It was 3am in New York when Jeremy Tan received a phone call. His father was on the other end and what he said shattered his morning. “He said he needed money,” Tan, 45, remembers. The senior Tan had been trying to keep his secondhand car dealership afloat after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, but the 2000 Dot-com bubble put an end to that.
“When you get a call from your father asking you for help, you know it is over. You are his last line of defence. It was a lot of stress for a 24-year-old. Imagine how my father must have felt asking me for money,” says Tan, who was just starting his investment banking career with Morgan Stanley at that time.
Tan devoted his spare time to learning Singapore’s bankruptcy laws and studying his family’s finances when he wasn’t putting hours at the bank. While he was alone in New York, he knew he had to set aside his own fears and be a steady influence for his parents and two younger siblings.
Tan got his father to agree to many painful decisions, including letting the bank foreclose the condominium. But when Tan advised him to let go of the car – a seemingly simple act – his parents became defensive. Perhaps it was pride, or maybe Tan’s father wanted to preserve some shred of dignity in what felt like purgatory. However, that conversation negatively affected Tan’s relationship with his father, and it took a few years before they were on good terms again.
That long, painful episode shaped his approach to failure. “It influenced a lot of my choices in the years that followed. I always wanted to start my own business, but I never took the plunge. What if I failed, too?”
After Tan lost his father in 2016, he decided it was time to deal with the spectre he had been carrying around for 16 years. “My father’s death made me realise that life is fleeting,” he shares. A corporate high flyer at the time, his resume was replete with big names such as Morgan Stanley, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, private equity company Thomas H. Lee Partners and global conglomerate Puma Energy. In 2004, he even took a detour to get a Harvard MBA. The world was Tan’s oyster. Then, his wife asked him whether he was happy one evening.
That simple question floored him. “With my father’s passing, I realised I wanted to make an impact and contribute to society. That gives meaning to my life,” he says.
So, Tan thought about venture capital. Having invested in start-ups founded by his Harvard schoolmates, he was familiar with it. These start-ups are also doing well. As he adds, “I also believe it’s the next leg of growth for Singapore and the region.”
South-east Asia will be the fourth-largest economy by 2050, according to McKinsey. In 2013, the combined might of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand attracted more foreign direct investment than China – US$128 billion (S$173 billion) versus US$117 billion.
In addition to the anticipated financial returns, Tan also wanted to build a world in which his two children, 9 and 6, could be empowered. “I wanted to give my kids the choice that I didn’t have as a child. What if they wanted to be entrepreneurs instead of engineers, lawyers, or doctors? Could we build a natural ecosystem right here in Singapore that they could play in?”
So, he reached out to his friend, Benjamin Tan, a serial entrepreneur who brought on another prolific tech investor, Murli Ravi. The three started Tin Men Capital (TM) in 2018, tied together by the values of integrity, fairness, and transparency and a unique investment thesis.
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In those days, venture capital firms were making outsized investments in a strategy known as “spray and pray”, or putting as many eggs in as many baskets as you could find in hopes of finding one that would take off.
Tan and his partners took another route. They prefer to place high-conviction bets on “probably a maximum of seven companies” focusing on enterprise tech for businesses. The fund has now invested in six.
He continues, “When we started TM, we predicted that capital would no longer be the differentiator. Investment funds must offer founders more than money. Thus, we sought to be hands-on investors who could assist entrepreneurs with parts of the business that they might have difficulty with, such as finding product-market fit or opening doors to corporations.”
That unorthodox strategy is paying off. TM is in the top quartile of best-performing venture capital funds founded in South-east Asia and Australia, according to statistics published by financial data company Preqin.
Given the sheer number of firms in this region and the amount of investments – tech start-ups in Singapore drew $8.5 billion and $5.5 billion in capital, respectively, in 2019 and 2020 – that’s quite the achievement.
However, it’s no surprise if you have known Tan for a long time. He has always preferred the path less travelled. As a young teenager, he chose the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust scholarship over a military one, which promised more money and security. After completing a degree in chemical engineering, he turned down a job offer with Exxon Mobil because he wanted more from life. Then, upon learning that he could have been the Asia-Pacific head honcho for Puma Energy, he struck out on his own and founded TM instead.
Tan is considering his next move now that the fund is doing well. He and his partners could raise another fund with a different investment thesis but with the same goal – impacting the world while upholding the values of integrity, fairness and transparency.
Tan wants to give back too on a personal level. “I’m considering becoming a mentor or performance coach for start-ups that I invest in. I may also become a farmer. I love vineyards but I don’t know if we can grow grapes here,” he laughs. “However, there’s something about being close to the source of food that resonates with me.”
The naturally curious Tan grows his own herbs and spices and has a crab farm in his backyard. He has also been trying to grow tomatoes, but hasn’t been very successful.
Whenever he travels, Tan likes to bring the family closer to nature. They would find artisanal bakeries and vineyards that specialise in natural wine, which is how he first learned about them. After tasting more of such wines back in Singapore, he began to love them.
Tan says, “I respect people who not only have their own thoughts, but act on them. I follow the same mantra. Don’t just follow the herd. Instead, return to first principles thinking.” Philosopher Aristotle first developed this way of thinking – question every assumption you have, break them down and then reason from there – and it’s now being famously adopted by Elon Musk and other tech innovators of our era.
According to Tan, the dog-eat-dog nature of society is one of the truths of the world with which he strongly disagrees. It was something he struggled with for a long time in his corporate career. “They would always tell me to get what I can, and I just didn’t agree with that. We will all win if you show you’re willing to play together for the long term,” he says.
Tan is definitely in a winning position now, a far cry from the boy who grew up in a one-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh with little in life except a plastic ball and an insatiable drive to become more than he was. As a result of everything he went through in life – bankruptcy, fractured relationships and death to name a few – he could have chosen to take all he could and leave nothing behind. But Tan rose above all of that, believing that the future of the world depends on collaboration and cooperation.
As the ethos of TM is, “We see value in what may not glitter. On promising bedrock, we mine, hand to shovel, relentlessly, until the ore is yielded. And then we share.” A rising tide indeed lifts all boats.