Creative Conversations: Meet Champ Suthipongchai

Q: Let’s start at the beginning! Can you speak about your background and what experiences led you to invest in deep tech?
A: I was born and raised as a third-generation family business heir, and my childhood was essentially spent preparing for me to take over my family’s enterprise. But when I went to work for my family, I quickly learned it wasn’t for me. The bureaucracy and complacency left me questioning my core identity. Who am I, if not an heir? 

I quickly found my answer hidden in that experience with my family’s business. I was surrounded by digital transformation, and that exposure paved my introduction into the startup world and, eventually, venture capital. 

My inherent desire to push boundaries and invest in things that mattered found a home in deep tech. 

Q: What is your personal investment philosophy on companies in the space?
Speak with authority; don’t regurgitate what is already known. Make it personal and reveal a sense of passion. 

A: One of my greatest lessons in venture was taught to me when I was just nine years old. I had these cards that, if you paired with the correct match, allowed you to exchange them for money. After buying my first five and winning, I did what the rest of my nine-year-old peers were doing, and I bought more…only to lose it all. It’s a silly experience on its own, but the lesson stuck with me over the years. 

That memory returned to me when I started Creative Ventures’ first fund. I decided to go into the world of investing knowing my good investments were skill and not luck—not to mention repeatable. I searched for consistency, demanding a repeatable business model from myself, my colleagues, and my founders.

The first step was getting honest about human bias and how easy it is for VCs to fall in love with founders. So many founder-first VCs fall prey to how easy it is to invest in founders who look, think, and resemble them, so I resolved to avoid that trap—and only work with people who were intent on doing the same. To win, I needed to be right, and I needed to be a contrarian to some degree. I needed to be market-first

By focusing on picking technologies and playbooks—not what other VCs tell me I should and shouldn’t do—I remain confident to this day that myself and my colleagues have a skill other VCs do not possess.

Q: Are there specific criteria for companies that must be met?

A: Every company we have invested in has met criteria specific to their industry and playbook. 

Back in 2020, we saw a ridiculous amount of money flowing into alternative proteins, and we didn’t think the valuation made much sense. Besides, we were searching for a scalable solution that did not come with ridiculous assumptions. After looking at almost 100 companies in the space, we simply couldn’t find one. So we asked ourselves, “Where else are emissions coming from that others haven’t paid attention to?” We arrived at the cement industry. 

The more we looked at sustainable concrete, the more we realized that technology is a small but crucial part. This business will require a lot of capital and a lot of JV to scale the production and distribution. Once we developed conviction on the business model and go-to-market, our criterion was simple: find a CEO who has done a lot of JV or M&A activities in the construction industry. When we came across TerraCO2, our diligence was primarily done around CEO Bill’s background and how he did his 47 M&A on both the buy and sell sides. The rest was history. 

Q: How about red flags? What makes for an immediate “no” when you’re considering a company for the first time?

A: I firmly believe that clarity in thought leads to clarity in execution. If somone cannot articulate their thoughts succinctly, they haven’t crystalized exactly how they will execute. 

I once sat in a pitch meeting with a founder who told his story so poorly that it led to confusion. As I asked questions about the model he presented, he started to realize that his business did not make sense. In fact, before the pitch was over, he admitted, “I guess this doesn’t really make as much sense as I had initially thought.” 

This is why clarity in thought is a requisite for clarity in execution. Things will go horribly wrong even if you have clarity in your thoughts. You don’t need to double or triple that amount if you want to maximize your chance of success. 

That’s not to say we need the founder to be right. However, we need to know what it is we are betting on. 

Q: So once an investment has been made, what role do you strive to fill for your portfolio companies? 

A: I strive to do whatever it takes to fill the gap that will most likely sink the company. Typically, we identify this gap during our diligence process and are transparent about it to our founders. We tell them up front and invite them to agree with us to a certain degree. We don’t want to invest in a company and fight with the management to agree that certain key issues are even the problems; we’d rather be working together with them on it. 

Sometimes, this manifests as a compensation committee amongst a board of six VCs to align their directions in a non-founder-led company and reflect that into a compensation package for the management team. A non-founder-led company has a harder time having a clear, aligned direction, and I fill in the role, ensuring alignment amongst the board and the management team. 

Other times, this looks like firing or demoting the CEO by putting them in a technical leadership role and working together to find a replacement that can scale the company and raise late-stage investments. 

It’s my mission to confront the nitty gritty and nasty things VCs are reluctant to talk about and do whatever it takes to get the company to graduate to its next stage. 

Q: What’s been the most formative experience for you as a manager, whether for good or bad?
Another opportunity to be personable. 

A: It is most definitely managing my team. Like my founders, I am, first and foremost, a founder as well. I had to start from scratch with an unclear direction. I had no money to hire anyone and had to sell pipedreams to recruit people. I have had to raise money. I have had to build our investment process and iterate on them over the years. I have had to crystalize our culture. I even had to break up with my co-founder.

I have gone through whatever my portfolio founders go will through. 

One of the most important and challenging parts of being a founder myself is recruiting and retaining talents. I am glad to say that we have had zero regrettable losses. Everyone who came and left did so at the right time. But it was not without rough patches. When I was younger (and much more foolish), I was used to being prescriptive and asking everyone to do what’s in my head. I saw them and additional arms and legs of my own, and I wanted them to do exactly as I thought they should. I think of them as a replica of myself, not as an individual with their own strengths and weaknesses. 

That almost cost me the entire team. My partner had to pull me aside and tell me that he thought the team was close to exploding if I did not change. It was a wake-up call and a very difficult one for me to take in and adjust to: to let go of control and allow them to figure out how to get to the goal themselves since I often have the path plotted out for all of them, whatever they did. 

I told all of my LPs that even though I’m a VC, my first and most important investment is always my team. I placed my bet on them before I did my founders, and I needed my team to pull through in order for the firm to grow. And to do that right, I needed to give them room – room to figure things out, room to fail, and ultimately room to succeed in ways I could not have imagined, because if I could, why bother hiring them in the first place? 

Q: What are you most proud of as an investor so far?
Consider an answer that highlights your personal qualities, strengths as an investor, and passions. 

A: I have never come across a foolproof investment strategy. All strategies eventually get punched in the face once implemented. What’s important as an investor is staying disciplined in the execution.

Discipline has been my greatest strength. You will find no strategy drift in our investment. Nothing out of our thesis. Nothing outside of what we described we will do. We will course correct as the market situation changes, but those are all within the flexible and carefully calculable bounds of our strategy. 

Venture is a long-term gain. You are not rewarded for overreacting every time the market produces – and it will –  a knee-jerk reaction to some uncontrollable events. Sure, you adjust the sail, but you don’t keep changing courses, shifting from market to market, and relaunching products every six weeks. There is merit in being agile, but as a VC, there is more merit in holding a steer steady. You just have to be right in the first place. 

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