This article is part of TechNode Global’s partnership with CEO TV, CEO Roundtable Podcast, and Asian Investors Podcast hosted by David Kim, wherein we publish the revised transcripts from the podcast’s interviews with inspiring entrepreneurs and experienced VCs. This edited Q&A is based on the show’s original transcript.

Founded in late 2019, ION Mobility is an electric motorbike and clean energy company in Southeast Asia on a mission to create and deliver affordable, desirable, and sustainable mobility and energy for everyone. ION has designed the ION Mobius from ground up; its inaugural product that combines advanced hardware and software technology with human-centered design to deliver desirable, performant, and sustainable road-worthy mobility for everyone to use. Since 2020, the company has built teams across Singapore, Indonesia, and China amidst the pandemic, raised over $6.8 million in funding from angels and venture funds, and is on track to launch its EV motorbike for pre-orders in Indonesia later in 2022.

ION is in the midst of raising its $15 million Series A round to fund its go-to-market, inventory, and production, starting with Indonesia later this year and Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines in 2023.

James Chan is founder and CEO of ION Mobility. He was trained as an electrical and computer engineer and has been a serial entrepreneur, investor and public servant on all three sides of the table at organisations he formed or was a part of – across industries the likes of FinTech, internet, 3D printing, robotics and automation, venture capital and public policy and industry development– these are in and in organizations such as Abakus Southeast Asia, Silicon Straits, GreyOrange, Neoteny Labs, Walden International, SG Innovate (f.k.a. Infocomm Investments) and IMDA (f.k.a. Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore).

A recipient of the EDB Singapore Inc. scholarship in 2002, James has over 16 years of experience and a track record in economic and industry policy formulation and implementation, venture capital, product development and management, business strategy and development, finance and operations in the technology and startup ecosystem in Southeast and East Asia. In his spare time, James spends time with his family, enjoys computer games, nature, photography, and food, and volunteers at The Birthday Collective, a non-profit organization he co-founded that strives to serve as Singapore’s “Heart, Hand, and Brain trust.”

What problems are you solving now?

Top EV companies like Tesla, Rivian, Lucid Motors, and NIO have proven the viability and sustainability of electric mobility in their respective cars and trucks segment over the past 10-odd years. I’m looking to build and scale ION Mobility into the SE Asian equivalent of an EV mobility company with road-worthy electric motorbikes and cleaner-energy fast-charging network, and an insane focus on Southeast Asian consumer markets.

Motorbikes outsell cars 6-to-1 in Indonesia, which is by itself the third-largest Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) motorbike market in the world (by new sales each year). The ubiquitous motorbike touches the lives of over 200 million people across our region, with Indonesia and its 112+ million ICE motorbike population, Vietnam’s 50+ million, and Thailand’s 22+ million. Contrary to popular belief, ICE motorbikes are often responsible for a lot more pollution than cars, emitting up to 16 times more hydrocarbons, three times more carbon monoxide, and other pollutants across their lifespan.

By reducing hesitation and friction and accelerating consumers’ transition away from ICE towards fast-charging electric motorbikes, ION Mobility can be in pole position to play a significant role in the reduction of urban air (and noise) pollution, nations’ socio-economic dependency on fuel subsidies, supply chain and industrial development and a more sustainable socio-economic development centered around cities across Southeast Asia.

What are your value proposition and your business model?

Put simply, we (1) have built a full-stack multi-disciplinary team and supply chain across Singapore, Indonesia and China amidst the pandemic, that (2) understands our users and markets in the region better than our competition, (2) adopts an end-to-end full-stack no-holds-barred approach to designing, engineering, testing and assembling our electric motorbikes for delivery, and (3) are prepared to go as direct-to-customer as we possibly can alongside our electric motorbikes, in order to deliver the best-in-class electric motorbike product, starting with the premium mass market.

We started developing our inaugural product at ION Mobility in July 2020, spurred on by our extensive market and user research that showed the lack of a viable electric mobility solution for Southeast Asia. We came to the conclusion that there are no compelling options for Southeast Asian riders to switch away from their traditional combustion (ICE) motorbikes. These are either too underwhelming for them – in other words, short-ranged and low powered — or too expensive and in form factors that are not appealing for their daily use. We want to ease each customer’s transition into electric mobility such that it no longer becomes a point of (range, cost-to-performance) anxiety, but a point of joy.

We were quickly drawn to the immense potential of Indonesia and the rest of our region’s industrial supply chain and were convinced of what we could deliver to hasten consumers’ inevitable transition toward electric motorbikes in the coming years.

We aim to control our products’ financing via a fintech business model that is designed for maximum value capture while having positive unit economics per motorbike without depending on sales volumes like traditional hardware companies typically would; a consumer-level electric motorbike fleet, if you would. In practice, this would translate into a combination of leasing and hire-purchase offerings that give consumers new choices with terms equivalent to what they are familiar with if they had gone shopping for an ICE motorbike instead.

In the end, we strive to offer desirable products with superior cost-to-performance features and total-cost-of-ownership (when compared to ICE equivalents) that make the transition purchase-or-subscribe decision by our target audience a no-brainer.

What are the three reasons and rationales that you believe will drive growth for ION Mobility and your team?

I’ve touched on this somewhat in my earlier responses; it ultimately boils down to (1) me and my team, (2) our market-user-product understanding, and (3) our full-stack end-to-end approach and strategy in tech, product, business model, and operations.

No other team is as well-equipped to take on this complex long-cycle challenge to transform the world’s third-largest motorbike market,

The only thing we’re lacking right now is capital, resources, and time to execute our plan. That is why we’re starting our Series A fundraise for $15 million to fund our go-to-market, inventory, production, and ongoing R&D for the next two years.

Did you encounter people who doubted the viability of running such a company?

Of course!

It’s so easy to dismiss me and my team when (1) we’re not the first to come up with this idea in Singapore, (2) where the founder/CEO does not have a motorbike license, and (3) does not have prior experience doing something like this, (4) much less try to start this company (and build our team, tech, and product) from ground zero amidst the pandemic!

We’ve had investors and prospective employees pass on us. All this is part and parcel of trying to do meaningful work. Remember, “nothing worth having comes easy.” Even Elon Musk had Charlie Munger, billionaire investor and then-Vice President of Berkshire Hathaway, tell him and his table in 2009 over lunch all the ways in which Tesla would fail. What would you say in reply? Elon said that he agreed with all those reasons and told Charlie that Tesla would probably die, but it was worth trying anyway.

My response to our naysayers draws from my favorite phrase from a Chinese period drama I caught years ago on Youku, 《武媚娘传奇》 where pre-empress Wu Zetian told someone that she’d much rather “不问前程凶吉,但愿落幕无悔。“

They always say that “the first step in any journey is always the hardest.”

How do you compare ION Mobility to Gogoro in terms of business model and strategy? Why did you decide to produce your own equipment (motorbike under your brand) instead of collaborating with an existing manufacturer?

This question is a tough one; it puts me on the spot ;-).

We started our company amidst the pandemic and were forced to build and collaborate with our teams in Indonesia and China for much of the past 2 years remotely, so the only information I could gather about Gogoro’s past 11 years of history was via the internet (which I think doesn’t quite cut it). I plan to visit Taiwan soon to learn more.

I have a lot of respect for what Horace and Matt have accomplished with Gogoro in Taiwan, and wish them all the best for their upcoming listing in the US. For now, we’re nowhere close to each other in terms of company size, access to resources and team maturity, not to mention being at least a decade apart in terms of founding.

If you were to compare Gogoro to ION in an apples-to-apples manner, it took Gogoro four years to unveil its more polished SmartScooter in 2015, while we took 18 months to unveil a pre-production prototype of the ION Mobius last December. Gogoro also raised $50 million in its year of inauguration; an overwhelming 15+ times more than I did at ION.

Gogoro was founded in Taiwan, which is renowned for its more industrialized and complete supply chains and talent thanks to ICE motorbike OEMs like Kymco, PGO, Aeon Motor, and Sanyang Motor. As for us, we started from Singapore, which pretty much doesn’t measure up in that regard. For much of its history, Gogoro has also sold only within Taiwan, while we’re initially focused on Indonesia.

Because of our significant differences, it’s inevitable for us at ION to pursue a different path and do things differently. I think it’s a lot harder to do what we’re doing at ION from Singapore than it was for Gogoro to start from Taiwan. The electric motorbike is also not a new concept, but our research tells us there continues to be a significant gap between what consumers want in our region and what existing players have to offer. Besides, the real competition is also not between electric motorbike players like Gogoro, but between us and ICE motorbike incumbents that are dominant across SE Asia markets.

Having said that, one thing we seem to have in common with Gogoro is our shared belief in the full-stack, end-to-end approach. I believe this is the best approach that grants us business strategy flexibility while allowing us to quickly adapt and adjust our products and services to respond to market-user learnings and competitive forces.

We actually started in late 2019 by appointing one of China’s top three electric bicycle OEMs as our Original Design Manufacturer (ODM). The partnership lasted a mere 5 months and quickly showed its limitations with a subpar prototype that demonstrated the misalignments and moral hazards that often arise from such a strategy between OEM and ODM. We stopped working with them and took a few months to form our in-house team, which led to

After all, as Alan Kay would say, “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

And so we did (and continue to do so).

What does the future EV motorbikes look like to you?

With the EV transition, we’re not just going to benefit from significant efficiency gains in converting stored electrical energy into mobility. We’re also going to make that evolutionary leap from being analog devices to completely digital and always-connected personalized devices, just like the ubiquitous smartphone.

With nearly-100 percent mobile connectivity in Southeast

Asian cities, the ever-improving price-to-energy density of batteries, and the cost of advanced sensors and computing power continuing to fall each year, we have the perfect building blocks from which to innovate upon and deliver a personalized, data-driven ride-vehicle experience; not just to our customers themselves as riders, but also to their fleet operators, vehicle or fleet financiers, insurers or even brands.

It would be an always-connected EV motorbike with an API, playing a more sophisticated role in your daily commute.

What are the biggest challenges in scaling your business and taking it to the next level?

There are several key challenges we face as a startup.

One major problem we’re solving is to achieve product-market-fit as a hardware-first company during pandemic times across three offices. There’s no easy way to “agile” hardware, but we’ve done our best amidst difficult times; be it by conducting ongoing market and user research with the help of our Indonesian team, developing physical prototypes amidst challenging supply chain bottlenecks by leveraging on our supply chain teams in Indonesia and China, and making design changes to our industrial design or battery pack in response to our team’s micro-learnings.

We’ve also found it harder to attract and hire the right sort of talent as a small startup, especially in Singapore and Indonesia. There’s just no automotive OEM DNA and ready pools of talent that we can tap upon in Singapore. I’ve had to import talent from Japan, India, China, and Indonesia to form our design and engineering team, in a region that does not have such an (EV motorbike) industry to begin with.

Once we’ve formed our teams, it was also quite a challenge to manage, facilitate effective communications and encourage high-performance collaboration across our full-stack team. The Tower of Babel problem is very real. We’ve got a good mix of nationalities and languages going on within the company, with Singaporeans, Indonesians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans, Indians, Americans, and even a guy in Kazakhstan! We continue to figure things out with the help of technology while steaming full speed ahead. I’d say our progress thus far is also a testament to the quality of our leadership team and the motivation and morale of our team.

Last but not least, it has not been easy to attract capital from our region to support a company like ION, unlike how Gogoro was able to secure $50 million in its year of founding. There’s no appreciation for the value creation that can come about from building your own hardware in this part of our world, where investors and fund managers have had much more relative successes in software and services than from hardware.

How different is your life now being an entrepreneur from an investor? Tell me some interesting back stories of your experience and transition.

I didn’t want to stay in investing because it wasn’t quick enough; it didn’t give me that visceral and direct access to opportunities. I don’t think I’ve ever fully transitioned between the two; the entrepreneur was always within me, and I’ve since picked up angel investor and venture builder hats to my repertoire along the way. I always swap between hats when looking at things and weighing decisions from different perspectives, and the years really went by so quickly in hindsight, so much so that the lines are all blurred and I don’t know anymore.

Still, seriously speaking, I think there’s a lot more dimensionality to my life as an entrepreneur than as an investor. As an individual, I want to pursue the truth, and I find that I can do that better as an entrepreneur than as an investor. It’s a lot easier to roll up my sleeves and get to the heart of the problem; while as a VC, you’re always juggling capital allocation, portfolio construction, post-investment managing, making your picks, and structuring your exits.

It’s not so obvious, but a lot of people have asked me why I choose to do the more difficult thing and not just spread my bets around, but to me, that’s just boring and building is a lot more fun but harder.

Who are the right or wrong people to hire for your growth team? What characteristics and traits do these people have that make them good or bad for growth? What questions do you ask in interviews?

Throughout all my years in venture capital, venture building, and entrepreneurship, I’ve found that the talent matrix can be distilled down into 3 key components, namely his or her (1) expertise, (2) leadership, and (3) fit.

Expertise is obvious; the job description we’re hiring for, and the skills needed to do the job. Leadership is less obvious when it comes to assessing individual contributors (IC), but I’ve always believed that the best ICs know how to lead their managers or bosses to do well in their own roles and seek greater challenges too.

The last component is fit, which isn’t just about the culture fit, but also his or her personal ambitions and life stage fit. The ability to think critically and communicate is part of candidates’ expertise and leadership abilities. The desire for a challenge with us, and an aligned vision would fall under fit.

An early-stage startup demands a lot from its founders, leadership, and team members. Apart from the key talent components above, I also look out for a healthy dose of self-awareness, non-toxic teamwork habits, and the ability to grasp context across domains. Candidates don’t have to check every box, as I believe there is always room for good-enough talent, but superstar unicorn hires check more of these boxes than others.

One favorite question combo of mine I always ask candidates is for them to share with me their highest professional peak they’ve scaled and their greatest hardship in life. It’s my way of forming the psychological make-up of the candidate with regards to ambition, inherent grit, and hardships they can endure.

How do you interact with your Board, and how do you think CEOs should extract the most value from their board?

Given that I’ve got a pretty diverse range of exposure, skills, and experiences, the trust factor is up there between me and my Board. Despite having clear control at the Board level and only being a pre-Series A company, I still make an effort to keep my Board apprised on a quarterly basis of our financials, milestones, progress, and developments. I also spend one-on-one time with each of my board members to deepen our ties at a more personal level. In return, my Board is also my sounding board and sanity anchor; they look out for my mental well-being, even though I tell them I’m tough as nails and chose to build this butt-ass difficult company on my own free will, to begin with, hah!

Less-experienced founders and CEOs may view their Board as a scary authoritative setup to govern over them, and rightfully so. I believe it’s important for the founder-CEO to always subject themselves to greater authority and scrutiny so that your Board can have your back. It’s these ties that bind and transcend your existing company, hopefully for life!

Tell us about fundraising. What was the biggest challenge? What were the early investors most excited about?

It was not easy, but we soldiered on and were able to convince investors and fund managers to back us with $6.5 million. I personally invested S$650,000 into the company over two rounds; once at incorporation and again in between our Seed Convertible note in 2021 and Seed Preference raise in 2022.

I’d already alluded earlier to the generally-weaker investment ecosystem for hardware companies in Singapore and Southeast Asia. It was made even harder because I’m not known to be a motorcycle enthusiast and have never founded a hardware company before. Heck, I haven’t even found time to complete my motorbike driving license yet!

Despite being a relatively seasoned founder myself, with an equally seasoned leadership team and having accomplished much with very little resources in 18 months, we faced plenty of investor rejections and snubs along the way. This is part of the game; the angst that we carry on our shoulders to motivate us to do even better and hopefully make them regret having passed on us years down the road.

I’m no Elon Musk so I don’t have his wealth or a Paypal mafia to count on, but I’ve stuck to my principles and have a bit of a track record and personal reputation in the region as an investor and entrepreneur, so several individuals and fund managers have chosen to back me and my team on our crazy adventure to achieve the impossible against all odds.

For that, my team and I are truly grateful.

I think most investors have no argument against the potential for EV motorbikes to transform the transportation industry and value chains across SE Asia. They’re also equally convinced of our selection of Indonesia as our first market. We’re raising a $15 million Series A to fund our go-to-market, inventory, and assembly plans while remaining on schedule for a preorder launch later this year. I believe we’re the best team with the best product-market fit to take on the Indonesian opportunity for starters; what our future investors will need to be convinced of is for them to know and for me to find out.

How do you balance the growth expectations of your investors on a quarter by quarter basis with the long-term vision and strategy?

There’s nothing magical about it; I rely on transparent data-driven communication and active steps toward maintaining a healthy personal and professional relationship with our investors and board members. Plans are made by leaders with the best of intentions on paper but executed by bigger complex teams in a dynamic and complex real-world; targets and timelines are bound to slip, especially when it comes to constrained global supply chains and industries as complex and as end-to-end as the tech-automotive play that ION is.

What are your three favorite books, and why?

The first two books are easy.

  • The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene
  • The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behaviour is Almost Always Good Politics

These two books opened my eyes to thinking about humanity in societies and understanding the interplay between power, leadership, and politics. It was supremely enlightening given that I’m much more of a nerdy engineer-trained entrepreneur than an econ- or business-trained businessman; the stuff these two books covered just didn’t come as naturally to me.

The third book is a toss-up between Ender’s Game and Foundation Series (ok ok I know, I’m super cheating here), but I think I’m going to go with Ender’s Game. I actually love fiction and love Star Trek much more than Star Wars, but Star Trek doesn’t have a single book I can name. I see Ender’s Game as the shorter version of the grand galactic drama that is the Foundation Series, and I included a science fiction book to reflect my overall nerdiness.

What are the three key character traits that you want to teach your children?

  • Bravery – the courage to pursue your dreams and stick to it throughout its ups and downs;
  • Compassion – to understand that there’s always more than one way to say something, more than one solution to the difficult situation you’re faced with, and usually one that shows your agape and humanity even against your cynics and enemies; and
  • Self-control – to possess ever-growing self-awareness to deal with an increasingly complex world and economy, in a constant state of disruption by technology, so that they may be able to find their own spot amidst the storm.

What are the next steps and the future and long-term vision for ION mobility?

As I’ve said, we’re in the market to raise $15 million for our Series A round to fund our go-to-market, inventory, assembly, sales and marketing, and motorbike deliveries for Indonesia through 2023 and 2024. Gogoro’s $50 million raised in their first year has shown that EV mobility requires a certain degree of capital to win. Even though I’ve pulled out plenty of rabbits from my multitude of hats thus far, we still can’t defy the laws of physics here. We’re going to be severely constrained and challenged to execute and deliver on our vision and plans unless we’re properly funded by aligned investors.

In the coming years, my team and I hope to sell more of our ION Mobiuses and future models. I also hope we’ll have a chance to roll out our planned fast-charger networks across SE Asia as the final solution to alleviate consumers’ range anxiety, and possibly our energy storage solution to augment urban and suburban grids in homes and offices. I do have some blockchain-based ideas that I can only dream of for now; hopefully, stuff that my team and I can work on in the coming years after we’ve garnered steady and growing cash flows from our EV product sales in SE Asia.

Longer-term, I hope that we can achieve positive EBITDA and list our company, so that our investors can have their desired exit multiples and not think that our crazy plan was that crazy after all.

David Kim is the founder and Chairman of North Head Capital Partners based in Hong Kong.

David is an experienced CEO, seasoned banker, and global strategy professional with nearly three decades of cross-functional expertise. He worked at eight international companies and banks living in six Asian countries, during which he has successfully closed highly structured investment and financing deals for over 200 companies of various industries totaling more than $4 billion.

Prior to joining North Head, David was acting CEO at Leading Investment and Securities based in Hong Kong and Senior Executive Managing Director at W Bank based in Korea. David also worked as Managing Director and country head of corporate financing group at GE Capital Korea for seven years.

He started his career at Korea Development Bank Capital in Korea and helped to set up multiple Joint Venture non-bank finance companies and banks in emerging markets, including Nepal, Vietnam, and Thailand in the mid-1990s and also worked as CFO for MILC in Thailand. David is also a frequent lecturer at various seminars, MBA, and banks on the topics of M&A. international joint venture, and fundraising.

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