By Shruti Ganguly
What time do you wake up?
9:00 a.m. I’m not a morning person. I’m a night person, and my night routine is to read from 1:00–2:00 a.m. every night before going to bed.
Do you eat breakfast?
No. I wake up and get to the office by 10:00 a.m. I’m not hungry in the morning.
Tea or coffee?
Neither. I’m not drinking caffeine right now.
If you had to have a breakfast meeting, where would it be?
At my apartment.
Do you have a mantra you live by?
I’m grateful and optimistic. I’ve realized that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, as you can’t control most things.
Where is home to you?
While I might be more successful if I lived in San Francisco, I chose to live in NYC because it’s a haven of intellectual, social, and artistic endeavors. Each year, I spend five months in New York, one month in San Francisco, two or three months in the Dominican Republic, and the rest on the road.
In a detailed New York Times article, you said you live with about 50 items.
There’s no rule about how many items I should have — just what I can fit in my carry-on and my backpack — things I actually need. I love reading about 100 books a year, and now I have them all on my Kindle. However, I do have more than 50 things now.
What was the last great book you read?
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I also loved The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.
What part of Sapiens surprised you the most?
I was already aware of quite a few of the concepts described in the book, but the part that acted as a reminder was the extent that we place value on things we construct. Religions were invented by men — so were nation states, borders, and even currencies. Many things we build our lives around are imagined concepts.
Do you own anything of value?
I don’t own any art. But let’s take it back to what led to my transition. In 2012, I was the CEO of a publicly traded company with 3000 employees in 50 countries and 300 million users a month. But I started to question how satisfied I was with my life (were there things I could change?), as I didn’t enjoy the nature of the job anymore. When I was at Princeton or McKinsey as an analyst after college, I saw my friends five times a week, and we talked about philosophy and remaking the world. But as people get busy, the number of interactions decreases, and soon you see people every other month. So the catch-ups become more about biographical updates, not about dreaming big. And sometimes these other things in life take over. For example, when I had my country house in Bedford, it was about the maintenance and insurance, and it required a lot of work. There is this sunk cost fallacy, where you think that if you’re spending so much money on the house, you should feel obligated to use it. Giving up all those things freed a lot of time, and I was able to think more carefully about my choices.
So the first iteration of trying to sleep on my friends’ couches failed. Obviously, embedding yourself in other lives doesn’t work. After I left Bedford, I moved into Airbnbs and hotels. I found that the best way to see my friends was to invite them to the Dominican Republic over the school holidays, where we could spend time together and reconnect. A few years ago, I decided to get an apartment in New York. For the longest time, I didn’t even have a bed — just a mattress on the floor.
Have you ever been awestruck?
By nature, yes. Not by people specifically, but with a performance like Hamilton, I cried. If I had hung out with Mandela, maybe I would have been awestruck. That being said, I’ve had the opportunity to have conversations with many interesting people like Malcolm Gladwell and Niall Ferguson. People I would love to meet in the future would include J.J. Abrams, Nassim Taleb, Elon Musk and Chris Nolan.
“Over 19 years, we have invested in 400 start-ups with 140 exits.”
How did you start FJ Labs?
I’ve been an entrepreneur for 20 years, but I’ve never fancied myself a venture capitalist. But because I was a relatively public, consumer-facing CEO, young entrepreneurs asked me for money and guidance. In the beginning, I focused on advice and eventually started investing. In 2012, when I left OLX, I already had around 100 start-up investments as an angel. I then realized that I liked building and investing in companies, so I created FJ Labs with my partner, Jose Marin. Then family offices, high-net-worth individuals, and strategic investors started approaching us, asking to invest with us. We raised Fund 1 of $50 million in 2016, which we deployed, and now we are currently raising Fund 2. Telenor has come on board with $75 million, and other family offices are coming on with $50–70 million. To date, we have invested $140 million, $90 of which has been our own money. While we aren’t as well known as some, we are considered one of the more successful investors.
In an interview with Big Think, you said that only 5% of start-ups will make it through five years. So as you’ve been investing in 50 start-ups a year, what has been the rate of success?
Over 19 years, we have invested in 400 start-ups with 140 exits. We’ve made money on half, with an average multiple of 6x and a 67% IRR, which is probably in the top 1% VC performance. Unit economics is fundamental to us. Maybe we miss out on some opportunities as a result, but we’ve had a much higher success rate.
If you could construct your most fulfilling day in New York, what would it look like?
If it was a work day, it would include all the things I love to do. I’d work closely with our team on one of the companies we are building. I would meet a few entrepreneurs with great ideas. I would have lunch with some of my friends at ilili, by our office. In the evening, I’d play tennis for an hour or so and grab dinner at Il Buco. From 8:00–10:30, I’d have an intellectual salon, inspired by the Enlightenment Age salons in France, where we’d discuss how to make the world a better place. As a wind-down, I would watch an episode of Westworld or play a video game. Finally, I’d read for an hour and go to bed.