Singapore Institute of Technology Q&A, Building the Future & Life Sacrifices - E212

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Just remember that you are fundamentally building the future of humanity and that you are taking on what was only dreamed of 100 years ago and trying to make it in ten. That you are choosing to accelerate the future. Fundamentally still serving the fundamental human requirements of the human race, of the individual , and the only reason why all this happens is because all of us are trying to exchange value and make each other's lives better -Jeremy Au

Jeremy presents a Question and Answer session at the Singapore Institute of Technology

Jeremy Au: (00:29)
Okay, I would love to go around to make sure I have covered them all. Looks like a lot of questions to come out. So we're really continuing adding both and I will mark them off along the way.
So, my goal is to go through as much as possible, all of them to the greatest extent possible. And one thing I always do is that, you know, whenever I was learning, I always appreciate speaking as if I'm an expert. What I mean by that, if someone's talking to me or teaching me they assume me as an expert because I can go home and Google this afterwards.
So I will give you answers as if you're experts, other VCs in the room or other peers. I encourage everybody to Google this. or find out what you now know that you don't know. I think we're good to go. So let's go back to the beginning, which is that when I was a kid, I loved to read, I love science fiction and I love stories.
So, I would read. Obviously the action movies and books made me feel that one day national service is going to be very easy, which I always found it was not. I would also read a lot of science fiction like Dune and 1984. I noticed that the different technologies and obviously when you first thought as a kid, you listen to science fiction. You're always there for the lasers and the sound effect. Star Wars is the big one. It's like a cowboy westerners' space. It's the same humans in different situations. But of course, I think as you go into it, you fall in love more, less about what happens if there's new technology, right? Because there's always a new version of technology in there.
I think they're very much a story about who humans would be in that context. I think that's when I started to really enjoy science fiction a lot more because when I read fantasy books like Robert Jordan and so on and so forth, technology didn't change and the humans didn't really change. So, there was this interesting dynamic where I really wanted to know what happened if people were put in a new situation.
One interesting thing that came about was that was the start of falling in love history, because one thing that came about was today we're talking over Zoom and everything. This is a scene that came from 1984. Back then it was unimaginable that people could talk to each other over TV screens and it was just invented and had mass TVs.
But, you go back a couple of hundred years, people were using horses and the thought that we could be driving cars would be coming out of a science fiction story. So, this is an interesting dynamic between the history of science fiction, where technology, about privacy, about rockets, about aliens, about civilizations. When you read the old science fiction from the past, from 50 years ago, 100, it is so funny.you see them talk about our future today and vice versa. From a history perspective, we can go back and say, “What did the possibility think about today and how has the current really changed since then?” This is key because I think that really was part of something special, right, of me growing up playing computer games, setting up a LAN café in school and running that, learning how to code robots using the internet, being on forums as an anonymous teenager, giving somehow relationship advice to people who turned out to be older than me. Oh, we had no idea that he was older and he had no idea I was a teenager. But I think that's really my big love affair with technology, right? And since then on adjusting things when I went to university, I studied technology, economics and business. I went to UC Berkeley, California, which was near Silicon Valley and I think, of coming to understand a little bit more about the fact that the science fiction that you read is a function of technology being built today.
And that's an incredible thing to realise, like the microchips that you're working on, the computers you have, there's actually a thread that mixes it into science fiction. That's where I started really going to technology startups. And along the way I was
able to obviously build and be thoughtful about my career working as a consultant at Bain in Singapore across Southeast Asia and China. Work on consumer and tech, and also having an opportunity to also build something on my own.
And for many folks in the room, they may know the first organisation and company I built was a social enterprise called Conjunct Consulting, which was just a love for being part of society and giving back. Because I had received so much help, honestly, from social welfare services in Singapore. So, I wanted to take my skills and volunteer in a more experienced way.
So, I had started out initially, frankly, I thought that I was a non-profit leader or volunteer, and then becoming a non-profit leader and eventually became a social entrepreneur because that's what was needed to make the business happen. We were at that time in 2011, I was really part of the first wave of people working out in co-working spaces and back then I always remember I was one of the first few customers of something called the Impact Hub Singapore.
People thought I was crazy because why would you give money to a co-working space when you have your own office? I was like, Yeah, it just makes total sense because I've been working at Starbucks in City Hall for so many days. I would love to have my own spot. As one of those first few members and during that time we saw some people that came up there, we saw Golden Gate Ventures come into existence, that first co-working space that was Glints, another group of folks who had then dropped out of university to build a startup.
So, we had folks that were just starting to call themselves founders. And it was this interesting piece where there was this interesting shift about transforming Singapore, transforming the region, and not necessarily knowing which way to do it. Using technology, using social entrepreneurship, using nonprofits, using missions. Does that mishmash that was happening and that serendipity also helped me create all my best friends.
For example, Song from The Hub. He went on to build two other companies after that. I still remember that time when he came to me said Hey Jeremy between two mason jars, which do you feel looks like a better fit. From that conversation, along with others that he'd had of all his co-founders, everything eventually built a successful company in Southeast Asia.
I think this is an interesting ferment and fermentation of conversations that really happened and all that eventually made me get to the point where eventually, when I had bootstrapped, Conjunct Consulting to profitability, hired on someone. I went off to Harvard to do my MBA and there I really focused myself on really thinking very deeply about what I wanted to do.
I think that's when I really decided that I was going to build a second company, which was to be a technology founder, which had meld everything that from my perspective, a meld of my love of science fiction and future, my comfort and interest in technology at the day, my skills and passion for building and just want to get it done.
So, I went to build and eventually built an education tech company that we raised Pre-C Capital,seed Capital, Series A Capital. We expanded from Boston to New York and eventually sold it. That was an education tech space. After all of that, I went off to come back to Singapore and I was pushed to come and join VC. I was there.
At that point when I joined VC, it was interesting because as a founder I had primarily negotiated against VCs and I had partnered with VCs to build the future. I had never thought about what my role would be, and so I very much took that opportunity primarily because of how great the opportunity was in terms of the mentorship and training to become a VC without necessarily fully understanding all of it.
That's how I started my VC journey as someone who was there to see the other side and there to understand Southeast Asia and understand what it meant to aggregate a portfolio, in a larger sense. So that's how I started my VC journey. I am today with a set of learnings about what it means in terms of my experiences as a consultant, as an operator, as a social entrepreneur, as a founder right now a VC. I think there are like three things that I've come to learn as a result of all of this. The first is that fundamentally technology and start ups of venture capital, it's about creating the future. That's crazy. Because very few businesses are thinking about creating the future. I mean that is when I am doing resource extraction, when I'm cutting trees, pumping oil, I am very much focused on the present.
I'm thinking things of the past, things that were buried in the ground are locked away, something. And I'm extracting that and I'm serving the needs of today. So that's the past resources that we have accumulated and we're doing that and serving today. There's a lot of businesses that are really about trading and being middlemen, which is about if I help one country transfer goods.
So that a good country then is very much about the present and of course something about the future, about how the macro economics are changed and so sort forth. But very much time is measured based on speed, how fast things go from A to B, how fast things go from B to C. Another incredible stories for example.The Jewish and the British families in China and Hong Kong, for example, about how they would fight to have information to arrive one minute faster. So, that they could trade on that information and they would buy American clipper ships the fastest ships they were built in Boston. They use that to trade Indian opium to China and transfer Chinese
gold and silks and to Indian tea as well back to the British colonies, including America.
So, everything was really about that trade at that moment obviously. That was something they cared about. What's incredible is that for us to be thinking about technology, about startups or venture capital really assumes that we're thinking about stuff that’s not just one year in the future, not just five, not just ten in the sense of the average exit period or the VC lock up period.
It's about creating the future because when you create something for ten years, it's not as if the company disappears. It still is there and it's still supposed to remain there for a long, long future. That means that there's something absolutely bonkers about it because you are basically assuming that there's peace, that is stability, that there is a future in ten years, there is a future in 100 years, that you can build a company, ten years that will not be blown up. restructured, broken down, seized are occupied to build a future for the next 90 years of society, whether they are living, eating, having fun, having relationships, playing, raising families, whatever it is, is there. So, there's something absolutely incredible about capital and being a founder and doing startups. It’s because we are living in one of the most blessed and privileged times of our lives.
Because I can tell you, when my great grandparents fled China, they left China because they were struggling from civil war, from hunger and from foreign occupation. When my grandparents built a small provision shop, they were not allowed to raise capital. No one gave them money. They had to save and scramble and they lived in another war called World War II.
And so they could build a large business, a large start up or be borrowing money, let alone be able to walk freely and what their individual identity was during that time. So, this think about how crazy, how absolutely insane it is that for the first time in history really that all of us around this table, not just the Kings and the Queens, not just the nobles, not just the elite, but all of us in this room can sit down and say, “Hmm, I would like to build my career and work in the next five years to maybe become a founder, or VC, to invest or to build companies.” That'll be there for ten years to serve society for another 100 years. Incredible! Absolutely incredible! And nobody 50 years ago or 70 years ago in Singapore, nobody in 1940 and 1920, about 1800, ever said that and was able to think on that timescale. So, this is really about taking the dreams of what we have to date for the next 100 years and seizing that and bringing it back to today. That's really the first thing I've learned. It's really about that time horizon that is just incredible about technology. The fact that all of us are thinking about.
The second one that's really true is about the timelessness of humanity. What I mean by that is even though we are going out to build stuff for the next 100 years, to build it within a company context, within ten years, the truth is humans are still the same.
What I mean by that is the humans of today, of this year will be the same in ten years and the same in a hundred years. We'll still love, we'll still hate, we'll still be jealous, we’ll still be selfless, we’ll still be kind, we’ll still be greedy and all those things are still true. We know that's true because we ourselves as humans are not very different from the humans of 100 years ago.
In the 1900s, if they read the books about their stories, they also wanted the same things. They wanted to be rich. They want to be powerful. They want a home. They want safety. They want stability. The only thing that changed between 100 years and now has been the form of it. We don't just want one house above us, a small hut, a kampong.
Now we want a condominium, with a pool. So, the form of those things have not changed. We can see that as well. Actually with the paranoia, for example, that people had 100 years ago about technology, when Gutenberg press first came out people panicked that the printing press came to existence.
They were worried about too many people reading. They were worried that people would spend too much time reading instead of being in nature. They were worried about only the elite being able to have access to take technology. It's all funny because when you read history about people panicking about the printing press. Then you can see for yourself today that people still panic about technology in different ways.
People are panicking about rock music. People have panicked about genes. People have panicked about the TV, people are panicked by the radio and I always remember that my mom really hated me being on my Nokia phone and being on a Gameboy. And today I look at her and she's always on her iPhone all the time.
So the kindness of humans will also happen in the future. It will happen in the next 100 years. 200 years, 300 years. No matter what version of technology, but still on the alpha version or the beta version of humanity.
The third thing that's really interesting is really about economics. Here you are having people who are going out to build the future to bring a vision of 100 years out and try to get it done within ten years instead of a hundred.
But the question is, why even do it? Out of charity? Out of the goodness of your heart? Why would you even build a company like that? Or why would venture capitalists give you money? And why would a banker support you? Why would
people join you? I think the most important thing that has really happened is the ability to make money. Trade.
We can call it capitalism, meritocracy. There's all kinds of different ways that we talk about this. But what’s at the crux of it is the fact that there is a reward for taking the future of 100 years and bringing it to the next ten and to help people get what they want. As a normal human being, people get rewarded for it.
That reward is interesting because it's a big, big debate today, which is how big is a reward? How fair is a reward? How should it be distributed? And these are really good questions because the truth is, look at SpaceX and before SpaceX came into existence, I can tell you that ten years ago there was a pessimism about our ability to explore space again because nobody had gone back to the moon after that big race, because of the government.
The first Apollo and all that race was a giant competition between the Soviet Union and America who could plant a flag and claim moral victory over the other. That was a big driver of economics. So, everything was built by the government. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no longer a drive for that human exploration of space.
So we went to robots and a lot of foundational and fundamental things that NASA's did an incredible job of. Then we entered an age of pessimism, which was that nobody believed that we would be able to go back to space again. If you read all the articles, it's like, “Hey! we went to space then the moon”, and since then we've done nothing.
Something was happening and what was happening was that venture capital was being invented, peace and stability had been restored to the world. The point was that entrepreneurs now felt comfortable building crazy businesses, they had to be around for at least ten years, if not hundreds. Then the gears of the wall, globalisation, trade, financing, all those things, all humans all started coming together and said, “Hey, if we went back to space, how do we make money from this?
”How do we share the value? Because what is the value of going to space, are they immoral, are they in the space race? What is the value of building space? People start to think like, "Okay, we can have mobile Internet, we can better weather forecasting, we can measure climate change, we can observe and track each other and much better. We can have GPS that is more accurate, and we can guide ourselves to grow from point A to point B. We can give bandwidth to every car that’s travelling around the world. There's so many things we can do, and that trade has allowed for something truly incredible to be built, which was SpaceX for example, but
not only SpaceX, but the countless other space related industries and company players that are there.
For example, from Singapore, I'm on my podcast. I was so pleasantly surprised to discover my first ever space lawyer, a lawyer who deals with space, and I was like, “Oh, it's amazing!” There’s a lawyer who normally does have constitution and property rights, construction and now talks about space. Debating about property damage in space and so on and so forth. His job only exists because of founders who decided to build for space, who saw that future and said there is something special because building space is not just for pride as a way for us to have a better life for everybody around the world and so I think overall, the three big learnings I had at the end of this thing before I got into Q&A one by one, is that when you are in technology, when you are founder and operator, VC, a fundamental crux that you never lose beyond cynical headlines or tough conversations or struggles of a company, whatever it is. Just remember that you are fundamentally building the future of humanity and that you are taking what was only dreamed of 100 years ago and trying to make it in ten. They are choosing to accelerate the future. Fundamentally still serving the fundamental human requirements of the human race, of individual , and the only reason why all this happens is because all of us are trying to exchange value and make each other's lives better, which happens to be accounted for in terms of cash as a store of value. In other ways, we still have a responsibility to our society and our government, and the people are less well off. The people whose lives are impacted by the future to change. That will always help them accommodate, change, adapt and our responsibility to live all of us together in home. So that's the end of my speech here and I'm going to take the questions one by one and if we have any more questions.
So hopefully I've answered how I started my journey as part of that dynamic. Why I want to be a VC was because it's like there's a joy of creating the future. I think what's a little bit different between a VC versus being a founder versus being an operator is your level agency and your level breadth around how you build a future.
What I mean by that is that you're choosing between being a founder vs being an operator executive. The big difference between the two, assuming that you're a high calibre executive and a high calibre founder, is that you'll probably look very similar in skills. The only difference is the imagination of what exactly is the future you’re going to be building, because as a founder, you don't know why you're taking that vision and you're articulating the vision is selling to people to have that vision as an operator, when you join a company, that vision has already been articulated by the found on average.
So, what I mean by that is like a founder said, I believe that we can make self-driving cars happen much faster than we think we actually can. The founder would be the one articulating a journey and everybody would think their crazy and the mark of a successful founder would be you. How many people join them and how many people help out and how able to translate to reality as a mark of a good operator, they'll be someone who is able to help execution, help bring their vision to reality.
I want to say that there's no virtue being more on one side or the other, there's no more prestige and one on the other, I think they both have their roles to play in the world. And the VC you also playing a role and why you are, you're really supporting the founder because VCs are funded by limited partners, endowment funds, university years, etc.create the asset class to help have a share.The fact that there is a very risky set of endeavours and as commensurate reward compensate for that risk. And so this is our partners and supporting the founders there. So, VCs will get to see a broader view. They'll get to meet hundreds, if not thousands of founders, and they will get to choose many ways to act as an unofficial filter, or proving grounds or scouting for talent.
Because for VC, they are thinking about a very long term future, looking at businesses in a very patterned approach. But you do not necessarily specialise and want a specific vision of the future. So in my brain right now, I think of lots of different things, the same thing as the same way I would as a founder, but I'm much more broad whereas as a founder, and I am much more specialised. For example in education tech.
How did you accumulate your social capital in the early stages of your career in school? Social capital is basically saying that there's some sort of asset in a social network. Another way of saying it is reputation. Reputation is trust. What is trust? For me it is fundamentally about I believe in you even when I don't have to.
I choose to believe in you, that's really, really, really, really tough to achieve in life. Trust is situational, trust is conditional, and trust has limits. When talking about trusting other humans, it becomes reputation. It becomes your role to help articulate what people can trust you on, to deliver on what people trust you to do, and to also share why, frankly, they shouldn't trust you to do and don't do it.
Because the worst you can possibly do is promise somebody something that you can't do and for them to have their trust broken in you. That's how you lose your reputation. That's how you lose your social capital. Now, what's interesting about social capital as well is that you have a choice, which is are you going to play short term games, the people, hang out with short term people or long term people because social capital takes a long time. It's not really transferable across networks. Right now, you have a choice, which is if you choose to cheat, lie or break a promise over a promise, you're playing a short term game because you're basically saying that I have something in the short term that is way more valuable than the reputation I have than about what I'm going to do than everything else.
So, the interesting thing is that when you are short term people playing short term games, they trust that you'll play a short term game with them because that's the rules of the game. But I'm going to say that that's a way of the world that works for some folks. And I'm not going to say it as a bad strategy. I'm going to say it's a viable strategy if you want social capital. To do two things you're to play long term games which means I said building our trust is the currency and you got to hang out with long term people. That's why, for example, not in Singapore, but other societies which are small, which are tight, etc., people tend towards long term social capital accumulation because there are more consequences.
When society is small, tight, the reputation travels very far away. So if I trust you, if I was a douche to someone in Singapore, it'll travel very fast. But if the environment at a club has a lot of people who are not really in for the long term, then the consequences of me being a terrible person is diminished because there are less consequences and less penalties for that.
So, I think that's something for you to think about. There's a very transactional way of looking at it, but you chose to use the word social capital, so I'm going to choose to articulate it in a more interesting way about what that means.
How did you get into Forbes 30 Under 30? I was building Conjunct Consulting and in that I had no idea about what Forbes 30 Under 30 had set up and was looking for Southeast Asian folks. I don't know, but someone nominated me. I have no idea who it was. I woke up one day and I saw an email I thought was spam actually. So, I had to email them back and was like, “Hey, is this for real?”
So, how do I get Forbes 30 Under 30? Frankly I think the way you have joined Forbes 30 Under 30 is a function of two things again, do something amazing and accumulate your social capital and eventually you will to some extent be recognized. Of course, I think that's a shortcut to it. I think people do build amazing things and they do it committed to social capital and then they ask people to refer, nominate them to Forbes 30 Under 30 as well, which I think is also a viable strategy.
My biggest challenge when faced by investing in a startup, the biggest challenge is that sometimes you visualise a future that's so clear but the truth is that a team isn't really there, or the founders are really there and it sucks. I think it's an awkward reality, which is that there are better founders and there are worst founders. Just like how they are better VCs and our worse VCs.
Performance is often on a bell curve and the reason why is challenging as a result is that you can respect and admire what they're building and you can even sometimes see what they're trying to build, but that can be very strong. Considerations about
why may not work with strong competitors, maybe the team is as good as them, maybe fundraising or communication skills aren't as strong as you need them to be.
That's tough because on a fiduciary duty, my responsibilities and my occupation is to look for the best. In America, it's very sad that of every 40 startups that have raised some capital, like a seed stage, only one of them will become a unicorn. You have all these people, all these investors who made an investment in 40 startups gave them millions of dollars, and actually only one of them will actually achieve the outcome they have. The truth is, you're making a judgement call and the best VCs, the ones that we acclaim and have high financial performers, are the ones who are better than average at finding that one in 40 compared to the rest of the market. To be a great investor, you have to turn down a lot of people and that's tough. That brings me to the second challenge, because I think humility as a VC is really key, even though you make the assessment that this may not be the right fit for investment, the truth is the VC may be wrong. And as I always tell people, I was like, “Jeremy what do you think?” I'll say, “I think at the end, I may be wrong.” The humility remember that you may be wrong that the founder can figure it out or the founder can learn quickly, or the founder can hear your feedback and adjust and adapt, and pivot the company accordingly faster. Or that this is a flawed wrong and often doesn't follow the right track all along or maybe the founder is wrong on this company, but maybe right in five years when the founder builds another company based on the learnings they've had. So, that's the biggest challenge when investing in startups.
And the last two is one thing I wish I could tell my teenage self when I was in junior college, frankly, my first love, my girlfriend had passed away and I think that was a tough time for her family, friends and myself. I think there's a lot of grieving that was there. Even to this day. I still stand by the fact that she was a tremendous person who wanted to be a pharmacist, a doctor. I wish I could trade myself for her any time still. So, that time I think the one thing I wish I could tell myself was that your pain will still be there 20 years down the road, but yet itll also be a different flavour.
And I think the happiness that you feel will still be there about whatever it is you've achieved, whatever it is. But you will change. You will be adapted. It will be something else. Some of the choices are made and sacrifices are made along the way a little bit more understandable. I think I would've been kinder to myself and I think I've been kinder to the people around me because I think hurt people, hurt other people.
I could have been a kinder person to myself and to other people as a result. And the last thing here is what are the sacrifices you have made to actually be the person you are today. To do anything, we have to sacrifice. So, we have the trade off. You always have a choice, no matter where you are, no matter how tough it is and no
matter how harsh the environment is, meaning you choose not to choose you just choosing non choice but as a consequence of that is a choice on your own.
One sacrifice I made for example, I'll tell you, is this like university? I didn't party as hot as I wanted to and I lost relationships and friendships because I chose to graduate a semester earlier to save money for my family and myself. I also used that time to build my first business, which was Conjunct Consulting. I sacrificed money.I could continue a career at Bain and do a nice job and get promoted along the way. But I chose to take on a career of more risk and not necessarily more reward in terms of financially, but more rewarding in terms of the day to day and who I am as a person. As a founder, I chose to build out in America because that's what my wife had requested to spend more time in America.
So as a result, I sacrificed time with my family back in Singapore and I sacrificed my time to go set up a family of my own with my loved ones. My best advice to have is if you are truly intentional by that choice, a sacrifice isn’t painful. A sacrifice is something that you choose to do. Those choices will define the sacrifices that you have made to become the person you are. And that's the best gift that time has ever given you. Is that those choices make you who you are and nothing else.
 

Moderator: (32:24)
Alright. Okay. So right on the note, thank you, Jeremy. All right, Jeremy, I really appreciate it. Thank you.