It’s been one year. What an intense and crazy ride it’s been! Since it’s also Thanksgiving, I thought I’d stop for a moment to recall and be grateful for all the things I’ve learned and achieved this past year.
1. Raised $600mm In Under 9 Months
I joined Grab post-Series C, not knowing what exactly I’d signed up for, but with an open mind to do whatever I could do to help grow the business. I got off to an exciting start when my first job was to work on the $250mm Series D financing – what was then the biggest venture funding round in Southeast Asia. It was an exhilarating learning process. In particular, I’m extremely grateful to one of my teammates who graciously got me up to speed on a lot of Grab history and information, without which I couldn’t have got into things so quickly.
When it came to Series E, I grew professionally through running the deal fully without much of a precedent or guide as to how a $350mm round can be raised. I had to make judgment calls that influenced the deal, build a team, negotiate with investors, run investor calls and meetings independently, deepen my knowledge of the investor universe, and really work hard to earn my stripes in fundraising. I’m grateful to a very supportive group of shareholders, and proud of the Grab team for growing the business so quickly.
Leading fundraising at Grab has been an incredible journey and totally unexpected learning curve, given such a unique time in the ridesharing industry’s evolution. Each venture financing round has unique and open-ended issues and challenges, which require gumption, judgment, solid deal skills, and the ability to think strategically.
2. Continue To Scale By Building A Great Team
I ran a one-man show for the first 3 months, until I finally came to my senses to hire. It was a bit of a mistake to hire so late, since I really struggled for a while when the responsibilities piled on, but the resources did not catch up. Startups grow so fast and will always outgrow the capability of an individual, no matter how outstanding he or she is. My experience in finance was that, even at the highest levels, being an individual contributor matters way more than building a great team. This is totally not the case with startups. You are only as good as your team. I’ve learned that recruiting is probably the most crucial skill to have as a leader in a startup, because the only way startups scale successfully is by hiring super teams.
The best thing that I’ve done in the past year is making two absolutely terrific hires who are keen, competent and have great personalities. Perhaps even more importantly, I truly enjoy their company and working with them, and it’s been great fun being on this journey with them. I’ve learned how to become a better manager and leader. I’m now starting to hire again for new roles in the team, and I’m super excited to see how the team will grow and evolve.
3. Survived The Lows
As exciting as the highs are, startup life also comes with many lows. Failures, frustrations, slip-ups, burnout, disappointments, anger, feeling down in the pits, having to solve for things that are out of my control, despair, flat out losing it – you name it, I’ve been there this year. But I live to tell the tale, and I’m thankful to everyone who’s helped and encouraged me along the way.
4. Pushing And Redefining The Boundaries On Corporate Finance In Tech
I’ve defined the 3 key pillars of corporate finance as: 1) strategic finance, 2) fundraising and investor relations, and 3) M&A.
Tech companies are a very different breed of company, due to hyper-growth, unpredictability, disruptiveness and frequently in the first few years, non-profitability. As a result, the finance org within tech companies needs to innovate and move away from worn methods of financial planning employed in more traditional or mature industries. In the early stages of a startup, strategic finance is less important than getting funding. But particularly in the later stages (typically post Series C or D), a robust strategic finance function is critical for 1) setting stakeholder expectations, 2) managing performance to scale, and 3) capital allocation and managing cash burn and runway. To do this, I’m building a team of people proficient in financial modeling, and who are interested in applying these skills to help scale a fast-growing business profitably. Given how new this function is, I’m still learning and iterating every day on how to make this function better and more helpful to the business. (We’re now hiring a lead and a few associates!)
Fundraising and Investor Relations
In addition, over the past few years, capital has become such an important part of a tech startup’s growth and survival. It is important today to understand how to fundraise from private investors, know who to take capital from, and have a proper investor relations effort by someone who understands private venture financing, the broader tech industry, what tech investors care about, and how to influence thinking in the investment community. Every investor base and board has different dynamics, which constantly evolve and change as startups grow, investor orgs change, and expectations of corporate governance standards get higher. It is a test of an investor relations team’s mettle and capability to make judgment calls on investor-related issues, and adapt to these changing dynamics and requirements. (We’re now hiring a lead!)
M&A is less important in early stage startups. However, as a startup gets bigger and better-capitalized, there exist many opportunities for acquihires and strategic acquisitions or investments, which are at least worth studying.
I believe these three functions function and evolve together. Strategic finance is meant to help the startup scale organically. M&A helps with scaling inorganically. Together, they contribute towards improving corporate positioning overall to investors and ties in with fundraising.
5. Work With The Top Minds In Tech
I remember being very impressed at my first-ever board meeting in Grab, where we had some of the best minds in venture capital. Since then, as Grab’s shareholder base has expanded, and we continue to meet investors from all over the world (many of whom were a real privilege to meet), I’ve met even more people who are incredibly intelligent, insightful and knowledgeable. From these top-notch investors, I’ve gained deep insight and built tremendous knowledge in ridesharing, venture financing and investing. I’ve also worked with some of the best venture lawyers. Within Grab, my coworkers are some of Southeast Asia’s smartest tech talent. I’m learning from them and the rest of the leadership team everyday about humility, management, recruiting and people ops, and generally how to scale a startup. Together, these people surrounding me internally and externally have kept me on my toes, challenging me to keep growing, be smarter, build higher-level skills, and become more confident every day.
6. Right Place, Right Time
I always remind myself that it is a special experience to work in a startup – to participate in a one-time journey of creating a company’s culture and direction, solving problems, experimenting, making mistakes, iterating and changing things for the better. What’s unique about being part of Grab’s growth is that not only is it one of the first few homegrown breakout startups in Southeast Asia, it also sits within a fiercely competitive global ridesharing space that has received a tremendous amount of attention from global investors. Heading corporate finance in Grab, and joining early before the big Series D and E financing rounds, has led to some truly incredible and unique experiences. It’s taken me to places and meetings with some really impressive, top-notch people. I’m glad for the earlier years I spent at Goldman Sachs, Temasek and Zalora, where I learned so many core skills that together enable me to do what I do today.
7. Cool Experiences All Around
Last but not least, there are plenty of cool experiences I’ve had over the past year that I can’t share publicly, but here are a few examples that I can: rocking up as a GrabCar driver to surprise passengers in a flashy BMW i8 in the lead-up to the Singapore F1 Grand Prix; recruiting some of my best (and super high-performing) friends into Grab and sharing this startup journey with them; speaking and presenting at several investor conferences on behalf of Grab; having the privilege of working directly with Grab’s founder and CEO for an entire year; being invited to be a panelist at Microsoft TechFemme 2015; and doing an impromptu presentation on Grab in full Chinese to a group of very accomplished China CEOs. The Chairman of that group told me I reminded him of Joe Tsai many, many years ago – an honor I probably am unlikely to live up to but that I was still very pleased to hear!
Do you stop to take stock of all you have achieved and the unique experiences that you’ve enjoyed in your job? I’d love to hear from you!