Hard Questions with Jeffrey Tiong, founding CEO of PatSnap

Elise Tan posted on 15 Sep 2022

“It’s not about what you do but who you are as a person.”

I recently came across this quote while reading and it reminded me of Jeffrey Tiong, founding CEO of PatSnap, a unicorn startup and Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia & India portfolio company.

PatSnap is a globally-recognized competitive intelligence innovation platform. PatSnap is short for Patents in a Snap. Under Jeffrey’s leadership, the company has grown from a small four-person operation to 1,400 people and gained international prominence in the highly competitive field of patent analytics. Today, PatSnap enables more than 10,000 customers in 50 countries, with China, Europe and the US being the key markets.

Hard Question Series

Recently, we kick-started our Hard Questions series last Thursday and we are honoured to have invited Jeffrey as our first guest.

In this series of in-person events, we ask ‘Hard to answer’ and ‘Heart-to-heart’ (pun intended) questions to late-stage startup founders to unearth wisdoms to prepare, motivate and enlighten early-stage entrepreneurs.

PatSnap raised their first VC investment in 2014 from Vertex Ventures SEA & India, when technology for intellectual property was still relatively nascent in Southeast Asia. Since then, we continued to partner Jeffrey and his team through the ups and downs to build PatSnap to its position as a leading global player.

In this article, I’m sharing the highlights and key takeaways of his authentic and raw sharing. To hear the entire conversation, visit the recording on our YouTube channel.

For the first in-person event we organised in 2022, we were heartened by the overwhelming responses and regrettably we had to limit the audience size to 90 pax, as we wanted a more intimate experience for our guests.

Not Being Afraid to be Who He Really is, Even as a CEO

Jeffrey strolled into the restaurant in a blue t-shirt and a pair of bermudas and instantly, I felt a little overdressed compared to him. But I realise that’s how Jeffrey truly is  like— humble, authentic and what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

As I looked back on the event, one of the most memorable I recalled him saying is this:

“Since PatSnap received its unicorn status ($1 B in valuation), nothing actually changed. We are still the same us and continue doing the same things.”

And that is why certain people (investors such as Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia), and money are drawn to him. I’m not surprised— I personally believe that our beliefs, values and energy level attract similar kinds of people into our life.

I started the ball rolling by asking how he felt when someone told him that he wasn’t cut out to be a CEO. He shared:

“Entrepreneurship is an intense journey of self discovery. My MBTI is ISTP so that means I’m introverted. Plus I just started PatSnap at that time and I wasn’t communicating in a confident and convincing way when I was pitching to investors. Someone commented I was not fit to be the CEO. As I looked up to him, the words really hurt. I shed a few tears after hearing it and started questioning myself and eventually suffered from a period of self doubt.”

But over the years, he read many books and also noticed that many top leaders are introverted and He finally learnt to embrace himself and develop his own leadership style, which is authentic, honest and down-to-earth. One of the most insightful articles he read that shaped his mindset was a HBR leadership article entitled: Discovering your Authentic Leadership. It helped him realise that he didn’t need to pretend to be a leader whom others expected him to be. He began to focus on understanding himself better and keep improving himself as a leader along the way.

I thought, “that, perhaps set him up for life”.


Setbacks were aplenty in the past 15 years but the biggest lesson learnt was the importance of hiring the right people

Moving onto another topic, I asked Jeffrey to share some of the most painful setbacks he faced. Jeffrey shared that they had faced many challenges and made million-dollar mistakes along the way, but the biggest and most painful issues were people related. In the initial phase, they hired the wrong type of people who were experienced and high performing in their previous jobs but they disrupted the company’s culture and created high levels of employee dissatisfaction. He candidly shared one nightmarish example:

“I made a big big mistake of hiring a senior sales executive from a large corporate who was overbearing and created a culture of fear. I was so scared of him, and even hired a security guard on his last day at work, just in case.”

Across their China and European offices, employees even took to platforms like Glassdoor to voice their unhappiness. Not surprisingly, he found that period to be extremely unbearable and painful. One of his friends recommended him to see a therapist as he seemed to be feeling constantly down. He was diagnosed with slight depression and has been seeing a therapist ever since.

“Having a depression is no different from having a cold. Just know how to deal with it. I have been meeting the psychologist ever since.”

I applaud Jeffrey for being vulnerable with this, as mental health is still largely a taboo topic in Asia. Hence I’m glad he shared the benefits of seeking a professional because it is extremely stressful running a high growth startup. There is a need for business leaders to normalise mental wellness.

Don’t Take Rejection from Investors Too Personally

In the last 15 years, Jeffrey has received rejections by over 100 investors across Asia, USA and Europe. His advice is not to take rejections too personally, learn from the investor’s feedback and continue building the business. I guess the experience has toughened Jeffrey up but I think being rejected by investors whom I can’t imagine working long term with could be a blessing in disguise. Jeffrey also agrees that investor-founder fit is an important factor, much like employee-company fit.

Find Comfort in Making Difficult Decisions

One of the hardest (or scariest) things that entrepreneurs need to get used to is making big decisions and to be solely accountable for the outcome. Jeffrey confessed that the entrepreneurship journey is very intense and his had been fraught with many sleepless nights. Over the years, he has optimised his decision making process.

“Indecision is still a decision. I rather that we make a decision quickly and then correct the course of action if needed.”

Finally, one of the biggest regrets Jeffrey shared is missing out on the time he could have spent with his wife and three daughters. He is also deeply grateful to his wife who has been very understanding and patient through the years.

Curious to hear the entire sharing? Watch the recording on our YouTube channel.

Read our previous articles on PatSnap:

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