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How 3 SMU undergrads raised S$6.3 million for a crypto startup

Image shows a man, SolanaFM co-founder and SMU undergrad Nicholas Chen, wearing glasses in a black T-shirt against a background of a startup office.
Co-founder and CEO Nicholas Chen, who is also an SMU undergrad. (PHOTO: SolanaFM)

By Chelsea Ong

SINGAPORE — Starting a company in your 20s is one thing, but raising millions in seed funding as a university student is a different ballgame altogether.

Cryoto startup SolanaFM, founded by three Singapore Management University undergraduates, namely Nicholas Chen, Chin Bing Huang and Fathur Rahman, did just that.

The idea for the company came about when the trio participated in a hackathon. They started out wanting to create a lending application for Solana, but soon decided to shift to a data-centric product as they realised that their expertise was in data and technology, and not in finance.

SolanaFM raised S$100,000 last year in a round led by Etherscan and Coinhako, and another S$6.3 million in July this year in a seed funding round spearheaded by SBI Group's Digital Asset Opportunity Fund.

The startup, established in March last year, offers analytical services for the Solana blockchain system, acting as a search engine for data within the network, including real-time and historical transactions.

Chen, co-founder and chief executive officer, said he did not expect the company to grow so quickly. The 24-year-old invested S$100,000 of his crypto earnings from 2014 to 2021 to start SolanaFM. The startup now has about 30 employees.

"We aim to be like the Google of tomorrow and make the entire experience of browsing through the crypto space much easier, especially for the older generation," Chen said.

He added most users within the Web 3.0 or cryptocurrency space are people in their 20s or 30s, which does not make it very welcoming for other age groups.

The founders used the funds raised to hire more employees and upscale the business after raising funds despite being "very close" to making a profit about a month or so ago.

The goal is to break even within the next two years, Chen said.

(PHOTO: SolonaFM)
From left: Chin Bing Huang, Nicholas Chen and Fathur Rahman. (PHOTO: SolonaFM)

Leave of absence

But with such heavy work commitments, Chen knew he would have to make some sacrifices in school. He is currently on a leave of absence from school to focus on the business.

"When juggling school and work, I’ll definitely have to sacrifice one, and it’s pretty textbook for me to sacrifice school," he said. "After all, school is fixed, and work is always dynamic."

With the company handling 80 to 90 different micro projects, Chen was finding it increasingly difficult to juggle his workload and he even keep a bed in his office in case he needs to pull overnighters.

"My leave of absence will definitely be extended past this semester, and I might only go back to school one and a half years later as my workload is getting increasingly crazy," he said. His two other co-founders started their leave of absences last year.

Chen shares some of his vision and plans for the company with Yahoo Finance Singapore.

What is your goal for SolanaFM?

My long-term goal is to make data cheap, easy to read, and open to everyone. I am also looking to develop products for other blockchains such as Aptos and other Ethereum-related ones in less than a year, but our primary focus will still be on Solana. I want to dominate the market and reach a point of saturation of development before we consider going into another blockchain.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I subscribe to the belief that a CEO can't lead a company for 10 years and beyond because the company's vision may change. Hence, I think SolanaFM will need a fresh CEO with a different approach that will really help the company scale past the five-year mark.

When the company first started, there were moments where I didn't do a good job in managing it and so the business almost toppled. And with those moments in mind, I think the company is bound to grow to a scale where I am not the right CEO for the company at that size, and there will come a time for me to rotate to another role, such as an engineer, in the business.

What are some moments where the company almost collapsed?

There were a couple of points in time when we realised we didn't have proper goals or a direction we wanted to achieve. Other instances include taking on too much risk, such as building a completely different infrastructure and making too many mistakes in doing so. The last one is about hiring decisions, because at the start I did not prioritise cultural fit and behaviour of individuals, which I now realise is really important.

Our finances were impacted as a result, and company morale dropped too. A lot of people would get demoralised, which is something I carry with me very heavily nowadays because there are so many people following my lead and their livelihoods depend on me too.

What are some takeaways from this experience?

Never panic no matter how bad the situation is, and always plan for the worst no matter how optimistic it seems. Also, if you think you're very close to success, then you need to work even harder. Grind for it. And lastly, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

I don’t have any regrets, and if you asked me to do it all over again, I would. I like this quote by Carol Burnett: "When you have a dream, you've got to grab it and never let go."

Do you have any advice for aspiring student entrepreneurs?

Make the big sacrifice. If you want to start a start-up and you're still studying, then you have made it clear that you're prioritising your start-up over your schoolwork. You have to be prepared to not do as well as you think you would be able to.

A lot of people tend to want to achieve both, and that's not to say it's impossible, but it would be very hard.

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