8 Tips On Becoming A Successful Entrepreneur — Hugh Mason Of JFDI

Entrepreneurial wisdom from the co-founder of JFDI.Asia

Hugh Mason: "Ten years ago we thought you couldn’t teach entrepreneurship. Now, we know you can. We do it every day."

The co-founder and CEO of pioneering Southeast Asian start-up accelerator JFDI (technically, Joyful Frog Digital Innovation, but in spirit, Just F___ing Do It), Hugh Mason is one of Singapore’s foremost experts on the ins, outs, ups and downs of entrepreneurship — particularly, as it pertains to this socioeconomically and culturally diverse region.

Since its inception six years ago, JFDI has not only fostered numerous notable SEA-based ventures, providing mentorship to thousands of aspiring founders and backing scads of successful startups — TradeGecko, Fynd, RoomFilla, BoxGreen, Appnox and Glints among the best-known alumni — but has also been instrumental in building a cohesive ‘IRL’ community for those of an innovative, 'techy', entrepreneurial bent. In this hyper-competitive, often adversarial field, JFDI has actively brought start-up types together in an atmosphere of mutual support and fraternity. The philosophy, according to Mason’s co-founder Meng Wong: “Entrepreneurship will always be difficult, but it doesn't have to be lonely.”

Responding to a shifting start-ups landscape both globally and locally, Mason announced on 14 September that JFDI would be ceasing its accelerator program, evolving its approach to explore “new models for startups to create new ventures in partnership with corporations” (Bosch and Mediacorp two confirmed early collaborators). Here, Mason provides incisive insights on start-up culture in Southeast Asia and beyond, and explains how developing an entrepreneurial mindset is a vital tool in dealing with an ambiguous future.

Founders: Born and Bred
Ten years ago we thought you couldn’t teach entrepreneurship. Now, we know you can. We do it every day. Friends who run tell me there are two kinds of runners: if you want to run a marathon, many of us can do it, you just have to put in the hours, do the training. But if you want to be any good as a sprinter, you need to be born a sprinter. Ten years ago we believed that entrepreneurship was like sprinting, you were either born to it or not. What an entrepreneur was wasn’t very well documented in academic literature, and in fact back in the ’60s, many business schools would’ve said an entrepreneur was someone psychotic, a businessperson addicted to risk. There’s a better definition of entrepreneurship — in 1965, Harvard professor Howard Stevenson said, “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” In other words, you just f___ing do it, which is why we called our organization JFDI.

Move Fast and Break Things
Two things really fire me up: one is that we can teach entrepreneurship, and the second is that we can systematise innovation. For the first time in history we now have a systematic way of doing business model creativity. We can do it in a way which is much more likely to lead to a positive result than was the case when we were doing it randomly, didn’t understand what we were doing, and a lot of the successes we’ve seen in business and tech innovation in the last 10 or 15 years have been due to tools like Lean Startup methodology, things like Human-Centred Design, which are new processes for systematically trying out something new and debugging it. Anyone who’s ever written a computer program knows you don’t get it right first time, you have to debug it, revise it — until it works. As Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn said, if you’re not ashamed of your first business prototype, you’ve left it too late. So the idea is to get stuff out there, fail fast, in a structured way and learn from it — it’s only by businesses falling apart that we learn what’s wrong with them… The objective of an accelerator is to make them or break them. If you make the business, everyone’s happy. If you break them, everyone should be happy too, because if it’s not gonna work, let’s fail fast so we don’t waste investors’ money, we don’t waste people’s lives, we just get on with it, and recycle the learning.

Unicorn Hunting
My co-founder Meng and I took this view that there was an opportunity to systematically apply innovation in Asia, we were the first accelerator program in Southeast Asia to do it in a structured way, to try to ‘farm’ startups, if you like. Up until we began, forming startups was like hunting — investors would go out into the forest trying to catch a unicorn before anyone else, which is fine if there’s not many hunters and there are lots of unicorns. But if there are lots of hunters and only a few unicorns, then you’re screwed. And actually in the history of human civilisation, the way we produced wealth systematically is by farming, by preparing for our own future. We had the agricultural revolution 8,000 years ago, and I think we’re now going through an entrepreneurial revolution right now — which I find incredibly exciting, I think it’ll keep me busy the rest of my career.

SEA the Light
Southeast Asia is riven by culture, language, currency, regulation, geography. The thing that works in the US — launch something and then cookie-cutter it out across a monoculture, with the same language, same legal system — you just can’t do that here. American companies that come and try to unfold a business model to Asia very quickly discover that you have to do it country by country. The diversity and fragmented nature of SEA actually gives our homegrown companies an advantage if they’re wise — it’s much harder for a competitor from outside the region to come in and clean up.

Old Dogs, New Tricks
There’s a great piece of research by the Kauffman Foundation that shows that the most successful age for entrepreneurs in the US is between 38 and 42. And I believe I’m correct in saying that there are now more successful businesses in the US formed by 50-somethings, 60-somethings, than formed by 20-somethings. My sense is that younger founders have more energy, but they have less life experience. We see different patterns of company ideas coming from different age groups. If you’re 22, you know a helluva lot about shagging, football, taxis, restaurants, school. But you nothing about parenting, logistics, procurement, ageing parents. There’s a bunch of things you know about when you’re older which are just not on the radar when you’re in the early 20s. Meng, my co-founder, has a theory. He says if you look at the very successful businesses built by very young entrepreneurs — like Facebook or Google — they tend to be technical platforms of some kind or another. Often built by very engineering dominated teams, and the innovative insight they have is usually into applying some new technology.

Beyond the MBA
In my own view — people may disagree — we’ve reached the end for the incremental innovation that most business schools teach. It seems to me that business schools do a brilliant job of teaching how to run a traditional corporation, and through the 20th century we evolved these magnificent machines called corporations, which are very good at delivering roads and water and mobile phone services, things like that. But they’re horrendous at delivering innovation, they’re optimised for a fairly static world and like the dinosaurs, when the world changes around them, they find themselves going extinct. So in our lifetimes, we’ve seen Kodak, Research In Motion, does anyone remember Blockbuster? Xerox was the Google of its day, it grew 40 percent year-on-year compounded. Most young people have never heard of Xerox now. Entrepreneurship is a set of skills that allow you to cope with an ambiguous world. I’m very inspired by the fact that we can now teach that.

Jobs For Life?
It’s a huge risk if we educate our kids for a world that’s already ceasing to exist, for example those ‘secure’ jobs in banking — Singapore is realising that hundreds of jobs in banking are going, hundreds of bankers are losing their jobs here right now. There’s some quite authoritative voices saying that a big chunk of the legal profession will be put out of work in the next 10 years — not the people who are doing clever stuff, dealing with ambiguity where they’re really adding value, but the majority of legal work is still about counting clause numbers at $600 an hour, and machines can do that far better than a human being, and what’s more they can keep legal documents up to date with changes in statute automatically and all that sort of stuff. So there is a real risk.

Failure As Feedback
I have a nine-year-old son, I’m going out of my way to equip him for a world that is unpredictable, to give him the ability to cope with ambiguity, to not be afraid of risk, to realise that the only way to learn to ride a bike is to fall off. If you learn to ride a bike and it goes perfectly the first time, you haven’t learnt anything, and when you hit a bump in the road later, you’re screwed. The same is true of business, it’s only by falling off the bike that you learn. The reason we have incredibly reliable aircraft now is because 100 years ago people like the Wright brothers tried to make aircraft and every time they crashed, they figured out what broke and didn’t do that again. Systematically, we’re interested in debugging business, and for the first time in history that’s possible. You have to think of failure as feedback. Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed — I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

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