Southeast Asia’s startup ecosystem has matured over the last 10 years with record deal sizes, an increase in exits, and a huge influx of venture capital into the market. We chat with Koh Shiyan, Managing Partner at Hustle Fund, about her experiences building NerdWallet in Silicon Valley, why she decided to go from operator to early-stage investor in Southeast Asia, and her belief in Southeast Asia’s founders.
15 January 2021 / By SGN
If you’ve tuned in to our most recent edition of the Singapore Tech Forum 2020, you would’ve heard Koh Shiyan’s great insights of Southeast Asia’s potential as an emerging tech hub. But peel back the layers and you’d find a passionate soul for the region’s growth and a heart to enable all hustling entrepreneurs in the scene.
It’s the dream of many to live the “classic Silicon Valley experience”, where you join a fast-growth tech company as one of its early employees and see it grow multiple times into a successful business. Shiyan counts herself lucky and fortunate to be able to experience this immense growth during her time at NerdWallet.
In 2012, Shiyan joined NerdWallet as one of its early employees. During her 6-year stint with the company, she hustled with her team, which bootstrapped the business to US$50 million before she helped to raise their first round of external funding from Institutional Venture Partners. At a time when NerdWallet was generating US$150 million in revenue annually, Shiyan left her role as Vice President of Business Operations & Corporate Development to move back to her home in Singapore in 2018.
“I think every step of company and revenue growth were big milestones for us”, she shares. They had to hire people for roles that they had never done themselves, and figure out job responsibilities, job performance metrics, while building a viable business. She reflects that her time at NerdWallet really showed her that it was possible to build a large business based on your vision of how the world should be rather than what it currently is. It also gave her a strong belief in people’s possibilities and opportunities, which inspired her to become an early-stage investor at Hustle Fund. Shiyan shares: “Watching a small group of determined people attack a problem and break it down and succeed, is one of the most exhilarating things you can do. Watching people you’ve hired as fresh graduates grow and start their own company or lead significant functions of other companies – that is an incredible high,”
“That’s probably why I’m an early-stage investor today, because I think there is so much talent opportunity in this region, we just have to unleash it.”
Hustling with Founders as An Investor at Hustle Fund
When Shiyan returned to Singapore after spending 18 years in the U.S., she was looking for something that would provide a similarly enriching and exciting experience like her time at NerdWallet. She decided to join her good friends Elizabeth Yin and Eric Bahn at Hustle Fund, a venture capital fund investing in fast-executing (as the name suggests) teams at the pre-seed and seed stages. As entrepreneurs who have started, built, and sold their companies before becoming full-time investors, Shiyan shares that she and her partners have experienced “the ability to drive and to create something from nothing” and hope to partner with other founders at the earliest stage of their company creation and help them throughout the journey. “The thing about doing a start-up is, it’s really hard, it’s a lot of hard work, self-doubt, and dealing with doubt from other people… we act like a therapist almost – somebody to be a sounding board, but also to be an emotional support”, Shiyan says.
“I love the Steve Jobs quote about how the dots connect when you look back, because I feel like all my experiences have come together for me to build upon in my current role at Hustle Fund,” Shiyan says.
Besides providing seed capital to early-stage start-ups, Hustle Fund also runs workshops (conducted virtually now) on a range of topics like sales, user research, customer development, regionalisation, and internationalisation strategies. They also organise regular webinars to share fundraising and pitching tips, and tactical training on marketing and customer retention strategies, and participate in open office hours for other founders.
Since Hustle Fund’s founding in 2017, the team has since grown to 14 employees working across 4 time zones, invested in 212 companies across North America and Southeast Asia.
Supporting Start-ups and Aspiring Entrepreneurs from The Ground Up in Southeast Asia
Shiyan has personally conducted a 10-week product management course to a class of 30 undergraduate students at the Singapore Management University. During the course, students learned the basics of testing and development, conducting user research, and how they could build and ship a minimum viable product (MVP) using no-code tools.
She believes that Southeast Asia’s current start-up ecosystem is relatively nascent compared to mature markets like Silicon Valley, China, and Israel with many first-time founders who are new to raising money and are building teams from scratch. “The level of sophistication is just slightly lower because you don’t have the kind of density of experienced founders and ecosystem who are mentoring the next generation. Everyone is still figuring it out,” she says.
She observed that there are more unicorns and fast-growing companies in the region who are paving the way, and hope that these talents will build the foundation of mentorship and experience for the next generation of entrepreneurs.
“I think the biggest thing we can do is to pay it forward,” she says. “All the mentorship we got in our journey is to pay it forward into the ecosystem, and to build a supportive community of founders who want to help each other. We truly believe that great talent exists everywhere, if we can enable it in some small way, then we’ve done our part.”
About Shiyan Koh
She is the Managing Partner at Hustle Fund, a venture capital fund that invests in pre-seed software startups in the U.S., Canada and Southeast Asia. Her first exposure to technology was as a summer intern writing technical documentation for a small 30 person startup (today, publicly traded NASDAQ: TNAV). She worked in a series of finance and investing roles (JPMorgan, Institutional Venture Partners, Bridgewater Associates) before joining NerdWallet as employee #10.
Over the course of six years at NerdWallet, she led product teams, ran business operations and corporate development, and helped grow the company from US$1M to US$150M in revenue. Shiyan returned to Singapore in 2018 to start Hustle Fund’s Southeast Asian investing practice.
Connect with Shiyan here.