Master Class

Top founders share these skills, says investor who backed Alibaba, Grab and Xiaomi

Founder and former chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma attends the 'Ma Yun Rural Teachers Prize' awards show on January 21, 2018 in Sanya, Hainan province, China.
Wang HE | Getty Images

What makes the perfect start-up founder?

It's the billion-dollar question to which few, if any, know the answer.

But one woman who comes closer than most is famed venture capitalist Jenny Lee, whose investments via Silicon Valley-headquartered GGV Capital have helped place her among Forbes' top tech investors globally.

Speaking recently, Lee delved into what led her to back the founders of major Chinese and Southeast Asian start-ups Alibaba, Xiaomi and Grab in their early days and revealed it came down to three major traits.


First and foremost, a good founder has to have a vision, said Lee. However, dreams of changing the world are not enough: Investable founders must truly know the game plan for their business.

"Your vision cannot just be to go out and change the world," Lee, who is a managing partner at GGV Capital, said at finance conference Money 2020 Asia in Singapore last week.

"As a founder, your vision is going to carry you for the next five, 10, 20, 50, 100 years. It's the core behind what drives your platform and company," said Lee. As such, founders need to be able to clarify their ideas into real, actionable day-to-day tasks.

Jenny Lee, managing partner at GGV Capital, speaks during the Bloomberg Sooner Than You Think technology summit in Singapore, on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese tech giant Alibaba — one of Lee's most acclaimed investments — does that with aplomb, said Lee. Ma first established the e-commerce site in 1999 in a bid to help small and medium-sized businesses "do business globally" and he and his team have since made that objective central to all their growth strategies, said Lee.

"The ability to crystallize that (vision) into a very specific mission statement that can be dissected into actionable tasks for your senior management, your middle management, and then your guys on the ground becomes very, very important," she added.


Secondly, a strong founder must show tolerance for setbacks, noted the Singaporean investor who is now based in Shanghai.

Lee said she had encountered many companies that were close to "going under." But with a little extra time the founders were able to build themselves back up and turn their fortunes around.

"Resilience is also crucial," said Lee. "The ability to keep going when everything is against you ... I think that's vital," said Lee.


Lastly, adaptability is key if a founder is to survive today's fast-moving business environment, Lee said.

"As a start-up founder, you're faced with changes every day," said Lee, who transitioned from jet engineer to venture capitalist in her late-twenties and has since made a name for herself as a pre-eminent authority on China's burgeoning tech scene.

"I think that adaptability — the ability to size up an issue immediately, reflect on it (and) come back with a plan in a short period of time ... I would say that's the most important skill," she said.

When to go from employee to entrepreneur
When to go from employee to entrepreneur