Derek Wong is the co-founder of Moneko, a Singapore-based fintech startup. They’re building a personal finance super app that uses AI and behavioral science to help millennials better manage their personal finances. He’s a first-time startup founder that made it through the Antler program with a goal of creating a tech startup. While he says he’s just a person with startup dreams, he wants to make the world a better and altogether happier place.
“There be dragons”
These famous words of warning were first inscribed in the 1700s on the maps of the so-called “Old World”—back when the world was still flat and largely uncharted. And despite knowing the risks posed by roaming pirates, foreign diseases, and unknown waters (maybe the occasional dragon), the legacy of the modern world was forged by the deeds and misdeeds of countless explorers, traders, and naval captains that sailed around the world seeking new territories and enterprises.
Fast forward to modern day. Our world is charted and familiar. We’ve flown to the moon, conquered gravity, and communicate instantaneously with loved ones across the planet. For most of us (or many of KrASIA’s readers), we spend our days working an office job with seemingly endless meetings, deliverables, and demands from our managers. We find ourselves daydreaming about the long weekend or our next vacation. Our job pays the bills, allows us to live comfortably, and provide for our loved ones. But deep inside, there are the burning, existential questions that keep us up every night without fail: “Is this what we’re meant to do? Is this our passion or purpose? Is this it, or is there more?”
That was precisely how I felt. I was a corporate marketing manager working in the tech industry in Silicon Valley living a comfortable life. I was grateful to have a solid and promising career path, but those existential questions kept me up at night. What would living at my edge look like? What does taking career risk mean? The pursuit of these answers led me halfway around the globe to Singapore, where I am now sitting in a coffee shop along Joo Chiat Road typing out my thoughts to share with you.
Derek Wong, co-founder of Moneko. Photo courtesy of Moneko.
My founder journey
I am an Asian American, born and raised in the heart of Silicon Valley, less than 3 kilometers from the garage where Steve Jobs founded Apple. Growing up in a place like Cupertino means that tech talk, IPO murmurs, and brainstorming ideas for the next ‘unicorn’ company is as commonplace as talking about the weather, sports, and local politics over coffee. Surrounded by innovation, I had always dreamed of being a startup founder. After spending the early years of my career at Microsoft, Riot Games, and LinkedIn focusing on brand management and product marketing, I finally felt that I was ready to take the plunge and try my hand at starting a company. But quitting your job and building a startup doesn’t happen overnight. Trading your stable paycheck, health insurance, and simple comforts for a life of uncertainty and volatility is not for the faint of heart.
For those who want to be entrepreneurs (or “want-repreneurs” as I like to call them), just figuring out an idea or problem worth quitting your job to solve is hard enough. Then to find a co-founder who is equally passionate, dedicated, and willing to dedicate their free time to tackle this feat is no easy task. As a result, many talented people find themselves fantasizing about starting a company, but can never find the impetus or the burning idea that propels them along a very different path.
The Antler program was the perfect answer for me. In January 2020, I moved from California to Singapore to join the program as an entrepreneur. I came in with no business ideas, no co-founder, and no community to get settled into. Antler helped me overcome each and every one of these concerns. The program is built around helping talented individuals find co-founders that are ready to commit to starting a company. Plus, they even give you a stipend to help with expenses so you can fully focus your time finding the right co-founder and validating a great business idea. With a huge support network of advisors, mentors, investors, and fellow founders, you’re well positioned to succeed.
Why not stay in the Silicon Valley? One question that I am often asked is about why I decided to transplant my life across the world to Southeast Asia to do a startup. Most tech entrepreneurs revere Silicon Valley as the “promised land” for startups. The land of milk and honey—where venture funding flows, innovation fills the air, and top engineering talent is as bountiful as the trees are plentiful. However, starting a company in the Bay Area is a challenging endeavor. The competition for talent is fierce—you’re fighting with the FAANG companies and the dozens of other startups that raised huge rounds of funding. More so, the standard for companies raising funding is steep. The revered investors on Sand Hill Road see thousands of pitch decks a year and are looking for the most innovative ideas, cutting-edge technologies, and the best founding teams. The bar is astoundingly high for first time founders. Starting a business as a first time founder is no easy task, but add in the astronomical cost of living in the Bay Area and it’s a difficult pill for any founder to swallow.
But the main reason I chose Singapore is that I wanted an adventure of a lifetime. I wanted to escape the familiar and move somewhere radically different. Beyond just my startup dreams, I’ve fantasized about moving to Asia for many years. This was the perfect chance to accomplish two lifelong goals in a single move—metaphorically killing two birds with a single stone.
Derek and his fellow Antler colleagues grin after a pitch contest. Courtesy of Moneko.
What I would recommend to others who are thinking about Antler?
Retake your Myers-Briggs personality test and the OCEAN test. Very helpful to figure out what type of personalities you work best with and where your strong suits lie. The OCEAN test, also known as the “Big 5 test,” is a scientifically validated personality test that evaluates your personality across the 5 major personality traits: Openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Super helpful for you to better understand yourself so you can identify your strengths and blind spots.
Figure out if venture-backed is the right path for you. There are many flavors of entrepreneurship. Starting an e-commerce website, coffee shop, or a tutoring business are all forms of entrepreneurship. We largely define these as ‘lifestyle businesses,’ or companies that can generate revenue enough to support your particular lifestyle. But when people think of tech startups, it almost always implies taking funds from venture capitalists with the expectation of growing and scaling your business rapidly.
Taking money from VCs is, in a way, a deal with the devil. While not nearly as nefarious as negotiating with Satan himself, if you take the “free money,” you are committing the next 5-10 years of your life to transform their money tenfold and driving massive growth numbers and expansion. Raising money from a prestigious fund with a high valuation sounds like the dream scenario for a founder, but the implications are far deeper. When a venture capital firm invests in your company, they are investing as much in the idea as they are betting on the founding team. To deliver high output performance and results. This is not a demand, it’s the expectation. And for many first-time founders like myself, you will feel vulnerable and exposed. You will feel lost and without direction. But this is the education you earn while taking this path.
Do some reading homework
I highly recommend reading “Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture capital and how to get it,” by Scott Kupor. This book was recommended to me by my brother and it provides a crash course on the venture capital world which is an invaluable context for your experience. What investors are looking for, how to structure a pitch deck, and so much more. It helped me set my expectations accordingly and to recognize when a certain business idea that I had in my mind was simply not a venture back-able business.
Another book I recommend is “Art of the start” by Guy Kawasaki. Kawasaki is the former chief evangelist at Apple Computer, a serial entrepreneur, and a lecturer at Stanford University. I remember picking up a copy of this book at the local library when I was in 9th grade. He shares so many digestible insights on how to structure a business plan, the best way to build a pitch deck, and while sharing some much needed wisdom for aspiring founders.
Watch HBO’s Silicon Valley. If you’re considering the startup path, balance your ‘education’ of venture capital and entrepreneurship books with this amazing show. It’s such a self-aware parody of the startup world, but it’s eerily accurate. It also reminds me of home.
Let go of your ego because at a startup, no task is beneath you. Starting a company has been a humbling experience, especially when it comes to digital marketing. In the marketing world, you start off as an unpaid intern doing social media for a startup or a university club. After you get some credibility, you work your way up to work at an advertising agency or make the jump to the client side. Once on the client side, most careerists try to move their responsibilities “upstream” and influence decision-makers. This means you work less on consumer-facing projects, stay hands-off with day-to-day projects, and have lots of meetings trying to influence the stakeholders.
After years of trying to rise up in the corporate ranks, after starting Moneko, I quickly realized how out of touch I was with starting a brand from scratch. Instead of publishing a high production video to millions of eager fans, I was trying to figure out how to get my first 100 followers on Instagram. Even more so, there was no creative agency to whip up beautiful graphics. There was no brand team to ensure that the logos and ad copy were written perfectly. Nope—my intern and I were the entire marketing team. For me, this felt like a steady diet of humble pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
It can be a lonely road, but it doesn’t have to be. To be very honest, the “circuit breaker” measures to work from home had a far greater impact on my mental health than I ever imagined. I consider myself an extrovert and thrive on flowing conversation, making people laugh, and deepening relationships. However, with my co-founder based in another country, I found myself working alone far more than I thought I would.
For many months, I wasn’t in the best mental space. I felt that my creativity was stifled and my normal strategic acumen was blurred. I couldn’t think or see as clearly as I wanted to. Week after week, every single day felt the same. There was an endless amount of work, and a seemingly endless period of isolation. No more face-to-face lunches with friends and fellow founders. Goodbye to the casual coffee chats with coaches and my co-founder.
Prior to starting Moneko, I had always worked at bustling headquarters with thousands of other employees (fun fact, the Microsoft Redmond headquarter houses 47,000 employees). Impromptu hallway conversations and small talk before meetings were not just common, they were the norm. I was always used to seeing familiar faces and new employees every single day. I never realized how much I missed these simple social conversations, compounded now that my meeting load was reduced by 90% and that I now only worked with 2 other people—my co-founder and my intern.
Another founder from the Antler program recommended Lunchclub.ai which is essentially a platform for you to have video one-on-ones with other incredible people—quite a cool way to meet new people while taking social distancing into consideration.
What’s next for Moneko and me?
Just this past week, we pitched our vision for Moneko at the Antler Demo Day. My co-founder and I are excited to share our product vision with investors and advisors around the world, as we plan our product launch later this year. As with every startup, our focus is on finding product market fit, building a compelling business, and ensuring that we have enough funding to keep the machine running. But as with every startup, nothing is guaranteed. Raising seed funding during a global pandemic is no easy task, but it’s a challenge that my co-founder and I are keen to tackle.
From a personal perspective, I plan to stay in Asia and work on this venture for the next few years. I’ve only been in the region for just over 6 months, and 3 of them were in my apartment during lockdown. There’s so much culture, cuisine, and knowledge to explore here in Southeast Asia so I’m looking forward to the day when COVID-19 crisis comes down and the opportunity to travel opens up once more.
Disclaimer: This article was written by a community contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the writer himself. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here.