William Tanuwijaya (Photo: Priscilla Anais via Wikimedia Commons 4.0; image cropped)
William Tanuwijaya, 39, is a startup phenomenon. He is the multi-millionaire CEO of Indonesian e-commerce site Tokopedia, and one-quarter of the leadership of the newly formed GoTo Group, Indonesia’s most valuable technology company.
Just about a decade ago, when he was a student at Binus University in Jakarta, Tanuwijaya was working in a cyber café by night to support his family.
Tanuwijaya wanted to start an e-commerce site. But he was frequently rejected by investors. One even told him he was “not special”.
“Tokopedia’s story almost ended before we even started,” Tanuwijaya told CNBC Make It.
“They’d ask about my personal background ... which university I studied at,” Tanuwijaya said, recalling his conversations with investors. “I do not come from the Ivy League. I always consider myself a graduate from internet cafe.”
Investors were also sceptical about simply replicating the Amazon or Alibaba model. If the giants entered the market, they felt that customers would gravitate to them. In name and infrastructure, they were too big and no local player could compete with them.
But it was an insult from another investor that made Tanuwijaya dig his heels in.
“He said: ‘William, all of your role models, these Silicon Valley founders, they are born special, you are not,'” Tanuwijaya recalled to CNBC Make It. “'Please stop daydreaming; find something more realistic to do.'”
It was just the push Tanuwijaya needed.
“That is the day when I found the purpose of my life because I realized the reason I wanted to build Tokopedia is to build trust among strangers to be able to start business anywhere,” he said.
Tokopedia launched in 2009, after which Tanuwijaya and co-founder Leontinus Alpha Edison got seed funding from the Indonesian investment firm PT Indonusa Dwitama. Since then, it has received buy-in from SoftBank, Sequoia Capital and Alibaba Group.
Tokopedia has a network of more than 11 million merchants and 100 million active users, who last year contributed 1% to Indonesia’s $1.1 trillion gross domestic product.
Another source of inspiration for Tanuwijaya was the concept of the Indonesian dream.
“Our founding father, the first president of the country (known only as Sukarno), once said … ‘Dream as high as the sky. If you fall, you fall amongst the stars,’” Tanuwijaya said. “I find that’s beautiful. So I decided that no matter what happens, I will try to build Tokopedia.”