VBAN Members – Q&A With Tony Chen

Tony Chen

What is your personal background?

I was born and raised on the East Coast of America. My family and I had lived in Chicago for 15 years before coming to Kenya in 2015. I earned a BS in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University and an MBA from Northwestern Kellogg School of Management. After leaving corporate about 10 years ago, I’ve been a serial entrepreneur, starting businesses in digital, data, as well as consumer goods. My first business was acquired by a publishing company in 2009. My most recent business, FDAzilla, is a data analytics company, which I co-founded and ran as CEO for 7 years. Last year, we brought in a “real” CEO to take my place, and I now serve as Chairman. We have lived in Kijabe, Kenya for the last three years. While we are moving back to Chicago next month, I will be making trips back to Nairobi every few months.

 What do African startups typically lack?

From my perspective, management talent is the bottleneck. Capital is readily available to those who can build out great teams. There are plenty of ideas that will work well here in East Africa. It’s a matter of assembling the right teams who can execute well.

 How excited are you about the tech space in Africa?

I think there are many pockets of great opportunity. I think Nairobi is now past the “hype” phase, and the next generation of start-ups is wiser, smarter, and more nimble.

 How big is investor interest in Africa right now?

Investor interest seems to be growing, but political stability and market risk are still real concerns.

 What made you want to become an Angel Investor?

I love the 0 to 1 start-up phase of business, so I want to empower as many great companies to get through that phase and then go on to scale for maximal impact. I believe that business – considered holistically and humanely – is possibly the most significant force to shape the culture and trajectory of a society. We can do good by doing well.

How important are angel groups and networks?

There is a gap in the market at the $10-100k angel level.  And individual angels are usually not able to place enough bets to do this professionally. So, angel networks are key.

What is unique about the East African start-up space?

Nairobi is a great place to start a start-up, but Kenya is still a relatively small market. Start-ups need to think about East Africa and/or Pan-Africa relatively early in the game.

How many investments have you done so far?

I’ve made four investments – two in agriculture, one in media, and one in fitness. I have ~20 deals on my desk right now that are in the consideration phase.

 What do you look for in a start-up before you invest?

First and foremost, I look for team.  Battle-tested ideas are easy, battle-tested teams are gold. Secondly, I look at the market and business model. For traction, I look for at least 3 customers.

 What has been your experience as an angel investor?

I have thoroughly enjoyed connecting with investors and entrepreneurs across the Nairobi landscape.

 What would be your advice to people who want to become angel investors?

  1. Don’t do it alone.
  2. There is no replacement for face-to-face one-on-one interaction. You can get at the “why” people do things, which can be even more important than “what” people do.
  3. Read “Angel Investing: The Gust Guide to Making Money and Having Fun Investing in Start-Ups”

 

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