As the years go by, it seems like the world has become significantly smaller. It has become easier by the day to reach other people and even set up your own business. In this episode, John Livesay interviews Sleem Hasan, the founder and CEO of Privity FZ LLE, to talk about global investing. He takes us through a global lens of his own journey that spans different countries and shares the different lessons and experiences he got. How can being globally competitive help you? What are the benefits of a global eye? Sleem answers these questions and more with John.
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Global Investing: An Entrepreneur’s Global Perspective With Sleem Hasan
Our guest is Sleem Hasan who is an experienced owner with a demonstrated history of working in venture capital and the Japanese capital markets. He is skilled in investor relations, securities, asset management, investment advisory, and working with technology entrepreneurs. His strong entrepreneur professionalism is with a Part III Mathematical Tripos from Cambridge and a Mathematical degree from Oxford. He’s also the CEO and Founder of Privity, which is an independent Dubai-based advisory firm founded back in 2004. Sleem, welcome to the show.
Thank you, John, for having me.
I always like to ask my guests to take us on their own little journey, their own story of origin. You can go back to your days at Oxford or childhood when you first realized, “I’m interested in math,” or I’m guessing back when you were a child, the concept of entrepreneurship was not as well-known as it is now.
I usually share my background using six different flags. The first flag is that of Fiji island because that’s where I was born. The second flag is from Pakistan because that’s where my late parents hail from. The third flag is from Nigeria in West Africa because that’s where I grew up. The fourth flag is the United Kingdom because that’s where I went to study at university. The fifth flag is Japan because I spent 37 years of my life dealing with the Japanese markets, first at Nikko and then with Hasan Financial Corporation, my first startup. The last but not the least flag is the United Arab Emirates, which is where I reside in Dubai. That’s zero till date with six flags.
You would be the definition of a global citizen based on those six flags
I guess ou could say that, part of it was not by choice where you’re born, where you grew up
After that, it becomes your journey. I’m sure a lot of people are as intrigued as I am to ask this next question, which is how many languages do you speak besides English?
Badly, probably about six. Fluently, probably 2 or 3 but I love languages. I speak my own language which is Urdu. Although, I grew up in the northern part of Nigeria. I’m comfortable in Hausa. I learned French at school, a bit of Arabic because of my religious background and a bit of Japanese I picked up working with Japanese. Having said that, I’ve picked up a bit of Italian along the way, a bit of Spanish.
There’s a real connection between music, math and languages, don’t you think? There’s a structure to all of it. There’s a rhythm to it. It’s a tuning your ear and formulas even about, “This is what pass perfectly is,” or those things. The Japanese language is extremely different than the Spanish, Italian, or even English and they write, I believe, with their hands as part of symbols.
It’s funny you say that because I go one step further and I draw parallels between actually Mathematics, which is what I studied at university and Entrepreneurship. What do mathematicians do for a living? They solve problems. What do entrepreneurs do? They solve problems too. In my humble mind, there must be some homeomorphic map in the mind of a mathematician and the mind of an entrepreneur.You don't need to get other people to believe in yourself when you believe in yourself. Click To Tweet
I’ve never heard anybody else frame it like that and it’s brilliant because if you’ve ever had any kind of math and I did some calculus a little bit and things like that, or even basic geometry is all about solving for X or Y or whatever the answer is. If you think of yourself as a problem solver, when you create your company and I get into this is where our lives and our passions crisscross is my passion is helping founders be able to craft a story and show empathy for the people whose problems they’re solving. The better they can describe the problem to a potential investor. I think investors like you think, “This entrepreneur probably has the solution because they understand the problem well or they’ve experienced it.”
Whenever any two people meet, whether it’s entrepreneurial and investor, two friends meeting at university on open day or even a boy meeting a girl, what is the most important thing? You’ve got to catch them at hello. The minute you catch somebody at hello, the person gets engaged. That’s exactly what I tell entrepreneurs today. You’ve got to catch the investor at hello because it’s that first initial impression that we’re the chemistry exchange is pointed and very pertinent. If you can capture that and then they get engaged, they want to know more. If you’ve got a ten-minute pitch and you spend the first 5 or 6 minutes taking them down a cul-de-sac, the chances that they’re going to lose, you’re going to get lost in translation and they lose interest. That’s my two cents for whatever it’s worth.
It’s worth way more than two cents. I tell a lot of investors when I’m working with them on their pitch, “You may have ten minutes in front of an Angel group or even more if you’re a venture level, but you only have 90 seconds.” Grab them at hello. I tell people, “The biggest mistake I see,” and I’d love to hear what yours are, “Is they waste those valuable opening seconds with cliché things like, ‘Thanks for this opportunity. I’m excited to be here.’ No one cares that you’re excited. It’s not about you. It’s about the investor.” I’m all about jumping right into a story that pulls people in.
It’s very important to outline the problem with the story. I think starting your pitch with a compelling story is important. I even say that on my website when I talk about Privity. I say, “I’m agnostic to geography as I am to industry vertical. I only care about the underlying compelling value proposition of the idea.” Straight up on my website for anybody interested. Literally, you go to the first landing page. That’s the first paragraph you’re going to meet. I want to capture you at hello. If you go to Privity, you’ll see I’m practicing what I’m preaching.
First of all, that’s unusual because a lot of investors are not geographically agnostic nor are they open to multiple industries. I always love going to the portfolio page when I prepare to meet an investor whether it’s interviewing them for my show or if I worked with a founder who’s going to pitch an investor. That to me is a sign of respect that you’ve taken the time to do it. The one company that’s on your portfolio page that I would love to hear about is Kiwi Wearable Tech because I have a fashion background. That one intrigued me to know more about that one.
I’ll tell you how it came about. For better or for worse, since I built the portfolio, three companies I’ve exited and three companies crashed. Kiwi is one of the latter, which did not do well, but I had an interesting journey learning about the wearable technology. A brilliant founder I met in my early days in Dubai, got to know him and then we relocated to Canada. He came up with this idea of what he was doing, building up this wearable technology business and the IoT. This was early days IoT. It’s morphed since I got involved with Kiwi, but there was a lot of learning there. They did get an offer early. It was from Intel or Google, I forget which one, but it was a serious offer on the table, but it was a low offer like a $10 million or $12 million exit.
As the shareholder, I told the guy, “It’s a result. You’ve done well,” but like a lot of founders or entrepreneurs, they’ve all got the big unicorn on their minds and they all have the dream. The founder had majority stake in it and whilst we all advised him as shareholders to take the money and start again. He chose to go a different path and then he ran out of money. The classic story. There was a lot of learning one can get out of the Kiwi story and I’m glad you picked that one. Not everything that one gets involved in turns out smelling of roses. It’s being in the trenches, working with these companies day in, day out, and then learning from the mistakes. I always tell people it’s not success or failure, you either succeed or you learn. You learn from the mistakes you make and that should then reinforce when you encounter the next one, you’ve now got that data point you did not have the day before and that is worth its weight in gold.
I would imagine part of your magnetism as an investor too because if someone’s got a great idea, maybe some traction and revenue, they’re looking at multiple investors, like you look at multiple founders. I’m always advising founders, “You don’t want any money, you want smart money,” and someone with your experience and having those data points and references because without a frame of reference whether it’s connections to help the company grow or knowing the right time to exit or not is crucial in who you decide to go with.
Whilst I don’t make any claims to be a Sand Hill road type VC nor do I even have a fund. I have built up a business in my own way, but I work with entrepreneurs. I cut deals with entrepreneurs because I’m an entrepreneur myself and it’s a different model that I’ve built out here and I have mobilized a significant capital for early stage investing through a network that’s kind enough to share the good, bad and ugly with what I do. There’s one particular investor who’s comw in four times as recent as July 2020 and as early as 2012.
He’s followed me into stuff I do. He’s benefited from the pluses and at the same time, he’s experienced some of the negatives, but he’s backed me because he believes that there’s a method in my madness, which he appreciates. I’m grateful for that. We’re all looking for the ball you want to bat out of the park, but I’m happy to crawl before I walk, before I run and keep working hard and building up that value. Hopefully, your LPs, your investors, people who would like to be part of your journey will see that down the road.
What is the kind of business you’re in, if you don’t mind me asking, that allows you to create an enough income to invest in startups?
I had a separate business which sold in February this year. It was my first startup called Hasan Financial Corporation. That was my first taste of entrepreneurship when I made multiple returns of my capital in the first three years, which was reported at UK Companies House with the UK Regulators. It was a buy and sell side advisory firm focusing on the Japanese markets. I ran that business for 24 years and I sold it in February 2020 before COVID broke. That was one of the funding vehicles I used to finance my experiment I would call it here in Dubai when I started Privity. In fact, the first five years of Privity, it was a nonevent. I got involved in a couple of branches, which were not tech because I was too early here.
Dubai was in build mode back then. I don’t know if you know Dubai, but there were cranes, construction work, real estate. That was the order of the day. I call it Dubai 1.0 because that’s what I found. Nobody was interested in tech. Nobody’s interested in venture. The ecosystem was not what it is. It’s quite robust. There’s a lot of activity in this space, in the region as a whole. A lot of FinTech companies are coming out of the region. There have been interesting exits out of the region. Amazon bought a startup in this region at a huge valuation. It’s on the radar and like anything else in the world. That’s why I talked about the six flags, right at the get-go of our conversation, because that is ultimately who I am.No meeting in life is ever a waste of time. Click To Tweet
I don’t have a parochial view to life. I look at the view of the world in a 360 manner. It’s very important. Maybe a data point in China can actually affect what you’re doing here or a data point up in Russia could be moving the needle down here. The whole interplay between all these different data points builds a very interesting fabric around your portfolio. And so I’m open to opportunities wherever they come from and thanks to the six flags I keep referring to, it’s been the biggest blessing in disguise. Perhaps, one of my strengths, it’s like moving a mouse seamlessly through from Japan to Nigeria, to London, to Pakistan, and back to the United States in 0.6 seconds, I can do that because I know where the bodies rlies and who the people are in those different geographies.
You’re the global Sherpa.
If you can move from Asia, Africa, Europe, US seamlessly, that’s a huge swathe of land. It’s a huge content you’re covering. The beautiful thing about sitting in Dubai is that it’s probably one of the few geographies I’ve ever lived in that you can cover the entire world on the same business day, without compromising on your sleep. You could be a one-man shop or a huge multinational sitting in Dubai, but you’ll have that advantage because of its geographic location.
The fact that you have such a success record in FinTech, that must give you a lot of expertise. For looking at FinTech companies, I read one of your articles, you posted on LinkedIn around FinTech. That’s why I was curious to see what your expertise was while you’re not locked into FinTech, you certainly have an ability to analyze it not just from one country in the world.
You flatter me John, I’m not the clever one. In fact, however much somebody on this side of the guy who was writing a check or who’s helping get the checks for the people who wanted, the clever ones are the entrepreneurs. Let’s be clear about that. To me, I bow my head to the guy who’s generating the idea, not the guy who’s writing the check. To me, those are my teachers. In fact, I jokingly refer to Privity as the cheapest MBA program in the world because I’m learning from very very smart minds about different businesses.
That leads me to the question about LF Technologies. That one fascinated me as well. I’m sure there’s a story there. The first time you heard their pitch, the LF is all about rapid creation of marketplaces through how they’ve reinvented two things, online commerce and search. A lot of people I think would say, “I think we’ve got that handled with Google and Amazon. How do you reinvent that?” That’s what fascinates me to hear that story about LF.
You must be either clairvoyant John or something because the two companies in the portfolio have very interesting stories that’s still there. In fact, while it’s a UK holding company base, the operations are out of your backyard sir in Austin.
That is a little same energy. I’m a big believer in quantum physics, energy and trusting your gut a little bit.
And in fact I met the founder through another portfolio company of mine called Boloro whose chairman is a YPO. I helped Boloro in 1st, 2nd and 3rd run. In fact, that was my third small exit out of my portfolio in 2019. This is a company based out of New York. The chairman reached out to me, what I was doing and he said, “I want to introduce you to somebody.” It was word of mouth. When I found out what LF is doing and what they’re doing specifically in artificial intelligence, I rolled my sleeves up and told the founder, “I want to be part of your journey.” Now, he’s a dear friend and we’ve been on that journey.
One of the things that stands out on your portfolio page about LF is they have a paradigm shift called an intelligent marketplace and that alone, as someone who loves stories and good soundbites, is something that intrigues our brain to want to go, “Wow.” I know what intelligence of things are and I know what an intelligent shopper might be, but an intelligent marketplace, that to me is intriguing. Can you shortly give a little hint of what they mean by that phrase?
Nowadays, cars are going to drive themselves. Your fridge will be able to talk to the supermarket and tell it’s running out of milk. Things are going to be talking to one another, but the one thing that still is in the dark ages ever since Google and Amazon came along is searching the marketplaces. What is Amazon? If you think about it. You’ve got a search box, you’ve got some kind of engine at the back that generates searching for let’s say a 40-inch Sony TV. It’ll come up with suggestions and maybe what is it that John Livesay wants doesn’t come up on the first page so you spend more time, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and maybe 9th page right at the bottom, you may find what you’re looking for.
What if that platform learns a bit more about John Livesay and says, “I’m not going to show you 40-inch TVs. Maybe there’s a 60-inch TV that is within your budget. It’s a good brand?” You would respond to it, “If I knew a bit more, I could find a way.” Instead of you searching, it’ll fetch it for you. Like in the old days, when you used to ring up a broken the marketplace and tell the broker, “Buy IBM for me at $40 if the price hits. I’m not going to spend all my time watching the screen and stuff and if it hits that price, either buy for me or come back and tell me the markets where I can can trade.” Think of it that way. That’s the automation that one can bring into the world of search and market place. I don’t know if that answered your question.
It does, because I went through an experience moving here to Austin. You’ve been here, it’s beautiful. There’s a 300-acre park and there are all kinds of bike trails along the lake. I thought, “I want to buy a bike.” Not realizing that bikes are in the same category as paper towels and toilet paper during a pandemic. There’s a shortage of bikes, but the fact that I was trying to figure out where to go to get the bike, asking friends and started looking at things, suddenly I’m finding things in my feed about, “Here’s a helmet you might like and here are all these other things.” I’m like, “I’m looking for a bike.”
This particular intelligent agent, intelligent platform can be applied to just about every single vertical you can think of. It could be a real estate, hospitality, travel. It doesn’t matter what the vertical is because the principle, you’ve got two sides of the equation. You’ve got a buyer and a seller. It affects you’re creating intelligent stock exchanges where everybody in the world, anybody can be a buy and sell at the same time. That’s the ultimate vision of it.You've got to catch the entrepreneur or the investor at hello. Click To Tweet
It’s because you’re giving people information when they need it at the right time. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time and money at marketing to somebody who’s not in the mode of buying whatever it is.
Inadvertently, you’ve picked on something else which was always my dream at Privity sitting here in Dubai, and that is I want to be agnostic to geography industry, but at the same time, I want to be global. You picked up two portfolio companies. One that’s in the portfolio, one that didn’t work, the first one you picked on was out of Toronto in Canada. The second you picked on is in your backyard in Austin, what you’re hearing about for the first time and where am I sitting? In Dubai. That is my vision. I don’t care where. If I have the good fortune of meeting the founder, whether it’s offline, online, and because of COVID, a lot of us couldn’t meet face-to-face. Zoom and Microsoft Teams are the order of the day. That was my vision to do that. There are examples that you’ve picked and I can talk about sitting thousands of miles away in my little garage in Dubai.
Do you have any last tips or thoughts you want to leave with us? Either a quote or a book you like, or philosophy about resilience or grit?
One of my favorite quotes is that of the late Stephen Keshi who was the coach of the Nigerian Eagles, the Nigerian football team. He said, “I don’t need you to believe in me to succeed. I will work hard and when I succeed, you will believe.” I’ll leave you at that.
What a great way to end the show. I love it. Think of yourself almost like a stock is my takeaway from that. When you know what your work ethic is and your skillset, then you’re not trying to prove anything to other people and you find the courage to stay focused on making your own stock, your own brand if you work stronger.
I also have two simple sayings in life. No meeting in life is ever a waste. If somebody is kind enough to knock on my door wherever he is, I will never say no. That is a conversation for another day because one of my portfolio partners, which has got nothing to do with tech was one of the biggest lessons in my life. If you’re interested, you can learn about an artist who’s in my portfolio by the name of Ralph Heimans. You’ll see it in my portfolio. It’s not a technology, it’s an artist. The question you should be asking is, “What is an artist doing in a tech portfolio?” That’s a conversation for another day and I hope that creates some intrigue.It's not success or failure. You either succeed or you learn from the mistakes you make. Click To Tweet
PrivityLLE.com is the URL. I’m on LinkedIn under my name. Privity is also on Facebook. I’m on Twitter as well under my own name and I’m socially on Instagram, the usual suspects. Thank you very much for your time.
It was a joy getting to interview you and know you a little bit.
- Privity LLE
- LinkedIn – Sleem Hasan
- Facebook – Privity LLE
- Twitter – Sleem Hasan
- Instagram – Sleem Hasan
- Better Selling Through Storytelling Method online course
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