Why we fall for the less obvious

Paul Santos | October 26, 2022

I feel celebrating winning awards is like celebrating fundraising rounds. You get a certain amount of satisfaction from the validation you receive for the work you’ve put in, but you miss the point of the journey if you dwell on it too much.

Through the 10 years we’ve been around, we’ve had the honor of winning awards from the Singapore Venture Capital & Private Equity Association (SVCA) for our startup investments. The awards have been meaningful to us because we respect the association members and appreciate the care the group takes in its selection process.

Looking back, if there’s one thing all of our recognized investments have in common: they weren’t obvious winners when we first invested.

Alexis Horowitz-Burdick, Luxola Founder | Image Credit: Amazons Watch Magazine

Our first-ever investment, Luxola, a beauty and cosmetics retail company founded in 2011, won VC Exit of the Year in 2016 after its acquisition by French luxury goods giant LVMH/Sephora. It was our first major exit. 

After the takeover, Luxola was rebranded Sephora Digital, becoming the French giant’s e-commerce arm in Southeast Asia, with founder Alexis Horowitz-Burdick as managing director. But think back 10 years ago, when e-commerce was nowhere near as trusted as it is today, how many investors wanted to back a solo, non-technical female founder focusing on online retail in Singapore?

(L-R) TradeGecko co-founders Bradley Priest & Cameron Priest

Our second-ever investment, TradeGecko, an inventory and sales management software-as-a-service company, won VC Exit of the Year in 2021 after being bought by Intuit/Quicken. It returned our whole Fund 1 and then some. How many investors today genuinely believe that you can build a global SaaS company out of Singapore? Probably few. There were even fewer of us in 2012.

(L-R) Growsari’s Sid Kongara (Co-Founder & CTO), Shiv Choudhury (Co-Founder & Director), Andrzej Ogonowski (Co-Founder & Head of Platform), and ER Rollan (Co-Founder & CEO)

Growsari, a startup digitizing mom-and-pop (sari-sari) stores in the Philippines, won VC Deal of the Year in 2021 after achieving clear market leadership and raising one of the country’s largest growth rounds from investors like KKR, International Finance Corp., and Pavilion Capital. But when we backed the company in 2017, how many VCs were interested in helping small store owners in an often-overlooked market like the Philippines?

 

Gibran Huzaifah and Chrisna Aditya, eFishery co-founders at the eFishery HQ in Bandung, Indonesia

 

Lastly, Indonesia-based eFishery won VC Deal of the Year this year after becoming the world’s first and largest digital fishing cooperative and receiving backing from Temasek, Softbank Vision Fund, Sequoia, Northstar, and GoVentures. When we first invested in 2018, how many VCs were keen on hardware startups targeting fish farmers in rural Indonesia?

All these companies exemplify one of the critical tenets of how we try to invest at Wavemaker Partners:

Opportunity = Value – Perception

We believe that some of the greatest opportunities are often the least obvious ones. They are typically borne out of unique industry and/or technology insights that most people don’t have. They probably have an answer to Peter Thiel’s famous question: “What important truth do you believe that few people agree with you on?”

eFishery’s co-founders Gibran Huzaifah and Chrisna Aditya were fish farmer-engineers from Bandung. They didn’t work in some high-profile consulting or investment banking or tech company. They had a hardware-based solution targeting an unfamiliar industry. Despite delivering US$2 million in revenue/year and being profitable in a very popular market, VCs shied away. 

Not too many people appreciated that:

  • There are about 3 million fish farmers who own/manage 15 million to 25 million fish ponds in Indonesia
  • More than 7 million of the fish ponds are commercial-grade
  • Fish feed accounts for about 80% of the operating cost
  • Harvest cycles typically take 3 months
  • Profit/pond/year is about US$1,200

eFishery optimizes feeding, allowing farmers to cut harvest cycles from 3 months to 2 months. The shorter harvest cycles lead to more inventory turns per year (roughly 6 versus 4), which then lead to doubled annual profit/pond (around US$2,000-US$3,000) while costing the farmer less than US$200. Even better, eFishery has grown from simply being a hardware play to the world’s first and largest digital fishing cooperative whose members get access to feed supply at lower costs, and financing to grow their business and customers who buy their produce.

Since our first investment in 2018, eFishery has raised over US$100 million from marquee investors and grown its revenues to well north of US$100 million per year while delivering double-digit profit margins. Today, the company touches the lives of more than 40,000 farmers, and it’s just getting started. While there’s a lot more room to grow in Indonesia, it is now beginning to explore other markets.

Gibran and Chrisna have built their business against the odds and with little fanfare. You can sense their passion and joy in helping their customers succeed. They are a breath of fresh air in an industry that can take itself too seriously or stray too far away from basic business fundamentals.

Wavemaker Partners’ SVCA awards through the years

We celebrate their success knowing their journey is far from over and that there are still many challenges to overcome. What we hope is that they inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia who will not simply copy global success models or chase growth for growth’s sake by burning large amounts of capital with bad unit economics. 

If the region is truly to mature, we will need bold, insightful entrepreneurs committed to addressing truly meaningful problems by building scalable, defensible, and value-creating businesses.

Allow me to end with a couple of shameless requests: If you’re an entrepreneur who shares the same vision, please reach out. If you know an entrepreneur who does, please introduce us.

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