Thomas Jeng: BCG Consultant to Aspire GM, Navigating Regional Fragmentation & Continuous Learning Self-Awareness - E441

· Podcast Episodes English,Executive,Singapore,USA

 

“There's a foundational set of skills around people management and communication, such as winning the trust of your team and managing relationships with peers effectively. These are skills that we are all, myself included, constantly developing, with no upper limit to improvement. Beyond these foundational skills, understanding how your function operates is crucial. Success often depends on managing relationships within the organization and across functions, developing a broader context outside of your role. A key animating principle is having a clear vision for the business that aligns with the founders' or the executive team's goals." - Thomas Jeng

 

"Some of my roles, even if labeled as GM roles, were essentially purely commercial. You're trying to drive the business forward by taking the product you have and making the biggest impact possible. The competencies required for this include a keen sense of opportunity and the ability to rally your frontline team. A lot of the deals involve direct interaction with customers, understanding how to navigate the commercial machine and building distribution. While it may not be the heart and soul of the company—that's probably the product—it is the arms and legs that get you where you need to go. Building a machine that runs successfully and repeatably is critical as a GM.” - Thomas Jeng

 

"There are a number of different entry points for a startup. On the professional services and legal services side, coming in from the outside, I think generative AI, and AI in general, will be quite helpful. I see firsthand how generative AI can smooth out, streamline, and polish language, especially in written documents from people who may not speak English or be strong writers. From a cost basis, much of document review and creation in legal services or tax is routine but still requires human intervention. Leveraging these tools and technologies can create a service that is comparable or even better than what's currently on the market in those categories." - Thomas Jeng

Thomas Jeng, Singapore General Manager of Aspire, and Jeremy Au talked about three main themes:

1. BCG Consultant to Aspire GM: Thomas discussed his decision-making process at Georgetown University aiming to become a lawyer or diplomat, but switched to consulting at BCG where he worked on challenging projects like "delayering" cases. He recounted his transition to an executive advisor role at Gartner in Singapore, and eventually completing a Yale MBA. He also shared how founding a digital talent startup that eventually failed enriched his leadership skills. He helped scale 500 Startups' ecosystems business from $2 million to $16 million and then led the Singapore market as GM for Aspire, one of Asia's leading fintech startups.

2. Navigating Regional Fragmentation: Thomas talked about Southeast Asia's fragmented market, emphasizing its complexity and the need for tailored strategies. He contrasted the region's challenges with the more straightforward dynamics of the US market and identified fintech as a significant growth sector in the region, particularly in Singapore, due to favorable geopolitical conditions. He also highlighted underinvested areas like professional services, legal services, and logistics. For aspiring regional managers and GMs, he stressed the importance of people management, communication, and functional expertise. Successful GMs should understand broader organizational contexts, influence product roadmaps, and develop strategic visions aligned with company goals.

3. Continuous Learning Self-Awareness: Thomas reflected on his journey towards self-awareness and the importance of confidence and humility. He advised his younger self to balance confidence in his strengths with the recognition of areas needing improvement. He noted that the balance is crucial for personal and professional growth. He also emphasized that effective learning involves acknowledging knowledge gaps and actively seeking to fill them. He shared how his experiences, from consulting to startups, taught him the value of both strategic planning and execution.

Jeremy and Thomas also talked about the emotional toll of "delayering" consulting cases, challenges in digital transformation within traditional banking, and the impact of generative AI on professional and legal services.

Supported by Evo Commerce!

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(01:39) Jeremy Au:

Hey Thomas, really excited to have you on the show.

(01:41) Thomas Jeng:

Great to be with you, Jeremy.

(01:42) Jeremy Au:

Well, we've shared some great panels together and you've always had these tremendous stories. So excited to have you discuss a little bit. Could you share a little bit about yourself?

(01:50) Thomas Jeng:

Sure. Absolutely. So for myself, I was born in the States, but grew up partially in Taiwan as well before going back to the States for university. After studying international relations and thinking I was going to be a lawyer, I did not become a lawyer. I became management consultant instead. Did that for several years, moved on to Gartner as an executive advisor, before going to business school, starting a startup. As a result of that startup, which I failed miserably at, I ended up getting in contact with 500 Startups, the VC firm Accelerator, joined them to stand up a new business line. I did that for a few years before exiting to a portfolio company focused on edtech. And from there, I joined Aspire where I am today.

(02:26) Jeremy Au: Awesome. Happy to chat more about each of those stages. So why did you decide to be a consultant in the first place?

(02:32) Thomas Jeng:

In some ways, it was kind of process of elimination. As I mentioned when I was going to school, for context, I went to Georgetown University, which is known for international relations, diplomacy, and that sort of thing. I originally thought I was going to be a lawyer or a diplomat. So I tested the diplomat theory by working in the US government for about a year. I decided I would have roughly zero impact on the world if I continued down that career path. And so did not want to do that. Took a law class, did really well at it, but then similarly decided I did not want to ever be a lawyer. And so what was left for a Georgetown grad for some of my position and with big tech not really being a thing on the East coast yet, it was essentially banking or consulting. And I did not want to do banking at the time. So I was basically left with consulting and did hardcore consulting recruiting, did a bunch of case studies and eventually landed a job.

(03:18) Jeremy Au:

Wow. Classic story. Because of the process of elimination. Lots of folks went banking, no shame on them. I always remember that undergrad rivalry, right? It's like, I could be a consultant, I could be a banker. Yeah, I totally understand that thought process back then. And it's interesting because you went to consulting at BCG, which is a great company. And you decided that it was not for you. So could you share a little bit more about what pushed you out in terms of what you're looking for out there?

(03:41) Thomas Jeng:

So there were some aspects about consulting that really appeal to me. I would say that the rigor of thinking, the holistic way of looking at things, the really analytical approach to breaking up problems and solving them, all really good. I really appreciate my colleagues very intellectually capable, all well intentioned people. But my first year I was put on two cases and they were both quote unquote delayering cases which is really just a euphemism for helping to lay off. In my case, thousands of people from large pharma and energy companies. That was a little bit different than what I had imagined going into consulting I thought it was going to be looking at big picture strategy, at growth and how companies could operate.

And I think at the time, frankly, being a little bit immature, being maybe less attuned to the ways of the world at the time. The, the work of, of supporting essentially the firing and the loss of livelihood for thousands of people took a quite an emotional toll on myself. And so I gravitated away from that towards topics that I felt were more my speed, whether it was on policy or later on in financial services with more of an orientation towards growth and improving customer experience and how to drive sales and product and things like that.

(04:46) Jeremy Au:

That's interesting because, around that time frame was also when I was deciding between consulting in the U. S. or Asia. And I think the Asia business unit head for Bain was very much Hey, in America in 2012, that time frame as well. It's all like layoff jobs and kind of projects, whereas in Asia it's all growth. So it should be in Asia instead. So I think, totally understand is this interesting that, it is true that what was happening in terms of the project types in America at that point of time. When you chose, there's a lot of post consulting jobs, right? You have gone back to banking. This one is classic path. There was tech, right? So there's all these other roles. So what was it that you saw at what would eventually become Gartner?

(05:23) Thomas Jeng:

So what I realized during my work at BCG and later on with a boutique called Garn Rothkopf was that I really enjoyed client-facing aspects of the role. What I really appreciated most was when I could sit down with a client, talk them through a problem, kind of be a thought partner to them and be able to see firsthand the impact because you could see them working through the problem, you could hear them articulate their thoughts and by the end of any session you had with them, now you can kind of see a light bulb go on and them have much more clarity on what they need to do it in terms of next steps.

And there were those nuggets during my time at BCG that I really enjoyed and that kind of stayed with me as something I was both good at and what I was inclined to do more in the future as well. So by the time I got to Gartner I ended up in what we called at the time an executive advisor role. And that was actually my first stint in Singapore as well. I was out here working with senior executives at various banks and commercial banking and private wealth management, insurance as well, and talking to them through the issues of the day on team management, how to set up for growth, how to structure for more efficiency and productivity how to deal with this digitalization, the rise of FinTech and things like that. And in sitting with the teams and really conducting these workshops, or having one-on-one sessions, again, I could see this sort of impact and. Really felt like I could actually make a difference, maybe not in the life of the organization, but at least in the life of this one person or this group of people that I was working with.

(06:49) Jeremy Au:

And what was the context? Because not very many people work at advisory services and the client work, could you share more about what kind of work happened at CEB, which is now part of Gartner?

(07:00) Thomas Jeng:

Yeah. So CEB's model at the time was to take research that had been done across an industry. And then help organizations apply it through advisory work. So to give it a very concrete example one consistent topic that banks and I think most organizations frankly around the world deal with which is sales productivity. How do you actually increase your top line? How do you get more out of your people? Whether it's through positioning, through better enablement, through better tools, through better product, whatever it is, right? And so the thesis at the time for CEB or Gartner was that most of the industry at any given moment is going to be facing very similar challenges.

And there are going to be pockets of excellence or pockets of greatness, best practices, if you will, across the industry that can be taught to other members of this group or this community of bankers or executives. And so what we would do is define the problem go and interview all of these different bankers and executives, find out what we felt were the best practices qualitatively, quantitatively, and package it together in such a way that we could teach it back to others within the membership and in a way sort of elevate the entire state of practice.

In Asia, in some ways, and I'm not denigrating anyone, it was quite interesting because many of the practices, particularly around people management around enablement, sort of lagged what was happening in the state of the art of the United States. And so there was quite a bit of opportunity for me to work with executives here to bring those best practices from the US over and elevate the game, if you will, within APAC.

(08:25) Jeremy Au:

And what's interesting is that you then chose to do an MBA afterwards. So what was your thinking behind that?

(08:32) Thomas Jeng:

What my thinking was then is a little bit than what my thinking is today. For those of you heard me talk about whether or not through an MBA, that's much longer conversation. I have a sort of mixed feelings about it today, especially working in tech and startups, but at the time, what I was really trying to do in a way was satisfy two major desires. One was to have a sort of level of insurance. The logic of the time was if I get an MBA from a top school I will never be unemployable. The second one, was coming from a family particularly with parents who have multiple graduate degrees. , You know, I switched coming from a bit more of like Asian or Confucian background that I could not lag behind my parents in terms of the degree of credentialing that I had from an educational perspective.

And so I felt at the time that I needed at least one master's degree to keep up with my dad, who has a PhD and a master's degree and my mom who has a master's degree. And my brother who has two master's degrees and my wife who has one master's degree. So I, for a period of time was the least educated person in my family. I just felt like I needed to close the gap. Looking back, these are kind of superficial reasons. And I sort of wish I had saved the quarter million dollars or so, but I got a lot out of it. It was a good experience and in a lot of ways gave me the space to pivot into new opportunities after experimenting with a number of different things.

(09:43) Jeremy Au:

And what's a fascinating to me is that you also took this opportunity to build a startup. And like you said, didn't work out.

(09:48) Thomas Jeng:

Yeah. So before the MBA, I sort of recognized in myself a desire to get into operating because I had seen the value of ideas, the analysis and the frameworks, and I had seen it be able to uplift individual careers among the clients that I worked with. But then I realized a lot of the value, or I would say that actually the vast, vast majority of the value that's created is not necessarily in the delivery of a great workshop or in a really put-together deck. It's in the actual implementation of a strategy or an approach. And I saw that was sometimes what was lacking among my clients or among my organization among the organizations that I worked with. And I felt like I had personally the intent or the interest to develop some of those competencies in terms of operating and executing myself.

I started to pivot into this when I joined AppWorks, which is a VC and accelerator out of Taiwan, with some Southeast Asia exposure as a summer intern before the MBA. And I got very firsthand exposure to how startup founders operate their challenges, the stuff that they're dealing with. And I very quickly felt that I could have a bigger impact in the startup space than in the big corp or the big banking space so when I went to The MBA and started there, I used the space That the MBA created in a more figurative sense, to start experimenting with being a startup founder, which helped me get Much more exposure to direct leadership to putting together a team, to building a product, taking it from conception to execution and then taking it to market.

(11:19) Thomas Jeng:

What I was building at the time was essentially a talent platform. I had seen through my work with Gartner and their consulting work more generally, that as banks and as other organizations are trying to go through the process of digital innovation transformation, they didn't have the talent to do it. And it's not that the people weren't smart, it's not that they weren't capable or hardworking. It's fundamentally speaking building a really excellent digital product requires a combination of factors, including the visualization of a great UX, the conception of what a customer really wants, the rethinking of your systems. Rebuilding from the ground up a lot of the time and the banks just didn't have the right setup, much of the time they had repurposed at least during that era. They had tried to repurpose bankers who had made the careers selling loans, basically, into digital product managers. And some of them had some okay outcomes from that, but I think if we look around at the state of most digital banking within the region, even today, it's not great. It's not particularly world-class. And it definitely has been outpaced by a lot of fintechs that are out there.

And so the fundamental insight was that if these banks are investing in it, and they're trying to throw millions of dollars at digital transformation innovation, or to keep up with these trends, they're going to need the talent to do it. I can bring them the talent by sort of cross-purpose designers, product managers, founders from the startup world to provide additional consulting services. The problem was even though I think this thesis is sound, even today I went about it in way too complicated a manner. I tried to make things way too digital for what is essentially an agency business. And ended up realizing that it's not that easy to productize people. We couldn't figure out conceptually. How to create a genuine marketplace for people because it's very difficult to showcase their actual abilities and skillsets and experiences without divulging too much confidential information, without losing a lot of context in the process.

We eventually pivoted to selling courses in person to help individuals develop a sideline business and also help them build their own personal brand, which actually did start to get more traction. But by that time, being a poor MBA student without much of an income, I sort of ran out of money and needed to call it quits. But it wasn't that process that I really leveled up when it came to executive leadership, for having accountability. I learned firsthand that developing a really great strategy is very different than executing it. And I think a lot of the lessons from that period of my life have stayed with me today as a leader, as an executive.

(13:35) Jeremy Au:

What's interesting is that you made a transition to join 500 startups. Could you share more about what was it like because, now you've done consulting, you've done the advisory from an executive perspective, and now you've been a founder for a chunk of time. So what was your perspective about your 500 Startups experience?

(13:49) Thomas Jeng:

Yeah. So with 500 Startups, for those who are unfamiliar, there's the VC side of the number of funds throughout the world. The fund represented here in Southeast Asia is VC first, but the roots of the firm in the US or the Bay Area were actually sort of as an accelerator first. And so there was a program. There is a fund against it, and they invested through the program as well as through the fund directly. And 500 being a relatively large organization by the time, having faced some challenges organizationally, they were trying to develop an additional line of business which at the time was called the ecosystems. We recognize that there was the need or at least the demand across the world from governments, those through others to develop local startup ecosystems and to have access to Silicon Valley practices and bring sort of the branding and the sheen of a top fund to their city or to their country. So the ecosystems business, which I helped scale eventually, helped lead was oriented towards corporations as well as governments that were basically buying accelerator programs. And so we would go out. We would design these programs for them. We would staff them. We would fly in mentors from all throughout the world.

And at the time, especially given the low interest rate environment at the time we were quite successful. We were able to go from about 2 million to about 16 million by the end of my tenure there. And within the Asia context, which I helped lead, we went from having very little presence to being in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, even Cambodia and China as well. So it was, it was great exposure, got to see how SART ecosystems, investors, founders themselves operate in a lot of different markets and also get for some experience in scaling, well, essentially a service as business but one that was always trying to be a bit more innovative and conduct not just enterprise sales, but also B2G sales as well.

(15:34) Jeremy Au:

So what's interesting is that both you and I have actually looked at VC funds in two ways, right? One is the investment approach, because I know that you've been investing and scouting, but also I think there's the rest of the business, which sometimes can look like a bottom of the iceberg, or adjacent side, but the business, the strategy, the finance, the fundraising the partnership angles of the VC business. So I'm just kind of curious how do you see those two different sides of the house?

(15:59) Thomas Jeng:

Yeah. It's a really interesting topic. Do you see the challenge or the tension between these two sides, whether it's within a given firm or even conceptually across an organization or an ecosystem, right? On the non investment side, every time we were building a program, almost intentionally are, I would say not, not just intentionally, but very intentionally. Our clients would generally push us to be very inclusive. They were trying to push for as many companies to go through the program as possible. They're trying to make as big a splash in terms of PR as possible. They're trying to reach as many of their citizens or constituents as possible. And there's a fundamental tension between that and what is VC, which essentially operates on power law, right? Especially at the early stage where you're trying to pick roughly the cream of the crop from any sort of pool of potential investments and the democratization ethos that you have on the non investing side, or more accurately, the ecosystem building side, is therefore completely intention and kind of runs actually the opposite direction versus the investing side.

And so, I don't think I'm giving you any secrets when I say that even within 500, there tensions at the time and the strategy on these two sides has kind of gone back and forth at different times, right? There's the question of how much value are you creating, versus how much value are you harvesting and what time horizon are you looking at? If you're a government, if you're trying to build an ecosystem, the impact can be measured in decades at a time. You're helping the next generation of entrepreneurs. You're not just talking about venture-backed startups or venture backable startups, you're talking about, probably called lifestyle SMBs as well as family businesses or could become family businesses, versus a tech-focused VC who wants to see very rapid growth within a short period of time and ideally an exit within a few years, know, even though their fund life span might be longer than that, they're hoping for faster exits to return some capital to them and their investors. And so two very different approaches, two totally viable business models, just really trying to do very different things.

(17:50) Jeremy Au:

Yeah. And there you are and you become a GM as well at various startups. Can you share about the experience?

(17:56) Thomas Jeng:

Yeah. So at the time when I was leaving 500, I recognized that I had gotten a lot of experience building startup programs that I had worked, and mentored a lot of founders. I had brought a lot of the sort of consulting thinking, the frameworks to them, the first principles approach, and had been helpful to a lot of founders, but for myself, without really digging in and without really learning firsthand how to scale a startup, I felt like there was something missing. And so I wanted to take the plunge and get into early-stage startups in order to basically get my hands dirty and to be able to say, and to have the learnings firsthand on what is required to go maybe not from zero to one, which I had attempted before, but to go from one to 10 and from 10 to 100 and beyond. So I ended up joining Gnowbe, which is an edtech SaaS platform based out of Singapore. I was leading a global team ranging from marketing to partnerships, to sales, to account management, and so on. Unfortunately, we were not able to raise Series A at the time I was there, and I ended up joining Aspire instead which had a different trajectory.

(18:58) Jeremy Au:

So you've done the GM role with some specific sets and tenures, what have been your reflections on what makes a successful GM?

(19:05) Thomas Jeng:

It's an interesting question because I think it really depends on how you scope the role, right? Some of my roles even if we called it a GM role, were essentially, purely commercial. You're trying to drive the business forward. You take the product that you have and you try to make as big of a dent as possible and so the competencies that are required for that and what's necessary for success are a very keen sense for the opportunity, being able to rally the team at your frontline. A lot of the deals you're talking to customers yourself and really getting the understanding of how to navigate the commercial machine and how to build. And in some ways distribution. It may not be the heart and soul of the company. I actually think that's probably a product but it is definitely the arms and legs of the company and it gets you to where you need to go, right? And so being able to build that machine successfully and have it be able to run in a repeatable manner is what's really critical as a GM.

(19:56) Thomas Jeng:

Then I think as you, potentially, on some other pieces, when the business reaches a certain level of maturity and you're aiming for additional scale and growth as we are at Aspire today, the other stakeholder relationships and the ability to think the bigger picture to have strategy mind, maybe not just for your market, but understand how you fit into the context of the firm overall. And how you collectively not just the commercial function, but also products, also operations, maybe even risk , and compliance, how you can collectively create a system, not just a machine, but actually an overall system within the organization to drive the business as a whole forward, I think that becomes a lot more important.

Today, in my role at Aspire I originally started as a head of sales and started to take out different things, eventually migrating to the GM role. I would say because of the way that we built the organization today, I actually spend more time with products, with operations, with risk, with compliance, sometimes more than actually my own team. And that's because my job today is to be an umbrella to shield them from stuff, but also to get stuff out of their way so that we can go and get to the market. And so if it's, the product is missing a certain capability or that our onboarding processes are delayed in some way, those are things that in my role as GM, I need to go out and basically not necessarily bulldoze, but definitely try to remove obstructions from, so the overall business can move forward. It's a different set of competencies, I would say, it's a lot more ambiguous and certainly for me, more challenging than just trying to go out and sell the next unit for the next month, right?

(21:21) Jeremy Au:

And what's interesting is that you've done all of these different roles and I think definitely focus on the technology side. I think what's interesting is that you're one of the few people that's really have worked your way up, I would say, the technology stack in terms of career, seniority, trust, scope could you share about what attributes that you think predict for more success in doing that versus things that predict against that.

(21:43) Thomas Jeng:

It's a difficult problem or a difficult question because I hate bragging about myself or even being construed as bragging about myself, but I would say not just for myself, but observing others as well. I think on one level there's sort of the need to has, right? It's what you generally need to have in order to be successful as a manager and to be recognized. And there's a foundational set of skills around people management and communication whether it is being able to win the trust of your team members, being able to manage relationships with peers well, and certainly managing it as well. And these, these are skills that I would say that I think we're all, myself included, constantly developing.

There is no upper limit to these skillsets. You can always be better. I think maybe on top of the broader foundational skill set, there is the functional piece as well. You do have to have a view on how your function actually operates. If you're in sales, you need to know what the sales motion needs to be. If you're in marketing, you should know your positioning and the mechanics of what you're doing in terms of marketing campaigns. If you're in product, there's the craftsmanship piece as well. And I would say this bundle of things, the people management, the communication and your functional skill set are what gets you to the mid and maybe mid senior level.

Above that, I think the success is actually often dependent on how you manage relationships within the organization and other functions as well. It's how you develop the broader context outside of your function. Do you, as the commercial leader, understand where the product roadmap is going? Are you able to influence the product roadmap? Are you able to work well with ops so that when customers have an issue, you're able to figure out how to solve it or to avoid repeatable problems in the future? Also, that isn't formally within your management, you at the very least, need to have a grasp on it and then hopefully to be able to influence it well.

In order to do that, I would say there is also the key animating principle of what is your vision for the business? And hopefully it's consistent with where the founders or where the overall executive team is trying to go, but you do need to have a vision and a strategy for what you yourself are trying to accomplish within the stuff within your remit as well.

(23:47) Jeremy Au:

And what's interesting is that now you've seen obviously both the US ecosystem as well as the Southeast Asia ecosystem. And you're looking and thinking through, I think the roles, the opportunities, the trends, the players when you see and look at Southeast Asia, the ecosystem today how do you explain it to somebody who is thinking through what they should be thinking about for the next five years. What do you think is important for them to know from your perspective?

(24:11) Thomas Jeng:

If I'm talking to someone who is a relatively fresh or looking at Southeast Asia essentially a blank slate almost, my own perspective is that the most important characteristic of Southeast Asia is a relatively fragmented market. I even hesitate to call it a market is actually a series of markets fused together or grouped together for actually probably more geopolitical or convenience reasons than for any basis in business or economic reality. So when you're looking at the region, you generally have to realize that you're gonna be dealing with much more complexity, much less scalability, much more fragmentation overall, than you would if you were in the States.

I mean, just looking at within the category I play in today, which is essentially digital banking for SMBs, if I compare what we're having to build in Southeast Asia, versus what's built in the US. The product we have here is actually way more sophisticated than some of our peers in the US. Not to name any names, but in the US you can get by with a USD account, just kind of smooth login. It kind of works. You don't need to worry that much about FX 'cause it's not that common. And you have a very easily repeatable motion if, for example, you're targeting startups that you can target startups like almost to infinity within the US because a lot of people incorporate in the US when that they actually there, you just go and sort of repeat the motion across all these different cities, all these different segments within the overall startups umbrella, right?

By contrast, if we try to do the same thing in Southeast Asia, we hit our limits in about a year or two if we pursue the same strategy. That means that you have to build on more and more within the product. You have to satisfy more and more use cases in order to get to any appreciable size. So on the one hand, that means that Southeast Asia is a very defensible market if you can actually crack it. If you're able to get substantial distribution, it's just going to be relatively difficult to uproot you because you've already got your, your roots in some different places, your distributions there, your brands there, and the product is, is built for the region, however, if you look at it from maybe more of an investor lens, or if you're just looking at ROI, ROE in general, it's going to be perhaps less appealing for some coming from the U. S. or someone who's used to larger markets where it's easier to scale or we have much bigger markets. And frankly, the, the amount of effort that's required to get to that scale and size could be substantially lower as well.

(26:25) Jeremy Au:

Now, when you think about this, obviously there's a lot of discussion about what are the growth segments, right? So people are looking, for example, at Singapore, Indonesia, fintech. I'm just spouting off. Do you think that that matches with what you're thinking in terms of the growth opportunities across the region, or would you say that other verticals that we should have, or maybe some of these verticals I just mentioned are not so interesting as themes?

(26:48) Thomas Jeng:

Yeah. So when I look at Singapore, Southeast Asia, I do see FinTech as a growth sector here. There's already been a lot of investments coming to here, but I think Singapore particularly, given the way things are going geopolitically, it's likely to become almost like the Delaware of Asia. It's inevitably going to take on an even greater role in terms of incorporation, in terms of trade financial flows, and so on. So this is a naturally very good location to be if you're in any sort of nexus or clearinghouse business, which FinTech ultimately is, where you're facilitating financial flows, you're moving money, I mean, you're perhaps changing the nature of that money from currency to currency or otherwise.

And so Singapore is good for that. And I think there's a lot of tailwinds behind the fintech industry as a whole. I think it hasn't completely paid off yet, but actually I'm a cautious bull on Singapore's investments in blockchain and Web3 as well from a policy standpoint. I do think we are generally starting to see innovation in payments in particular. And maybe settlement to be even more specific when it comes to those technologies, but looking beyond FinTech we, we can dive into that, but further, I think there's some interesting movement there. I would say, I think there's a few sectors that are perhaps a little bit underinvested. I was on the venture side. When, when I look at Singapore, I think of trade essentially, right? And there are categories like professional services, legal services and the like actual shipping and logistics, which are ripe for disruption, right for digitalization. They're incredibly unsexy businesses. But I think given just the volume of trade that comes through in the volume of value creation and value transfer that occurs in Singapore and throughout the region, I think there's going to be a lot more here in those spaces as well. And in fact, I think we do see some green shoots coming up here and there when it comes to those categories. But I would expect to see a lot more of that versus perhaps what we're more used to, which is like consumer or SaaS in the venture world.

(28:35) Jeremy Au: And as you see that, how do you see startups reacting and building on this?

(28:40) Thomas Jeng:

I think there are a number of different entry points for a startup. On the professionals and services and legal services side, coming in from outsider, I think this is one area where generative AI and perhaps AI in general is going to be quite helpful. I see firsthand how generative AI can already smooth out, streamline, really polish the language, especially in written documents from people who may not speak English as they may not be particularly good writers. And if you think of it just from a cost basis, a lot of document review, a lot of document creation in legal services or tax and so on, is pretty routine but does require still some human intervention. And so just from a cost standpoint you can imagine taking advantage of a lot of those tools and technologies in order to create a service that's comparable or even better to what it's on the market today in those categories.

On the trade and logistics side, I think we are likely to see more integration perhaps more of a vertical stack between the delivery of technology itself. I think it's quite challenging to see This is necessarily being a venture play because the amount of capital can also often be very substantial, but if you look slightly outside of Singapore and actually within Singapore as well, we do see software companies providing digitalization tools for freight forwarders and so on even looking outside of the monsters like Flexport in this space, I do think we will see more and more investment when it comes to digitalization and stringing together this service from end to end.

(30:01) Jeremy Au:

So wrapping things up here, could you share about a time that you personally have been brave?

(30:06) Thomas Jeng:

I frankly don't consider myself a very brave or courageous person. A lot of what I do tends to be relatively calculated, but I would say over the past few years perhaps the bravest, at least career move that I took was moving from 500 Startups to Gnowbe, which as I mentioned before, it was a pre a sort of almost pre PMF startup at that time. And that was moving from a very known business that I had successfully helped build where I had actually hired most of the team myself and was in a relatively comfortable position to a new industry with a new business model. At a very early stage, and I think that the bravery in that was really about the learning opportunity and being willing to, I think, to give myself some credit, being willing to go to the bottom of an S curve when it comes to learning to almost disrupt myself to put myself in a different trajectory, I would say has some degree of bravery attached to.

(30:57) Jeremy Au:

When you think about that, what were some of the challenges or things that you had to let go in order to make that good transition?

(31:04) Thomas Jeng:

I think there were a few things. One is I had to let go of the comfort of an organization that I knew very well and was already doing very well. And second, there was definitely a salary hit involved. And so there's an economic component. I had to sort of restructure different parts of my life as well. And then third even, even though my, my move to Singapore with Gnowbe at the time actually got interrupted by or got forestalled by the pandemic, there would have been a geographic shift as well. So even though I had lived here in Singapore before, I would have still needed to uproot my entire family.

I have three kids to move them from California to Singapore. I've now done that with Aspire, but I think just paying the cost of that and taking in everything in order to make the change in order to pursue a career change definitely involves some doing.

(31:49) Jeremy Au:

If you were to go back in time, kind of like, 20 years back to yourself as an undergraduate who was going to choose consulting alpha process of elimination, what advice would you give yourself back then?

(31:59) Thomas Jeng:

Man, that's a good question. I think perhaps the biggest lesson that I needed to learn throughout my career and throughout my life is to have confidence in myself in the right areas and to recognize when there's stuff to learn in areas where I'm not actually a very strong. And I say this because coming out of undergrad, I think I had confidence in a few areas like writing or critical thinking but almost didn't know how little I knew on a lot of different dimensions. And I think recognizing and just owning that being confident in the ability to learn, perhaps more humble in the things that I didn't know would have helped me at that time, and I think perhaps even today as a lesson, I should continue to teach myself. And it's a little bit abstract but in consulting at the time, really, I think there, I think the industry in itself, it requires a certain degree of posturing and putting on the appearance that you know things.

And from a psychological standpoint, I think one thing that would have been helpful for me is to recognize that there's a lot I don't know. And to a certain extent, it's actually okay. How you project is one thing, but recognizing that you don't know something and that you'll do the homework to learn it is something else. And I think that combination of both confidence and humility is something that I'm still working on today, but it's one that has served me quite well mature when it be able to manifest it, because that's what enables me to contribute the value that I can contribute while als

o growing in the role and learning what I don't know.

(33:17) Jeremy Au: On that note, thank you so much for sharing. I'd like to summarize the three big takeaways I got from this. First of all, thank you so much for sharing about your experience. It was interesting to hear about your undergraduate decision to join consulting, but also how you quickly decided that there were certain aspects that made more sense for you and some areas that made less sense for you. And it was fascinating to hear about your journey as an executive advisor with Gartner all the way to, being a founder, having an MBA and eventually joining startups as an executive and builder. So it's just fascinating to hear those decisions.

Secondly, thanks for sharing about your point of view around Southeast Asia as an ecosystem, but also in terms of your insights about how to be successful. As a GM and how to be successful for people who are looking to move outwards and get promoted within the startup ecosystem.

Lastly, thanks so much for really sharing. I think throughout the vein of a self awareness. I thought the ending story about how better advising yourself back when you're younger about being aware about which areas you're really strong at and which areas that you do have to develop.

I could really hear you share that not just at the end of the podcast, but also throughout each stage because you always matched up the opportunity versus your skill set versus what you want to achieve in that role. So on that note, thank you so much, Thomas, for sharing.

(34:24) Thomas Jeng:

Thanks so much for the opportunity, Jeremy.