[00:00:00] Bryan Pham: Hey, everyone. Welcome to another episode on the Asian Hustle Network podcast. Today, we had Jonathan Lam. Jonathan is a two-time entrepreneur and early-stage investor focused on helping startups scale their revenue and operations. He is also a general partner at Root and Shoot Ventures. Jonathan, welcome to the show.
[00:00:20] Jonathan Lam: Thanks a lot, Bryan. Yes. It’s really lovely to see you again. I’m really happy to be on the show and excited to chat about revenue sharing or all things at VC. So let’s get started.
[00:00:28] Bryan Pham: Of course, as we like to start with the question. Who are you, Jonathan? Where did you grow up? What was your bracket like?
[00:00:33] Jonathan Lam: Great. Great question, Bryan. I was born in Toronto and raised until about four or five. When I was about pre-K, that’s when I made my first transition moving to Beijing. So my family has been in Toronto for about 30 years before that.
[00:00:46] Jonathan Lam: And I guess they uprooted us as a family. And that’s where I spent most of my childhood up until university. In China, it was interesting, right? Because English was my first language. Chinese was my second language, but growing up in Beijing, it felt very different. It was a very distinct identity. We went to an international school and the exciting thing there. In an international school, I felt like most people just went there for a few years. Whether they worked at some corporate ex-pat company and they leave.
[00:01:13] Jonathan Lam: But the great thing was, I could meet many great lifelong friends, family, and connections that I hold dear today. Fast forward to even being in Toronto, I have a lot of close friends around the world, and I still have heavy roots back in aging, which I love because I love going back there every chance I get.
[00:01:30] Bryan Pham: Yes, that’s a unique background. Learning English first, then moving back to Beijing. That’s crazy. What was the transition like returning to Beijing as a native English speaker?
[00:01:39] Jonathan Lam: Luckily, I was four. But I remember the first thing I saw, like when I got to the airport, was someone spinning on the floor, and I was like, oh, that’s pretty cool.
[00:01:47] Jonathan Lam: It was just really different. I didn’t speak my native language. There weren’t that many ex-pats back in 1994 -1995. It was a very interesting transition. I remember our first place. We stayed in a hotel for the first month and eventually moved to a house.
[00:02:00] Jonathan Lam: But I remember us showering like dirty water, and this was Beijing for the first month or so. And Fast forward to today, it was crazy that we were able to see that economic development from the amount of Totos and bicycles, all the way to where Beijing is today, which is a modern developed economic powerhouse, similar to New York, LA, Toronto, but a lot more developed.
[00:02:19] Jonathan Lam: I loved every moment of it.
[00:02:21] Bryan Pham: Yes. I like how you mentioned that, too because I have a lot of perception of how rural China is in some big cities. But to be honest, if you like looking into the Asian demographic, it’s like, these cities are super modern like there are technologies like eons ahead.
[00:02:35] Bryan Pham: They have subway systems that make sense. You get anywhere you need, like trying to push away from cars actively and move towards city planning. So I’m glad you’re able to mention that on the podcast, too, because I don’t think many of us realize how developed Asians are.
[00:02:51] Jonathan Lam: Yes, that’s a good point, Bryan. Especially in the beginning, there’s like over 10. Maybe even like 50 million people living in Beijing or at least the metropolitan of Beijing, and to be able to fit that much. With that many people in such a refined, confined space, you can’t have that many cars. It was interesting to see because there was that bicycle craze, too, where they had lifted bicycles. You were able to ride bikes. There were just so many of them on the streets. Because there was a fast amount of transportation, the subway system was very advanced and developed. It gets overcrowded sometimes as well, too. Like every metropolitan, they have some infrastructure problems that they need to address. But it’s been such an exciting development because back when we were there from 1995 to 2000, there was no subway system.
[00:03:30] Jonathan Lam: There were just taxis, bicycles, and buses, and it all got built in less than 10 years for the bridging Olympics.
[00:03:36] Bryan Pham: Yes. It’s crazy watching the development of not just cities in China, but across Asia, including Vietnam and Indonesia. You name it, you see all these modern cities, and I want to link it back to your experience as a founder, too.
[00:03:51] Bryan Pham: What was your first venture? What was it like going through that process? Was it in Beijing? Was it in Canada? Was it here in the states?
[00:03:57] Bryan Pham: How did you get your first idea?
[00:03:59] Jonathan Lam: Great question, Bryan. Growing up in Beijing, I saw a different mentality than it is in Canada. I see the vast contrast in Beijing on one hand. I feel it’s a lot more; I’ll say it’s more of a hustle.
[00:04:10] Jonathan Lam: It’s a lot more shark, like in that sense, as well, too, everyone’s trying to make it. Everyone’s pushing themselves. Everyone’s crowded. Everyone’s working hard. You see it in all aspects of life, from the ex-pats to the students and teachers. Everyone’s studying hard and working towards their goal.
[00:04:24] Jonathan Lam: I think that’s a common thing ingrained in our culture which I found very interesting. And being or developing that mentality, that’s always what I wanted to be an operator. I saw how they did it in Beijing. Coming back to Toronto, this is always what I wanted to do.
[00:04:40] Jonathan Lam: And the funny story, Bryan, was the first thing I wanted to do right after I graduated university. It was to open my restaurant because I was always passionate about it. I love food. I love the hustle. I love working long hours. I even did a rotational program in Beijing as my first job.
[00:04:54] Jonathan Lam: I worked at a Japanese restaurant, from being a line cook to cutting sushi. To be a waitress or a waiter, just to get that experience. I enjoyed it. But unfortunately, that never really came to fruition. This is really where I guess the other aspect of what I liked doing was, and I launched a company called “Peer Funder.”
[00:05:10] Jonathan Lam: This was back in 2015. I launched Peer Funder just because I wanted to empower small businesses. I thought that was interesting because transition number one is from Beijing, especially in Canada. It is economic development to all these super apps, WeChat. Coming to Canada, we’re still relying on interactive email transfers just to pay money.
[00:05:27] Jonathan Lam: Our financing system is a little outdated and broken. So I felt like there was a lot of innovation to be done. And, especially with small businesses, the funding options were very outdated and limited. It was really hard to get a loan from the bank.
[00:05:39] Jonathan Lam: There was limited venture capital funding. Debt financing is a very rigid process that you know wasn’t adaptive to innovation. So what we did at Peer Funder was we built this revenue share model for main street businesses. This was cool because it helped them originate loans by taking a percentage of revenue.
[00:05:56] Jonathan Lam: I thought this was empowering and innovative. What we realized about most main street businesses is that they operate cyclically, especially during upturns and downturns. You can imagine an ice cream shop does well in the summer. It doesn’t do too well in the winter.
[00:06:10] Jonathan Lam: I feel like in Canada, especially in Toronto winter, a lot of things operate to a standstill just because it’s so cold and snowy. Whereas, in CA for most traditional fixed loans. It’s rigid and doesn’t adapt to business needs, whereas revenue share financing was beneficial. I just love that model. That’s what we started off launching. And we eventually pivoted, not just to Mac street businesses, but to eCommerce businesses.
[00:06:33] Bryan Pham: That’s amazing. Thank you so much for even coming up with the idea. I think the cool thing about finance is that you can utilize a lot of creative finance, except that. Honestly, it goes back to. I don’t know how the educational system is in China and Canada, but you’re not taught much like deep finance things like that in the U.S. It comes down to understanding, like what you’re able to work with.
[00:06:53] Bryan Pham: What’s legal? What’s not legal? So I’m curious too, how did you end up exiting that company? Did you sell your shares? Did you step away? Did you move to the board? I think that topic is not covered on the Asian Network podcast, and we’d like to dive deep into the exit process of a founder.
[00:07:10] Jonathan Lam: Yes, that’s a great question, Bryan. Luckily, what we did to venture or navigate around the regulation is issuing securities as a very highly regulated space. What we found was debt financing was a little different.
[00:07:22] Jonathan Lam: Private lending is a lot more open. So what we did at Peer Funder is we essentially grew this to about 10 million in loan origination. So I built it from scratch, continued to raise capital from private lenders, and deployed capital to main street businesses and eCommerce platforms, specifically in crowdfunding campaigns.
[00:07:38] Jonathan Lam: The exciting thing about the exit process here was I didn’t, unfortunately, really have as much of an exit. Whereas I was able to sunset the business. This was an exciting process to move into crypto as well, too. Because I was still operating that business, I got poached by another company.
[00:07:53] Jonathan Lam: This company was one of the largest physical exchanges in Canada. Crypto in 2017 was a relatively new concept and a natural progression for me to move there. It was a nice transition for me, where I could sunset the business, let the loans pay their course-paid dues, and close the business like that.
[00:08:09] Jonathan Lam: In other words, it wasn’t a successful exit where I got a return on a multiple. But I was able to make my investors happy to make mainstream businesses fulfill their loans. I was able to transition into my next company successfully.
[00:08:21] Bryan Pham: Wow. Thank you for covering that too.
[00:08:23] Bryan Pham: Many of us always wonder about that transition phase. Do I sunset? Do I sell, like how things work out? I’m glad we can briefly talk about that, but I want to hear about your second company, right? As you mentioned, there was a seamless transition over to the second one.
[00:08:37] Bryan Pham: Definitely, I want to hear more about that.
[00:08:39] Jonathan Lam: Yes, great question, Bran. In 2017, that’s really where I began my journey into Crypto. At first, I had no idea what it was. Some of my old colleagues or people I knew for a long time essentially poached me and enticed me to join their company.
[00:08:50] Jonathan Lam: This company was growing crazy fast and had this really interesting product, where they were just launching these physical kiosks across Canada. There were only about four or five people in this company, so it was a relatively small company when I first joined.
[00:09:02] Jonathan Lam: Because of their fast growth and crypto that blew up in 2017, I think it went from anywhere between two $3,000 up. To 20 to $25,000 at one point, this was a 2017 kind of bull run, and they got a lot of attention.
[00:09:16] Jonathan Lam: They got a lot of demand, and it was such an exciting business model. And the cool thing about a company like this is that they’re trying to build the traditional payments or the traditional Fiat OnRamps and Off-Ramps. And I thought this was necessary because everyone talks about the picks and shovels these guys were doing.
[00:09:31] Jonathan Lam: I was trying to adopt or let people assume cryptocurrency as mainstream, and I love getting in the weeds of it. I love being an operator. I love going to stores. I love planting machines. I love trying to like driving machines or driving trucks to different store locations and just physically plant the devices yourself.
[00:09:47] Jonathan Lam: So I was able to wear the operator hat, but it depends on the role you have to place, especially in a startup, because you tend to wear all hats as well, too. So for me, as much as I like being the operator, I wore that finance hat as well, too.
[00:09:59] Jonathan Lam: I was in charge of a lot of accounting, finance, and especially with Crypto like my realization was like, reconciliation is a mess. This is a problem that many startups are solving today, which I’m bullish about, but it was really interesting because it uses tradition. Not to bore you guys, you’re not dull accounting software using standard.
[00:10:17] Jonathan Lam: Using traditional accounting software, like QuickBooks, for instance, they only go up to two decimal points. As we know, Bitcoin can go up to eight decimal points. You couldn’t correctly reconcile anything using traditional accounting software.
[00:10:28] Jonathan Lam: So we rely on a lot of spreadsheets, a lot of manual processes. The cool thing about this is my time at the local coin shop at Colonel. I could see at least sift through the BS, in my opinion. That’s the difference where I find that my view in crypto is compared to many other operators out there. I’m not focused as much on the technology, but I’m on the picks and shovels because I feel like that’s where the actual utility is. That’s where the real use cases lie.
[00:10:52] Bryan Pham: Yes, I love it. How do you align things with your core values and the things that you like to do, it’s you know what you’re good at? How to help the business stay within those boundaries? Which is a fantastic thing to have? Given the state of the crypto markets right now, as we’re a little bit on the bearish side, what are your views on the features of Crypto?
[00:11:12] Jonathan Lam: That’s a great question, Bryan. So you know, as I’ve been through two, I’m not going to say I’ve been to Crypto since 2012, 2013, or 2014. I only joined in about 2017. I’ve been through two bull runs now and two bearish winters. Now I would consider this a crypto winter. I think we’re just getting started, but we’ll see.
[00:11:27] Jonathan Lam: I would say my views on this. The most vital and resilient founders that build in this market will survive. That’s what I think if you’re still making this market. If you’re responsible for managing your cash flows as we look at the stories of three arrows, capital of Voyager, Celsius, right?
[00:11:43] Jonathan Lam: It’s just mismanagement of their cash flow. But if you could properly manage and adequately have these checks and balances, which most people don’t have, you won’t be able to survive. That said, I’m still really bullish on the infrastructure. The ones building the Crypto from the ground up, just because, look right now, the banking on rails and op-rails are getting closer to where they need to be. But most countries worldwide, especially Southeast Asia, don’t still have access to banking needs, especially if you don’t use crypto, right? You’re still relying on OTC providers.
[00:12:13] Jonathan Lam: You’re still relying on on under the table, and banks still heavily restrict your purchasing ability. I believe that the next generation, the next wave, will be a game changer, especially during this downfall.
[00:12:23] Bryan Pham: I couldn’t agree more than with that analysis. I think I’m not saying I have been through all the market trenches, but I’ve been through now to see that things are going to recover.
[00:12:33] Bryan Pham: I think there are parallels and not parallels to the early days of the internet. With the internet, it’s like many people had doubts about whether or not this could be integrated into mainstream society, but now it is. I feel like Crypto and like entities and everything is just the beginning.
[00:12:48] Bryan Pham: Of course, I feel there’s a lot of hype at the beginning. There’s a lot of excitement. There are a lot of scams. But I think over time, it will mature, and we haven’t given it enough time to mature.
[00:12:57] Jonathan Lam: I agree with that, Bryan. I do think that I equate this similarly to crowdfunding campaigns.
[00:13:02] Jonathan Lam: At Peer Fund, we were able to give loans, so I saw the development of crowdfunding campaigns, right? When you first heard about Kickstarter and the idea was able to raise millions and millions of dollars, the first wave couldn’t deliver or fulfill its promises.
[00:13:14] Jonathan Lam: And they got a lot of anger towards C. I feel that’s similar to the first wave of the NFTs. They over-promise. They underdeliver at least 90% of them, let’s say. But I think the next wave of NP builders will think about, look, how can I show up my team?
[00:13:28] Jonathan Lam: How can I provide utility and deliver on my promises? So I agree with you, Bryan. I think I’m excited about the future of NFTs and the next wave of tokens.
[00:13:37] Bryan Pham: Yes. I appreciate your energy, like talking about all these different topics. I feel the psych man.
[00:13:42] Bryan Pham: I know, I feel the passion in your voice, and I want to thank you for helping the community. For your listeners, we don’t know. Jonathan helped out with Gordon’s birthday. Gordon did a fundraiser for an API organization supporting reputation in media, such as a gold house, Cape hates the virus, and organizations supporting and uplifting the community.
[00:14:04] Bryan Pham: Thank you so much, Jonathan.
[00:14:05] Jonathan Lam: Thank you, Bryan. Thank you for showing support because I know you were one of the sponsors as well, too. We’re more than happy to support you in any way possible. And Bryan, you’re leading the charge here as well. Yes, I appreciate that.
[00:14:17] Bryan Pham: And for our listeners, suitable? Gordon’s one of our mutual friends. He’s also one of the general partners of Root and Shoot Ventures with Jonathan. Tell us about Route and Shoot Ventures. Why did you guys start that? How did you guys start that, and how did you meet Gordon and your other partner?
[00:14:33] Jonathan Lam: Yes. Great question, Bryan.
[00:14:34] Jonathan Lam: So let’s start with how we began Root and Shoot Ventures. I’ve known Gordon and my other partner for a long time now. One of the benefits of us growing up in Beijing together despite most people leaving our transitions. In and out of Beijing, I feel like there’s been just a core group of people that stayed for about 15 or 16 years. Gordon and Mike were a part of that as well.
[00:14:51] Jonathan Lam: I grew up with them. And I would say how we started Root and Shoot Ventures was that Gordon and I were diverging past right after high school and university. He went to LA. He studied. I went to Toronto, and we did not work in the same industries. But the great thing is we always kept in contact and collaborated on any advice I needed. We kept in touch with any suggestion he needed because we trusted each other and respected each other’s opinions and thoughts.
[00:15:17] Jonathan Lam: So we did a lot of angels investing as well. You are in the past and fast forward about a year and a half ago. That’s really when we started the fund we were like, Gordon was investing a lot of deals. And I was advising him, and we thought, why not transition this to a fund?
[00:15:31] Jonathan Lam: Why not dive heavy and try something different? Try something new just because we’re getting a lot of deals. These are great opportunities, not just for the API community but also for our network. So we thought, hey, let’s start a fund, and that was it.
[00:15:44] Bryan Pham: That was unexpected. Looking back, I don’t think I would’ve done anything differently.
[00:15:48] Bryan Pham: That’s amazing. I’m glad you guys can stay in touch since your younger days in Beijing, coming to the states, coming to what you’re in Canada, coming to North America, so I appreciate that. What is the thesis of Root Shoot Ventures? What do you guys invest in? What kind of founders do you look for? What kind of qualities do you look for? I know you guys are very selective in your process but also very endearing to the ones you choose to invest in, so I want to hear more about that.
[00:16:15] Jonathan Lam: Oh, thanks, Bryan. Yes, so I would say we’re an early-stage venture fund. We mainly focus on prey to see, to maybe visit the extension deals, but we will make the exceptions. The initial goal for our first fund was to invest in about 100 companies spread across three different verticals.
[00:16:30] Jonathan Lam: Number one is a generational shift. The level here, the playing field, and digital technologies. In terms of what we’ve done recently, we’ve recently invested in. We recently hit the 30 company target mark, which was a great success. And yes, it’s a pretty rigorous investment process.
[00:16:46] Jonathan Lam: We can explain more in detail for sure. But in a high-level summary, in the past year and a half, we’ve seen about or evaluated over 12,000 companies. We’ve engaged with over 1200 of them and invested about 30. And for us to go from 12,000 to 12,300, it’s a rigorous process.
[00:17:03] Bryan Pham: I can’t imagine, so I want to hear more about your fundraising process. I know you mentioned earlier that you’re creating something that’s such a win for the community, right? Such a win for your peers, and your network. I want to hear about how big this fund is, right? How did you raise your first million? What was the struggle about raising the next five to 10 to like whatever size fund you are?
[00:17:24] Bryan Pham: I feel there’s not enough information about that online, and I want to ensure that those interested in venture capital know how to get it.
[00:17:31] Jonathan Lam: Yes, really great question, Bryan. Number one, we didn’t even know what we were doing when we first started.
[00:17:37] Jonathan Lam: That was an exciting thought, right? Because as first-time, emerging fund managers, we were still figuring things out as we went. But what I loved about what we did was, look, you need to like, to raise your first million, you need a network. It’s very similar to raising startup capital.
[00:17:51] Jonathan Lam: It’s no different where you need a network of at least a hundred different protective investors when you’re raising a fund. You rank them from top tier to bottom tier, and you need to be going and speaking with them. I think there will be a shock question later, but for first-time fund managers with little track record, venture as an asset class is hard to understand.
[00:18:09] Jonathan Lam: There were many exciting things about first joining in, right? Because what we realized was number one, the industry was a little closed off, and most large institutional managers will often ignore first-time fund managers for the first funds.
[00:18:21] Jonathan Lam: So, as first-time emerging fund managers, we depended on our network and high-network individuals. That’s what we sought to do. And what was interesting was getting it off the ground was difficult. Sometimes, it felt like a lost cause because you pitched over 20 investors, and it’s the first time for fund managers.
[00:18:38] Jonathan Lam: We have to prepare for a lot of rejection, right? You work your way through five meetings, through 10 sessions, just to get a flight to reject. That’s what we just kept pushing. It’s just the grind. It’s just a hustle. You just have to keep putting yourself out there. Keep networking, keep building your story and keep building your thesis.
[00:18:52] Jonathan Lam: We have over 25 versions of our deck. Our thesis is constantly evolving. But what we love about what we do is that our process and what we love pitching to our investors is that we methodically and meticulously track our portfolio and all the factors that lead up to the investment.
[00:19:07] Jonathan Lam: And I think that’s important for first-time fund managers, right? It’s to show growth and to tell a story, and we want to continue to learn and improve in investing. Storytelling is crucial for startup founders pitching any fund managers.
[00:19:42] Bryan Pham: Yes, the hustle never stops. That’s why you guys are on the Asian Hustle Network podcast. Jonathan, so what’s next to you, man? You’re a two-time founder. You’re a fund manager.
[00:19:51] Bryan Pham: You’re an operator. You did every single part of the spectrum. Right? Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?
[00:19:58] Jonathan Lam: Oh, that’s a great question, Bryan. I love investing. I love operating. Being an investor and being able to advise deals or advise companies is something I’m very passionate about.
[00:20:08] Jonathan Lam: Just because, seeing your success as a person, Bryan, would make me happy. I think seeing a lot of companies follow their dreams, follow their past. Sometimes it’s love. It’s nice to see that. I think for the next five or 10 years, I want to still be in this space.
[00:20:21] Jonathan Lam: Gordon and I discussed this with my other partner, Michael. But we’re going to be launching our next fund pretty soon as well. I know Gordon’s going to talk a little bit about uni-angels but what’s cool about our network as well, too, is we’re not fixated on one investment class or asset class.
[00:20:35] Jonathan Lam: So whatever deals or opportunities come. We look at it as well. We’ve recently invested in a Maui hotel; for instance, we’re investing in early-stage deals. We’re investing in everything. That’s not a fit for a Rudin shoot, but will be a fit for our network.
[00:20:49] Bryan Pham: Wow. That’s awesome. I see Gordon’s story all the time. I see working on new construction, Airbnb tells startups. So I was like, you guys got your feet and everything. I love it. I love the hustle, for sure. So, Jonathan, we have one final question for you. And that question is if you can restart any point of your career, what would you have done differently?
[00:21:13] Jonathan Lam: That’s a really good question. Bryan.
[00:21:16] Jonathan Lam: I think my initial skepticism of Crypto made me much more embarrassed than I should have been. So I guess if I were to restart my career, I think I would have invested a lot more into Crypto, a lot more of my net worth. This is hindsight 2020, but because I was in the industry, I should have gone all in, for instance.
[00:21:33] Jonathan Lam: But I wear my conservative, my finance hat, and I was like, yes, I’m only going to diversify, 5% to 10% of my portfolio in Bitcoin. That is it, so if I were to restart, I think I would change my investing strategy. I think it would be a lot more aggressive.
[00:21:46] Bryan Pham: Definitely. It is a high-risk, high-work type of feeling, right? Let’s be honest: only a few select Hannah people would invest over an X amount into Crypto, like backward 2013-2014. What is this crazy new technology like?
[00:22:00] Bryan Pham: I don’t know, as you said, right? High sign, 20, 20, looking back, it’s oh,
[00:22:03] Bryan Pham: I should have done that.
[00:22:05] Bryan Pham: But honestly, the way I view it is like you invest whenever you’re ready because there’s always going to be more opportunity that will come your way.
[00:22:12] Jonathan Lam: That’s so true, Bryan. Yes. That’s why I don’t regret anything I’ve done in the past. Everything’s a learning experience. Everything is a new chapter. You always push forward because if you do in the past, you’re never going to be able to make yourself or get yourself out of your comfort zone.
[00:22:25] Bryan Pham: Yes. 100%. So Jonathan, how can our listeners find out more about you and reach out to you?
[00:22:31] Jonathan Lam: Yes, so please check out our website, rs. ventures, or if you guys are interested in learning more about VC or learning the fundraising process. As an API founder, if you guys need any help, we would be more than happy to help.
[00:22:42] Jonathan Lam: You can shoot me an email at jonathan@rs.Ventures. And I’m available for a call.
[00:22:46] Bryan Pham: Definitely, we will include all that in the show notes. Thank you so much for your time today, Jonathan.
[00:22:51] Jonathan Lam: Thank you so much, Bryan.
[00:22:53] Bryan Pham: Of course.