MR. GABRIEL FONG

Người đàn ông này đã bỏ một sự nghiệp ngân hàng đầu tư ấn tượng trong 20 năm cho các công ty mới thành lập.

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     Trong suốt 20 năm qua, Gabriel Fong đã sống trong giấc mơ của bất kỳ nhà điều hành kinh doanh đầy tham vọng nào. Hai năm sau khi tốt nghiệp với bằng kinh tế từ Đại học Cambridge vào năm 1992, Fong sinh ra tại Singapore đã làm việc tại ngân hàng đầu tư Goldman Sachs của Wall Street. Ở đó, ông đã làm việc trên một số giao dịch thị trường vốn cao cấp ở châu Á, đặc biệt là Hồng Kông, nơi ông đã sinh ra. Trong năm cuối cùng của mình với công ty, ông đã xử lý các khoản đầu tư cổ phần tư nhân - một lĩnh vực mà ông sẽ vẫn là một chuyên gia trong nhiều năm tới.

    Năm 1996, Fong gia nhập Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, một khẩu súng lớn khác trên phố Wall, nơi ông chủ của anh là Tony James, hiện là chủ tịch và giám đốc điều hành của Blackstone Group. Anh tiếp tục leo lên cái thang công nghiệp. Ông gia nhập Morgan Stanley với tư cách giám đốc điều hành từ năm 1999 đến 2006, sau đó là Och-Ziff Capital Management, nơi ông giữ chức vụ giám đốc điều hành cho đến năm 2013.

    Tuy nhiên, năm đó, Fong đã từ bỏ sự nghiệp tài chính lâu dài và ấn tượng của mình vì sự không chắc chắn của các công ty khởi nghiệp.

    “Tôi đã muốn trở thành một chủ ngân hàng từ khi tôi 16 tuổi, nhưng tôi quyết định bỏ lại điều đó. Tôi muốn kiểm soát vận mệnh của mình và tạo ra sự khác biệt.” Ông Gabriel Fong nói.

    For the past 20 years, Gabriel Fong was living the dream of any aspiring business executive. Two years after graduating with a degree in economics from the Cambridge University in 1992, Singapore-born Fong landed a job at Wall Street investment banking giant Goldman Sachs. There, he worked on several high-profile capital market deals in Asia, particularly Hong Kong, where he has since been based. In his final year with the company, he handled private equity investments – an area he would remain an expert on for years to come.

    In 1996, Fong joined Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, another big gun on Wall Street, where his boss was Tony James, currently the president and COO of Blackstone Group. He kept climbing the industry ladder. He joined Morgan Stanley as executive director from 1999 to 2006, then finally, Och-Ziff Capital Management, where he sat as managing director until 2013.

    That year, however, Fong quit his long and impressive finance career for the uncertainty of startups.

    I had wanted to be a banker since I was 16, but I decided to leave that behind. I wanted to control my own destiny and make a difference.

    Fighting for everything

    The transition was short for Fong, who quickly joined GoGoVan, a Hong Kong-based Uber-like company that pairs people with delivery vehicles, as first-round angel investor and mentor. By the end of 2013, he became executive chairman of the company and around the same time, his fate as entrepreneur was sealed with the founding of his own company, technology incubator Jaarvis Labs, also in Hong Kong.

    “The 20 years of investment experience has allowed me a much easier transition into being an entrepreneur,” he tells Tech in Asia.

    Yet the journey was never easy. And his success came with a price. Fong worked 18 hours a day, even on weekends, for many, many years in his career. Like many driven executives, the 46-year-old, who’s married with four kids, often missed out on family affairs and social events.

    “Slogging out 18 hours a day leaves you with little time for sleep, let alone social events. So while my friends were out on Friday evenings and the weekends, I was busy with colleagues in the offices working on time-sensitive business presentations. Many times, my family travelled on holidays without me. Even when I was with them, I was constantly on the phone so while I was there physically, I was somewhere else mentally.”

    His upbringing had a lot to do with his relentless work ethic. Fong grew up in a very modest environment. He was raised by his mom, a shipping clerk and single parent, who barely made enough to make ends meet. In primary and secondary school, he had to do really well because the three best students in class would get free tuition. He was able to obtain a full scholarship to Cambridge from DBS Bank under a bond that required him to serve eight years at the bank upon graduation. So when he left a few months into that term to join Goldman Sachs, he was forced to take on massive amounts of debt, including credit card advances, to pay DBS. “I had to fight for and earn everything,” he recalls.

    The competition would only get worse when he entered corporate. The world of investment banking was filled with high-energy, ambitious, and untiring hotshots like him.

    But all his hard work paid off. Fong stood out from the rest and landed the most-coveted posts in leading firms. This tremendous exposure gave him what he needed to become an effective entrepreneur: ability to handle long hours, willingness to take risks, a solid understanding of business issues, the drive to always score a deal, and an enormous amount of grit.

    “Investment banking teaches very valuable skillsets, which are key to being an entrepreneur,” he says.

    At Goldman Sachs, for instance, he got the opportunity to learn the ropes of pulling a business into its core pieces, scrutinizing it, weighing the risks and rewards of the investment, and then rolling up his sleeves to work side by side with the management team to scale the business post-investment.

    At Morgan Stanley and Och-Ziff Capital, he invested and managed investments in an array of businesses – from traditional to internet and high-tech.

    “I’ve invested in over a hundred different situations – some straightforward but more often than not, extremely complex. This allowed me to have a seat at the board room and have first-hand involvement into building and managing businesses. As such, I was effectively a ‘de facto’ entrepreneur,” he explains.

    Fong says his experience supporting tech startups inspired him to build his own. “Especially in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore where property and finance dominate, I want to play a role in encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation.”

    At GoGoVan, Fong was the “gray haired” person in the management team. He led the company’s capital-raising efforts, business strategy, and international expansion.

    When he stepped down as GoGovan’s executive chairman to build Jaarvis Labs in December 2014, the company had over 500,000 user downloads and over 74,000 vans in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and soon-to-be-market Korea. He was at the forefront of multiple funding rounds, including a US$6.5 million series A and a subsequent US$10 million strategic investment from Renren.

    While he still holds a significant stake in GoGoVan and meets with the team regularly, he’s now focused on Jaarvis Labs, which incubates mostly O2O marketplaces.

    Institutionalizing experience

    The premise of Jaarvis Labs is simple: building a startup is immensely difficult, as reflected in the 90-95 percent failure rate, according to Fong. He knows this very well; he witnessed companies rise and fall in his years of handling multibillion-dollar assets managed by the investment banks where he worked.

    Startups, he explains, have to face multiple challenges – hiring the right team, building the right tech platform, marketing, design, fundraising, legal, accessing corporate partnerships, international expansion, etc.

    Unfortunately, most startups have massive gaps in skillsets, so they navigate these challenges by trial and error – any one of which can be fatal to the startups. How can you expect a startup staffed by young people, often with just two to three years’ working experience, to be successful? You can’t, and that’s what makes investing in a startup such a risk.

    Jaarvis Labs was Fong’s way of “institutionalizing” his 20 years of experience and network as well as his mentorship stint at GoGoVan.

    Since Jaarvis Labs’ creation, its team has grown to over 180 people working in offices in Hong Kong, Australia, and India. Its portfolio has grown to six in-house ventures, including an accelerator arm in India.

    Its first venture, CallFixie, is basically an Uber for handymen. It launched in December 2014 and is now operating in major cities in the markets where Jaarvis Labs has presence.

    Other ventures gaining traction are SpotHelp and Pressie, both based in Hong Kong. SpotHelp is an SMS on-demand concierge service for a wide range of chores and tasks. The service is similar to US-based Magic and TaskRabbit where users order taskers to perform errands for them to free them up for other activities. On the other hand, Pressie is a P2P app that facilitates hassle-free social gifting. How it works is pretty straightforward: users send their loved ones coupons for gifts that they can collect in stores.

    Fong says: “I now have a team of people specializing in various areas of expertise, jumpstarting these various ventures and most importantly, guiding them away from fatal mistakes.”

    Jaarvis Labs’ ventures enjoy several advantages: top-notch expertise they would not be able to avail of on their own, as well as synergies with various corporate and strategic partners. For instance, a strategic partner may work with three of the ventures, making customer acquisition costs efficient.

    “As a result of all of the above, I hope to improve the success rate of these ventures,” Fong says.

    Being independent

    While Fong’s adjustment to entrepreneurship has been minimal, there are still challenges. He says most of the difficulty arises from the lack of infrastructure and brand name support now that he’s on his own and not affiliated with a big corporation.

    Still, he has hurdled these walls, thanks to the network of people and reputation he has built through the years.

    Like he did at GoGoVan, Fong is leading capital-raising activities at Jaarvis Labs. CallFixie has raised around US$3 million so far in two separate rounds, while SpotHelp and Pressie have recently generated US$1 million each in seed funding, he tells Tech in Asia.

    He’s also quite involved in planning how the money will be spent. If before his job afforded himself a certain lifestyle – flying business class globally and staying in five-star hotels – as a startup founder, he recognizes the need to be cash-conscious.

    Exploring possibilities for VC firm

    Also as a startup founder, Fong finds work to be demanding but flexible, allowing him to spend some time with his family.

    He attends up to four meetings on weekdays, looking for anything that can potentially be a game-changer for his portfolio companies.

    He doesn’t rest on his laurels. As he steers Jaarvis Labs to another level of growth, he continuously searches for opportunities to further his own.

    He has set his sights on setting up his own venture capital firm, with US$10 million of his money.

    “This would be to invest in non-Jaarvis ventures as part of my wealth management as well as to encourage entrepreneurship on a broader context,” he says.

    Fong is not fully decided yet, but knowing him and his appetite for risk, he might just dive into it.