500 Startups wants to invest in your startup with Ee Ling Lim

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Guest

Ee Ling Lim

Executive Director of Market Launch
500 Global

500 Global works with corporations and governments to invest in the development of local startup ecosystems alongside them.

Sean has founded multiple companies and done multiple 8 figures worth of business.

He’s currently advising, consulting, and investing in business just like yours.

He knows where you’ve been, and he knows where you’re going.

Book a call with him today to see how he can help you get there smarter, faster, and in a way that aligns with your life goals.

Timestamps

00:00 – Guest Introduction
02:20 – Get to know Ee Ling
06:10 – 500 Startups cater to different stages
09:24 – What does 500 Startups look for in a company?
11:43 – How to apply for 500 Startups?
13:52 – Best part of working with startups
15:59 – Hardest part of working with startups
20:05 – Best pitches
23:52 – Poorly done pitches
25:21 – Some things that could be changed in the startup world
29:05 – Investment scene in Southeast Asia
33:03 – Future possibilities
37:32 – Youth Education
41:07 – Follow up with Ee Ling

Transcript

Read the transcript
Sean Weisbrot:
Welcome back to another episode of the We Live to Build podcast. Running a startup can be tough for different reasons, depending on where you are in the lifecycle of your company. Accelerators like 500 startups popped up around the world to support local startups and develop an ecosystem which teaches, connects, funds and helps them grow big and strong to support the local and regional economies as they grow.

Today, I have the privilege of speaking with Ee Ling Lim, who was recently promoted to be the head of APAC business development at 500 startups, where her and her team focus on working with corporations and governments to invest in the development of local startup ecosystems alongside them. She’s also the co-founder and CEO of Smarter Me, an education platform which equips children with the skill set, mindset and heart set to define their own success and happiness in the future. We talk about why would a founder apply to 500 startups.

What is 500 startups look for in companies? How do people apply for 500 startups? What is the best part of working with startups? What is the hardest part of working with startups? What’s the best startup ideas you’ve heard? What are the worst startup ideas you’ve heard? What is something you wish you could change about startups in the investment world? How is investment changing and what is the future of investing in startups look like? Ee Ling is an impressive speaker and I loved working with her today, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Now let’s get to the show.

Welcome to We Live to Build. My name is Sean Weisbrot, and I’m an entrepreneur, investor and advisor based in Asia for over 12 years. Join us every week to fast-track your personal growth so you can meet the ever-increasing demands of the company or companies you are passionately building. Time waits for no one. So, let’s get started now. I’m really excited to hear from you more about 500 startups and the growing ecosystem in Southeast Asia.

Ee Ling Lim:
Hey! Thanks, Sean. Really glad to be on the podcast. Excited to speak to you more.

Sean Weisbrot:
So, before we go any deeper, let’s tell everyone what it is you do that makes you the right person to talk about the Southeast Asian ecosystem and accelerators and all that.

Ee Ling Lim:
So, I think most people know 500 startups as an active VC fund globally. So, we are the world’s most active early-stage investor. We have invested over 2400 companies in over 70 countries. Now the other part of 500 startups is actually the ecosystem team. So, in ecosystems, what that means is that we work with corporates as well as government agencies and foundations to build startup ecosystems and to continuously innovate. What I do is I hate the Asia Pacific business development team to form more and more connections with these corporations, as well as government agencies, and to run all these programs in APAC.

Sean Weisbrot:
I want to first congratulate you, because I know you’ve recently got promoted into that position.

Ee Ling Lim:
I did. Thank you so much. So, I used to just cover Singapore and Malaysia, and starting from this year onwards, I took the wider Asia Pacific role.

Sean Weisbrot:
What was it that made you want to do that, or did someone come to you and say, hey, do you want to do this? Or you’re like, there’s an opportunity, I’m going to take it.

Ee Ling Lim:
Yeah. It’s interesting because I think at the start, um, when I first joined, I was really, really clear to my boss at the time that I was interested in taking on Beyond Singapore. I wanted to take on the Southeast Asia role, and I think that’s just been something that’s been ingrained in me. And speaking about this now, it reminds me of how even with startups itself, people always say that with startups, the American startups tend to think that they have the right of path, right? And they have the right to actually conquer the whole world. So, they never aim to just be a startup that dominates the US. They aim to dominate the whole world.

But whereas in Asia Pacific or rather in Southeast Asia, a lot of startups think about conquering their country first and maybe after the conquer their country or if the market is not big enough, maybe Southeast Asia because of that. And I think, you know, coming from investment banking before, I’ve always seen it just as Southeast Asia itself never really taught beyond that much to, you know, my embarrassment. So, I think how it came about with Asia. Is that even as I was doing Singapore, I was already helping the team with programs and with projects beyond Singapore, beyond Southeast Asia, just anywhere that there was opportunities. And so, when that opening came up, my boss actually got promoted to a global role and he used to lead Asia Pacific. So, when he got promoted, he recommended me to take over his role instead.

Sean Weisbrot:
Nice. Well, congrats. And you also have your own startup at the same time. So, you have the ability to see what it’s like being an entrepreneur and what it’s like running an accelerator essentially, which I don’t think many people have both views at the same time. They may start as an entrepreneur and then like work in an accelerator after their exit, something like that. So, what is it like for you running both?

Ee Ling Lim:
Yeah, I think I’ve grown to appreciate more and more founders who have a couple of hustles. Right. You know, they’re always encouraged to do side hustles, work on something on the side until you found that product market fit in everything. And I think people underestimate the amount of energy that has to go into, you know, sustaining something like that beyond just knowing what it’s like to be a founder and then running an accelerator. And through that understanding, what is it that a founder actually needs at different stages of that maturity level? Right. Whether a founder is at the Pre-seed seed A or B level, a lot of the top education is different, connections is different, and help is actually really different in all those different stages as well. And, you know, on top of that, I am actually a teacher and a mentor too. So, I also play the role in terms of curriculum development, as well as understanding what a startup or founder might need from a mentor and from a curriculum perspective.

Sean Weisbrot:
So, let’s talk a little bit more about what founders might need. Why would they apply to 500 startups?

Ee Ling Lim:
When I mentioned earlier on that founders at different stages require different things, let me elaborate a little bit more on that. At a really early stage, in fact, because of my, you know, the whole in the whole region that I look at right now in Asia Pacific, there are countries in which we operate, such as Cambodia, where the maturity level is really, really low. Right? It’s a very, very early stage. There are not enough entrepreneurs there yet. So, at that stage, what’s required is actually changing mindsets, you know, helping young adults realize that entrepreneurship is a path. And in fact, today, when we work with a lot of people in Cambodia who are interested in pursuing that pathway, they are all doing side hustles, meaning they all have their full-time 9 to 5 job, and only during the weekend they come and attend our programs. But that’s them trying to take that first step to taking risks and changing mindsets.

So, that’s what is really required at that point in time, right? As an early founder, you need to be brave enough to embrace failure and you need to find great co-founders. So that’s what’s needed now at a pre-seed or seed stage. It’s all about product market fit. You might have found early adopters, but it’s not enough. You need to expand further. You need to really validate that. And so, a lot of the focus that we have in that at that time frame is getting mentors to help the founders shape experiments, shape you’re A/B testing, shape your go to market strategy. How do you test different models? How do you learn to identify and listen to your what your audience is telling you, and maybe take the opportunity to pivot if you need to now then at a series A or B stage, what do founders need?

We, one of our famous programs actually called the Destro Dojo. This was something else run in the past, and now we run something similar called the Growth Bootcamp. At that stage, it’s all about scaling your team. So, it’s a lot about hiring, about maintaining your team and about creating that scalable growth. We also focus a lot on sales and distribution strategy and marketing strategy. At that time, at a series and Series B level, we also start to engage the founders in terms of coaching and really developing that founders’ growth mindset as well. So again, one of the topics that’s often not talked about is the mental health of founders, right? It’s a lonely journey. How do we keep them going? How do we help them keep going as well. And so, a lot of our programs at these stages include that personal coaching for founders to now take it one step further, right?

In Singapore, for example, the market’s really small. So, for a lot of Singaporean startups, they are they do have an ambition. And you know, even from a VC perspective, there is a need for them to expand overseas. So, at that time, the programs that we run for the founders actually focus on expansion and focus on providing them with connectivity to potential customers and, you know, partners globally. So, as you can see, it’s really very different, right? All the way from mindset to techniques and skills to connections, fundraising advice, investor connections and all that.

Sean Weisbrot:
It sounds like a very varied system. I wasn’t aware that it was so diverse, so obviously it sounds like there’s a tremendous amount of benefit from, you know, applying to 500 startups. But what is it that 500 startups looks for in companies? Because obviously they’ve invested or you guys have invested in several thousand companies, but clearly not everybody gets investment. So, what makes the difference?

Ee Ling Lim:
When we talk about building ecosystems, there are six levers that we can think about. So, they range from, you know, education to networks and connections to capital, governments, corporates and all that. So, there’s six levers. In the past we used to play really only the capital part. And then education for the accelerator program. Now over the years we’ve started refining that a little bit more, which means that we’ve now opened up the opportunities to more startups to be educated and to form connections through our programs, even if they are not in an investee company or 500 startups itself. So, I do want to kind of draw that distinction, that you don’t have to be a portfolio company in order to get educated by us. And similarly, not all of the startups that go through our programs get funded as well, just because of the different maturity level.

But if you ask me what really ties it all together, and how do we think of the startups that we emit into our programs or, you know, are invested into by us? Right. We still rely on a common called the 60s. So, when we talk about the 60s, we look at trend traction. Total addressable market technology team. And then lastly for investments we look at the terms as well. But these five key teams right outside of the terms is something that we look at and analyze for every single startup that we encounter, whether or not we’re evaluating them for an early-stage program or market expansion and globalization program or for investment, because we do see that, you know, ultimately, these are all really, really important factors. And so, we stick to those.

So, to answer your question, we look at t why is this the right founder to solve this problem. Is this the right trend. Is it going into the direction or in the direction that we believe the global market is going to? What does this startup actually have? The technology that is unique, differentiated and defensible, right. Is the total addressable market, whether or not current or prospective large enough? And does it make sense for us?

Sean Weisbrot:
I was just writing those down. Those are all fantastic things to be looking at. I applied for something with 500 startups and I was turned down. I’m not going to hold that against you. It’s definitely something that’s helpful in the case that I want to apply again. So how can people apply for 500 startups? You say there’s so many different programs. Where do they begin with all of these different options available to them?

Ee Ling Lim:
Yeah, I think the most well-known program that we have is, as is, of course, the seed accelerator program that’s in San Francisco. So that one is currently on a rolling basis, not on a cohort basis. So, you can actually go ahead to our website and apply anytime. And we review all these applications on a rolling basis itself. As for country by country, then there are times where we open up applications. For example, one of our longest-standing program is in Asia. It’s actually in Japan, with the city of Kobe. So, we’ve run five cohorts so far, so in the past five years, and we will continue running that program this year. So how do you get notified of all these programs? I think the easiest way is definitely to subscribe to our newsletter to follow our social media. Anytime that we have a call for application for any one of our programs is always publicized in that manner.

Sean Weisbrot:
So, when someone applies for these programs, do they have to pay for a fee? Because you said that not everybody gets an investment, but that doesn’t stop them from being able to take part in the program. So, are they being charged for this program? And then if you invest, the fee goes away, you get reimbursed. Like what does that look like?

Ee Ling Lim:
For the C accelerator program. That’s one where they do get investment. After the program itself, there is a fee, but that fee comes out of the investment amount so you can pay it after you get the investment. Right. But for some of our other programs, again, they vary because we work with individual partners for almost all of all these programs. So, thanks. For example, with the city of Kobe. The city of Kobe is our official partner. So, meaning they are the ones who are sponsoring the program, and hence startups who get admitted to the program do not have to pay a fee. Now, there are other programs, however, where there is a, I would say core payment schedule. So, it’s funded partly by our partner who could be a government agency, but the startup might have to pay a fee as well to be part of the program. It’s also a way for us to actually distinguish between startups who are really interested and committed to the program, rather than really just joining programs after programs. And quite honestly, there’s a lot of startups who do that in this part of the world.

Sean Weisbrot:
What’s the best part of working with startups?

Ee Ling Lim:
Oh, definitely the founders. So, I came from investment banking, and I think when I left IB, it was really because there was a push factor as well as the pull factor. Right. But that factor was that I was starting to work with founders who were fundraising at the time. And I think the sheer drive energy, the sheer desire to create impact and change that I saw in all these founders, there was a spark. And I think that was that spark that I needed at that point in my life.

And I’m glad to say that, you know, after all these years, I still see that in founders that I come across while a lot of founders and a lot of startups get a lot of flak for being, you know, me, two startups, I think that’s one that I’m hearing quite a lot these days. People are always asking me, you know, and this could be corporates as well as governments, right? Our partners. And they asked me when will we see more unique startups? We see a lot of meta startups in this part of the world. They’re seeing what works in the US and just trying to create something similar here.

But when I work, especially with the younger founders and actually a lot of the existing founders that we work with, they are all driven by really wanting to disrupt the status quo, create change. And I think that’s something that’s really unique to Asia, because the problems that we see here, in fact, even in Asia, is a huge generalization, right? The problems that you see in Indonesia, the problems that you see in Singapore, the problems that you see in Philippines or in Korea, they are all different. The market is different, the users is different, the habits, everything is different.

So, founders that we come across here are actually really solving and looking to solve problems that are unique to their markets itself. And a lot of them come from a place where they’ve seen how the existing solutions does not solve what people need. It does not really impact lives, and they want to create that change. And of course, you know, some of my passion, I guess areas of interest would be healthcare in particular area and food tech is another one and education as well. And just being able to interact with all these founders who are trying to change the status quo and create impact in these fields, I think that’s what keeps me going.

Sean Weisbrot:
So, what is the hardest part of working with these startups?

Ee Ling Lim:
Where it takes the most of our efforts and time is making sure that we are aligned in terms of expectations coming out of a program. There are I mean, founders, again, are all varied, and they come in for various reasons. Some come in because they want to be introduced to investors, some are in because they really want to learn from the ground up, something that they know everything already. And there’s there couldn’t be possibly anything that we can’t we have to teach them. But some are really open to accepting that you’re just at the start of their journey.

So again, every founder is different. Every startup’s need is different. For us, the biggest challenge would be learning each founder and each startup’s need and key outcome that they want to take off the program and seeing then how can we best support them again. You know, when we run a program with 20 startups, it’s just not possible for us to tailor to every single founder and startup’s needs. We try our best, but there’s always going to be areas in which I guess we fall a little bit short, or there are areas of improvement and we take that into consideration for the next round. But I would say if there’s anything that my program managers would say, it would be getting founders’ feedback and making sure founder’s satisfaction is high.

Sean Weisbrot:
I think it should be easy to get good feedback from founders because if they’re intelligent enough to be a founder of a company, they should be self-aware enough to understand what they got and what they didn’t get out of the program that they assumed or wished, you know, or expected they would. At least I know for myself when I when I go through something like that, I know very quickly what I like and don’t like, and I have no problem saying it out loud, especially in Southeast Asia. My experience has been specifically that people are it’s hard for them to say out loud what they’re feeling because of the culture. So how do you deal with that?

Ee Ling Lim:
If you have any advice on how we can deal with that better, please feel free to share as well. But you are right and that with a lot of the founders, we do sometimes struggle to get feedback and more importantly, timely feedback because the last thing we want is to actually do a program for eight weeks to 12 weeks, and only on the very last day, you tell us areas in which you felt we could have done better on, or what you wish more out of this program. We want to be able to get feedback on the timely manner so that we can iterate very quickly and adjust the program accordingly. And we do always try and do that.

So in between, I think the best way that we found so far was really just for our program managers to develop and create that bond with the founders, that trusted relationship with them, such that she or he can get that timely feedback. We also sometimes I think in certain countries in Asia where, you know, it is understood that formal feedback is expected, that also helps create that cadence in having the founders, you know, feel that they are forced to give us feedback. But in that method, we do get feedback. But I would say so. Trust first. And if trust still doesn’t work, the other one is just formality.

Sean Weisbrot:
I don’t know much about how your programs work, but I assume you have specific modules. If it’s like you say, like 8 to 12 weeks or maybe like each week is a different module, something like that?

Ee Ling Lim:
That’s right. All our programs are also designed differently. So really depends on the maturity of the startups. That program is particularly targeted at the design, slightly different. But generally, you know, week one could be sales acceleration method which could be fundraising and legal.

Sean Weisbrot:
So, I would say when a module ends, get feedback about that module before the next one begins.

Ee Ling Lim:
That’s something that we do now as well. In particular, we also get feedback from the founders on whether. What are the lessons to intensive for more mature startups? For example, they still have to juggle with their day-to-day operations. So especially for our Globalization Market Access program, right? You know, I think this was most startling last year when we had founders from Italy, from Poland, they were here in Singapore. And so, when the formal classes ended at 3 p.m., they started in their home country. And so, they were just sleeping three hours a day between all those classes and working with their home team. Right. And so based on that feedback, we then adjusted their schedules a little bit for the next batch.

Sean Weisbrot:
So, what’s the best startup idea you’ve ever been pitched?

Ee Ling Lim:
The ones that we felt are pretty fascinating at the moment would be in the and this is personal to me, right? Would be in the agritech space, agri and food tech space. So, I don’t think we’ve seen enough of those coming out yet. But there are more and more solutions that’s emerging around that really emerges, I think sensors. So, for example, right. How do you feed fishes and shrimps better, using sensors to release the feed so that you reduce wastage, you reduce costs and inefficiencies, and at the same time be able to monitor that quality of the pond as well as your fish. And at the same time, apart from just having an IoT smart feeder sensor kind of thing, you also provide the farmers itself with a direct pathway to new customers. So that whole end-to-end platform, right, providing the farmers with funding, cash flow management, plus making their operations more efficient, plus providing them with a sales and distribution platform. I think that’s one that I generally am quite interested in seeing.

The second one is we’ve been seeing a lot in the mental health space. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve come across any that has stood out as a cure-all. And also, because mental health is also a very wide space, right? You have mental health for kids, for youth, for adults, for the elderly. You have therapy sessions versus, you know, self-diagnosis. And it’s just a very varied and cluttered space at the moment. But I’m pretty hopeful of seeing something that actually works, because I do think that that’s an area which requires development and which requires a good solution at that.

The other thing would be, I would say education, the future of work. We are still also really excited to see the developments that will come. I say we, but really it’s me, you know, but the developments that could come out in education as well as in the future of work, something that’s co-designed with students of today, the workers of tomorrow, something that’s not just designed by adults but for the students. Right. You know, in that itself, if I were to pinpoint what exactly in education I would talk about, personalized learning is one, but the second one is actually effective education. So how do we help the youngsters actually identify and understand themselves better and also learn how to communicate as well?

Sean Weisbrot:
Those are all really interesting things. I look at the American education system and I’m quite concerned about the future generations because. The public education system in America is horrible, let’s put it that way. So, I believe the future of education will probably not lie in the hands of governments. In order to ensure that future generations are actually capable of being ready for the world. For example, I don’t want to take too much time on this, but I’ll just kind of say a few things. I believe very strongly that children should be educated in financial literacy. I think they should be educated in empathy and emotional intelligence. They should be educated in how to understand the value of themselves, right, self-worth and the value of others, and how you can build relationships with people and how you can develop companies. I think, like especially America really fails at this, where if the whole goal is to be a capitalist society, where the economy is fueled by innovation. But if you teach all of the children to be factory workers, right?

The American education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution and hasn’t been updated yet. So, everyone is still trained to be these office drones or these factory drones. Well, that’s not a very good capitalist society if nobody is trained to be an entrepreneur. But if everybody is trained to be an entrepreneur, some people can decide whether or not they don’t want to be an entrepreneur, and they can work for other people, and that’s fine. But I think education has a long way to go. Speaking of future of work, so what is the worst kind of ideas you guys have seen?

Ee Ling Lim:
Again, this is going to be a bit of a general answer, right? Because we do see thousands of pitch decks coming our way. Um, so of course, a lot of times it’s really just decks that haven’t been thought through. I think there is a false belief and perception to date that you can still come to your VC with a pure idea without having tested the market. So, anyone who comes to us, I think without a clear and I say this also from the point of view of, let’s say, applicants that we’ve gotten for our programs as well. So not just for investments, but for programs too and we do get projects where it’s an untested idea. It’s not even new, but there is just no market testing that’s been done yet. Sometimes there isn’t even an MVP yet. And there is still this false belief that, oh, you can get funding and you can get accepted with just an idea.

Unfortunately, with all that’s going on today, you do need to have that, you know, product-market fit validation before you actually come and apply for either program or funding. Unless of course, you are someone who’s done multiple exits, then that’s a different story. But for someone who’s new, I think that’s one thing. The other thing is really just unfortunately, a lot of new to startups, right? Startups that just have no USP at all. So, if you’re coming again with an Uber for X, Y, and Z and we hear a lot of those, right? But without a clear value proposition and differentiating factor, that’s going to be hard for us to put through.

Sean Weisbrot:
So, what is something you wish you could change about startups in the investment world as they are today?

Ee Ling Lim:
I would say not so much about startups, but I would say about founders. So, I often judge and mentor at some of these events, right? Whether it is incubator events or demo days and whatnot, and it still surprises me to this day that there are a lot of founders who built without ever speaking to their end user, and I think that has to do with fear. We are inherently really afraid of speaking to people and getting feedback, so we dupe ourselves into thinking that everyone else is like us. And if we face this problem, we think this is a great solution. The world must think so too, and we would rather bury our heads down and just keep building at it and perfecting that, you know, that landing page and whatnot, or that app and tweaking the color of the phone or the button, right, without speaking to the users itself. It’s just really fear.

So oftentimes when I speak to all those founders, I asked them if they’ve actually tested this, have they gotten feedback from their perspective users. And it’s still astonishing how often the answer is no. And I think answering no is okay. But what perplexes me a little bit more and concerns me more is that when they say no and I say, well, you should. And they’re like, oh, but I think that they would want this answer. I don’t want to know what you think. You are not the end user. I want to know what your users think. And they still try and defend it. And I think that has to change. So, whether or not it’s due to our upbringing, our education or whatever it is that’s causing that fear, or speaking to people and getting that real, honest feedback and answer that has to change.

Sean Weisbrot:
I think the problem in that regard, with a lot of people, maybe especially in Asia again, is like they are not allowed to socialize, they are not allowed to date in their teenage years like Americans are. There’s just a tremendous amount of social engagement that they’re missing that prevents them, as adults from feeling comfortable talking to strangers, whether they’re male or female. And I think that may be part of it. I could be wrong, but thankfully I don’t have that problem. I love talking to strangers.

Ee Ling Lim:
Yeah, it’s funny because in my startup, we actually make these kids go out on the road and speak to people as well. So, before they come up with that solution, they need to first stand by the roadside and approach people and ask for those feedback. And I’ve taken lots of videos of all these kids and they’re just like, oh, analyzing if this adult is someone who’s going to answer them. And oftentimes they fear rejection, right? So even before sending them out into the streets, I would tell them that you need to speak to at least ten people. Nine would say, no, they don’t want to be interviewed. And hopefully one will say yes, right? And that’s just statistically what to expect. And honestly, only after I tell them that are they a little bit more confident, and then they probably come back and tell me that you’re right. We approached ten and while only 1 or 2 said, okay.
Sean Weisbrot:
Do you think that you’re possibly creating confirmation bias in the eyes of the kids by telling them that there’s a high chance that people are going to say, no, I understand that you’re trying to tell them, like, don’t worry about it. If people reject you, like, forget it, it doesn’t matter. But what if? You told them 1 in 2 people actually will say yes. Then they go in expecting that these people are going to say yes. Then maybe they ask ten and now they’ve got five responses instead of only one.

Ee Ling Lim:
That’s possible. I’m going to try that next time. Thanks for the advice.

Sean Weisbrot:
And definitely let me know. So, when are you going to try that?

Ee Ling Lim:
Next June.

Sean Weisbrot:
Okay, well let me know in June. I’m really curious to know because you know, I studied psychology. So, confirmation bias is a very potent problem in experiments. And so, this would be a really cool way for me to see if you can change the confirmation bias in your own students. How is investment changing in Southeast Asia at a high level?

Ee Ling Lim:
I think if we look at it from two points of view, right, I would say one being the availability of funds and the areas of interest. And then the second is maybe the ways in which deals are being done. So, in terms of the let me answer the easy one first, right? I think a lot of questions that came out last year was our funds still deploying cash? Are they still making investments or has it been hampered by, you know, Covid 19 itself? I think my answer is it differs from fund to fund more and more. I do see a lot of PE funds, a lot of VCs. I have friends in the industry and they’ve also shared the same thing, which is that people are getting more comfortable doing deals without necessarily making, you know, site visits and everything. That being said, will it change later on when travel resumes? It might, because there’s still a high degree of trust that people get from seeing a founder and seeing the operations firsthand. Right?

So even if you are not being able to travel, if you have a local team there who can help you do the local deed, that’s still going to be helpful. But I do know of some funds who insist on having to meet the founders in person before I ever signed a term sheet, so I think that’s really very fund by fund. In terms of the industry itself, I would say that maybe for 500, there are a couple of sectors that we are a bit more excited about going into 2021, just to set the context. We’ve always been sector agnostic, right? So, across all our global funds and my new we have global funds and we also have thematic funds. So, funds that are focusing on specific geographic region. So, for example we have the 500 durians that is located in Singapore and Malaysia. We have 500 in Vietnam, we have 500 in Thailand. We have 500 in on the global level and in Korea. So, all the fund mandates and their areas of interest could differ slightly. But I will say that this year itself, what are some of the areas that we are particularly interested in future of work in jobs. Right. Productivity. Those are definitely areas of interest. Anything that has to do with food agri, it’s also something of interest education as well. We do have quite a couple of big investments in notable education companies, so that’s going to be expected to continue on this year.

Another area of focus for us, and I think this one also ties into your question about what’s changing, which is sustainability, or rather, the whole ESG notion. So last year, in 2020, we took the opportunity to really build up our ESG policy and not just build it up, but be sure that we include all those frameworks into the ways that we look at investments, as well as the ways that we look at startups who are coming into our program. So, with that, we’ve also started helping our portfolio companies assess their own adherence to the ESG policy as well. We started preparing an ESG report, too, and I think this is something that’s definitely going to continue on. And this is something that I see a lot more firms and funds doing this year.

Sean Weisbrot:
Sorry. What exactly is ESG mean?

Ee Ling Lim:
That’s environmental, social and governance.

Sean Weisbrot:
So, will this report be available for free or will people have to pay to access it?

Ee Ling Lim:
So, for this stuff, I think this isn’t something that’s made publicly available because it is our report that reflects, you know, our portfolio companies and all that. But we use it as an internal tracker to see where we share companies that require certain assistance or certain policies to change. Every firm that has an ESG policy would have their own methods of tracking and really their own requirements, because as of right now, there isn’t a standardized policy globally. So, every fund and every firm kind of decides on their own where their standards lie and what do they want to keep hearings to.

Sean Weisbrot:
It’s a shame that this would be an internal report, because the fact that you guys have so much power around the world, it seems to me like it would be a very valuable report for people to have access to for, I guess, to understand for themselves what’s going on and how things are changing.

Ee Ling Lim:
We might consider doing a public version, you know, one that’s more sanitized in terms of information.

Sean Weisbrot:
I would have no problem with that. I mean, I obviously you guys have to keep some of the things to yourself. So, you just talked about like how things have changed in the last year or two. So, what it kind of looks like right now. But what is five years or ten years later, like, how do you think the world will be different in terms of investing in people, starting companies?

Ee Ling Lim:
5 to 10 years down? I think really in Asia Pacific, because we are, you know, I think indisputably behind the US in terms of just maturity. So as of right now, China excluded. Right? I mean, China is obviously growing really rapidly. But when I talk about China itself, I think every single country is still pretty focused on how do I create the next unicorn for some, how do I create the next centaurs? You’re not even at unicorn levels, next center. So, I think in the next 5 to 10 years, we are definitely going to see a larger proportion of the unicorns globally coming out of Asia Pacific. I have no doubts about that.

In terms of the ecosystem itself. I also do think that we are really nascent in terms of ecosystems as a whole. Again, what does ecosystem comprise of is not just startups and funding, but it also needs to have the involvement of the governments as well as the corporates in it. I mean, part of the startup’s business model is B2B. In fact, a lot of the unicorns that we have are the ones that we call slipper hits, actually. So not the obvious winners, but a lot of the slipper unicorns that we have are actually B2B businesses, SaaS businesses. So, this company is actually rely a lot on corporates who are ready to innovate, to take them up on all these new solutions, without corporates being open to whether it’s internal innovation or external partnerships with startups, the ecosystem is going to hit a ceiling. And so I feel that in the next 5 to 10 years, what we’re going to have to see, and I’m hopeful that it will happen, is we’re going to see more corporates be going heads first and being committed to actually partnering with startups to really review and change their internal procurement policies such that, you know, whenever they need a tech solution, they are not just going to an IBM or Cisco, but rather have the comfort of working with a startup and take on that solution and really adopting that mindset.

We’ve also been working with a couple of corporations in Asia Pacific, where they are also taking on entrepreneurship training. So, bearing in mind that this goes beyond your hackathons, right? And idea generation, but actually having this pool of employees come together and be trained to think like entrepreneurs, be trained to take their products out to the market, validated as their users, while people are not buying it and whatnot, and create that mindset. I feel that in the next 5 to 10 years, more and more corporates are going to be open to that. More and more governments are also going to be increasingly seeing entrepreneurship as a way to create jobs and to boost the economy.

A lot of governments and foundations are always asking us, what is the value that I can derive out of thinking and investment into growing this ecosystem? Sure, ecosystem sounds like a really nice word, but what’s the tangible outcome that I can take out of it, right? Can it create jobs? How many jobs will it create? Can I attract new funding into my country? What does that dollar value look like? And we spend a lot of time educating them and convincing them that this is a long-term game, right? It wasn’t built over one year or even three years. This requires at least ten years to mature, and you need to be able to plant that seed right now in order to reap the benefits in ten years. Right. And I hope that more and more governments are going to be able to take that long-term view. Of course, it’s always tough because you have all this like, you know, elections and parties and power that comes into play. And that’s always going to be a, I guess, a box that we have to play within. But I am hopeful that more corporates and governments are seeing the light.

Sean Weisbrot:
I also think that way. I also hope that governments take investment in local ecosystems more seriously. I first saw China doing this. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by it because America doesn’t normally do it. And I’ve talked about this in previous episodes, so I don’t want to say it again further than in the US. It’s quite obvious people make money privately. They then invested in private companies. Those companies go public and they exit and make money. But in China, the government invests in companies. Those companies go public, the government makes a bunch of money and they invest more of that money in more companies. So, I think a lot of countries would benefit. By doing such a thing.

So, what’s something I haven’t asked you yet that you wished I would ask?

Ee Ling Lim:
Ask me about youth education. So, as you know, I run a startup educating kids with a skill set, mindset and heart-set for the future. So, that covers everything from financial literacy to design thinking and entrepreneurship as well as, you know, mindfulness and purpose finding. I think what really excites me about that is that I’m seeing the next generation of entrepreneurs who care about impact. They care about the environment, they care about inequality. And not just because ESG is a trend word or sustainability is an in-trend word, but rather because they know that that’s the future of the world that they are inheriting and that they have to change. And so, with all these young founders, I’m definitely hoping to do so also as part of this ecosystem as well. I think what I’m really excited to see is that again, in the next 5 to 10 years, there will be more founders in this part of the world who’s been there, done that, had multiple exits and are now looking to pay it forward and to educate that next generation to help the next generation. We see a lot of amazing founders come out of the US. We are still trying to build that network of, you know, equal, I guess, experience out here in Asia Pacific. There are a lot of really good founders who have come back. But I think we’re still again looking at many, many more years of growth of founders who’ve been there, done that, and are ready to pay it forward.

Sean Weisbrot:
So, when they come to learn from you, are you signing long-term agreements with them that if they start a company and get funding from 500 startups, that you get a commission or you get part of the equity of their company?

Ee Ling Lim:
No. Not yet. I wish that there is a fan who is actually interested in investing in young kids at the moment. I don’t think there really is any in Asia Pacific. There’s probably 1 or 2 in the US, but none in APAC. So right now, as a lot of people who define youth, they define youth as college, 16 years old and above all, generally university students. So, I think what’s a bit saddening is that even as we talk about governments, right. And corporates, who’s looking to, you know, invest in or contribute to education, the time horizon that people are looking at tends to be really short. They look at university students because that’s when people go into the workforce. You know, you want all these universities to have the right digital skills so you can hire them so that they can quickly create economic impact. Right? But whereas you have this group of 12 to 16-year-olds when they are at the most critical formative years, and honestly, think about how much knowledge and experience these kids can gather. If at 14 years old, they started creating their first startup.

By the time they’re training one they’re a serial entrepreneur. And that’s great, right? They succeed, great, they fail, and they’ve tried multiple times. Even better. That’s the kind of talent that I think you want to invest in and grow. As of right now, not many firms are doing that. So, what I do at Smarter Me is pure education. I measure success by the number of kids who felt that this was an opportunity they’ve gotten that they would not have gotten in their normal schooling life. I measure success by the number of students who actually continue trying and building new startups and coming up with new ideas. Some of my students have gone on to form their own entrepreneurship clubs at school, gone on to form their own, you know, Young Founders Summit in the Philippines. I think those to me, it’s really part of building the ecosystem.

Sean Weisbrot:
Cool. Well, maybe I’ll- I will definitely keep that in mind when I start to think about how I’m going to use the money I’m making from sidekick. In a few years, maybe I’ll invest in 12 to 16-year-olds only. So how can people follow up with you?

Ee Ling Lim:
You can find me on LinkedIn. My name is Ee Ling Lim. Tell me you heard me on Sean’s podcast and I will gladly accept the invite. Otherwise, my website is called Smarter Me.sg. You can also search out the courses that we do there. Or 500.co, that’s another way to follow up with 500 startups.

Sean Weisbrot:
All right. Great. Thanks. It was really nice talking with you. I’m really glad that we finally got a chance to do this. So, if you like this episode, definitely reach out to Ee Ling and learn more about what she’s doing in Singapore. Oh, don’t forget to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people to find us. And don’t forget that entrepreneurship is a marathon. So, take care of yourself every day. And don’t forget, if you have kids, don’t leave them behind. If you have a business, share what you’re doing with them so you can make them feel included in your life and maybe inspire them to start their own company. Thank you, Ee Ling.

Ee Ling Lim:
Thank you, Sean. I love that closing of yours.