Dance with Unicorns
He has worked at Focus Report, interviewing senior government leaders, global businessmen. Jun Wakabayashi is now a strategic analyst who has a huge impact on technology startup projects at "AppWorks" and is an inspirational host at Founders Forum that attracts thousands of attention technology startups, founders have just taken place successfully in Taiwan and Ho Chi Minh City. His goal is to help change the world. Do you believe it?
Jun Wakabayashi, you’re an Analyst covering both "AppWorks" Accelerator and Greater Southeast Asia, please tell me more about your business in there?
"AppWorks" is both the largest startup accelerator in a region we like to call "Greater Southeast Asia" (ASEAN+TW) and one of the region’s most active early-stage investors. So we both invest in startups, as well as help incubate them through our equity-free accelerator. When we started in 2010, our efforts were centered on jumpstarting the startup ecosystem in Taiwan. During this time, the first wave of eager entrepreneurs was just starting to figure out how to capitalize on the mobile internet wave. After noticing a similar emergence happening in Southeast Asia and identifying several synergies with Taiwan’s own digital economy and technical talent pool, we began to bridge the two ecosystems closer together, giving birth to the concept of Greater Southeast Asia (GSEA). My mission now is to continue bridging the two ecosystems and establish "AppWorks" as a household name in Southeast Asia.
What community values does "AppWorks" bring to the market?
Our motto is "By Founders, For Founders." This ethos permeates in everything we do. Having been founders ourselves, all of our decisions are made with a founder-first mentality, always catering to their best interests and helping them grow. Our accelerator, for example, is completely free. Contrary to many other accelerators you might come across, we don’t take equity or charge any fees, yet we still provide them with the necessary resources, mentorship, and connections to get their businesses off the ground. That’s because we don’t believe in charging founders for what we do, and we also know that funding can actually be counterproductive in the early stages before a startup reaches product-market fit. That said, if startups reach a point in their journey where a capital injection can significantly help them scale, then we’re happy to initiate those discussions as we also manage a VC fund in parallel.
And I think our value has resonated quite well with founders in the region. Our community now encompasses 351 active startups and 1,044 founders across GSEA. Together, "AppWorks" startups generate US$2.86B in annual revenue, have created 10,115 jobs, and boast an aggregate valuation of US$3.97B.
What strategy does "AppWorks" target in the field of technology?
"AppWorks" focuses on a theme that we call "ABS", that is AI, blockchain, and Southeast Asia. The advent of mobile 10 years ago completely redefined the global paradigm, specifically in how industries work and operate and how people went about living their daily lives. We’re now looking towards the next 10 years, which we believe will be transformed by AI and blockchain, particularly in fast emerging markets such as Southeast Asia that have traditionally "leap-frogged" developed nations in terms of technology adoption. Yes, the majority of talent, data, and capital is currently controlled by big tech—companies like Amazon, Facebook, or Google—we do believe that these two nascent technologies will eventually come down the cost curve and access will be democratized, even among startups. In due time, AI and blockchain will be more of a "must have" rather than "nice to have".
How does a startup approach the investment fund from "AppWorks"?
In some instances, founders will either find a mutual contact to help make a warm introduction or simply reach out to us cold. Though, we highly encourage startups to join our accelerator. It’s a 6 month program in which they get to really know us as investors and for us to get to know them as founders. We believe taking investment should not be decision made on a whim. Founders should only work with people that you trust and believe in your vision, and vice versa for investors.
The general framework that we utilize when evaluating founders are the 3Hs: heart, head, hands. Essentially, that means we look at the founder’s passion and determination, as well as his or her ability to learn and execute.
In terms of ticket sizes, we’re able to write checks ranging from US$200K to US$10M, focusing on the "ABS" theme I mentioned before.
At what stage do you realize that the trend of technology startup in the world is at the stage of development? Which technology trends will lead the market in the near future? What are some signs of a clear shift in global startup trends in recent times?
Globally, startup investment and interest in this space is at an all-time high. The first crop of unicorns that were created 10 years ago are now starting to go public, companies like Uber, Lyft, Slack, and Zoom. Though, not all these stocks are performing as well as many had hoped, so we’ll probably start to see a cooldown in private funding and valuations in the near-term.
The story, however, is a little different in GSEA. It’s a fast-growing region encompassing over 650 million people and the world's third-largest number of internet users, many of which are just now coming to terms with increasing affluence, consumer sophistication, and digital transformation. This has created a massive wave of opportunities that has sprouted the dozen of unicorns in this region that you see today. The first of these unicorns, SEA Group (inclusive of Shopee, Garena, and AirPay) went public on the New York Stock Exchange in November 2017. This was a huge stamp of approval for the region, validating its commercial viability and growth prospects for investors and corporations worldwide.
I believe we’re now entering the next phase of development. Unicorns like Grab, Gojek, Lazada, Tokopedia, Traveloka are increasingly focusing more on customer engagement and retention rather than rapid acquisition. Furthermore, they’re now the ones cultivating the next generation of entrepreneurs, passing down the best practices and technical acumen, while in some cases also serving as exit channels for earlier startups.
The region is still young and land-grab opportunities still abundant. Many of the regional VCs including ourselves have raised US$100M+ funds to help close the series B gap that many of the more mature startups in GSEA will invariably start to face.
Where is Vietnam in "AppWorks" market expansion strategy? How will "AppWorks" approach Vietnam market in the near future? Your assessment of the potential to develop technology trends in Vietnam?
Vietnam is a market with incredible potential. Aside from perhaps Indonesia, no other country offers both the scale and the growth story. Vietnam has a large and young population, fast-growing economy, rising middle class, and massive talent pool. The country’s economic development, rapid urbanization, and digital adoption over the past three decades—going from one of the poorest countries in the world to comfortably middle-income—has also been nothing short of a miracle. Collectively, these factors have opened up an abundance of opportunities for tech startups, ranging from logistics to education to healthcare.
There’s an almost festive-like energy reverberating throughout the local startup scene. The country has been experiencing a level of economic prosperity never before seen, and along with it seemingly igniting a generation of eager entrepreneurs laser-focused on tapping into the limitless possibilities at hand.
However, with emerging ecosystems like Vietnam, the one aspect that is currently lacking and where we can help fill a gap is a founder community, where entrepreneurs can share insights and learn from each other. The country is just now really going through its first wave of entrepreneurship, and many of these entrepreneurs look to other more experienced entrepreneurs for help or advice. As a developed market, Taiwan, on the other hand, has already gone through multiple generations of successful startups and serial entrepreneurs who have already gone down the path that many Vietnamese founders are just now going through—almost like a time machine. In bringing the two markets closer to each other, we hope to facilitate the diffusion of experiences, best practices, and tactics to accelerate the development of Vietnam’s ecosystem.
Please talk more about the Founder Forum series in Taiwan and Vietnam? What is the big lesson you want to convey through the sharing of guest tech founders at events? The impact behind the success of each of these events?
Being a founder is hard. There are so many things going against them, whether it’s technology, talent, regulations, or competition. And above all else, it’s incredibly lonely being a founder. With Founders Forum, we’re trying to get entrepreneurs to talk to each other, learn from each other, swap experiences, stories, and playbooks. At the end of the day, we want to help them shortcut failures and increase the probability of success. And if nothing else, they can hopefully walk away with a new friend, partner, or mentor.
As for the actual facilitation of the event, instead of diving into industry trends, business models, valuations, and market opportunities on the panel—the typical spiel you might hear at conferences—I deliberately decided to touch upon the darker side of entrepreneurship. I'm talking about the rejections, mistakes, screw ups, work-life hardships, and near-death moments.
Why? Because I don't think these things are talked about nearly enough. But I find it's exactly these type of topics that help humanize "success" and elicit a stronger sense of camaraderie and insight among founders. In knowing that there are others just like them going through the same journey, I hope that the other founders in these forums walk away with a newfound sense of empowerment and motivation, and ultimately continue along their path to make an impact in the world.
Through the activities at "AppWorks", how will you inspire the young founder community?
We believe in paying it forward. Our community is now 10 years old, encompassing over 1,000 founders across Greater Southeast Asia. Many of these founders have gone on to build some great businesses, achieve significant milestones, and accumulate invaluable experiences. We regularly tap into these type of founders to facilitate sharing sessions and workshops to pass on their insights and inspire the next generation of founders.
The trend of entrepreneurship spread around the globe thanks to the explosion of technology. The success or failure is only narrowly. What skills should startup founders need?
In the early stages, founders need to learn how to do less with more, validate assumptions with limited resources, and move fast in a hypothesis-driven manner. After finding a scalable business model, founders can then start focusing on cultivating their leadership skills, specifically as it relates to things like communicating effectively and operating efficiently. In the long-term, learning how to fostering a dynamic, yet sustainable culture to develop talent from within will also be paramount.
You previously worked at Focus Reports, interviewing high-level government leaders, global entrepreneurs, what do you find in common about these influential characters? And what do you learn from them?
I’ve probably now met with over 400 of the brightest and most successful minds the world has to offer. And the one thing that is evidently clear is that no such thing as an overnight success. The people I met got to where they are with a bit of luck and a whole lot of grit. Also, they were all in a position that collectively combined three things: a skill they were good at, a market that would pay them, and a personal interest or passion they had. In recognizing this, it really prompted me to understand what exactly is my "superpower" or skill that comes more naturally to me than anyone else, while identifying areas in the market that can effectively leverage it.
Furthermore, many of the people I met didn’t actually have a 30 year master plan that concretely defined a pathway into their current positions. It’s important to have a degree of flexibility and fluidity built into your journey. There’s a book called "Let your life speak" written by Parker Palmer that essentially tells everyone to look at the all the twists and turns your life has taken so far and observe any commonalties that who you truly are. This will help find the intersection of those three things I mentioned earlier: passion, market, and skillset.
Tell a few startup stories that have strongly inspired you?
I still remember this one pair of co-founders from Singapore who had spent the better part of the last 2 decades finding market validation for their plasma fractionation technology — a novel way to extract plasma from donated blood to produce albumin, immune globulins, clotting factors and other proteins for therapeutic use at lower costs and in the end save more lives. Truly disruptive technology, but was way too ahead of its time when they first developed it. Nevertheless, they kept at it, even taking out mortgages of their own houses and risking personal insolvency to carry the company through to its milestones. They’ve since received regulatory approval and the contracts have only been rolling in from there.
For me, I believe passion is contagious. Being able to interact with those gritty, bootstrapping entrepreneurs that are hellbent on driving a change they see in the world is often what keeps me going.
Do you experience failure in your career development so far? What lesson do you learn?
Too many to count haha. But what I’ve learned over the years is that it’s not the successes that define you but the failures, specifically your ability to overcome failure. Life is one long journey that’s riddled with hardships and challenges. But how exactly do you get past those moments where you feel like the world is stacked against you, with no one believing in you? It’s all about your why. Your inner purpose. The one core truth that underpins every single decision you make. Some people say they want to change the world, but why do they want to do it? It could be to create a better future for their children. It could be to prove themselves to their parents who never believed it them. It could be just to fulfill one of their own unmet needs. This level of actualization requires a lot of self-awareness and inner clarity, but it can be achieved by simply asking yourself why several times over.
Is there any luck in your success chapter? What brings you luck in your career? What are the great resolutions to create your own luck?
When it comes to luck, there’s a quote from Jim Collins in his book "Great by Choice" that resonated quite deeply with me: "It’s not the luck you get that counts; it’s what you do with it—your return on luck.". Basically, it assumes that everyone has the same probability of luck. But when you do come across that one key opportunity by chance, it’s about how to take full advantage of it that will really separate the goods from the greats. Beyond that, I believe consistently living your life in line with your values is all you need to do to generate luck.
How did you get to where you are now? Tell us your "how to". Where did you start?
I’ve now traveled to 50 countries, seen some pretty surreal places, accumulated a few experiences worthy of a dinner table sharing or two, and interviewed some of the brightest and most passionate minds on the planet. When I reflect on the progression of my career, the decisions I’ve made, a lot of the major milestones in my life were driven by an incessant habit of asking questions. The key takeaway is that invoking childlike curiosity and asking more questions — however simple or seemingly innocuous — will allow you to learn more about the world, about others, and most importantly about yourself.
You’re now lived in 7 countries outside US and Taiwan, while traveling to upwards of 50 for leisure, collectively highlighting your unique propensity for cross-cultural immersion and international business and expects the same of its influencers. After "AppWorks", are you looking at a brand called "Jun Wakabayashi"?
It’s already in the making, and I’ve been very fortune to work in a company like "AppWorks" that encourages each and every one of our colleagues to create a personal brand—your reputation is the one constant in life and will follow you wherever you go.