American Vinnie Lauria has his grandparents’ nose for opportunity. Where the couple from Italy moved to the US because they saw the potential for growth in the new world, Lauria decided to settle in Singapore in 2011 after a year of backpacking in South-east Asia. As soon as he got his bearings, he and two others founded Golden Gate Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm that specialises in Internet and mobile start-ups in South-east Asia. With US$60 million (S$80 million) in funds, Golden Gate has stakes in familiar names such as Carousell, Redmart, Codapay and 99.co. More than that, the 37-year-old Lauria has brought the spirit of Silicon Valley with him. Having birthed two start-ups and evaluated countless others through curating technology firms for Silicon Valley gatherings, he is well placed to share his expertise both as investor and entrepreneur. Here, he speaks about a well-known Singapore taboo, the city-state’s start-up ecosystem and trend spotting.
Tell us about failure in Silicon Valley.
There, it is a badge of honour. To learn how to walk, you have to fall down and get back up. In San Francisco, everybody admits that. Here, it feels like a taboo, but it shouldn’t be. In 2012, my wife and I put on an event in Singapore called Failcon that celebrated failure. People talked about mistakes they made, lessons they learned. About 200 people showed up, some had flown in from San Francisco. It was sponsored by the government – the National Research Foundation loved the idea of putting failure on stage.
What did you learn when your first start-up fell apart?
The biggest thing I learned is that every entrepreneur needs to change direction at some point. It’s like a rubber band that snaps when stretched too far. I learned to course correct earlier. When you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you’re blinded to real world data, you’re really optimistic. Going through that failure (Meetro.com, a location-based chat service) grounded me, so now I have a more level headed view of operating a business.
What do you look for when you’re investing in a company?
When we invest, we are investing in people. Going back to this idea of failure. Can they navigate the ship through uncharted, stormy waters? We are making a bet on the team. The second bet is the product or service they are offering. Is it too early, too late, are there a lot of competitors. How does the product fit into the market, with trends in the region, or around the world.
You’ve been in Singapore for seven years. How does the Singapore ecosystem compare to that of the US?
The US ecosystem is like Hollywood. If you want to make a Hollywood movie, which is known globally, with the best talents and large amounts of money – that’s Silicon Valley. The rest of the world will take at least 50 years to get there. I’d rather talk about the similarities.
So what are the similarities?
I felt it in my gut when I was travelling through this region – there are few places in the world that readily welcome people from outside. I had this experience in San Francisco. I quit job at IBM, I was living in a hostel. If I emailed 10 people, 5 would meet up with me. After the meeting, they would ask, “How can I help you? What are you looking to do?” Trust is built very quickly and people open up their network for you. Most people in the world are not like that – Italy, Brazil, New York, Beijing, they are more guarded with their network. It takes more time to establish trust. Singapore is the only place that has reminded me of San Francisco. You literally get off a plane, meet someone, and start a transaction.
Is government support a help or a crutch in entrepreneurship?
Government support has accelerated the ecosystem here, which has achieved in five years what would take decades somewhere else. In Silicon Valley, people forget about that. The Internet, that was military. Major VCs in the US are all government backed. It’s the pension funds, the state funds, endowments that have a lot of state money. In Singapore, it’s heavily driven for growth. But the reality is that the VC industry only existed in the US because the only people who backed it were long term, multi-decade thinkers, and that was the governments.
The Singapore government has injected itself into the ecosystem at different stages with (a timed funding programme). It’s doing a good job of letting money in then turning off the tap off once the system is kickstarted.
How do you identify trends?
I travel a lot; am on the ground. I am in a different country in South-east Asia every week. I meet people, have food in different cities, see how kids use cellphones here compared to those in China or the US, how people get around, the traffic flow. How places outside of the cities in Indonesia or Philippines pay for things. They don’t have a credit card, or a debit card linked to a bank account. They are doing top ups with cash. Only by understanding that first hand were we able to make investments like payment collection firm Codapay. If people in Indonesia want to buy a $2 game credit, they can do that by deducting pre-paid minutes on their phone.
How have you integrated tech into your life?
For someone who invests in tech, I think all of us need to do more about turning it off. I actually turn off all the notifications on my phone except for few urgent numbers – my wife and certain people. If you call my phone right now, it won’t even vibrate. You control when something is going to happen, not somebody else. A lot of times when I travel, the phone is in airplane mode in my backpack for days at a time. I do not want to be interrupted.
Vinnie Lauria will be speaking at Great Minds at the Great Room on Feb 7. Presented by The Peak, the triannual series gathers visionaries from different fields for an evening of insightful sharing.