Funding the future

Entrepreneur turned venture capitalist Peng T Ong looks for projects that will make a difference as the world approaches 'economic singularity'.

Many entrepreneurs today aspire to have their businesses grow to the point where they have a valuation of US$1 billion or beyond -- or unicorn status, so called because of its rarity. But unicorn status alone is not enough for Peng T Ong, a startup founder, mentor to entrepreneurs and busy venture capitalist.

Founding three successful companies -- Match.com, Interwoven and Encentuate -- that now generate annual revenue of over $1 billion was only the start for Mr Ong, the soft spoken 55-year-old Singapore native who is now the managing partner of one of the most prominent venture capital (VC) firms in Southeast Asia, Monk's Hill Ventures.

A relaxed chat over a cup of coffee with the youthful-looking Mr Ong during his recent visit to Bangkok offered a privileged glimpse of what goes on inside the head of this entrepreneur magnate and a chance to learn more about what he calls his "life projects".

PENG T ONG

Managing partner, Monk’s Hill Ventures

Born
- 1963, Singapore

Education
- MSc, Computer Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1988
- BSc, Electrical Engineering, University of Texas at Austin, 1986

Career
- 1988-90: Release manager and engineer, Gensym Corporation
- 1990-93: Engineer, Sybase Inc
- 1993-96: Consultant, Illustra Information Technologies
- 1994-96: Co-founder, Match.com
- 1995-02: Founder and chairman, Interwoven Inc
- 2003-08: Founder and chairman, Encentuate Inc
- 2008-09: Executive, IBM
- 2010-13: Venture partner, GSR Ventures
- 2006-13: Chairman, Infocomm Investments Private Limited
- 2009-13: Board member, SingTel
- Since 2014: Monk’s Hill Ventures

"Life projects are the things I spend most of my time and energy on," he tells Asia Focus. Broadly speaking, they fall into three areas: entrepreneurship, reshaping education and, more recently, understanding and preparing for the "economic singularity" -- a point where, theorists say, artificial intelligence will be making a greater number of significant decisions than humans.

Lionised as one of the region's most successful entrepreneurs, Mr Ong relies on some extraordinary inborn characteristics to fuel his success. He is a keen observer with extreme curiosity, and a tendency to delve deeply into subjects that interest him.

When he was growing up in Singapore, he recalls, one of his most memorable childhood experiences came in primary school when he visited a zoo, bringing along his first camera. After the film was developed, he noticed that the only photos he took were of animals -- there were no pictures of his friends.

"I realised then that you need to focus on people and not just the environment, not only photography but all activities in general," he says, adding that those photos were an important trigger that caused him to change his focus because dealing with other people was not something that came naturally at first.

"I'm an introvert, so I don't naturally interact with people or go out partying. Interaction takes effort," he says. "My natural status is to stick to my own thoughts, stay by myself and let the world go by."

Since then, Mr Ong has gradually developed the habit of staying in touch with old friends and people he encounters. "You need to care about people and stay in touch with them to do almost anything in a big way. It's people that help you succeed.

"I have over 15,000 contacts in my phone today," he says, chuckling.

But life isn't all about contacts and networking. Mr Ong maintains a healthy work-life balance beyond those thousands of contacts, taking the time to enjoy personal pursuits and get deep into his hobbies.

"Hobbies are important to develop passion and to understand the importance of going very deeply into a subject," he says.

His passions include aquariums -- he has 21 of them at home -- and diving. He achieved certification as a divemaster in less than a year, while doing his other full-time work. "I just kept pushing it," he says.

Last year, he started collecting classic first-edition science-fiction books and now he has over 3,000 collections. "I know everything about sci-fi now and I have more books than I can read in my whole life," he says, laughing.

"People look at me and they think I'm crazy. But the reasons why I let myself go crazy with these hobbies is because that's how I learn things. When you get deep into something, you can learn a lot. That's how you become an expert and create value," he says.

BUILDING THE BRICKS

After receiving a BSc in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas and an MSc in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, Mr Ong started building the foundation for his life's missions. The first few bricks he laid were to build his own company -- several companies, actually.

In 1998, Mr Ong co-founded Match.com, the first online dating service which has now been acquired by IAC. He then founded Interwoven, a content management software firm that went public on the Nasdaq in 1999 and grew to $10 billion in market capitalisation before being acquired by Hewlett-Packard (HP). The last firm he founded before shifting to the venture capital world was Encentuate, an identity and access management software firm later acquired by IBM.

"If you want to have an impact building companies, it's important that you do some yourself to understand how it's done, but to have impact across a broader population, you don't do just one company," he says.

Asked about the secret behind building three successful companies, Mr Ong replies simply: "It's all about people.

"Picking the right people is the key and I'm still learning. The older I get, the less I trust my judgement about people. The really good and bad people are difficult to tell. People still fool me," he says, adding that in his view, good people are those with good intent and integrity.

"The people I'd fire immediately without a second thought are those who have low integrity. The people I give chances to are those who might screw up but their intentions are good."

Still, it's not easy to define who exactly is the "right" person to choose as it's difficult to divide the world into black and white. But generally speaking, he believes those who find it acceptable to cause other people suffering in order to gain are classified as bad people.

Mr Ong says he was lucky to be brought up in a highly ethical environment. His definition of goodness is simply that one needs to have a reciprocal view for other people.

"The golden rule is to do unto others as you would like others to do for you. Otherwise, you just make enemies all over the world and life is too short for that," he says.

TRANSITIONING TO VC

In 2010, Mr Ong made a confident and smooth transition to venture capital and went to China as a partner in GSR Ventures, a China-based VC firm focused on early-stage technology companies co-founded by his old friend Richard Lim.

The transition from being an entrepreneur to an investor, as he describes it, also had the element of probability about it, given that good fortune plays a big part in every company's success.

"As an entrepreneur, you are building one company and what I realised from building my companies and seeing other people's companies is that there's some level of luck involved in the success," he says, adding that hard work and intelligence are of course crucial.

"You can do a company and suddenly it becomes very big or it could go absent. If Yahoo was doing its job, for instance, there might not be a Google today," he says.

Having acquired unmatched expertise on both sides of the business and finance track, after spending three years with GSR Ventures, Mr Ong decided to return to Southeast Asia and form Monk's Hill Ventures. Named after his secondary school, the VC firm is dedicated to providing early-stage funding and mentorship to promising startups in the region where he grew up.

"I want to be a part of helping to build the next generation of Southeast Asian startups to become global brands," Mr Ong says, adding that since 2014, the company has funded 17 Asean-based companies through its $85-million fund. In May, Dealstreet Asia reported that the firm was looking to raise $120 million in a new fund to further expand its investments in promising startups.

Mr Ong says one of the most promising opportunities for Southeast Asian business is small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) lending, given that there is around a 50% gap in supply and demand around the region, especially in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

By way of example, he says that in Indonesia, about $60 billion is loaned out to SMEs every year but the approximate demand could be anywhere from $100 billion to $150 billion. "The gap is very high. It's also not surprising that the standard loan (interest) rate is also very high.

"The gap isn't the supply of capital. The gap is information," he says, explaining that lenders' lack of familiarity with what their borrowers do leads to uncertainty about whether they can repay loans.

"It's a data problem and this problem is eminently fixable," Mr Ong says, adding that once the credit problems for millions of SMEs in the region are resolved, they will be able to grow in ways that will have huge economic impact in the region.

"One of the reasons I like working in the emerging markets is that the problems we solve will have a huge life impact and a huge economic impact," he says.

EDUCATION REVOLUTION

Speaking of impact, our conversation touched on his second Life Project which is related to the education revolution. With his deep insights into the tech industry, Mr Ong aims to use technology as the tool to build a next-generation knowledge-based economy where barriers to education are demolished and opportunities to learn become borderless.

In 2015, he established Solve Education! as a non-profit organisation aiming to liberalise access to education through free, engaging educational software that can be delivered to low-end phones and in areas with intermittent internet connectivity.

"There are 263 million children who do not attend school and millions don't learn anything meaningful to engage in this information-based world," he says. "The purpose of Solve Education! is to solve this issue at scale -- for hundreds of millions of children."

Given that the economic value of education today is based on getting information in the heads of children, he believes that in many cases the world can bypass buildings and physical teachers through the use of advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

Currently at its experimental stage with a few thousand children in the system, Solve Education! Aims to keep them engaged with the platform through gamification to make the content engaging and addictive, so children will be encouraged to play and learn at the same time.

"We will later deploy it on a larger scale and build in the social element such as real-life incentives and social networking," he says.

APPROACHING THE SINGULARITY

Given the exponential growth of technology development, Mr Ong sees the latest industrial revolution as one that will drastically change the social and economic system and how humans behave.

"We are phrasing it incorrectly. This fourth industrial revolution is going to be the final one," he says. "Once it happens, there will not be industries for human beings because almost anything we do, machines at some point not too far in the future will be able to do everything much better, much faster and much cheaper than humans."

The fundamental problem with this is that the mechanism society uses to redistribute value, which is now labour, will itself be revolutionised. The economic singularity refers to a point where there will be almost no jobs left that humans can do for money, since machines will have taken over. What will society do then to create meaning and value? Governments are not yet prepared for this, he says.

"I look at it as a leadership problem. Technology is causing this problem but you can't avoid tech. I think governments think that they have more time than they do. They don't think there will be massive unemployment. They might have 50 years, but I don't think so."

As the economic singularity approaches, society needs to agree on what its values are. "It's a system design problem and the tough part is that we are not used to designing society," says Mr Ong.

Referring to Daniel Kahneman's award-winning book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Mr Ong says the problem with not addressing this issue now is that we will face a situation where too much fast thinking will be taking place, and we may not do the right thing.

"The idea is to have a deliberate, slow and thoughtful conversation to make a smart decision," he says. "The challenge is to have slow thinking happen before this becomes an emergency."



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