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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Lessons from a $1+M write down of a startup investment

Frequent readers, friends who know us or fellow members of AngelCentral will know that Shao Ning & I are careful risk takers. We are deliberate and  methodical when Angel investing and we also have parameters and systems set up for all our investments so that we achieve the right risk reward for us. 

Recently, we had to write down an angel investment that was on paper a multi-bagger and which was worth >$1M if we sold it.  Please don't ask us which startup as its not professional to reveal. The entire area which this startup operates obviously was badly hit by covid.

Anyway, the point of this post is not to gripe about the painful paper loss, rather it is to share that this setback actually validates what we have been teaching and practicing for angel investing. 

So here is what this experience has validated for us:

1) Bite sizing matters. 

We have a cap of about $200K per startup and have increasingly standardized first and follow on bite sizes. By not being greedy and following round after round on winners, we prevent any overly painful loss when there is a need to write down. Of course the bite must still hurt if lost but it should never kill you. The only time you invest all in for something is when its your startup.

2) Diversification matters. 

We set a goal of 4-6 startups a year with a target of 25 every 5-6 years. Each set of 25 can be viewed like a VC portfolio and we hope for 1-2 big winners that pay for everything and account for the 3X return after 10 years. During the holding period, some will grow and die. But our thesis is to never sell until the founder sells. This last point does merit further debate since technically portfolio returns can be even better if we sold out and realized the 1+M profit. But then what if this is the startup that goes on to grow 5X or 10X from here?

On a broader portfolio level, diversification also means don't overinvest in any one asset class. Startup investing whether as an Angel or via VCs should not exceed 10% of what you have. If you are super on, then not more than 25%. And if you have a lot sitting in startups, please invest in blue chips, property, bonds and other much safer instruments for the rest of your portfolio. 

3) Put it at book value always. 

This is something quite different from others that we practice. So while we have to mark to market so that we can compare with VCs and also use for workshops, we actually always put the value of the startup in our overall portfolio spreadsheets at the value we invested in. We even write down if we know realistically not doing well and may die. We only write up if realized. This practice really showed its value this time as we did not have to really write down our portfolio value by 1+M, rather we just wrote down the value invested which is quite small. So psychology wise, this book value recording for startup investments helps keep us grounded and also ensures our leverage use is always based off conservative asset numbers.

And for completeness sake, we updated our angel portfolio to reflect this writedown and now our IRR since 2015 for the 31 startups we directly invested in is now 35% with a 2.4 TVPI. Still good for us as it matches top quartile VC and within our projected return goals.

Hope this is a useful read for fellow angel investors.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Temasek under new CEO.

 Temasek is getting a new leader to help grow our SG champions and invest strategically worldwide on the PE side. Let’s hope the new Mgmt shakes things up on the governance focused boards and also replace ceo who fail to deliver much faster and actually deliver on the next gen of SG Champions.

Temasek under mdm had a mixed performance in my opinion. Total shareholder return of 6% last 20 years.      I think this compares badly against top quartile PE Fund blended with S&P or ACWI 60/40.

First half of tenure from 2004 to 2010/11 great performance riding the Sg/asia/oil&gas boom. Credit must be given. But 2nd half from 2012 to now, bad. 

Mainly caused by TLC portfolio not growing well. Just look at Singtel, our TLC industrials, Mediacorp/SPH, SIA etc only capitaland, dbs are fine. As major shareholder, much should have been done to take board and Mgmt to task.

The other major contributor to relatively poor last 9-10 years is missing investing in strategic champions where we invest at PE stage (0.5b-2b) and which realize big gains when listed and they really scale. Obvious example will be SEA and to lesser extent Razer. 

Moving forward I hope to see :

- Boards role include more of add business value

- Mgmt and board that are removed faster if not performing

- benchmarking to top PE funds with talent to run like top PE fund managers for the non TLC side of portfolio. This means picking new winners better and also helping them more. 

-invest bigger chunks and drop the small size cheques. Or set up new entity with talent to do the smallish ones. And then make sure they get the bigger cheques based on the initial stake so that we own 10-30% of these giants ultimately and can really build the next gen of Sg champions with govt/people ownership.

This last point i think miss out right now. There are unicorns being created now with small Temasek indirect stakes via VCs and heliconia.  But we somehow have not been able to follow on the later big rounds. Eg patsnap, ninjavan...

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Startup Portfolio Report for 2020 - Impact of COVID

It has been a good 5 years since we started being a whole lot more active on angel investing. We now have now invested in 35 startups in our angel investing portfolio and 8 VC funds which probably have another 500 startups between them (skewed due to 500 startups large portfolio numbers). 

Our 5 year ago thesis was that we enjoy meeting and helping founders, we have knowledge of the space, we think the startup space will boom in ASEAN and also since we made money as startup founders, lets give back to pay it forward. So we set aside the equivalent of a commercial shophouse to invest. I deliberately use this comparison because it shows very starkly the difference in the amount of activity and value which angel investing creates compared to if we passively invested in real estate. Of course the activity must be worth our risk and show up in the return numbers.

In late Feb to March, COVID was a big shock to startup founders. And because of  GFC experience, many grey hair investors like Sequoia, some local VCs (and yes Ning & I had same experiences too) swung into crisis mode. We quickly advised founders to plan for doomsday type scenarios on the funding front and plan for various levels of revenue decline. The narrative being survival is key. Then watch for what your clients and sales is telling you. If you are not badly affected, then its a chance to grow through the recession and at expense of bigger, expense heavy competitors. Market sensing and willingness to take action is key. What world famous PE fund Silverlake did next is super instructive. They made big bold bets into Airbnb and others right at the peak of COVID confusion and despair. That takes some serious balls and also helped reinforce our decision to continue investing through the crisis. So in 2020, we actually added 6 startups to our portfolio.

Fast forward to end 2020, this ongoing COVID recession has been K shaped indeed. We did an assessment of the 25 older startups we have and here is what we found :

- 3 in bad trouble revenue <50%  with 1 in process of closing down.  

- 5 experienced flat to moderately negative performance 

Above 2 categories obviously are operating in industries directly affected like travel, hospitality, office services, advertising, construction. 

- 17 grew revenue from 2019. Of note, 5 are profitable and 10 net beneficiary of COVID. The categories are edtech, healthcare, digital media, saas and surprisingly recruitment.

On the VC front, it is a similar K shaped picture. They slowed down investing first 1H but resumed deal making in 2H. The data we see from the VCs we invested corroborate what we are seeing in our direct angel portfolio. 

Our own rough performance calculations for those of you curious. Startup returns since 2015 is at 2.6+ TVPI or >40+% IRR. VC returns since 2014 about 1.98 TVPI. No IRR as hard to blend them together but definitely below 40%.

Most gains unrealized of course so while far exceeding a 4-5% unlevered return on shophouse, we are mindful of the volatility and risk. 

Some learnings we have for fellow angels/investors.

- Diversification of portfolio really matters. Imagine if we invested in a pureplay travel VC or if we had heavy travel weightage in overall portfolio.

- We really don't know what will happen. So its best to have same bite sizes per startup. Winners can go to zero in a COVID event.

- A bad recession is a great time to see if you chose right founders. We are are incredibly proud of most of our startup founders. Most of them very quickly saw the first and second order of the crisis on their business and made changes quickly to adjust. Even right now, they are still making the adjustments and trying to capitalize on trends. Unfortunately, we also had 1-2 founders who chose to blame everyone and everything for their own lack of prudence and thoughtfulness. That's why diversification is key - we can't read founder minds.

- Rising tide really lifts all boats. Its key to get the macro thesis right. If we use VCs as a proxy for indexing the startup market, you can build a portfolio of VC funds and track it. Doubling your money in 6 years is not bad and IRR is much higher than 12% since drawdowns last 3 years. And the value is still adding as the J curve accelerates. 

- Growth and Seed stage startups are less affected by recessions. They are already very lean and efficient most of the time. So usually recessions are a great time to retain and hire talent and also take market share from heavier competitors. I think this explains why our recruitment and manpower type startups grew well during COVID even though overall recruitment market clearly slowed down. 

- Angel Investing is not easy and the reward must be more than just the returns.  Looking at our VC and Angel returns, our angel portfolio is better than all of VC we invested in but not by a large magnitude. And if we factor in all the fees, our work and time, its probably easier to just pick a bunch of good VCs (have to be top quartile!) for someone who only wants the returns. I don't advocate just 1 VC fund as then you have managing agent risk in the VC manager itself.

In summary, we are quite happy with how our startup investments have performed during COVID year. It is indeed true that each crisis is different and so our playbook needs to adjust and be flexible always. Yet the basic principles of diversification, bite sizing, continuously investing etc must hold true.

nb : if anyone is keen on how we do angel investing, we are running our first class for the year on 23rd Jan 9am-12noon.



Thursday, January 14, 2021

Purposeful Life - 2020 in Review

This year was a tough year due to many many adjustments for COVID. But in terms of purpose and the philosophical breakthrough i had in 2019,  i think the mantra of being useful, focused, grateful and having fun still works very well. So hopefully after 5 years of retirement, I have hit on a good formula to lead my life.

To recap, below is what i came up with in the period from 2014 (retirement) to 2020.

Purpose 1 - help and be there for family. Extend to friends if i can.
Purpose 2 - be as healthy as I can
Purpose 3 - Be a good custodian of wealth and knowledge. help grow startup ecosystem via angel investing & AngelCentral.  Contribute to broader society as volunteer.

From the above, I generate goals and results as posted before. Below is an update.

Purposes 1 :  Good relations with Family & Friend & contribute to their lives

Goals: High level of family/wife/friend time. Share more learnings with kids.

COVID circuit breaker definitely helped with family bonding time. For 2020, we already planned to stay home a lot more as 3rd son had PSLE and 1st son has A levels. So not traveling our usual 80-90 days in 2020 allowed us to do that. 

We continued our regular dinner discussions with boys on learning topics. As they mature, Ning & I are thinking about how to pass key learnings we have in the area of daily quality living, business  and personal finance. Continued routine with Dad and made good time for dinners with friends. My own feel is that zoom sessions to maintain relationships are better than nothing but very inadequate. 

Purposes 2  : Be Healthy Mind and Body

GOALS: Keep lean, weight below 70kg. Pick up more outdoor sport. Control mood even better through exercise and mindfulness.

Kept with regular exercise routine of 5-6 times a week. Mostly jogging, yoga with some swimming and a bit of tennis lately. Critical to keeping healthy and warding off depression. I did not cope well with circuit breaker initially. Felt cramped and locked up. Ning said i kept going to supermarkets every other day. Took me almost 5-6 months to adjust well. What helped was opening up in July and adjusting my own mindset to find joy in the small things and be grateful for what i have.

Eg. watching sunset daily during circuit breaker. consuming a whole lot more wine, heading out to local beaches to satisfy my inner beach bum, did a 17km walk with old friend etc.

Purpose 3 :Portfolio mgmt & Work role in Society

Goals: min 6% (change to 10%) long term annual growth on investable net worth.  hit 100 startups for angel investment doing well as a portfolio. Quality volunteer in any such work I take up.

Portfolio Work

Big wins this year include SEA (first 10 bagger), Baidu, BABA, Tencent, FB basically tech companies. Biggest mistake is buying into SG stocks too early in Feb. Overall did a decent teens returns which far exceeds our 6% annual target.

After 9+ years of running own funds, I now know myself better and feel more confident in asset allocation, analyzing of companies and markets. Read a great book called Masterclass for Investors by Martin Sosnoff in Dec and it reminded me on the power of compounding.  Learned that in USA,  besides entrepreneurs, the other big group of UHNWI (>50M usd) are wall street asset managers who made a pot of gold in late 30s or 40s and then compounded it at 8-15% for 30-40 years. 

Our original decade goal of growing investable net worth 6% annualized has been revised upwards to 10% as we managed to beat the 6% significantly last 9+ years. 10% is a stretch goal and will require me to treat portfolio like my main work next 10 years. Hope it works out well!

So next few months, will be spending time with Ning re-planning asset allocation and modeling returns and cash flow.  

Startup/AngelCentral Work 

Angel portfolio side now at 35 startups in total. We invested in 6 more startups. 4 without even meeting the founders face to face! Did our first Vietnamese and Thai startups.

Interestingly and to my surprise, this downturn has not been a very big hit on our startup portfolio. The K shaped recovery is very clear. We have 4 startups badly hit (1 has closed down), 10 more hit but the majority all managed to grow in 2020 revenue compared to 2019. Deeper analysis here.

Ning & I are very proud of our startups and the AngelCentral team for navigating well through this downturn. Some founders took a month more back in April to watch first before acting, but most of them took our advice to act fast and make needed cost or product changes. And i think most of them are better off for it. 

As a portfolio, our private equity investments in 40+ startups, VCs and PE funds grew in value by almost 20% year on year thanks to it being very tech heavy. On the downside, one big drag was due to L Capital fund 2 which held lots of retail plays and which in my opinion was badly managed by previous owner.

On AngelCentral side, when COVID hit, Shao Ning reacted quickly and ran experience sharing sessions for AC/own startups. We also offered our experience about downturns with our startups and helped quite a few look over their revised business plans. We also had to switch completely to zoom based pitching and classes. 

While we see some weakening of appetite on angels part, more than half still continued investing like us and we still saw a good $4-5M being funded by AngelCentral angels in 2020. Valuations too are slightly more reasonable now with a good 10-20% drop in seed round valuations. 

Volunteer Work

Still volunteering with ITE, PEP and SWCDC. One project of note I did was to help ITE make use of crowdfunding platform during COVID to raise funds to help with the expected increase in social assistance recipients. Ning & I donated 10K and the campaign raised over 200K (with dollar for dollar matching by govt) for this purpose. 

I am beginning to realize that sticking to what one is good at matters a lot. So while $200K may sound a lot, its value is low compared to what we do for the startup ecosystem. So i am mindful that if we want to add good value, it must in the areas where we have an edge, have the brand and the people network. 
Hope 2021 is a much better year for everyone and that we can finally put COVID behind us and travel again!

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Analysis of Singtel Last 13 Years

Huh? “One of the most successful Singapore CEO ?” Is the Chairman of Singtel blind? At least do what the SPH Chairman said about Alan Chan. Don’t praise performance and people can read between the lines. 

Ms Chua and key management basically treaded water and tried to keep cashflow and profits. They failed to grow anything significant for shareholders. At best they are an average team and definitely no where near “most successful”.

Here’s a quick analysis on Ms Chua performance as CEO of one of our Temasek crown jewel. This is another example of why Temasek needs to become an active investor for our GLCs and broaden the talent pool for CXOs. 

1) Financials. 

Compare FY 2007 with FY 2019. I use 2019 as it removes effect on covid and 2007 as that’s the CEO appt year. Though arguably if they transformed well, COVID should have helped or be neutral.

Revenue grow from 14.84b to 17.37b. That’s 17% growth over 13 years. Not even matching inflation. You raise prices annually to follow inflation also make the same!

Net profit shrank from 3.681b to 3.095b. Think no need to say anything here.

2) Valuation and Returns 

Yes they managed to maintain dividends. Hurrah for them! But that’s a really low bar.

Market cap in 2007 was 62b, end 2019 is 59b. They have around 4.5% dividend annually paid out. So return to shareholders to end 2019 is probably 4-4.5%. Is this great?  Average at best to me.

Take note covid has shown they failed to transform, stock price has dropped 40% this year and their market cap is now 35b.

3) Execution & Strategy

Their internet foray is a disaster. See all the internet businesses they buy/build and close down. Consumer brand has been lackluster. I don’t even see any catalyst except for stakes in India, Indonesia and ph telco. 

Verdict? You tell me if this is best of class. I think it’s at best average and that’s being kind.

I truly hope the new CEO is cut from a different cloth and the board pushes the entire company to truly transform and perform. 

NB: by the way.. vested and lost over 100k on this stock so far this year. Bought cheap already but cheap can get cheaper. I think I may sell if new CEO don’t announce sweeping moves. Can’t imagine the poor people who bought end of last year. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Are food delivery platforms profiteering?

(Addition: dbs just announced it is trying to help F&B and bring down commissions to 10%. If they can do it, great for everyone! Competition is the answer not regulation. Btw.. dbs is doing it to attack grab who is trying to enter banking space. Best way to fight is to hit your competition on their home ground! )

Let’s do the math for delivery providers before just slamming them.

1. For consumers, food delivery is not meant to be a eating out replacement.  It’s meant to be a way to eat restaurant food at home which is occasional. Meaning maybe 3-4 times a month max on average per household. Not daily which is how restaurants seem to hope it is used.

2. For restaurant, it’s meant to supplement their outlets income by using kitchen extra capacity. Normal times, it’s like 5% to 30% of total revenue.

3. Now let’s see it from delivery platform pov.

$50 per average order
30% fee is $15
Add $3 fee to consumer

Total is $18 to platform

-Cost per delivery is $8-10. Let’s say $9.
-epayment cost of 2% or $1

Gross profit per delivery is $8 or 45%. Bigger restaurants even a smaller gross profit as they negotiate 15-25% cut.

This 45% need to pay for overhead and marketing cost to acquire driver and restaurants. Don’t forget incentives for good drivers. And of course general admin and mgmt overhead.

4. Now, this does not mean commissions can’t come down. It can but it has to be by competitive behavior by restaurants, other platforms trying  get market share, maybe even taxi player muscling in? Saas player like Oddle is trying.

5. It also does not mean restaurant has to lose. They should charge 30% more to compensate. Or even 40% more to fully compensate. Btw big restaurants don’t pay 30%, they pay 15-25%.

6. The clear loser is the consumer as we have to pay more. But the fact is the service is expensive. Imagine what you are getting. Human drive to outlet, wait, get your food all packaged, deliver it right to your doorstep! Consumers who don’t want to pay will have to go hawker and take out. To me that is the best solution and not to subsidize delivery in a big way. Small way to help people who can’t leave their homes should do.

7. Another way to see this issue is to benchmark and check against grubhub numbers which is listed. They have a blended 23% commission charge.  5.9b gmv with 1.3b revenue in 2019.  Also if we check deliveroo and grabfood numbers I am sure they are all loss making still.

8. So for a much smaller scale Sg, 30% commission can cut down more but not much more. And don’t forget average basket size at grub hub is high at $80+usd.

The basic problem is this is an expensive service. It’s not reasonable to say everyone should be able to pay for it. And restaurants should not look to platforms to save them. Platforms are also a business and 30% does not look too high for our market size.

Btw I don’t think this crisis is restaurant and cafe owner fault at all. They deserve to be helped and govt is doing more for them. But making platforms the fall guy is barking up wrong tree.

In fact on a side note, the real monopoly making very fat profits is visa, MasterCard and Amex. But somehow everyone thinks it’s ok to pay them their cut of 1.5-3% fee on all transaction value!!!!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

How COVID recession is affecting our startups.

I just wrote an article on what steps founders can take now to prepare for the downturn. As investors, it will be great if we can remind them on the various topics they need to think about. Beyond that, we can also give morale support by recognizing the stress they are under and also being patient as they come to terms with the new situation.

One interesting thing is that as Ning & I start surveying our startups to get a sense of the impact of the recession and their plans, we realize that our strategy of not having a fixed area or industry and our strategy to go for more conservative founders seems to be working well even with the COVID stresses. Of course, there is also an element of luck at play. Here's an interesting summary. Most of the VCs we know have also done this with their portfolio.

Out of 23 startups who replied.

New Revised Revenue for this year compared to original projection

same and up - 5
0% to -25% - 8
-25 to - 50% - 6
>-50% - 4

Cashflow runway with new scenario projections

> 20 mths - 14
12-20 mths - 4
<12 mths - 5

So while we can see that definitely the bulk of startups are affected by downturn in a big way on revenues, we are happy to note that most of them just raised their latest round last 6 months and so still have a lot of runway to tide through this tough period. We are focusing on the 9 which only have less than 20 mths to see if we can help extend their run way via loans if it makes sense.  Unfortunately, we do anticipate 1-2 failures next 6 months.

Hope this sharing is useful!

Steps to take now to prepare for the Covid Recession

Its happening as we speak. Last 1-2 months, many startup management teams and boards have been in emergency strategy planning sessions to figure out how best to navigate this deep downturn. And because data is coming in fast and furious in this new connected world, it can sometimes be tempting to wait for more data before doing up a revised plan for this year and next.  Don't be tempted. Do it now!

Ning & I have been on many video calls with our portfolio founders last 3 weeks helping them figure out what is the best path. I want to share our thought process and some steps today to help fellow founders.

Step 1 : Assess your situation.
Use latest sales numbers last few weeks to figure out the level of slowdown you are facing. So far it looks like travel is almost 90-100%, Events / F&B is 40-70%, B2B saas software around 30-50%, media up on traffic but down on spend=net down 10-30% expected and ecommerce/delivery/healthcare/edutech all doing better than expected. The list goes on and it will be interesting to see the follow on demand shock and wealth reduction effects on p2p lending and other fintech businesses.

Get a clear handle of your costs and start to think which can be cut. Get a calculation of the time frame and amount of wage and rent subsidy.

Step 2: Make a reasonable projection on forward revenues and collections for various scenarios.
Assume the recession will result in depressed sales for 6 mths (base case), 9 mths (bad case), 12 mths (very bad case). You should make cashflow projections for all 3 cases. What this means is for eg if 1Q2020 sales was $300K. But its falling off a cliff for March say to just 50k entire March . Then for the 6 mths scenario, extrapolate April-Sep will be just $50K mthly. Then project some growth and recovery from Oct - Mar 2021. Apr 2021 onwards back to $120K a month. Thats for base 6mth case.

Step 3: Project out a 24mth scenario and reduce costs
With 1,2, you can project out 24 months and see how much cash you will spend each month factoring in grants, reduced sales and collections. Next step is to reduce costs until you meet your desired goal. We are asking our startups to execute a plan for 24 month runway now. You figure out your own.

Step 4 : Get credit line. Then SELL AND INNOVATE OUT OF THIS CRISIS
Start applying for credit lines if needed to shore up finances. At same time, see if there are opportunities to grow other types of sales. During the GFC, recruitment advertising plunged. But employer branding budgets were still present in select FMCG, Govt, Tech sectors. So we created brand new packages that gave them branding. Interestingly branding packages were worth a lot more than recruitment ads and they helped us a lot. Go full steam to acquire clients.

Step 5 : Track cash and new metrics in mths ahead and tweak plan as things change.


Additional Point 1  - Get a handle on collections and clients.
AR is not cash. AR is you behaving like a bank when you are not. You need to do 2 things.

a) Chase down all the old AR and stop selling new contracts to clients who are not paying. This is particularly critical now esp for fellow startups who may not have runway left. But they will continue to consume your services if you let them.

b) Shift sales to sell to clients who can pay upfront or good credit. Divide your clients into 3 segments. First segment is the bluechip profitable MNC and govt clients. You can continue as per normal getting their sales and even extending usual AR timing. Second segment is normal customers who have always paid up on time and who deserve some trust.Third segment is unknown or risky credit clients. For group 2,3, you can still do their business but ask for cash upfront. You can even give a discount for it. It will work out better that way.

Additional Point 2  - Deliver all the bad news transparently  in 1 go and lead by example
It may feel correct to cut down costs and manpower as the revenue falls but that is not good for morale. Do it all in 1 go at the front and make sure management takes the biggest cut. At the same time be very transparent and overcommunicate everything. From the economy, how it is hitting company to your thought processes.

From there on, its off a low base and things hopefully keep improving. If it turns out the 6 mth scenario is wrong and its a 9mth, then do another cut 6 months later. But not small cuts month by month.

Additional Point 3 - If you are removing headcount, make sure it is done legally and humanely. Explain to remaining staff why. And yes, of course take the opportunity to remove poor perfomrers.

Good luck to all fellow founders and see hope to see a wave of cost efficient and super battle hardened startups when we emerge from this downturn!

NB: we also did a survey of our 31 startups to gauge impact on their business and runway. Situation better than we expected thanks to recent fund raising and emphasis on costs.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Startup Valuations in Recessionary Environment

Just 1+ mth ago back in early feb,  I was noticing that startup space esp early startup space, (Early meaning Series A , Seed space) seems largely living in lala land where valuations don’t seem affected by slowdown or is anyone worried about the spread of coronavirus.

Now the situation in my assessment should and will change  as the entire world economy is whacked big across the board and for the foreseeable future.

The funny thing is I still see startups thinking of valuing based on revenue or profit multiples that are totally out of whack with listed comparables. Here are some facts:

1) crazy guy in the room giving crazy valuations is in deep crap themselves having to sell prime assets now to redeem debt and show value. So no more crazy vision fund bets distorting market. And there is no one to replace them. 

2) loss making Uber is now worth about 6-8 times 2019 revenue high. i suspect if we use real revenue on grab and gojek they are really worth 40-50% less than last round which is validated by what secondary sales is showing. 

Slightly loss making grub hub is worth about 2-2.5 times it’s revenue. Saas which should benefit has also seen a rerating with profitable salesforce being valued at ps ratio of 7. The list goes on and the revaluation has happened and is not done.

So what to make of all this? Private Startup valuations should at least fall 20-30% just to follow market comparables. Add another 10-20% if you are not profitable or dominant in space. 

That brings us back to startup seed valuations at S$2m-4m or so. Or back to 2010-2013 levels which makes more sense. Series A should adjust accordingly. And maybe quick path to profit should be an indicator too. 

PE ratios back in 2002-2010 used to be 8-15 times for tech plays depending on strength of business. Go do the math..

This is not a sell serving article because I stand to lose a lot more if valuations go down than up having already invested in 31 startups and 7 VCs. We still intend to invest in 3-4 more startups this year and have already done 1 new investment and 3 follow on this year in engagerocket, worq and rara delivery.  For us it’s about backing founders. 

My goal is to tell founders to not live in lala land any more and don’t count on getting any easy outside money if this situation prolongs another quarter. And if you do survive, know that your business is probably worth a lot less than you think now. All this should generate actions on your part and behavioral change. I hope I am wrong and we get a V shape recovery 2nd half.. but we don’t plan on hope...

The only little silver lining is some VC at A and B rounds have dry powder. (Provided no pulling of LP capital. Not likely right now but we never know.) so this is a time to know if your VC really support you or not on cash infusion or loans.

Another positive note is that founders should also remember that many successful businesses grew out of tough recessions and were built with little or no early investor money. Building a profitable business in a recession strengthens your efficiency and mindset. And once you have a high quality profitable business, there will be lots of ways to monetize your hard work when the upturn comes!

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Staying financially alive in a crisis

(Shaoning has a great post on this topic and it inspired me to elaborate with more detail to help fellow founders.)

First post for the year and its against a backdrop of great uncertainty and fear in financial markets, business world and society in general. The COVID-19 coupled with the oil shock has as of today resulted in a paralyzed, shellshocked West and a winded East. What i have learned going through 2000 tech crash, 2003 SARs and 2008 GFC is that pendulums tend to swing to the extreme aided by self-reinforcing fears and panic. This does not mean that we should be cavalier about things and just work on a best case recovery assumption. Rather it means we recognize this crisis while large is not a world changer in any meaningful way. Yes some governments which are inept may be voted out, some people/companies will go bankrupt and most sadly, some people will die of the virus who could have been saved if we acted differently. But this will not change the world like the way democracy or religion or even the internet/iphone did.


So what should we do as investors and startup founders? First investors, take it easy and slow and have a plan as the market gyrates. Cash is king. Invest following whatever your personality fits best. Some people buy the way down, some buy the way up. Most important, do not Over-Leverage!. Never have to sell a financial asset due to margin calls or daily expenses. For our situation, we have a hard cap of 28%  on total leverage on all assets.  You need to figure out your own.

Second, keep to your asset allocation. A balanced portfolio or conservative portfolio would actually have only seen a 3-10% drop YTD. Its just part of last years gains. Compare this to stock market drop of 25% and  some individual stocks drop of 50-80%. 

Thirdly, keep the diversification. Don't own too much of one counter or industry. This means no single stock risk more than 5% of portfolio for me. Personally, i am prepared to buy 5 times of ETFs, dividend stocks and technology stocks all the way from S&P@3000 until S&P@1200 and STI@1200. This is below GFC levels substantially and at that level will involve some careful leverage (30% max) and selling bonds. It also involves being much picker. Why buy speculative loss making tech like EB or ZEN or Z when you can buy AAPL, BABA, FB, GOOG, AMZN at super discounted prices? This means at current S&P 2400, we have action plans for markets falling much more.

As for private equity investments like startups or VC funds, we have always espoused keeping to just 5-10% of net worth and to put them at book value. So these should continue on maybe at a slower and more careful pace. Esp if you are investing in early stage startups, i would argue valuations will get better and you can get better quality founders in times of crisis. No wantrepreneur would run a startup during bad times! 


You are in a much tougher situation. A few will be lucky and have huge demand due to your sector (healthcare, delivery, cleaning etc)  but most will  be in reverse situation.  The most important thing i can share is to take action and control of your destiny. Don't be passive and hide or be in denial. That will be worst attitude to take. You need to act on revenue , cost and cashflow to tide through this period.

Second, estimate your cashflow. Make sure you have enough cash to last at least 18 months. If you don't, cut costs and drive revenue until you can. Assume no more new investment money coming in. At the same time, apply and get credit facilities that will help you get cash in quickly. Now, some founders balk at personal guarantees required to get credit, all i have to say on this topic is do you have proper shareholding alignment and are you a wantrepreneur or the real deal? Don’t forget you raised capital convincing investors this is your do or die. 

And even if you do have the cash ( i know many more fortunate startups just raised capital), I suggest to still try to cut costs and extend it to 24-30mth.  Do a worst case scenario and an average case scenario planning. Then create trigger points where you take certain actions. 

Third, some actions you can take should cut across all functions and levels so that it is clear it is an all company effort. Mgmt lead by example.  So if you cut salary, cut your own the most first. It gives your moral authority.  If you don't agree (see the point earlier about personal guarantees). Areas to watch and change include :

Manpower Cost-  salary reductions/freezes (use the MVP component) , no bonuses declared, no pay leave, headcount reduction. For example, I just saw a early stage startup advertise for chief of staff role. What the hell?? The only Chief of Staff i know is in the US Cabinet. In bad times, founders need to roll up their sleeves even more so that the correct tone is set in office.

Marketing Cost - Cut marketing expenses to something commensurate to revenue. Don't try to grow ahead or just rely on LCV math. For example, if you normally spend $10K per month on conversions, try to spend $6 or $8K and just get the more profitable leads, dont bother with the expensive ones. And drop branding related advertising spend as much as possible,

Other Cost - Rent. See if you can make it 2% of your total expenses if you are a pure software play.  Do you really need downtown or coworking location? We had about 100 staff in 4500 sqft of space with meeting rooms and storage area and pantry. Be cheaper than us.

Other Cost - Staff welfare expenses. Do you really need to spend more than $200 per staff per year on welfare? A lot of team bonding activities can be free. This is not significant but it is setting the tone.

Cashflow Mgmt - Create packages that collect cash upfront. Chase AR religiously and don't be the bank for your clients.

Strategic - Stop overseas expansions and maybe close down new product lines or geographies that do not generate sufficient cash and which keep burning.

Talent - top performers should still get recognized, paid well and maybe even get some bonuses and increases.  Use the opportunity to remove bad performers. 

The above areas are all cost linked. Frequently, my experience is that cutting just helps you become more efficient and a downturn is a good reason to test your efficiency. I honestly feel most startups today behave like an MNC  in terms of perks but without the commensurate revenues and profits.  What is critical is that you comminicate the reasons for all the changes. This will be a good time to see if your staff trust you and whether you have built a good culture of teamwork and togetherness.

Next is revenue side.

Sales - If you are a startup with product market fit already, the one thing you don't cut is performing sales. If you can sell your way aggressively out of a recession, you tend to become very strong. For example during GFC, we created specially discounted packages to go after SMEs with a tagline that we are here to help them. At same time, we reminded MNCs and Govt that had recruitment freezes that even if not hiring they should spend a bit of money on employer branding so that when upturns comes, they have improved their employer brand. 

For sales, this is also an opportunity to fire bad paymaster clients and replace them with safer clients in terms of payment terms. Remember honestbee. They can always fold and don't pay. Then you need to write off the AR. That is even more painful and its usually better to not have that revenue in first place.

Sometimes, its just bad luck. You are in a sector that is really bad like travel or tourism. Then i would argue your leadership and strategy matters even more. As a small startup you have huge overhead and cost advantage over your big competitors who will be feeling even more low morale and burning even more cash. They will be pressuring their sales staff, cutting headcount and removing pantry benefits. This is the best time undercut and out sell them. If you have sufficient cash in bank, i would argue it is the best time to grow market share. This is exactly what happened from dot com crash in 2000 to 2006. The job portals basically stole SPH lunch in terms of recruitment advertising revenues.

One caveat though. If you find yourself mentally breaking down (much more than normal stress) or if clearly cash balance is not going to make it, there is no shame in calling it quits and shutting down. And pls assess risk properly, don’t wait until you owe employees and fellow sme owners lots of money before shutting down. That’s called self- denial, selfish and irresponsible!

Hope this sharing is useful. i may sound a bit extreme in my cost cutting thinking but it actually how most very profitable SME run. Its time our startups learn to do the same and who knows, maybe we will have a surge of profitable startups emerging once the winter ends. Imagine being so well run, you can fire your Vc and not need to raise anymore!