The venture fund 500 Startups has been making a splash in Southeast Asia, most recently with Khmerload, a Cambodian entertainment news website modeled after the American media giant Buzzfeed. Binh Tran, a venture partner with the firm, sat down with Sophat Soeung of VOA’s Khmer service to talk about how entrepreneurs in developing countries could attract such investors. Here's some of his advice for them:
Remember, Silicon Valley investors are a click away
I think first is to understand the whole startup ecosystem. All this information is at your fingertips. The world’s shrunk, and for resourceful entrepreneurs, they have this incredible amount of knowledge that they can tap into, to get themselves familiarized with how to build a company, how to launch it, how to monetize, and also understand investment. All that is available.
Not everyone can be a tech entrepreneur. It’s incredibly hard, but for the ones that are resourceful ... the tools are there. And we want to be the ones to provide that dry powder to help you grow. So once you have achieved some progress and some [traction], then come talk to us.
Don’t overthink — there is no ‘right’ sector
I’m pretty sector-agnostic. ... If you’re building something that is obscure to me ... the fact that you can make a business out of it, you’re making some money out of it, that’s great. And if it’s technology-enabled, it’s done through software, or done through some algorithm that you created, that’s where I think I can help. That’s where I think the opportunities are.
Look for a growing user base
All ecosystems around the world are somewhat new. Even China is a decade or two [old] for venture capital. ... If these companies are making money and they’re growing, that’s great. You see companies who have been more focused on revenue early on. So I think Southeast Asia has a lot of opportunity, because you do have that 4 million-new-internet-users-a-month type of growth, but the business models are not quite as risky [as those seen in Silicon Valley].
Pay more attention to operational rather than business risk
I think there’s going to be a small percentage of my portfolio that's always reserved for the crazy, one-in-a-million-chance ideas. But for the most part, these startups should be solving basic problems. Across many sectors in Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, businesses have barely adopted Web 1.0 technologies. There’s opportunities for entrepreneurs to solve basic problems such as helping business attract, serve and support customers more efficiently.
So instead of investing in a new, risky, innovative business model as you would in Silicon Valley, the innovation these companies we're investing into is the way they're hiring and training employees and how they've mastered how to operate within highly regulated environments. These companies also deeply understand their customers' problems and have demonstrated their ability to market to and sell to locals.
So the innovation we're seeing is less about business model or technology innovation, but I do hope that changes.
Build your reputation, and be patient
You've got to do what you say you’re going to do. This is one of those things where your reputation is so important. ... [Also,] realize that it’s going to take a while. It’s not easy. Don’t be caught up in the buzz or the hype — just focus on the fact that this is going to be a long, hard journey. And hopefully that sets up the right expectations.
This report originated on the VOA Khmer service.