"The conclusion I’ve come to, which academic research also shows, is that a well-run accelerator does make a difference by attracting great talent. The aggregation of great talent and the community you build around an accelerator are more important than any kind of process. There isn’t a magic selection process to pick out winners and ensure success. We created a community because we wanted to bring people together. If you think of trying to get chemical reactions to happen, you put some molecules in a box and shake it and try and bang them into each other." - Hugh Mason
“The theory that I'm trying to explore through my Ph.D. is that when we are stuck on the level of operational or immediate activities in front of us, we can't see the big picture. The key is reframing what you’re trying to understand and control, knowing where that’s in conflict, and reframing things to remove the conflict. Pivoting is about reframing. If there’s no way to do that, it means that’s a good time to close down and move on.” - Hugh Mason
1. Hugh shares his journey from engineer to TV producer and eventually co-founding JFDI, Southeast Asia’s first-ever startup accelerator in 2010. JFDI meant "Just ****ing Do It," which reflected the accelerator's focus on action and execution. To comply with Singapore's strict company name registry requirements, they officially used the name “Joyful Frog Digital Incubator”.
2. Hugh emphasizes the importance of building a strong, authentic community around an accelerator, rather than focusing on the brand. He highlights the value of studying anthropology and religion to understand community formation and the importance of a physical space. Mason's experience has taught him to nurture the ecosystem and the next generation of founders, and not be a hero or guru.
3. Hugh argued that founders are like military commandos that are forged through a series of experiences that lead to their psychological, physical, emotional, and intellectual commitment to the role, rather than being born with a natural propensity for it. He believes that success is not determined by picking winners from the beginning, but rather by creating a community that encourages growth and self-selection.
Watch, listen or read the full insight including why he would today instead build a venture studio, the professionalization of entrepreneurship as a career, and the importance of reframing during company pivots & failures at https://www.bravesea.com/blog/hugh-mason
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Jeremy Au: (01:43)
Hey Hugh, really excited to have you on the show. You have been a great leader and a lot of people look up to you as a great mentor, so I'm really excited to dive into your origin story and your grand adventures.
Hugh Mason: (01:55)
Thank you. What a nice thing to say. I think I'll come on with your podcast again.
Jeremy Au: (02:01)
Definitely do it, a hundred percent. So, could you introduce yourself?
Hugh Mason: (02:06)
Yeah, sure. So, I started my career as an engineer and became a TV producer. My first business was a TV production company. I was invited to come to Singapore in 2006 to help build the media sector but ended up working with a lot of people and doing some stuff towards startups. And I'm a dad and I guess my friends call me an Ang Mo-Porean which I think is a compliment, half Singaporean, half Ang Mo.
Jeremy Au: (02:24)
Amazing. That's definitely an advanced-level term there's an even harder burn rate.
Hugh Mason: (02:29)
I should say to you, this episode is brought to you, sponsored by African Sea Coconut cough mixture. I know we've both got coughs and you'll also hear the official sound of an HDB here in Red Hill. We did, I should say for listeners, we did conspire before this to try and see whether we would try and con everyone that we were actually meeting around a campfire in the middle of a jungle with like a storm going on to make it really authentic. If you do hear the lightning crashing, it isn't some kind of cheesy effect. It is actually the real thing.
Jeremy Au: (02:55)
Well, if in luck then we'll have the storm come in at a very opportune moment, and that'll good. I think a lot of folks remember you really as JFDI, right? Joyful Frog Digital Incubator. And actually, my sister did one of her first jobs at your place, which is how I got to hear about you. So, I have to ask, how did you get into that space? Because startups, I would say the technology scene, is less than 10 years old across Southeast Asia, and there you were very much at the beginning, right?
Hugh Mason: (03:28)
Yeah. I think Man Wong, my co-founder and I would both say we just happened to be the right guys in the right place at the right time. What happened was with a bunch of younger, local people here, we set up the first co-working space in Singapore, which was Hackerspace in Kampong Glam still running, I think, but now in Geylang and we'd been running that for about nine months and it just turned into a kind of a riot. There were parties every night. We were having to kind of hate to kick people out at 2:00 AM. It was just fantastic. All the world's geeks would come through Singapore and stopovers and all the local geeks would be kind of attracted to it. Then we just had a complete geek-out time, so that was really great. And about just say December in 2010, or 2011, I forget now, but one of the first Echelon conferences happened here. That was Mohan, I think, wasn't it with the, with Echelon, is that right? And it was like 50 people in a borrowed room in SMU, I seem to remember. And one of the, and the kind of star guest, speaker, the government had paid to fly over this guy called David Cohen who'd set up this thing called Techstars in Boulder, Colorado, he was very inspiring. And about February the next year, he called me up one day and he just randomly said, hey Hugh, the Singapore government wants me to come to Singapore and do Techstars in Singapore and I've got a young family and a bunch of other things I want to do and you guys seem to be quite connected to the community, so why don't you do it? And Meng and I looked at each other and thought, actually, that's a really interesting idea.
Nobody to our knowledge has done an accelerator in Asia before. We didn't know there were two or three others starting. There was one starting in Australia and there was one starting in India. But it took us about 18 months to get the money together to do this first accelerator in Southeast Asia. And it took us about five years to figure out what we were actually doing. It was the fourth day of Chinese New Year in, I think which year, Chinese year it would've been which animal, but it was 2012. And the reason we started on the fourth day was that the senior lady at Singtel, our sponsor Yvonne Quick said it was very inauspicious to meet new people on the third. And then later in that week we had the whole, the lion dance and everything else to kind of, bring auspiciousness and prosperity and wealth to our startups. But I do remember looking around these guys and thinking, wow, you've put your trust in us. We've no one's ever done this in Asia before. And I thought we'd better make it work.
We knew that there was a bunch of stuff which had worked for Techstars in Boulder, Colorado, and we figured out what was interesting about that was, if I get the dates right, I think Y Combinator started in 2006 and I think Techstars was 2007, if I'm correct, those are the right years and Y Combinator is a very special thing. It still is. It's in a very special place. Singapore is a special place but we thought to ourselves, well, if Techstars can make it work in Boulder, which is basically a university town, you might know about a hundred thousand people, most of whom are old and very rich and a bunch of students, and a nice mountain. We thought, well, if they can make it, we're there, and then we can probably make it work in Singapore. So we thought we'd give it a go. I'm very grateful to the investors who backed us, and the sponsors too. Couldn't have done it without them.
Jeremy Au: (06:21)
And yeah, I always remember that, I was like, oh, you're joining the JFDI, and what does JFDI mean? Apparently, that does not mean Joyful Frog Digital Incubator. Could you share a little bit more about that?
Hugh Mason: (06:33)
Yeah. So if anyone hasn't heard the story before what happened was we were trying to think of a name for the business and we came up with JFDI, which you might know in the west stands for, just effing do it. And we thought, well, that's a great spirit of entrepreneurship thing. So the first test we thought of, well, let's see if ACRA, the company name registry here in Singapore. Let's see if they let us have JFDI. And they did. And then we said to ourselves, well, if we are gonna tell people that we are gonna help them raise money in a hundred days for their startup, then we have to raise money in a hundred days or otherwise we're totally bogus. And on day 94, we got an offer from a government-linked fund and we thought to ourselves, they're gonna ask us tomorrow at this meeting, right? Well, what does JFDI stand for?
And we've been for dinner in Geylang, which for those who are listening overseas, you may not know, it's the kind of official red light area of Singapore. So it's full of exciting nightlife, and one of the interesting things, it's also full of great food and there's a fantastic shop. There's a tutu frog porridge shop called the Eminent Frog Porridge Shop, which is very famous. And as we drove past, it just pops into my head and I thought, oh, let's tell them it stands for Joyful Frog Digital Incubator. Like one of those weird four-character Chinese phrases that all the kids have to learn at school here, and then we got some friends who were Chinese scholars to translate JFDI into Chinese characters. I can't remember the exact translation, but it stands for something like an eminence tadpole helping an organization or something, and the actual characters sort of sound like JFDI. It was a very clever translation by someone. So, people who actually know Chinese, who look at our logo, they go, oh, very wise.
But actually, after a while, we discovered that it was a very appropriate name for an accelerator. First of all, when we were talking about the business model, if you're going to invest in startups, I'm sure you've experienced this too, Jeremy. You've got to spawn a lot of tadpoles and you know that most of them are going to die. I think most people would say with a venture fund, even not later stage investments than we were doing, even with a venture fund in out of 10 investments, you're probably going to get one or two hits if you're lucky. That's what's gonna return the fund. The rest, unfortunately, you're not going to make it and if you invest earlier than the VC stage, if you're investing as we were, if you're investing pre-seed, the hit rate is gonna be much lower. And later on, 500 startups set up Dave McClure's original organization and their philosophy was basically, look, this is a numbers game.
We need to back a big portfolio and one or two, we'll make it. And that's been true for us. It's been fascinating, actually. Now 10 years on, we can see some results and I appreciate, we're skipping forwards and backwards in time here, but if you actually look at the numbers for Y Combinator and you look at the numbers for Techstars and you look at the numbers for every other accelerator that's worked in scale, we've done pretty much as well or as bad as all of them. So out of our 70 startups, 50% made it to seized investments. So in Singapore, at the time, that was about 300, 500 US thousand dollars. And then of those seed-funded startups, about 20% went on to make it to series A. So the total number of, and then some of those have really grown. So out of the entire portfolio of 70 that we invested in, we might have one possible unicorn that's silent eight. It's doing extremely well. We also have Glint, which I know your firm put money into too. So thank you very much to you and Peng for taking over the reins and helping those guys. Fantastic team. And so out of the total portfolio, 70, I suppose there are about five or six hits, we've had about two or three significant exits already. So, yeah, that's my son's education paid for, which is great. And many jobs were created and a lot of fun was had.
But I think it is, I mean, the conclusion I've come to, and I think the academic research shows this, is that a well-run accelerated does make a difference. But one of the ways it makes a difference is by attracting great talent. In other words, it's the aggregation of great talent and the community you build around an accelerator that may be more important than any kind of process. So there isn't a magic selection process to pick out winners, and we can talk about that if you want. And there isn't a magic process for ensuring success either. So, yeah, a lot was learned, and fascinating. I mean, I've really enjoyed the last 10 years trying to figure out what do we do. What did we do wrong? I'm happy to chew that over with you if it's the way you wanna take this conversation.
Jeremy Au: (10:40)
So what did you do right?
Hugh Mason: (10:43)
I think we created a community. Instinctively our urge was to bring people together. If you think of trying to get chemical reactions to happen, you kind of put some molecules in a box and shake it and try and bang them into each other. And I, looking back, yes, we ran seven accelerator cohorts with a hundred-day program, typical textiles type. But we also ran every Friday night, 300 open house events and I know for a fact that something like 10,000 people met at those events. I know that two or three marriages occurred because of that. I think one of the things we always believe was that it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to raise a startup. So I think we created a village.
Jeremy Au: (11:25)
And I think communities are hard, right? Because there are a lot of ways to make it go wrong, to be honest. I don't know. It feels like everybody's trying to create a community as well. I think two years ago is the hottest thing. Everyone's talking about community building. So what's your take on, I guess the trend or why people get it right and why people get it wrong?
Hugh Mason: (11:45)
I think it needs to be done out of authenticity for a start. And trying to proactively build a community around a brand and put the brand at the centre, I think isn't gonna work. I mean, one of the things that Meng and I explicitly did when we set up JFDI was to avoid having ourselves at the centre of it. At one point I think I was asked if I was nominated to be Asian of the Year, Entrepreneur of the Year, or some bullshit, and I turned that down. I thought that will be the kiss of death for this. I mean, number one, I don't deserve this. Number two, that will set me up as some kind of guru in the middle of all of this. And that just isn't the case. It's the community that builds itself. And I think one of the very first things Meng and I did was actually, you might find this bizarre, we went to the Wikipedia page for religion, because we ended up thinking what's entrepreneurship closest to? It's like faith, right? So what do all faiths have? And in the Wiki, we took the first sort of 200 words of the Wikipedia definition of religion and broke it down into bits.
And every religion has a kind of weekly thing where you all get together. So we thought we have to have that. That's like our open house event. There's gotta be some kind of initiation ceremony and there's gotta be some kind of graduation thing, and they physically have to be some kind of temple, synagogue, whatever. People have to, if you're trying to help people believe in the intangible there, it really helps to have a tangible place. And it was Meng. I have to give Meng full credit for this. He was very keen that we should have a very physical center. Even back then in 2011 and 2012, people were saying, oh, this could all be virtual. You could meet up once a week or something and have dinner. I think that's what Paul Graham was doing at the time with Y Combinator and our view was that the ecosystem is too early for that here. There is not enough tacit knowledge in the air. There isn't enough structure in the community.
We need this time in community development to create a physical place where people come together. So to answer your question, I think, authenticity and understanding the context in which you're operating. I mean, several times now I've written articles about whether there is a universal formula for a good accelerator or venture builder or something like that. And I think the answer is no, there isn't. There probably isn't any universal formula for an ideal community either. It's very dependent on context contingent on the academics.
Jeremy Au: (14:00)
You mentioned authenticity and I think that's a tricky part for every community builder because the community is self-organized to some extent, at a tribal level, or family. And then I think as you mentioned, churches are authentic and they are around their faith. There's a bunch of economics that goes into it. They still have to pay rent and salaries and so, so forth. They need volunteers, and I think there's this broader push, right? Corporate push to build communities, right? So Nike, Adidas or Reebok, or Airbnb. So I think a lot of startups are really building this concept of community as a, and I've seen this unfair advantage as a competitive differentiation. There's a bit of a tool-like adjunct to it. So I'm just curious about how far can you push it? How far can you build or do it in a way?
Hugh Mason: (14:47)
Well, thank you. For anyone who wants to build a community, I'd advise them to look in great depth into the kind of anthropology about why communities come together. The classic example is, I was invited yesterday to become I think it's called Neeva, something like that. It's an independent search engine, and they've just set up a sort of Slack channel, tada! The community and the community manager wrote to me and said, would I join it? I think it's quite a good product. So I said, sure, I'll log on. And I and I went there and I thought, oh, why am I here? I don't know. Okay. I'm not coming back. Nothing. It's a great product, but there is no concept. There's no reason for me to be part of that community.
On the other hand, I've now got a little bit more time on my hands, and I've been rediscovering a hobby from my teens. I used to be a radio hammer. I learned my morse code when I was 14 years old. And in the last few weeks, I've started building radios again. I built one yesterday and I'm part of a community there which is a bit like stack exchange. It's a sort of place where people have got problems with the electronics, they're building swap ideas. I came up with a block yesterday, posted something, and within two hours I had suggestions from around the world, which worked. So I think there's a reason for me to come together.
I think what a community is not is, it's not like a t-shirt that you can just drape over an old body and turn yourself into a supermodel. It's something that has to come. There has to be a reason. And in the case of when I knew that we, I'll tell you this story, when I knew we got it right for JFDI, but basically we used to have these open house events and one Friday I looked around and there was this Chinese uncle there about sort of 60 something and he was looking a bit sad, and I asked him, what's brought you along? Why are you here? Almost with tears in his eyes, he said to me, I wish I'd had this. And he was looking around the room. I wish I'd had this 30 years ago when I set up my business. My father told me I would fail. My mother told me that only rich men start businesses. My brother told me, how can you be so selfish when you fail? I will have to feed your children. It'll bring shame on our family. This guy 's a multimillionaire and he said, I wish I'd had this. I think so at that time, I'm not saying it would be right to do it that way, or it would be the right thing to do now, but we very much didn't want to own that community. We just knew that as entrepreneurs ourselves, it had been a very lonely experience at times. And we wanted to bring people together. There was a weird moment when I knew that we'd done the right thing. About 2015, there was this thing I was invited to here which is a presidential palace for those listening overseas. It was called the Founders Forum. It had all of these people along there, politicians, investment bankers and whatever. Meng and I were invited and we realized that there were no founders. It was all people talking about entrepreneurship, not entrepreneurs.
The prime minister of Singapore stood up and he gave a speech and told everyone about the Sudoku solving program that he'd written because he's actually a bit of a geek in the choir. He's a Math grad, people might know. He talked about how he really enjoyed writing this piece of code, and Meng and I looked at each other and they all went in for dinner. Eduardo Saverin was the guest speaker. That's right. And we looked at each other and we said, we don't belong here, do we? This is not our tribe. And we walked out as all the guests went into the start. We just thought, let's see if we can walk down through the ground, see if any of the security guards stop us. And they didn't. So we walked right through the grounds. It was about a month after Lee Kuan Yew had passed away, and we were thinking to ourselves that Lee Kuan Yew must have walked here many times thinking about the ecosystem he was building, looking out over the city.
And actually, maybe we've done our job, and at that time I think we knew that it was time to bring our part of the party to an end. It took another year to sort of wrap it up. We stopped accelerating at the end of 2015. But yeah, it was a really interesting moment. We got down to the bottom of The Istana, walked by Plaza Singapore, and waved at security guards and nobody asked us what we were doing. We were just like, gone. So I thought it was that moment. We thought that was actually, that's our job here. What's great now is I mentor lots of fantastic students at NUS. I'm an entrepreneur resident there. There's a whole generation of young entrepreneurs in Singapore who have no idea who we were or what we did and I think that's fantastic. I wasn't looking to be a hero or a guru or anything out of this. I'm just really delighted to have seen the ecosystem grow, and of course, it didn't start with us. I've got to put in a name check here for Wong Poh Kam, and the folk who set up Banksy are the grandparents of the startup ecosystem here in Singapore. Meng and I just happened to be, at that moment, contributors to it along with many others. It was an enjoyable time. It was a party for five years basically.
Jeremy Au: (19:07)
Yeah. You said something important about, do you belong to the tribe, right? Or do you not? And you shared that early on that you also have been reflecting on the things that you could have done better. How do you reflect on that?
Hugh Mason: (19:21)
That's a really good question. I mean, when I look back on JFDI and knowing what I know now, I know what an accelerator is and it's very interesting at the beginning of this conversation, you kind of asked me, what were you building? What were you doing? One of the big questions for us in the first two years running JFDI is, what is this accelerator thing? Are we providing a service to investors? In which case, why aren't they paying us? Are we creating a deal flow for investors? Are we working for entrepreneurs? And I think the first generation of accelerators, that's a fundamental problem with the business model is it's not clear. You are actually a platform business. This is the way I would analyze it now. And of course, platforms were only emerging around this time, 10 years ago.
The concept of what a platform business actually is and, and how its dynamics work. Every platform business has a core transaction, with ride-sharing, hailing taxis and it has a series of stakeholders around it. YouTube has a core transaction of uploading and downloading videos. In our case, the core transaction was the creation of investment readiness, in a startup. And there were a group of interested stakeholders around that, about five or six different stakeholders, investors, the entrepreneurs themselves, their own staff universities or a bunch of different people around it. And the question is very obvious. In fact, academic research now shows that you create a lot of value as an accelerator if you do it well. The problem is how do you capture it? It's like one of those classic platform businesses where you're creating lots of value for people, but how are you actually capturing it to make yourself sustainable? So it's been interesting to see that evolve since and I think if I was doing it all over again, so how would I say I would do it?
I would, number one, focus on one vertical because the hard part is not actually running the accelerator program. It's difficult to get great talent to apply and there's some organization involved in getting investment together and everything, but the hard part is when they graduate, can you actually get them to first revenue quickly? And if you are an accelerator that just offers sort of generic get-your-act-together as a startup sort of advice, that's okay. But what's great is if you can also get people to first reference customers, stuff like that, particularly for deep tech companies, they really, really need that. So I think, a sector specialism would really help.
A second thing that would've really helped would be a more effective way of recycling talent. You put a lot of energy into getting to know people, seeing how they actually behave under pressure and everything. There was quite an efficient process that happened in our startups. The startups that didn't get funded at the end of the accelerator ended up hiring the good people, who had, sorry, the end of the funds who didn't get funded ended up getting hired by the people who did. That was quite useful in the ecosystem at the time. But I think I would have a sect specialism and I would also have a much more rigorous direction to the whole thing. We ran a classic accelerator where you go out, and ask for people to apply their own ideas. If you narrow it in, if you do that inherently you get a very diverse mix of people coming in. I think if we'd been more like a venture studio is what I would do now if I were doing it. So I basically say, we're going to have this industry focus. We are going to own if not a majority, then a certainly a very significant chunk of each startup. You need to capture more value from the startups, basically. It's just not possible, to run an accelerator in any sensible way when you're spending 60% of the money that you raise on costs, and everybody does that. If you look at the numbers from Techstars, you look at the numbers from 500 startups, everybody does that. It costs 60% of the money you raise because you're delivering intangibles, you're delivering training and education. You need to recoup that because only at the preceding stage, only one in 50 companies is going to be a real hit.
We should also talk about selection. So the biggest thing I would do overall, and we started to get this right by the end of the accelerator, is to get selection.There was a period about two years in, and I vividly remembered it. Serguei Netessine, one of the professors at INSEAD, was very supportive of what we were doing. And I walked over to have a beer with him one evening, a bit depressed cause we put together this graph with the kind of score we gave all the startups on the way and then their success on the way out. It was like this blizzard, snowstorm, a classic kind of zero correlation of me. And I showed it to him and he pissed himself laughing. And he said you know what? I did exactly the same thing for INSEAD's Ph.D. recruitment last week. He'd got exactly the same snowstorm. Again, a score from the committee on the way in and actually be a performance as academics down career. And the two of us came to the conclusion that there was something in trying to find a selection process, a filter that magically would filter out the stars that we were fundamentally doing something wrong. And strangely, through, through a bizarre coincidence, about a week later, I was at a dinner party and I ended up sitting opposite this guy who'd had the job of selecting Navy Seals in the US.
And I said to him, so like the first day of basic military training, you get these raw guys in, how do you figure out who's gonna be the commandos? Who's gonna be the seals? And he said, well, the military learned hundreds of years ago, you can't do that. So what you actually have to do is you have to give people a series of experiences through which they self-select and through which they grow the psychological, physical, emotional, and intellectual commitment to being a commando. So commandos are made by themselves and by their training, they're not born. Some people are born with a propensity for it, but they don't just emerge fully-formed. So I think one of the things I learned there with an accelerator is, the fundamental idea of trying to pick winners from the beginning is meaningless. And I think again if you look at the academic research, it is fascinating. There is no consistent journey. You must have seen this with your portfolios. There is no consistent journey from someone thinking, I want to be an entrepreneur, or I want to do this idea to build a successful business. In fact, there's been some fascinating work done on these huge, what they call panel studies. So they basically randomly sample 10,000 people and then they come back a year later and they say, hey guys, did you start a business? And obviously out of 10,000 people some people will have started the business. And you find when you do those and you do some tests at each of the two stages, you find that quite a lot of people make the decision to become an entrepreneur and start a business before they found an opportunity.
So the model that many people have in their head, the very sort of classic economic model that, well entrepreneurs identify an opportunity and then they go and exploit it. You know that I mean, that might be true if you are digging up nuggets of gold. If you know there's a nugget of gold under your feet, probably you'd go for it and dig it. But a lot of the time entrepreneurship happens because of a group of stakeholders who've come together. And I realize now, again, going back to the community, that's to me why community is so important. You are putting the molecules in a box and you're shaking it. And all around the world. I think that's been across cultures that have been shown to be the case. And of course, it's a bit of a problem for us here in Singapore. Cause here in Singapore we like templates, we like work, we like structures, we like models, and everything else. We like pipelines. That's why we live in a wonderful, organized, clean, safe city, and that's not what entrepreneurship, was about. Entrepreneurship is messy, disorganized, random, and hit-driven. You can nudge the odds in your favour, but it's always going to be a statistical thing, at least, unless you guys, maybe you found the formula. What's it like at your firm? Maybe you found the formula.
Jeremy Au: (26:39)
No, it's tough. It’s exactly like you said. I think the easier part is that, if they already raise a couple of million dollars over two rounds, they've built a company product market fit. Then to some extent, there's more data in terms of picking and then you're looking at the category. Like you said, if you're a first round of funding as an accelerator, you have a bunch of people presenting themselves the whole of themselves and that's it. Maybe some ideas or some early metrics. But you said, it's hard, right?
Hugh Mason: (27:06)
I mean, the analogy I gave to someone the other day was like, and I have several friends who've done this. Imagine you sort of set out and say, I am going to go and find myself a wife or a husband, and I want to optimize the parties I go to, so I'm only going to go to the parties where I think I'm gonna meet a husband or a wife and to some extent that strategy works. But in terms of a lifelong commitment where you're unsure about where the thing's gonna go, you just can't optimize it like that. And the thing, the long discussions we had at JFDI was about the contrast between efficiency and effectiveness, and early stages, not efficient. It's a bit like you're going into a kindergarten and you think, well, why don't these kids just sit down and learn English and Chinese, why don't they come out? And in one year we could blitz them through, we could hothouse them through a process that would get them up to speed and then they'd be very successful in life. Well, you can do that, but then you end up kind of crippling them in all sorts of other ways, and you end up buying and producing a uniform identity kit set of hothoused kids who then have emotional problems later in life.
And I think the same is true with startups, and you look at corporates trying to sort of, brew startups in a consistent way internally. It certainly doesn't work to put on t-shirts and eat pizza and, rah, rah rah, let's all pretend to be startups for a day. That doesn't work and it also doesn't work to try and take people who fundamentally have chosen to be employees and say magically, ta-da, you are now going to run your own businesses. That doesn't work either. So I think there is a challenge here with everyone trying to set up accelerators as the, you might think as the decades gone by since we did our stuff, accelerators might be much more efficient now. Well, they're actually not. First of all, the ecosystems changed. So what fits that ecosystem is totally different now than it was 10 years ago. And secondly, actually, the underlying processes of dealing with startups are like dealing with kids at kindergarten. And there's something there if, I don't know if I can take the conversation in a slightly different direction here, one of the things that came out from me out of all of this was, what the hell was this all about? I actually started a Ph.D. about two years ago. I'm looking at the process of the conversations that go on when companies pivot, cause I saw that as being a critical moment for the startups that we deal with.
What is actually happening? Why did some of that work with JFDI and out of my 30 years of experience as an entrepreneur? Why is some of it worked and some of it bonded? And I'm pleased to say that there is no great answer in the academic literature. I'm also humble enough to say that I don't think I'm going to find that great answer, but I do think we are making progress. And the reason someone asked me the other day, Hugh, it’s very indulgent of you to do this Ph.D. It's a typical old man thing to do. I said to him, well, the thing is, I think that entrepreneurship is actually what we need to solve the difficult, wicked problems of climate change and all the other challenges that we face, that the ability to deal with ambiguity and to create a desired result despite the fact that you don't control the resolve, the resources, and you don't understand the future, that is entrepreneurship. If dealing with the future was like building another hotel or starting another legal firm, then the MBAs would already have done it, but they can’t, right?
In fact, the MBAs have messed up the, no disrespect to those excellent Harvard graduates like yourself, Jeremy, present company accepted. So I think we need an approach that's much more comfortable dealing with ambiguity, and that's what entrepreneurship is. So the analogy I would make is with the sort of electrical engineering industry in the 1850s, 1860s, at that time people were kind of tinkering with electricity and they were starting to put lighting into people's houses and things, but it wasn't very good and the houses would burn down a lot of the time, and then something happened between about 1870 and 1890, the electrical engineering industry became professionalized, and suddenly there was a whole load of theory backing up the practice and the tinker if you look back at the literature, people doing telegraph and things, they really resented the professionalization of engineering.
But as a result of that, we ended up with the 20th century and all the great things, that the electrical engineering industry brought us. And I'm not saying that we should reduce entrepreneurship to a formula. I'm not saying that entrepreneurship will end up like electrical engineering. I think it will actually be much more like design. And that's another conversation we can have. But I do think we are at a very interesting time when the importance of entrepreneurship has been realized. Centrality to a more sustainable future is, is fairly clear and we are starting to understand the kind of processes. And you asked me earlier what makes a community work, but didn't give a terribly clear answer cause we're still learning. I certainly am. But I'm fascinated by the fact that we are starting to make sense of it. And I think that's something you are interested in too.
Jeremy Au: (31:39)
I'm definitely interested in that. It really resonates with me because medicine used to be for quackery, as you said. They used to sell, I mean the definition of snake oil salesman was because they thought that the snake oil will make you healthy right? So a doctor and snake oil are the same. Same with leeching and bloodletting and oof a lot of stuff.
Hugh Mason: (32:00)
And people would say, oh, this guy's a good doctor 'cause he has a good bedside manner. He speaks well, and there's a fantastic book. By the way, if anyone has never read great Influenza, it's the sort of definitive history of the 1918 flu. I read it when I was in isolation as one of Singapore's first Covid victims. And it was fascinating cause it's not really about the 1918 flu. It's really about the evolution of medicine between about 1890 and sort of 1930. It's really the story of some of the pioneers who for totally confused what is this influenza thing that's killing millions of people. And of course, at that time they didn't know about viruses. They knew about germs, and they were desperately looking for, well, where's the infectious agent that's causing this great influenza.
And it was confusing because actually what would happen is people would get sick with a thing that we now know is a viral infection, and then they'd seem to recover, and then two weeks later they'd die from a bacterial infection. And we now know that was a post-bacterial infection. And in fact, we could cure it nowadays, probably if the lung damage wasn't too bad. But it was fascinating to see that this has happened in other fields. And I'm in a very small way. Your boss asked, why are you doing a Ph.D., Hugh? What's the point? And the answer is I'm fascinated to try and understand what is the basic process going on here. Why does this work? Why does this sometimes not work? So that's starting to emerge. And when I get the answer, I'm going to text you. I'll put it in. 140 characters.
Jeremy Au: (33:23)
I think they expanded to 280.
Hugh Mason: (33:26)
Ah, easy. Next year then.
Jeremy Au: (33:28)
There we go. So on that note, could you share a time when you personally were brave?
Hugh Mason: (33:34)
I think the very first company I say was this TV production company and like most entrepreneurs, I blundered into it. I was an entrepreneur by accent. I was a filmmaker first making science films for Discovery, National Geographic, people like that, and BBC. And in 2001, I'd allowed a situation to develop where 80% of our revenue came from Discovery Channel in the US and anyone who was around at that time, they'll know that Discovery went from like two networks to 145 networks in three or four years, all on the back of bullshit VC money. So all of that kind of stupid VC-funded, vehicles that were crazy at the time all basically raised a load of VC money and then they spent it on TV advertising to try and get the clicks up cause that's what people were measuring at the time. Then, they went bust. And so the DotCom crash happened in, was it April 2001? I think. And the NASDAQ just crashed within a week, and it took another two or three weeks for the same to happen in Britain. But anyway, as the NASDAQ crashed in the US and Discovery realized that their advertising revenue was also crashing, and they basically phoned me up and said you know what, you know all those contracts we've got with you? Well, we're pulling them, and you are a small firm in the UK and we're a large firm in the US so what are you gonna do about it? Like swivel, so I always think of that as my MBA. So, thank you Discovery for teaching me that international contracts actually have absolutely zero meaning whatsoever, and it's only when you get paid money in the bank, that's what actually counts. So we nearly went bust. Everybody got paid. But it was the most stressful year of my life apart from becoming a dad, and I realized, and I had to sack the whole staff. The minute they pulled the money, I knew that I got a staff for 35 people and I just said, guys, I'm so sorry.
And there, any knowledge, there were people whose wives were pregnant and stuff like that. And I realize now that part of being an entrepreneur is learning how to start businesses and part of it is learning how to end businesses. There's a great writer on entrepreneurship called Saras Sarasvathy, and she talks about entrepreneurship in terms of you being a pilot in a plane, you are in control and like pilots in a plane, you need to land the aircraft safely. If you're running out of fuel or an engine breaks or something like that, crashing the plane is not a good thing, right? And generally speaking, in a business, there is no reason to crash and burn. You need to minimize the collateral damage. So we used to run a session at JFDI on closing business. And it's, I think for many entrepreneurs, the moment when you have to be brave. You're coping with other people's emotions, you're coping with your own. I had to help a friend through this in November. He'd asked me to go and help him get his business ready to sell. When I looked at the books, I said, I'm sorry you are Gabby and Solvent in January. You need to lay off your staff this week. That was incredibly painful. If you're gonna breed chickens, you need to learn how to kill chickens. That's what the business is about. And business is the same.
So yeah, I think I was taught to be brave about businesses, not heartless, but taught to be brave at that time. So maybe, the moment of bravery for me was not just closing that business, it was actually getting back on the bike afterwards. I'd fallen off the bike and I got back on and started my next business. Maybe that was the moment. I'd say that for anyone who's feeling vulnerable and alone, my takeaway for you is don't be alone. Be part of the community. Find friends who you're not competing with. Find people who you can talk to, who know exactly what it's like. That means other entrepreneurs. Nobody else can tell you, only other entrepreneurs. And if you need to close the business, close it. Close it with grace. Try and help people move on. Move on yourself. Don't get hung up on it. Very difficult to do with your first business, but essential if you want to actually help the world move on as well as yourself. So that's my story of bravery.
Jeremy Au: (37:08)
That's so true. The tricky part, as you said, is that one out of fifty will be a hit, right? You were talking about it from a selection of accelerator perspective, but from an individual founder perspective, 50 out of 50 feel invulnerable at the start of it, because I remember I felt, I was like, oh, I've heard about the odds. I was thinking to myself, I got an 80% chance of crushing it.
Hugh Mason: (37:33)
Nobody talks about the crap business that Bill Gates tried to start before he started Microsoft. Nobody talks about the total failure that Henry Ford had before he set up the Ford Motor Company. And when you go to people's LinkedIn profiles, you find that all of that kinds of shitty, stupid startup ideas magically, they're not there on the LinkedIn profile. People don't usually list those things. But that's when you learn, the universe has a harsh way, but also a very thorough way of teaching us. And you learn so much more when things don't work than when they do. And that's why I'm focusing on pivoting my research. It seems to me the moment when the truth emerges.
Jeremy Au: (38:08)
And when you're sitting with a founder who's kind of going through that tough time, and I think so many founders who are like, I mean, what needs to be done has to be done. But they'll say three months or six months when it's super confusing. Because you're like, I think I got it. My investors tell me I kind of got it, but I'm not sure. And then, and it's really muddled, right?
Hugh Mason: (38:31)
Yeah. You've been there, too.
Jeremy Au: (38:34)
Yeah. So, how do you sit through with the founder, through ethnicity? How do you coach them or how do you guide them through some of that?
Hugh Mason: (38:42)
So that actually is the subject of my Ph.D. research. That's why I started the Ph.D. Exactly that. I thought to myself as a mentor, here I am, I'm not quite in the same situation as a psychotherapist where someone's sanity and mental health, but you are people's mental health. People's lives depend on this. People's marriages, people's relationships. There's a short answer to it and a long answer to it. The short answer to it is that I think what we do as entrepreneurs is to try to control aspects of the world. We try to make the world the way we want it to be and sometimes that involves conflicted objectives.
So for example, if an investor is saying to you, hey, I want to see you actually generate some profit next quarter, and the investor is also saying, hey, I want to see you like boosting signups, right? The quickest way to boost signups is to reduce the price, right? Simple economics tells us that the simplest way to make more profit is to try and milk more money out of the customers, right? That you've already got. So those two things are in conflict. So, if you are stuck at that level of thinking, of those operational parameters, you can't reframe the business. And the key, I think to go through a pivot, all the research shows this, and I don’t know if it resonates with your experience, is that reframing is absolutely critical. I'm gonna put something which our viewers on video will be able to enjoy. And for those of you listening in audio, I'll have to describe. So I'm holding up a little box here and I'm holding it sideways and it looks like a line. Look at it from this diagram dimension, it looks like a line, but if I look at it and I turn it through 90 degrees, now it looks like a rectangle, same box, but it's reframed, right?
And so I think the process that we go through, I think my theory that I'm trying to explore through my Ph.D. is that when we are stuck on the level of operational activities or the immediate stuff that's in front of us, we can't see that big picture and reframe the business. And pivoting is all about reframing. And if there is no way to reframe the business, then the reframing is that, now's a good time to close down and move on. You're still a talented person. You've created some wealth, we've learned something here. Let's move on to the next one. But the key to it all is reframing what you are trying to understand, trying to control and trying to understand where that's in conflict, and then reframing things to remove the conflict. That's at the heart of it.
Jeremy Au: (41:03)
Wow. Thank you so much for sharing. I'd love to summarize the three big takeaways I got from this. First of all, I just really enjoyed the origin story of how you started and founded the JFDI accelerator all the way at the beginning, like you said, over 10 years ago, right at the start of the ecosystem. And I thought it was really interesting to hear the small details. Like you said about the exact date that you launched during Chinese New Year for auspiciousness all the way, I think, to the lessons that you learned right along the way about what it means to build, to think about the business model and also, some of the mistakes that you made, right? And that you learned from, over time.
The second of course, I really enjoyed was, I think really this I don't know what you call it, council or advice. And I think I can't summarize this, like still just fucking do it, which is, like, you know about what it takes to build the perseverance that you need and how you exhibit it in your own life. But also the own personal stories of, the hard decisions that founders had to make. For example, starting businesses with ending businesses, about communicating about fundraising. And I thought there was a lot of tremendous amount of insight.
Lastly, I really enjoyed your point of view on choosing a tribe, and I think it was interesting because you talked about it from two-way angles, right? The first, of course, is as a person who's joining a tribe, by building radios, right? Versus joining other communities. But also you talked about it more explicitly from choosing your tribe from what you call it, I guess you hate to call it top down, but maybe from the early builder perspective, right? In terms of like, is the value from the selection, is the value from the scoring? Is the value from the curation, is the value from the training and thoughts really, I think contrarian belief, to be honest, that, you're saying that, at the end of the day, it's more about what you're forcing people to learn rather than picking winners at this early stage. And I thought there was some good advice for community builders and founders and for other folks in the ecosystem as well. So on that note, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Hugh Mason: (42:53)