Essence of Investing

Transcribed with permission from a podcast with Next Level Communication

Jonathan Rechtman

Hey, everyone, and welcome to the Essence of Investing where we explore the story, strategies, wit, and wisdom of investors from across the Asia region and beyond. I’m your host, Jonathan Rechtman. My guest today is the one and only Chee-We Ng, partner at Oak Seed Ventures, which invests in early-stage enterprise technologies from AI and cyber security to next generation compute.

In this episode, Chee-We shares stories from his early days as a coder in middle school, his strategy for evaluating technical founders, and a ton of wisdom about making hard tradeoffs, listening to our inner voices, and realizing distinctive value as human beings in the age of AI. Please listen, like, share, give feedback, and most of all enjoy. The Essence of Investing is powered by Next Level Communication, and by the World of Allocators. Next Level Communication helps investors and multinational executives in Asia tell their stories to their most important global stakeholders.

Alright. Thank you so much, Chee-We, for joining us, on the podcast. So excited to, to have you with us today. I wanted to kick off with a look at where you got started. When we were speaking earlier, you told me, you know, you’re a very technical fund. And you said that you started coding as a child. And I wanted to ask how you got into coding as a child. What coding was like then and what your early fascination with technology and programming was.

Chee-We Ng

In middle school, this was the first time our middle school decided that instead of learning woodwork, we would learn programming. To set the context, this is during the days of the IBM PC when Windows hasn’t showed up yet. We were learning to do interesting things with GW BASIC, to solve, simple problems.

One day when our programming teacher wrote a simple program to do class planning. This is a laborious thing if you had to do it by hand. There are a number of teachers in math, science, history, geography, and what have you, and they will teach class A and B and C. And then you have to figure out for when school starts to when school ends, you need to have three science classes a week and three reading classes a week, how do you slot all of that in? And I was fascinated.

I was like, oh, wow. You can use computers to do that. And it was a simple BASIC program that our teacher wrote to solve that.

Jonathan Rechtman

How old were you and where were you at that time?

Chee-We Ng

I was in Singapore. I was, twelve going thirteen, and this was, grade seven.

Jonathan Rechtman

And do you remember the first time that you wrote a piece of code or that you found that empowerment, the ability to create something or to save time or to you know, create value, even though maybe as a child, you didn’t think of it in those terms. But the realization that with just your fingers and this keyboard, you could make something that didn’t exist and do something that you couldn’t do before.

Chee-We Ng

Yeah. And so the first real challenge that I took upon myself was after having learned some programming, I observed that my mother was facing some challenges at home using WordStar and WordPerfect.

This is way before Microsoft Word. And some people may remember that you have all these funny keystrokes even copy and paste wasn’t that straightforward and the other editor that MS-DOS provided was an editor called EDLIN, which is command based. It’s just a nightmare.

And I looked at my poor mother. She’s like, “Okay, what do I do to copy and paste again?” You know, it was incredibly hard.

And I was like, “Okay. What can I do to solve that?” And then I realized that you couldn’t do that in GW BASIC, because GW BASIC is an interpreted language. I needed to learn a language that you can compile.

So I went to the bookstore. I asked my dad to buy me a book on Turbo C, and we bought a copy of the Turbo C compiler.

And I learned about how a screen works and how do you display things on the screen. And I learned about data structures and how do you capture input, like left key and right key. And I decided that I was going to write my mother a word processor.

It was very simple, but it allowed her to not have to do funny keystrokes, you know, to copy and paste and allowed her to save, make things bold and underline. And that was it, but I made the decision to really alleviate her from pulling her hairs.

There was a lot to learn, but I was motivated and spent many hours in front of a computer and figure out, this is actually how you would compile a program and then and there you go. It was probably second year in middle school that I got the whole project done and my mother never needed to use WordStar and WordPerfect.

Jonathan Rechtman

Take us forward now in the story. How do you take this early passion for technology and coding and bring it forward as you as you go on your journey and enter a career, in both working in technology and then in finance.

Chee-We Ng

Yeah. So, you know, a fast forward, I was, very thrilled and delighted that I got admitted to MIT. You can tell I was a very geeky boy and, you know, technology really excites me. I, like, I still remember another story, which is we, grew up playing with Texas Instruments Speak and Spell, and our Speak and Spell broke, and my dad’s a physicist, and he said, okay, well, let me take a look.

He soldered a piece of a calculator on to Speak and Spell. I think it probably was a microprocessor also that he basically piggy-backed onto the bus. And it worked. It magically worked. I was like, oh, wow. What is this technology?

And so when I went to MIT, I learnt this is how these things work. It was just mindboggling that all these things are capable of doing different things.

I did my undergraduate and was admitted to the PhD program. I had actually taken a scholarship from the Singapore government, and so, I couldn’t finish my PhD program and Singapore said come home and, I started my work in the area of information security.

I started, building cybersecurity products, you know, encryption, authentication devices, and, I led a team of software and hardware engineers.

And then years into that, I started being exposed to the business side of things, doing business development and creating partnerships with companies like, Schlumberger Sema, which back then, had a smart card company. And so I decided, it’s time to maybe go to business school instead. And so I went to Harvard Business School. And then this was what really led me into the business side of the world, I was first at McKinsey. And then, from McKinsey, I transitioned into investing.

Jonathan Rechtman

What was the thesis that you took in your transition from, practicing to investing?

Chee-We Ng

At, Harvard, this is when I made the decision that, eventually I would like to be an investor. Maybe not right away, but this would be something that I would feel incredibly passionate about. At Harvard, as you can imagine, many of my peers are drawn to an investing career because it’s very financially rewarding. A third of the class comes from Wall Street and a third of the class wants to go to Wall Street. It’s almost natural.

But I was very inspired by some of the people that have walked through the halls of Harvard. Georges Doriot and Arthur Rock in particular, they actually were the first venture capitalist as you would call it.

I was actually receiving financial aid, from the school in the name of Georges Doriot, who was a professor. He was a general in the US Army, where he was director of military planning. And later Dean of Harvard Business School. Between, Georges Doriot and Arthur Rock, they have created companies like Intel and Digital Equipment.

Venture capital is in the business of making the world better, because by allocating capital to these innovators, they create things that otherwise would not be created. It just would not.

And so venture capitalists, have an immensely important role in society.

Jonathan Rechtman

When, tell me about the beginning of your career in investment. How did how did you begin investing?

Chee-We Ng

I was recruited to help start the Shanghai office of Arsenal Capital, which is a New York based mid-market, private equity firm.

And this was a time that a lot of businesses and manufacturing had all these opportunities in China. And Arsenal needed people like me who had consulting background, I was at McKinsey, and understood cross border challenges.

And so I transitioned from McKinsey into investing with Arsenal Capital. And it was a very educational experience with, with our partners like Terry Mullen, because Arsenal is a very special private equity firm that values a lot about having focus and having value add. Investing isn’t just go pick a good opportunity, but actually knowing what to be investing, having industry know-how, and also having impact, having value add to the firm itself.

Now what typically a lot of people think about private equity buyouts is you acquire a company, and then you do financial engineering – you go flip it. Arsenal was not. And that had a foundational impact on me in terms of how I think about investing.

And then transition into venture capital, I was later recruited into doing venture investments at Cisco. And at Cisco, we wanted to be investing into all the areas across the enterprise technology stack, as an effort to broaden Cisco’s know how experience and exposure to other areas of enterprise technology other than computer networking.

Corporate venture is about identifying technology trends, disruptions, these technologies that are coming out, and where we should be investing.

And so that’s how I got into doing this. And that’s essentially what we are still doing today.

Oak Seed Ventures was founded with colleagues of mine, to look at where the innovations are. Today we focus exclusively on AI cybersecurity and next generation computing. And we look at the innovations that are coming up, the disruptions that are coming up and the pain points in organizations, and then backing and helping the new founders that we see.

Jonathan Rechtman

How is it different practicing this investment as a standalone fund as your own fund versus is doing it via a corporate. How is your practice at Oak Seed different from your practice at Cisco?

Chee-We Ng

So I would point to a few things. One, of course, in a corporate, you never have to worry about fundraising.

But, of course, at corporate like Cisco, we really cared about the technology. We cared about how is this relevant to Cisco? Now, at Cisco, there were things that are close to Cisco’s core businesses, which computer networking is a very big part. But we also have cyber security, collaboration tools, Webex and others.

And for things that are close to core, we tend to think about what is the synergy? Is there some sort of strategic fit?

But we also define areas that we think are important technology areas in general, but not necessarily having an immediate intersection with Cisco’s business. For instance, the areas of big data, next generation data warehousing and so forth. Areas that, were emerging and important to Cisco to understand.

So in those areas, we think pretty much like a venture capitalist. Where these new big things that are happening that will give rise to opportunities where new, potentially, huge companies will be created?

Now, of course, in a VC firm, you push that to even more, because our responsibility is to create outsized returns for investors, given the risk that is in VC. Investors are looking to venture capital to create those outsized returns. And that forces us to think not just about the technology, the market, the dislocations, but financially whether this would be, one of those investments that would deliver that outsized return.

Jonathan Rechtman

Tell me a little bit now about Oak Seed Ventures and the strategy and what is unique about your firm, unique about your point of view on the market, on these sectors that you talked about, and your edge?

Chee-We Ng

We bet companies in the enterprise technology space when they, have little or no product. And what’s our edge is we work very hard to have our own, perspective on things that is non-public information. And then we try to de-risk by helping, those companies. And we’re very, very focused.

As mentioned, we only focus on AI, cybersecurity and next generation computing. We’re very technical. Some of us are from investing background, some from industry, and we share different perspectives, from the technology, the business of technology, and the financial and investing perspective, and we put all of that together. And we are looking for founders that are highly differentiated in terms of their experience in the technology world.

And we do a lot of the DD ourselves in terms of, like figure out if these technologies are at the forefront, not just by looking for things in a checkbox, like they worked at a Google or they worked at a Qualcomm or, they have a PhD from Stanford or MIT. But actually that they have spent time really developing truly unique technology capabilities.

We spend a lot of time thinking about the business of technology, figuring out whether they are solving real pain points. In the technology world, oftentimes, one of the pitfalls is that you would be a better mouse trap or a mouse trap looking for the mouse.

You don’t want that. Steve Jobs once said, you want to start from the customer experience and figure out what the technology needs to be. It’s no different in the enterprise space. You have to find customer pain points, what pain points you’re trying to solve.

And a database seems to be a database, but it’s like you use different knives for different situations. You really have to find out the use case, you have to really find out the pain points. It takes a great startup team to realize where these new opportunities are, the new use cases that are not solved by existing technologies. And they create new products and solutions to solve it.

Jonathan Rechtman

I want to double click on what you described as non-public information. And what sort of information are we talking about and how do you get it? And why is it valuable?

Chee-We Ng

And let’s talk about technology bench of the teams we back.

There’s one approach that you can do, which is, you basically look at the resume, and you say, okay. This team has the credentials, have gone to the good schools, done a PhD and a graduate degree, and then have looked at the right companies.

That’s public information. Because that’s information that that everyone has access to. Right? The BP will say, the founders went to these schools. They work for these companies. You can go a bit deeper and then you can go interview colleagues at the company. You can try to find out what was their real experiences and those kinds of things.

But we go beyond that. We really quiz the founders in terms of their understanding of the things they are doing. Granted that we, obviously, even though all of us are very technical, we can’t be experts in in everything. Even though many of us had written code, or done engineering work when we were younger, we don’t do it as deeply now.

But we have access to friends, colleagues, and MIT faculty and others. I also spend time reading technical papers. We try to figure out, when do things get difficult and challenging, where are the tradeoffs that need to be made?

And so we have a conversation with typically, the CTO or the technical founders, what is difficult here? And why is this so special? And granted that sometimes founders also don’t tell us the true secret sauce, because obviously it’s proprietary and probably we won’t be able to understand all the details about it.

But we know fairly enough where are some of the really difficult challenges. And the founders that are working at that forefront of technology understand limitations of technology. They understand, oh, wow, this is really hard. And some of them have chosen to work on those very difficult things because they know if they are able to overcome them, those are huge barriers to entry.

And so we look out for those. We look out for a team that does not just look good on paper because often times the best talent need not have gone to the MIT’s and Stanford’s and what have you, the best talents are the ones that just love playing with technology, whether it’s software or hardware. They just enjoy doing that, since they were very, very young. And you get to know that by having interactions like these with them.

Jonathan Rechtman

It sounds like there’s this there’s this paradox for investors where investors want to invest in people that are smarter than them so that they can, you know, push the boundaries, the frontiers of science and technology and create things that don’t exist. If the investors were that smart and that innovative, they would probably, you know, invent technologies themselves.

So you want to be, you know, giving allocating capital to people that are really on another level. But at the same time, you wanna understand. you wanna be able to do diligence on them and make sure that that they really do have that intelligence. And so you need some sort of ability to check.

And the way that you approach sounds like is rather than by having all of the answers, you get really smart about what are the questions or what are the challenges or the tradeoffs that you described; drawing on your network of science experts to understand where the where the cutting edge gets blurry and then quizzing the founders not on how they solve it, but how they approach that tension or those difficulties, how they think about the hard part?

Chee-We Ng

That’s exactly right. We are not nearly as smart as them in what they do. My problem statement is not to be as smart or to be smarter, but knowing how to identify the smart ones.

And maybe smart is not even the right word. It is having those experiences, and the ability to do that creation, and being the best in in that area. And so that’s what we are looking for.

And there’re also other elements to it. And as I mentioned, it’s also things like passion. Like, this is their life’s work. So it’s not just, oh, this is just another gig. This is someone who’s like, yes, I’ve gone through this, I’ve learned all these things, now I see this problem that needs to be fixed. And I have all the skills to do it. And I this is my life’s passion now, and the world will be better.

And so we look for this drive as well because, end of the day, it’s really about a founder’s life passion, and they are there at the right time, at the right place, with the right sets of skills. And they’re like, yes, I want to do it now. This is the right time to be doing this.

Jonathan Rechtman

What’s the sort of non-public information that you can get that reveals something about a founder’s passion or their commitment or their, their drive or character?

Chee-We Ng

One of the things that we try to do that we don’t always succeed is we try to put them in front of new potential customers.

Now that’s an amazing win-win. And we do that early on, even without our investment, because it’s so value creating in many, many ways. Obviously, the founders would be very grateful that, you know, there’s a new potential customer that can speak with and develop business.

But for us, it’s always enlightening, to see founders interact with potential customers. Do they, receive feedback well?

This is always an amazing, delicate balance, because on one hand, you want to have the founders like Steve Jobs at Apple who says the iPhone should have one button and no keyboard. And that’s the right decision to make.

But on the other hand, you also want to be listening to your customers. And oftentimes, customers will tell you things that maybe you don’t want to hear. And so whether one has the maturity and experience to be dealing with those difficult situations, you can tell — and this is non public information — by seeing that conversation.

This you don’t get by giving reference calls. Everybody can make reference calls. That’s public information. So how do you get those non-public information? Uou do that by creating opportunities like this.

Jonathan Rechtman

You mentioned earlier the role of tradeoffs in evaluating founders and their perspective on a market. What have you learned about tradeoffs? Do you see common tradeoffs occurring across different categories? Are there tradeoffs that you become familiar with? It’s one of these, one of the familiar cast of characters. And what has it taught you about facing tradeoffs in markets in technology? And then, you know, may be afterwards we’ll talk about what does it taught you about facing tradeoffs in life.

Chee-We Ng

So there are different types of tradeoffs that technology founders have to make. They could be technology tradeoffs, or they could be business trade offs or even may be more broadly speaking business choices.

So let me go down this in different directions.

In technology, they are tradeoffs. So let me not use the computer science or electrical engineering examples because maybe that’s hard to understand. Let’s just talk about cars and trucks.

So a truck has an engine that can carry a huge load. It may not go very fast, but it has a lot of horsepower. A racing car, like a Porsche, is able to go from zero to a hundred miles per hour
in five seconds. And so that’s a tradeoff because you can’t get a Porsche to pull what a truck pulls.

In the technology world, there are lots and lots of tradeoffs. So we trade off performance, like throughput. We tradeoff what we call, latencies. We tradeoff with power these days. Power consumption is such a big issue. Because it’s not just climate change. Sometimes, it’s just not enough power to drive these things in datacenters.

So there are lots of tradeoffs and the most experienced architects and engineers are dealing with those tradeoffs. And it’s because these tradeoffs exist that there are different products, and different niches of different segments that you can go after. It’s not a one size fit at all.

And when you are at that forefront, you know what you’re trading off. Sometimes you can even try to break that barrier and have the best of both worlds and go beyond what people think of tradeoffs. And that’s obviously immensely powerful.

Sometimes a lot of that arises because there are innovations. So for instance, hard drives. Storage has gone through different transitions – when you transition from the hard drives, which is magnetic in nature and spin based, to solid state drives. Certain tradeoffs that you may have to do in the past may disappear when certain technologies become more mature. And so that again creates opportunities for startups to create new products.

Now in the business side of the world, it gets very, very interesting. Tradeoffs are around business choices. What customer segments do you go after. Do you go after the government?
Do you go after the telecom? Health care, manufacturing or utilities? Do you go after big enterprises, or do you go after small or medium businesses? Do you go direct? Do you go directly to the CIO, top down sale or you go through sort of the enterprise user, the consumer, or small teams, and then eventually you sell to the entire organization?

And those are tradeoffs. If you go after the CIO and do a top down sale, the sales cycles can be long. But maybe you have a big bigger ticket size.

Now if you choose to say, we’re going bottom up. We’re going to sell to departments and small teams. The customer decision is fast, they test it and it’s great. And then to sell to the company, you have to upsell. You have to create all the enterprise features that a CIO wants, but you can do that later. And, then as we mentioned, different customer segments are very, very different — selling the government, telecom, healthcare are very, very different. And each one comes with different tradeoffs.

And it’s particularly important for a startup because there’s only this amount of money, this amount of people that you get hire. And then also you have to make choices in terms of who to hire, because sales, BD and marketing become very specialized if you go out to different segments of the market.

Jonathan Rechtman

I find this fascinating, and I’m particularly fascinated by the idea that there are some tradeoffs that are just unavoidable and other tradeoffs that maybe you can innovate your way out of. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from a Vietnamese monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, who talks about dissolving false boundaries as part of the pursuit of wisdom and the idea that many things that look like tradeoffs or look like dualities, that’s a limit of our perception.

And so as you said, sometimes through technological innovation – you give the example of hard drives – sometimes the value of innovation is dissolving false tradeoffs and allowing us to have the best of both worlds. That’s a great aspiration, but it’s also very risky to think, well, we can just innovate our way out of any having to make any choices and we can do everything. And especially for a startup, as you said, there really are limits to resources.

These are real choices. They are not false choices. And so there’s like a wisdom or a judgment that comes in in identifying which of these tradeoffs we need to make just a hard decision on. And which of them we can sort of innovate and wiggle our way into getting it all.

How have you seen founders develop that wisdom and discernment or and how have you developed it yourself? Where do you see it coming into play?

Chee-We Ng

That’s an amazing question and insight. I would say that sometimes it really boils down to challenging the assumptions.

A lot of people, we accept what is presented to us. We learn to use certain technology, and that’s also given to you, and this is it, and we were not part of building it. We were not there when certain choices were made.

But the innovators that love tinkering with things. They break things and they revisit assumptions. A tradeoff that was done previously may disappear, and people still don’t realize that because technology has improved. And you don’t need this tradeoff this anymore.

For instance, in the areas of databases, the first databases were designed in the seventies and computers were rather unreliable then. You’d have to do locks and a lot of innovation in databases continues to today because workloads are internet scale. And then so a lot of what innovators do is they go back and say, hey, let’s look at some of the assumptions, what were the tradeoffs or decisions they made in the past. And what can you give? How is the world different now if you can make the choices again. And that’s how you actually make breakthroughs.

And that’s why, it really has to be those people who are tinkering and playing with it that goes back and ask the question of why not? Not just the whys, but why not? Why couldn’t we do this?

And so those are ways that I see these innovators create. They really challenge those assumptions and those decisions that we’ve made in the past.

Jonathan Rechtman

What have you learned from this whole journey? You’ve been practicing I mean, in the technology space for decades in the investment space for a very long time. What have you learned from your experience that you think has more generalized applicability? What is wisdom that we can draw from your practice and technology and investing that we can apply in our lives? Not just as investors, but as human beings.

Chee-We Ng

As I invest in these technology startups, I see the business of selling the product of a company is really hard. And what’s really important for us to be focusing on is delivering a very distinctive value. And so venture capital and entrepreneurship is about creating not any value but distinctive value.

And so if I take a step back and think about life, I remind myself every day in any situation, how can I bring distinctive value to this situation? What can I do to leave the world in a better way, in a distinctive way? What other thing, based on my experience that I can give that maybe someone else is not in the best position or has not done? I’d say that that is the one thing that I really learnt looking at founders creating these companies, and that would be the one lesson if I were to generalize that and bring that to my life.

Jonathan Rechtman

You mentioned you have a daughter. Right? Yes. I have a daughter too. If you were to give advice to our daughters on how to find their distinctive value and cultivate distinctive value, what would what do you tell them? How does a young person uncover something special about themselves? In this world of many, many people who have many, many abilities, how do you find something truly special about yourself and create that distinctive value for the world?

Chee-We Ng

One of the unfortunate things that has happened, I don’t know for how long, is that people are conditioned to stop listening to the inner voice, which actually all of us had when we were young.

It’s that burning question. And we were asked to just ignore that, suppress that. Sometimes I look at Charlotte learning science and the way she’s taught, it stamps out the curiosity and wonder.

Wonder comes from that inner voice that somebody’s talking to you. And this is something that I couldn’t emphasize more, because it’s actually already there. You actually didn’t have to learn it. It’s already there.

All you have to do is to listen to it.

This is particularly interesting for me because when I when I first showed up at Harvard Business School, and we are all case method, the professors always start with the question, “What do you think?”

And it’s a really weird question.

But then I realized why that question was asked. Because it’s really about what do you think? Not tell me the answer that you prepared, but you what do you actually think.

And so what I would encourage children to do is to listen to the inner voice.

And with that, then they are really observant. Innovators need to be observant. They are always looking at things and it’s the inner voice that tells them, I think things could be done a different way.

Jonathan Rechtman

In my own business, I often find myself saying my business brain says this, but my heart says this or my inner voice has another view. And we’re absolutely trained to kind of try and squash out that subjective voice and apply the cold rational logic. And I wonder whether that is one of those real tradeoffs or should we be trying to marry the two or integrate the two or dissolve the duality between them?

You know, if we have multiple voices in our head, is one of them true and one of them false?
Is one of them, you know, an external projection of society, or our teachers and the other represents our true authentic, you know, higher self? Or is it possible that it’s all our thoughts are our thoughts? And they’re just different expressions that maybe we can resolve the perceived conflicts between them with just enough time and enough tolerance for them perhaps?

Chee-We Ng

Yeah. I think this is what the author, Daniel Kahneman of the book Thinking Fast and Slow said.

We do have the two sides of the brain. The slow thinking which is the analytical logical thinking and the fast thinking is that gut intuition.

Unfortunately, especially the engineers and most of us, we tend to spend a lot of time more on the slow thinking. As engineers, we deal with all the concepts and all the things that are so abstract. It’s not intuitive. And you learn to ignore that intuition.

But if you read books about how the real mathematicians think, you’d be surprised that the best mathematicians use intuitive thinking. You must be like, you got to be kidding me! We learn math without intuitive thinking. Step by step, this is the formula and this is the strategy and the methods you can actually use. And that’s what we end up with

But we need to use both brains. We need to actually use both thinking to look at every situation. We need to reconcile the differences. We need to understand the limitations. Certainly, even a mathematician, the fast intuitive way may give them a hunch. Oh, I think maybe you should head this direction. But when they, write out their proofs, it’s all the slow thinking they are doing.

Jonathan Rechtman

A formative experience for me was I played a lot of chess as a kid. And I would play a lot of blitz chess and then had a chess tutor.

This is like the classic, Searching for Bobby Fischer story. There’s the speed chess in the park and then the tutor that wants you to just study the world for twenty minutes before you make a move. And it does seem like a tradeoff. They reinforce each other. The fast decision making, the time pressure, it sort of forces out inspiration. It develops that intuition. You start to see things. You don’t even know why you see them. Your eye looks at places on the board that you wouldn’t otherwise think to look. And it goes there immediately, and you can’t explain why. It’s very black boxy. It’s a little bit like an AI. It’s just like where did that come from? Yes. But this also probably has a pretty high error rate. And the slow kind of methodical, diligent processing, helps round that out. So maybe it’s just it’s about finding a way to reconcile them.

Chee-We Ng

And I think it happens in business every day. In a business meeting, you have executives. You do the analysis. You have the CFO with probably very analytical, the numbers. But when all that slow thinking is done, when you communicate certain decisions, it’s more likely that it’s the intuitive way of communicating. Of course, you wanna have the support of the facts and the numbers and the logic be watertight. But when you boil it down, it is that intuition that’s like, okay, that that’s why we are doing this.

Jonathan Rechtman

Do you have any practices, personal practices for maintaining presence and balance and clear mindedness in a world and a business that can oftentimes be distracting and stressful. How do you find a balance and a peace and a presence to apply to your work?

Chee-We Ng

There are many things that I try. I guess it’s different tools that I pull up from the toolbox.

One is setting aside time for doing different things. If you wanted to do some serious thinking, I set aside time at night when it’s quiet to do some reading and do some reflection. Be aware that this is how I function best and creating those times to do it.

And then of course, a lot of everybody knows this, which is make sure you have time to rest and exercise. And that really helps the body cope.

And then, I constantly remind myself to take things in perspective. Also challenge assumptions. We already discussed a bit about challenging assumptions. So it’s like, let’s try to be really taking a different perspective.

And we all know this. Perception is everything and yet everybody has a different perspective of things. If three people saw something happen, everybody will have a different perspective. And so you have to put yourself in others’ shoes in looking at the same thing. Even though, after doing that, you can still say, okay, I still think this is my choice, but it really helps challenging myself. And also, hopefully whether or not you would still remain with the same decision as before, and you’ve actually gone through that exercise, so that you have the comfort that you are able to make that decision, having considered all different perspectives.

Jonathan Rechtman

That’s interesting. When you say put things in perspective, the first immediate intuitive question I have is put things in what perspective? There are an infinite number of perspectives to put things in.

But I think you followed through with a nice answer, which is it’s kind of put them in all the perspectives and then maybe come back to your own and say, has this journey has it has it changed my subjective perspective at all? Do I still believe what I believe? Do I still judge this the same way, having been around the circle? Yes. Having looked at all these other perspectives.
So it’s not so much about you’re trying to just shift your perspective. It’s more like your touring around perspectives and coming back to our own.

We thank you for sharing with us today. I learned so much from this conversation. I had a lot to go back and think about. Is there any other final words of wisdom that you wanna share with, with me, with our daughters or with our audience?

Chee-We Ng

I want to talk about AI. A lot is happening in AI and we invest in AI, and we follow the innovation. We also hear about the limitations and where the technology is today.

And we’ve seen the world go through different transitions, and how the world economy has changed. How competition has become very, very intense and how, as we discussed, for startups to survive, they have to deliver distinctive value. And humans have to do that as well. You’ve got to be ahead and have unique experiences and abilities that create value for others.

Going forward, AI as we understand it now, with these new innovations in foundation models and transformer models, we are in truly uncharted territory. In the next decade, I believe these technologies will be everywhere. And, it would start to create a very weird situation where a lot of information processing, things related to content, information, knowledge will be taken over by computers, which would actually challenge what it means to be intelligent.

And that’s a very scary thing. That’s a very scary thing because our children are completely, completely not prepared for the world that is coming, and it will come in the next five, ten years. All the school children today are just not well prepared because they are still in the mode of processing knowledge.

We are in the knowledge economy, and so kind of like knowing things and processing things is the focus. But going forward, a lot of this will become automated.

And it won’t be perfect, by the way. My prediction is, AI is not winning human beings because it’s perfect. In fact, it will still win the human, even though it’s imperfect.

And so that really pushes us to go figure out what it is to be human. What our children must do that computers will not be able to do. And that’s something that we have to be thinking. And instead of worrying, AI is bad and taking away jobs, running amok and we’re gonna fight AI, we should be thinking about what it truly means to be human. And to be focusing education and the work we do in areas that we are really creating, that we are really doing what is human. I think what we should be focusing our energies on are the many challenges that the world faces, right, climate change, and we can go on and on this.

Jonathan Rechtman

Well, it reminds me so much of the conversation earlier on distinctive value for individuals. But in this case, we’re talking about a distinctive value as a species as human. What is distinctive about human value? Yes. And I think the obvious or the low hanging fruit answers that are usually given in these kinds of conversations is creativity and imagination and maybe something spiritual or emotional.

And you get a vision of the future human economy as know, the robots are doing all the real work and we are painting beautiful paintings and, you know, being life coaches and yoga instructors for one another. And maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s endgame for human productivity.

But do you see anything, you know, when you think about this deeply, when you set aside time to read and reflect and go for walks and think about your daughter’s education, do you imagine something beyond that or some manifestation of that is not so easily trivialized or trivializable?

Chee-We Ng

I’m still figuring this out. Actually, everyday I think about this.

I would say one of the things is still uniquely human is conceptualizing.

At least, right now, ChatGPT and GPT-4 doesn’t conceptualize. They are very good at summarizing. They are very good at putting different ideas together. But I don’t see AI conceptualizing things.

Put it this way. If Isaac Newton had AI, AI could have predicted how the earth rotated around the sun with an incredible precision.

But it was Isaac Newton who said, there is a force. I don’t think ChatGPT would create the word force or the concept of force the way Isaac Newton did. I’m sure ChatGPT can write about force and all of that only now.

And so one of the things that I think is still uniquely human is being able to conceptualize. And this is not just physics. It’s business. It’s life. It’s about how we interact with each other. It’s about politics. Everything.

And it really is the inner voice that we spoke about looking at something, having that funny, what’s this thing? And then us as a civilization talking about it and conceptualizing and hopefully taking positive action. That is something that AI I hope can’t do.

But that’s what we should be focusing our energy on so that we work together, we tackle all the challenges that we are facing and will be facing.

Jonathan Rechtman

I’m beaming because I’m imagining my daughter who’s two and a half years old. I’m imagining her coming up with her first concept. It’s like we when we think about children speaking their first words, this big milestone.

Similarly would be like the first time that she conceptualizes something. She takes an abstraction and gives it a name. She observes something in the universe that exists, and then from it derives something that did not exist. She makes something up that captures that. And I just think that’s a really exciting idea.

Chee-We, thank you again so much for this conversation. I learned so much. And I’m so excited to kind of go back and reflect on it and apply it in my own life, and think about how I cultivate the ability to conceptualize, think about how I am able to articulate a distinctive value in a world still awash currently with human competition and increasingly with AI competition. And then maybe most importantly how we position our children to do the same. And find something truly unique about themselves and come up with unique concepts that push us forward as individuals and as humans. And I give you a lot of good credit for inspiring us along that journey.

So thank you so much for this chat. I really enjoyed, chatting and thanks for doing this. Thanks for listening.

To support, please check out the links to our sponsors in the show notes, Follow me on LinkedIn, and of course, subscribe to the essence of investing wherever you get your podcasts. With that, I’m signing off your happy and humble host, Jonathan Rechtman.
See you next time.

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