In this month’s Stories of an Investor, we caught up with Vincent Ko. Vincent was a serial entrepreneur and has exited 2 retail-oriented businesses. Currently, he is an active investor and the Managing Director of Founders Vision.
In this article, Vincent shared with us his impact-driven investment thesis, how he thinks founders should look at long-term vision as well as the startup ecosystem in Vietnam.
Hi Vincent! Thanks for joining us! Starting with your background, having started and exited from 2 businesses, why and how did you get into early-stage investments?
Vincent: As a serial entrepreneur having gone through multiple business life cycles, I always view the startup phase as the most exciting and rewarding. Being a problem solver at heart, I find great joy in seeing an idea transform into an early-stage startup and then begin to scale. I first began investing in early-stage companies as a way to support other founders in building their vision. To see other startups grow with my investment and experience-sharing is truly a rewarding experience.
Being a serial entrepreneur, how has it impacted your investment thesis (or your style of investing)?
Vincent: As an entrepreneur, I built companies that make positive impacts on the world. Thus, with my seed-stage investment firm Founders Vision, we focus on entrepreneurs looking to do the same. Impact-driven companies can not only do good but also be profitable, providing great returns for investors. I am currently backing startups working on Planet (environment, energy, food & water) and Human Elevation (education, healthcare, emerging markets) solutions. I also focus on B2C and e-commerce startups where I have the most expertise.
One of the main things I look at when evaluating the team is their previous experience – their past successes and failures. As a founder myself, I realize that a founder learns from not only the wins but even more from failures. I would assess how they have learned from those experiences and gained knowledge to be applied to their current startup.
Angel Investing is often described as an art rather than science. In a hypothetical scenario where you have a really strong conviction in a particular startup, would you put a larger cheque down or stick to your bite-size? Why?
Vincent: Absolutely, I would personally prefer to put few but larger cheques on companies I have strong conviction in, for a couple of reasons:
- It allows me to mentally focus on that particular startup. If the founder ever needs my guidance and assistance, I am able and willing to do so.
- It does take a lot of time to evaluate good startups, so unless you join a reputable syndicate by networks such as AngelCentral, you will have to spend a large amount of time doing your own due diligence. So unless it is an AC Syndicate, I would prefer to pick out fewer companies that I strongly believe in and back them with larger checks.
The 2 businesses you have exited from are both consumer/retail oriented. How do you look at the future of retail?
Vincent: I have been involved in e-commerce, retail, and consumer brand building ever since university. Over the years I have worked with big-box retailers, marketplace platforms, and even built brands myself.
Having seen it first-hand, I am a strong believer that everything is transitioning online. The same old framework that allowed legacy companies to thrive for the last several decades is already and will continue to be disrupted. Covid-19 further accelerated the trend. Therefore, this offers a great opportunity to invest in startups and new brands that focus on disrupting their market but with a strong focus on utilizing e-commerce and digital customer acquisition. The tailwind is in the favor of these startups that are trying to go 100% online.
“One of the main things I look at when evaluating the team is their previous experience – their past successes and failures…I would assess how they have learned from those experiences and gained knowledge to be applied to their current startup.” – Vincent Ko, Managing Director, Founders Vision
As an Ex-Founder turned angel investor, how do you look at long-term vision when things can change very quickly in the startup environment?
Vincent: I think it is imperative for startup founders to set strong 5 and 10 year visions. Not only does it serve the founder to help them dream what their company could become one day, but it also serves as a way to motivate and rally team members around a larger company vision.
Within my own companies, we would have spent a few days each quarter doing quarterly reflection to look at issues, risks, and opportunities within our business and industry. While long-term vision is important, it should be paired with frequent reflections of where the company is and how it is doing.
The company should be able to change course, pivot, and adjust directions consistently throughout the startup life cycle. A good founder is someone who sets clear long-term goals and visions for their company, and at the same time has the ability to reflect, adapt, and learn, as the market changes and as they get customer feedback.
You sit on the board of Entrepreneur’s Organization (Vietnam), and actively invest in Vietnam as well. In recent years, Vietnam has emerged as one of the growing startup hotspots in Southeast Asia. How is the startup ecosystem like in Vietnam, and what is the driving force behind this movement?
Vincent: I relocated from New York City to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 7+ years ago when I visited and realized it was one of the most entrepreneurial cities. It feels like everyone, from the home-grown entrepreneurs to expats and those returning from abroad, they are all building and starting something.
Not only is the startup ecosystem rapidly booming, the cities feel like they are sprouting out of the ground. The country also benefits from having an ample tech talent base as well as strong growth in female entrepreneurs. The active energy and the converging of talents is the key driving force behind such a vibrant startup ecosystem.
“Impact-driven companies can not only do good but also be profitable, providing great returns for investors.” – Vincent Ko, Managing Director, Founders Vision
To end the session, how would you advise prospective angel investors looking to enter the world of angel investing?
Vincent: As an angel investor, you have the choice to stand behind companies with different missions and problems they are trying to solve.
I would advise a new angel investor to start investing in areas and industries they are passionate about or familiar with. Throughout your own career, you may have developed knowledge or experience that helps you better understand that industry or even better help that startup itself.
I have also found the resources at AngelCentral to be very helpful. From the educational masterclasses to the very informative industry deep-dives and the supportive team that is always there to answer questions. If you are looking to enter the world of angel investing, I would highly recommend starting with a network like AngelCentral to learn from Shao-Ning, Der Shing, Teck Moh, and other AngelCentral members.