In February this year, serial entrepreneur Joel Neoh announced his departure from Fave taking place effectively early March 2023. The company was founded in 2015 and Joel’s visionary leadership led Fave to tap on the massive opportunity for cashless payments in its early days, positioning the company as one of the leading players in Southeast Asia’s fintech space.
We speak to him on what led to his decision and what are his plans moving forward as he looks back at his 15-year entrepreneurial journey.
Disruptr: Can you share what led to your decision to step down from your position as Group CEO of Fave, considering your background as a successful serial entrepreneur and the regional success of the company? Was it a long-planned decision or something that just came up recently?
JN: It’s a common misconception that serial entrepreneurs are solely focused on making money without any emotional attachment to their business. However, this is far from the truth. Looking back at my 15-year entrepreneurial journey, I started with a small project in 2009 with my co-founder Khailee. We eventually evolved it into a media platform, which later led to the discovery of an untapped e-commerce market in Southeast Asia. Despite the challenges of logistics and limited online transactions, we persevered and found success in the voucher business, eventually leading to an acquisition by Groupon.
Our team’s entrepreneurial journey highlights the importance of adapting to market needs and being creative with limited resources. We didn’t have the funds to advertise vouchers, so we leveraged our existing platform to make sales.
After 15 years of back-to-back work, I realised that taking a break was necessary. It was a difficult decision to leave, especially since we had built such a strong relationship during the acquisition process. However, I knew that it was time to step back and allow the team to take the lead.
As I looked at the team towards the end of last year, I realised that they were more than capable of continuing the company’s success. Financially, we were solid, and we didn’t have any fundraising issues. With my co-founder staying and working with the team that had been there since day one, I knew that it would continue to thrive without me.
While there is never a good time to leave, I believe that this is the right time for me. I am turning 40 this year, and the realisation that time flies got me thinking. Perhaps taking a break now, while the team is strong and the company is financially secure, is the best decision for me. Amrish and I have discussed this at length, and I am confident that they (Amrish, Chen Chow and the local leaders) will continue to lead the company to new heights.
Disruptr: As a serial entrepreneur, do you think it’s possible for you to truly take a break, or will you always be thinking about new ideas? Are you already considering new things to do during your break, or are you trying to completely disconnect and take time off?
JN: When I first thought about transitioning out of my previous company, I initially wanted to completely disconnect from work. But after receiving advice from friends and co-founders, I realised that going from 100 to 0 could cause drastic life pivots. One co-founder of a unicorn company in Indonesia suggested a 333 framework, which meant taking three months to rest and not commit to anything, followed by three months of exploration, and another three months of building on what I really enjoy.
Instead of jumping straight into a new venture, I plan to invest in other entrepreneurs and founders across different industries, such as health tech and subscription platforms. By giving back and investing in others, I will also learn about new industries and continue to grow.
In summary, I decided not to commit to anything immediately and take the time to rest, explore, and invest in others. This way, I can expand my knowledge while giving back to the community.
Disruptr: As a successful entrepreneur, you have expressed the importance of giving back and supporting other founders. If founders are interested in getting in touch with you, what kind of qualities and personalities are you looking for in the founders you choose to support?
JN: I believe that when it comes to investing in startups, it’s important to prioritise the individual over the industry they are in. Although many successful startups have emerged from various industries, ultimately, it’s the people behind the company that will determine its success. This is why I want to focus on investing in experienced executives who are interested in becoming founders.
As someone who has been involved in the tech industry for many years, I have noticed that there are many younger individuals who are being supported by accelerators to become entrepreneurs. However, I believe there is a gap in the market when it comes to getting more experienced executives to take the leap into founding their own company. Many of these executives have the necessary skills and capabilities to be successful founders but may lack the push or opportunity to do so.
Therefore, my investment thesis is to focus on this demographic – VP or C-level executives who are currently comfortable in their tech companies but have the potential to be great founders. By providing them with the necessary resources and support, I hope to help them make the transition from their current roles to building their own companies. This is a strategy that has proven successful in the past, with many unicorn companies being founded by experienced leaders.
Disruptr: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
JN: As an entrepreneur, I believe that success in building a startup is dependent on three crucial elements: the idea, the team, and the funding. While funding is important, I prioritise the idea and team first. In Southeast Asia, there is a surplus of funds available for startups, but the challenge lies in finding quality ideas built by the right teams. So, as an entrepreneur, it is essential to focus on these two aspects.
The first step in building a successful startup is having a great idea and a team to execute it. I don’t believe that great ideas just come to one person sitting at home. Collaborating and sharing your ideas can sharpen them and help them evolve. Feedback from others, including investors, can be extremely valuable in iterating your idea. While it’s easy to get defensive when receiving feedback, it’s important to remain open and continue to iterate your idea.
The second step is building a strong team. Having a co-founder or multiple co-founders can increase the chances of success. It’s important to have complementary skill sets within the team. I believe that a company doesn’t belong solely to the founders but to everyone involved. When people believe in the idea and the potential of the company, they will join and work alongside the founders with commitment and dedication. When the idea and team are solid, funding will come naturally. As an entrepreneur, I prioritise the idea and team first and foremost, knowing that these are the foundation for building a successful startup.
Building a successful startup is not an easy feat, and setbacks and challenges are bound to happen. It’s important to have the resilience to push through difficult times and adapt to changing circumstances. Being open-minded and flexible in your approach can help you pivot when necessary and make necessary adjustments to your strategy.
It’s also important to remember that failure is a part of the process and should not discourage you from pursuing your goals. Keep pushing forward, learn from your mistakes, and keep working towards achieving your vision.