Tak Lo, a partner at Zeroth.ai, formerly a director at Techstars London, spoke about a range of topics, including where he sees the Asian start-up ecosystem going next, the challenges of going away from the ‘traditionally Asian career path’ and leadership.

Transcript of the Interview

 

We've looked a bit into your backstory and what we found is really inspirational. You were a former US Army veteran, you did your MBA at the London Business School and right after that, you had the opportunity to go into investment banking. But instead, you decided against the 'traditional Asian career path' to pursue an opportunity with a startup. Can you speak a bit more to that

 

Yeah, this actually happened twice in my life. When I first graduated from the University of Chicago, instead of going into Investment banking, that was actually the first time when I joined the military. The second time was actually after London Business School, when I had an internship at Nomura and I had an offer to go to Nomura, I decided to go into startups. You'll notice there's a pattern there. Every time I go into school, I come out and think I'll go into investment banking and it never happens. Most to the disappointment of my father.

I would like to think I am extremely logical so my undergrad is in economics so I always thought of risk slightly differently. So both after the University of Chicago and London Business School, I said: it's the best time to take lots of risk, because you're extremely young and you're able to take risk you wouldn't be able to take at any other time because your risk profile changes over time and normally, decreases as you get older.

That's why I took this risk after the University of Chicago. Correlating, after the London Business School, it was the same thing. After LBS, I was 31. I said, one more time to take risk. And further more, when you are 30, you start to have a decreasing ability to change careers.

Nobody wants to hire a 35-y-o in another industry or in a new industry. That happens very infrequently. It was a logical decision. I decided for myself that I wanted to be in startups, I thought the switching costs of making enough money and then switching were too high afterwards, even if you have enough money.

So I decided to switch right then, right there to the industry I wanted to be in while I still could. And not be locked inside the investment banking bubble. I thought it was the logical choice and it turned out to be the right choice.

What can you say to those people who are being pressured by their family, by their peers and friends to become a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer? What can you tell about why you took that choice and what you took away from it? How does that impact how you see life and business today?

I've always thought a little bit differently. To break away from what my father always said. I come from a banker family.

First thing is, family pressure is real. No question. Oftentimes I think it's artifical as well. Family pressure is just another form of social pressure, right? Your friends do one thing, my family says another thing. For me, I view it as just another data point. At the end of the day, it's someone else's incentive. And a different person's viewpoint. Ultimately, I am in the driver seat and I have to make the choices that are right for me.

I view it as any other data point, what my friends say, what my career counsels say. It's another perspective that could be validated and I need to make up my own mind about it. For the listeners, I think that's that, it's just like another pressure. It might be weighted slightly higher, because your family at the end of the day is your family. You can't expect your father or your mother nagging at you but it ultimately is.

The second thing is, especially for those that are right out of undergrad. That first choice that you make out of the undergrad, really dictates how you live the rest of your life. When I first came out of London Business School, you could tell very clearly the correlation between people's personalities and the first job they took.

The Goldman Sachs risk guys, were always risk non-takers. The Navy Seals guys were always full of bravado. Now, there is correlation, causation, I'm not quite sure. It could be that they're prone to do certain things and therefore they choose these jobs.

In any case, right out of undergrad you have the most flexibility in terms of what you choose and how you want to live the rest of your life. If you take that choice and choose something that you want to be rather than something that people told you to be. If you decide, in 20 years from now, I want to be an entrepreneur so therefore I am going to do this because this is what helps me to get there or the same for an investor, so I want to be doing the things that help me become an investor, I thing those are the choices one needs to make.

For me, I wanted to be a leader. So I chose the United States Army, because I knew that was going to put me in those situations. It's hard to rationalize the choice but I think it gave me a lot more lessons about leadership than pretty much any other choice.

Can you tell us a bit more about that? What from your experience in the US army - thinking of some of the leadership lessons being referred to in highly hyped books like 'Extreme Ownership' today, can you mention some of the leadership lessons that you took away from our experience?

I saw a lot of different modalities of leadership in my time in the US army. Everyone has a very different style. In the end, leadership is really accentuating yourself and the soft and hard skills that you have in allowing other people to accomplish a mission.

One, I learned it's okay to be yourself. There's infinite possibilities and modalities of what leadership is. So I think that was one.

I got to see as well what bad leadership was or bad elements of leadership. There are certain things that don't work. Selfishness is bad. Not thinking about the mission is bad. Not taking care of your team is bad. I got to see what bad leadership was.

I got to see what was good. Taking care of your team. People really caring about the mission. People really sweating the details. So I got to see good elements and bad elements.

For startup founders, I think being open to receiving feedback and really comparing and contrasting their style is key. One, you don't have to subscribe to any style, you can have your own style. But two, be open enough to learn from other people and observe other people and how they lead. Observe a Steve Jobs, observe the Elon Musks. There are other co-founders and CEOs as well. Pick up different tips and tactics from them and try and see if it works for you. If it does work, incorporate it in your skill set and iterate off of that. That would be my advice.

You mention a critical point - moving to the Asian startup scene now. Most of us, envision ourselves to be the next Elon Musk, AirBnb or Uber - yet most of us are not being portrayed in the right light or highly regarded by Asian startups themselves. This is our objective. You recently moved from the West, where you had a very successful career, to Asia. Why did you do that and what do you see as the bigger advantages one can get from the Easter startup space?

The honest answer is that I moved for family. We don't have family in the UK, we have a young daughter so we decided to raise her with family. Some would say this is a hard choice, but it was a pretty easy one for us. I tend to believe that if you take care of your family, everything take cares of itself. So pretty easy choice.

To answer your other question, in terms of other professional opportunities. That was actually ancillary, honestly. I do think there is a lot of potential here. I'm not just bullshitting.

In the West, US is a very different market and Europe is a very different market and I'm very used to that; more so even than the US. If you see where innovation is. It starts with the US and a confluence of factors like Silicon Valley including government grants and money and academia and private individuals - UK has followed this, London especially, combined with right mentorship. Lots of startups have now gone into Europe and the UK in the capitals.

If I were to forecast the next 10 years, the hub of innovation can really be in Asia. If you think about it, in terms of innovation. We have yet to see anything world beating from Asia, still. Other than perhaps the scale of their manufacturing.

So I really do see the potential here. I don't know what the total population of Asia is, but at least three or four billion people, so there have to be some world beating ideas. I am hopeful that we will see the next Elon Musk, world beating and world changing ideas from Asia. I think there's a lot of stuff that's going to come from here.

That's a really interesting perspective Tak - especially from your background - there's many people with similar stories. There's so many people like yourself with that story. Can you talk about how that dynamic and the mix of Western and Chinese influence plays on these young entrepreneurs?

I think it's a tremendous advantage. Growing up I didn't think it was an advantage. I was confused. I was having conversation with someone from Singapore who is half British, half Indonesian and from that I really got the feeling that it's third culture, fourth culture or even fifth culture kids who will rule the earth in the next twenty to thirty years. I think it's a tremendous advantage.

Being able to hold very disparate mental models in your head and have multiple cultural sensitivities makes for good business, makes for good leaders, for good individuals. I think it's a great thing, because you need to balance things out.

If you're in Asia, you can't be too Western. If you're in the West, you can't be too Asian. Because those modalities don't exist in those particular cultures. But retaining those elements and always being cognizant of those cultural elements is the key.

Something very specific. When I was in the UK and looking at elements of leadership, I would say it's pretty Asian. It's very communal - I care about the people I serve with, I care about their families, I care about the interpersonal relationships.

While here in Asia, I have a very Western way of working. I live in Tung Chung, which is very far. I need a certain peace and quiet where I live. I think retaining both sides and being cognizant of both or three sides is an advantage.

The startup space is going to be led by innovation. That's what happened in the US, in Europe and I assume that's what's going to happen in Asia. Now that you've been here for a few months, how do you see that path? Do you see any alpha startups that are innovative. Or are they still trying to emulate the West?

When I first came here about a year ago. I went to RISE, I felt there was a lot more copycat stuff among the companies who were getting funded. C2C, copy-to-China directly or Uber-this and Tinder-that.

I'm starting to see now on the ground level, during events such as Startup Weekend and Angelhacks, I'm starting to see more unique ideas. Unique to this locale, unique to the environment. I would say I'm seeing maturement. There are copycats. But the next stage are these young kids at hackathons and Angelhacks and Startup Weekend, where I'm actually seeing some original ideas.

To answer your question, I don't think we've seen an Elon Musk just yet. We've not seen that many original ideas just yet - but I think that's just the stage of innovation. You need multiple iterations of this stuff in order to get to an original idea.

That was the same thing in London. When I was there for the first wave, it was all copycat stuff. But then accelerators started to come in, a lot more people started getting interested in innovation and *POUF*, on the whole, we're actually starting to see a lot of interesting ideas. It's just part of ecosystem building.

Do you have any specific examples in the Asian ecosystem startup that you believe are promising?

A bit of a cop-out, Citymappers is a UK startup, that did start in Asia. Gene Su, he's a GM who hails from Hong Kong. I think these guys have grown well and I think they're really doing innovative things and growing in the right direction

Their CEO is really doing awesome things. He's everything you want a startup founder to be. Extremely product-focused, extremely technical and continuously trying to be a better leader

I will mention Raymond Yip from Shopline as well, who is now Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Mindfund. Raymond is one of the early guys in startups here. He raised and did the right things towards the next iteration and next moves

It's not a company, but a great individual I want to highlight.