Crazy Ideas

Why are there little to no crazy game changing ideas from Southeast Asia?

Recently I gave a short talk at JFDI.ASIA’s Batch 4 teams. My talk was centered around having a simple product hook in your product that makes it easy for founders to articulate their vision to people (users, investors, potential employees, partners) that they engage with.

As we invest and learn from the teams we work with in the Southeast Asia region, watching founders execute on ideas, the one thing that always nag at me is their product hook. How special is that hook? Does it engage emotionally or change behaviorally? Who ultimately will care?

We are in the beginning of the entrepreneurial revolution. Although the Lean Startup movement painted a great picture of what can be taught, it is not a framework for everyone. Execution is important but a lot of that has been commoditized. It all comes back down to the idea and how you think the world should be. You just need time to let the world know that.

So why aren’t there more crazy big changing ideas here in Southeast Asia?

  1. Fear of failure is probably the main cause. It makes people and people around them (i.e. ecosystem) think too short termed.
  2. There is low density of founders who have tried crazy things, failed, and still keep on trying.
  3. Lack of confidence.

Having said all that, it is extremely difficult to design a product hook with global appeal. I know that, we all know that. That is what ultimately differentiates companies.

Try not to paint yourself into a corner and stop there. Keep inventing and rounding up troops that believe in your “crazy”. And break out.

Original Idea Generation

Original ideas and coming up with them is hard. Very hard.

As we navigate Southeast Asia (and Taiwan) working with entrepreneurs in various cities in Southeast Asia, it is extremely challenging to come up with an original idea that matters and lends to your strengths and passion. Getting the formula right is tough.

As I looked at our portfolios (over 12 now going on 14 - most of which are not publicly known) and ideas from Founder Institute in the Southeast Asian region that have received early attention, funding offers and even exited via acquisitions. I noticed there are generally 3 idea types.

  1. A team solving a very local problem or creating a movement or change of behavior within a market that is large enough to be sustainable and not to be distracted about scaling too early because of revenue pressures.

  2. A team solving a local problem or creating a movement or change of behavior first with ambition to bring the solution to other regional countries. Most of the time it shows the ambition of the team but sometimes it is because their chosen market or markets are still too small to be sustainable.

  3. A team solving a problem or creating a movement or change of behavior in a new and original way that position them to be global from day one. For some reason, there are limited and weak to no competitors.

From our data, companies in the 3rd category achieve customer, investor and media interests rather early on in their lifecycle. Even for myself, I am more excited if teams presented something original and unique than something that is a “clone with a spin or a twist”.

As such I am building a little research experiment to help founders work towards ideas that are original and have product hooks that engage users all in a pace and direction that suits the founder on a personal level.

I hope the outcome can help more founders move their ideas to another level (if they wish to) and also to help more aspiring founders to be slightly more prepared as they get involved with events such as Startup Weekend, Lean Startup Machines, hackathons etc.

Ping me if you are interested to discuss or join in the experiment.

Interns oh interns

Interns ah, how we love to brainwash you.

At Golden Gate Ventures in 2013, we have our largest cohort of interns ever since we were in business a year ago. Our first intern in 2012, Justin Hall has since joined us as an associate just a few months ago.

We love our interns in 2013. Our cohort this year consists of Amira Jeneid, Kelvin LimKevin Liu, and Warren Lee (still counting).

Most of them joined us for the summer and I had great fun working with some of them, sometimes too much fun. I have promised them that I will brainwash them whenever I could and try to make their internship a win-win for both parties. I believe I accomplished most if not all of those promises. They have diligently helped us with investment activities, startup research, event organization, and also working with aspiring founders at the Founder Institute (Singapore). We hope the various activities and people you met has broaden your horizons in what the startup world is like. (99% chaos x ambiguity)

Some parting advice for the interns whom have crossed my path this year and also to those who have not.

  1. Your clear advantage now which no one can take away from you, is your youth.
  2. You may or may not have found what you would like to do for the rest of your life but at least you had a glimpse. A glimpse of what it is or is not, things that you should do or do not.
  3. Experienced industry folks are not that hard to reach. Hunt them down and ask questions, what is the worst that can happen?
  4. Look outside school for what is to come. Reality sits outside the school yard. Google is your best friend (for now). For some of you — Stackoverflow (hint hint).
  5. Finally, for those heading back to school. Cherish the time left, be a kid, play hard and work hard and make as many friends as you can (trust me - especially those who have different backgrounds as you).

Hit me up if you need anything. You know where to find me.

And for all the hard work and laughs. Mahalo.

Congratulations to SGFI 5!

It is with a heavy heart yet again this time of the year where another batch of founders are graduating from Founder Institute Singapore. This is my fifth run and it has been an interesting ride to say the least.

It went by really fast and not without drama even though Adeo was not here to kick off the semester. We tested a few things running the semester this time round and spent a little more time getting to know the founders in and out of class. The Founders in the Bay 2012 trip gave a boost to the class from a fellow founder Sam from Family Play who was with me and 9 other founders in the Bay Area.

It is always heartening to watch them grow, mature, harden like real steel in the world of business and startups. Towards the end of the semester, ideas get sharper and more focused. Visions become bolder but executable.  Many of them have put on more “confidence” as they will all soon know enough they will be jumping into the unknown. Several will do very well, some of whom have received term sheets before graduating, which is interesting considering we are an idea stage incubator. Finally, we have the largest female cohort (25% are female grads) ever to graduate at one go, and all of whom are pretty special. They are determined and can hustle with the best men and women out there.

In closing, a few words for those of you who are graduating:




Thank you again to all mentors and sponsors alike who made SGFI happen!

Learning to code

As we all know in our little technology startup sector that there is a serious shortage of good talent. It is becoming apparent out here in Southeast Asia and likely will get worse if the region improves as an ecosystem.

At Golden Gate Ventures, we like to think we operate with a down to earth hacker culture (we are also launching several internal software products that scratches our own itch very soon). With our involvement in Super Happy Dev House, and Founder Institute Singapore, the need to train more people who can built stuff gave birth to Startup Academy.

As such, I will be embarking on a journey to pick up coding (again), and I will be detailing my journey on a wiki (powered by Padlet). The ultimate dogfooding. You can read about my motivations, projects, on-going research on programming courses (online, offline and hybrid) and my views on them as I hobble humbly along. 

Wish me luck and if you are kind enough to reach out to help me when I get stuck, please let me know. Eternally grateful.

[Startup Academy's 2nd run of our programming courses are accepting applications now!]

We should have our own version of the video below.

Be careful of questionable characters resulting from the startup hype

It seems like the technology startup hype is sweeping through Singapore recently. In the last 2-3 months, I have encountered various signals that this hype has descended upon us. 

It makes me read and smile at Chris Dixon’s blog post again. Enjoy it here. ;)

For the founders out there hustling and crushing it. Beware of people around you whether they are approaching you as potential cofounders, advisors, consultants, incubators, accelerators, investors, customers, partners or other players in the startup ecosystem.

Do more due diligence than you have ever done before. There are always exceptions and good intentioned people who deserve a chance. As long as you arm yourself with enough information to make an informed decision, you will be fine.

Consult with people you trust. Be clear you know what you want and always trust your gut. If in doubt, pull out.

Open Letter to IDMPO

An Open Letter to the Interactive Digital Media R&D Programme Office (IDMPO): 10 reasons why the current iJAM Grant Scheme is not working

I rarely write open letters and when I do, there usually is a burning reason behind it. The reason this time is to bring to light a deep disconnect between what the iJAM Grant Scheme theoretically aims to help, and what’s actually happening in reality.

In so doing, I hope to start a conversation with the operators and stakeholders of the Grant Scheme and as a result, find a way to improve the existing scheme (or create a better one) that will actually help entrepreneurs. I also hope that this will reduce the lag between current grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship and the government funding schemes that regulate and support it.


Since 2009, I have been interacting with the various parties of the iJAM Grant scheme, namely the IDMPO team (administered by the MDA), various incubators and a bunch of startups & founders who have applied and gone through the process.

This post is based solely from how I see things at the ground level. Though I have never worked for a government statutory board, I do appreciate and understand the bureaucratic nature of government processes and accounting practices when it comes to taxpayers’ money.

Here are my findings thusfar on iJAM’s Grant Approval Criteria & Process:

Positive #1: The total amount of capital set aside is unlike any other country I have ever seen (some smaller exceptions might be Chile and Malaysia), but I continue to be in awe and proud of what Singapore government have done to support the startup ecosystem.

Positive #2: Appointing incubators – both public (universities) and private sectors – to administer, coach and grow the teams is a move in the right direction. Governments just are not suited to make these decisions.

* * * * * * *

Finding #1: The scope of the various sectors under IDM and the definition of “Innovative R&D” is not clear to applicants nor incubators. This results in confusion and appeals made by both teams and incubators which delay the grant process and also wastes entrepreneurs’ time.

Fix: Make it as clear and transparent as you possibly can to all stakeholders. Sectors and markets evolve, please keep up to date to what they are.

Finding #2: Founder(s) criteria is to be full-time and have a co-founder who is technical. This rules out non-technical founders who can lead a technology team, and rules out people with great ideas but needed a guided way to test and validate what the market wants (and thus use that as leverage to hire their technical cofounder). This is not lean startup friendly.

Fix: Founders can be full-time or part-time, screened heavily. As long as they execute and profess that they will commit to the project once traction/metrics are achieved, they should be approved.

Finding #3: Why must founders only receive a maximum of $1k per month of salary? Are you assuming all the product development and engineering of iJAM projects have to be outsourced and that the founders are incompetent to develop the product themselves? [Also why can’t incubators fund their own ideas? Like Betaworks or Science Inc. in the US? Makes no sense to me as well].

Fix: Remove this clause and let the founders spend the money like most other founders in the world do, to achieve milestones that signal product market fit whatever it takes.

Finding #4: Approval time takes WAY too long. Besides the incubator approving and processing the paperwork. There is a panel of 7 “experts” on which you need 3 to approve the project. Most are not entrepreneurs, and nobody knows who they are and why they are there. Thereafter IDMPO needs to approve as well. This process takes at least 3-5 weeks sometimes longer and IDMPO has the last say. So either IDMPO is undermining the incubators or is putting unnecessary checks making the process slow and at times laughable.

Fix: Remove the panel and place more trust in the incubators, if not, replace the panel with better people (recent entrepreneurs and investors only) and streamline the process online (e.g. using tools like or an equivalent).

Finding #5: Equity stakes. Equity in a company at the early stage is extremely precious. The current feel is that the iJAM incubators are asking for too much of a company with too little value add and no cash injection (except for facilitating a $50k grant – helping you get a grant and investing pure hard cash is a different thing). Hence most savvy founders either negotiate hard or apply to SITF and NTU Ventures where they do not take equity.

Fix: Let the market speak for itself and contractually allow incubators to take no equity early on (make it optional).

Finding #6: Milestones misalignment. Right now milestones are decided primarily by the founders with consultation from the incubators. Milestones as I find them do not help with “pivot or persevere” decisions because they are usually not set up right. This can only be a negative. If the milestones are the wrong metrics to prove product market fit, it is hard for both incubators and 3rd party investors to believe and take the risk to invest at Tier 2. Bear in mind, metrics differ for B2B, B2C, Mobile or SaaS companies. It is already hard to begin with.

Fix: Run workshops with the companies and incubators to make sure the milestones are geared towards the individual companies and their markets with the sole goal of finding metrics that signify product market fit.

Finding #7: Disbursement is based on a fixed budget that is approved before hand and claimed as you spend. As we all know 99% of startups change directions, this means iJAM companies have to maneuver in chaos within a budget constraint, and may not be able to pivot quick enough. This is again not startup friendly. Case in point: Funding for travel is discouraged (and you are complaining we have a hard time expanding overseas? we need to talk to customers/partners not just build products).

Fix: Remove all the budget constraints and let the founders use the proceeds with supervision from the incubators as they see fit.

Finding #8: Fees to the incubators can be better structured not for administration purposes ($9-12k per company) but for achieving the said customer development/interviews or properly structured milestones/traction.

Fix: Disburse fees to incubators because they helped startups achieve the right milestones to validate there is a market for their products and services (even if the market is non-existent and they need to pivot).

Finding #9: Market execution knowledge is not perfect with the current list of incubators but the companies still need serious market entry help, advice and network into the key large markets (a misalignment).

Fix: So if there is a gap, try to form an alliance with partners overseas or run workshops to help companies ideate, grow, network and expand. Stop spending money on pitch/investor workshops when product market fit has not even been achieved. Spend to bring worthy companies overseas to make the right connections. If you have something good, investors will find you.

Finding #10: Follow on financing, post iJAM. If the entire iJAM process and milestone/metrics monitoring is poorly executed, 3rd party investors outside of the iJAM incubators may not invest again after a few companies went in the wrong direction because of poor monitoring/guidance. This includes the NRF TIS Incubators, Spring Seeds, angels and larger institutional funds.

Fix: Have some of the NRF TIS incubators, angel groups, and VC firms be closely tied to a few iJAM incubators (to match expectations early on) or even be able to manage one.


The “high growth startup” cannot be executed well within the realm of the iJAM Scheme. iJAM does not facilitate the fail fast, pivot or stop decision making that is needed for founders to build a meaningful and enduring technology company. It needs to be clear on what it stands for and what its objectives are. If it is R&D you want, this is not the scheme to do it in, if you want the companies to somehow return the grant money to you after achieving revenue targets (as in “commercialized products with customers”) then it is time to change, Period (otherwise it’s a waste of taxpayers’ monies).

What is iJAM? (more here)

i.JAM is a micro-funding Scheme (i.JAM scheme) that supports start-ups and individuals with breakthrough ideas that can be developed into innovative products and services.

Objective – To fuel grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship.

Criteria, FAQ, Application form (full guideline)

Note Best: This post is a work in progress. Please feel free to comment below and give me feedback on whatever you think is missing. Thank you.

Thanks to Nicholas Gan for reading and helping to edit drafts of this.

Crazy idea for my next blog post: If we have our way, how would a startup government grant scheme look like? With a new incubator (as guinea pig) that only employs a lean startup method, new process, new disbursement, new monitoring…stay tuned.