Entrepreneurship and You: James Tan

The Entrepreneurship and You series is a collection of inspiring stories from people who have made a difference and played a part in the entrepreneurial scenes. In every feature, we will ask the person of interest a series of questions for him or her to share his/her success strategies and advice for fellow entrepreneurs or founders-to-be. We hope that through this series, we will be able to inspire more people to be part of the startup scene.


As part of our first feature of the series, let’s meet Mr James Tan, Managing Partner of Quest Ventures and Deputy Chairman of ACE.

Some of you may have known James in one way or another. For those who do not, James was the co-founder and COO of 55tuan, a NASDAQ listed e-commerce group that grew to more than 200 cities and 5,000 employees across China. As the first Singaporean and one of the rarefied few foreigners to found a public listed internet company in China, and for his investments in the next generation of entrepreneurs, James was recognised as an outstanding overseas Chinese by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council of China. James currently serves as advisor, board member or trustee on public and private organisations such as Action Community for Entrepreneurship, Applied Innovation Institute, Business Angel Network of Southeast Asia, Beijing CYL Joint Committee on Entrepreneurship Development, Beijing Software Industry Association, National Research Foundation CGAP Fund, and Sports Excellence Business.

We caught up with James and asked him on his success strategies for his entrepreneurial journey and how he managed to balance his busy schedules amongst his numerous involvements.

Tell us more about your entrepreneurial journey, how did it started?

My most recent venture was an ecommerce company in China. The confluence of social, local, and mobile created opportunities that eventually created more than 5,000 direct competitors. I am very deliberate in the opportunities that I pursue because everything has an opportunity cost. I am fortunate that we caught the opportunity at the right time and executed sufficiently well enough for an eventual exit.

What are the challenges you have faced, how did you overcome it?

Doubt. When we started our company, it was easy for outsiders to doubt us. When the competition heated up and validated the business model, it became easy for outsiders to doubt that we can compete against the competition. We learn that offense is very often the best defense.

What inspires you to be an entrepreneur?

The ability to influence change.

Who influence you the most in your entrepreneurial journey?

Rather than a single person, it’s the Chinese PRC. At the risk of over-generalisation, having studied and worked there for many years, the Chinese PRC is hardworking, opportunity-driven, and never satisfied.

In your startup journey, what is the best advice you ever took?

Filter advice. As a founder, I received plenty of advice from different people. But knowing what and who to listen to is important. So is when the advice is given as the same nugget does not carry through different stages. Some people are not qualified to give advice although they may not have ill intentions. Filtration is important.

What are you doing now, and what are you up to next?

I am currently the Deputy Chairman at ACE where together with the Board led by Dr Mark Hon, and the Management team led by Edmas Neo, we look at the startup ecosystem holistically to identify gaps and opportunities. We scan the landscape and work closely with our stakeholders to ensure that Singapore remains at the forefront for starting and growing businesses.

I am Chairman at the Business Angel Network of Southeast Asia (BANSEA), where we are growing, managing, and leading the active angel investment community in Southeast Asia with a combination of education and investments.

My day job is Managing Partner at Quest Ventures where we have three major focuses: venture, enterprise and social good. We are interested in Southeast Asia and have portfolio companies across the region in the areas of artificial intelligence, e-commerce and marketplaces, entertainment, finance, food, insurance, logistics, media, property, sports, and the Islamic digital economy. Unlike most investment firms, we are fortunate to have the flexibility to pursue new areas without much encumbrances. For example, the social good focus is a direct result of us scanning the landscape and seeing a gap that few, if any, are addressing so we are tackling it. With a combination of capital and technology, I am excited and looking forward to make meaningful impact for enterprises focused on social good.

Given the amount of commitments you have, what is one productivity tip you swear by in your busy schedule?

Outsource getting from point A to B. Take public transport including Grab. It frees up an hour or more of time driving and parking every day, and is a good reset of the mind. As an added benefit, I get to observe people, and trends – all important in understanding what’s happening with the person on the street today.

As ACE’s Deputy Chairman, in what ways do you hope to help startups through ACE or other means?

Internationalisation has been my focus since I joined the ACE board six years ago. We are providing Singapore-based startups with more support in more key cities overseas. Partnering with the Global Innovation Alliance has further expanded our reach. The challenge is in making these nodes meaningful – are these centres at the top of entrepreneurs’ mind when they enter those cities? Do entrepreneurs consider ACE as a necessary port of call when they venture out of Singapore? To what extent should assistance be offered without creating a crutch mentality?

At a broad level, we also need to move away from measuring inputs, which is short term, to outputs, which is necessarily long term for startups. I also look forward to collaborating more with international partners who can appreciate the challenges and opportunities that a small market such as Singapore has in our fast-growing region.

What is your vision for the Singapore Startup Ecosystem?

For investors, that we are a vibrant, complete funding ecosystem from seed to exit, with a comprehensive variety of funding and exit options such as debt, secondaries, and M&As.

For entrepreneurs, that starting large, impactful, fast-growing companies from Singapore for the world is something very possible, and therefore they set their sights for audaciously big goals.

For regulators, that we take a prudent approach to regulations so that innovation can happen at the same time while Singapore’s hard-earned reputation as a trusted brand is protected.

If there is one advice you need to give to entrepreneurs, what would that be?

Whether you are building something for the community or for-profit, you can build something that can scale, replicate, and target large communities. Don’t do small. Don’t waste your time.