Navigating through Covid-19 was challenging for many young startup entrepreneurs, who had never experienced an economic downturn before.
Billy Naveed, Chief Strategy Officer at Smile Group, was a banker for twenty years before joining the tech space. Being familiar with the cyclical nature of the economy and world events, the pandemic that hit the world in 2020 was new to Billy and his team. Yet the team’s experience in handling crises was nothing new for them.
Smile Group is one of the region’s leading venture builders and investors and as a result works closely with a wide range of founders, both in Asia as well as the US. The pandemic meant that he has step up in his leadership role, to counsel many of the other leaders and partners through these unprecedented times.
“Making sure founders prioritise the wellbeing of their staff and customers was key. As a leader or an investor you need to put aside financial targets, P&Ls and KPIs for a while and give founders breathing room to do what is right for the company and it’s employees” says Naveed.
Smile has been building and investing in tech companies in South Asia since 1999. Some of its venture capital partners include SpaceX, Carsome and Animoca Brands. Headquartered in Singapore, it invests in growth companies with a focus on consumer, software-as-a-service, and Web3.
Naveed talks to Greater about guiding entrepreneurs through the ups-and-downs of the startup journey.
What are your roles and responsibilities within Smile?
As Chief Strategy Officer, as well as Strategy, I run all capital markets activities for the group and lead Web3 investments and partnerships.
How has Covid-19 impacted your company, and what measures did you take to rise above the crisis?
Being there no matter what for your founders was very important. Most of the young founders had never seen an economic downturn let alone anything like the pandemic. Whilst it was new for us as well, crises are not.
As an investor during Covid, we were never busier. We have helped our companies raise over $500mln, driven key partnerships with some of the largest corporates in the regions, held sessions on SPACs and public markets for our founders, taken charge of hiring senior leaders as well as counselling our companies on redundancies. There were even times that we rolled our sleeves up and spent months buying oxygen machines for India for both our companies and the wider community as waves of Covid were hitting the region. It is really moments like this that the benefit of being in a large group like ourselves really came to its own where both headquarters and portfolio companies pitched in to help each other.
What is the biggest takeaway from your experience with the pandemic?
True leaders are born during wars. The types of leaders that sacrifice everything for their company engender loyalty with their employees that will last a lifetime. That is the actual test of culture, not free food and yoga at lunch. Culture is tested and forged during battles.
A leader can take their business to new heights. What do you think makes a great leader?
A great leader’s qualities change as startups scale. For later-stage growth companies, a great leader has the humility to know their failings and can hire and fill those gaps with other great leaders.
At this stage of your company, you are spending as much time looking inwards to your company as anything else. You are spending your time inspiring others to be their best, removing roadblocks for success and being your team’s biggest champion.
What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career, and what have you learned from it?
In many ways I wish I had made the move into entrepreneurship earlier. I was very comfortable in banking, I loved what I did and I loved the people I did it with. Everyday I was learning from the brightest minds in finance but what I did on a daily basis lacked impact. However, it is very hard to walk away from that lifestyle and paycheck. What I missed out on was the learning opportunities. Kunal, one of our mentors at Zilingo once said that “in corporates you are measured in terms of years of experience, in a startup you measure experiences per year”. That is exactly how I felt. I was drinking from a firehouse of learning and loving every moment.
I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture, entrepreneurship is tough. It takes a special kind of a person to want to get punched in the face every day and I am still a rookie, I am still learning. But when things are going well and you can see the fruits if your hard work, its all worth it.
How do you define success?
One of the reasons I left finance was that I was told by a friend to imagine what it would say on my tombstone if I died. I remember thinking, “I don’t want my tombstone to say ‘Billy was a great banker’”. Success to me is my tombstone saying, “Billy left the world a better place than he found it.”
What are some activities you do to rally your staff in times of low morale?
We are a food-centric firm. In fact, our team’s Whatsapp group is called Lunchclub. Whether it’s local fish soup or a curry. We know the day is off to a good start when lunch is booked.
What rituals do you have to prevent burnout?
I carve out time for three things, family, friends and the gym. My 7am walk with my 7-month-old baby helps me focus on the important things in life.
Date nights with my amazing wife keep me grounded as she always puts me in my place and is my best friend and sounding board for everything going on in my life. My gym is my meditation. Spending time with my friends, whether a quick WhatsApp call or dinners on weekends, is my energy injection.
Lastly, what is a mantra or principle you live by and why is it important to you?
Always be learning. I am an insatiable consumer of information and knowledge. Whether it’s reading, listening or watching, I love learning about new things and pushing my mental envelope. I am inspired to take on new challenges to understand new things.
I also put into practice the things that I have learned. Over the years, I have coded my own blockchain, programmed my own self-driving car and written a program that can read the text on shop signs. All so I could more deeply understand the subject area I am learning about. It’s super geeky, I know, but it makes me happy.
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