#MeetTheLeaders: Anthony Chen

September 14, 2020 | Rachael L.

As one of the first employees at Flexport, navigating and thriving in the start-up world is no challenge for Anthony Chen. The mentality of “everyone sells and everyone builds” guided him through his career journey, enabling him, as an advisor, to unlock growth and efficiency in start-ups like Ergon.

Born and raised in the US, Anthony began his career in investment banking on Wall Street with Barclays Capital, not long after the financial crisis in 2008. “It [was] an interesting time to join the job market, especially to be in finance on Wall Street at that time”, Anthony recalls. From working as a venture capitalist to being a start-up investor, Anthony has gained invaluable experience from working in a start-up environment and “getting [his] hands dirty” as he phrases. 


His passion for the start-up community emerged when he first joined Flexport, a leading logistics tech start-up company. Being one of the first few logistics tech start-ups in the “nascent” industry, Anthony admits that it took a great deal of courage to join Flexport as the first employee. Despite his doubts, Flexport rapidly flourished in the span of 6 years, where Anthony was fundamentally responsible for leading the product team in developing the operating model, technology and software to make global trade more efficient; he later drove the expansion of Flexport’s operations and presence in Asia.  


“I’m proud to say the work we did in Flexport opened up a lot more opportunities for even more companies to look at this space; start-ups, traditional businesses or even venture capitalists or funding.”

Witnessing Flexport grow from a team of a “CEO and a dog working out of a garage” to one of the most reputable modern freight-forwarders, the start-up faced various challenges. It is common for businesses and startups to “implode” if they fail to tackle internal obstacles. Anthony warns that they fail “typically because the direction of the company is either too fragmented or there’s too much disagreement within the operating structure”. Nevertheless, the core values of having “the mentality to fill the gap”, “unlocking potential” and “experimenting” guided Anthony through such difficulties.


“It’s this mentality where if you see if there’s a problem you want to fix it if you see a hole you wanna fill it if you see a teammate struggling you wanna help them.” Anthony strongly believes in staying proactive, ambitious and experimental in the ever-changing start-up community. “In start-ups, it’s just you, so you have to make that magic happen”, Anthony reaffirms.


A mantra that Anthony consistently upholds is the concept of “everyone sells, everyone builds”. He emphasises that regardless of your position, “everyone has to sell or represent the company, think about ways to grow [and] contribute to the company”.  Similarly, “everyone needs to think about how they can make the company and processes more streamlined”. 


The elements of togetherness, cooperation, and teamwork are what strengthens the business and its the team. “When everyone builds and everyone sells, everyone is able to create an environment where they are supporting one another and also fighting for the same goal to make the company better”, Anthony reaffirms. 


When it comes to nurturing that synergistic and enthusiastic ecosystem among the team, it is up to the founders to set and maintain the “right vision and direction for the company”. Anthony encourages founders to be “entrepreneurial” and enhance qualities of the early teammates, making them feel valued and motivated. 


Once that work ethic is established within the workforce, the next step for start-ups is to have a “business model that works’. With experience in building million and billion-dollar start-ups, Anthony recognises that successful start-ups often have a good product-market fit. The largest difference between a million-dollar valuation and a billion-dollar valuation is “going beyond just having product-market fit and good growth numbers”, Anthony argues. 


“Sometimes that could be a completely new market, a new service or product that has incredible margins; other times it could be being able to leverage virality and network effects to have even more growth.”

In light of the recent development of HR technology, Anthony sees the potential in Ergon’s innovative approach to talent management. “Being able to leverage the teams’ past experiences within headhunting and marrying that with the latest technology in a very human way, should unlock a lot more value for the companies and potential candidates that you work with.”


According to a report by McKinsey in 2019, ⅓ of the worlds best startups are in Asia, in which Anthony agrees. Having experienced both the Silicon Valley environment as well as the startup ecosystems in Asia, Anthony confirms that “Asia has been blooming and exploding in terms of new opportunities, new businesses, new consumer spending”.


In terms of the start-up culture, Silicon Valley’s “synergistic, non-zero-sum game” culture resonates with Anthony’s core values. He further explains with the mantra, “during a gold rush, you don’t necessarily need to dig for gold, you want to sell shovels”. Although he admires the “hunger” and unwavering determination in Asia, Anthony notices that entrepreneurs are more likely to be guarded and wary of competitors. He further argues that people’s mindsets are to “sell more shovels than their competitors or make it harder for them to operate”, resulting in a less collaborative environment when compared to Silicon Valley. 


Anthony believes that “startups can be a positive-sum game instead of a zero or negative sum game”, where building a supportive ecosystem will enable more winners in the start-up world. 


As the world deals with a black swan event, we are experiencing a change from a bull to bear economy. Companies, both traditional and start-ups alike, are struggling to survive as they deal with challenging and unprecedented obstacles. Instead of following one’s natural instinct to remain conservative in order to survive, Anthony argues that the bear market is the “time for companies to shine”. 


Anthony agrees with fellow Ergon advisor Pete Baker’s saying “do not let a good crisis go to waste”, as he foresees that this pandemic can push companies to be even more creative.  “I would not have our goal to just survive, but instead have our goal to be how can we add value and shine out in this environment.”, Anthony encourages. 


He also warns leaders that “one of the easiest things to forget is your people because you’re trying to navigate the environment, you’re trying to make sure the company is able to thrive, survive, succeed, and sometimes leaders might forget that people are very much part of that equation.”


Years of experience in the start-up world has enabled Anthony the expertise and knowledge to unlock efficiency and potential. Above all, he has understood the importance of supporting one another, in terms of not just cooperating with the team but also with other start-ups. That way, start-ups can “make the magic happen” in a synergistic and collaborative environment.