Age is Irrelevant: How I Started My Company When I’m 21 And Got Funded
EDIT: I just realized that I made this draft back in 2014 and haven’t posted this. Might as well publish it.
(Author’s Note: This is just a highlight reel of my journey so far, there are so many details untold, and this by no means underplaying how tough it is to start a startup. In fact, I would like to warn people before starting on their own. Whether you are someone who is taking their undergraduate degree or graduating soon or a startup founder yourself, hope this post can inspire you somehow. Enjoy!)
“Are you serious? Or the drink has gotten you drunk already?” asked a friend.
“You’re going to quit from the Korean company and do what?” asked my Mom.
This was last year, when I was still working for one of the biggest startup in Korea and also the first ever messaging platform, KakaoTalk. Most of my closest circle doesn’t understand why would I move from the job with all the perks and decent pay. Plus not to mention, it is one of the companies that is riding the next big trend — to starting a startup with no capital or experience running a business before.
To start with, I would like to introduce more about myself:
I’m Joshua Kevin, 22 years old this year. I just graduated from Bina Nusantara University last year (not really a proud alumni though). I get to know about startups through Twitter (thank you so much Evan Williams!) where I follow some of the key players in the Indonesia startup industry. Then, I became part of StartupLokal, the biggest startup community who did a regular monthly event back then.
There I built my first network, learn how to do events, and obviously how to build community. I was also a co-curator of a book we published through NulisBuku called #StartupLokal Kita, where we interviewed and curate lesson learned from startup founders (we had 22 startups in the book) in Indonesia back then.
The exposure from the experience at StartupLokal was just really good that I got two job offers at the same time (This was back in 2011, I was in my freshmen year).
It was from East Ventures and Tech in Asia (back then it was called Penn Olson).
Top(L-R): Taiga Matsuyama, Batara Eto, Willson Cuaca, Chandra Tjan — Bottom (L-R): Anri Samata, Peter Widjaja, Joshua Kevin
The picture above was taken at East Ventures’ Jakarta Ventures Night event.
My role at East Ventures was to help them with their “Alpha” program. East Ventures Alpha was its effort to do a 100 days incubator, incubating idea to prototype. Unfortunately, it was closed soon after graduating a batch. Probably it was too early or probably it’s just not reasonable for East Ventures to do an incubator, and they want to just focus on their investment thesis. Here at East Ventures, I learned a lot seeing things from an investor’s point of view and on building an incubator/accelerator program (failure always led to lesson learned)
It was also an honor to learn from Batara Eto — one of the most successful Indonesian abroad & a very respected figure in Japanese startup scene. He’s the co-founder and CTO of Mixi and now is a Managing Partner of East Ventures. Willson Cuaca is also a personal mentor whom I kept in touch with until now (he’s my current investor as well).
While at Tech in Asia, I was one of their first hire (now they have more than 50 all over Asia, awesome right?) writing for them as far back as March 2011, when doing Groupon clones was cool. I was hired as a tech blogger covering and unearthing Indonesian startups, but my role evolved into much bigger than that. I love meeting and talking to people even more than I love writing about them, so I ended up acting as an Event/Community Manager. With the love I have on doing events, it was really satisfying that our very first conference: Startup Asia Jakarta 2011 was superbly done that people are amazed that it was done by a 3-men-team. (Willis and Minghao did 90% of the work, okay, probably 99%).
P.S. Startup Asia Jakarta 2014 is in November 26th–27th, register now!
One of the biggest highlight of my Tech in Asia career is also meeting awesome people like Peter Vesterbacka (CMO of Rovio) — that meeting resulted in me getting my first TechMeme coverage (probably only tech bloggers can relate to this) and Marissa Mayer (then VP at Google, now CEO of Yahoo!), I was even giving her a tour of Startup Asia Jakarta:
I grew a lot from a childish mindset (I “quit” Tech in Asia 2 or 3 times in the first couple of months) to a much more mature person, in this company. I felt that it’s almost a perfect first step into someone’s career in the startup scene, so it was really with a sad heart I left Tech in Asia to start doing something new, something outside media. I still kept in touch with the team very closely even until now (I have never missed any Startup Asia conference but one).
Less than two months after, I was introduced to Sean Kim from KakaoTalk by Rama (thanks Ram!). We decided to meet and explore what we can do together. Sean ended up pitching me KakaoTalk’s plans in Indonesia and asking me whether there is a possibility of me helping the team with my local expertise/market knowledge. Jobless and felt that it would improve me a lot, I decided that I’d take this chance to learn from a rocketship who is trying to expand to a very potential market.
And learn I did. Over the span of eight months, I have pulled more all-nighter than any years I have had before. I have listened to more Korean language more than the past 20 years of my life (I can listen to 60–70% of Korean now). And, for the first time ever, I experienced the process of creating a TV Commercial from the very first step: brainstorming of which talent to pick from Indonesia and Korea who will relate with KakaoTalk brand, to the message we want to get across. I have met more people (mostly our users) than ever, learning from our users through focus groups to doing consumer event where we do an offline competition, meeting famous bloggers and influencers in Indonesia, to creating a concert in less than 2 weeks time and ended up with a full-house attendance. It was an amazing, amazing experience. Something that you could not possibly imagine to get at that age.
Yet, the entrepreneurship bug has always been with me. Starting something has always been my passion. My dad is an entrepreneur himself, and I have been selling things and creating community ever since I’m in junior high school — reselling pens and notebooks to my friends for pocket money and creating an online forum (I still used phpBB back then) where we talked about the teachers (it was a lot of fun).
I left KakaoTalk in June 2013, and I decided to go for a holiday. After two months of break (spent half of it traveling to the U.S.), I was in a cross road — whether to join another startup and learn or jump straight in to the world of entrepreneurship. Considering my age (I’m 21 back then) and lack of any financial responsibility, I chose the latter. I started Bridge Inc (Oct 2013) to bridge the entities in Indonesia startup scene, helping startups to reach out to media, investors, and users. At first, my idealism was to help local startups in Indonesia but apparently most startups here don’t see the value in PR and those who care, already have an in-house team. I ended up getting foreign clients especially from Singapore.
This went on for a couple of months until early 2014, when I realize that doing a boutique agency providing services isn’t scalable (D’oh!). I believe that I have to shift to doing a product that can solve problems at scale and found that most of the companies I knew has one huge problem: recruitment. Yet, recruitment is just one slice of the huge HR pie, so we believe that we can build products that can solve HR problems. With this idea, I created a deck with all the numbers and everything I can put within 20 slides, I pitched to Grace Tahir of Mayapada Group.
Bridge Inc will become a tech startup producing products that is solving HR problems.
It wasn’t as simple as people would think, she asked a lot of questions and arguments, at the very end — she agreed to put in enough money for me to start the product development. Fast forward to August 2014, the product is ready for public beta, and we are ready to raise our seed round to help us to achieve product-market fit. Without traction whatsoever, we (stupidly) believe that we are going to get funded easily. After talking to several VCs (whom are friends because of my days in Tech in Asia) — all they give is feedback and not writing a single cheque. We pondered whether to stop the fundraising and just focus on launching the product first.
Then, Startup Asia Tokyo 2014 happened. I went to Tokyo for the first time (the food was really awesome) and decided to build my network with the VCs there. At the welcoming dinner, I met Willson Cuaca (from East Ventures). We did a very quick conversation and explained to him what I’m doing, the conversation ended with “send me your pitch deck” by him.
Hurried and worried, I went back to the hotel and added some more details and numbers and financial projection. Sent to him around 1 or 2 AM and went to sleep. The following day, we had a longer talk about East Ventures, his prediction of Indonesia startups, and how both converges. This conversation ended up with an offer.
Long story short, we finalized the offer right before he flew back to Singapore and when he landed the termsheet is already on my inbox. We promised to meet again in Jakarta together with Grace to finalize this, and we did:
We announced the funding Monday, 29th September 2014, and all the congratulations flew in (which I can’t thank all of them one-by-one). For those who haven’t read the piece yet: we will focus on one product: Talenta — a SaaS for HR management.
We believe that the trend of SaaS or software on demand or software in the cloud is coming to Indonesia specifically, and Southeast Asia generally. Our mission is to help companies manage their talent through our software, especially one of the main headache in Indonesia: payroll. We are facing this ourself, we started with multiple spreadsheets for our HR and payroll, but as we scale it’s simply not capable to scale with us.
This by no means is an end, or a finish line. It IS a super duper humbling experience so far, yet I don’t expect less in the future. In fact, I would say the journey has just started for me and for this company.
The main points of this post are this:
Age is irrelevant. There shouldn’t be any judgement when you are “too young” or “too old” to start a company. Age is irrelevant. Whether you just graduated or even dropped out from your university or when you simply can’t take it anymore after 20 years in a corporate job.
Money should not be the priority when you are looking for your first job. Yes, we all need money, that’s a given. But our needs and responsibility shouldn’t be that big at that point of your life. Look for a job that can give you growth and network. This is much much more valuable than looking for a high salary with no room to grow nor to gain any possible network to elevate your career.
I have never worked in a corporate world before, so this advise might be unfair, but I believe that working in a startup for a year can be equal to two-to-three years working in a corporate. So if you just graduated, or are graduating soon, believe me, start your career with working in (the right) startup.
Whether I succeed in building this company into a sustainable-billion-dollar-valued startup OR whether I failed miserably — I do hope that people will learn from it and I wish that more and more talented people will join startups (join us!), and eventually start their own startup as we need more entrepreneurs here.
I’d be happy if I can inspire the next Mark Zuckerbergs or Evan Williams of Indonesia with my journey. Yet, this post is not (entirely) about me. It’s about us, you and me, and how we can make a dent in this world. Or at the very least, the country you live in, the industry you work in, and the things that you care about.
With this post, I would also like to thank Jesus Christ. He is the turning point of my life. Fun fact, Joshua is actually my Christian name and Talenta is inspired by a verse in the bible. I can’t be here without the support of my family too. From outside, it might be broken (My parents are divorced) but our bond has never been stronger. For the trust that our team at Talenta, I am thankful everyday to have you guys as my team. Friends and colleagues that I can’t name one by one, you guys are amazing.
P.S. Work Hard!
Thank you so much for reading my journey so far. Reach me out on Twitter: @jshkvn and please do recommend this article and share it ☺