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This article is part of Tech in Asia’s partnership with Speak Up Asia where we publish the revised transcripts from the show’s podcast interviews with Asian entrepreneurs. This is heavily revised from the original transcripts. For the full interview, go here.
Moses Lo is the founder of Xendit, an Indonesian finance company that helps facilitate payments through mobile devices. Here, we’ll talk about what he learned working in Silicon Valley and the struggles and rewards of being the first Indonesian startup to be accepted into the Y Combinator program.
How did you get into entrepreneurship?
My dad is an entrepreneur. He bought a business in Australia that was about to go bankrupt and turned it around. That changed our family’s livelihood.
I saw the transformation and benefit from entrepreneurship, and it’s always been in my blood since. I needed to beat my dad, so I had to find something that was going to be bigger and better.
I couldn’t do it in Australia because Australia just doesn’t have enough of a tech scene, so I wanted to go to the US. I went to the US and that gave me the opportunity to build a Silicon Valley-style startup.
Why Silicon Valley? And how was it for you there?
For me it was like, “OK Australia, you have great people, but there’s a brain drain.” The best Australians leave, and typically if you’re in the tech world, you leave for America. I had to go discover why. So, MBA was this chance to be in Silicon Valley for two years and discover what I needed to do.
The first thing that investors always talk about is the team. So, I spent the first year just looking for people.
I was a bit too methodical. I had an Excel spreadsheet of everyone I met, my thoughts on compatibility ratings—that kind of thing. It ended up being much easier to find the co-founders I ended up founding Xendit with. I didn’t need all those formulas; I just needed a dinner or two.
Having an MBA at Berkeley was all about being exposed to the Valley, discovering how Valley companies do it, what’s so special about them, and then finding the founders I could build something with.
But what surprised me were the paradigm shifts I had to adapt to. For example, one of the guys who helped teach an entrepreneurship class there had 20 or 30 years at Bessemer Venture Capital. He opened the India office and was on the Forbes Midas List five times. I went to him with some ideas, but about five minutes in, he just said—in a very nice way—“Moses, shut up. If your idea is not worth a billion dollars, don’t come talking to me about it.”
He’s actually much kinder than the way I remember it, but this told me a few things. It was like my brain needed to shift from how to make an impact at the million-dollar level to how to make an impact at the billion-dollar level.
My dreams were not big enough, and he was kind of guiding me saying, “The fact that you’re now in the Valley, the fact that you’re here at Cal, means that you can be the kind of person who builds a billion-dollar company.” It was extremely empowering and humbling at the same time.
So that’s one example of why the Valley is special: because it takes a certain kind of person to think that they can change the world, but those are the ones who actually can.
What was the catalyst that pushed you to create your company?
I’ve always been interested in finance. I’m fascinated by the idea that banks are private institutions that can print money. They only have a dollar, but they lend out US$10 at pretty high interest rates, and I was just like, “That’s such a weird, cool business. How does that happen?”
That was during high school. Then, I studied finance and information systems to try to get the nexus of tech and finance because I knew I wanted to do that.
The original idea for Xendit came from a South Sudanese friend of mine that was trying to move money from Australia. He worked three jobs, went to university, and supported his family back home. He was trying to get money back and it was just so expensive to send money.
In the US then, we thought a lot about payments and how we can make payments better. We also thought about which markets are most interesting. Because I’m from Southeast Asia, I wanted to come back here.
So we said, “OK, what are the biggest pains in Indonesia?” And here, there’s tons of issues with payments. It’s going from dirt roads to paved roads. There’s also basic things like when you send money from bank transfers, it’s not reliable. So you’ve got very basic payment problems.
We essentially asked customers and good friends, “Hey, what’s the biggest payment problem that you have?” We started building for the one that was biggest and most common across them all. And so, what we do now is help people accept and send money through the bank system.
The overall market and pain we wanted to solve, we thought about and started building in California. But at the same time, by the time we graduated into Y Combinator, I had roughly moved myself to Indonesia so that we could figure out the actual pains.
What was it like being the first Indonesian company in Y Combinator?
I think it involved a lot of luck and a lot of hard work. For us, it was a matter of applying, finding alumni who could help guide us through the process, and then right timing as well.
So one of our main benefactors is Justin Kan who sold Twitch for a billion dollars. He’s a bit of a celebrity in the Valley. He happened to have some family in Indonesia, and it was also about the time when Asia was becoming more interesting for YC. So, we told them, “You’ve got no startups from the fourth largest country on earth and you haven’t even thought about the country itself.”
And so, they were convinced that there was this whole market that was undervalued in the world that no one cared about that much. At the same time, it then became a question of “Is this the right team that can do something about it?” And luckily, we fit roughly into their profile, as Berkeley is, I think, the number two school they end up getting founders from and also because we happened to be looking at a very interesting market that they hadn’t thought about. I think they liked that combination and, therefore, we were lucky to get in.
What kind of things did you learn at Y Combinator?
One is paradigm shifts, which is a theme of mine from the US. It’s this feeling that we walk in and we are the worst people in the room. You get divided into smaller groups and, in our group, you have to report your progress every week. We would have guys, like this Australian company, who were saying things like, “Oh, this week we grew our profits by 20 percent.” And you’re like, “What are you talking about? We can’t even get people to sign up on an app for free, let alone get profits at a 20 percent week-on-week growth.”
There was another Australian company who was doing drones and, during our time at YC, they signed a deal with NASA. And I’m like, “I haven’t even signed a deal with the university I went to, let alone NASA.”
So it’s this huge pressure to perform. But given the environment, it doesn’t mean you get depressed; it makes you motivated to do something about it.
So that was one—this huge pressure to keep working hard and produce results. That drove us, and I think we’ve never worked as hard as those three months to build things quickly.
The other big paradigm change for me was learning that other startups were like us. I remember this one presentation where a company was showing what was shown in the newspapers about them vs what was actually happening on the inside.
And it was just fascinating to learn how every startup is this cobbled mess, slowly hunkering and hacking stuff to make it work. But at the end, it kind of works out, and in the public eye, it’s super attractive. And that was also cool because it means, “Oh, it’s not that far from where I am. The fact that we’re so screwed up is not a bad thing. Everyone is like us.”
Was it challenging at all when you came back to Indonesia?
The main challenge, the thing that we try to push ourselves on, is how to maintain that YC pressure that we had from all our friends. So for us, it means calling a few of our friends and saying, “What did you guys do in the last month?” And when they tell us their awesome things, we’ll feel like the black sheep again, and so we know we need to be faster.