Digerati50: Aaron Sarma shines brightest

  • Successful exit now followed with active role in Malaysia’s startup ecosystem
  • Credits MDEC & Cradle Fund for critical support during entrepreneurial journey

Aaron Sarma: “I am truly blessed to have had the opportunity to build a regional business from Malaysia."

Digital News Asia (DNA) kicks-off its series that profiles 50 influencers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 2020-2021 (Vol 4), a special biennial print publication released in July 2020. The digital version can be downloaded from the sidebar link. For information on customised reprints email [email protected]

In a startup ecosystem that severely lacks success stories of entrepreneurs who launched, built and sold their startups to then jump back in the ecosystem as investor, mentor and inspirer, Aaron Sarma shines brightest as the most inspiring success story of recent times for Malaysia.

As is typical of Asian entrepreneurs, Aaron’s exit from his startup in Sept 2019 which was acquired by AirAsia was low key and it is not publicly known how much he walked away with. But no one really cares because Aaron jumped right back into the ecosystem as cofounder and General Partner of Scaleup Malaysia, an accelerator that launched its first cohort of rough diamonds in Dec 2019 that Aaron will help cut and shine into tomorrow’s star Malaysian companies.

Some entrepreneurs who have made it like to shape their post exit narrative as being all about them. What’s striking here is that Aaron has been most gracious in attributing his success to the ecosystem he is in and to the government agencies involved.

“I am truly blessed to have had the opportunity to build a regional business in Malaysia. The ecosystem has been instrumental in helping us start, scale and grow far beyond anything I could ever have imagined in just a little under four years,” he says.

He highlights Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) and Cradle Fund. For instance, on MDEC’s Global Acceleration and Innovation Network (GAIN) programme he says: “GAIN has truly been instrumental in helping us get market access to partners outside of Malaysia and in providing us avenues for exposure and visibility.”

He has also been a recipient of Cradle’s CIP500 in May 2016 and was part of its highly successful Coach & Grow Programme (CGP). “That funding came at a critical point for the company and the CGP just helped me have a better handle on what it meant to be a leader and manager of a fast growing startup.”

His experiences have inspired him to give back and at the time of publication he is attached to MDEC on a contract basis helping to plan a stronger ecosystem for today’s and tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.

He is also known to be unstinting in sharing his time and offering feedback and ideas to any entrepreneur who approaches him and more than willing to tap his network to set up meetings.

Truly, he has come a long way from the bright eyed, eager executive promoting social commerce as country head of a deal site back in Jan 2013 when DNA first crossed paths with him.

He then launched his travel planning platform, Touristly, in mid 2015 which caught AirAsia boss, Tony Fernandes’ interest who invested in him in 2016. The notoriously demanding Tony clearly liked what he saw in Aaron and the value he was building in Touristly and less than one year later AirAsia acquired a 50% stake for US$2.6 million.

The key component of the deal though was that Aaron retained management control to run things as he saw fit.

But Tony wasn’t done yet and in May 2019, AirAsia decided it had clearly “seen” its own future as an online travel company tied intimately to Aaron’s startup and announced a full acquisition with Aaron’s startup in essence powering AirAsia.com.

Significantly Aaron became chief operating officer of AirAsia.com. But being in a large company, even one as digitally adept as AirAsia was just not Aaron’s cup of tea and four months later, he left, yearning for the excitement and challenge that come in building and supporting disruptive startups.

He has also taken to sharing his views on what the country can do better in making itself a hot spot for innovation and disruptive ideas, jointly authoring an article “Time to be bold: How the government can reshape our startup ecosystem” in April 2020 where he writes that startups are drivers of innovation in the New Economy and warns that allowing startups to fail due to the current economic downturn caused by Covid-19 will be disastrous.

The sum effect of allowing startups to fail, he writes is that, “all the efforts made to groom our ecosystem over the last two decades would be in jeopardy.”

Clearly Aaron is playing his part to ensure this does not happen.

Digerati50 is proudly sponsored by Maxis: Powering Malaysia's 56G Era.

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