In this piece, the team behind Insignia Ventures Academy (IVA) explores the origins of the education company and the challenges / opportunities present in Southeast Asia’s venture capital (VC) landscape. They also dive deeper into the learnings and history of IVA’s 12-week VC accelerator program over its first two cohorts, and how it has been redefining VC education and grooming aspiring early-stage investors and tech operators for Southeast Asia’s evolving internet economy. Applications for Cohort 4 of the VC accelerator are now open as well. Apply here on LinkedIn.
With global inflation creating a tech market correction of 2021’s fundraising hype and even crypto boom, resulting in what continues to be a difficult funding environment for startups in Southeast Asia, the uncertainty may seem to bode only a long night for early-stage startup investing.
But it is precisely during these uncertain periods and “long nights” that winners become clearer, smarter cash begins to find untapped opportunities (as opposed to riding bandwagons), and enduring companies are able to take off, oftentimes thanks to competition falling by the wayside or their focus on a blue ocean.
For venture capitalists and other early-stage investors, this presents an opportune moment to back such promising ventures from day one and to secure a front-row seat to the development of the ‘next big things’ – the growing list includes the metaverse, decentralized web3, and the like. Amidst the talent shifts with some tech companies laying off massively and others hiring aggressively with fresh funding, there’s momentum for the maturing talent pool of startup operators to find “star” tech companies to land on as demand for their expertise skyrockets on the back of this upward trend. Yet, for operators and aspiring investors looking to find these stars amidst a seemingly darkening landscape successfully, they must first learn how to take off.
Navigating the many facets of venture capital is an art that spans numerous disciplines; discerning and capitalizing on emerging market trends, identifying competent founders, forming interpersonal relationships and leveraging value-adds beyond mere capital are several of the many tools of the trade.
Adding to the complexity is the lack of concrete historical financial data in the early stages of a startup’s business cycle. As a result, early-stage investors often find themselves having to draw on their own unique experiences and intuition in assessing investment opportunities, which generally takes no less than a number of years in a related role – think fund manager, a C-suite executive or even a founder – to hone.
Especially for angel investments at pre-seed or seed rounds where startups have only just conceptualized a business idea or developed their minimum viable product, the tenacity, flexibility and conviction by founders in their vision are critical factors in the investor’s decision to back these ventures. As EdTech entrepreneur and founder of angel network Epic Angels Hester Spiegel puts across eloquently, “By and large, I don’t think angel investing is a rational process. Sure, there are basic metrics to measure traction, but what is arguably more important is that there must be a click with the founder at a personal level.”
Naturally this begs the question: how then can the perceivably high barriers to early-stage investing be lowered for interested parties, especially for those who might not possess the requisite experience or qualifications traditionally expected of investors? How best can venture capital education be democratized and made available to the masses while still cultivating a culture of smart, disciplined value investing?
Spearheading the VC education frontier
Enter Insignia Ventures Academy’s VC Accelerator, a 12-week immersive program designed for aspiring venture capitalists and investors looking to back great companies in the Southeast Asia region.
Predicated on experiential learning, the program makes the case that the venture capital practice thrives beyond the confines of the conventional classroom setting, and tailors its curriculum to incorporate real-world application to and interactions with the wider VC / startup ecosystem.
IVA was not an idea born overnight and it resulted from the confluence of various experiences and market observations over time. Tan Yinglan, founding managing partner at Insignia Ventures, was educated in the US and became the first Southeast Asia hire for Sequoia Capital. When he decided to venture off on his own and start Insignia Ventures in 2017, he recognized a lack of venture capital talent in the market.
And so, while the firm’s early team comprised individuals who did not necessarily boast extensive experience in the space, they had the potential to blossom into outstanding venture capitalists. The firm would train them from scratch, with Yinglan allocating time for the team to undergo training sessions and go through case studies to build their competencies – a very informal version of what IVA is today.
Over the next four to five years, the pool of startup talent in Southeast Asia matured. Just as Yinglan had seen in the West, operator talent would be pivotal in shaping the venture capital landscape of the region. The market had grown since he founded in Insignia in 2017, and he realized it would be advantageous to bring in people with operational backgrounds since they know what a well-run company looks like.
This coincided with an increasingly diverse pool of operators from across the globe looking to dive into startup investing in Southeast Asia, having seen the success of the region’s unicorns and with even more startups joining the unicorn club over the past year. Even Insignia Ventures itself saw more operators from varying backgrounds joining the ranks of its team.
Startup ecosystems in the US and Europe had met their wave of demand for startup investing and venture capital with programs and fellowships to help professionals and startup operators shorten their learning curve, and Yinglan himself had been a part of the Kauffman Fellows, a prestigious VC and startup focused community. Now that Southeast Asia was also seeing its own monumental influx of demand for venture capital, the opportunity was ripe to create an independent and institutionalized platform for VC education in the region.
Even with the existing VC courses and scout programs in the region, there was still a clear gap to be bridged between the learning of fundamentals, and the actual track record and network that great investor careers are built upon.
Such a platform needed to marry the instructive nature of a formal, institutional course with the on-the-ground experience typically afforded only to well-connected scouts. And this marriage had to be structured in a way that would be accessible to a diverse array of backgrounds, from big tech executives looking to become angel investors, to corporate professionals looking to start their own venture-backed company.
Drawing from his learnings from more mature ecosystems vis-a-vis Southeast Asia’s momentum, the early days of Insignia Ventures, and his own experience as a venture capitalist, Yinglan eventually gathered a team to build this platform. And so, the seeds were sown for the part-time experiential venture capital accelerator program, the first of its kind in Asia.
After several months of planning and coordination, the program officially kickstarted in March 2021 with an inaugural cohort of 38 venture fellows from a variety of backgrounds, pioneering the platform for what Yinglan would often tout as the next generation of investors.
As he shares, “I think the other thing I was inspired by is the class of ‘92 [in the world of soccer]. So with Manchester United, you had one era that had the vintage of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville — they all came from that class. So if we are to institutionalize this platform [for VC education], we need to be able to bring in the next generation of investors, the class of ‘92 in the world of VC. And I think this platform allows us to intersect with this next generation early.”
Close to a year later and with three graduate cohorts under its belt, the accelerator program that was once a promising spark is fast becoming a blazing success.
Don’t miss out!
The program boasts an exciting line-up of high-quality workshops and masterclasses designed around 3 core themes: understanding the foundations and workings of a VC, supporting the growth of portfolio companies, and building a brand and career in VC.
For many of these sessions, industry experts and mentors are invited to share their experience across a variety of topics in curated sessions ranging from ‘how to be an effective board member’ to ‘planning and strategizing exit scenarios for portfolio companies. Past guest speakers include Cathay Innovation investment director and exited founder Rajive Keshup, NYSE’s Head of APAC capital markets Delano Musafer, SPH Ventures CEO Boon Ping Chua, and former Sequoia partner Tim Lee, and many other seasoned investors, founders, and industry experts.
To complement the live sessions, resources including a venture capital handbook, in-house case studies, and a library of curated readings are also available for venture fellows to deepen their learning experience. Through such asynchronous learning, venture fellows are able to better manage their time amidst their busy schedules. These materials were also developed to enable venture fellows to quickly get in the headspace of the experiential component of the program (more on that below), and serve as a basis for discussion during live sessions.
Importantly, the program’s content is a “living organism” – as IVA’s Head of Content and Curriculum Paulo Joquino would put it – constantly updated to match the fast-changing nature of the startup and venture capital landscape, and given life through the ways venture fellows engage with it. This means venture fellows are able to incorporate insights from the latest developments in the industry into their learning and gain perspective relevant to their current environment.
To quote the handbook developed for the program, “By the time that you are reading this, a lot would have already changed in Southeast Asia’s tech and venture capital ecosystem since the first words of this book were written, and yet, there remain principles and mindsets that VCs decades into the future will consider crucial or build upon in the context of their time.”
Put on your investor cap
The other major component of the program involves venture fellows stepping into the shoes of a venture capitalist and experiencing the end-to-end investment process first-hand. True to the mantra of ‘learning by doing’, venture fellows apply what they have learned and collaborate in teams to source promising startups, conduct preliminary due diligence to assess the viability of the investment, and consolidate their findings in a cohesive and coherent manner.
Each group of venture fellows is assigned a business vertical as their primary investment focus, and these verticals range from well-known sectors such as SaaS and PropTech, to emerging fields including Blockchain and ClimateTech. The verticals for each cohort are selected on a rotating basis to expose venture fellows to new industries that they may be looking to explore and get into.
Along the way, the teams also have the opportunity to practice pitching to a panel of investors, who then provide valuable tips and feedback for the teams to refine and enhance their pitch.
The program culminates in an Investor Demo Day where the teams pitch their respective startups to an investment committee, with a potential investment in the top selected startup being taken under consideration. In return for their efforts during the program, venture fellows are able to share in the financial upside of any invested company through a profit-sharing arrangement.
Find your tribe
No man is an island in the world of venture capital and startups.
Every cohort comprises a curated mix of individuals looking to break into venture capital, founders, startup operators, corporate executives, seasoned professionals, and even undergraduates / postgraduates.
To ensure the quality and diversity of venture fellows in each cohort, Program Lead Gail Lau connects with prospective participants to understand their personal goals and motivations, and to evaluate whether they will be a good fit for the program. “We are looking for people who are genuinely passionate about VC and ready to take that next step, and who are able to contribute new ideas and fresh perspectives,” Gail shares.
Geographically, venture fellows are spread out across the SEA region. This melting pot of cultures and experience facilitates increased access to different market landscapes, insights and deal opportunities within the region.
Ex-Bukalapak VP of Engineering Mohammed Alabsi shares his experience on the On Call with Insignia podcast as a venture fellow in the inaugural cohort, “I would say the best part of the program for me was the people. I met amazing entrepreneurs as well as investors, and I learned so much working with them through the hands-on experience of sourcing, evaluating and pitching startups”.
Product designer Cwenne Chua recounts her first foray into early-stage investing through the program, “Coming from a product designer background, venture capital is uncharted waters for me. The IVA VC accelerator program introduced me to the startup investing world and exposed me to the symbiotic relationship between founders and investors in their common goal to grow and expand the startup business. Learning from and alongside individuals with different expertise and backgrounds made the experience even more fruitful and insightful.”
Community building is a cornerstone of the program. Throughout the 12 weeks, venture fellows are highly encouraged to go the extra mile and forge closer bonds with each other and with alumni members – either through the Slack channel / whatsapp group chat set up, or in their own time.
As a result, the past cohorts have seen valuable friendships and connections maintained post-program – some of the alumni members have organized meetups, co-invested in angel rounds, and have also agreed to come onboard as mentors for future cohorts to pass on their learnings!
As a HR professional who has had experience building teams in various companies, Gail feels heartened and inspired by the growing community. “The compounding network effect that the program is achieving organically is amazing and is proof that we’re headed in the right direction,” Gail shares.
The latter half of 2022 is also gearing up to be an exciting period for the community as post-program plans to provide further value and support to the venture fellows and alumni are well underway. “We’re exploring several initiatives to complement the existing VC program, and we can’t wait to share these with the community,” Gail shares.
All roads lead to Rome
On a broader level, the program’s vision can really be broken down into two main themes: (1) educating and nurturing the next generation of leaders, founders and investors, and (2) disrupting the traditional pathways to a career in VC and angel investing.
On the On Call with Insignia podcast, current full-time startup investor / advisor Andy Hwang comments on the VC accelerator program helping to develop his investment acumen, “[My experience has] allowed me to learn and maintain the same level of discipline now that I’m investing my own capital and I’m not presenting to an IC… it has helped me introduce rigor to the investment process.”
“While there’s still a lot to learn for us in terms of building this platform for nurturing Southeast Asia’s next generation of investors, what’s been clear from the cohorts we have run is that there is no clear or defined route to invest in startups. You can be a founder, tech giant operator, corporate leader, or MBA student – it’s less about where you come from and more about your motivation and readiness to take charge of the path you decide to tread, and the willingness to support and work closely with founders as their early-stage investors,” Paulo shares.
“As startup investing in the region democratizes even further, IVA is undoubtedly in a prime position to be this beacon of education, experience, and community for ‘explorers’ looking to land in the next big “stars” of innovation coming out of Southeast Asia.”
Insignia Ventures Academy is Southeast Asia’s first experiential Venture Capital ‘VC’ accelerator to nurture the next generation of leaders, investors and entrepreneurs. Led by world-class VC and industry leaders, our 12-week immersive program or VC Accelerator is designed for aspiring venture capitalists, investors, fund managers, and ambitious founders where individuals will get the opportunity to invest in real-life businesses.
Individuals looking to break into VC will gain high-quality investment experience through deal sourcing, conduct due diligence, navigate capital structure, participate in weekly investment committee meetings, and share in the financial upside on select deals with Insignia Ventures Partners.
Applications for Cohort 4 are now open: Apply here on LinkedIn. Keep a lookout for more updates.