Mohan Belani: Founding e27 & Echelon, Media Business Myths & Angel & Orvel VC Investing Journey - E442

· Podcast Episodes English,Creators,Singapore,Southeast Asia

 

“One clear misconception is that it's very hard to make money in media and events. Yes, it is challenging to scale, but when done right, they can be extremely profitable. I've advised some founders to build an event layer into their businesses because the impact, visibility, and revenue it provides can be quite significant. This aspect shouldn't be ignored. Of course, it needs to be executed well; the experience you provide to your online user base must translate effectively to offline events.” - Mohan Belani

 

“If we take a step back, the first realization is that there are very clear and straightforward revenue models for building companies like ours. We could have focused much more on these early on, rather than trying to be different. Making money from lead generation, content marketing, and events are proven methods. In the early days, everyone wanted to innovate with new ideas and models, but the truth is, for companies like us, there are specific models that work well. There are ways to build these models and make them strong from the start. These are areas I wish we had doubled down on earlier.” - Mohan Belani

 

“I'm always on the lookout for funds where the General Partners (GPs) are deeply invested in the local ecosystem. They have everything at stake to ensure they invest locally and help build up the local market. Because they have boots on the ground and money locally, they have a very strong vested interest in making it work. Unlike regional funds where, for example, the Philippines, Thailand, or Vietnam might only represent a 20% mandate, these local funds focus exclusively on their specific markets, which is critical for me. Secondly, understanding a VC's trajectory through their Fund 2 and Fund 3 gives insight into their growth perspective. I tend to stay away from VCs aiming to raise much larger funds early on. I prefer VCs that are more interested in maintaining smaller funds, operating exclusively in one market, and working closely with founders from the early stages.” - Mohan Belani

Mohan Belani, Cofounder & CEO of e27, and Jeremy Au talked about three main themes:

1. Founding e27 & Echelon: Mohan discussed his early career decisions as a computer engineering undergraduate with the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) program, failed founder and startup executive. He shared how he juggled his studies and his founding role in e27, often receiving warning letters for his grades. He and his co-founder Thaddeus faced significant challenges, including resetting the brand, cleaning up the cap table, and attracting investors from Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, and Indonesia between 2012 and 2013​​​​. Despite these challenges, e27 has developed into a leading player in the region’s tech ecosystem.

2. Media Business Myths: Mohan highlighted the profitability potential of media and events businesses, despite common misconceptions. He emphasized avoiding vanity metrics and focusing on real ROI. During the COVID-19 pandemic, e27 pivoted from physical events to online channels, resulting in significant growth in media and webinar revenues from 2021 to 2023. This strategic shift resulted in the three best years in the company’s history. He also discussed the tough decisions, such as canceling events instead of postponing them and making hard choices around salaries and compensation. He underscored the importance of navigating partnerships with government agencies, which often have different operating metrics and objectives compared to for-profit companies.

3. Angel & Orvel VC Investing Journey: Mohan recounted the lessons learned from his 30 angel investments that begun in 2013. He shared how founding Orvel Ventures with Milan Reinartz and Jeremy Au required a new systematic approach to evaluating companies, including analyzing gross margins and exit opportunities. His experience as an LP in funds like Golden Gate Ventures and Rebel Fund provided insights into the importance of localized GPs and focused investment strategies. He also stressed the need for funds to support local ecosystems and avoid overly ambitious scaling plans.

Jeremy and Mohan also talked about effective onboarding practices, the evolution of the tech ecosystem in Southeast Asia and the use of OKRs to plan and assess personal and professional progress.

Supported by Evo Commerce!

Evo Commerce sells premium affordable supplements and personal care electronics, operating in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Stryv brand sells salon-grade quality products for home use and using direct-to-consumer channels through its online retail channels and physical shops. bback is the leader in hangover remedies in over 2,000 retail outlets across the region. Learn more at bback.co and stryv.co

(01:27) Jeremy Au:

Hey Mohan, how are you?

(01:28) Mohan Belani:

Hey morning, thanks for having me, man.

(01:30) Jeremy Au:

Yeah, finally. I mean, we've been friends for quite a while now. Here I see you popping up on somebody else's podcast first.

(01:36) Mohan Belani:

I just I just did one yesterday. Yeah, it took a while to set this up. So so glad we finally made it happen.

(01:41) Jeremy Au:

Okay. Okay. I'll take it. I'll take it. Okay. Finally here, I'm excited to kind of like, share your journey more folks.

(01:47) Jeremy Au:

Mohan, could you share a little bit about yourself?

(01:48) Mohan Belani:

Yeah, so, full name is Mohan Belani. I started. I was a part of the team that started e27 back in the early days of the tech ecosystem. So I've been running that for a while. I had a gaming company called Gokil Games that started, took off which was trying to raise capital, but decided to shut it down and talk a bit more about that later.

I spent some time doing BD and Make 33, LittleLives, Edutech company. So if any of you in Singapore use, have kids in kindergarten, you would have definitely used the app, right? And then kick off my angel investing journey in 2013 and then back about two years ago, started Or vel Ventures together with Milan and yourself. So been very fortunate to play a fun role in the early stages of the tech ecosystem and contribute to it in some way.

(02:25) Jeremy Au:

You went to National University of Singapore back as an undergraduate, you were doing a bachelor's in computer engineering. You're part of the NUS overseas colleges, like the NOC batch network. Could you share a little bit more about what you were like as an undergraduate?

(02:38) Mohan Belani:

Yeah, so I started this like from an educational journey standpoint, I wanted to be heavy into tech potentially wanting to join a big company or a government or the typical Singaporean pathway, right? I didn't know anything about startups. I read a lot about tech companies growing up. But NOC was the opportunity to do something different plus also take some time off from Singapore. I figured overseas exposure would be helpful, and I didn't want to just do a six month internship kind of thing. So one year there made sense. And then while I was there, of course, the big learning was like, if you really want to change the world and if you really want to solve a big problem, the best way to do it is with fast and nimble team, with resources that allow them to scale the problem regionally or even globally. So that's how the journey started and the company that I joined, I was actually employee number one. So it was just me and the CEO. So on one level it was great because I got to do everything. Everything from joining board meetings, going to events, helping him do marketing sailing out with his VC and all that, so the exposure was quite, quite amazing. On the other side, it was also quite lonely because it was literally just me and him until maybe halfway in where the third person joined. So I didn't get that full, maybe exposure where if you're a 10-man company where you can learn from different functions and teams. So the learnings were limited on some level, but also very impactful because I got to go quite deep.

(03:48) Jeremy Au:

Yeah, amazing. And so there you are and, you decide to take the experience and join a tech ecosystem in the early part of career. Could you share a bit more about that?

(03:57) Mohan Belani:

Yeah. So when I was there I think the one key learning that I had was how to do sales, how to do BD and how to get out more. And I was always a tech guy, and I didn't fully understand the value of networking, meeting people, building relationships. So NUSEA, which is the NUS Entrepreneurship Association that I was at. I was the president for a while, decided to just put myself out there and be in an uncomfortable position, right? So when I came back to Singapore, this was in 2007. So e27 had already been formed as a community locally in NUS. So a lot of the alumni of NOC had started like a community that allowed them to carry on the activities that they're doing in the US events hanging out and working on those kind of things.

So I was like the last entry joiner. And back in that era, the student community was the one that were, being pushed to look into startups, not the corporates or the older communities. So when there was the IGM program, I don't know if you remember that that MDA started, NUS became the one of the appointee incubators, and then they started this incubator at the back of NUS in PGP called Garage. And naturally, NUS basically said, Hey, E27, can you guys do it? And that was the early formation of the company with about, I think 20 of us and then, helping to do ecosystem building activities in the school. And I was again, the last guy that joined. So I did the launch party in Yishak House and then I started getting more involved in the general E27 activities while I was still on as a student on campus.

I remember I had a professor who sat down with me and said, look, don't bother getting A's and all that, just do your bare minimum because if you have a side hustle or a side business you're better off focusing on that instead. So that's what I did. I was juggling E27 ecosystem building work and school work, you just in just making sure I don't screw the school up.

(05:33) Jeremy Au:

Sorry, I'm just wondering what your grades were.

(05:35) Mohan Belani:

It was terrible bare bare minimum. Let's just say I got multiple warning letters. I was on scholarship, right? So I got multiple warning letters and I had to do multiple appeals but it was like the bare minimum just to scrape by.

(05:48) Jeremy Au:

Yeah I totally get it. And you graduated and then you started working at, kind of like multiple companies as well, right? What were your thoughts back then?

(05:54) Mohan Belani:

Yeah, So LittleLives was the company that I was, I worked there for about a year and a half I mean, I liked Edutech and then the founder's son, I think she was really a very inspiring person in wanting to really change the Edutech landscape and make an impact on early-stage education, but more from the aspect of, she started when I was there, more from the aspect on the tooling. So everything from attendance, taking to temperature monitoring and then of course e-portfolios and those kinds of things, to track the development of children. So that was quite, quite an amazing experience because I was selling to an audience that required a lot of education and training. They were really not familiar with basic things like using the iPad or even like logging into systems, right?

So BD was way more than just purely selling. I think that was my big learning on you got to sell, but then you also got to be the, the guy that really helps to make sure that onboarding happens well, support happens well and adoption happens well. So I was regularly contacted by kindergarten teachers and principals right from every little micro product-related issue. I was going to kindergartens all across the country, just training teachers and really helping to convince them that we as a company was supportive of their journey and understanding of the problems, but also making them realize that hey look, you know, you have to learn to adopt tech. And all these new systems and services in order to do the work more, more effectively.

And that, that ended up working quite well. I think there were a couple of hundred PCF kindergartens, right? That were very actively using the solutions. And then now, of course, LittleLivesis a fairly larger company that has done work around the region. So that was my first kind of real, real job if you put it into context that way.

And then the other one is MIG 33. So MIG 33, for those of you who don't know, is a mobile social network back in the feature phone era. And they had very smart features way before anyone, any other networks were doing around stickers and using a peer to peer monetization model, using credits and all that. And they used to target primarily markets like Bangladesh, Nepal, again, where feature phones were big. They were publicly listed in Australia. So my role over there was to basically get the partnership going with Electronic Arts to launch games on the platform. So that was a short contract role for about three months. And I was doing all of this while having the gaming company Gokil Games, that I started. We didn't raise much funding at that point, or any funding at that point. We got some small government grants. So this was a way just to keep things, keep the lights on, have a bit of capital on the side. Cause, don't forget, I started this a year after school, around 2010. Okay. So I didn't have the base savings to help and then when I was raising money for Gokil Games, so Gokil, my main role was product So that's when I started to build tech team in the Philippines. I was going up and down quite often. I was fully handling everything from product. So got the product launched started monetizing it. And then I and I was as I was raising capital for a minute talking to VCs, I realized my passion and interest for it was waning and I just didn't have the gusto. And in my mind, I was thinking, okay, what if, if the next two, three years of my life looks like just launching more games and going to more markets, it just didn't excite me anymore. It didn't feel like meaningful work. Yeah. And that's how then that the VC I was talking to for Gokil Games end up becoming the first angel investor for E27.

(08:46) Jeremy Au:

So what's interesting is that, you obviously go through a massive amount of discovery, right? From my perspective, because after university, you basically did three very different roles. One with mig33, was a social network. One was being a founder of a startup. And I don't want to use it was being, kind of like a consultant and kind of like a second command to a CEO and a founder. And then, you kind of all converged into, making a decision. Can you share more about that decision, which was like working on E27?

(09:11) Mohan Belani:

So this was like late 2011, right? At that point in time, I mean, e27 had a small team of its own. I think there were like four people there. Cap table was a mess because it started with 20 people. Although there was a bit of cleanup along the way, it still was non-functioning cap table. And then, there was really no direction at that point in time. So I decided with my co-founder now, Thaddeus, to come up with a plan for six months. To me, it was a transition work. Let's let's see whether this could make sense for six months, but let's also bring in the new angel investors and get him to sit with us two, three times a week coach us mentor us and let's clean up the cap table And look at the amount of cash in bank and then see what we can do with that So we had about six months of runway to figure that out and Jan 2012 is when we kind of officially started doing that.

I think in the early days It was basically just brand reset, cap table reset, figure out where our role lies in the ecosystem and then, take it step by step. No point planning three years down the road, look at it, okay, what is, what's going to happen within the next six months? And we were quite lucky that the work that we did was of a level that attracted other investors. So that's how we had Japanese investors coming to us saying, Hey, could we invest? The intention really wasn't to raise more capital. It was to look at working with partners that could help us expand to new markets. So we had investors from Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia come in, in late 2012, early 2013 based off the work that we did in the first year. And the, and the, and the high level idea was that can we work with these partners, take some capital from them, but use most of the capital to actually launch new markets in the region.

Or do investments into E27 equivalents in these other markets. I mean that strategy of course didn't work because the challenge was that there were only a few players regionally that were very active and most of the equivalents in the regional markets were, they were either side hustles that people were doing or they had a concentration risk from a revenue standpoint, or it just didn't seem like a very sustainable, viable business. So we had to just unfortunately just do everything ourselves.

(10:55) Jeremy Au:

So what's interesting is that, you've now been handling E27 for effectively 13 years, which is a good chunk of time. And obviously you've seen the tech ecosystem grow from, zero to hero, I guess. What are your reflections on building

(11:09) Mohan Belani:

I mean, so there are multiple areas, right? I think the, if we take a step back, the first part is in realizing that there are very clear revenue models when it comes to building companies like ours that are quite straightforward that we could have doubled down on a lot larger early on rather than try to be different, right? Clearly making money from lead gen, from content marketing, from events, right? I think, I think in the early days, everyone wanted to be different. They wanted to try all this. Let's try to be different. Let's try to have new ideas or new models. But the truth of the matter is for companies like us, they are very specific about new models. And there are ways to build them and also be quite strong with them early on. So those are some of the areas that I wish we had doubled down on early on.

(11:47) Mohan Belani:

The second thing is that, like it or not, and this was a realization that I didn't make early on, but now, of course, it's very apparent. Organizations like us are fairly similar to typically what governments do, and associations that exist, in the region, right? At some point there will be a convergence between the work for profit companies like us do and what the government is trying to achieve, right? The goal here is this, right? You can, you can be more collaborative more partnership driven and try to find win wins for each other while making sure that some level of self control is maintained, right? So on hindsight I think there were areas that or the learning here is that there were parts that maybe we could have done better to build more synergistic relationships and partnerships with all the government agencies around the region because they have a very different mode of operating. They don't have a top line, bottom line related issue to resolve. For them, it's all about using capital, investing in the ecosystem without the need for that capital to be returned back from a profit standpoint, but from an ROI standpoint, right? How many investments, how many jobs and all that. So the way they calculate metrics is a completely different model.

The last part is really with respect to growth and scaling, right? There are clear areas to move into, for example, investments or funds, right? That looking back. Would have been a like now, I think it's very clear that maybe E27 should have started a fund. Maybe we should have started angel syndicates that we could have done much, much earlier on rather than wait to a, to a level where the ecosystem is a much, much more stabilized and mature, right? So, a lot of these that I wanted to do was going to happen around 2020 2019, 2020, but unfortunately, with COVID, it wiped out that entire plan and I had to go back to zero and survival mode and all that, which wasn't helpful to the base that we had built. So I think looking back there were these three things that could have been planned out and could have been better done from the 2012 2020 period that maybe would have put us in a different position today.

(13:34) Jeremy Au:

Yeah. And, you mentioned that the pandemic was a tough time. How was that a tough time? Because, from an outsider's perspective, media, everybody is at home, everybody's reading, the news and stuff like that. So it doesn't seem like a bad time for media. What happened?

(13:47) Mohan Belani:

Yeah, so fundamentally it's because of our revenue model, right? A large chunk of our revenue model was to events, and events being physical operations. That was the first thing to go from a pandemic standpoint. And typically, when you plan events, you do them six months in advance. So for our events in June, we had already started planning them in December and Jan. Sometimes you might incur costs, sometimes you might have collected some level of revenue. So managing that part was problem number one. And if you don't have a, if a last chunk of our revenue was events and we couldn't do events the need to pivot and evolve was very necessary.

I think on hindsight, what we did well is recognize that and I was lucky cause I had a bit of some intel from other sources, but recognize that that there's no point in postponing the events, which is what a lot of the players did. So every major event organizer said, Oh, we'll postpone. We were the only ones that said, no, we'll cancel. And I did get some flak from different agencies and folks in the industry. I think the message I wanted to send to my own team as well, was that we're burning the ships and we have to, we have no other way forward. So we have to, there's no backup plan here. We have to figure out how was it going to work, what the new plan is going to be. Otherwise, we're going to go on. I mean, psychologically, I was very, very pumped by the opportunity to try and do new things, but the truth of the matter, so very, very scared that a lot of it will not work.

And then what happens then? So yes, everyone is home. If you have a pure media-centric business where it's all purely subscriptions, purely content marketing then yes, it will make sense. So that's what we did, right? On one level, we pivoted a lot of our offline revenue channels to online. So our media revenue did extremely well. Our online business matching webinar revenue did extremely well but offline revenue everything died, right? And then of course from a skills standpoint. The skill sets that it might be it might seem oh the same skills can say you do offline stuff. You can do it online but there are micro tweaks right to the way you you operate That actually completely change things. So it was a difficult transition.

I think it took us maybe about the full 2020 to really realize that transition. But 2021, 2022, 2023 ended up becoming the three best years in the company's history. Yeah. Painful, but very very, very happy transition. And now we're building off that back, bringing some of the older elements back.

(15:51) Jeremy Au:

What are some myths or misconceptions about building, like you said, a media, but also events business.

(15:57) Mohan Belani:

Yeah. The one clear misconception is that it's very hard to make money in media and events. Yeah. Yes, it is, it is challenging to scale, but if done right, actually they can be extremely profitable. There are multiple events that happen in Singapore that are run by three, four men team. They do anywhere within three to 5 million in revenue and about 30 percent of that is in purely beta. And I've actually told some founders ,before like the businesses that you have, build an event layer, because the impact that gives you, the visibility that gives you, plus the revenue and profits that gives you can be quite significant to the company. I mean, if you look at just advertising media events, it still is a fairly large chunk of the revenue part. Even if you look at Carousell, a large chunk of the revenue base still comes from ads from the media business. So I think that part really shouldn't be ignored. And of course it needs to be done well. It needs to be done right. The experience that you have with the online user base has to translate well to offline. Like I even spoke about this with Kenneth from Seedly, previously Seedly right? When he was still there and they were building out their events base as well, right? The level of stickiness that you get, it can be extremely powerful.

(16:55) Mohan Belani:

Now, the pitfall to this is that it is easy to make mistakes when doing these kinds of event activities where you do the activities or the features for the vanity reasons because events are still physical, right? There's a certain element of a of vanity metrics. So that caution has to be managed. How do you make sure that the work you do in events delivers real ROI, and, but it also can be monetizable and don't fall into the pitfall of vanity metric. And that's really what happened with tech events from 2016 onwards. You had every other event falling into the pitfall of vanity metrics, wanting to be the largest tech conference in Southeast Asia, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 people really going for the wrong numbers and then you had the government coming in trying to do events, throwing money at the problem, just giving free food, free ticket, free everything, and then that kind of messed it up for the whole industry. So that's the good and bad of the event space.

(17:40) Jeremy Au:

I've met folks who want to do events and the big concern of course, is that every VC fund also wants to fund the events as well. So it's a form of lead generation for VC funds. So there's a lot of debate, which is Hey, events are therefore not valuable as highly competitive.

(17:53) Mohan Belani:

Yeah, I mean, again, it depends on your customer base if you have a platform that has a, so we use Seedly as an example, right? Seedly is a large engaged online community. It's a content topic that's very popular and, it just makes logical sense for them to hold financial education and literacy centric conversations. And then it gives them the opportunity to also engage, key government stakeholders, parties in the ecosystem. But if Seedlt did it in such a way where the event is just all about size and vanity, and they didn't focus on the bottom line or they didn't build the right features and products to make the event monetizable, then there'll be a waste.

So I think Seedly is a good example of a company that has done events fairly well and while they started primarily as a online platform. I think Carousell has done events. I'm not sure if they, if they are meant to make money, but they at least have a physical touch point to the brand, but also a physical element to secondhand goods and all of that. So it has to be done really well, right? If you look at brands like Asianparent, the mummy's event space is massive. You could build very profitable events unit just based on that. Now, the key question is, Oh, should you do it to disrupt the space or compete with existing players or should you just sponsor them and partner with them? Now that's a different discussion altogether. I think that requires a lot more depth in terms of figuring out what's the ROI you could get from sponsoring and being part of existing events versus driving them on their own, but from a brand building, from a lead gen standpoint, it's extremely powerful.

(19:08) Jeremy Au:

And what's interesting is that you've also done a lot of angel investing personally, over the same timeframe. So you've invested in over 30 startups and teletechnology funds. So both as an angel, but also as an LP in Southeast Asia fund. What is your reflections on this?

(19:24) Mohan Belani:

Yeah, so the journey for that started in 2013. When we, when I raised capital for E27, I was also getting secondary exits, right? And my one thought process was like if I want to be active and legitimate in the space, I do have to invest in it myself. And what I started doing first is to invest in funds. And the logic was that I'd rather put capital in a group of people that I felt, knew what they were doing better than me, who had access to the deal flow and had some level of diversity, but I could also learn from them. And that's what I did, I was an LP in Golden Gate Fund 1 back in 2013. So always thankful to Vinnie and Jeff for allowing a small fry like me in, but, that kick started the journey because then, just telling other founders that, oh I'm an LP there, added some level of credibility, opened up some doors, but it also, through the reports and through talking to Jeff and Vinnie, allowed me to figure out what angel investing meant for me.

So I started with a smaller portfolio 2012, 2013 period. And the logic was to invest in companies that were building technology to disrupt traditional industries. That was the logic back then. So I invested in a logistics company. I invested in like a drone tech company. So a lot of quite heavy logistics centric stuff and invested in health tech company. So there were about five deals before getting advice from my mentor of, Hey, look, you're doing all this angel investment. Do you really know what you're doing? That's one. Second thing is that how are you comparing? What are your comparables? Have you read financial reports from Microsoft and all these companies? So that was an eye opener for me. So I decided that from 2015 to from 2015 onwards, I will do exclusively public investments only. So in a way, I kind of missed out the growth of the angel ecosystem from 2015 to 2018. But I was again learning through public investing. I built up a portfolio of 40 companies. I was using the advantage, the knowledge that we have in tech, investing in like Twilio and Atlassian, when the general mainstream investors did not know any of these companies.

(21:05) Jeremy Au:

Right.

(21:05) Mohan Belani:

And then in 2018, when I, felt like I had enough knowledge, I decided to liquidate half that portfolio, set up a private fund to go back to investing in startups. Wasn't so straightforward again, because the ecosystem was different. Minimum check sizes were a lot higher. It was way more complex. So I had to take a more portfolio centric approach. So I decided, okay, I'll do some early, some growth, some B, C, some Southeast Asia, some US and then that's how I ended up building the whole portfolio. So if you look at it, Kearney Jackson was more US early stage, right? GD1 was early stage, but New Zealand and US and then a few other funds were more local specific, so you had Indonesian funds, you had Philippines funds, and then the rest were start ups, some early, some growth, some pre-IPO, those kind.

(21:43) Jeremy Au:

Yeah. You've done Golden Gate Ventures. You've also done Foxmont in the Philippines and you've done L4GWC for Indonesia. And then both of us have invested in Rebel Fund, which handles a lot for US and Y Company startups. So what're some reflections from seeing it from the LP perspective?

(22:00) Mohan Belani:

Yeah, I think for me the one one big reflection is that, I think Southeast Asia VC firstly is still very early. That's very obvious, but for an ecosystem to work in any particular market. You need to have local funds run by local GPs, GPs that have operated locally or, they could be local by nature or spend some time overseas, right? But more importantly, they need to have raised capital from local LPs, right? And they need to, in most cases, be exclusively investing in local companies. So to me, that base layer of funds in every, in all of the Southeast Asian markets is a reflection of whether there's going to be a healthy ecosystem.

(22:29) Mohan Belani:

And I'm always on the lookout for these kinds of funds where I feel that the GPs have everything at stake to make sure that they invest locally and get the local ecosystem built up. And because they have boots on the ground because they have money locally, right? They have a very strong vested interest to make it work. They're not, for example, Philippines or Thailand or Vietnam is not a 20% mandate out of a regional fund, so that part, I think, is very critical for me. That's one.

Second thing is also when it comes to the VCs just understanding their trajectory in terms of what does Fund 2, Fund 3 look like for them can give you a bit of an insight on how they think from a growth standpoint. So I think for VCs that have ambitions to raise much larger funds much earlier on I tend to stay away from them most of the time. I prefer VCs that are much more interested in having smaller funds, and exclusively operating in one market and interested to, go in early and work with founders on the ground early on. So if you look at Spiral Ventures for example, in Japan, they have done, I think, four or five funds now, all of them below 30 mil, all of them investing early, but each fund having a different geography or sector focus, right? So I think funds like that, like Rebel Fund, again, similar, right?

They only look at YC, they have a very specific thesis, and every fund more or less focuses on that similar thesis. So those are two of the learnings that I have on the VC side. And then on the founder side, I'm still very driven by investing in founders that are trying to make the world better in their own way or form, right? I think when I invest directly into companies, it is less purely on entry price. It's really more on like founder vision founder dream and seeing how I can make a small impact in helping them get there.

(23:59) Jeremy Au:

Yeah. And what's interesting is that you've also transitioned and started to formalize some of this with Orvel Ventures as well where we collaborate now and looking at companies what's been that reflection, because, as a change from an angel investor, individual, I made this transition towards a more structured approach.

(24:13) Mohan Belani:

I mean, it's been a huge difference using your own money and investing versus someone else's money. That need for a systemized and structured approach such that every company is looked at with a similar lens has been, I think, quite helpful. So the way we look at gross margins, the way we look at GTMs, the way we look at exit opportunities for companies, having a systemized approach that allows you to scale that thinking process. I think that had been important part but so Orvel started, again, I never, never intended to start a fund. Orvel started through a random drinking session with Milan and it started really from the crux of hey, if we were starting a new company today, who we want to raise capital from? And of course, Milan had his own list. I had my own list and we were comparing the list and then we were realizing that every VC investor had their pros and cons naturally.

But how useful were they? How relevant were they? And that's where we started to get to this concept of like, you know what, actually, the funds today that exist today might not be well equipped or in the right place to be supporting the founders today. And I think founders probably need a different type of a venture fund to support them in the early stages for this current market environment. And that's when we say, okay, what if we started a fund? How would it look like? How would it look like on the founder side in terms of support? How would that look like on the investment side in terms of capital allocation? But then since we all investors ourselves, how would it look like to LPs?

We've all heard this whole issue on Southeast Asia having DPI problems. I have a slightly different take and thesis to that. I don't think Southeast Asia has a DPI problem. I think it's an exit culture problem, and that seems to be getting better over time, but then the idea was that, if Orvel as a new fund can help founders and LPs at the same time and also remain relevant to the current market condition compared to all the other funds then maybe we should start the fund, right? So it really started with us putting on the founder hat first and saying, Hey, if I raise capital today, who would be the VCs I would want? And we couldn't, between the two of us, we couldn't come up with a good enough list of VC partners that we would want on our side supporting us and working with us.

(26:01) Jeremy Au:

On that note, could you share about a time that you personally have been brave?

(26:04) Mohan Belani:

There've been multiple ups and downs, E27 story, right? We had to do a bunch of layoffs 2016. And then of course there was the COVID challenge in 2020. I think the one time where I really had to stick to my guns and be brave, by whatever definition that really means was really back in the March, April period. That's the concept of the peacetime and wartime CEO. I've had to really step into the wartime CEO mode in 2016 when we did the layoffs. And that wasn't fun. I think if you talk to any employee then they'll probably have a lot of bad things to say about the way I was operating. It was painful but necessary. But in 2020, the wartime CEO concept was slightly different, where there had to be a pragmatic view on the market and the opportunity. And I couldn't fake it entirely. There had to be a certain amount of realism in play, but I couldn't also push so hard because everyone was going through very painful overhaul of their own lives, so I think that part, for me, braveness comes at that part where I had to be extra humble. I had to be extra empathetic but also extra ballsy at the same time, and managing this conflicting emotions. I couldn't ask a hundred percent for my team because everyone was struggling in your own way from the whole work from home situation, but at the same time, I also had to make sure that we were giving a hundred and ten percent because if we did not we wouldn't have ever survived it. So that's, I think that period professionally was probably the toughest but also the most rewarding period.

I think braveness also comes from creativity at that point in time. I clearly I clearly had to come up with very creative ideas to continue to let the company function. So one simple thing I did while everybody was doing layoffs or pay cuts, I did deferred payments instead for salaries, right? And I remember having conversations with half the company for that. So we came up with a model and when I, and everyone I called that person would end up typically crying within the first few minutes or be in a total state of shock because everyone assumed that by default we were laying them off, and to me it's oh, no, no, I'm actually going to just defer half your salary for the next six months and I'll pay you back everything six months later. So that braveness also came with having to be creative having to come up with different ideas to survive that period. Tough but very rewarding experience overall.

(28:01) Jeremy Au:

Yeah. And when we think about all of that, what advice would you give to your younger undergraduate self, studying computer engineering?

(28:09) Mohan Belani:

Oh, man, I might seem more processed and structured these days, and I definitely wasn't like that before. So I use OKRs for my own personal life. I do weekly reflections and so this happened because in 2016, I was in a hotel watching the balloon drop New Year's Eve experience. One of those cliched ones, right? And as the balloons were dropping, I was just looking up and reflecting. I was like, what the hell did I do for the last year? All right. I couldn't conclusively say, what did I achieve? What did I do? And it's not that I didn't do anything or didn't achieve anything. 2015 was not a bad year. It's just that I wasn't writing it down and I wasn't reflecting on it on a regular basis. I didn't have a way to go back and see if I wanted to. And 2016 started my journey of okay, let me plan my life in quarterly periods. Let me use weekly ways to reflect, to make sure that I'm always tweaking and making sure that I know where I'm going. And then let me take every quarter with a fresh approach, right? And ask myself, okay, did I enjoy last quarter, everything that I planned out in this new quarter? What do I want to achieve? Do I want to double down on what I did or do I want to do something completely new? And I think if I were to look back that's really what I would have told my old self.

If you come up with systems and processes that allow you to be efficient, allow you to manage time, but also allow you to reflect back, that will help, hopefully help live a more fulfilling life, rather than just purely, live as it comes and be overly happy go lucky, because then before you know it a significant amount of time can come and you might feel like at a loss because nothing was achieved or nothing was done, when in truth, a lot was achieved and a lot was done, there was just no reflection on it.

(29:37) Jeremy Au:

Yeah. On that note, I'd love to kind of like summarize the three big takeaways to go from this conversation. First of all, thanks so much for sharing about your early decisions as a student, but also in your early career, trying to figure out what role and what industry you want to build in. And I think it was fascinating to hear that decision making process.

Secondly, thanks for sharing about, some of the myths and misconceptions about building a media and events business like E27, but also some of the tough times like the pandemic and also making a decision to cancel events versus that defer them and some of the hard decisions you have to make around salaries and compensation. So I think fascinating to hear that angle as well.

Lastly, thanks so much for sharing about your investing journey. How you've seen the ecosystem develop overall and talk a little bit about the exit culture and fund performance and what you're looking for in fund managers in the region, and also thinking through about what are some of the reflections that people have to think about across the ecosystem, across the 30 over investments that we've made over the past 12 years. On that note, thank you so much more high end for sharing.

(30:32) Mohan Belani:

Hey, thanks for having me Jeremy. So glad we finally got a chance to do this.