Similar to some of my favorite interviewees, it has always taken me a while to keep “researching” them before writing a post, many would take from one to few years. Sure you can’t bring out the best in these cool characters just in one meeting. And Tee Suraphongchai’s based out of Thailand, the only female partner of Venturra Capital – the VC with $US150M under management and also investment brother of MatahariMall, the largest retail chain in Indonesia, is not an exception! One of the very few female partners of VCs in Southeast Asia, or may be the only female VC partner I’ve known in this region, Tee’s career path can not be clearer and very well-programmed to be a VC.
This elegant VC has a privilege to meet and ask any questions every day to one of the most well-respected bankers in Thailand for many years ago, since she was not someone, simply because she’s his daughter. Her dad has challenged her with lots of questions and stimulated her curiosity. These conversations since Plern was a child has shaped her way into the finance and business world. Let’s chat and know more about Tee!
Having lived in the US more than ten years since you were a teenager, attended one of the best universities for Entrepreneurship, Tech and Innovation, how has it shaped your life and critical thinking?
Stanford GSB played a major role in shaping both my life approach and my critical thinking. On a higher level, the strong entrepreneurial and innovative spirit at the school has really pushed me to think bigger and has embedded a notion of “creation” into everything that I do: instead of merely following a path, why not build one for yourself? At the same time, the process of creation also requires strong critical thinking as one must be able to balance vision with execution. As a VC, I constantly have to question the assumptions while evaluating an investment opportunity.
Because we deal with so much unknown, we have to rigorous in our analysis and stay mindful of our own biases.
How is it like one of your typical days?
My days really vary, depending on whether or not I’m on the road (which is about 40% of my time). But most days will be a combination of meeting (whether in person or via phone) with a startup, reviewing the performances of our portfolio companies, doing industry research – particularly for those sectors with which we are not as familiar, and catching up with other investors to discuss current market trends and sentiments.
Your dad is your most influential person in life. You mentioned that he is not good at tech knowledge but still knows how to spot the right thing, how did you apply this lesson in life?
Well, I don’t know if he would be able to spot the right investment opportunity given it’s not his expertise, but he is aware enough that technology will surely transform the way we’ve been doing business and that we must embrace it or otherwise be devoured. And the right time to do so is when one still has positive momentum so that one can leverage on it – along the existing goodwill – to make some bold decisions.
This notion can be applied to various aspects of life and work – one should not wait until the downturn to start thinking about making changes. Rather, we should anticipate that change is inevitable and constantly be aware and ready to adapt to what is about to come.
You have worked for Central Retail and also havequickly grown your restaurant Little Beast into a well-ranked upscale one in Bangkok. One is very big and very customer service -oriented, one is very practical and cash-flow driven. Generally they’re very down to earth which different from startups are usually in “over the moon” thinking, what are the lessons from these businesses that startups could learn, especially ecommerce ones?
What should be common in every business – whether big or small, domestic or international, tech-driven or service-driven – is that the fundamental of the business has to make sense.
We generally don’t mind start ups that are “over the moon” in their thinking because ambition and optimism are important, but the business model and operation have to also be sustainable in and of itself.
Therefore, we feel strongly that VC capital be used to accelerate real growth and not create an artificial growth that is not sustainable in the long run. For example, a lot of e-commerce companies are using VC money to subsidize sales in order to grow revenue, but the reality of it is that the company is actually losing money on every transaction. This is a luxury that a more traditional company would never have, and a case where the fundamental of the business does not make sense.
Your favorite investment approach is “Invest in Lines, not Dots” eg emphasize the whole executing progress of the founders rather than just see the results, what do you want to see in a Line of a potential startup?
I believe in “Invest in Lines, not Dots” because I believe in building a relationship with the founders before both sides decide to commit to working together. This is because a result is merely a reflection of a point in time; because we operate in such a dynamic environment, it is more important to consider the way the founders get to that result rather than the result in itself.
Meeting founders over a period of time gives us a much better understanding as to how the founders will deal with the uncertainty of the future – how flexible, adaptive, and responsive they will be.
At the same time, it also gives founders a chance to evaluate VCs as well so that they are also aware of the way we think and operate. Again, this is a two-sided and long term relationship, so we both should be making a decision with as many data points as possible.
What are the key different points between Thai and Indonesia startup ecosystem? and differences between Thai founders and Indonesian founders? What should they learn from each other?
Right now the key difference between the Indonesian and Thai ecosystems is the bigger presence of active larger investors in Indonesia – both domestic and international. Due to its large market size, Indonesia makes a lot of sense as an entry point for these larger funds who needs to generate outsized returns not only in relative but also absolute values.
Because of these investors, Indonesian founders have been forced to think much bigger and more aggressively in terms of the vision and the scale of their businesses. I think this is definitely something Thai founders can learn from their Indonesian counterparts.
At the same time, Thai founders are very good at not expanding too quickly before ensuring that they have product market fit.
There is a fine balance there in terms of the pace of expansion, and here is where both sides can learn from each other.
Some of your recent deals Shopback (SG), Zilingo (TH) all foreign founders while you’re Thai and based out of Thailand. Why did you decide to make investment to these startups? News for Thai startups will be coming soon?
For us, we always invest in the best founders regardless of where they are from – not only do we care about their visions and drive, we also look for proofs of execution given we are Series A/B investors.
Both Shopback and Zilingo have shown all of these qualities.
We are of course eager to invest in Thai startups and hope to add some to our portfolio in the future.
You’re investing in Vietnam market, any sharing for Vietnamese entrepreneurs preparing to raise fund out of Vietnam? what are they strong at and what should be improved?
To be honest, we are still very new to the Vietnamese market and are still learning about it.
The one thing we have observed is that the Vietnamese market is probably one of the most localized in the region, with local operators really dominating and with fewer foreign players. At the same time, there are also fewer Vietnamese companies that are regional.
Because of this localized nature, a lot of the Vietnamese operations are tougher to scale abroad and so
It is important for Vietnamese entrepreneurs to really clarify its vision: does the company aim to stay only in Vietnam and achieve big market share, or does it plan to expand regionally? If so, how it would scale such a localized operation?
Reading is your favorite activity, how do you find good reads, then how would you schedule to read them daily/weekly/monthly? What’s your way to process and absorb information from each book you have read? any good books for startups, especially the ones in Thailand?
I read a lot both for work and for pleasure, and sometimes these two tend to blend together. Not counting some of the tech blogs or newsletters I read on a daily basis (usually in the morning to stay updated on what’s going on in the world), I usually don’t schedule a time to read but have generally found that reading is a great way to pass time at the airport and on the plane. I also read a lot before bed as it’s a great way to decompress.
I use my kindle mostly for reading and so use the highlight function a lot of save passages that I find insightful and interesting so that I can go back to them later.
As for books for startups, I would recommend “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.” I have always loved life stories and just being able to have some insights into how such an ambitious and innovative figure like Elon Musk thinks is inspiring.
What & where would you spend most of your time in the next six months?
I still see myself traveling a lot in the region to meet with startups and other investors. I would however like to allocate a bit more my time to working with my portfolio companies as well as get up the learning curve on new sectors so as to be able to be more proactive in investing into these new areas.
Good bye Tee! See you in another chat. If you’re lucky, you will run into Tee while she’s biking on Bangkok road, sailing at Pattaya, or sit next to her on a flight to somewhere in Asia where’re she’s heading for a business meeting.