A Call to Arms for Southeast Asian Founders

2020 has been inarguably the toughest year in living history for humanity, and tech entrepreneurship is not spared. While certain industries were completely decimated, like travel and much of hospitality, other sectors became red hot like eCommerce and logistics, which attracted formidable competition like sharks to blood in a red ocean. 

While many entrepreneurs have bunkered down, soldiered on and resorted to an all-out offensive from the comfort of their quarantined command center, as the incoming board of directors for SEA Founders, the only growth-stage founder support organization (those that make Series A and above and make at least $1M in annual revenue or raised over $1M) that’s focused on tech founders, we were tasked with the monumental task to shepherd our network of 148+ of the fastest growing and most promising organization in Southeast Asia through this shitstorm, our board and I have rediscovered a not-so-hidden secret as to why the best founders have an edge that most typical founders don’t know in surviving this pandemic: they’ve built a strong safety net of fellow founder, mentors, advisors, investors and board members who can help bounce ideas, catch them when they’re on the verge of burning out and breakdown whilst at the same time challenging them to push harder and get out of their comfort zone by doing business beyond their home market.

This brain trust has saved many of us from running our businesses off a cliff time immemorial, and I couldn’t imagine how founders still do not have access to this kind of community to have the wherewithal to. It’s a painstaking process that was cultivated after many years in the ecosystem as a way to meet cool people, give back to the community, and enjoy time off from the trenches while hanging out at conferences and meetups with your fellow founders trading war stories and looking at each other, knowing that some of us and our startups might not survive the churn of the market. As our reputation and our roots sink deeper, strangers become ramen crawl buddies become lifelong friendships between movers and shakers of the ecosystem, newbie founders with salty old dogs who share the stories before the dot combust. With Covid-19, while it’s no longer possible to build such deep ties that came naturally with sharing a meal or a beer in some random alley of Bangkok, Bali, or Bangsar, the spirit lives on virtually in Clubhouses. 

A few years ago, many founders and renowned investors such as Peng T. Ong of Monk’s Hill Ventures saw the same problem with the entrepreneurs he was investing in and decided that Southeast Asia needs an entrepreneurial network that serves tech founders better. To help them scale and grow, learn from one another, and help each other beyond being another local clique of your startup heroes or a fraternity that is mostly male-dominated and not inclusive to women, expats, POC, and LGBTQ+ folks. 

Trials and tribulation is an Understatement

Having built this network over the past 3 years, early in 2020, Peng T. Ong, Tomas Laboutka, and other board members decided that it was time to pass the torch and get in new board members to take the network through to new heights and through the most challenging period of the network that has grown considerably to include founders in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Vietnam. The process, as with all communities, was to be more inclusive of the community that we serve, to bring new energy to the leadership, and to continue the mission and grow SEA Founders to become the most meaningful force behind the success of great founders in Southeast Asia.

To recap our 1 year of work to carry the torch from our incredible Founding Board Members at SEA Founders, I decided to take the opportunity to have a chat with all the current members at SEA Founders to get their perspective of 2020 and to vision for 2021 and beyond of the startup and tech community in general as well as for SEA Founders.

New Leadership, Same Mission

As Anna Gong, CEO & Board Member Perx Technologies and Chairwomen of SEA Founders puts it

“2020 and the pandemic tested all of us globally; whether we have what it takes to make it! As startup founders and entrepreneurs, we are innately attracted to risk-taking and seemingly can embrace whatever challenges hit us. The wake-up call was that the pandemic did not discriminate and it was sink or swim for many around the world. I must say if it wasn’t for SEA Founders support and helping each other to overcome many obstacles and challenges, the end result may look differently. I am lucky to be part of SEA Founders and have the opportunity to lead this group for the next 2 years with the help of the new board. Whether it’s the pandemic or other challenges ahead, knowing we have like-minded tech founders supporting each others growth journey is amazing.

Our mission is to help grow this non-profit organization across Southeast Asia and beyond, growing the community, connecting like-minded founders for growth and learning and supporting each other through good and bad times. I must say that with 50+ founders in our network, we have survived and survived brilliantly because of the strength of the community we have fostered. I can say our resilience, grit and tenacity carried us through to 2021. 2021, you can’t be worse than 2020. We are prepared and we are proud to elevate SEA Founders as one of the pioneering communities that is designed for tech founders supporting the growth and success of tech founders.”

The Brain Trust of Southeast Asia

That sentiment is echoed throughout our network and is epitomized best by 

Zenos Schmickrath, another board member who just recently exited his company, also shares his story and how SEA Founders helped him:

“As a founder, there is never enough time to get things done. There is always a crisis and when that is solved, the next most important crisis looms its head to be dealt with. For me, In this frame of mind, it was very easy as an early-stage founder to neglect things that I knew were important, but never quite became urgent. One of these things was building my own community of founders and friends that would be able to help me navigate through the difficult decisions that I had to make every single day. I was wrong. I absolutely should have taken this as an urgent, and one of the most important things to focus on.

Once I joined SEA Founders, it was almost like an epiphany, one of those “ah-ha” moments, where I realised that if I had access to this network, I would be able to achieve orders of magnitude more than I would be able to without it. One of the reasons that SEA Founders is so powerful, is that there is an incredible depth of knowledge within the community about everything related to creating a rapid growth tech company. And most importantly, this includes all the things that are the most difficult to deal with, things like how to remove a disruptive member of the board (believe me, you can’t really ask your board how to do this), managing an acquisition offer and the post team integration, firing one of your first employees, or pivoting the business model in the middle of Covid without investor support.

All of these problems are immensely overwhelming, but with a community like SEA Founders to rely on, they are all solvable with mentorship every step of the way from others that have gone through similar issues already. This community helps founders scale, faster, and the companies they build are the better for it. “

The Common Trait that Defines Us

If there was one common theme that ran through the DNA of SEA Founders, if not all the most successful business leaders in the world, Max-F. Schienchnost, Managing Partner of Falcon Digital and our Board member, best summarized that trait by saying that:

“If there is one thing 2020 wants to teach us, it would be how resilient we are to confront difficult situations and navigate through turbulence and crisis. As an entrepreneur, it’s more challenging as you are the leader, the decision-maker, and the problem-solver of all these matters. I’m pretty sure tech founders in Southeast Asia and all over the world have been tasked with a lot of challenges during the past year, and that’s why having a support network becomes more imperative than ever.

As a tech-oriented, founders-focused community, SEA Founders is that safe haven you can rely upon for support and seek advice during critical times. The community has been a strong backbone for my growth, and now I’m honored to be a part of the board to work towards a more dynamic support system for tech founders in the region. “

A lot of people ask us if such a network like SEA Founders will ever stay the same or as relevant to our members’ lives, given that everything has moved virtually and more impersonal. Max disagrees by sharing that his path towards our activities in 2021: “Going beyond a platform to share knowledge and experiences, SEA Founders is where you can build meaningful relationships, find lifelong partners and get creative with other like-minded tech founders across different verticals.

2020 has seen dramatic changes in how we do business. However, SEA Founders has proved to be adaptive, and we will continue to stay resilient with whatever challenges will come in 2021 and beyond.”

While Phi Nguyen, Founder & CEO of Hiip, our Board of Director end on an optimistic note on the work that there is still to be done by our team and every member of SEA Founders: He says that “Southeast Asia is still a few years behind other huge and developed tech markets like US and China. Even though we have seen a lot of progress in many aspects in recent years, we don’t have a strong community of like-minded founders where they can connect, learn from each other and help each other. I hope by founding and growing this community, SEA Founders can help founders operate cross countries and regionally as easily as building their startups in their home market. I hope we can help them to make SEA one large connected market rather than just separate countries in a region.”

You are not Alone

To all those who have read and feel that you are alone, you are, and all and have been found. While we might not know you, heard of you, or meet in person yet, we know you are out there, waiting to be uplifted out of the mass grave of your fallen fellow founders, to be reinspired to dream big again, to be in the company of the greatest assembly of founders ever in Asia. 

If you are listening to this message, you are one with us. If we had left each other alone, you, me, and all of us founders in our ecosystem would mostly end up bloodied and bruised, more likely a casualty in this pandemic, zombified and looking for a corporate day job. Our tech ecosystems will all but have been lost. Some of our investors want us to build startups like a cash machine and make hard-nosed, shareholder value-driven decisions like growth at all cost, crashing and burning to the ground, or laying off all our staff. But we are not machines. We are a movement to solve some of our industries and humanity’s greatest crises however niche or grandiose the mission may be. And if we behave like just like an algorithmic trading bot, what’s the point of building a startup?

You are going to be pressured to some of the hardest things in your life that will push you at the edge of your physical, emotional, financial, and ethical limit. I am telling you not to give it. There is a better way: together, we can be a better version of ourselves.

If only one of us makes it big from SEA Founders, our mission will have been accomplished because it takes so many of us to try and fail, for a few of us to be the 4% that becomes the next tent-pole tech company. We all know it is hard, but it’s about to get harder if we believe in one another. So please, stand up and rise in arms, and give this incredible board of directors and the SEA Founders network your support and time to create the new tech ecosystem that all of us are dying to see it thrive in our post-pandemic world.

This is Amarit Charoenphan, the 5th board member of SEA Founders. On behalf of Anna, Zenos, Max, and Phi, this is our story. Now let’s make it yours.