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Back to the grind: Starting up after selling GuavaPass

Written by Annabelle Lim Published on     4 mins read

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Jeffrey Liu shares lessons learned from selling his first startup to a competitor and then building a new business.

This article was originally published on Oasis.

Jeffrey Liu is no stranger to the startup world.

In 2015, Liu co-founded GuavaPass, a fitness subscription platform that was made available throughout Asia. At its peak, the company partnered with more than 840 studios across 11 major Asian markets, including Thailand, mainland China, India, and Hong Kong, according to a Club Industry report.

Four years later, the Singapore-headquartered startup was sold to its competitor, ClassPass. This was when Liu decided to forge ahead to start a new venture, Jenfi, in a completely new sector—financial services. We interviewed Jeffrey to learn more about his journey to become a second-time founder and the lessons learned from his first venture.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Oasis (OS): What was it like to start your second company, Jenfi?

Jeff Liu (JL): Jenfi is the second company that I started. This was in 2019. Before that, I started a company called GuavaPass, which gave subscribers access to fitness classes through a mobile app.

One of the challenges that I faced throughout that journey was getting access to capital. As a venture-backed company, we were raising rounds of capital from investors, and we wanted to grow faster, but we just couldn’t. Not having alternative access to capital was the biggest obstacle I faced for four years. Hence, after selling GuavaPass to ClassPass in late 2019, we saw an opportunity to start something fresh. We wanted to focus on providing a sizable source of growth capital to different regional startups that didn’t have access to conventional sources of capital. This utilized our knowledge of startups in the ecosystem to provide digitally enabled capital to foster companies’ growth.

OS: Was there anything you did differently when you established Jenfi?

JL: The biggest difference is that the Jenfi team is pretty lean. By the time I sold GuavaPass, we had a team of over 70 people. Even in the first year, we had close to 15 people. With Jenfi, we’ve been able to get by with a much lower headcount. Each of us can wear more hats because of our experience. We can do more with less.

OS: What are some common misconceptions about being a startup founder?

JL: When people think of startup founders, a name that comes to mind is Mark Zuckerberg, who embodies the stereotype that founders make it big very quickly. The reality is, startups are just a form of business. You tend to be very resource-scarce, so you have to be very scrappy, which affects your career and lifestyle. You might sacrifice a lot personally as well as in your career to bet on something you really believe in.

Many first-time founders don’t appreciate the challenges that they might face because even the most successful startup fails once in a while. However, they subsequently learn from their mistakes and are able to pivot. One of the best examples is Airbnb, whose founders went without salaries for two years until they were able to figure out the business model. It’s definitely not glamorous.

OS: Founders who exit their companies can still stay on as advisors. Why did you pursue a second round of entrepreneurship instead?

JL: I saw a unique opportunity that I had the itch to build on, and I still had enough energy to go through that grind. That was one of the motivating factors: I was still young, so I could still take chances. Tying this back to being a founder, I think it’s essential to find the right team. I’ve been able to find a supportive co-founder both times. We’ve been able to challenge ourselves and push each other to be better.

OS: When do you think a founder should leave their startup?

JL: That’s a very tough question to answer because it depends on the situation. You should ask yourself if this is what you want to do for the next few years. Self-reflection is critical for any startup founder because you’re so deep in the details.

Sometimes, you forget to take a step back and think about the bigger picture. As long as you still believe in the business, and you are the best person to run the company, then you should stay on.

OS: Why did you decide to sell GuavaPass?

JL: We had already built a relationship with ClassPass early on, and they were entering Asia. We shared the same vision of building something for the Asian market. So, rather than competing against each other, we saw opportunities to create value by collaborating and joining forces.

OS: When do you think people should give up? 

JL: You’re basically the captain of the ship. In many ways, you have to be the last person to throw in the towel, even if the rest of your team has done so. As the leader, you’re responsible for the overall future and success of the business. Furthermore, the investors who have been backing you also depend on you. As the CEO, you’re in charge of that decision. It’s a hard choice, but you should usually be the last person to consider it.

OS: As a CEO, you have to manage many stakeholders. How have you been able to do so? 

JL: One of the biggest challenges of being a startup founder is the ability to compartmentalize and insert yourself into different conversations smoothly and quickly. Startups are all about building the right types of relationships, and it’s important to be invested in these relationships early on, from investor and customer relations to employee relationships.

Oasis, the brainchild of KrASIA, aims to provide a haven for human-centered stories on Asia’s leaders. Click here to read similar stories. 

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