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Marvin Liao, Partner at 500 Startups

Scratching the Surface

Marvin Liao is a Partner at 500 Startups, a global Seed Venture Capital Firm & Startup Accelerator based in Silicon Valley. He invests in Digital Media, Enterprise SAAS, Marketplace, Fintech, Digital Health & Mobile start-ups across the globe. He has P&L management experience and was most recently responsible for 100% YoY revenue growth while running a business unit and building new sales channels in EMEA & the Emerging Markets regions for the last four years at Yahoo!

A 10.5-year veteran of Yahoo! Inc., Marvin has held roles in various departments, including Sales, Business Development, Ad Operations and Marketing. Most of his roles were regional or global management roles, providing him with extensive experience across Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States in his career at the company.

Marvin presently serves on the boards/advisory boards of several internet advertising and ad technology companies across the globe. He holds a BA, Major History/Minor Asian Studies, from the University of British Columbia.

A long-time fan, participant in, and observer of, the digital revolution that has been occurring across the world for the last 15+ years, he is interested in opportunities with top growth companies, both large and small, with a focus on driving monetisation and expanding into new international markets.

In this time of rapid technological change, what are the key factors for the long-term survival of your business?

– An ability to adapt, learn and re-learn things. This requires grit and passion to tackle the problem you are trying to solve. Additionally, I think it requires a true service mindset.

As they say, “how do you become a millionaire? You solve the problems of a million people.”

In which ways has the start-up landscape changed today compared to the initial phase?

startup– There have been a lot of changes in the start-up world since I entered it back in the late ‘90s. Cloud Services, like Amazon Web services, CRM etc., as well as global marketing and distribution channels, like Facebook, Google and the Apple Appstore, has allowed start-ups to reach customers globally and to punch above their weight.

There are new and easier programming languages that allow people to build products faster than ever. Because of this, it’s become cheaper than ever to launch a start-up (I’d even say a 1000 times cheaper).

Besides running the 500 Start-ups San Francisco accelerator programme, you are a mentor at many European and Asian accelerators. How do you manage your commitments and do you still enjoy it?

– Yeah, I absolutely enjoy it, otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. I did it before I joined 500 Startups. I am definitely busier now with my day job, but I do try to find the time to continue with mentorship.

You have noted in a number of your interviews that Europeans are not as good as Americans at “telling the story”. How would you explain that statement?

– Well, this is not just Europeans, its Canadians, Latin Americans, Israelis etc. America is a unique place where many people are just excellent presenters and storytellers. I’m saying this as someone who grew up in Canada, so I recognise the difference. The ability of Americans to do storytelling is really impressive. The good news is that this can be learned & improved upon by anyone. It’s definitely something we spend a lot of time working on with our companies at 500 Startups.

I think creativity and talent for start-ups resides in every country, but a friendly and supportive environment for start-ups certainly helps. We see this, of course, in Silicon Valley, but also in Israel, Estonia, Stockholm – all of which are places that to spring to mind

There are various claims about which country is more creative and “talented” for the start-up business. Is there any basis for such statements?

– I think creativity and talent for startups reside in every country, but a friendly and supportive environment for start-ups certainly helps. We see this, of course, in Silicon Valley, but also in Israel, Estonia, Stockholm – all of which are places that to spring to mind. These include examples of start-up winners, (Skype in Estonia for example), many angel investors & VCs, as well as a cadre of entrepreneurial-minded employees as well. There are lots of factors that are too numerous to name here.

How do you know if an initial candidate and idea presented to you could be the right one at first glance?

– It’s really hard, to be honest, and I’m not sure any investor knows at first glance. But the first things I notice are 1) passion and excitement and 2) clarity of the idea and problem they are working on. Without these things, I lose interest very quickly in the wave of the dozens of startup pitches I see every week.

On average, to what extent can start-ups contribute to the growth of the economy, especially in developing countries, and what are those development prospects like, in your opinion?

– I think start-ups are critical to the growth of every economy, especially in developing countries. Anywhere where there is a lot of technical talent, like in Serbia or other parts of Central or Eastern Europe, I am hopeful. Technical talent is the building block of start-up ecosystems. You can teach technical people business skills, but you can’t teach technical skills to business people (or at least it’s harder).

What were the priorities of 500 Startups in the past year and what will they be in the year ahead?

– Solidifying our accelerator programme and making sure we are getting better here. We will also be focusing on international expansion via our Micro fund strategy, both at the regional level (Thailand, Japan, Korea, India etc.) and vertically (Fintech, Mobile etc.). I expect you will see more of this.

You are in the unique position of having vast insight into the global start-up ecosystem and the differences between the local start-up regions. What are the major differences?

– A lot of the difference is due to culture and time. Silicon Valley has a unique culture and lots of successful start-up examples that act as a guide for the next generation.

It’s a culture of accepting failure, of Openness and Paying it forward (i.e. helping others), thinking Win-Win (especially for investors) that has contributed to the growth of tech in Silicon Valley. This ethos is spreading all across the world, but it takes time for it to be absorbed.

What are the biggest problems and obstacles faced by young entrepreneurs today?

– Intense competition, which is the downside of it being easier than ever to launch a start-up, means there are tremendous numbers of players in every single niche and sector. Distinguishing yourself from your competition is critical and something founders don’t think enough about.

What are the greatest advantages of TruckTrack and BuildCon – the Serbian start-ups that have been included in the 500 Startups – and how can they serve as good examples for other young entrepreneurs?

– The founders of TruckTrack & Build- Con is good founders because they have a unique view of the industry in which they are working as they come from families that have been working in that industry. They have deep passion and interest in the problem they are trying to solve and because of that they are deeply committed to their startup. They are missionaries in a start-up world that are sadly filled with start-up mercenaries who only do what they do because they foolishly believe they can make a lot of money (never a good signal for a good start-up founder, generally speaking).

What is your biggest success to date?

– I’ve only been doing this for a few years, so it’s too early to tell to be honest. I’ll be able to tell you in three to five more years.

From this perspective, what does the future of start-ups look like?

– I’m SUPER bullish on the future of the start-up economy in general. I think it’s just getting started. There are so many exciting ideas and initiatives, and we are just scratching the surface here. So I’m very much looking forward to seeing what emerges here in the future.

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