My first experience with a tech entrepreneur was back in the 1980s. An engineer by training, he worked in several telecommunication companies before founding a business that customises network infrastructure and security solutions for large organisations in the payments, manufacturing, transportation and defence sectors. That person was my father, and my first and most powerful impression of what it meant to be an entrepreneur.
Back then, people like him weren’t known as founders or technopreneurs, and their companies weren’t start-ups. He spent many years working as an employee and saw an opportunity to start a business to fill a big gap in the market. But it wasn’t just what they were labelled then. There are other, more substantial, differences between buttoned-down old school pros like him and the hoodie-wearing, avocado toast eating start-up founders we’ve become used to seeing today.
Most significantly, he and his partner did not raise any external funding, invested their own capital and became profitable in its first year of business. While he focused most of his energy in those early years on chasing the right customers, delivering reliable solutions and earning profits, today’s entrepreneur is more likely to be using his talents charming investors, raising funds and chasing valuation. Valuation only matters if you are thinking of selling. So, are today’s entrepreneurs only building businesses to sell?
There was no doubt in my dad’s mind, he had to build a credible and sustainable business; and he did. To achieve that, he had to outsmart the competition by price and quality. He was the first in Singapore, to create his own project management tool to ensure high quality service. And he developed a risk management module that ensured the projects were fully completed and exceeded his clients expectations, despite being a new entrant into the sector.
For many of today’s wannabe Zuckerbergs, it’s about raising ever bigger rounds of funding until they can achieve that holy grail of start-ups: the IPO. The most successful of this new generation are crowned “Unicorns” – venture-backed companies with billion-dollar valuations. For them, the bottom line was how much their shares were worth. For my father and those of his ilk, the bottom line was, well, the actual bottom line of a profit and loss statement.
In a world obsessed with unicorns and charismatic entrepreneurs, it seems that the main criteria of success is the ability to deliver the best spiel to venture capitalists.
Yet to build sustainable businesses that create true (or organic) value for customers and society, it’s time to go old school; but with a digital twist. We need to support entrepreneurs who are not only solving real and complex problems in the region with technology but generating profits in the process.
At Reapra, we are less interested in who can talk up a storm at a pitch meeting (although that comes in handy) than we are in a founder who is strong operationally and driven to become a sustainable business as quickly as possible. We are sometimes criticised for our low investment amounts. But in our view, by not lavishing founders with truckloads of cash, we are forcing to focus on standing on their own two feet without the crutch of ever increasing rounds of VC money (and dilution).
We also welcome with open arms those that have failed before. It’s far harder for an entrepreneur to pick themselves up after hitting the deck than it is for someone who just started swinging at the opening bell.
I believe that it’s a time for the start-up world to alter today’s rule book, and dust off the one from my father’s time, albeit with some revisions. Entrepreneurs should go back to focusing on revenue, and not spend so much time selling themselves to investors. It’s time to stop celebrating unicorns and honour the trusty old work horse.