27 min read

Birthing Southeast Asia’s New Tech Giants

500 Global made its first investment in the region 10 years ago. Managing Partner Vishal Harnal looks back at his and 500’s journey, and tells us what’s in store for the future.

Zina Moukheiber

Senior Director of Global Communications

Published

28.10.22

Vishal Harnal has had more than a ringside seat to Southeast Asia’s transformation into a hotbed of innovation. He was an active enabler of the ecosystem–along with Managing Partner Khailee Ng. 500 Global is a prominent backer of some of the region’s 52 unicorns, according to TechInAsia, including Grab, Bukalapak, Carsome, and FinAccel. Those companies are now giving birth to a pool of new entrepreneurs, who will further enrich the ecosystem. Waiting to be deployed into those startups is an estimated $15 billion in dry powder. 

Vishal shares those insights and more on this episode of Rise of the Next.

 

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TRANSCRIPT

Shereen Abdulla 

Vishal, welcome to Rise of the Next.

Vishal Harnal 

Thanks, Shereen, it’s good to be on the show. 

Shereen Abdulla 

It’s so wonderful to have you on the show. I’d love to start by asking you to tell us about yourself and how you got into venture capital from being a lawyer and startup founder yourself.

Vishal Harnal 

Wow, I think being an entrepreneur, and then I wouldn’t even call that a startup, and then moving into law into venture was quite a serendipitous journey for me, to be honest with you. I started my first company when I was doing my military service in university in Singapore. Back then there was no startup or venture ecosystem. So me and the partner with which I was building the company, we had no real support or sense of what we were doing. And through that journey, got a little bit lost and decided to take separate paths, close down the company. I became a lawyer, because that’s what I felt people who had my skill sets and abilities should have done, and he became a banker. And after many years of doing that, I realized that I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. It wasn’t giving me joy and nor was it tapping into what I felt I really wanted to do with my life. So I started to do what anyone in a mid-career crisis mode does and I applied to business school because I thought it was going to fulfill all of my answers of what I wanted to do with life.

And it was during this time that I met a couple of folks from 500, serendipitously, that happened to be in Southeast Asia starting off this practice over here in venture capital. I knew nothing about venture capital, and I knew nothing about what you would call the modern startup ecosystem at all. All I knew is that it resonated with me very strongly, because the thought of helping other entrepreneurs, or people who were taking risks to build businesses, and supporting them with capital, with expertise, with network, I thought was a very, very powerful proposition and may have changed the trajectory of my own life had it been available to me. 

 And so, despite not knowing very much about it, that’s how I started my journey in 500 and in VC. And, oddly enough, it’s been eight years and I’ve never gone to business school either. That’s not a path that I ended up taking. Instead, I learned through the school of hard knocks of investing in over 200 companies over the last eight years with 500 and building the entire firm along with my fellow partners.

Shereen Abdulla 

So, I’d love to hear about how the VC ecosystem in Southeast Asia has evolved since you joined 500 in 2015. 

Vishal Harnal 

It’s interesting, one of the reflections I have about investing across ecosystems, especially new ecosystems, is that the mind is unable to truly comprehend how quickly things can change. When we started investing in 2014/2015, there was three single billion-dollar company in the entirety of Southeast Asia in the startup ecosystem. And every year since then, it was trudging along with one or two new billion-dollar companies that rise in the ecosystem.

In 2021, there were 25 new billion-dollar companies formed in just that year alone. And it’s just a sign of an inflection point that the ecosystem’s reached. When we started, you could probably fit all of the VCs in the entire ecosystem into my small living room, and we all just gathered, it was like a little cottage industry. And now you’ve got the full stack of capital, all the way from idea right up to IPO, with funds and firms that have built capital stacks, that have built pools of expertise to support founders across their entire journey, and it’s manifested itself in the amount of dry powder that we have in VC, that’s lying around, that’s waiting to be deployed, in the number of billion-dollar companies. And, most of all, in the very acute change in mindset in Southeast Asia about being an entrepreneur. And I think that’s really a linchpin of building entrepreneurial ecosystems.

In 2014/ 2015. If you were to say, I’m going to quit my job and become an entrepreneur, or I’m going to drop out of university and become an entrepreneur, unlike Silicon Valley and unlike China, over here, people would have thought you were insane. No one would have even respected the concept of you being an entrepreneur. And now, it’s a whirlwind of change, and it’s primarily because of the success that the startup ecosystem has had because we have so many successful companies. 

If I were to wind back and talk about our own journey, we were very fortunate. We were the first investors in some of the landmark companies in Southeast Asia. We did Grab which was the largest listing of a tech company in Southeast Asia on the NASDAQ through a SPAC. We did Bukalapak, which was the largest technology listing in Indonesia when it went public last year. Prenetics, which went public just a few months ago. Carsome, which is now a billion-dollar company. FinAccel, which is now a billion-dollar company, and many more like that within the portfolio that are really shooting through the ranks. 

And on top of this, just the billion-dollar companies and the listings, many of these companies are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, as well. And it’s really a sign, not only of our ability to invest and have great founders come to us, but more than that, also a sign of the phenomenal growth that we’re seeing in the Southeast Asian ecosystem over here,  and what a long way to come.

If I were to add on to that — now, what’s happening in Southeast Asia is you’re seeing the second generation of entrepreneurs coming into the fray. These are people that are leaving the billion-dollar companies, who have seen the journey of building a startup from idea to IPO or idea to growth, and now have the vernacular, the skillset, the expertise necessary to build companies like that as well. So, the learning in the ecosystem has really magnified itself over time very, very quickly, and we underestimate how fast that happens, especially in newer ecosystems.

Shereen Abdulla 

Now, Vishal, you mentioned that there has been tremendous growth over the last seven to eight years — what have been the drivers of venture capital in VC in the region?

Vishal Harnal 

I’d say the biggest driver of capital in the region is opportunity. And what I mean by that is that entrepreneurs are building companies that are worth backing, and are capturing and capitalizing on billion-dollar opportunities within those markets. Capital usually flows to chase those opportunities, and if they didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have money coming in. What the sea of change was, the number and quality of people building billion-dollar companies in Southeast Asia and taking their learnings and taking their knowledge and really scaling those businesses across the entire region. And now, it started off with a nexus of Singapore and Indonesia and Malaysia. Now we’re seeing those trends in Thailand and Vietnam, and even in the Philippines, in Southeast Asia. So,  it’s spreading like contagion, both capital and entrepreneurial zeal and spirit to build new technology companies.

Shereen Abdulla 

Speaking of opportunities, what are some of the current opportunities in the region?

Vishal Harnal 

Oh, wow. You know, I like to use this analogy a lot, which is that in any given year in a startup ecosystem, the opportunities that you see are like vintages of wine, which is — they shift with the terroir, right? Every year, the weather’s a little bit different, the soil is a little bit different, time of harvest may be a little bit different, the quality of the grapes may be different — and it influences what you’ll be investing in, in that current year. So over time, we’ve seen it evolve from when we started investing in 2015, where the dominant trends were really e-Commerce, FinTech, and e-commerce enablement in general, to now in 2020 where there’s a much deeper variety of companies that you can invest in. 

So I’d say that in any startup ecosystem, many of the first opportunities follow what is similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — if you remember studying that in school? You have the base of the pyramid, which are your essential needs. And what are your essential needs? You need a shelter, right? So you have property portals that allow you to buy and sell property. You need to buy things, in general, so you have horizontal eCommerce. You want to sell stuff, so there’s usually classifieds portals. You need a job so you can earn income, there are job portals. You need to travel in and out of the country, so there’s travel portals. And you want to travel within the country, so there’s ride-hailing. And so, it almost forms the base of that pyramid, and in any given ecosystem you usually have technology platforms that start over there and then start building on top of that.

Version two then builds up on top of version one, which is, now that you have an e-ecosystem, you need sufficiently efficient logistics to send people the things that they need. So that starts really rising. You need a FinTech ecosystem so people can start really transacting and paying online, whether they’re just pure-play financial services, or payments, to more sophisticated things like, for example, insurance, or micro-insurance, which is now taking off in Southeast Asia. And so, the categories just build up that way, leveraging new technologies, and really trying to hunt for new problems as certain verticals get taken care of by older startups and older companies. 

So, now in Southeast Asia, it’s quite interesting, we’re seeing a resurgence of many different themes. One of the underinvested areas in Southeast Asia is health care and education. So, among all the areas that we’ve seen in venture, these two sectors seem a little bit under-invested. So, we are starting to deploy more capital within those opportunities across Southeast Asia. Another trend we’ve seen, is what we call internally the concept of sustainable cities. Now, this covers everything from conscious consumption, to energy, power, agricultural technology, and the likes. And the main motivation is really that there’s always been a desire to do good. But now there’s really been a sea change in the way it’s been done because governments have started to regulate from top down, making what used to be a good corporate social responsibility thing to appear good into something that is necessary to be done. And consumers have started to change their behavior bottom up. So the amount of dollars in their wallet that they’re willing to spend on something that is more sustainable, on something that is more environmentally friendly, on something that supports a social cause has increased, and it’s that delta that really gives the opportunities for startups to build companies.

The third one — and there are many other trends, but I’ll touch on one more before we move on — is that Southeast Asia has, until now, been the story of cities, and it’s not really been the story of countries. It’s been the story of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, Manila, Jakarta, and not really Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines. What’s happened is that startups always coalesce and start in tier-one cities, the main capitals, and you build up ecosystems there. But as those ecosystems become more vibrant and more competitive, entrepreneurs start to seek opportunities outside just tier-one cities. And so, we’re seeing a lot happen, especially in the larger countries like Indonesia, which has 270 million people and is the fourth largest country in the world, entrepreneurs are starting to move out of those cities and tackle problems faced in rural areas. So one of the companies that we’ve invested in eFishery, is one of the fastest-growing and most promising companies in Southeast Asia — they tackle problems relating to fish farms. Indonesia is one of the largest fish exporters in the world, but fish-rearing techniques have been primitive and is rife with middlemen, theft, and all sorts of other problems that eFishery is trying to solve. So, we call this trend rural digitization, which is the opportunities that present themselves outside tier-one cities that entrepreneurs are chasing. And what’s interesting is that what we see over here in Southeast Asia, you’re probably going to be able to see and scale in different parts of the world, in new markets as they come online as well.

Shereen Abdulla 

With all the ever-changing opportunities, how do you stay at the forefront of innovation?

Vishal Harnal 

Wow, that’s hard, Shereen, but I’ve got to say it’s made easy by a few things. The first is that I am innately curious about everything that’s happening around me — always reading, always speaking to entrepreneurs building new companies, I love being on the ground, and I have an innate interest in technology. So, I think that that helps. The second is that I’m very fortunate that we have a phenomenal team that is just like that, as well. They are infinitely more curious than I am, infinitely more driven than I am, and they’re able to keep us abreast on what are the new technological changes that are taking place within the ecosystem.

It’s all about the curiosity, whether you have an innate interest in this to begin with, because it doesn’t feel like work then — it’s easier to stay abreast on all of these matters then. And speaking with the entrepreneurs on the ground when new ideas are coming up, and being willing to ideate and be creative with them about new technologies and solutions, or new technologies and the problems that they can solve, always helps you stay a little bit ahead of the curve.

I feel like my mind works in a way where I like knowing a little bit about everything. So I have this very broad dilettante-like knowledge and then I go deep into a few areas that I may care about a little bit more than others.

Shereen Abdulla 

Now, 500 in the region has invested in over 270 companies. I’m curious, Vishal, do you see the current investment strategy shifting?

Vishal Harnal 

The best way for me to answer that is to say that we’re not really changing the strategy, but we’re building and adding on it. And I can give you a little bit of history or background on that. 500 as a firm really made its bones in doing early-stage investing. So the idea was, we build broad, diversified portfolios of companies, it allows us to back many different founders who are building amazing and incredible startups, while at the same time offsetting some of the risk of doing venture. The large portfolios have proven themselves out to work, and that approach, at least to our fund returns, seems to have manifested itself quite well. Now, where we’ve realized that we want to play bigger, and we’ve started to build this over the last five or six years, is in not just providing our entrepreneurs with early-stage funding, but really supporting them throughout their entire capital journey. So over the last five or six years, we started by doing special purpose vehicles at the later stages, funding entrepreneurs at Series B, C, even Pre-IPO rounds, along with our investors and LPs. 

Now we’re in the business of doing growth investing, as well. We started growth practices in Malaysia, we’re doing pan-Southeast Asia growth, as well. We’re moving up the chain so that when an entrepreneur comes to 500, they’re not just coming to us for early-stage capital, but we can be a resilient capital partner to them throughout their entrepreneurial journey. And so that way, we’re building more of a platform approach as opposed to just being an early-stage investor. And that’s not just true in Southeast Asia, but we’re making that happen across the world.

Shereen Abdulla 

Now, is there anything that 500 is doing to support founders in Southeast Asia specifically?

Vishal Harnal 

You know, it’s interesting — I think that in every region, there’s some commonalities between what founders need and there’s some differences in how you can help and support them. When Khailee Ng and I started to build the 500 practice in Southeast Asia, at that time  we were trying to do everything for everyone. There was two of us, just two of us managing this very large portfolio and we kept investing on a weekly basis into new companies and trying to be everything to every founder, whether it was sitting on their boards, helping them hire, helping them think through strategy, helping them with the fundraising, with PR/ press/ communications, then connecting them with other founders in the network, helping them organize events, find office space. We were doing a little bit of everything, and I think as the portfolio grew in size, we decided to pause and ask ourselves, “Hey, wait, I don’t think that this is the best approach for us because it’s not scalable or sustainable, and we’re not necessarily playing to our strengths.” So what we decided to do is say, “What are the most important things that the founders in our ecosystem need? And are we best placed to provide that?”

Shereen Abdulla 

Vishal, you mentioned Khailee, do you mind introducing to the listeners who Khailee is, for context?

Vishal Harnal 

Khailee, oh, he’s a hard man to describe. He’s like this renaissance visionary, that is my partner with whom we built 500 in Southeast Asia. He’s also a Managing Partner, like me, of 500 globally, and he also sits on the board of 500. I’m sure everyone in the 500 ecosystem knows who he is, everyone in the Southeast Asian ecosystem knows who he is.

Vishal Harnal 

So we came up with a list of three things. The first thing, and the most important thing, is fundraising. If you’re an entrepreneur, it is very unlikely that your seed round of capital is going to be your last round of capital. It’s probably the start of your journey on capital raising. And for entrepreneurs, it’s going to be the first time they’ve raised a Series A, raised a Series B, raised a Series C, spoken with other investors in the ecosystem, building those relationships with other investors in the ecosystem. But for us, we would have done it hundreds of times because of the pace at which we are investing and our familiarity with the ecosystems in our networks. So we built out a team just to help the founders in our portfolio companies raise capital — because if they succeed in raising capital, it’s great for them, they are able to get another chance at building the company, and for us, it means that the fund returns are good, and we can provide great returns to our investors as well. So there’s almost complete alignment in that area, which is why it’s one of the core focus areas. And we continue to try and improve and professionalize that fundraising practice for our founders. 

The second thing that we offer a lot of help and support in is media, press, and communications. And I know this sounds like a little bit of an odd one, but we really specialize in doing that for our founders, as well, for a few reasons. The first is, many founders don’t like talking about themselves. There’s this, sort of, an aversion to speaking out loud, or preference to remain in stealth. And that actually hurts the companies in the longer run, because if people don’t know who you are, you’re less likely to get customers, you’re less likely to be able to hire talented people, and of course, get capital or partnerships down the line. We have an in-house press and media and communications expertise, external relationships with parties, so founders don’t have to worry about that messaging. We can help them really get the message out, take on their narrative for them, and help them really secure the best public-facing version of themselves that they can get. And the idea then is, by having this paper trail on the internet, by having their stories being told, it helps them raise capital in the future. 

I think we also may take that to a bit of an extreme because we have a daily newsletter that goes out called The Daily Markup that talks about all of the news in the portfolio companies, effectively every day. So, that distribution is very, very wide, and I think our founders really love that, in addition to the much more surgical help we get them with press, PR, media, comms.

Now the last one, and this is quite powerful across 500, is the 500 network. Now we always talked about this, that 500 has almost 3,000 portfolio companies, we’re in 80 different markets, we have people on the ground and so many different countries — how do we find a way for founders to really leverage that, given that we’re literally a degree of separation from anyone on the planet they need to connect to?

And so, creating systems, processes, communication channels, and finding ways for founders to connect with each other, and with their networks, is something that we’ve devoted a lot of time and attention to. And you may know that Santiago is doing that on the portfolio support basis, on a more structural basis, globally. But for us, we also try and create more bespoke connections based on the needs of the founders. 

Shereen Abdulla 

Vishal, you mentioned Santiago, do you mind introducing to the listeners who he is?

Vishal Harnal 

Santiago is also one of my fellow Managing Partners at 500. He runs the Latin America part of our practice, and also the portfolio support part of the practice for 500 globally.

Shereen Abdulla 

We’ve also had him on a recent episode of Rise of the Next, talking about 500 LatAm’s 10-year anniversary and the evolution of the ecosystem there.

Vishal Harnal 

Oh, that’s fantastic. That’s amazing. You know, it’s funny, we’re also celebrating our 10-year anniversary of investing in Southeast Asia. And everyone was down in Singapore just a few weeks ago, and it was so wonderful to host everyone over here.

One great example I have is that one of the founders of a company that we have in Indonesia called RedDoorz, Amit, he sits on the board of one of the companies in 500’s portfolio in Latin America, that’s doing the same thing in that market — they happen to connect through 500 and decided that it will be great for them to have insights, knowledge support from a founder-to-founder basis of how to build and scale these businesses across different markets, and it’s something that they’ve been highly appreciative of. So, it’s the many, many stories across the 500 network like this, and I think finding a way to leverage it and make it of value and service to founders is something that we spend time and attention on.

Shereen Abdulla 

Vishal, you mentioned fundraising — now, when meeting LPs new to investing in Southeast Asia, what are the questions you get asked most often?

Vishal Harnal

I think the questions that LPs ask, or investors ask, differ from what type of an investor they are. Institutional investors, for example, are looking at deploying large amounts of capital across multiple vintages of funds. So they’re looking for consistency, for reliability, for predictability of returns across fund cycles. And one of the great things about Southeast Asia is that, since we’ve now had such a raft of billion-dollar companies come into fruition, it’s occurring with much more regularity and it’s giving institutional investors a lot more faith and confidence in investing in Southeast Asia, which is why we’ve seen so much of their capital coming to market. 

Another thing that’s been interesting is because of what’s happening in China, with the country really clamping up and closing down, a lot of the Asia allocation is now starting to look elsewhere, and Southeast Asia is a very, very natural port, given how vibrant the ecosystem is in the market right now. 

Now, if I’m talking about family offices, and the world’s billionaires, they tend to be a little bit more affected by market swings and markets’ raise. So, right now, I think the main concern on everyone’s mind is the resilience of the global economy from their perspective and how resilient this growth is going to be and where to park that money for now. And one of the interesting lessons we had and I gave a keynote address on this at the SuperReturn conference that happened in Singapore a few weeks back, is that venture ends up being an extremely resilient asset class, even during economic downturns. And, there’s enough data and information that’s available on this, and it gives investors that are from family offices, a lot of comfort in knowing that at least part of their capital should be parked in diversified, into venture, not just into the US markets but really into markets like Southeast Asia where the growth rate is estimated to be a lot higher. 

Now, the third group of LPs, which are corporates and strategic investors that are really coming into the fray, are trying to understand what is the best way that they have to work with startups and innovative startups in the ecosystem. A lot of interesting technologies are being developed in Southeast Asia by companies building over here. And so, corporates and strategic investors who have a certain angle or aim that they want to fulfill, whether it’s in the creation of new business, in offsetting costs relating to their existing businesses really are looking to hunt more for startups, especially if their balance sheets are large. Right now, it’s a great time to be acquisitive.

Shereen Abdulla 

Now, you’ve let us know what investors can expect in the next year — what about founders, what can they expect?

Vishal Harnal 

One of the key things founders should expect is a longer cycle for fundraise. There’s a lot of capital that’s sitting in Southeast Asian dry powder — by our estimates, it’s something like $8 billion that has to be deployed [this report puts the number at $15 billion]. It’s just being deployed at a far slower rate, and much more cautiously. So, if you’re a founder, instead of allocating, let’s say, six months to a fundraise, you should probably go on more to eight months to a year when you are raising capital, because investors are being a little bit cautious as they’re trying to understand and figure out where the markets are going to lie. But don’t lose faith because there is plenty of capital in the ecosystem that is able to be deployed to startups in Southeast Asia.

Shereen Abdulla 

Aside from that piece of advice, is there any closing comment or advice you’d give to founders or investors to that matter?

Vishal Harnal 

I guess the most prescient advice I can give to founders and investors, or any participants in the startup or venture ecosystem, is that what we’re experiencing right now, in terms of the market cycle, is just that — it’s a cycle. The human memory is quite frail and short-lived, but this has happened time and time and time and time and time before. And for newer ecosystems like Southeast Asia, both investors and founders and the other stakeholders in the ecosystem, are working out what the playbook is for a bear market. We know what the playbook is called a bull market, because that’s how we’ve been investing for the last eight years, nine years — and it’s been a phenomenal run. Right now, we’re just developing the playbook and a thesis for investing in bear markets and people are going to learn and overcome that, as well. And when the cycle returns, as it always does to a bull market, we’re going to continue, and this is going to just repeat itself. So don’t be disheartened by what’s happening now. It’s just cyclical and a facet of participating in this wonderful and innovative technology ecosystem that we’re all in.

Shereen Abdulla 

Super. Vishal, thank you very much for your time. 

Vishal Harnal

Thanks, Shereen.

Shereen Abdulla

It was wonderful to have you on the show.

 

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Zina Moukheiber

Senior Director of Global Communications

Zina is the Senior Director of Global Communications at 500 Global. She was previously a journalist at Forbes where she spent two decades covering a wide range of sectors, including technology and science. She initiated regular coverage of the biotech industry, penning cover stories on emerging technologies and drug developers, and created a blog on the intersection of healthcare and technology. Zina helped launch the first Arabic edition of Forbes, Forbes Arabia, and later became the Group Editor of Forbes Middle East.

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