My Need to Belong Do you try to find your tribe, or build one?

This is the second post of my 2015 blogging revival. I am relieved to have completed this post, and hope to keep up the momentum. I’d love to hear your thoughts if mine caused any resonance in you.

We often get asked what we do for a living at family gatherings, class reunions and networking events. It’s become somewhat of a pastime to compress a person’s sense of self worth into a sentence he or she can deliver in a single breath, and impress someone new they meet. My version has evolved over the years into this. “Hello, my name is James and I am a geeky scholarship bond breaker turned investor, entrepreneur and father of 2, with a team of 50 spanning Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City and Yangon, and a tech venture fund portfolio spanning North America and Southeast Asia.” I was hitting the tech startup and investor circuits in Southeast Asia until Q3 2012 sharing some lesser variant of my impress-you-line, until I got tired and stayed away from the Southeast Asian tech circuit altogether.

It wasn’t because I thought I was too good for everybody else, or that I didn’t meet enough interesting people. I just couldn’t bear to see another person struggling to find their tribe and be reminded that I was sharing their predicament. Each time we rattled our spiels to one another, we are really seeking someone more similar to us than different. I realised I needed to get away from it all and disconnect, and hopefully reconnect with my inner voice and get better at finding my own path through The Wilderness.

I’ve never thought very much about the tribes I’ve been with through most of my life. Heck, I’ve never even thought about the notion of tribes as it pertains to my sense of belongingness. It’s a trivial question no? I belong to my family and my close friends; that’s obvious. I felt a sense of belongingness to my school or university – okay, still a relatively trivial conclusion because I’ve had the fortune of going to great schools. I then belonged to my company; this started becoming a stretch as I experienced middle-layer bureaucracy in large organisations, and became untenable when frustration set in and I started going sideways, first moving to Infocomm Investments, which was a wholly-owned subsidiary of IDA, then on secondment to Walden International’s Singapore office, before finally ejecting from it all to join Joi to start and raise our Neoteny Labs fund. It was a huge leap of faith that we took on each other that worked out well.

I first learnt about the concept of tribes when Joi called me one Sunday morning in 2011 and shared that he was considering to take up a new challenge as Director of MIT Media Lab, and asked what I thought. I first asked whether our fund’s LPs would be pissed, given that there were only the two of us operating the fund, to which he said he didn’t think so. I then asked if he wanted to do it, to which he said yes, adding that he thinks he’s finally found his tribe. Without pausing, I reassured him I was a grown-up and could take care of myself, and encouraged him to follow his heart. At that instant, I subconsciously knew our paths would diverge and my Age of Joi was over. He later asked if I wanted to move to Boston and join him at the Media Lab, which I had to turn down because my wife was expecting our first child, and it would be unfair to both sets of parents to move the first grandchild for both families half the world away from them, in cold dreary Boston. I had turned down MIT once when I picked Stanford over MIT for my Masters. I consoled myself that I can now claim in my spiel to others to have turned down MIT twice, although my inner voice was less certain and in turmoil for a long time after.

I didn’t have much of an entrepreneurial or investment track record and couldn’t be made Partner on the fund, even though Joi was kind enough to grant me partner-level carry. Beyond his generosity on my fund economics and the occasional “yelling” at me (yes, Joi does get mad), I could never cease to learn and be inspired by the sincere and intense tribe-inspired charm and leadership that he extended to people and groups he interacted with. For 2+ years, I thought I found my tribe in Joi and his world through Neoteny Labs. I was found and lost again.

For a whole year afterwards, I tried getting over the fact that I no longer belonged. The fund was doing well, and I welcomed my firstborn with my wife, but I continued to struggle to define the tribe I belonged to. I turned down Razmig’s offer to join Viki, not seeing a clear role for myself that made sense and thinking it was too late in the company’s growth curve to make a difference, rationalising my decision with the fact that I am already part of the Viki journey through our fund’s Series A investment. I tried to form a new US-SEA fund partnership with Hian, but that didn’t work out because we were both at different points in our lives; felt like a rebound in all honesty. I tried helping out at Neo’s (then known as New Context) Singapore office, which had been Pivotal Labs’ Singapore office, but quickly decided it wasn’t my Vietnam (war). Anurag Srivastava, whom I first met in 2007 when I was at Infocomm Investments, asked me to consider joining Jungle Ventures. Eddie Chau, who I’ve known since my IDA days and had attended my wedding, tried to get me interested in TNF Ventures, but both opportunities were more of the same and didn’t offer me a compelling enough new challenge with a larger kicker. Chua Kee Lock reached out to ask if I wanted to join the Singapore investment team at Vertex Venture Holdings, but the last thing on my mind back then was to trade in my unshackled freedom and show up at Raffles City in my suits and leather shoes for a “full-time job”. I met and got to know the awesome Sanjay and Karthik from Blume Ventures, and through them, Dileep Nath. Given that I had already said no to all the other incubators and funds before them, it didn’t take very much from me to turn down the other funds. I ended up raising a bit of working capital from my old Neoteny Labs world (Joi and Teruhide Sato) and my interim world of new friends and partner (Dileep, KH Lim and Ivan Lee), and the rest is Silicon Straits history.

NB 1: Thanks to Sanjay and Blume, I met Samay and Akash from Grey Orange in mid-2013, one of Blume Ventures’ portfolio companies, and really clicked with the two of them (hardcore geeks, UNITE!) and their mission. I spent a fair amount of time with them in Gurgaon, Singapore and Hong Kong, and came really close to joining their tribe full-time, but decided to remain an advisor for now and help them with their East Asian go-to-market.

You may think that I’m now on firmer footing having formed my own tribe in Silicon Straits, but at the age of 33, I don’t consider myself anywhere near my journey’s end. Having been part of other tribes and forming my own since returning from the US in Jun 2006, I now no longer see the need to identify with singular discrete tribes, and continue to work on my mindfulness, to avoid letting ego, pride, greed and my lack of enlightenment inhibit me from recognising and becoming a part of amazing tribes that I come into contact with. I don’t have a religion, but believe in a superior being that “just is”. I don’t meditate, but hope to start sooner than later. I don’t have all the answers, but hope to gain more wisdom with every passing day, be it from inner retrospection or outer observation.

I am home, and I am free.

NB 2: I took the featured photo (top) during one of my all-time favourite road trips to Cuba with my then-fiancee, along the streets of Trinidad, a small town in Cuba. A local we spoke to shared that there were very few youths in the town, because most of them had left to find work in the capital city of Havana. Those palm prints were my juxtaposition of the young who had left, possibly in search of their own tribes and better futures.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.