SINGAPORE: Over the past seven years, Christopher Quek has clocked almost 1,000 hours of mentoring for nearly 500 local start-ups.
The 39-year-old, who was an entrepreneur before becoming a venture capitalist in 2011, did that all for free.
Besides wanting to groom more entrepreneurs and help their ideas take flight, Mr Quek, the managing partner of early-stage venture capital firm Trive, has a bigger goal of fostering a pay-it-forward culture within the start-up community here.
“I just thought if those with experience could lend a helping hand to the newcomers, why not?”
It all began in 2011 when Mr Quek, together with two other friends, started Angel’s Gate Advisory (AGA) – an incubator that later served as a Government-accredited mentor to help early-stage technology start-ups qualify for grants.
“We noticed there were local founders with great ideas but did not know how to get funding or develop the business. So we thought, why don’t we try to help and to help means not being paid, like getting equity in return.”
In 2014, he set up Trive, previously known as Tri5 Ventures, and took the pro bono programme fully under his wing. Under an additional initiative rolled out last year, he roped in entrepreneurs who have benefited from the programme to “pay it forward” and act as mentors for their less-experienced peers.
Now, Mr Quek is hoping to ramp up his initiatives to help more early-stage start-ups – an additional 250 over the next 30 months.
Apart from helping them to secure a S$30,000 grant administered by the Enterprise Singapore, Trive will also hold free classes on topics, such as crafting an effective pitch, and allow these fledgling start-ups to tap into their network of angel investors and seed venture capitalists for subsequent funding.
Even as he is mocked by some for “spoiling market”, Mr Quek said while he acknowledged that venture capitalists are fund managers required to make returns on the fund, he only wanted to help the local start-up community grow and become more self-sustaining.
“As we are not taking any equity in return, there were people who said we are spoiling market. We were also mocked by those who did not think anybody will pay it forward after receiving help from us.”
With a chuckle, he added: “I guess maybe I consider myself more of an entrepreneur than a venture capitalist.”
Having taken the entrepreneurial plunge when he was 20 years old, Mr Quek used to wonder why a majority of his peers were not doing the same.
“I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs,” he said, though he would only reveal that his father is the chairman of a Singapore-listed firm. “So I was ingrained with the idea of having your own business since young.”
“Apart from a safe education system and expectations to have a family or a HDB flat by your 30s, maybe it’s because our generation grew up in a first-world environment so we don’t see problems or feel any pain points hence we don’t feel the urge to solve things.”
“Now, there’s a bit more risk-taking but it’s only to a certain extent because factors like parental disapproval remains very hard-hitting. But if we can help, will they be willing to do this for longer?”
Mr Quek said he was inspired by stories from Silicon Valley where veteran entrepreneurs return to lend the younger aspiring founders a helping hand.
“Silicon Valley was built on its members giving back to the community. When you compare both ecosystems, we think that what Singapore needed was not just the hardware, but also the ‘heartware’”
He added: “The Government is doing a great job in building infrastructure and implementing policies, but what really made Silicon Valley successful was community-driven initiatives.”
When asked how successful he has been in fostering that, Mr Quek admitted that things remain in their infancy but there has been progress.
Since its inception, the pro bono programme has completed more than 1,500 advisory and mentorship sessions, impacting about 800 budding entrepreneurs.
It has also aided 38 local start-ups to raise US$5.6 million (S$7.7 million) in angel funding, with some venturing on to Series A rounds.
Mr Quek said that these founders have returned to the programme as mentors.
“I think they appreciated what we did and because of that, they are now trying to pay it forward.”
Mentors also include those who have failed in their ventures and these are “important advisors” that, according to Mr Quek, provide the reality check.
“So what if they have failed? They are the ones who will make great mentors because they are the ones who will bring founders back to earth and tell you what isn’t going to work,” he said.
“Only failures give you the reality check.”
“STOP BUILDING E-MARKETPLACES”
But he stressed that his initiatives do not give hopeful entrepreneurs and fledgling start-ups the easy way out. When necessary, Mr Quek said he does not mince his words.
“There was a couple who asked if I could fund their business and also pay them their last-drawn salaries. They said that they were in their mid-30s and had commitments to pay for,” he recalled. “I told them to return to their previous jobs.”
Apart from being held back by the fear of failure, Mr Quek observed that developing scalable business ideas and delivering the perfect pitch remain a work in progress for many Singapore founders.
These have, unfortunately, hampered their ability to attract venture capital dollars.
These can be changed with local entrepreneurs, for one, looking beyond tried-and-tested ideas, such as e-marketplaces, food delivery and ride-hailing apps.
“For one, stop building e-marketplaces. The days of Carousell are gone. If you try to do something like this in Singapore, no venture capital firm will want to support you,” he said.
Instead, he reckons that aspiring founders can double down on building deep technology start-ups that focus on solving problems, such as water sufficiency, food wastage and recycling.
“I think many still like to copy ideas that have made it in the United States then replicate them in Singapore. It doesn’t work like that anymore.”
This largely boils down to the relatively smaller size of the Singapore market, as well as the high cost of converting a customer here.
“In other parts of Southeast Asia, customer acquisition costs are very low and with their market sizes, the growth in traction can be very steep,” said Mr Quek. “It’s a different ballgame out there.”
Hence, for new entrants that are still heading into the areas of e-commerce or ride-hailing, they may be better off setting up shop elsewhere, he added.
Southeast Asia’s Internet economy is expected to grow to about US$200 billion by 2025, with e-commerce and ride-hailing among the fastest-growing sectors, according to a joint research by Google and Temasek Holdings released last December.
Said Mr Quek: “There are still pockets that big market players cannot meet because Southeast Asia is a very diverse market.
“So I’d advise founders to go out and be based in other cities, like Ho Chi Minh. This will change their mindsets because after being immersed in an emerging economy, they will realise that whatever product they have created just for the Singapore market will not work elsewhere.”