Building Future Moguls
The Aaron Sarma Newsletter | Issue #4
Well, hello there!
I know it's been awhile. It seems that my calendar has taken a hold of me of late. That said, I’m glad you’re still here and that you’re reading these newsletters. I’ve really enjoyed the messages you’ve been sending me via email, WhatsApp and even LinkedIn.
Please keep the feedback coming. I’m trying to get a good mix of content so it remains interesting and relevant.
This week I’ll share some stories from 3 panels I’ve had the pleasure of participating in: 100 Soonicorns, BFM Breakaway (which by the way, inspired this week’s title. See pic below) and Echelon 2022. One thing about being in these panels that people don’t immediately realise is that at first you think you are there to impart knowledge but in practice what happens is that you end up learning so much from your fellow panelists.
So let’s get on with this week’s newsletter with a segment called the “Weekly Thought.” To be honest I felt this was the cheesiest part of my first newsletter. Strangely, it seems to be the part people liked the most.
I guess I should keep it going.
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The Weekly Thought
What Makes A Great Founder
One of the most interesting side effects about being an active investor in the early stage startup ecosystem through ScaleUp Malaysia and Remote Ventures is that I see so many founders. We’ve probably gone through 1,000 decks and had hundreds of meetings with founders and their teams. After awhile we’ve noticed a few patterns.
Being a founder is not for everyone. Ask any one of our portfolio CEOs. It involves a lot of sacrifice, heartache and patience. It means giving up on immediate pleasures because you believe that the future will be better. Statistically, 92% of all startups fail - which is why I continue to admire and respect every entrepreneur who has taken the plunge into this “extreme” career choice.
Every now and then we meet an exceptional founder who truly embodies what it means to be an entrepreneur. These are the men and women we want to back, catalyse and partner with. So here’s what I think is truly essential to be a truly remarkable founder.
A Raging Fire In Their Eyes
I’ve sat in pitches where the deck was beautifully prepared, the spreadsheets well constructed and the business case was outlined flawlessly that left me uninspired and frankly, bored. These same presenters more often than not quit their idea mere months later and end up doing something else.
True founders have passion and belief in what they do. When they enter a room they act like a thermostat and can change the temperature. You feel drawn to these founders.
When you have a strong conviction in what you do, you develop grit. It’s because you’re not swayed by trivial matters. You know what you want, what you need to do and you are determined to get there.
These days whenever I’m in a pitch I look a the presenter more than the deck. I’m looking for that flickering flame in their pupils. A sign that they are in it to win it.
Knowing Their Job Is To Not Have That Job
Many founders I meet are extremely skilled in their field. They know their industry inside out. While its not a necessity to be a highly skilled founder, its certainly a plus - though sometimes, this can be a crutch. More often than not these founders end up spending all their time in the business and not enough time working on their business.
Every CEO basically has 3 tasks:
To set the vision and mission of the business
To hire and retain the best talent
To make sure there’s money in the bank
Everything else is not in the job description. Great founders know that success is a team sport. Their job is to attract people to join them on their journey an empower them. Every role that is not filled is theirs temporarily until they can find someone who can take on the job. The quicker they can do this - the better.
The Will To Win
Every startup’s story has a life and death moment. It’s the crucible of great founders. The ones that emerge from this achieve greatness and live to tell stories that inspire others.
What this takes is the will to win. Some call this grit. This innate ability to turn adversity into opportunity makes all the difference. Sometimes founders get overwhelmed by challenges - this is normal - but founders who are determined to win know that they have to rise up from these challenges. Their future depends on it.
At their core great founders have something called adaptive capacity. They are able to analyse challenges, seek solutions through reading & mentorship, and execute these solutions quickly. It’s a skill in an of itself, and one that takes years to develop. It requires the founder to learn to embrace being uncomfortable so that they can learn how to navigate challenges.
So there you have it, 3 thoughts on what I think makes a great founder from my very limited experience as an early stage investor. There’s loads to unpack here and perhaps I’ll dive deeper into some of these ideas in time to come.
What do you think? Did I miss out anything? Is there something here you don’t agree with? Would you like me to dive deeper into any thought more?
Drop me a message or …
What I’ve Been Up To
BFM Breakaway: How To Scale Beyond Malaysia
After a two year hiatus, BFM Breakaway came back with a great lineup of content on the 20th of October 2022. I was on a terrific panel with Endeavour’s Adlin Yusman and Simone Lee of Tigas Alliance Group. The panel was moderated by BFM’s Christine Wong.
Our panel was about “Leveraging Experts & Insiders” and we covered a lot of ground. At its heart what became clear was that my fellow panelists and I felt that the most important thing in building a network is to be someone who adds value rather than treating relationships as being transactional.
The best partnerships are not merely forged from convenience but instead built over time on layers of trust.
100 Soonicorns Launch Event: Challenges & Opportunities In Building Unicorns In Malaysia
On the 25th of October 2022, Proficeo with ScaleUp Malaysia, in partnership with Penjana Kapital and the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation launched a program called “100 Soonicorns.” The program is meant to build peer support groups for startups that have raised at least $1m in funding with the aim of grooming Malaysia’s next unicorns.
I had the honour of moderating a star studded panel of industry luminaries. Dr. Siva, wearing his Proficeo hat was joined by Penjana Kapital CEO, Taufiq Iskandar and MDEC’s VP of Ecosystem Development, Gopi Ganesalingam. It was quite an intense panel and the gents on stage really did a great job answering what I thought were hard hitting questions.
Malaysia has its work cut out for itself as it aims to compete with our regional neighbours. I’m glad we have passionate champions like these gentlemen leading the charge.
Echelon 2022: The evolution of early stage investing and fund raising in Southeast Asia
When I was a founder I used to attend E27’s Echelon conference nearly every year. It was a great way to connect with the regional ecosystem. Now that I’m involved in early stage investing, E27 has partnered with ScaleUp Malaysia. Last year I also co-authored an op-ed on E27 with Quest Venture’s Jeffrey Seah.
It was great to be back at Echelon 2022 which was an intimate invite only affair this year. I moderated a panel about how early stage investing has evolved in South East Asia. I was joined by Hsu Ken from Iterative, Shiao-Ning from Angel Central, Shiyan from Hustle Fund and Tiang Lim from Forge VC.
Make sure you always optimise for product-market fit
Every dollar spent needs to be a learning opportunity
Businesses are built to make money and serve customers
The best form of funding is sales
In a downturn, make hard decisions - don’t (let your startup) die!
It was really encouraging to see how unanimously bullish each of us was about early stage investing in SEA over the next 18 months in spite of all the macro economic challenges the ecosystem is facing. I was also taken aback just looking at my fellow panelists and observing how amazing it is that founders have so many options for fund raising these days.
What I’m Looking Forward To
VC Lab Graduation
Dr. Siva, Xelia and I have been a part of VC Lab’s Cohort 7 for the last 16 weeks. It’s been a great way for us to refine our ideas of the venture capital firm we want to build. 12 hours after I publish this newsletter will be our “Closing Ceremony.” Its been quite a ride and I can’t believe how the weeks have just flown by. I’ll share more takeaways from VC Lab in my next newsletter.
Incidentally, if you’re looking to start a venture capital firm, applications for VC Lab’s 9th Cohort are open until this Sunday, 6th November 2022.