A unicorn startup is a rare thing, much sought after by venture capitalists all over the world. What do the founders of these companies that have been valued over one billion dollars have in common? The statistical rarity of starting a company that ends up with a sky-high value may be uncommon, but the habits and traits held by the startup founders of these companies are very accessible to anyone.

Who are the four startup founders in Southeast Asia making waves

Startup Founder Trait 1: Strong Work Ethic

Anthony Tan, the founder of Grab which is a Singapore-based tech company offering ride-sharing and other logistic services throughout the South Eastern Pacific countries, stays in contact with every employee in his company. He also communicates to them directly via email about any aggressive tactics by rival companies such as Uber and Didi.

Tan did not leave the emailing to his staff to another company head – he communicated directly from his personal email to inform all his staff about an Uber China/Didi merger. He was not on a holiday somewhere directing operations from afar.

This strong work ethic is one of the traits displayed by many of the South East Asia startup unicorn’s head honchos.

Startup Founder Trait 2: Single-Minded Focus Towards Success

William Tanuwaijaya personifies the focus that is a common trait amongst South East Asian unicorn founders. Tanuwijaya shouldered many responsibilities for his family after the loss of his father. He was quick to see the need to address the lack of trust amongst South East Asian consumers when making online purchases.

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William Tanuwijaya, CEO of Tokopedia speaking at an event. Image courtesy of Tokopedia Facebook

Despite lacking capital funding, Tanuwaijaya was never swayed from his goal and determination to launch his brainchild Tokopedia. He met with several foreign investors in 2010 but was unable to convince them to invest in his idea, partly because of his poor English skills. He held out until 2012 when he met an investor from Japan who enthusiastically backed his concept.

By not folding at the first hurdle, Tanuwaijaya displayed the single-minded focus and determination that is a common thread amongst the startup unicorns.

What do startup founders think about Southeast Asia?

Startup Founder Trait 3: Creativity

Being able to see an opportunity, the gap in the market or commercial need requires creativity and lateral thinking, a quality that many South East Asian startup entrepreneurs have in common.

Nadiem Makarim, the CEO of Go-Jek, the Motorbike Taxi company, has an enquiring mind mixed with the necessary creative flair to envisage connecting one of the most famous modes of transportation in Indonesia to their customers with technology.

Nadiem Makarim, CEO of Go-Jek at a press conference. Image courtesy of Go-Jek Facebook

Not just content with using the Ojek motorcycle taxis as a young man, Makarim had the idea to develop Go-Jek, a platform to link Ojek customers to the nearest available motorcycle. He used a uniquely personal approach to convince Ojek drivers to join his venture by socializing with them on their lunch breaks. This led to the Go-Jek family being formed in 2011.

The creative lightbulb moment was not simply pushed aside and forgotten by Makarim – he followed through on his idea and implemented the infrastructure to see it all the way to its billion-dollar conclusion.

Startup Founder Trait 4: Risk-Takers

It is right to acknowledge Achmad Zaky, the CEO of Bukalapak, an advanced software development program for small businesses to expand and grow by creating more opportunities for them. But the true merit of risk-taking should really go to the CTO of Bukalapak, Nugroho Herucahyono.

Achmad Zaky returned to his hometown after studying at the Bandung Institute of Technology in Central Java to observe that many of his neighbors who owned small businesses sometimes experienced low income, stagnant years due to less than favorable market conditions.

He hit upon the E-commerce solution of Bukalapak and shared his idea with many of his closest friends in order to raise funds. Everyone disregarded this brilliant notion and even claimed it would not work. All except an old senior high school friend, Nugroho Herucahyono.

Nugroho truly believed in Zaky’s vision and invested in the idea. Where Zaky overtakes Nugroho is risk-taking is when, after many retail outlets and online stores had joined Bukalapak, the internet online business in Java was still very small. Money was running out and even Nugroho was thinking of bailing.
Softbank Corp. of Japan saw the potential of the venture and offered capital to keep the company afloat until the internet business side was up to speed. Zaky’s risk-taking trait has seen the company grow to become valued at nearly $2 billion.

Find out what’s holding Southeast Asian founders back

Startup Founder Trait 5: Resilience

What all of these startup unicorn founders have in common besides amazing foresight and determination, is the trait to project their vision into the future and see what may not be obvious to others.

Despite all the discouraging setbacks and obstacles that may give others a moment of doubt, these brilliant entrepreneurs take their ideas and seek the best possible outcome for the concept. This is the very definition of resilience and fortitude.

Now that the commonalities of startup unicorn founders have been pinpointed, their business styles can be emulated by anyone seeking to be inspired by their business methods.