Jeffrey Seah is partner for Fund II Asia at Quest Ventures, a leading venture fund for technology companies that have scalability and replicability in large internet communities. Prior to this, Jeffrey co-founded a transformation advisory partnership with services in go-to-market, corporate venture capital, digital transformation and corporate reorganization strategy & implementation for Asia-based MNCs. Before that, Jeffrey was CEO, Southeast Asia and chair, Asia Digital Leadership Team of Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG).
KrASIA (Kr): Hi Jeff, I know that you came from an advertising background. How did you jump from the ad space to the venture capital space?
Jeffrey Seah (JS): The advertising and marketing world used to be the original place for disruption. Everyone tries to get the big brands to try new things, but often they don’t speak the same language. The older, established folks will say, “Hey, we’ve got this process running. Everything’s perfect, but the new guys will say that they’ve got this new way of doing things.” You try to get them to understand each other. In that way, there was a genesis of understanding disruption, and over the years, I gave a lot of projects to new geek outfits—today, they’re called startups.
As a result of those years, I learned how to guide startups on how to speak properly, so as not to offend older, established folks. Through that, I became an angel investor. Along the way, many VCs started asking me to join because they wanted me to use their startups. So it was all the same thing, just in a different form.
Kr: With your background in advertising and marketing and disruption, how are you helping entrepreneurs create a more authentic brand and voice?
JS: Everyone needs to be authentic and real. You need to see the sweat, the messy hair, and people in frustration trying to get things done. This is today’s brand. Many startups believe strongly in what they can do, but some push themselves as if they are the best thing since sliced bread. Communication is very important. It’s not about marketing or branding. It’s just about simple communication—What are the real benefits you bring to the table? Many fail to address the unmet needs of the market. If you run a process of trying to understand people through focus groups, you’re getting the answers you want to hear. You’re not getting the real stuff.
Many times, when startups go to the market, they don’t really feel the real need. So when they pitch a product, it is either too early or too late. You have to be very genuine, and tell people what you are all about and what your benefits are. These benefits are real needs that many people want. Because they want and need, they will understand the value. With the value, they will give you the value-based pricing, which will give the real margin. You need to have a very good awareness of yourself and the outside world, and be able to see the changes, not just push your agenda.
Kr: How do you bring your global perspective of evaluating startups to Quest Ventures?
JS: The world today is a lot more globalized. Especially after COVID-19, I think the world has changed, and everyone has new skills. One of the best things I learned from working at multinational companies is to not see [a market] as a market, but as a society or a community. How do you customize your product for all the different communities and societies in the world? That’s a challenge. Only when you have both a gut view and an empirical feel of all the markets that you go to, will you understand how to run a business across the world. Learning to transcend both values and economic consumption is probably one of my [more important] lessons. To do that, I learned about the power of geography and psychology. I think the world goes through trends, like bubble tea. As I moved across, I realized that there are many ways to skin a cat. With that kind of experience, I tell startups: don’t expect the world to welcome you. Be part of the world, be authentic.
Kr: Can you talk about the relationship building that you build as a VC?
JS: The mission of venture capital has always been to maximize return on investment (ROI), but the journey to the ROI is very different. Sometimes the ROI that is created is not just financial ROI, but a lot of social good too. Many of the unicorns in Southeast Asia, like Gojek, had a very social ROI. They brought a lot of people real employment. You have to understand the motivation behind the founders, and along the way is a journey of them fulfilling a potential. At Quest, we build our ecosystem structures and conduct a lot of mentorship sessions. We are very good at early childhood development on a startup, and we coach and guide people, but we don’t spoon-feed them. We arm them with skills and [knowledge] about the world to fulfill their potential. The challenge for a lot of startups is always to maintain what they originally stand for. The raison d’être of the business must always remain. We like to see founders that are able to carry their values and do responsible, scalable, and profitable business. Then, ROI will come.
Kr: At Quest Ventures, how are you bringing those values in relationship-building internally within the company, not just your portfolio companies?
JS: Values must be believed in and espoused every day. At that time, [the founders of Quest] started the value of Quest being about this journey of improvement. Over the years, this thinking got developed more holistically and comprehensively and became more multifaceted. Quest built a famous intern system where we have a lot of people coming through and we expect to see values from all of them. Sometimes you get disappointed. Sometimes you get over-excited because they’re so much better than us. We have the belief that everyone has potential that’s even better than us. We’re always looking for people that are better than us to help build on the values. If you get the right people in, the values get stronger. It becomes a movement, an energy, that drives the system. Our partners in different markets think the same way as us, from Vietnam to the Philippines, to Kazakhstan. We realize that some of these values of disruption, growth, and respect are actually quite universal. I think Quest values are a summation of everyone that went through it, not just the founders, and definitely not just me.
Kr: What personal values do you hold closely that you hope to see and translate over in the companies that you’re investing in right now?
JS: One of the biggest things I ask from myself and companies is respect for non-living things. Many societies have many trends and movements—they’re not living. They don’t call out to you and say that they’re a trend. But if you have that kind of awareness and humility to understand [what is going on] around you, you will sense and seize market size much better than most people. In the marketing and advertising world, every day I see ten new guys coming to sell me some kind of “BS.” But I know that one of these things will become the next big thing. So I make sure that I spend time with all ten and hear them out because that’s the purpose of disruption. Those two values remain important to me: Stay humble while you’re aware, and allow yourself some vulnerability to accept things that you don’t know. I tell that to startup founders: If you really want to expand out of your comfort zone, you need to drop that shell. In your actual thinking, you must have humility and show some vulnerability to yourself at the least.
Kr: These are all great takeaways for anyone listening to this podcast, especially those who are looking to become a more values-driven company. Thanks for your great insight. For those reading, you can get in touch with Quest Ventures for your business idea by emailing [email protected].