Beyond the Business Plan: Assessing Startup Founders Holistically

As venture capitalists, we see many promising business plans from talented founders. However, the stresses of starting a company can take a toll on mental health especially since Covid. Studies show over 70% of founders report some impact on their mental wellbeing[1]. While passion and vision are critical, we must also evaluate how a founder's mental health could affect their ability to lead a successful startup. 

When reviewing business plans, here are some important considerations:

- Look for self-awareness and maturity. Founders who are open about their mental health needs and actively manage them signal responsibility. Seek out those who prioritize self-care and have supportive personal and professional networks.  

- Scrutinize financial planning more than usual. Impulsivity or unrealistic projections may reflect impaired judgment. Look for pragmatic financial models with executive pay aligned to value creation.

- Assess the team dynamics. Diverse, complementary teams tend to be more resilient. Watch for "red flags" like frequent turnover or poor communication that may indicate unmanaged mental health issues.

- Consider market viability to another level of detail. Evaluate the business model, competitive landscape, and addressable market.

- Provide mentorship. All founders need guidance navigating startup life's ups and downs. Be available as a sounding board and connect founders to resources like coaches, therapists, and peer support groups.

With awareness and support, founders with mental health issues can channel their creativity to build sustainable, impactful companies. As investors, we have an opportunity to foster an ecosystem where mental health is openly addressed so founders can fulfill their visions. Evaluating founders holistically is key to funding resilient startups poised for long-term success.

Times are different now, investors should be more aware of what to look for and how to help founders more going forward.


























Were there discipline in venture capital investing during the hype cycle in 2021/2022?

I recently did a quick data analysis on Southeast Asia early stage venture capital investments in different firms over the past few years. The data (from Crunchbase) shows the ratio of investments made by each firm in a recent period of hype (March 2021 to March 2022) compared to their average number of investments over the previous 2-3 years. Let's dig into the data and see what insights we can gather. 

Overall, the data shows a fair bit of variation between firms in terms of how their recent investment levels compare to their historical averages. 

A few key observations: 

  • Most firms (15 out of 17) saw increases in their investment levels compared to historical averages. This indicates an overall uptick in VC activity among these firms during the hype period. However, the degree of increase varied quite a bit. 3 firms saw modest increases of 50% or less compared to their averages. There are 2 firms that saw massive increases of 200-500% above their typical investment cadences. 
  • There were 2 firms that saw decreases in investments in the 25-60% range compared to historical averages. So the pullback in investing among these firms depicted strong contrarian behavior compared with the surge in activity among the highest growing firms. 

Overall, these data reflect a VC market that saw accelerated growth in 2021 but with an uneven distribution - very few firms are pulling back showing investment discipline while others are rapidly expanding investments. 

Strategic Approaches for Emerging Markets Early Stage Funds in 2023

In the complex and multifaceted realm of venture capital and startups in 2023 post 2022 slow down, emerging markets present a unique set of opportunities and challenges. A significant challenge is the potential diminution of later-stage follow-on funds and a concurrent decline in the quality of later-stage investors. This situation can engender a funding gap for startups in their growth phase and a dearth of strategic guidance. However, through strategic planning and innovative thinking, early-stage funds can effectively navigate these challenges.

When later-stage capital becomes scarce, it can create a funding vacuum that hampers the growth trajectory of startups, potentially leading to a deceleration in the overall startup ecosystem. The decline in the quality of later-stage investors can exacerbate this situation (based on performance and just the law of large numbers). In such a scenario, early-stage funds need to adopt a proactive and innovative approach. Here are some strategies:

  1. Strategic Partnerships: Early-stage funds should seek alliances with firstly your limited partners, corporate investors, family offices, or other entities that have a vested interest in the startup ecosystem. These partners can provide not only capital but also strategic guidance, market access, and other resources. Focus and Lean on your Limited Partners, especially those who are financially driven not just strategic.

  2. Syndicate Investments: Early-stage funds should consider forming syndicates with other early-stage investors. Syndicates allow investors to pool their resources, share risks, and increase the total amount of capital available for follow-on rounds.

  3. Investor Relations: Early-stage funds should maintain strong relationships with existing investors and continuously engage with potential new investors. Regularly communicating portfolio companies' progress and milestones can help attract follow-on investments. 

  4. Continue to focus on Capital Efficiency (from 2022): Early-stage funds should work closely with their portfolio companies to improve their capital efficiency. Adopt an advisory mindset builds trust and results.

Quick and dirty experiment - Top SEA Startups and where the founders went to school

An Analysis of Founder and Executive Education Backgrounds at Top Southeast Asian Startups

I conducted an analysis of the educational backgrounds of founders at 99 of the highest-funded startups in Southeast Asia. Using Crunchbase as the database and then researched the schools and programs listed for key leaders at each company.

By far the most represented university is National University of Singapore (NUS), with 18 attendees out of 227. No other university comes close, underscoring NUS’s dominance as a pipeline for Southeast Asian startup talent (bachelors). 

U.S. schools are also popular, especially Stanford (6 attendees) and Carnegie Mellon (6 attendees). However, an interesting finding is Harvard Business School (MBA) comes in second with 12 attendees.

Several other insights emerge:

  • Within Singapore, beyond NUS, notables include Nanyang Technological University (10 attendees) and Singapore Management University (5 attendees).

  • STEM degrees are common from schools across the board.

  • US schools beat UK and Australian schools by a wider margin.

  • Indonesian founders - ITB is creates more of such founders than University of Indonesia.

This analysis still only scratches the surface. With additional data on companies, founders, executives, and their educational paths, we could develop even richer insights into the human capital flows behind Southeast Asia’s tech innovation and entrepreneurship. Please let me know if you would like me to pursue any further research.

p.s For Parents from Singapore: Go to NUS for bachelors and HBS for MBA - there you go no pressure. You are welcome.