As many know, I’m a longtime football fan, to the point that football has become quite the handy metaphor to communicate ideas and insights (as you can read here and here).
Once again football finds its usefulness as a way to illustrate what it takes to overcome the odds, thanks to the ability of the sport, with its matches lasting more than 90 minutes, to turn around in the span of seconds and upend expectations.
Specifically, in the lead-up to the final matches determining the standings for the round of 16 knockout stages of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, South Korea broke a tied score with Portugal in injury time (the final minutes of the match) to not only win the match but also secure a spot in the knockout stages, something that had not happened in more than a decade. This also kicked out Uruguay by a single goal (the team they lost to the last time they made it out of the group stages in 2010).
And as a venture capitalist, there is no story more attractive than an unlikely winner coming out on top and making waves beyond the field on which they secured victory.
After watching the match live, I reflected on five aspects of this match that can be valuable takeaways for startup entrepreneurs and leaders, especially today navigating the uncertainties and odds of fundraising and scaling (on top of the inherent challenges of building a startup). These also reflect the kind of aspects we look for in entrepreneurs and companies and what we are building for through the partnerships we’ve made thus far.
The five takeaways:
- Relentless pursuit unlocks opportunities for wins
- Matches are made not by those who score first, but by those who win last
- Masterful plays are built on enabling effective contributors and building for team chemistry
- Amidst other elements at play, focus on what you can control
- Leverage cheerleaders’ support, ignore the naysayers
(1) Relentless pursuit unlocks opportunities for wins
The first is how the South Korean team never gave up and kept going for opportunities. After an early goal by Portugal and an offside call the first time their ball hit the net, they finally tied with a corner kick in the first half. The South Korean team was not going to lose the match but they were still not qualified for the knockout stages with a tied score. They were playing to win. They made sure to keep knocking on the door of the Portugal net, and were finally rewarded in the 91st minute.
This mindset of “relentless pursuit”, when exercised well in reality, can unlock opportunities in the direst conditions. A story I’ve frequently shared is that of Indonesian MSME-embedded finance and supply chain digitalization company AwanTunai. In spite of the challenges of the pandemic for the financing and lending sector in 2020, their focus on the FMCG segment of MSMEs spared them from the worst of the storm but importantly, they did not settle for just surviving. They used their time, as CEO and co-founder Dino Setiawan shared on our podcast, to speed up the product development and relentlessly pursue new ways to support their ecosystem of wholesalers and MSMEs, which have seen paid off massively in not only growing AwanTunai, but their customers as well.
With the end of “easy money”, the best capital and talent will seek companies that are creative and relentless in their pursuit of opportunities for growth.
(2) Matches are made not by those who score first, but by those who win last
The second is a part-and-parcel reality of football matches, and in a lot of competitive sports as well. Matches are not made by those who score first but by those who win last. This reality is made more significant when those who win last are not the ones people expect, i.e., the whole David vs Goliath narrative.
In one of my early meetings with Hendra Kwik, CEO and co-founder of the regional fintech for business Fazz (back then, it was still a pioneering fintech rapidly emerging out of rural Indonesia called Payfazz), I asked what he thought about survival still being a small startup at the time and facing a competitive landscape with unicorn and decacorn backed ventures. (Hendra recalls this question on a podcast episode)
Over the next two to three years, amidst a seemingly overwhelming competitive environment, Payfazz answered that question to great effect: focusing on execution built on their on-the-ground approach and local advantage. This proved instrumental in enabling them to secure market leadership in rural Indonesia, which then opened doors for them to evolve into the regional fintech group they are today.
Unlike football, however, these matches don’t end, and market leadership is never certain (that /is/ at the heart of disruptive innovation). Especially with the kind of changes the tech markets are going through currently, companies have to always be on their toes regardless of their position in the market.
“This David versus Goliath scenario always happens, especially for us. I remember when I pitched Payfazz to you four years ago, you also asked the same question. “Hey, you guys are small. There are some other players who are actually backed by large unicorns and decacorns. How are you going to survive?” And with this same mentality, but over the course of three years with a relentless focus on execution, we actually managed to secure market leadership…” – Hendra Kwik, On Call with Insignia Season 3, Episode 1 (2021)
(3) Masterful plays are built on enabling effective contributors and building team chemistry
The third was Son Heung Min’s run and pass to Hwang In Beom who finally closed the goal. The play was masterful in the sense that even as Son was running for the goal, he also had faith in his team to unlock opportunities for plays. In fact, the Portugal team’s defenders had already caught up to him on the other end of the field and were looking to stop any further advance. But what made the difference was Hwang coming in to support outside the defense and Son seeing that opportunity and making that calm pass behind the defenders.
Football is ultimately a team effort, and that 91st-minute goal would not have mattered without the South Korean team’s prior goal and all the other attempts. Opportunities build on each other. Rockstar teams recognize the value of having many active contributors, rather than just banking on a single player. Great leaders are then playmakers who understand how to link up these contributors to maximum effect, not necessarily making the goals themselves but knowing who and when to pass the ball.
What this means for startups is that building for management chemistry is important, as this dynamic trickles through the rest of the organization. The leaders brought in or trained by founders to become part of the management team can make or break the company depending not just on their profiles and capabilities, but also on when they are brought in / promoted and how well they work with the rest of management and the people they are leading.
There are a number of examples of key management hires that come to mind with companies we work with: Carro bringing in Helen Neo early on to lead the group’s financing business, Genie Finance (Aaron talks about their criteria to bring in management hires on the podcast), Shipper bringing in a Phil Opamuratawongse as CEO at a critical juncture as the company began fundraising and started scaling, or Flip bringing in former Ruangguru and Grab leader Gita Prihanto as COO as the company entered growth stages.
“Finding the right people to join the team is not about just getting A-star players. I think it’s finding the right team, because not everyone comes in and is playing a star role. For me, I think of it very much like a football team or a sports team. How do we start getting the right kind of mix that balances everyone’s capabilities and not necessarily great superstars in every area per se, but the right balance. So thinking deliberately about that is a core piece of it and how you design the organization is a big piece of it [as well].” – JJ Chai, On Call with Insignia Season 3, Episode 27 (2021)
(4) Amidst other elements at play, focus on what you can control
The fourth aspect of the match is that there were a lot of other factors beyond the control of the South Korean team. Uruguay was also in the running for the knockout rounds, and both matches were on the same day. If Uruguay had scored one more goal, or South Korea one less, things would have been very different.
The point is that the South Korean team just focused on scoring. And amidst the uncertainties that constantly plague startups, especially in today’s markets, it pays to focus on what you can control.
Indonesia’s largest end to end property transaction platform Pinhome is no stranger to uncertainty, having been started right at the beginning of the pandemic and going through it all in a challenging sector (considering the pandemic and inflation). But with a focus on relentless prioritization and cash preservation, as founders Dara and Ahmed shared on the podcast, they have been able to not only navigate challenges beyond their control but also continue scaling, now post-Series B and a market leader.
“I wanted to go back to your question about the biggest learning [as a growth stage company]. And it immediately crossed my mind how repeatedly we had to activate survival mode and take extreme measures to preserve cash. We’ve gone through that cycle from the beginning, [with the pandemic] multiple times, given the external conditions. [And so] internally we’re ready. We have the capabilities and the resources where we have to activate survival mode.” – Dayu Dara Permata, On Call with Insignia Season 4, Episode 29 (2022)
(5) Leverage cheerleaders’ support, ignore the naysayers
Finally, through all the difficulties and uncertainties of company building, it’s important to have cheerleaders and focus on their support rather than being drowned out by the naysayers. When Korea was down a point, the cheers from the Korean supporters went on and they even did a wave to show their spirit to the team. This was happening amidst people also leaving the stadium already expecting a loss.
When Indonesia’s leading social commerce platform for rural Indonesia Super was not yet a social commerce company but going through pivots in its early days, CEO Steven Wongsordjo and his team focused on working closely with their “cheerleaders”, and we were privileged to be one of them. “Cheerleaders” in this sense are not just those who just say “yes” to everything but those who are actually constructive in supporting the company.
In this fundraising winter, it pays to know who your “cheerleaders” are and focus on that support. The headlines may seem all doom and gloom, and while today’s markets are not rainbows and sunshine either, there is merit to looking for silver linings (again going back to the point on relentless pursuit), and “cheerleaders” know to help in that regard.
This victory by South Korea builds on what seems to be a running narrative in this World Cup of perceived underdog teams winning against crowd favorites or past winners, which started with the Japan vs Argentina match and has since happened many more times in the group stages. While the knockout matches are ongoing, and there can be more surprises one can hope for to reflect on like this one, this South Korea match definitely goes in my books as one not just for football history but also for entrepreneurs and leaders to gain meaningful lessons from.
Editor’s Note: If you enjoy these types of articles where we find parallels between learnings from company building and historic events or locales that capture overcoming odds, check out our South Pole expedition piece, Lok Baintan market piece, and Dancing Skyscrapers piece.
Yinglan founded Insignia Ventures Partners in 2017. Insignia Ventures Partners is an early-stage technology venture fund focusing on Southeast Asia and manages more than US$350 million from sovereign wealth funds, foundations, university endowments and renowned family offices. Insignia Ventures Partners is the recipient of two back-to-back “VC Deal of Year” awards for Payfazz (2019) and Carro (2018) from the Singapore Venture Capital and Private Equity Association and its portfolio include many other technology leaders in Southeast Asia. He also co-hosts the On Call with Insignia Ventures podcast, where he chats with portfolio founders and regional investors. An author on venture capital, startups and innovation, he recently published his fourth book, Navigating ASEANnovation (World Scientific, 2020). He also serves on the International Board of Stars – Leaders of the Next Generation, the Singapore Government’s Pro Enterprise Panel and is a Board Member at Hwa Chong Institution.