Judging for Shark Tank Vietnam, the Power of Saying ‘Yes’, and A Big Regret: A Conversation with Antler’s General Partner Erik Jonsson

Published on
August 25, 2023
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Judging for Shark Tank Vietnam, the Power of Saying ‘Yes’, and A Big Regret: A Conversation with Antler’s General Partner Erik Jonsson
From investment banking to Shark Tank, read about Antler General Partner Erik Jonsson's uncharted career paths and his biggest lessons.
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Erik Jonsson has worn many hats. Beginning his professional career in London’s fast-paced banking industry, his personal ethos of “saying yes to all opportunities” has opened the doors to plenty of experiences — making him a banker, investment capitalist, and startup founder to several companies. 

This unorthodox journey has also taken him from London to Ho Chi Minh city in search of new experiences. There, Erik quietly but thoroughly immersed himself in Vietnamese culture as managing partner at Antler Vietnam and, as many in the country know him, the first Non-Vietnamese judge of Shark Tank Vietnam. 

Aspire had the pleasure of speaking with Erik on his unusual journey, how being trilingual has opened more doors for him, and how his personal outlook on life and work has brought plenty of ups and downs, both professionally and personally — and how he views them with only one regret.

Aspire: First off, investment banker, founder of many ventures, and now, partner at Antler Vietnam. you've had a very extensive professional and entrepreneurial journey so far that's literally taken you across continents. How did you find yourself on this path?

Erik Jonsson: When I was studying finance in London, one of the recommended readings was a book called “A Random Walk Down Wall Street”. It was one of the cornerstone books for any looming investment banker. I feel like my career has really embodied that: a series of random but fated opportunities presenting themselves, and I have simply needed to be open-minded to seize all these opportunities. Even when I was looking at banking internships in London, every opportunity sounded amazing. Trading? Yes! Derivatives? Yes! M&A? Sounds cool! I think that has a lot to do with my personal ethos of always being willing to take on new opportunities.

Aspire: So it’s this idea of ‘not putting yourself in a box’, but letting yourself explore everything you can get into?

Erik Jonsson: Definitely!

Aspire: Speaking of these opportunities, one of them has taken you from London all the way to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. What was the most significant change you had to adapt to moving to Southeast Asia?

Erik Jonsson: London is great. It's such a hub for so many cultures. I loved my time there, but after eight years, my partner at the time wanted to move to Vietnam. Following my own views, it was an easy choice, and it was also a good time to move, as I felt I'd been in London long enough. I was also very lucky that my boss at the time told me he would welcome me back if Vietnam didn’t work out, so I had a security blanket. It felt like a low risk move at the end of the day. So it's been a pretty easy move and I've loved Vietnam since day one.

Aspire: On the topic of Vietnam, I’ve heard that you are fluent in Vietnamese! Did you take lessons or was it something that you picked up naturally?

Erik Jonsson: I think you can live in Ho Chi Minh City and never speak a lick of Vietnamese, and that’s perfectly fine. I meet very few expats who speak any Vietnamese, and barely any that have picked it up to a business-proficient level. For me, I came here committed to a life in Vietnam, so as soon as I arrived, I started learning with intensive classes. I had tutors teaching me throughout my 12 years here. I still have a tutor that I touch base with every week because once you get conversational, you move on to business language, and then to idioms, metaphors and so on. There's always something to learn. If you want to understand Vietnamese culture deeply, learning the language is essential. It’s definitely one of the best decisions I've made in my life.

Aspire: So learning Vietnamese has given you a business edge?

Erik Jonsson: I’d say so. For example, when I was invited to join a large conglomerate here, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I didn't speak Vietnamese, because the chairman of the group speaks only Russian and Vietnamese. I don’t speak Russian, so all meetings with him were in Vietnamese. Speaking Vietnamese has definitely opened a lot of doors for me, like becoming the first non-Vietnamese shark on Shark Tank Vietnam.  

Aspire: What was that experience like, and how did you end up joining the show?

Erik Jonsson: Well, as a Western guy speaking Vietnamese, I stick out. They actually reached out to me for the first time almost a year before shooting, but I was very hesitant at first because I’m quite introverted, and don’t tend to have a burning desire to be in the spotlight. What got me to say yes was that little voice in my head saying: “Hey, you'd be the first ever non-Vietnamese guy on Shark Tank Vietnam. That would be a pretty cool thing to look back on when I’m old and grey!” That pushed me to accept it. In the end, it wasn't something I jumped onto straight away because of my introversion, but I’m really happy that I accepted it because it was such an honour to be included. 

Aspire: So as an entrepreneur with several startups and companies under your belt, I'm sure you would have done your fair share of fundraising pitches to investors. You’ve also been on the other side of the table as an Antler Vietnam partner and a Shark Tank judge. What was that like?

Erik Jonsson: I consider myself fortunate, because if you are an early stage investor like I am at the moment, you're essentially there in the trenches with entrepreneurs figuring it out. That's a big stress element for an entrepreneur. And I get to join that excitement and the brainstorming, the iterations, and the process of striving for market fit. I might not necessarily be the one lying awake at night worrying about making payroll the next month, but I still have their best interests at heart. I'm on the other side and now I have this deep compassion for the entrepreneurs I’m investing in. 

Aspire: Any notable stories to share?

Erik Jonsson: One of the founders in my portfolio told me that he recently left his nice, big apartment, to move into a one-bedroom apartment with his wife, just to be a little more frugal. He's an entrepreneur who used to be an executive at a renowned e-commerce marketplace, and he told me that it was very emotional for them when he brought his wife there for the first time, because it felt like a step back for them both. I felt deep compassion for him because I knew how it felt as a founder. But to an investor, his actions speak of commitment, and that he really has skin in the game. He's doing everything he can to make this work, which is amazing. 

Aspire: The commitment to goals is important. I also know that these goals aren’t always revenue and profit. Given Southeast Asia's growing focus on sustainability and ESG, how important are those goals? 

Erik Jonsson: Super important. Some investors love mercenary-type entrepreneurs that spot an arbitrage opportunity in the market and just go all in. They just pay to take advantage of something that could be very lucrative. I prefer missionary founders. The ones that are in it for a reason, bigger than just making money. Those are also the ones that don’t just think about the bottom line, but also how to give back. At Antler, we’ve seen so many young Vietnamese looking at sustainability ideas, and different problems they can solve with startups. So, to sum up, I personally love to see missionary founders that pick a big problem to solve, a big mission to strive for, and go for that.

Aspire: With all your experience, both in startups as well as in the VC space. What advice do you have for aspiring founders looking to start a business in Southeast Asia? 

Erik Jonsson: Continuous validation of whatever they're working on is always important. It keeps you on the right path. We often see that when founders get comfortable or complacent in their goals and efforts, that’s when competitors start creeping in, and that's when they can become a little muddled. As an entrepreneur myself, I've been asked this question: what is the one thing I regret the most? Without going into details, I had a huge setback in one of my businesses in the past, and the only thing I regret is not getting to that answer sooner. Had I been more strict in problem validation and iteration, I probably would have come to the same conclusion much sooner, burning less money and wasting less time. 

Aspire: We’ve spoken a lot about Erik Johnsson — Founder, Venture Capitalist, and Shark Tank Judge. What's next for Erik Jonsson on a personal level?

Erik Jonsson: Vietnam has given me so much. What I love to talk about most is this project called Happy Eyes. My friend and I set this up in 2017 where we began bringing eye tests and prescription glasses to orphans in Vietnam. We started with 100 kids in rural Vietnam who were studying every day in a classroom without proper access to such services. We help test them, get them equipment, get optometrists involved, and it’s now grown into this large organisation that I am so proud of. I think it has been more rewarding than any other thing I've ever done, to be honest. I’d probably want to bring more ways to expand Happy Eyes or do something similar.

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