From student hacker to start-up mogul – an audience with Jonathan Teo

“The man with the Midas touch…”

Jonathan Teo, tech VC with a Midas touch, has been back in Australia recently, and found time to stop by Lean Startup Melbourne for a Q&A with Michelle Bourke in front of an audience of 350 members of the local startup scene.

With a track record that includes Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat in his portfolio of start-up investments, Teo is obviously someone who deserves to be taken seriously, but the candour and humility with which he talked about his experience made for a very down-to-earth evening with such a high-profile investor.

As usual, the event was hosted by Inspire9, with generous support from Kussowski Brothers, Startup Victoria, Products Are Hard, BlueChilli, Investors’ Organisation, Startup Weekend and National Australia Bank.

Teo’s backstory has been told elsewhere (childhood in Singapore, college in Sydney, post-grad at Stanford, Google engineer, venture capitalist…) but the combination of having a great mentor, working in the (then) emerging technology of cloud computing, and some “right time, right place” good fortune has provided him with a powerful platform from which to join the upper echelons of silicon valley VCs.

“The Secrets of My Success”

Naturally, people wanted to know the key to his investing success. Rather than referring to some “special sauce”, Teo pointed to some simple principles:

  • Relationships – strong relationships are essential, both within the founding team, and across the right networks and insiders
  • Self awareness – many founders don’t see their own capability gaps, and therefore can overlook inherent weaknesses in their business
  • Key metrics – know what run-rates the business needs to achieve to meet its performance goals (cash burn rate, retention levels, acquisition costs, daily and consecutive customer usage)

In particular, Teo stressed that new distribution models form the lens for assessing new investment opportunities.

“Show me the money!”

During a discussion about bringing in investors, Teo was pretty sanguine – what works for some start-ups, won’t work for others. If you can self-fund, then do so; if you do need to tap external funding, start with friends and family (who will generally be more patient than professional investors); and if you have to bring in VC’s, make sure you know the trade-offs. He also suggested that crowdfunding is great for consumer plays, but ultimately valuations are determined by demand.

“New Thang”

When asked where “the next big thing” was going to come from, Teo was understandably coy (or simply discreet), and politely suggested it could emerge from somewhere in the audience. What he did offer were some thoughts on emerging trends that will influence future start-ups:

  • Fewer mass-market consumer products – according to Teo, “only China can support a purely domestic consumer play”
  • Less focus on patents, more emphasis on survival – not that IP isn’t important, just that the cost and effort of securing patents mustn’t outweigh the need to generate revenue in the early stages
  • Content niches – unique content is key to attracting advertisers and subscribers, and when combined with rich user data makes for compelling communication and network apps
  • The human touch – products that bring a more human digital experience will gain traction

Finally, Teo predicted the growth of disposable hardware – not sure I agree with this one, but I understand what he is getting at. Personally, I’d be more interested in recyclable hardware, and greater user-serviceable and customisable components.

Declaration: Thanks to the hosts and sponsors, I along with everyone else enjoyed the bounteous gift of free pizza laid on by the organisers.

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