We sat down with Paul Santos, Managing Partner of Wavemaker Partners. Paul led the establishment of the Singapore-headquartered Southeast Asia office in 2012. The firm has made over 118 investments across Southeast Asia with over 100 of them in enterprise and deep tech startups.
As this was the last fireside chat at Found8 of 2019, and a rare moment where someone gets to deep dive with Paul Santos, we will be covering it in two parts. We cover the fireside chat in two parts. The first part focuses on Wavemaker Partners’ journey from B2C to B2B and deep tech, and the second part goes deeper into discussions of food for thought for founders. We invite you to share this article along with your thoughts!
Paul Santos recalls a rough patch he had gone through. He was raised in the Philippines and started his career in consumer products at Procter & Gamble. Four years later, he decided to quit and start his own company. A week later, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis hit. “Those were character-building times,” Paul chuckles.
Thankfully things turned out well. Paul eventually founded six companies across multiple industries and exited three of them. A conversation with his long-time friend and Founding Partner of Wavemaker Partners in the US, Eric Manlunas, led Paul to start the Southeast Asia office to kick off investing in startups. Their first investment was in cosmetics ecommerce startup Luxola.
An unorthodox deal that became Exit of the Year
VCs had raised their eyebrows at Luxola in its earlier stages. On paper, Luxola was built by a solo-female-founder doing ecommerce in a small market like Singapore, and only using technology built by an outsourced development shop.
But the startup caught Paul’s eye anyway.
Luxola’s acquisition by Sephora via luxury giant LVMH eventually went on to become the Singapore Venture Capital and Private Equity Association’s VC Exit of the Year.
Lessons from Luxola
What other people didn’t get was that Luxola’s founder, Alexis Horowitz-Burdick, possessed strong industry insights.
She had worked with large beauty companies who were excited, but terrified of ecommerce.
Their wariness came from the fear of selling through commerce platforms that were also distributing black- and grey-market products. Seeming to endorse, or even just merely associating with an ecommerce site that allowed parallel imports destroyed a brand’s reputation and relationships with local distributors.
As Luxola was new to the market, Alexis started off by bringing unique brands that were not in the region. This branded Luxola uniquely and gave the ecommerce website its credibility and a competitive advantage.
Another insight that she acted on was customer experience. Customers that were ordering online loved free next day delivery. So, Alexis had a driver on her payroll. This allowed for next day island-wide delivery - by a real person, and helped to build trust and created what Santos refers to as, “fresh addictive delight”. Half of Alexis’ customers repurchased a second time. And 80% repurchased a third time. They were hooked.
Remember how Luxola’s platform had been outsourced to the development shop? Paul reveals that the person who built the platform eventually joined Alexis as her CTO. The platform scaled with the business and continued to be used even after the acquisition.
“If a founder can see things others don’t see, then it makes the solution stronger and the problem simpler,” says Paul.
Don’t take things on face value.
Dig deeper when you find something really interesting.
The industry insights that Alexis brought to the table led Luxola to win.
Focusing on B2B
Investing in Luxola made it apparent how difficult consumer investing was. The competitive consumer market and resultantly low margins require deep pockets. Thus, Wavemaker Partners started to focus on startups in the enterprise and deep tech space.
At the early stage, investing isn’t about financial projections but about the founders. Their industry insights matter: the more unique and compelling it is, the more interesting the startup becomes.
B2B founders tend to be more mature since they’ve had work experience. This means they know the enterprise problem they want to solve and have the connections to make solutions happen. Nearly 90% of founders in the Wavemaker portfolio are 30 and above. With these insights and experience the founders are better at navigating their business. Enterprise startups tend to boast higher gross margins as well.
At over a hundred investments, Paul narrows his investment thesis down: enterprise and deep tech founders need to be significantly better than competition constantly. “Change management is already difficult — so if you aren’t 10x better than the enterprise’s current solution, why should they switch?” he asks. The upside is high though. Once enterprises pick and switch to a solution, they’re more likely to stay due to the inertia in moving to another solution.
In part 2 of this series, we’ll delve into some tips for early-stage founders thinking about refining their pitch to a VC and challenging some beliefs.
About Wavemaker Partners
Wavemaker Partners is an early-stage venture capital firm that was founded in 2003 with offices in Los Angeles and Singapore. To approach Wavemaker Partners’ SEA office for investment opportunities, please learn more at wavemaker.vc/sea.