At Tech in Asia, we get to speak with founders pretty much on a daily basis. There’s always an interesting story to be told – it’s not easy starting a company and it’s even harder building and scaling one.
Passion, grit, and fortitude sets these people apart – why else would they embark on a risky journey? In no particular order, here are 30 of the most inspirational stories we wrote this year.
In 1979, Thuan Pham left on a refugee boat from Vietnam, a country torn by a two-decade-long war. Through abysmal conditions and rickety boats, his family barely made it to Indonesia. An application for asylum to the US was approved, and they relocated to Maryland.
Thuan worked at a car wash station on weekends and wore donated clothes and shoes.
After graduating from MIT, the boy from Vietnam went on to work at HP Labs, Silicon Graphics, DoubleClick, and VMWare. He joined Uber in 2013, when the company was present in 60 cities and employed about 200 people. Now, he’s the CTO.
Japanese musician Hiroyuki Asahara helped build Live3, an app to get people to attend live concerts and sell tickets for events, but had to endure the loss of his co-founder and other members of his team when the cash ran out.
After going without pay for three months, existing investors came to his rescue but he stubbornly refused to splurge on even an apartment for himself.
Japanese entrepreneur Naoki Yamada was inspired to start his company after a trip to India, where he met a boy who wanted to be just like him. Despite a couple of funding rounds, his startup didn’t scale as fast as he expected, and he was forced to lay off a significant portion of his staff.
After a small pivot to the business model, Naoki’s company started to rake in cash and that’s when he got the acquisition offer.
Kenji Miki was robbed and stripped of all his cash during a bus ride from Bangkok to Phuket. He spent a few nights on the beach before figuring out his next move.
After noticing how local salespeople worked, Kenji used his language skills to snare Japanese tourists. He never looked back and eventually built PeerTours to connect tourists with locals in Japan.
Gary Lin started ad tech firm Glispa in 2008 to optimize digital advertising by making it easier for developers to acquire and engage new users.
The team recognized early that mobile traffic would be the future of advertising. It was a prescient move – the current spend on digital marketing globally is about US$100 billion.
Gary bootstrapped his way to glory – Glispa’s now in eight countries globally and employs over 250 people.
Ram Chiniarlapalla quit his job as a director at Microsoft to be an entrepreneur, but saw that people treated him differently since the move. Disheartened, and unsure of what to do next, he put his fate on the toss of a coin. The coin toss came in favor of continuing with his new path. Two years since that day, Ram’s company has 120 clients, pitches at global startup events, and aims to expand out of India to Southeast Asia.
Hu Dan, the founder and CEO of Paymax, is a Stanford alumnus and former VP of Sequoia Capital China who’s offering loans for purchases to the kinds of people in China who would not get credit through conventional channels – folks like construction workers, security guards, and store staff.
Paymax built its own ratings system, which uses some unorthodox means like analyzing an applicant’s social media posts and address book to root out fraudsters or people who are in financial trouble.
Cathy Yang is the co-founder of Lesdo, a social network that caters to China’s lesbians. The young company is up against vigilant Chinese authorities – who want to ban “vulgar, immoral, and unhealthy content” – but Cathy is unfazed.
Lesdo has produced original web dramas too. Cathy says the dramas are important to the startup both in terms of bringing in money and building community. The app allows users to chat with other nearby users.
Roy Solomon started Applause, a startup that helps developers and brands understand how their apps will be perceived by real users, after frustration with the status quo. The former product manager believed there was room to help brands build better digital experiences for users.
The team started off lean – bootstrapping from a basement – but has since raised US$115 million in funding and counts companies like Google and Amazon as clients.
Sridhar Vembu built Zoho in 2005 after recognizing the potential of cloud-based software. Now Zoho has 4,000 employees, and its products are used by 20 million people.
Some Zoho alums have gone on to build other companies – most of which are VC-funded – hence spawning an entire community in the Indian city.
Keyis Ng started his own marketing agency at the youthful age of 21, before starting a specialty coffee ecommerce platform called Cafebond.
As a young entrepreneur who was up against veteran industry players with more connections, resources, and experience, he constantly needed to prove himself to the world. His decision to make the commute every day is an effort to stay lean, hungry, and motivated.
Abdullah Saad took control of Wccftech after its founding team wanted to shut it down due to excessive cash burn. He streamlined operations, shook up team culture, and worked his ass off to make it a commercially viable entity.
Ritesh Agarwal is the founder of well-funded budget hotel startup Oyorooms. He started young, selling SIM cards as a 13-year-old. College didn’t suit him: he dropped out barely a year into the program. At 18, Ritesh was looking to replicate an Airbnb-like business.
Along with a co-founder who later departed, he launched Oravel Stays in 2012, which aggregated budget hotels and put them online. By that time, many travel agents were also getting online.
“I could see why travelers would not trust reviews and listings on a website to book in some other part of the country,” he says. The real problem was not discoverability, but the lack of predictability and standardization.
This is what he decided to change with OYO by partnering with these cheap hotels and visibly transforming the rooms.
In Udupi, where the biggest attraction is a temple and the nearest airport is over an hour’s drive away, Robosoft’s massive, circular tower is the tallest building for miles.
Its founder, Rohith Bhat, is also a bit of an anomaly. He’s not your typical small-town guy trying to escape the confines of a static environment – in fact, he’s married and settled down in the South Indian town, with a daughter and 450 employees milling around a few miles away from his home.
Robosoft’s done it all, from helping other firms adjust to Apple’s software demands in 2000 to getting hundreds of apps on to app stores.
Pawel Netreba brought the concept of real-time beauty and wellness salon booking from the US and Europe to Southeast Asia with Bfab, the startup he co-founded.
Pawel has Rocket DNA. Before building something of his own, he occupied top management posts at Foodpanda, Rocket’s online food ordering and delivery site.
While he had wanted to create his own business long before, his Rocket experience was something he would never regret.
Akshat Choudhary built BlogVault, a tool for backing up entire WordPress sites, after he saw one of his favorite blogs crash and burn due to a hardware defect.
He immediately faced competition after WordPress itself launched a similar product, but Akshat remained gritty and true to his mission. Now the entrepreneur has a stream of clients and is far more satisfied with the product.
After Saad Ehsan graduated college, he believed his professional duties would be challenging and mentally stimulating. To his horror, most of his work consisted of scraping data from various sources and plugging it into an Excel sheet.
Saad wanted to code a program that would do these tasks for him. He approached his engineer brother for help, and they got to work. They came up with AItomation, a startup that intelligently automates redundant and repetitive tasks.
Whether it’s holding down a gym in Pokemon Go, earning free rides on Uber, or helping clients gain thousands of Facebook likes, life’s a computer game for Titan Lee. His parents didn’t give him that name – Titan is a gaming handle he’s used since his youth, and it’s stuck ever since.
A digital marketer running his own consultancy, Titan uses a mix of conventional and unconventional methods to achieve whatever the goal is: getting press coverage, growing social media reach or – as he tends to do lately – acting as a crowdfunding whisperer.
He successfully ran two crowdfunding campaigns, most notably that of 3D-printing startup Pirate3D, which still holds the record for Singapore’s most successful crowdfunding campaign with US$1.43 million raised.
He also managed Singapore startup TinyMOS’ campaign for a tiny astronomy camera. It raised almost US$400,000, over three times its original goal.
Used car marketplace GoZoomo, which was only two years old but had already raised US$7 million in VC funding, shut down and decided to return the money to its investors.
The founding team of three IITians decided that the unit economics were not adding up, despite several iterations in the business model. They looked at the data objectively and took the tough decision to shut shop instead of burning VC money on an unsustainable business.
For Rakina Zata Amni, a computer science student from Indonesia, it’s a dream come true.
She spent time interning in the research and machine intelligence department at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View.
It’s already her second time at a Silicon Valley company, though she isn’t even done with university yet.
The year prior, she completed a three-month internship at Square, where she was assigned to work on a recommendation engine for a food delivery startup recently acquired by the payments company.
Rakina says the stints at Valley tech companies made her aware that she has a knack for artificial intelligence, specifically machine learning.
Luis von Ahn is the inventor of captchas and a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s also the co-founder of DuoLingo, a free language learning app with 110 million users worldwide. It’s the most downloaded app in the education category on both Google Play Store and iTunes.
Duolingo uses psychology to hook users. It has a progress bar on top which expands or shrinks depending on your performance on multiple-choice challenges. This is rigged to keep you hooked with more positive reinforcement than you’ve probably earned in the early stages.
Leading the charge for Rocket Internet in its ecommerce battles in the Middle East is Kanwal Sarfraz, co-founder of Wadi. In true Rocket Internet style, she’s a former management consultant: she worked with McKinsey in Dubai before taking up the new role.
Pakistan-born Kanwal, who got her postgraduate education from Cambridge, says she didn’t need much convincing to join Rocket.
“There’s a real opportunity, but it relies on execution,” she says.
“It’s up to us to ensure that we deliver, which makes it more of a personal challenge. Plus, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to build a company at scale and I really like the fact that we can potentially touch millions of lives.”
While it’s technically possible to order Soylent in Singapore, it’s a hassle. The US startup only ships to its native country and Canada at the moment. But alternative sustenance fans here have a, well, alternative option: one Singaporean entrepreneur decided to make and sell his own version.
That’s how Alvin Chong came up with Zoylent.
Alvin had always known he wanted to work for himself rather than going through the salary gauntlet. “You can never get rich working at a job,” he says. “Working for someone else, you function at less than half of your capacity.”
Nadeem Hussain knows a thing or two about building world-class companies.
He’s arguably one of Pakistan’s most successful entrepreneurs, starting microfinance institution Tameer Bank in the mid-2000s, acquired by Norwegian telecommunications conglomerate Telenor in March. But Nadeem’s dive into entrepreneurship isn’t your typical story of a young founder making it into the big leagues.
He spent almost three decades working for Citibank, stationed in eight different countries over the course of his career. His last assignment was in Dubai, where he enjoyed a hefty tax-free salary and numerous other perks.
The decision to start a microfinance bank was to cater to several problems he believed needed to be addressed.
For Camilo Paredes and Amanda Ernst, the decision to leave Foodpanda was a “natural progression.” The two entrepreneurs helped expand the Rocket Internet-backed online food delivery startup in Latin America but always held aspirations to start their own company.
Catering appealed to them. It involves fewer headaches as compared to trying to sell to foodies directly. Building a promising startup focused on catering for events wasn’t dependent on acquiring a critical mass of users, dealing with tricky logistical issues, or fickle consumers.
The duo came up with CaterSpot, based in Hong Kong, a marketplace that connects businesses with local catering options. There are over a thousand menus to choose from, and the startup already boasts clients like Boston Consulting Group, UBS, P&G, and Canva.
Zaki Mahomed started his first company at the age of 14, helping build websites for big brands like Pepsi. He left Karachi shortly afterward and moved to Singapore to study engineering. But the experience convinced him that entrepreneurship was a risk worth taking.
In his third year at the National University of Singapore, Zaki started TimeSvr – a portal that helped people hire and manage virtual assistants.
Since then he’s gone on to start several companies but now works full-time in Silicon Valley.
Stasis co-founder and CEO Dinesh Seemakurty paid a heavy price four years ago when his grandfather died due to medical negligence. The doctors at the Indian hospital he was admitted in missed deterioration in his vital signs because of inadequate monitoring.
He met Michael Maylahn at the University of Southern California, where they studied biomedical engineering. Michael had completed a three-month medical research trip in rural Costa Rica, which drove home the lack of quality healthcare around the globe. Their personal experiences prodded Dinesh and Michael to work with their classmates Clayton Brand and Derek Nielsen to build the Stasis Monitor.
Demonetization in India was a windfall for Paytm, which started seeing half a million new users on its digital wallet every day.
The knee-jerk reaction would’ve been to chase more consumers to grab the moment. What Paytm did instead is to focus on enabling merchants to use the wallet, which would, in turn, pull more consumers. Paytm’s founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, has made many bold predictions ever since he founded One97 Communications at the turn of the millennium to offer astrology services to a telecom operator in Delhi.
This isn’t a story about one founder. But it does give insight into how powerful dynastic business families in Indonesia are enveloping an industry that’s projected to grow to US$130 billion in value by 2020.
Euivin Park joined Line’s parent company Naver after the search engine company she was working for was acquired in 2006. She was then transferred from Korea to Japan in 2007 to join the company that would eventually become Line.
Euivin explains she got into programming during university because it was trendy at the time. The first game she built was similar to Tetris. After graduating, she worked on system maintenance but found the hardware work tiring and wanted to switch back to software.
This switch would lead her to Neowiz Games in 2002 before moving to the gaming company’s spinoff search service 1noon in 2005.
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