Founder Mission, Values and Gritty Realities with Sandhya Sriram & John Tan - E193

· Founder,Singapore,Start-up,Southeast Asia,Podcast Episodes

You just got to rationalise your business and think about different scenarios and be lean and do more with less. I mean, all of this is common sense and it's a lot easier said than done. I also think that there is enough capital out there for good founders and good start ups. It’s just about being able to tell a convincing story and have data points to show that you are making progress.

Dr. Sandhya Sriram, PhD Sriram is the CEO and co-founder of Shiok Meats, a cultivated meat and seafood company in Singapore. Their mission is to bring delicious, clean and healthy seafood and meats by harvesting from cells instead of animals. Shiok Meats brings cell-based crustacean meats like shrimp, crab and lobster to your table. They have been featured in media including The Economist, Forbes, World Economic Forum and Channel NewsAsia. Their investors include Y Combinator, Big Idea Ventures, Beyond Impact and Boom Capital.

John Tan is the founder of Saturday Kids, a curiosity school for children, and Doyobi, an EdTech startup setting out to help kids grow into original thinkers and develop a sense of purpose. He is also an investor in tech startups, in particular those reimagining the future of work and learning such as Padlet, Galileo, Contra and Beanstalk. Saturday Kids runs Code In The Community, a Google and Singapore Government-supported initiative that is the largest free coding programme in Singapore. John is an Obama Foundation Asia-Pacific 50 BRAVE 10 Leader, Transcend Fellow, and an Ashoka Changemaker. He sits on the board of Ninja Van and ErudiFi.

Adriel Yong: (00:20)
John talks a lot about the future of education and his personal mission and how he thinks about it after investing in a lot of education technology start-ups as well. And Sandhya has like a deep mission around building the future of food with Shiok Meats, maybe to start off, how about both of you just share what drives you?
Why build the future of food at Shiok Meats and then why build a future of education? Why is that even important to start with? Sandhya, wanna go first?
 

Sandhya Sriram: (00:58)
Sure. So I'm actually a scientist by training and education, so I'm actually a stem cell scientist. So started off doing a lot of stem cell research for health care. And then as you complete your Ph.D., like every other Ph.D. holder, you have an existential crisis as to what the hell you're doing with your life. So that's what happened a couple of years ago, around 2016, I think.
And my question then was, I want to do good for the world, whatever it is, and how do I do that? So I thought it was stem cells and health care, but that wasn't the case. I sort of along the way lost my passion, for lack of a better word, due to various issues. Academia is hard. Having a bad boss is even harder.
So that was sort of where it was. And I said, maybe I have to pave my own path along the way. But never knew that entrepreneurship was the way to go. Because I was brought up in a family where my parents had a job. Nobody was an entrepreneur. In fact, nobody in my family is even a scientist. So everything was start from scratch.
But then my husband is an entrepreneur from 17 and he always kept asking, Why are you working for someone else? You should be doing something on your own, you should be providing jobs. And I said, That's not my cup of tea, it's probably yours. But having said that, 2014, I took the leap of faith as I was a scientist, then started actually a media start-up on the side.
It was a news website that covered biotech news, and that's when I came across cultivated meat or cell-based meat, which is what I do now. So that was sort of eight years ago that I came across that technology and that you could use stem cells for making food; love to eat, vegetarian by choice due to ethical and environmental reasons.
And I'm a stem cell scientist, so all of it tick the boxes. But I did not know that I wanted to start my own company in that industry or so. So 2016, quit being a scientist, took up a business development role to sort of learn the business side of science. Because I knew that if I wanted to start my own company in the future, I need to understand both tech and businesses.
So did that for a couple of years and 2018 said, okay, this is my time to like take that other leap of faith and my media start-up didn't do well, by the way, so I had to quit that, but at least knew what not to do as an entrepreneur. I learnt a little bit of fundraising, made the best friends with angel investors, smaller pre-seed funds and so on.
And I said, How can I put all of that to good use? And also definitely work towards my ultimate vision of life, mission of life, which is to do good to the earth. What better way to do it by using technology to make meat and seafood without slaughter in an ethical way, in a sustainable way. So that's how I ended up doing what we do today, which is we make seafood and meat without animals.
It is not plant based, it is actual real meat. But we make it using stem cells and the final product is actual real seafood and meat. And you should be able to eat our product specifically by the end of next year. So that's how Shiok Meats was born.
 

Adriel Yong: (03:59)
Yeah. John, how about you?
 

John Tan: (04:00)
Hi, I'm John. So I run a Start-Up called Doyobi today. And before, I started a coding school for kids ten years ago called Saturday Kids. I actually tell people that it is a curiosity school for kids. It's about inspiring curiosity more than it is about getting kids to learn how to code. I think the author, Adam Grant, he uses that term in his book - Shapers.
So, shapers are people who have tons of originality and they can build a culture that also unleashes originality on others. And that's really what my mission is, both with Saturday kids and with Doyobi it's about helping kids to become original thinkers. I wrote an essay in the birthday book two years ago. I think the title of my essay is - We Need Mavericks.
And that's really what my purpose is because I feel very strongly about the education system that I went through and that my kids are going through. I don't think that's changed very much, and I think the world obviously has evolved and the system cannot keep up with that change. And I also feel very strongly that knowledge is not as relevant today as skills and dispositions.
And so what we try to do at Doyobi is to help kids develop those skills and dispositions to be able to do anything they want, to be able to identify their own purpose and the steps that you can take to make a positive impact in the world. So that's me.
 

Adriel Yong: (05:42)
Yeah. So we started off talking about the mission, which is why do you care about this in the world? I think this like a bunch of people who are either currently building the Start-Ups right now, thinking about doing it. What were the first few things that you guys did to kick start your journey of building a Start-Up after you have decided on wanting to solve this problem and going on this mission?
 

John Tan: (06:04)
So when I started Saturday Kids, it was really just a side project to get kids to learn how to code. And I think the mission actually came later. So sometimes you don't necessarily start with like, Oh, this is my mission. I'm going to start a company to do that, right? Sometimes you start something as a project and then along the way you kind of figure out what is it you really want to do or why you are really doing this.
So with Saturday kids, it was because I was enjoying investing in tech start-ups and I just felt that kids should learn how to code. They don't have to wait to college to learn that skill. And that's why I started in 2012. But then as I spend more time in the classroom, as I spend more time working with kids, I realised that actually that technical skill is useful.
But really what is missing in kids, and that's a function of the education system, is that ability to think and to question and to keep asking why? Because the education system is not designed for kids to keep questioning or in fact, the best students are the ones who keep quiet and follow the instructions and do as they are told.
So that's what we tried to change at Saturday Kids and we are still trying. It's just a very difficult conversation to have with parents when parents are so obsessed with grades. And it's very hard for parents to kind of zoom out a little bit right, and ask themselves to what end? Right. I'm sending my kids to all these tuition classes and making them spend all week doing assessment books to what end?
And maybe if those parents went through Saturday Kids and Doyobi they will be asking that question. But they didnt. And so do we want to kick the can down the road and our kids generation be like that? Or do we want a generation of kids who are thoughtful thinkers, who are more thoughtful builders and makers?

Adriel Yong: (08:11)
How about you, Sandhya? What were the first few things you did now that you decided that you wanted to do Shiok Meats?
 

Sandhya Sriram: (08:15)
It was not a very short journey to entrepreneurship. It was two start-ups, one failed, one doing okay, complete shift in career and also starting a company that will not have any revenues for the first 5 to 7 years. So literally living on other people's money or running the company on a venture capital, impact funds, whatever it is, on fundraising.
So like I said, scientist turned business professional of sorts, did an MBA like on the job per se, but also the two start-ups one Media Start-Up that failed. Second was an EdTech Start-Up that became an events company eventually. Don't ask me how that is, but that is doing okay. And then I think when I started Shiok, I was about 33 and I've been working from when I was 17.
So it's almost 17, 18 years of being in the workforce. And I literally said if I had the next ten years on this planet, what do I want to do? And that was sort of the question for me to start Shiok and I literally had nothing to lose when I started Shiok. Not that I was super rich and I had a lot of bank balance that I could just go on with it.
In fact, when I started, I literally had nothing. It was pretty much yes, a well-paid job. But, that made ends meet sort of a thing. My husband is an entrepreneur, so there's never enough money in the bank. So it's sort of that. So I started off from there and literally had nothing to lose.
But it was about what can I do in the next ten years to leave a mark in this world, not as myself, but with a technology that helps people in the larger scheme of things and that boiled down to food and what I know very well is stem cells and research. So sort of put both together and that was all it was.
But from day one of starting Shiok, it was we always assumed me and my co-founder always assumed we are going to hit rock bottom tomorrow. So how do we go for that? If we don't have money tomorrow, what are we going to do with this company, that sort of thing? But to say for the last four years, it has been amazing.
It has been a very heartwarming, humbling journey to where we are. We did not expect the amount of funds that we have raised today. We did not expect the coverage that we have got from the media or from the investors or from the consumers. We did not expect where our technology is today to be as advanced as it is.
We did not expect that we launch in 2023. We thought it will take a few more years from there, but we are looking at launching next year. I did not personally expect me to be a good leader that I am today. I did not expect that. I thought I would lead the company till it's about 20 people and then probably I can’t do beyond it.
But we are 60 now and it's humbling. It's humbling. The whole journey has been extremely humbling.
 

Adriel Yong: (10:57)
What was the most difficult thing that you guys had to do in the early days of building start ups?
 

Sandhya Sriram: (11:03)
Is actually in the book. We didn't get a lab space so we can’t work from home. We need an actual lab space. We need really expensive equipment, something that a start-Up couldn't afford initially. And Singapore literally did not have a lab space for rent for a start-Up. If you have heard that, you might think, Oh, you didn't do your research, but that's sort of what it was, because we are not a spinoff from a university.
We are an independent company. We were two female Asian scientist founders who had this crazy idea of growing seafood using stem cells that Singapore has never heard of. You're the first company to do it, your first company, Southeast Asia, to do it. None of the investors had heard of it because only US companies were doing it. There was no product in the market.
There's no accelerator on an incubator specifically for an independent biotech start-Up in Singapore. There wasn't in 2018. So I still remember I had and since we are doing seafood, we do stem cell based seafood. So I contacted a person that I knew from my media days. I interviewed her and she was working at the Marine Institute in NUS and I told her, Hey, I need to use your lab.
Is it possible? And she said, Sure, my labs in St John's Island. And I said, okay, where's that? So literally used to take a boat every morning to go do our initial lab work. We did that for about a month, got super tired after that and thankfully raised some money. But even then we realised we have to build our own lab and the money that we had wasn't enough for that.
So then went back to our bosses and we literally begged them, we said, I know you have lab spaces that are not being used right now. We'll give you whatever rental you're asking, just give us the space. And I generally don't take no for an answer.
So that's how we ended up working in these labs on and off until 2019. So about a year into running the company is when we had our own sort of space per se, which is where we currently operate out from. So I would say that was the most challenging thing, not the fundraising, not the hiring. I mean, all of those are challenges, but not having a space to even do a proof of concept of your technology was the hardest.
 

Adriel Yong: (13:13)
And enduring sea sickness along the way.
 

Sandhya Sriram: (13:16)
Oh, definitely. I'm not a very good person on a boat and literally it's like a fishing boat. So I am a vegetarian, so I can't stand the smell of meat and seafood as well, ironically. But yeah, that's what it was.
 

Adriel Yong: (13:32)
What about you, John, what is the most difficult things that you had to do?
 

John Tan: (13:37)
Well, it's having a worldview that not many people share. So how do you navigate that? I think that's the biggest challenge and it's still the biggest challenge I have today. If I were to start at EdTech, start up tomorrow, that it's about digitising tuition and making it scalable, I think it’d be pretty straightforward to raise money for that business, but I have zero interest in running a business like that because I can give kids more tuition and they do better in school to what end?
And so having a worldview that is perhaps a little bit ahead of most people and I'm not saying that I'm right. Right. I mean, obviously, I believe I am right. I think I'm right. But I may be wrong. But if you are ahead of what people's beliefs are, then how do you get them to come to your side?
And to share that same belief? So I think that is a constant challenge. It’s been ten years and it's still a challenge. At some point, coding for kids became fashionable. And then these coding schools started popping up and it was like Python 101, two, three, right? They became like tuition.
I was like I don’t want to be in that business. So it’s a challenge when you have very strong beliefs about what you want kids to learn and how you want kids to learn, and people are just not quite ready for what you think kids should be learning.
 

Adriel Yong: (15:05)
So, of course, I think two of you will have to struggle with that, trying to change that status quo. Whether it’s on the food or how people think about education and in that process, raise venture capital money, right? How are you guys thinking about the current sort of fundraising landscape? I mean, I think Shiok is especially capital intensive because the R&D needed and even for education, probably not the most sexy vertical to raise money in.
So yeah, John, I mean, you’re also an angel. So curious to hear your perspectives on fundraising right now.
 

John Tan: (15:33)
Well, I think the goal is to get to define a life so then you don't have to keep fundraising. I think I'm fortunate to be in a business that is not particularly capital intensive. If I can convince a thousand parents to pay 90 USD a month for kids to build skills in the metaverse, then I'll be close to breakeven.
So it's definitely a lot more challenging if you are running a business or a start up that is way more capital intensive and you are burning through hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. My advice is what was shared in the previous panel. You just got to rationalise your business and think about different scenarios and be lean and do more with less.
I mean, all of this is common sense and it's a lot easier said than done. I also think that there is enough capital out there for good founders and good start ups. It’s just about being able to tell a convincing story and have data points to show that you are making progress.
 

Sandhya Sriram: (16:46)
Yeah, I think for me, like I mentioned, we knew from day one that we won't be revenue generating at least for the first 5 to 7 years. So we had to survive on borrowed money, whatever it was, whether it was a grant, it was a loan, venture capital, from wherever you raised money. And I still remember my mentor told me, raise whenever you can like don't do rounds whenever somebody is interested, just take the money.
Because there'll be one time when you will be desperate and you won't get it. So always have a long runway. Don't look at a 12 month/24 month runway. Look at a 36/48 month runway, if you can. And if people question you why you have so much money in the bank, tell them there is going to be a day that you will use that money.
So that was literally what it was for us. To date, we have raised $30 million. I probably needed about 10 million, but I raised 30 million. And I'm so glad that I did because now's the dry time and I'm using that extra money that I raised that I didn't need to run my company for the next one year, one and a half years, whatever need be.
And we have been a lean company from day one, but lean means a few hundred thousand a month. That's what goes out of the bank, because the people that I hired are expensive because they're scientists with PhDs, masters, few years experience, they should be paid well. Second is all my equipment is extremely expensive. I can't rent my equipment.
There is no second hand sort of a thing that you can literally buy. Each equipment cost somewhere between 10 to $100000 minimum. So that's sort of what it is and that was pretty much it. So I knew from day one, even if me and my co-founder don't take salaries, which we didn't for a long time, we would be burning a minimum 200K a month when we started off the company.
Now we are burning almost double or triple of that. So that's sort of where we are. And if that's the case, I do need a lot of millions within the year and as I scale, I need much more because my equipment is becoming larger in size, my marketing spend is more, I need more people and so on. So right now the atmosphere is not that great for fundraising for sure, as everybody said.
But we are in an extremely hot industry - food tech, sustainable climate tech and all of that. But the industry is getting extremely competitive as well and the rounds that we are raising are not 10 million, 20 million rounds. I'm currently raising a 100 million round and you only have so many VCs that can do such a large round with you VC or Impact Fund, Family Office, whatever you want to call it.
It's not been easy. So instead of doing 100 million large price round, we decided to restrategize and we are doing a smaller round right now to just increase our runway and then when things are better, hopefully next year we can start looking at a larger round. But at least I'm not in a place where I'm desperate for money.
I'm not in a place where I am taking any money. I'm taking money that's really worth it. That is very strategic to the company and that can really take us to that level where we want to go. Yeah.
 

Adriel Yong: (19:45)
Awesome. Like I guess one last tactical question before I open it up to the floor. How do you think about hiring people? I mean, both of you have individual missions as founders wanting to change the future of food, future of education. Is that something that is very important to you when you hire people for your respective companies?
Or are you okay to hire someone who's like great pedigree, great skills, but probably more just doing this for the money rather than the grand vision at the end of the day.
 

John Tan: (20:12)
So going back to our mission, right, which is you try to nurture kids who grow up to be original thinkers and adults who can do stuff. I think the first criteria we use when we hire is can this person actually come in and do the work, right? So you hire based on skills and mindset rather than academic achievements because to me, like, you have a first class degree in economics.
How is that relevant to my business? How does that help my organisation? It doesn't. So we hire based on skills, I think also mindset. So does this person have that curiosity to you to keep asking questions, have that hunger, to keep learning? I think curiosity is the big one. We've always had this remote work culture even before COVID.
We have always encouraged people to work from anywhere and that has its benefits, right? So I think there are two very powerful things that are going for us. One is we have a very clear mission. So people who believe in us, they do reach out. So, over the years, I've had so many people reach out to ask if we are hiring because they believe in the mission.
And the second thing that we have going for us is that we have a very flexible and high trust work culture, which is why we allow people to work remotely even before COVID. So, with these two drivers right? We are able to hire very capable, mostly women, who value that flexibility and also because a lot of them are moms and they can see how the work that we do can have an impact on our kids. So actually, I will be sharing in a group chat that we are 80% women, the team is 80% female, started by a man…that's almost a unicorn. Right. So I'm very proud of that. And I guess the question is, can we make that culture still work if we grow bigger right?
It's easier to do it when you are 15, 20 people, can you do it when you are 200 people, can do it when you are 2000 people. But I think going back to my earlier point, the most important thing is you want to hire for curiosity, for skills, and you want to have very distinct culture.
I think maybe it's a bit too early now, but with Saturday Kids, if you talk to ex-employees, they will tell you about the Saturday Kids culture, which is actually very similar to what we are trying to help kids develop. So it is a culture of play and fun and asking questions and thinking out of the box.
So, all of these things, I guess we try to model that for the same kids we are trying to help.
 

Adriel Yong: (23:08)
Cool! Sandhya, do you want a go?
 

Sandhya Sriram: (23:10)
Yeah, I think for us the first 15 to 20 hires were friends, friends of friends, people who are extremely passionate, distant family members if we had to who are trustworthy because we were doing something so different that people did not understand, even with scientists and engineers, they didn't know that their skill set would fit what we were doing because the stem cell scientists thought, Oh, that's food.
We don't know food. The food scientists thought, Oh, that stem cells, we don't know stem cells. So that was the issue there. So we had to literally go and do roadshows to like convince people, telling them, can you let me know, what's your bio data? I will tell you whether you fit us, that sort of a thing. And like John said, we had extremely passionate people that knew about us reach out to us, even if they didn't have 80% of the skill set and their attitude was right, that passion was right.
We created roles for them literally. That was for the first 15 to 18 hires. But beyond that, it became those are your passionate, the right attitude, the thinkers. Then you needed doers, right? So then we had to hire people who really can get your vision forward, who can do the work and get that forward. And those have been my majority of the hires.
Right now, we are 60. So, the late hires were those. So you'll have to change the process of the way you think about hiring and the people that you need on the team as you grow. I think John said he doesn't know whether the culture can remain the same. It definitely cannot. You have to change it.
In fact, I have one of my investors told me your company will break. Don't think that you will sink, but your company will break every time you double your team because your processes will change, the way you think about the company will change, the culture will change, the way you interact with people will change. And just remember that. As long as you remember that and you're ready for it, you can move forward.
So I've had to keep that in mind constantly.
 

Adriel Yong: (25:02)
Cool. Anyone here has any questions for them?
 

Audience Member: (25:06)
I just wanted to ask a little bit about your positions in setting up business in Singapore, And in deciding to set up in Singapore, what was the thought process because presumably with many other options that were considered in other parts of the region.
So just curious about how you guys landed in Singapore.
 

Sandhya Sriram: (25:49)
I'm actually not from here. I'm originally from India. So moved here like 14, 15 years back for my Ph.D. and then Singapore became home and then I started, it was home and I didn't want to disrupt home because my life was going to be disrupted with a start-up. So I have a kid, I have a husband, he has his own business, I have a family here.
So it was a couple of things personally to take into consideration. So the first concept was my co-founder’s from here. So we both were like, do we want to disrupt our lives? So much so that we want to move? Or What do we do? Do we stay away from our families? How do we do this? So that was the first consideration.
We were like, No, we are comfortable in Singapore. We are going to be extremely uncomfortable as entrepreneurs. So let's at least be comfortable in the place that we are. So that was, I would say, the first and foremost. Second was nobody else was doing it here, we were like, That's a great opportunity for us. We can be extremely unique.
If I did this in the US where a lot of this technology was advanced, we would be lost in the sea of these start-ups and we wouldn't have got the recognition or the uniqueness that we had. So we said, okay, that's the second point. Third is we don't understand anything else other than Asia. We are two Asian co-founders and we know how Asia works.
Asia is so fragmented already. If you go every 500 kilometres, it's different in Asia. So we were like, at least we understand 20% of that, whereas the US, we understand zero. So US or Europe wherever it is. And the fourth was Visa issues. So literally that, I hold an Indian passport, it's not easy to get a visa anywhere, literally.
That was also into consideration. In fact, four months after starting the company, we got into Y Combinator, which is the US accelerator, and they forced us to move to the US, like set up a US entity and we said no and they said, Well, we can't fund you. He said, Sure, don't fund us then because we are not moving, this is what it is.
And then they said, okay, let's see how we can make this work. And they made it work. We are funded by them. We are a Singaporean company. We decided to stay in Singapore. We are Y Combinator backed. So yeah, I guess it was taking into consideration personal financial technology, uniqueness, market, at the end of the day, 60 to 65% of the world's population lives in Asia.
I want to build up technology and product for Asia by Asia. Yeah, the West can get it at some point, but it's for Asia and we love food here, so why not? And we love seafood. So it was all of that together.
 

John Tan: (28:16)
So for me, it's because I grew up in Singapore and I know very well how the education system works. It's just an obvious place to start if I'm thinking about fixing what's broken in the system. And I think especially with Singapore, because we are so well known in the world for how great our education system is, there's a blind spot, right?
And that blind spot is we think that what got us here will get us there. And we think that there will forever be jobs in law, finance or accounting. And as long as our kids do well in school, they can make partner and that's fine. Right. But I think the world is changing and these jobs may not exist.
So if I'm going to be fixing this problem, I might as well do it here where I'm most familiar. But having said that, because we actually do all classes in a virtual world, right? So we call it skill building in the metaverse and so we have kids from different countries and there's actually no need for me to be physically in Singapore.
In fact, right now, more than half the team, they are not in Singapore. And I guess that's another advantage of allowing remote work, right? You are not limited to the talent you can find in the country you are based in. So we have people in Berlin, in Boston, around Southeast Asia, in London. So my goal is really I want to build a global start up, right?
And sometimes it's really strange, on the one hand it's a lot easier to start and that EdTech business does focus on tuition and helping kids to better and there are quite a few in Singapore are fairly well funded. The flipside to that is that it's very, very hard to scale because the curriculum is different in every country, right.
And not every country has parents that are so willing to spend on tuition. So what we do is a lot harder in the sense that it's not what people want, but then it's also a lot more universal. So things like critical thinking, communication, collaboration skills, parents will believe it. They come from everywhere in the world. I do think that we are also in a better position to be a global start up than many of these other ad tech start ups that are focused on academic performance.
 

Audience Member: (31:02)
Thank you, John and Sandhya for insightful and candid sharing. So I have a question to John regarding your vision. I completely agree with your vision and stand on the educational system is somewhat slanted. And as the mission is so radically different than the mainstream and the mainstream so deeply rooted, you must have met a lot of challenges in convincing them otherwise. What are the approaches that worked for you?
 

John Tan: (31:46)
I don't know the answer. I'm still figuring it out there.
 

Audience Member: (31:50)
Anything that is better than others.
 

John Tan: (31:53)
I mean, put it this way, right? Like I've been investing in tech for more than ten years. Like I know many, many people in tech. Even for someone like me, it took me a long time to raise $2 million. It’s a joke, right? Like I can raise $20 million for one of my portfolio companies like that. But for me to do it myself to raise $2 million, it took me a very, very long time and I had to take a lot of rejections.
What it came down to is what I alluded to earlier. People don’t want to make left field bets. They want to bet on what's proven. So, can you do another grocery delivery start-Up? Can you do another ride-hailing start-Up? Those are proven models. Can I run those start-ups? I can’t. I can’t do anything that I don't deeply believe in.
And so it's a constant struggle, right? So like even with Saturday kids, when coding for kids became a thing, could I do a curriculum that is like coding 101 to 109? I couldn't. I just I cannot do it. It's very hard to live like that, right? When you have very strong views and ethos. It's hard to be me, right?
That's basically what I'm trying to say. I guess I'm fortunate that I have the resources to try to be different and to try to make a change, but I have not found what works. I don't know. I'm still searching every day. I'm searching for the answer. Hopefully one day I'll find it. Yeah.
 

Adriel Yong: (33:26)
Actually, John, what does product market fit look like to you?
 

John Tan: (33:29)
To me, it can we have a thousand cohort? 10,000 cohort. That's right. And each cohort has 15, 20 kids learning online in a safe space and they are all practicing the skills that we want them to learn. Because fundamentally, how does a child learn critical thinking? I can explain to a child what critical thinking is, right? She knows the definition of critical thinking.
Does that mean that she's that critical thinker? No. The way to do it is you have to manufacture opportunities for kids to practice and apply these skills. So product market fit for me is when tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of kids in the metaverse, applying and practicing these skills on a weekly basis.
Because I really think that is one of the most important things we can do for our kids, because they are certainly not learning these skills in school. There is a curriculum that needs to be delivered and then after it's delivered, the teachers have to spend a lot of time preparing these kids for standardised tests. Right. So there's just no time for teachers to help kids develop these skills.
For me, I really think that if I can help kids learn these skills and also develop this habit of questioning everything and, having this very deep belief that they can make a change and make a difference, then that's my purpose, right? And that's how I think I can make an impact in the world.
 

Audience Member: (35:06)
Hey, morning. Thanks for doing the time today. My name is Darren. I have a question for Sandhya and I think it was your point related to how every time you scale your company, it breaks. So, I’ve been a startup from 30-150 people and then I see the effects of it like I think that months ago, I could have dropped a line and the product would be fixed tomorrow.
Now I need to tell the PO and the PO will run a screen next week and then the product won’t be fixed until 3 weeks later. So, my question is, do you have any specific examples or bullet points you’d recommend going forward as you go to try and scale this?
 

Sandhya Sriram: (35:50)
Yeah, that's exactly what we do. So before we scale actually. So what I do generally with my team is I’ll put all of them in a room, whether it's Zoom or in a room, but we put them there and we tell them this is the current structure of our company, this is what it's going to look like in six months.
And I show different hierarchies. We used to run a flat structure. Eventually, of course, you can’t do that. So you show the org chart or the roles and responsibilities and you put it there. And the first thing I ask them is, what are your concerns, what are your questions, and where do you want to be in the next couple of years within the company?
If this is going to be the future structure, I've heard everything from, Oh my God, are we going to be too many people to am I still going to get personalised attention from the senior management to will processes take more time now, like you mentioned, it does, as you grow, it has to. There's no other way. Will I get enough face time with my co-founder anymore?
How are things going to change? I've also had people come and tell me, Oh, I've been in that. I've had that experience before. This is what my previous company did better, or they did good or they did bad. Do you want to look into that? I think you take all of that into perspective. And then, of course, as a founder, you do what you want at the end of the day.
But it's sort of putting all of that together and thinking what's best for the team, what's best for you, what keeps you sane at the end of the day as well, literally. So I do this exercise every six months within the company. I've done it eight times now, given that we have four years. But that's literally what I do.
And then I do it much earlier, not when I'm going to hire or double the team. I do it a little bit earlier because there is a certain vision in front of me and when I do that, I get the responses that I think my current team…and it also gives me an idea as to whether these people are thinking of themselves long term in the company or not.
You get a lot of perspectives out of that. And who is really passionate about growing their career, growing the company from within the company and how they want to grow from there. So it's been an interesting…because I was never asked in my previous organisations about these things and I said, okay, maybe it's time to ask these questions and it's given a lot of insights into what people think about company building as an employee, as an employer, as a team lead, whatever it is.
 

Audience Member: (38:10)
And just a quick question, and I think specifically for Sandhya, I think you were looking to raise another round of capital. And so my question was specifically is how do you think about which VC companies to work with especially from the founders point of view.
 

Sandhya Sriram: (39:00)
I literally have a list of VCs that we shouldn't be speaking to, like from bad experiences from previous founders or just an instinct. I call it a gut feeling when I meet them for the first time and I feel spooked out, whatever, how much of our money they have and the offer, I won't take it. That's as simple as that.
It's my way of doing it. It may be the wrong way, but I don't know. But it's the right way personally for me. So that's why I said it's not about raising money. It's about raising the right money from the right people. Because every entrepreneur, every Start-Up wants to survive. Nobody starts off a company thinking, I want to be a unicorn.
We start off the process that will this tech work. Will me as a CEO, as a founder, will I work as a founder, as a CEO, will I survive? And right now, this year is all about survival for every Start-Up. Will you be alive next year? It's sort of that, right. So coming to fundraising, you said the food tech scene is heating up.
I would actually say it's going slightly cold, slowly because every hot industry has about 5 to 7 years that everybody's talking about. Be it the consumers, the VCs, the governments, the industries. And the peak for food tech was last year, 2020, 2021. A little bit this year. It is going to eventually go down. I'm not saying it's going to die.
I'm saying something else is going to be more sexy soon. I don't know what it is. It was AI before. It was crypto for a while here and there, but I think food tech kept it long enough for a good section of 5 to 7 years. But honestly, I feel in the next 2 to 3 years it's going to be something else that's going to come up, especially after the down that we are going right now in the market.
Something else needs to be sexier for us to come back up for the whole world to come back up financially. So that's why. And your rounds are getting bigger. Like I said, I'm not raising a 2 million, 10 million, 15 million run. I'm raising a 100 million on my next round is going to be 500 million and I need to IPO after that.
So it's large amounts of funding. There are only a few certain pieces that can do it. There are sovereign funds. There are family offices, there are strategic food companies like Large MNCs that can do it. So the numbers are pretty small, so whom to concentrate on, whom to keep your eye on, whom to keep them warm.
And even in that small number, I have a list that I don't want to work with, so the numbers are even smaller. So that's sort of how you look at it. Yeah.
 

Adriel Yong: (41:25)
How about you, John? You angel invest and you help your portfolio companies raise money and you also raise money yourself. How do you think which VC or Angel money to take?
 

John Tan: (41:34)
Yeah. So because I've been doing this for so long, I've seen a lot of bad behaviour both on the investor side and entrepreneurs. I think you just have to understand that when you take on an investment, you are…it’s basically a fairly long term relationship, right. So you have to ask yourself, do you want to be working with this person?
Obviously, many investors are passive and they let you run the company and they don’t interfere too much, but then there are also investors. So actually funds right, that want to be much more hands on. They question your decisions. I think I'm especially skeptical of VCs that are led by partners who have never been founders themselves, I think that's extremely challenging because if you have never had to worry about making payroll, how do what that feels like, right?
What gives you the right to tell a founder how to do it or what to do? I guess with angels, ideally, you have angels who invest because they really buy into your mission and your vision because there are so many newly minted angels, sometimes some of these angels don't really understand how this game is played.
So I recently had a founder. He texted me, say, Hey, I really shut down the company and doing something else. Now I'm investing some of my own money in other startups, so his angel from the startup that didn't work basically ask to return the money because he's not in a position to angel invest right. So I'm like, well, I mean that's like heads you win, tails I lose, right?
It doesn't make sense. So I guess there are many angels out there who are very new. So my advice is just get to know who you are working with and whether they understand how angel investing works.
 

Adriel Yong: (43:38)
What is bad behaviour from VCs that you have seen that founder should be aware of or stay far away from?
 

John Tan: (43:44)
I mean not following through on the deal, leaving the founder in the lurch. I think that's an obvious one, changing the terms of the deal as you're closing the deal. But like I said earlier, just imposing your will on the founder. Actually, at one of the startups I'm investing in, there is some tension now between the founders and, the investors, because there is a tried and tested model that works.
And the founders want to take more risk, right? They want to…what else they can build on top of what they have. And the investors are quite resistant. And I think there's always that tension between investors and entrepreneurs. The reason somebody is an entrepreneur is because they can see a little bit beyond the current right, the present.
And so when you have investors on board that don't necessarily have that vision right, maybe that's why they're investors and not entrepreneurs. How do you navigate that? It may not be like bad behaviour, but it's just stuff that entrepreneurs have to go through. And then I guess a really skilled entrepreneur will be able to bring everybody on the board to come to his vision and accept that this is where we think the business is going or think the industry is going. And so let's make this new bet, but it’s extremely difficult, especially as you get larger. The larger you are, the more difficult it is to make new bets. I think that's the same with all big companies and that's why big companies die.
 

Adriel Yong: (45:25)
Okay. We have time for one last question. Any takers? Okay then. Thanks so much, John and Sandhya for sharing their thoughts on how to build companies, how to navigate that starting up phase of 0 to 1, how to think about like who to raise money from, if there's one piece of advice that you can leave aspiring founders or very young founders with, what would that be?
 

Sandhya Sriram: (45:49)
I think just go for it. There's no other way to know whether you will succeed or you will fail, I think. But don't be an unlimited optimist as an entrepreneur, set certain timelines for yourself to see if you're going anywhere and if your idea in your head might be really good. But when you actually put it into action, it may not turn out that way.
But yes, you tend to push it. But how long can you go ahead if you're not able to raise money, you're not hiring the right people, your tech is going nowhere or you're struggling with it. I think it's time to probably call it quits and probably start something else if you can. I think a failed entrepreneur or an entrepreneur that has failed in that attempt is a better entrepreneur than someone who keeps running a company just because and failing continuously within that company itself.
I think that's a huge problem. You have to accept and move on. So set a timeline when you decide to start something. So with Shiok we set a timeline of 12 months to raise $1,000,000 and have a first prototype of a shrimp dumpling. We did $5 million in four months and the first prototype within six months. So then we said, okay, it's working out, let's move forward.
So it was that. Yeah.
 

Adriel Yong: (46:59)
How about you, John?
 

John Tan: (47:00)
Be a rebel. When everybody zigs, you should zag. And if you want your kids to zag, send them to Saturday Kids.
 

Adriel Yong: (47:09)
Alright. With that, thank you, everyone, for joining us for today's launch party, there is lunch outside. If you can grab a book at the registration counter. All profits go to the Codette project to make our startup ecosystem more diverse and inclusive. With that, thank you and have an awesome weekend ahead.