“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” ― Emily Dickinson
Principal, Neoteny Labs;
Co-founder, Startup Roots Singapore
James Chan is Principal at Neoteny Labs, an early-stage venture capital firm, and co-founder of Startup Roots Singapore, a Singaporean chapter of Sillicon Valley’s Startup Roots that facilitates and encourages the brightest local university students to work in startups.
James completed his formal education at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford University on a scholarship from the Economic Development Board of Singapore. Having previously worked at the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, James has a rare breadth and depth of experience in the startup ecosystems of both America and Singapore, and in both the public and private sectors too.
You’ve had a lot of experience with startups. What is one quality you find successful entrepreneurs tend to possess?
I think you need to be scrappy. Being scrappy is about getting out of your comfort zone and do whatever it takes to get the job done. If you wanted to get an interview with someone, drop him an email. Give him a call. Wait outside his office. Do what you think it takes. Be “otaku” about it.
This applies to life at large. I love photography. When I was still a student in the U.S., I went on a cross-country roadtrip from San Francisco to Utah with a friend I made via an online photography forum. I visited Peru for 3 weeks and hiked the 26-mile Machu Picchu trail with an extra 10kg of camera equipment. It was physically punishing, but it was a great experience and I returned with priceless memories. Do crazy things. Try things you’ve never tried before. Another way I’d answer this is to be neotenous – to retain some of the qualities of a child even when you’re an adult. It’s important to keep asking, keep exploring. Stay wide-eyed. This is the essence of the name of our firm: Neoteny Labs.
A huge part of your job is about getting young Singaporeans to be involved in startups. What inspired you to be involved in the startup scene yourself?
It wasn’t any one single thing that I can attribute this to. I made the best of what Life laid in front of me. However, I had an interesting teacher who was light years ahead of her peers back then, whom I credit as my mentor who opened up my mind at the ages of 11 to 12. She had very unique teaching methods. She exposed us to stuff that were out of syllabus; philosophy, algebra, Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”, mind-mapping, softball. She ditched the MOE syllabus in favour of a good balance between Literature (think adaptations of Broadway musicals) and a much more technical approach to the teaching of the English Language. We would visit the Singapore Science Centre monthly when typical school kids of that era visited once a year. I could go on all day, but the bottom line is she was really “otaku” about education and giving us her best. Those 2 years with her really opened up my mind’s eye. It gave me valuable perspectives at an impressionable young age; for that, I will be eternally grateful.
Singapore’s startup scene is still developing. If anything, what do you think is holding Singapore startup’s scene back? What do we need to do to really get things going even faster?
I don’t think Singapore should aim to be a second Silicon Valley; I don’t think that’s really possible. They have got a distinguished track record. Singapore’s issue right now is that we haven’t got a critical mass of successes. Once Singapore’s startup scene gets a major breakthrough or two, that will attract a lot of attention from entrepreneurs and investors.
Having said that, I think what Singapore needs to improve is our culture towards failure when it comes to long-haul innovation. The typical Singaporean is risk-averse. Consider the options available to the average professional; they can easily get high starting salaries in large prestigious companies. Our smartest and brightest face immense opportunity costs when deciding whether to join startups.
And that’s not necessarily surprising, nor is it entirely a bad thing. Our younger generation have been conditioned through repeated streamings, school rankings and parental and peer pressure. You wouldn’t want everyone in Singapore to be an entrepreneur; we need more followers than we do leaders. Most of Neoteny Labs’ investments in Singapore startups have foreign co-founders. We don’t discriminate founders by their nationality; I’ve just been harder pressed to identify more Singaporeans who are as “neotenous” as they are scrappy. I’d love to see a stronger representation by Singaporeans in the future.
I think the structural limitations I spoke of are being worked on by the Government; we’ll just have to be patient and wait for its results.
Any last words of advice to our wannabe entrepeneurs out there?
It’s very, very important to identify role models or mentors at every stage in your life. Work hard, keep your feet on the ground and be humble and gracious. Every dog has its day.