to have your day to day life, with a pay check and stability. It also gives you the freedom and flexibility to work on the project on the side. Ideally, depending on the type of company that you are building, you can potentially build customer traction, initial revenue and test how the results play out. For some enterprise or software as a service type of products, the recommendation is to build the company to a level where the revenue is equivalent to your salary, then quit. That is one way to do it. You don’t have to go head in from the start, like quit your job and everything. You can do it on the side first.
Second, start building relationships within the communities or sectors where there are people like you or people who are entrepreneurship minded. It is very infectious. Naturally speaking, when you spend more time with these people, you will start to gain more confidence, as you learn and talk to them. They will also give you a bit of validation and feedback on what you are trying to do.
Third, set a deadline for when you going to start and when you are going to end. Don’t be like those who go after idea after idea, and never do anything about it. Then you end up building a negative reputation in the industry by being a “wantrepreneur”, and not a true blue entrepreneur.
(5) How does it feel to be a champion for underdogs (up-and-coming startup founders)?
This is something we identify a lot with. We all know that entrepreneurship is ridiculously difficult. Therefore, having that support can be really valuable to a founder. In most cases, it’s about understanding what they are trying to build, listening to their vision and being able to imagine it happen. I think that’s how we derive a lot of satisfaction from. We view and look at the startups today and imagine what they could be like in five to ten years. We want to be able to tell that story to the audience. This presents a road map or a use case for potential corporate and potential people to look at this company and start to work with them.
The initial seed is very important. I had multiple occasions in my life where someone said to me, that article you wrote about us, or that initial push you gave us, landed my first investor, or my first GM or landed something of value. That is very important for entrepreneurship in the early stages. There is an essay by Kevin Kelly that talks about how to build your first one thousand true fans. That is very important for anyone starting out. It is to find a group of people that are so excited about what you are doing that they become your initial loyal base. We want to be part of the thousand true fans for these companies at the start.
(6) What were some of the difficulties you faced when trying to fund e27? Were there any particularly stressful experiences?
From the moment we started to even today, there is a challenge or two that we have to tackle and face every other day. Our industry is that it is very fast-moving, and there are not many barriers to entry. You are only as valuable as your previous, or most recent, activity. There is this constant need to innovate and be better, and to serve the ecosystem in a more scalable manner. For us, it is always about figuring how can we impact the ecosystem, how can we bring more value to the organisations we work with. It has to be done in a scalable manner, for example, something that entrepreneurs can benefit from very quickly with minimal effort on their side. That is what keeps us awake all the time. In the past, it was through events. Now, we are evolving to a membership platform, and trying to deliver that service in a more scalable manner.
(7) What trends do you see in entrepreneurs nowadays? (e.g. more people building apps, more green businesses, etc)
First, the age group is getting later. There are a lot of older founders coming out to start companies. That is driven by the inefficiencies and opportunities they see within their environments. One of the companies I invested in was started by an insurance tech veteran who was in an insurance company (one of the big names) for a fairly long time. He decided to come out and build a startup because he clearly saw opportunities that were not being handled by the incumbents. We have seen interesting disruptions in the very traditional spaces. This includes everything from logistics, to insurance to even food.
Second, there is a lot more focus on deep tech. This means more high-quality tech companies where the skills needed are at a higher level. You need people with PHDs or people with very deep expertise. This includes Artificial Intelligence (AI), food technology, space technology and cybersecurity. These are the kind of companies that are popping up these days. These organisations that are being run are more complex in terms of what they require.
(8) What are your thoughts on SG startup scene?
The Singapore startup scene still has a lot of room to grow. It is still barely scratching the surface in terms of what can be done. The evolution that the Singapore startup scene will have is in terms of the types of companies that will arise and the size of these companies. Deep tech is already happening but there are going to be a lot more deep tech companies that will come forth. Areas that are going to be big are likely mobility solutions such as driverless systems and smart city type of companies that go deep into sensors, data and intelligent management systems.
There is also going to be much larger startups coming up. A lot of these companies are going to require large engineering and technical teams behind them. For example, 100-200 engineers may be needed for certain products. Grab is an example of a company that has scaled phenomenally well. If you look at Grab as an organisation, they do a ton of different things such as transport services, food and financials. I think most companies that are coming out are going to be larger, more complex and would require deeper skillsets.
(9) With the global pandemic causing panic across the world, what’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are hesitating to start their own businesses?
There is never a good time to start. There is never a good time not to start as well. I think it has to be problem-driven and opportunity-driven. If whatever you are working on has a serious problem or opportunity, go focus and work on it. I think for every true blue entrepreneur, no financial crisis or pandemic will really deter them from moving forward and growing and figuring things out. Many of the companies we have spoken to, they are all transforming themselves to be more useful and valuable in this current situation. That is something every founder at some point will have to deal with. If there is a pandemic today that might only leave in 2021, and down the road, there may be an economic issue or a global war, the role of a founder is to figure out how to work around these problems.
I would say that uncertain and challenging periods are actually the best times to start companies. Interestingly, a lot of the billion-dollar companies that exist today were started during the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis. Part of the reason is also because a lot of the founders were looking for jobs at that time but they could not find any. At that time, they could have either mope about the situation or do something. These founders decided that since they could not find jobs, they might as well start companies. They were inexperienced, but they asked around and did something.
(10) Are there any particular businesses that you would personally like to see prosper?
There are two areas that I am personally passionate about. One is the health tech sector and the other is food tech.
First, I think that the health tech sector is critically important because if you look at the rising middle class in Southeast Asia, as they get more affluent, their life expectations and the need for a high quality of life will definitely grow. But I don’t think there are enough technological solutions to help them deal with this. If you look at the U.S., health is viewed in a very different way where people actively invest in themselves through exercise and eating right. I don’t think that culture is very prevalent in this part of the world. At some level, yes, but not deep enough. I’m therefore hoping that at least the health tech sector can help fix that part. Some of the opportunities include having sensors, wearables and various kinds of hardware that enables health diagnosis and smart fitness solutions.
Second, it is generally a tie between education and food. But I will look at the food tech sector a lot more because from a sustainability standpoint, it is a global problem these days. From a technology angle, there hasn’t been enough innovation and attention given to food. Only recently you have plant-based meats and more attention given to these kinds of organisations. I think it is a global problem that we really need to solve.