Antler VC Cast Episode 12 — Different founder mindsets with Qiming’s Helen Wong

In this episode, we speak to Helen Wong, a partner at Qiming Venture Partners, about the fascination with social commerce, different cultural mindsets of founders, and the differences in China and Southeast Asia's tech ecosystems. Helen is a veteran in the VC industry, ranked among the top 100 VCs and top 25 female VCs in China in 2018 by Forbes. She has led investments into Akulaku, a new Southeast Asia finance platform, and Jingling Group, a Chinese social E-commerce platform, and was also involved in the investment into Alibaba.  




The investor backing the world's most driven founders, from day zero to greatness. Enabling thousands of founders every year to launch and scale companies that move the world forward.

Key Highlights From Transcript

[14:33] Helen shares her view on the top characteristics of successful founders and explains why founders experience isn't equally valued in all  industries

[21:23] Helen explains differences in founders' mentalities, based on their  cultural background

[28:39] Helen shares her view on the rising popularity of social commerce in Southeast Asia, and whether it has the potential to grow in this ecosystem

On investing during uncertain times

Jussi Salovaara: How is COVID affecting your appetite to invest right now?

Helen Wong: In the beginning, we just wanted to get a sense of where our portfolio was in the face of the challenges from COVID. It was really more about understanding who would be beneficiaries, who would be negatively affected, how much cash runway do they have? Do they need to raise financing - an internal round or can they get external funding?

But in China, the COVID situation recovered really quickly. So I would say we have not slowed down. In fact, there has been a wave of investment activity in particular sectors because the US-China tension is leading to more import substitution in some areas - semiconductors, for example - and the local stock market has been pretty good for exits.

I'd say that consumer internet has evolved to a more mature stage during COVID. And while the whole world has seen acceleration in e-commerce, Southeast Asia is really leading the way, which is quite interesting.

Jussi Salovaara: I'm curious - what's the most exciting company you've seen recently? You want to throw a nugget of gold out there for people to enjoy, like some things that have gotten you really excited lately?

Helen Wong: We have so many, I don't know where to start. We have a company called InfraVision, which uses AI to read your CT scans. So in radiology, it makes it much faster to get a quick diagnosis of whether you have a problem or not. We have a company called WeRide that does autonomous driving: they have robo-taxis running around in Guangzhou right now. So I think those are some that are definitely very interesting.

We also see a big trend in live streaming, which I think is very interesting. Like we have a company doing personal finance and they're actually teaching people who have never traded a stock, don't know what stocks are - just educating them about simple things like that. And people are willing to spend $1,000 for such a course, which you couldn't imagine maybe 10 years ago. So I think all the advances in technology creating the underlying infrastructure where there's live streaming, payments, and other services becoming readily available, that's all very exciting for me.

On the characteristics of successful founders

Puja Bharwani: If you could describe some of the key characteristics that you look at before making an investment decision, what would they be? How have the qualities in a successful founder or business model changed over the years?

Helen Wong: I think the fundamentals have not changed. Typically, I look for a founder whose past experience helps him to fulfil the current vision that he's working on. I look at whether his understanding of industry is adequate, and whether his vision of seeking out a problem and trying to solve that solution makes sense.

The second part would be his leadership qualities. Can he attract talent, manage very smart people, and retain his subordinates? Is he willing to share? Is he generous on options, for example?

And then the third part is his ability to learn. Can he adapt to changing environments? If he meets a challenge, can he overcome it quickly?

I would say these three attributes are very important for founders in any geography, any sector.

Jussi Salovaara: That's very interesting. That seems to be quite a bit of a vote in favor of experience in a founder. If you want to have this 21-year-old student coding in their dorm room, like Mark Zuckerberg, versus an experienced founder. How important is that experience in your mind?

Helen Wong: I think it depends on the industry. So if, for example, we're trying to invest in a social networking company, then it can be a 21 year old founder. He knows all the social networks probably much better than me, he's been an avid user of them, and he sees something that I don't see - an opportunity.

We find that in some of the deep tech companies that we invest in, actually the founders tend to be quite young. But paired with a more experienced manager, that could be a very good, interesting combination.

But on the consumer internet side, especially in China, I think it's a much more mature market. We actually see almost third generation founders. It's harder for somebody who's 21 years old coming out to start something completely new, they're just not on the same level playing field. But if it's something that young people are more attuned to then yeah, maybe getting the young entrepreneur is better.

We used to have this thing here, like VCs born in the seventies, investing in entrepreneurs in the eighties, making money from the 90’s generation. But now that the nineties are almost 30 years old, I think we're shifting our age range for entrepreneurs as well.

On founders across different cultures

Puja Bharwani: Have you noticed differences in the way entrepreneurs pitch, create and execute based on different cultural backgrounds?

Helen Wong: There's definitely a big difference. When I was in Silicon Valley, I think very often, you see highly experienced CEOs that are happy to just be employees with an ESOP pool of maybe 20%.

But when I came to China, it's different. It's very founder-centric. Sometimes if the founder leaves, the company just dies.

And Chinese entrepreneurs tend to be very driven. They work and they persevere. A lot of companies don't die after even 10 years because the founder just perseveres and puts his own money and keeps it going. So I think that is really very indicative of how entrepreneurial the society is in China.

In Southeast Asia, it's a bit different. In general, you don't see that aggressiveness. It's slightly more laid back, the work culture is also a little different and there's a tendency towards getting a multinational team and different country managers in each country. Sometimes I feel like the structure is more corporate than a startup whereas in China, you don't have fancy titles. You don't have people with, how should I say, VP or SVP or all that.

On the ability of Chinese companies to expand to international markets

Helen Wong: I think that in some ways Chinese companies are ready to go overseas. They have accumulated lots of experience in technology and operations. But what they lack is people who understand foreign cultures. Sometimes, especially in some merger and acquisition situations, they may not be able to manage foreign talent very well. There needs to be a lot of learning from both sides.

Another trend I think is very interesting is cross border e-commerce. So we see companies like Shein, which is a fast fashion company doing very well in the US, Europe and even the Middle-East, as well as Anker, which is a power charger company that's gone public. So I think that the supply chain in China is very advanced, and so it makes sense for some of these players to become Global names. And I think that trend will continue.

Jussi Salovaara: What's your sense on the whole US vs China thing, especially recently with TikTok?

Helen Wong: I don't have a crystal ball. I think that TikTok is a very interesting company because they have built such a great ecosystem of creators and are able to distribute the content in such an efficient and automated way. I mean, they started with news and then moved to short videos and now they're also making a move into education.

[The US v China thing] is not something that entrepreneurs or VCs have a lot of control over, so we just have to roll with it. If one place is not welcoming us, we'll just go somewhere else. And the world is big enough. I think that there's enough opportunities around the world.

On the social commerce trend and the differences between China and Southeast Asia

Jussi Salovaara: In Southeast Asia, social commerce keeps popping up everywhere now. You used to get the whole Uber for X or Tinder for Y and now it's social commerce for Z. Do you think that model has proper legs in Southeast Asia?

Helen Wong: What is interesting about Southeast Asia is that you have similar trends to China of huge social media usage as well as high logistics costs. So it makes sense to do some community group buying to lower the logistics costs. And you have a lot of people that want to make money - housewives, students, part-timers, especially during COVID. But it comes back to how do you make things stick? How do you make the agents loyal to your platform? It's not an easy problem to solve. And I think people who solve it can make it big.

I would say there are different core competencies that you need to build on. So one of our companies - Shihuituan or Nice Tuan is the English name - they focus on delivering fresh produce to group leaders in a community. And these group leaders would actually deliver the grocery or organize self-pickup. One of their strengths is knowing the supply chain for fresh produce so they can actually manage the whole warehousing fulfillment in a very low-cost manner.

For Jingling, another one of our companies, they focus on the leftover inventory of fashion brands. So a bit like VIPShop, if you know that model. They basically establish relationships with many, many brands so it's hard for somebody to compete with them. How do you keep them coming back to you? One of it has to be this supply chain advantage that you have. The other part maybe you have some source, some tools to help e-sellers manage their selling more efficiently so that they can just focus on doing the customer service and interaction with their friends and family. I would focus on areas like that.

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