Q&A with PETER HUYNH

Peter Huynh

I am helping to break ground for Asian Australians in venture capital.

Peter Huynh is a co-founder and Partner of Qualgro, a venture capital firm that invests in B2B startups in Southeast Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand. Huynh has over 15 years of experience in capital investment and business development. Prior to Qualgro, he was a co-founder of Optus-Innov8 and was Director at Singtel Innov8, a corporate VC fund. Huynh is also an investor and mentor at Startmate, Australia’s most successful accelerator program. This is his story.

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AP: Hi Peter, let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell us about your family background?

PH: My family arrived in Sydney from Vietnam in December of 1977. My dad was a doctor in Vietnam but when we arrived in Australia, he had to repeat his medical degree at the University of Sydney. We couldn’t actually afford to live in Sydney with him at that time, so he lived with a number of other students in a shared accommodation. The rest of the family lived in Wollongong, which is a beautiful beach-side town about 1 hour from Sydney and we lived with my uncles and aunts. There were ten of us in a two-bedroom flat. My uncles used to work for the steelworks, shovelling large amounts of coal into heat furnaces. It’s a very tough gig.

AP: What were your family’s economic circumstances?

PH: We were relatively poor while I was growing up. My mum used to sew until my dad was able to complete his medical degree. My dad had to learn English in order to study medicine. He knew little English back then because the university he went to in Vietnam taught in French, so he knew a lot of French. Dad used to learn and practise his English by recording the radio and playing it back and forth and looking up words in the dictionary.

AP: What was your dream when you were younger?

PH: When I was in high school, my parents wanted me to be a doctor, I think they knew pretty early on that I wasn’t going to be one. I was actually really awkward in high school, and I went to an agricultural high school. Things got better towards the end of senior high school. I did the typical subjects like Maths, Physics, Chemistry. I did fairly well in English, and I still love English!

In hindsight, I was fortunate to find friends that really helped me to mature, I was still really, really awkward when college started. If I wanted to escape emotionally or physically, I would read books to escape into a different world. I had a really awkward adolescent period and towards the end of that, spending time with a great group of friends really helped me to mature. Once I matured as a person, my studies started to mature too and things started to click and I really started to enjoy my learning. I used to really really love English, you have to really love it to excel in it because it’s a lot of work and very little reward.

AP: What was your first job? 

PH: I started working when I was in year 9, my first job was working in my uncle’s photo lab. I used to give out the photographs which used to be in envelopes clicked from the film reels, and I’d have a black box to do it in. Then I started to learn how to do printing, which was really cool as I learnt how to balance lights and colours. Back then, there were no only brands like Kodak and Fuji. I did that job on weekends and during school holidays, all the way through the rest of high school. I remember saving up my earnings in order to buy a Gameboy. It was the first thing I bought, but I was happy that I can buy things without having to ask anybody.

As I got older I had to do Santa photos for a few years. I wasn’t the Santa but I used to take the Santa photos during Christmas time. It sounds cool but you’d be surprised how aggressive parents can get! I can’t control when a baby smiles or look at the camera. There were a lot of bad experiences with parents not being happy with their Santa photos so that was my worst job! Imagine a long line of people, they’re all tired because it’s hot in Australia during Christmas and all they wanted was to make sure they get their perfect Santa photos.

AP: Tell us about the early days of your career.

PH: I had some great exposure working with startups when I was at Hutchison Group. It was the early days of some big startup’s today – for example, and I got to do some work with Facebook’s mobile team when there were only a few people on that team. I got exposed to this “startup” way of working where the meetings were like 5 minutes long and that’s it. And they’d say let’s just MVP this, and I was like what’s MVP? So I just got hooked to this way of doing things which were a quick problem-solving methodology: build, test and learn. I got addicted to this way of building products, which was completely different from what I was used to in a corporate life.

Ever since then, I have been wanting to be more involved in the startup space and I figured given my skill set and experience, I felt I could contribute through investing and business development. When I came back to Australia in 2011 to start work with Singtel Group, there was nothing happening in the start-up space in Australia, I remember working with the folks who organized the very first Startup Weekend at York Butter Factory in Melbourne, in November of 2011, and we were the only sponsors in that event and it was very highly spoken of, the spirit that was there.  

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It’s really just about the spirit of doing something new and pioneering that other folks are not exposed to. They’ll need to know about it in the future that this is how businesses are to be done. It took me a lot of learning, mostly from the US at that time. I took all those learnings in the US and applied that in Australia. There were also folks much earlier than me doing a bunch of stuff in the ecosystem and still doing it today.  Phil Morle (now Partner at Main Sequence Ventures) and the other startup organizers have contributed so much to make the Australian tech ecosystem grow from where it was to what it is today. It is incredible to see so many co-working spaces and events every day and so much sharing. There is an industry now. It’s wonderful to be a part of that journey, it’s incredible. 

“It’s really just about the spirit of doing something new and pioneering that other folks are not exposed to and they’ll need to know about it in the future that this is how businesses are to be done.”

AP: How balanced is your life? And how do you motivate yourself during times of hardship?

PH: Well, I can say that right now it’s not balanced at all. I don’t have much downtime, though I try to be specific with how I use my time because I travel so much. I’m away from home for at least two weeks of every month, sometimes it’s more. So whenever I’m home I try to be with my family, especially with my two boys as much as possible.

Apart from my mindfulness work, that’s really my downtime, and to hang around and spend time with my family. It’s a sacrifice that I feel we collectively make. I’m making this sacrifice but my wife and children are making that sacrifice too. I guess I’m really lucky to be doing what I really want to do. I feel like it’s such a privilege to be able to do this kind of work. Even though it’s not forever, and that it is painful in the short term, it is worthwhile because I get to do this really interesting work. I know that my family and immediate family are all very proud that I’m doing something a bit different.

AP: Let’s move on to the personal side of things, did you have a fork moment in your life? Or what are your learnings?

PH: One of the key learnings was I felt that I needed to voice what I think much more clearly. I grew up in a strict household and I was always quite different, and it’s just become so much a part of my nature. I think my evolution within a business has always been to be clearer in stating what I thought, what I felt, what I wanted and this benefits not just for myself but for the organization or the project that we’re working on and those sorts of things. I think it was really a continuation of being clear and feel that you have the right to be heard. Also the right to say what it is that you want to say.


What I typically do is I let folks say their piece first, ‘okay, you go, and you go, and you go‘ and then I’ll have a go and what I’ve started to do more in this last year is, ‘you know what, I’ll go first‘. Just go first. I observed in myself that it’s okay to want to go first, why not? I have just as much of a right to be heard like everybody else, I know I’m naturally deferent anyway, but that helps me in that regard. Maybe the other thing is that I learnt that the way that I saw myself may not necessarily be the way others see me. I always got the sense of being liked, it’s always nice to be liked, perhaps it is more important to be respected. If I don’t speak for the things I believe in, it’s hard to be respected. That is what I am looking to do more and more of last year and to build upon this year as well. And perhaps the last thing is that I found that I could take on more than I thought I could.

“I observed in myself that it’s okay to want to go first, why not? I have just as much of a right to be ahead like everybody else, I know I’m naturally different anyway but that helps me in that regard.
Maybe the other thing is that I learnt that the way that I saw myself may not necessarily be the way others see me.”

AP: Tell us about some initiatives or businesses you were most proud of being involved.

PH: I work on a number of projects and I have the Qualgro Fund. We’re trying to become one of the most respected investors in the region, we’re really working hard towards that. I have a bunch of other projects as well, teaching mindfulness to students, the Australia-Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue and various other projects that are close to my heart such as Techfugees.

I’m really just assisting the teams that are really driving it, and they do such fantastic work. The team who drives Techfugees, the team that drives the Australia-Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue, I’m passionate about both of them. Of course, it has something to do with my background, and that is what I really, really love.

I can find time for these projects because it’s all by choice and they’re my passion. I feel that I could stretch more and more, there is space, and that space is more of a mental space rather than time per se.  I think if you have the mental space you can find the time. As I was entering the end of last year, I realized that more and more, the corollary of that is also true. That is, if you’re finding that you can’t find the time, maybe that’s when you really consider it more of a mental perspective and having a lack of mental space rather than actual time.

AP: Considering the fact that we live in the information age, what direction do you think our society is heading?

PH: Creativity is especially important in today’s tech-driven world. I think that as human beings, we have this need to express ourselves. I find that I’m expressing myself a lot through my work and my capital firm. It’s also very important to me that my children are able to create, build and express who they are. It’s a first-world luxury. Our parents did not have the luxury of self-actualization of expression. They were basically wanting to put food on the table so we can live and survive and hopefully thrive. Now we’ve evolved slightly beyond that and they don’t have to do their job to make it possible.

“This whole journey is a journey. Hopefully, my family and I will carry it on so we can make it possible for my children. For them to lead a life of expression, and not just work for the sake of living. I want them to be creative.” 

For them to be able to build something, whether that’s making movies, or whether that’s making music. I want them to be makers. I think it’s really important to have that mentality, that skill set, that creativity, that expression

AP: What are you working on right now?

PH: Well from a professional perspective, we were raising for our second fund. Our first VC fund was 50 million USD, and now our second fund is 100 million USD and we have started to invest from that second fund, in fact, we recently made our first investments from our second fund. It was a very challenging year from a professional perspective, as you can imagine when you’re in this space, everything kind of layers upon itself.

For our first fund, we made 19 investments. While you’re raising for your next fund, you’re also supporting and working with founders and portfolio companies from the existing fund. It’s typically the busiest period for a VC fund (between 1st and 2nd fund). You’ve got all those portfolio companies you want to help and support. You’ve got new investments you want to make, and you’re raising capital at the same time but you haven’t brought that capital in yet, so you haven’t made the hires that you would need to make. Once you have raised that fund, there’s a period where you’ve just got everything all happening at the same time, it’s just layering upon itself. And it becomes a really, really busy time, so 2018 has been a very busy year for me.

Now that we finally have our new starters, it’s really important for me and our team to make sure that from a cultural perspective that the new team members really embrace our values and the sort of culture we have. A lot of my thinking and focus for the next few months is built around that so some of the things that we do, are to run little team briefing sections to share learnings that we have had, simulations like here’s the business situation and here’s the decision that we have made so they can get the sense of that, of business ethics and how we do things, so that’s a big focus for me this year.

The other thing that we’re starting to do is investing in Europe, in addition to Asia, Australia and New Zealand. We have team members heading to Europe over the next few weeks, so we have a bunch of planning around that, reaching out and building our networks so that we can see some interesting startups from Europe as well. We have some great networks there, similarly to how we’re investing in Australian companies and scaling to Asia, we want to do that with some European businesses as well.  It’s an interesting scaling pathway, we’re not that fixated on typical key startup markets like the US, China or Israel. We’re thinking about places where we can add value and we’re thinking we can add value to European businesses and to those that are scaling into Asia. We’ve also had some exposure to Europe and have folks who have lived in various parts of Europe before, we have an investment committee member in Paris that is based there permanently, so we’ve got a good network there.

AP: What are the three key lessons you like to share with Asian Pioneers readers?

PH: I guess try to figure out what sort of value you have. With folks that are joining us, I am asking them to think of VC from a framework of the firm, source seeing, assessing companies and teams, you’re doing the diligence and the deals and helping the companies after the investment, you think about it that way and you need to think about the skill sets that you need to be successful in each of those stages and if you can pull all of that together, you’ve got a great chance of being successful in the business.

Take sourcing as an example — what do you like about networking, how do you build your network, how do you approach it, what do you do, how do you maintain it and keep it warm? If you’re thinking about how to assess a team, then what tools do you use, what skills do you use, what metrics do you look at and what analysis can you do? Each of these different steps in the funnel. There are some intrinsic skill sets that you need to have to be successful. Put yourself in situations as part of the work you do today, then put yourself in situations where you can build upon those skills or develop on those skills that you need to be successful later on.

Introductions are also another important thing to get right in venture capital. I found the best way to make an intro, or to have an intro is to go through somebody who already knows the other person. Double opt-in or the two sides of an intro is the best approach. For folks who don’t know, look it up and you get a sense of what the rules are. I usually don’t respond to every single cold email. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. But there are some that I do and I respond to the ones where there’s a relevance to what I’m doing and what they’re doing and I know they’ve taken the effort to find the connection, the relevance, what could be interesting on both sides. So I do respond to some cold emails. If folks say they don’t ever do that, I don’t think that’s quite right. I do respond and I know a lot of other folks in the industry respond to cold emails as well, but you have to do it right, you have to do it well, you have to find what’s relevant, what’s the connection and what’s the value on both sides for this conversation and then start from there.

AP: What do you care about at the moment?

PH: I guess try to figure out what sort of value-add you have to contribute. With folks that are joining our firm, I ask them to think of venture capitalism from a framework of the firm, like source seeing, assessing companies and teams, you’re doing the diligence and the deals and helping the companies after the investment. You think about it that way and you need to think about the skill sets that you need to be successful in each of those stages and if you can pull all of that together, you’ve got a great chance of being successful in the business.

 

Take sourcing as an example — what do you like about networking, how do you build your network, how do you approach it, what do you do, how do you maintain it and keep it warm? If you’re thinking about how to assess a team, then what tools do you use, what skills do you use, what metrics do you look at and what analysis can you do? Each of these different steps in the funnel. There are some intrinsic skill sets that you need to have to be successful. Put yourself in situations as part of the work you do today, then put yourself in situations where you can build upon those skills or develop those skills that you need to be successful later on.

Introductions are also another important thing to get right in venture capital. I found the best way to make an intro, or to have an intro is to go through somebody who already knows the other person. Double opt-in or the two sides of an intro is the best approach. For folks who don’t know, look it up and you get a sense of what the rules are. I usually don’t respond to every single cold email. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. But there are some that I do and I respond to the ones where there’s a relevance to what I’m doing and what they’re doing and I know they’ve taken the effort to find the connection, the relevance, what could be interesting on both sides.

So, I do respond to some cold emails. If folks say they don’t ever do that, I don’t think that’s quite right. I do respond and I know a lot of other folks in the industry respond to cold emails as well, but you have to do it right, you have to do it well, you have to find what’s relevant, what’s the connection and what’s the value on both sides for this conversation and then start from there.

AP: What are your favourite books? Any mindfulness ones?

PH: My mindfulness mentorship work, I do that on weekends early in the mornings – so you can find the time, it’s just whether you have the mental space to do it. I suspect that in time I may do more and more of that, not just a part of my daily work but that’s what I end up doing full time, I really love it. I love it because it has such a huge impact on the folks that I work with and I am so overjoyed when I see that, it seems to be life-changing. In general, most folks that I work with are in the startup space, whether they are founders or investors or senior members of startup teams.

There are a couple of things to it, one is around being really, really, really honest and that is hard and confronting and so helping them to have a space and build a space where they can be radically honest with themselves seems to really help because most of the time, these things stay in your head. And during you day to day your mind is at volume 11 and you kind of can’t hear what else is going on inside. So the mindfulness work that I do is about turning down the volume in your head, parking the brain and put it on the shelf for at least a little while, listening and being really mindful about what is going on in your heart. It’s a little bit like acupuncture in a way, once you start to hear it and once you start to understand it, then where the imbalance is, it almost resolves itself and so I’m helping the folks I work with, to build tools so that they can continue to do that on their own without me having to be there.

AP: What kind of future would you like to see happen? And what are you doing to make it happen?

PH: When it comes to things like mindfulness, there are plenty of books out there. I recommend from a mindfulness perspective, to do the work first, which is sitting in meditation, there are great guided meditations out there. They’re all free, you don’t have to pay for these things anymore. Then read the theory afterwards because what can happen is anticipate the things you think ought to happen or the things that should happen or might happen. Certainly, this is the approach that I have done with my mindfulness students. Sit in meditation and then let’s talk about the theory afterwards.

AP: What advice would you give to other young Asian Pioneers?

“This whole journey is a journey.”

PH: I think for me, it’s knowing who I am. I think as individuals, we understand ourselves better over time, we’ll find our voice. The more that you know yourself, the more you feel comfortable in your voice. The more you use your voice, the more comfortable you are in expressing it.

AP: It’s been a pleasure, thank you so much for your time.

 

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