The dark-panelled private room of Violet Oon’s National Kitchen can lay claim to being royal-approved: it’s where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2016 hosted the Thai princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn to chicken rice and satay.
But on this particular day, another sort of nobility dines – the business kind, as bank heads, millionaire founders and listco chairmen tuck into Ms Oon’s kueh pie tee and ngoh hiang.
Amid the small sea of formal wear, Benjamin Emmanuel Lee’s startup-logo t-shirt sticks out. But the 29-year-old is the thread connecting the guests at this lunch and many more, the man pulling together cosy gatherings of contacts from various sectors he thinks “might have synergies”: investors keen on eldercare, SME bosses, second-generation business owners, and so on.
“Senior leaders want to meet, but are too busy to network outside their circle and can’t approach each other cold,” explains Lee, the founder of expert insights firm Sealed Network. He’s observed lucrative deals follow when sparks fly between guests.
“I link up folks who might find it useful to know each other,” he adds. “Sometimes, I get requests.”
It’s who you know
Lee of all people understands the value of connecting people.
His two-year-old firm scours the Southeast Asia region for subject matter experts and matches them with investment funds, corporates, and consultancies seeking insights on million-dollar investments ranging from the typical (healthcare, fintech, cybersecurity) to the unusual (manuka honey, lingerie, bubble tea).
Among the 35,000 experts on the platform are Coffee Meets Bagel founder Arum Kang, Twitter former Asia managing director Parminder Singh, and former Singapore Member of Parliament and chairman of Healthway Medical, Sin Boon Ann.
It’s names like these that set Sealed apart from the competition: international expert network firms offering access mainly to senior management at multinationals – who, Lee adds, are easily found on LinkedIn. But his pool of local heavyweights across ASEAN is hard to access, both on and offline.
Part of Lee’s job is networking with these individuals and encouraging them to consult. “Many want to pay it forward and share their expertise,” he says. “They like keeping a finger on the market pulse, knowing about trends ahead of everyone else. Our gigs can also lead to a board or advisor role.”
Southeast Asia star
But how does a millennial founder hit on an insights business with buy-in from titans at the top? Lee, formerly a business development exec at Grab and then consultant to the CFO at Chinese crypto firm Huobi, got the idea from a fund manager at a post-tech conference karaoke session in Hong Kong in 2019.
As fellow VC execs belted out It’s My Life (Bon Jovi) and Hai Kuo Tian Kong (Beyond), the pair chatted about dreams. “I wanted to create my own talent-related startup,” Lee says. “The manager said expert networks make millions connecting people.”
Inspired, he plunged into research and found the market untapped in Southeast Asia – a region newly overflowing with private equity, acquisitions and venture capital as unicorns begin to emerge. According to Google, SEA’s internet economy alone is expected to be worth US$360 billion by 2025.
Lee convinced secondary schoolmate Leo Wen Ge to join as co-founder. The 29-year-old is a former senior investment associate at Temasek-backed VC Wavemaker Partners.
“I showed him how much seed funding we had, and he agreed to join,” Lee laughs. As of 2022, Sealed has secured seven figures in funding from investors including Quest Ventures, Far East Ventures and XA Network.
The pair began building their now-enviable expert database from scratch, pooling their network of contacts and painstakingly expanding it through referrals and self-introductions – which have since evolved into the networking lunches Lee holds. He’s now working on an AI engine to improve matches between experts and clients.
As the only region-focused offering, Sealed is set to dominate Southeast Asia for the foreseeable future. Lee attributes this to the daunting complexity of navigating the markets that make up ASEAN, each with its own language, culture and governance.
“You need relationships in every country to access experts, and those relationships often start from networks,” he says. “To grasp Southeast Asia, we have local staff in each market. Being connected is one thing, but how, when, and who introduces you makes all the difference.”