May 18, 2018

Entrepreneurship and startups are current-day bywords for success and fortune. Yet for every positive story that we read and write about celebrating their innovation, disruption and contribution to society, there are dozens of others that never get off the ground. Sometimes it’s not the lack of a truly good idea, but a multitude of peripheral but critical determinants like funding, marketing, operations, consumers and product-market growth.

Antler is a new startup generator in Singapore that provides funding from day one to a select group of aspiring entrepreneurs, helps them find the right co-founder, and connects them to a mentor network of fitting business and academic subject matter experts worldwide.

Started by McKinsey, Google, Spotify, Harvard, MIT and Stanford alumni who have on their own founded successful enterprises around the world, its inaugural programme, which begins in July has seen participants from Asia (including Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and Singapore), and other parts of the world.

We speak to Antler’s founder and CEO Magnus Grimeland, formerly of McKinsey and most recently co-founder of Asia’s largest fashion e-commerce company, Zalora, to hear an insider’s view on exactly what it takes to succeed in the startup world.

HNW: Is the tech startup scene in Asia still in its infancy? How do you see it developing in the next 10 years?

Magnus Grimeland: I see the startup climate in Asia improving over the next decade and startups setting themselves up to dominate in nearly every Asian market. While it is still relatively young compared to Silicon Valley, we are seeing a huge paradigm shift in consumer behaviour and access to innovative technologies here.

There are large addressable markets and lots of white space opportunities in Asia, and startups in the region also benefit from tailwinds such as high economic growth, abundance of talent, highly educated individuals, healthy business environments and relatively low taxes.

There is also greater access to funding; both global technology companies and local investors are investing heavily in the region. This change is in part due to the successes of our Southeast Asian predecessors such as Go-Jek, Grab, Alibaba, Lazada, Zalora and Traveloka—all of whom have led momentous change, and gathered attention from around the globe.

What is the goal for Antler in the next 5 and 10 years?

We hope to build 100 to 150 innovative tech companies out of Southeast Asia. There is plenty of talent here, but too few who actually take the risk to pursue their dreams because of financial, social and other reasons. We want to attract anyone in the world who wants to innovate.

We also want to see founders whom we bring in, having built successful technology businesses in the region and through that, create a positive impact on the world. I also want to nurture great visionaries who eventually go on to create value for their own employees and investors. 

There are also plans to expand across Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific and to be able to contribute strongly to the innovation ecosystem globally.

What are essential characteristics that you’ve noticed in entrepreneurs so far?

There are five key traits I look out for in entrepreneurs who are looking to start a business. These are distinctive qualities that indicate I’ve found the right one.

  • Purpose: Someone with great ambition and vision, eager to change the world for the better. A motivated self-starter who is able to work towards actualising their ideas.
  • A clear “spike”:  Something an entrepreneur really excels at. It can be coding, products, or a specific industry—essentially a strong asset that eventually becomes a defining factor.
  • Drive and tenacity: People who will run to the ends of the world to achieve their vision. Daredevils and creative thinkers who are able to circumvent multiple barriers to entry and any challenges that are typical for startups. Great founders like Elon Musk didn’t build SpaceX and Tesla without overcoming huge challenges. We are looking for similar levels of drive and tenacity in our founders.
  • Integrity: It is critical that they value a larger altruistic purpose over any commercial agenda. We care about people with integrity—those who possess intrinsically strong principles, and observe the highest ethical standards.
  • Strong sense of leadership: Leaders take true ownership. They build great teams by attracting the best talent, developing them and making them better.

Even if an idea is great, what other factors are important in determining the commercial success of a start-up? What percentage is luck a factor, if at all?

As Roman philosopher Seneca believed, luck is when great opportunity meets great preparation. Antler is creating these opportunities and helping with world-class preparation.

Commercial success is primarily defined by a strong team—thus the team of co-founders must be exceptional. Every team member needs to share a common focus towards the right vision and idea. This requires a deep dive and understanding of the product/industry they are entering.

It is important to keep a close network of advisors who have been through the startup journey, preferably within a similar industry, as well as have the right mindset to continually accept failure, and still persevere. The ability to “think outside” the box also matters.

You’re a tech entrepreneur who’s led an adventurous life outside of the office as well. What has been the most challenging experience of your life?

Building businesses is extremely challenging, but the most trying time must have been my stint with the Norwegian Navy Seals (Marinejegerkommandoen). I was in situations that were both physically and mentally exhausting, and the stakes were also extremely high. But I have been able to apply my learnings from these experiences to the business world; one example being how to best handle challenging situations when resources are at its bare minimum.

What was your greatest takeaway from your experience with Marinejegerkommandoen then?

To never entertain the possibility of giving up. In the Navy Seals, there were many instances where I was extremely tired, had not eaten or slept for days, but had a routine to complete or destination to arrive at. You can always change how to get there, but never give yourself the option of not reaching there. This is an important wiring to possess.

What is one thing that you look for in people you work with?

Self-starters with the drive and ambition to positively impact economies and societies through the work that we do with our founders—they are the ones who really make me tick. I also value people who are quick on their feet and can ideate creative solutions to problems that most would otherwise give up on.

I believe that people work best in a cohesive and collaborative environment where there is enough flexibility and autonomy to grow their own strengths. It is important that everyone believes in our goal of helping new businesses, growing ideas and empowering great talent. 

What significance does the name Antler hold?

Antlers are associated with strength, and our company is all about building “power teams”. They also start from the head—almost an extension of the brain, and one single structure grows out into multiple branches. This is symbolic of the cohesiveness of the different industries Antler supports, and the companies it helps build.

Understanding that each startup is unique in its needs, what advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Think big. Everything that has been built, was conceptualised and brought to life by a team that thought big. Aim to truly change the world and slowly you will get there.

Don’t wait. No great entrepreneur regretted starting too early. Never let the fear of striking out keep you from trying. The most important thing is to make a decision to begin and commit to it.

Invest time in sourcing for the right co-founders. Keep it to no more than one or two people. A lean and efficient core team works better than a large group of similarly skilled peers. It is important that these individuals perfectly complement your skill sets and share your vision. It is also imperative that you get along on a fundamental level as you’ll be spending countless days/months/years together.

Allow yourself to be powered by your ambitions. Solve an issue that needs to be resolved. Fill a “gap” in the market and always prioritise the end user in mind when refining your processes. 

Speak to as many people as possible. Unless you have a magic formula to cure cancer or free cold fusion, it’s likely that someone has thought about what you’re building before. The more you discuss what you want to build and achieve, and gather constructive feedback, the smarter your solutions become.

Get support from people that inspire you. We live in a highly connective era where you can reach out to anyone. If you are resourceful enough to utilise the right channels purposely, it will be easy to build a network that you can easily tap on.

Realise that all great companies fail on the way to greatness. The important thing is how you handle situations when you hit those barriers. Great companies power through their difficulties. The ones you’ve never heard of gave up. Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Jack Ma… all great founders who struggled many times on their way to building great companies, but through sheer perseverance, they succeeded.