This interview with Managing Partner Peng T. Ong first appeared on GreatOwls.com.
Interview by Olga Sych
You created three highly successful, but very different companies ranging from gaming to content management. What led you to create each of them?
I look for what I call ridiculous states of the world that don’t make any sense and then try to fix those states. The first one was looking through classified ads with your finger on newspapers. That didn’t make sense, so I thought, ‘Why doesn't a computer do it?’ The second one was how to manage hundreds of gigabytes of content with thousands of employees contributing to the content on a website. I thought there must be a better way to do it with automation. The third one was about how digital security is so archaic in our space and the world we live in, so I tried to fix that.
Having worked in China, the US and Singapore, what are the differences and similarities between the start-up scenes in each?
There are a lot of similarities because when you're doing tech businesses, you're probably disrupting existing brick and mortar businesses, so they’re very similar in that way. China and the US are comparable now because the companies they create are about the same size. If you look at the top ten most valuable companies in the world, seven are tech companies and two of those are Chinese tech companies. In fact, the second most valuable company after Google is a Chinese company.
However, it’s different because people are different culturally, and also emerging markets come from a place of scarcity. For example, in China and India there are too many people and not enough resources, whereas in the US perhaps you don't need to squeeze as hard.
When it comes to Singapore, the startup scene is still quite young. But actually, we're more energetic than a number of other parts of Southeast Asia, which is an indication of the potential of what can happen in this region.
Statistically the majority of startups fail, so why is it important to nurture the entrepreneurial mindset and how does one go about doing that?
Actually the majority of my projects will succeed at some level. Only a few return no money, but I believe they can still make money even though they are failing. The real difference between innovation and a production economy is that with any given project, it's a lot harder to predict the success of an innovation project.
If you're building a manufacturing line, you know you're probably going to make money if you don't screw up the execution. With innovation businesses, you just don't know. Sometimes it works, and sometimes there is no product market to fit. Sometimes you're too early and sometimes you're too late. So you've got to innovate to find out.
Now imagine a society that doesn't have innovation and doesn't cater to entrepreneurs. There might be other forms that innovation can take, but mostly in business it's entrepreneurship. You look at value creation across big and small companies and it's always the small guys with high driving entrepreneurs that produce value.
What skills do you think are most important for entrepreneurs?
I think computing is sort of baseline now. You also need diligence and resilience, and to keep asking questions about why you're doing what you’re doing and push the limits of what you’re doing. If you don't have an inquisitive mind, your future probably won't be as interesting or as financially rewarding.
In one of your earlier interviews you said, “Not everyone can become successful, but a hit can come from anyone.” From your experience, are there patterns or processes that lead to success or is it just a matter of chance?
I think luck is a factor. You might work very hard and still not succeed because that's luck. Usually though, in Silicon Valley we say that if you're smart, work hard and hang in there, at some point you’ll end up with a good company that will succeed. Entrepreneurs who are driven, thoughtful, work well with people and are always learning tend to be successful.
When I was at GSR in China, one of my partners did a review of all the deals we missed and we asked ourselves if there was anything we could have done differently. We realized that when we met many of the entrepreneurs who are now successful, we thought they had the potential to be successful, but didn't invest in them because of their business models. So the lesson learned is that you should invest in the people more than the absolute business itself.
Have you ever experienced a failure, or apparent failure that set you up for later success?
I don't look at life as successes and failures; I look at it as a set of experiences. There are always failures as defined by the world, like when you had to fire someone and that strategic decision was wrong in retrospect and cost a lot of money. Or you go public and then all your numbers are visible and instead of paying attention to the business, you start chasing the numbers and you crash. But those are just blips in the journey.
And what is success? If you create a company and it dies after 50 years, is that success? I don't know. So I tend not to use those labels. What I'm looking for is impact. If you want to put a label on success, to me it’s impact and whether I’m making a difference.
It’s also about learning every step of the way. If you screw up, you say, "Oh, right, I shouldn't have done that." We remember those things very clearly because that’s how our brains are wired. So my life has been defined a lot by learning from my failures, particularly in making the wrong choices with people like failing to trust the right people.
What is one of the most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
To choose to be an entrepreneur.
What books have impacted you the most?
One book I read over and over again is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Basically it goes back to the fundamentals of how you use your mind. Then there is Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Life by Martin Seligman. I’m an engineer, and engineers are generally looking for what's wrong, so this book helped me to be optimistic about the world. I also like Dune by Frank Herbert because it challenged the way I think about time and brought into focus how we are all part of this big continuous stream of humanity. I am interested in the topic of convergence of human behaviour and technology.
Here are some of the books on my kindle that I found interesting:
Sapiens: A brief history of humankind and Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. Give and Take by Adam Grant; The Economic Singularity:Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism by Calum Chase; On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson; Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee.
What industry columnists, bloggers or influencers should we know about right now?
Lim Richard, who is one of the founders of GSR. He is probably one of the most thoughtful people on a lot of these topics but specifically on building very large companies from nothing.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
The fact that I get to choose to do what I believe in.