20 Years, 20 Questions: Getting Candid with Paul Ark

11 April 2022

As we celebrate Gobi Partners’ 20th anniversary in 2022, we will be sharing inside looks into the workings of Gobi and its portfolio companies. This edition of 20 Questions features Paul Ark, Partner of Gobi ASEAN, who has recently joined in 2021. Every 20 days, we will be releasing new, Gobi-exclusive interviews with movers and shakers in the Asian startup ecosystem.

1. What made you choose Venture Capital (VC)?

I didn’t choose VC so much as it chose me. Back in 2016, I was approached by Siam Commercial Bank (SCB), which was launching a fintech corporate VC unit. At the time, I didn’t realize that the bank was recruiting a VC head, I thought perhaps they were looking for mentors for a corporate startup accelerator that they were forming as well. After about 15 minutes of chatting about what they were doing, the executive that called me in asked me at point-blank to run the fund. So that’s how I kind of found my way into VC; a 15-minute non-interview. 

2. How did you get involved with Gobi Partners?

After I left SCB, I was just enjoying a kind of semi-retired life, riding out pandemic-related lockdown and spending my time in self-education, delving into Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) and sustainability out of personal interest. After about six or seven months, Shannon Kalayanamitr, an old friend who was a partner at Gobi at the time (and current advisor), gave me a call and said that Gobi is looking for a person to integrate ESG into their strategy and operations and would I be interested to come on board, and I was.

I already knew (Gobi Founding Partner) Tom and (Gobi Managing Partner) Mok through various encounters and conferences in the VC industry, so I had a clear idea of who I’d be working with and what I would be getting myself into. So yeah, I think both VC and Gobi kind of found me, and it was just a question of me being in the right place at the right time.

3. Why are ESG and sustainability important to you personally?

I think we all sort of act on our value systems in different ways. For me and my wife, we have always been supportive of things like female empowerment and education, and a lot of that is reflected in the types of philanthropy and charity work we’ve done. But it was very distinct from our professional lives.

And so when I came out of my previous VC position in SCB, it was just as the pandemic was taking hold. So I spent a lot of time either reading or taking these online courses just because I wanted to teach myself a lot on the subject matter around sustainability and ESG. 

It’s one thing to say I believe in the environment or social equality, but then to actually go through the process of studying the history of racial inequality, or history of women’s rights, of understanding environmental issues at a more technical or scientific level, it allowed me to look at the entire subject from a more methodical framework and perspective. 

So when Tom, Shannon, and Mok brought me into Gobi, I wasn’t taking up an ESG role just because I was passionate about it, but because I understood it at a nuanced, structured, technical level. And so it was great that I was able to take something I was passionate about, understand it at a technical level, and then be recruited into a position where I can apply it firsthand. 

4. Did the global pandemic help shape your views on ESG or strengthen your beliefs in it?

I would say the pandemic probably influenced my current thinking in my career track in two ways. One, because of the pandemic, a lot of us around the world were forced to spend a lot of time at home. For those like me who were between jobs, it allowed me to reskill and relearn and kind of explore areas of interest. So that led to a lot of self-education on ESG and sustainability.

ESG is all about trying to deal with these types of extreme risks that perhaps the business world hadn’t considered all that much before. If you look at everything that has happened, it is more than just a pandemic. It was a global healthcare crisis. It was a global supply chain crisis. It was a global employment crisis. It was a global mental health crisis. 

COVID-19 involved so many different risks that I think a lot of folks haven’t given serious thought on a day to day basis just how many risks it encompasses. Today, these risks are top of mind. And that’s all that ESG is dealing with – these types of risks that have always been there, but are now becoming super, super important. So yeah, the pandemic has been kind of a critical turning point in both my life and my career. And strangely enough, in a good way.

5. You had about 16 years of investing experience, starting from being an investment banker to an angel investor and now as a VC. How does one differ from another?

All of these depend on the amount of risk you’re taking. 

When you’re an angel investor, you’re risking your own money. You know that if you lose, then that hurts you directly. I always tell people to never invest more than you’re able to lose 100% when you’re an angel investor. But when you’re a VC, there is still a bit of a direct connection, because a lot of your income is tied to your success, but not to the same extent as if you’re investing your life savings into it. And when you’re an investment banker, you’re pretty far removed from the risk because you’re working with other people’s money and there’s more distance between you and the performance of the investment. 

So VC is that middle ground, where I do have a personal stake in the success of investments, but not as extreme as if I were an angel investor. And that can be both a good and a bad thing. 

On one hand, a VC who’s not completely 100% accountable might be prone to take more risks with the Limited Partners’ money. But at the same time, having a little bit of that professional distance means that you don’t get overly emotional about an investment. 

I think that’s the challenge about investing in startups: you want to maintain that balance between being somewhat emotional about your investments, and also maintaining a bit of rationality.

6. After some 16 years of investing, what remains your biggest pet peeve?

I think the thing that irritates me the most is when I see a startup that has just really sloppy governance, but that’s not necessarily an indictment on entrepreneurs and startups. You think of an entrepreneur that’s starting their own business – there’s not much training on how to create a minimum viable product (MVP), how to fundraise or do a market analysis. There’s almost no training or workshops for what a startup needs to do, much less how to govern itself

As a startup, if you’re spending your own money and you’re a bit loose on how to manage your company – this is fine when you’re three people working out of a founder’s dining room. But the minute you start taking VC money, you’re now accountable to stakeholders. At that point, there should be a transformation in your processes and you will require more formal record-keeping, you need to be a lot more transparent, you have to be very careful with things like fraud, corruption and conflicts of interest. And many entrepreneurs don’t get that kind of training, formally or even informally. 

And so when I see sloppy governance, I look to the VCs that have invested in them. When I see sloppy governance, I generally see VCs that are in the business because they love the glamour and prestige of being a VC but lack the discipline of doing the actual hard work that goes behind the scenes in building a going concern. 

And to be honest, it’s easy to write cheques; it is a lot harder to work with startups to ensure that they’re leveraging that cheque professionally, rationally, and diligently. And so that’s probably what bothers me – the startups and investors that don’t want to put in the hard work of governance after the money hits the bank account.

7. 16 years later, what deal or interaction still makes you smile?

I would say it is my first VC experience when I launched my first fund at SCB. Our first direct investment was in a company called Ripple, which was one of the more exciting blockchain-based fintech coming out of San Francisco.  Back when I invested in them in 2016, most banks in Southeast Asia (including mine) were still trying to understand blockchain. The fund gained a lot of credibility in the global fintech community because we invested in Ripple at a relatively early stage. 

When SCB launched its CVC fund, we were fairly brand new on the scene, from a part of the world that most fintech investors are not familiar with. They may know of Bangkok and Thailand as holiday destinations, not for their prowess in startup or fintech investment. So going into a company as notable as Ripple put us on the map. It certainly helped that in the four years that I was managing the investment, we were able to experience generous returns (at least on paper, as Ripple is still a private company). 

As I look back on my career, managing that fund and making that investment into Ripple was a very powerful springboard for me into the VC world. This is especially significant for me because as a VC, I am still relatively new. After all, I only started in 2016, with most of my startup experience to date being as an angel. It was very vital for me to establish a great track record for myself as VC, and that experience in SCB helped in a big way. 

8. If you have the time and opportunity to, who would you most like to collaborate with? 

My ultimate dream collaboration would be with Serena Williams. Those who are deep into VC would probably know that Serena has been an active VC for about eight years now. Her fund, Serena Ventures, focuses on startups that are founded by women, people of color and a lot of the underserved communities that we at Gobi are supporting. 

She brings not just a lot of star power because of her accomplishments in sports, but she is quite a successful VC investor in her own right. I am personally a bit wary of celebrity VCs in general, but she has done it for a while and puts her money where her mouth is. 

Honestly, if Serena calls me tomorrow and asks me to join her fund, I will be telling Tom that I am leaving Gobi, because I would love to work with someone like Serena. Sorry, Tom! (laughs)

9. One rule you never break while investing? 

I will never invest in a startup where I haven’t fallen in love with the problem that they are trying to solve. I need to believe in what the startup is trying to accomplish; that they are trying to solve an important problem. Even if they have a great team, the technology is great, and there are ways to make tons of money, if they are not solving an important problem, then my feeling is that I can do whatever I want in the VC space so I don’t want to chase a deal for the sake of fear of missing out or it is the hot thing right now. I want to invest in companies that are doing things that I believe in. 

I emphasize the problem rather than the solution because a solution may change at any given time with technology, but the problem will always remain the same. So if a startup is trying to address global hunger, for example, I will be interested in the specific technology, whether it be artificial intelligence, indoor farming, or alternative protein;, but not for the sake of investing in the tech for tech’s sake, but to the extent that it addresses the problem.

10. What is the most surprising thing people find about you?

I think when people get to know me, they will realize that I am more eccentric than they initially expected. I like to do things that most normal folks like to do, but the way I do things tends to be unconventional. For example, when I tell people that I like to travel, that generally doesn’t elicit any unusual reactions, because who doesn’t like to travel?

But when they ask me where some of my favorite destinations are, I’ll talk about the 10 days I spent in North Korea on holiday back in 2008. That was an amazing trip. Or I’ll talk about the weeks I spent in the Arctic Circle camping, dog sledding, snowmobiling on glaciers, and photographing the Northern Lights. That was epic.

Caption: Paul spent 10 days holidaying in North Korea back in 2008.

11. You sound like an avid photographer. What kind of photography do you do?

I spent a decade as a dedicated hobbyist, with all the kit and lenses and accessories. I started doing mostly travel photography and abstract macro photography. But I did spend several years learning the ins and outs of fashion photography and was even published a few times. I also spent many years as a sports photographer doing niche sports like roller derby, extreme games, and ultra-marathons. So like I said, I do normal things, but in a very off-the-beaten-track way. 

Caption: Examples of Paul’s published photography in fashion and extreme sports.

12. What skill would you like to master?

I am not looking to acquire any specific skills at this point in my life, so as much as I want to enhance my base of knowledge. I went through my life to master different skills and to be honest, failed quite miserably at a lot of them. I try to master foreign languages which I can’t seem to do. I am typically monolingually American. 

I was desperate to teach myself the bass guitar, but I am incredibly tone-deaf. I tried rollerblading and kickboxing, but I am just really uncoordinated. I did master photography so at least that was a win. To be honest, I am over 50 and all the skills I need or want, I already have.

I am now at the point where I just want to learn new stuff. And it is less about mastering new skills and more about accumulating knowledge and insight. That’s why I spend a lot of time reading and pursuing online education on the side, and that has motivated me to go back and do my doctorate in Business Administration, with a particular focus on sustainability at the Sasin School of Management, a leading Thailand-based business school. 

All the work that I am doing towards my doctorate is directly related to the work that I am doing in Gobi. My thesis will be covering the gender funding gaps in the VC and startup space. This is also one of the areas in which Gobi is strong and worked on, so a perfect synergy between my professional work and my academic work. 

13. What did you want to be when you were 5?

I came from a family of Asian doctors, so guess what I wanted to be at five? It is very typical – which Asian family does not want their kid to be a doctor? And when you’re being surrounded by doctors, it is like being sucked into that black hole. 

Fortunately, I escaped the gravitational pull of that, to the great disappointment of my mother. When I told her I was leaving the medical school path and would go to law school instead, she didn’t talk to me for a year!

14. How were you as a child?

I was a geek, and proud of it. I was an avid comic book collector and I was into sci-fi movies. The funny thing is that if you collected comics as a kid in the 80s and 90s, you were a total geek. But nowadays, with the popularity of Marvel and DC movies, being into comics is a completely normal, mainstream thing. Occasionally, my geek cred will peek out when I watch a Marvel or DC movie, and I can pinpoint which specific comic issue from the 80s or 90s that the movie’s storyline is derived from.

15. What’s a book, TV series, movie or music album that has changed your life?

It’s this book called “A Princess of Mars”, by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a pulp fiction writer who created the characters Tarzan and John Carter. “The Princess of Mars” was the first book in Burrough’s Mars series, which featured his swashbuckling John Carter character, and was published back in 1917. 

I was always an avid reader and I picked up this book when I was in middle school. It kicked off my life-long love for science fiction and fantasy, and since then I have devoured one genre after another, with a particular interest in history, non-fiction, and autobiographies. That book has very much impacted me in terms of my reading habits.

16. What is the best advice you’ve received?

It is a very pragmatic piece of advice. I was told that you should never send an email when you’re angry. All of us have been in positions where someone at work has made us angry and you want to reply and copy the universe into it. I was told that if you’re angry, draft an email and let it sit in your inbox while you calm down and rethink it. 

And when you do that, never input any recipient email addresses so you don’t accidentally press the send button. Let it sit in your inbox for a day and when you calm down, you will have a more diplomatic response to it and will probably realize you don’t need to send it to the entire company when one would have been sufficient.

17. What is a habit you are trying to break?

A habit that I want to break is that hyper-multitasking. Nowadays, we are all suffering from a sensory overload of information and notifications. Many of us will have eight browsers open at one time, some cable news program running in the background, and chat notifications going off incessantly as we try to get work done. In a digitally connected world, what would have been normal multitasking becomes hyper multitasking on steroids. 

I realize that when I am rotating my attention to half a dozen different things in one hour, I become incredibly unproductive. So I am trying to break that habit because I find myself working for 10 mins then I check my phone or read an article or get a snack – and when you add it all up, two hours of distracted working is vastly less productive than 30 minutes of focused work. This is becoming very critical to me because I am doing a lot of work with Gobi, I am studying for my doctorate, I am doing a lot of stuff for the ecosystem, and I am still doing a lot of online coursework. 

When I was researching productivity tips and tools that other PhD students recommended as vital to their work, I came across an app called Forest. Through this app, you set a productivity timer, it gamifies focused work and productivity by growing a simulation tree for your forest whenever you make it through a session without distraction. It’s like The Sims or a Tamagotchi, but for your own digital forest. The best part is that I can redeem my virtual coins to have one of the apps’ partner companies plant a real tree, so perfectly linked with my sustainability work.

18. What do you want to be remembered for?

Some years ago, I worked with two friends to launch a U.S.-registered non-profit organization called the Amazing Maasai Girls Project, which raises funds for scholarships so we can send Maasai girls in Kenya to high school.

Maasai communities are pastoral farmers and herders, so economically they are very resource-poor. This means that to survive economically, they will marry off their girls very young, in their early teens, depriving them of a chance to further their education and develop their economic prospects. Because they were married off so young, Maasai girls will typically bear children when they are still underaged themselves, resulting in numerous economic and health impacts. 

We are not a big organization. We typically award no more than 20 scholarships a year because we are a small, lean, grassroots organization with a small but loyal donor base. Since we started 11 years ago, we have awarded scholarships to around 110 girls, and several have gone on to university and even graduate school.

For us, we don’t impact thousands of lives but the impact that we do have on each of these girls is tremendous in terms of their quality of life. Of all the things I have done, I would like to be remembered for this work.

Caption: Paul photographing Maasai Warriors in Kenya.

19. This is most fascinating. How do you fundraise for these and can the public get involved?

Our main fundraising vehicles are marathons and ultra-marathons that we hold in Kenya, and in the communities that we work with. We also do informal fun-run events around the world. When you asked me about the things that people find surprising about me, I would say that having organized an ultra marathon and designing a 75 kilometer race trail in Maasai bushland amongst African wildlife certainly ranks on that list!

Our main run is the Amazing Maasai Marathon which is held annually in Kenya, and the other one is the Amazing Maasai Global Run, which are these self-organized fun runs where volunteer organizers from around the world will organize local groups, friends, or clubs to “donate their 10K” on the event weekend to raise awareness, and which always results in a flood of donations. Pre-covid, the Global Runs attracted about 1,600 participants across 40 countries in the world.

Caption: Paul (center) participating in the Amazing Maasai Marathon which is held annually in Kenya.

20. Where is the weirdest place you’ve had a business meeting?

For one of my startup’s investments at SCB, we invested in a Finnish tech company, and attended a board offsite a few hours outside Helsinki, with half of our meetings and workshops occurring in a sauna. Just like the Japanese hold business meetings on golf courses, the Finns like to hold theirs in the sauna. It was certainly a unique experience for me.