The good, the bad, and the unexpected: What entrepreneurs learned from building a startup in 2021

Let’s face it, entrepreneurship and building a startup from the ground up are hard work. Add a global pandemic with variant strains, unforeseen lockdowns, and nationwide vaccine campaigns to the mix, and what you get is a lot more uncertainty.

The highs and lows that startup founders have had to go through the last 18 months to start a company and get funding are the result of hard work, a robust complementary team, and the ability to persevere and be adaptable to various challenges.

Founders from the recent Antler Southeast Asia cohorts shared with KrASIA some of their experiences as they navigated through this year to reach a milestone in their early-stage journey—to present their companies to the world at the  Antler Southeast Asia Demo Day on July 22.

These teams are building a future where tech shapes and changes the way we work, live, socialize, invest, and learn. As they innovate, a trend they have kept in mind is the decentralization of everything—to make knowledge, work, capital, security, and the online world more accessible to everyone, they told us.

Southeast Asia’s peaked tech landscape

The demographic profile of founders from each new cohort at Antler reflects the stage of Southeast Asia’s tech landscape. It has matured a lot since its humble beginnings and has reached a crucial point with SPACs and mergers taking place and more emerging unicorns. In terms of talent, this region is arguably at its peak. We have serial entrepreneurs who have successfully exited their own companies and are now returning to the market. Many of these exceptional people have chosen to join the Antler program.

Our most recent Southeast Asia cohorts include founders who have worked in a startup before (72%), those who have previously founded a company (59%), and entrepreneurs that have exited a company as a founder or executive (12%).

While 2020 saw a slowdown in VC funding, there was a huge pickup in Q1 2021. Despite the pandemic’s economic impact, tech has proven to be resilient globally and in Southeast Asia. Funding in the region is expected to hit a record in 2021, with startups having raised USD 6 billion from VCs in just the first quarter this year.

“The highs can be very simple at the early stage of building your company,” said Chad Richts of cybersecurity risk management and strategy platform Cysense.

 “When I tell someone about what we’re working on, and they immediately understand the problem and get excited by the solution, I get a great feeling, whether they are customers, investors, or potential employees.

In contrast, sometimes we get some signs that we need to go back to the drawing board, like when your target customer just doesn’t get it,” Richts said. “I’ve had to learn to explain the business better because it’s a very complex space.”

CHAD

The founders of Cysense, Chad Richts (left) and Carlos Leyva.

For Nida Shahar of application deployment and orchestration platform provider Nife, the entrepreneurship journey has been bittersweet over the last 18 months. Yet, despite these challenging times, she found her co-founder Murthy Bjas, and Nife was born.

“There have been many highs during this journey, such as raising funds, getting the first purchase order, and inking our first deal. But, there have also been incredible low points. At my lowest point, I couldn’t pay salaries. I was living on borrowed money, and I really didn’t know if I should give up on the idea of building a company,”

NIDA

Working and building a company in the ‘new normal’

One of the broadly welcomed benefits founders mentioned from the pandemic is the mindset shift towards remote work. In today’s world, founders are increasingly able to hire the best person for the job, regardless of where they are based. But with these benefits also come challenges.

“Starting a business in the middle of a pandemic was definitely a challenge. For our employees, we knew very early that we wouldn’t offer a traditional office-based business. We allowed employees to be fully remote if they choose to, while we also provided them the option (lockdown permitting) to come into the office,”

Justin Kong, the founder of Payd.

From a client’s perspective, they also had to realize the impact of not having in-person meetings. “We needed to have a lot more touchpoints with our clients, and we’ve focused on being as available to them as we could through various means of communication. While it’s still not the same as seeing someone face to face, we’ve managed to adequately show clients that we care and are constantly available for them,” Kong added.

For Zabrina Chew and Vasilisa Mishuhina of social discovery platform Soda, the “new normal” is a daily topic of discussion.

“Soda is a platform built around people and social discovery, and the way people work and play is intrinsic to that. That’s why we’re designing sustainable solutions to address the impact that the pandemic has had on our social fabric and support networks, as well as the future of work."

ZABRINA

Zabrina Chew (left) and Vasilisa Mishuhina are the founders of Soda.

Many startups, including networking platform SudoHERO, took advantage of the pandemic-triggered technological boom to create a product out of the turbulence. As the use and dependency on technology exploded, Chris Chandler and his co-founders Udit Veerwai and Lionel Giles built a SaaS platform and freelance marketplace to provide developer engineering support resources to companies in need.

For social discovery food marketplace Eateroo, the product validation and roll-out journey were very insightful in understanding the evolving behavior of their customers in the Indonesian market.

“We constantly listened to our users and studied our app analytics to understand consumer behavior. We realized that our users were looking to network and socialize over their shared interests in food, and we iterated by developing social engagement features, online competitions, foodie meetups, socially relevant food content, and gamified points system. COVID-19, in a way, helped accelerate the consumer shift to online engagement and social interaction,”

The pandemic pushed everyone into the “new normal.” Still, it was also a reminder for startup founders about being responsive and flexible to create relevant products and services while always having multiple alternative plans for the future.

Tune into Antler Southeast Asia’s Virtual Demo Day on July 22 at 5 p.m. SGT at demoday.antler.co/singapore

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