[This article is writing by Chris Evdemon who is an entrepreneur and angel investor based in Beijing. Chris is a Partner at Innovation Works, China’s leading early stage technology venture capital fund. Chris is also a Director of Finn Evdemon Capital Partners Pte. Ltd., an angel investments firm based in Singapore and an investor in PropertyGuru.]
In the past four years, Singapore has been quietly-but-steadily brewing one of South-East Asia’s first, dominant, cash-generating online verticals, certainly one of the very first to successfully make the jump from a domestic Singapore to a truly regional play. PropertyGuru still has some way to go before it realizes its full potential and before the team cashes in on its hard work, but its progress in the past few years should serve as a beacon to all aspiring entrepreneurs in Singapore and the region.
For the lucky few that have been involved with PropertyGuru from the beginning to date, the course has offered a number of invaluable lessons in entrepreneurship and in angel investing. It is impossible to fit them all in a single blog post and in any case, some learnings are always company- or situation-specific. At the very least however, the following should serve as straightforward advice for simple issues that are nevertheless often overlooked by Founders and investors alike.
Start early, create a product that is superior to your competition, a product that your customers are willing to pay for, and stay ahead of the curve all the way. PropertyGuru was not the first online real estate portal in Singapore (or in any of the other markets that it has since entered) but it started early enough, and right from the onset it had the best product in the market, both in terms of design / user experience and quality of data. It provided a new medium and additional transparency in a market previously monopolized by SPH and a tool that has since been – almost religiously – helping real estate agents in their daily work, marketed at a price that they are willing to pay. We are in the services business and quality of service should be the foremost preoccupation of every entrepreneur in this sector. As a result of PropertyGuru’s efforts, conversion to paying customers and subscription renewals have been amongst the highest in the world, by comparison to its peers.
Choose the right early stage investors and make them work for you. Align everyone’s interest around your vision. Be fair and transparent in all your dealings. Jani and Steve, the PropertyGuru Founders, had several financing options early on, as well as in the course of the last few years, including individuals, angel funds, government-backed programmes, corporates and VCs. They chose a small group of trusted individuals with very diverse backgrounds, from hedge fund management, to angel investing, with an academic profile or hands-on VC/PE experience. They did not linger in their selection process and did not make the 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 matching or other similar schemes a priority. Selecting your early stage investors is a lot more than just about the money. Each one of the investors could and did contribute in specific areas: continuous brainstorming around the business model and in terms of the international expansion in due course, sourcing of talent and senior executives, various industry leads and relevant introductions, advice on further financing / potential exit options and preparation for the ensuing negotiations, as well as installing the discipline and accountability that is so important (and yet so easily forgotten by most Founders) by putting in place a proper corporate governance from the beginning, and so on. The list is long. Good early stage investors bring additional confidence to entrepreneurs, at a time when they need it most.
Communicate, communicate, and communicate again. The good news but, even more importantly, the bad news. Externally but, even more importantly, internally. How else can you align everyone’s interest around your vision, be fair and transparent in all your dealings? Jani and Steve have adopted this policy from the first day and have created a company culture that encourages and rewards this behaviour. It started with themselves, with the communication between the Founders, which has been nothing less than 100% honest, direct and always with mutual respect. Good leaders are showing the way and setting the tempo for the entire company. With investors, they are always sharing all industry news, recent PropertyGuru developments, company data, their concerns, their thoughts, their challenges, their plans, everything around the business. Quarterly Board and shareholders’ meetings are prepared well in advance and the materials distributed are truly informative, allowing Directors and shareholders alike to effectively contribute. How else can the entrepreneurs get what they want out of their investors, over the years, other than the initial capital?
Consider your competition carefully but stay focused on your own vision and course. Let your ethos shine. Over the years and until recently, PropertyGuru had to deal with a variety of, at times unprofessional and even malicious, competitors. They are state- or privately-owned incumbents which, for the most part, do not have a true passion to provide a good service to their customers. Despite the occasional competitors’ guerrilla tactics or PropertyGuru’s incredible lack of media coverage within Singapore (as if the country is full of stories of homegrown start-ups, that successfully scale and expand regionally), Jani and Steve have to date remained focused on their own vision and their own plan of execution. They have dealt with everything thrown at them with ethos, never crossing to the other side, a true testament of their characters. The market is smart and will eventually reward this stance.
The Singaporean market is small but good entrepreneurs can still set a great foundation in the domestic market, to build upon in the future. The big plan though, from the first day, must be for regional expansion at the right time. Because of its concise nature, Singapore is often referred to as a great test market for the South-East Asia region. Nonsense. Singapore is as different a market (and Singaporean users, in terms of consumer and usage habits) from its neighbours as it gets. In fact, South-East Asia must be one of the most diverse regional markets in the world. Every country must be considered individually, every country needs product and business model localization and above all, trusted, local management that deeply understands its own market and has been already operating in it. No one can manage a business in the region merely sitting out of their comfort zone in Singapore, without physical presence in each of the local markets – even for purely online plays. PropertGuru first secured a clear leadership position in its home market, achieved stable positive cash flow, and then successfully expanded from Singapore to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Jani and Steve achieved “regionalization” in the space of six months by teaming up with talented entrepreneurs that were already active in these markets. The economics of the deals were, once again, dictated by fairness and alignment of interest. Today everyone involved in PropertyGuru is driven to succeed, for what is now a regional group, rather than a domestic company.
The no. 1 ingredient in every company is people. There is no substitute for committed, top class entrepreneurs, who execute well. The Founders are the A to Z in every start-up, especially in the crucial first few years. They make mistakes but correct them fast and (hopefully) never make them again. They listen carefully, they consult, they observe, then apply their own judgment and decide accordingly for every step of the way. They spend the biggest part of their time in building and taking good care of their team. They adapt to a changing environment but they have a clear long-term vision and patience to execute. And here is the magic word: execute. Proven execution ability is the one quality that savvy early stage investors are always looking for, over and above everything else. Jani and Steve are two shining examples of all the above entrepreneurial qualities. Thank you both.
And, hey, the story is not over yet. PropertyGuru has tremendous upside to fulfill in the coming years, for all its stakeholders. It is now “armed” with a great, experienced and like-minded new partner, with cash at hand and a team with an appetite that’s bigger than ever before.