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Messy Problems

I was surprised about the Age(s) of Unicorn Founders in Southeast Asia

I was recently asked the question of the journey of younger founders vs more mature founders. I initially believed that because of the current state of the SEA ecosystem, we should expect to see more mature founders as well as see a concentration of mature founders especially within B2B business models.

I did some digging and came up with the following dataset for SEA Unicorn Founders that surprised me in both the relative youth, as well as in the industry split for founders.

Edit: I will aim to update this article every time a new SEA unicorn is made.

Edited post-publication to include Carro (Unicorn - June 2021)

My initial mental model for this was built on the following 2 facts: Firstly, that the average age of unicorn founders was around 31:

The average age at founding in our dataset was just over 31, and the median was 30. — Harvard Business Review

Secondly, the distinction NFX made between ideal years of experience and business models:

https://www.nfx.com/post/4-signs-founder-market-fit/

Age of the SEA Unicorn founders: Given the relatively up-and-coming state of the SEA ecosystem, I hold the view that most of the innovation that occurs is still largely tech-enabled business process innovation. As a result, I would have expected more mature founders to have dominated the SEA landscape.

While it is unsurprising that most of the Unicorns in SEA are consumer-facing (B2C), and therefore should have younger founders, I was nevertheless surprised at the relatively young age of SEA founders. Not only was the average and median founder age less than that of the US, but the mode (i.e. most common age) was also dramatically lower, at 24 years old. The most common age of SEA Unicorn founders starting a company was therefore 2 years out of university, likely after their first job.

Verticals: Most of the SEA unicorns are (largely) consumer-facing, with the interesting exception of Zillingo, which also had Ankiti Bose (23 at year of founding), as one of the youngest founders on the list. Zillingo of course, started as a consumer platform before moving to a more business-facing business model. Nevertheless, it was an interesting counter-narrative with the largest B2B unicorn in Southeast Asia being founded by the youngest founder on the SEA list.

As the SEA ecosystem matures, it would be interesting to see what types of business models will continue to emerge, and how that would affect the types of Unicorn founders SEA will produce.

We have already seen an emergence of strong SEA B2B-facing businesses riding the first wave of digitization (especially on the MSME side as a side-effect of e-commerce) that came in 2010–2017. B2B-facing companies that Saison Capital invested into include Ula [B2B Marketplace], Bukukas [MSME SaaS] and Tazapay [Cross-border trade management SaaS].

If we see an eclipsing B2B macro-trend, this implies the average Unicorn founder age for SEA should trend upwards. Time will tell.

Have I missed out any key points or data? Ping me at jengyang.chia@gmail.com

Link to Sheet with raw data: http://bit.ly/3qoQFCX

(To note some of the data here is estimated. Lazada is left out as it was venture-built so it was harder to fit into the existing categorization.)

Chia Jeng Yang, Principal at Saison Capital, dives into consumer, SaaS, and fintech investment trends across the U.S. and Asia, builds projects in the venture capital and public policy space, works closely with early-stage (Pre-A) founders and can be contacted at jengyang.chia@gmail.com. Previous work here: http://chiajy.com

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