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The One Behind ONE Championship: How He Built A US$1B Company Out Of His Love For Martial Arts

Asian societies place great importance on excellence and success, and the same applies to the business world.

What a lot of people don’t see is the hard work and effort that goes on behind the scenes. Success doesn’t come easy, and self-made multi-millionaire Chatri Sityodtong can attest to that.

I had the opportunity to speak with the inspirational founder, chairman, and CEO of ONE Championship to learn about his struggles and failures over the years, and how it has helped shape him into the successful figure he is today.

Lived On US$4 A Day In Harvard

Born to a Japanese mother and Thai father, Chatri fell in love with Muay Thai after watching fights at Bangkok’s Lumpinee Stadium. He also started training at the famous Sityodtong Camp at a tender age.

His father was an architect who later started a real estate agency in the 1980s, which helped elevate his family’s fortune from “‘meagre’ to ‘well-to-do’”, he told Straits Times in 2017.

But when the late-1990s financial crisis struck, their family lost everything and his father had to sell “mangoes on the street” for a living.

As hardship struck the family, Chatri’s father later abandoned them, leaving his wife and two sons to fend for themselves.

At that time, Chatri had just returned from the US after graduating from Tufts University with a BA in economics, but his mother urged him to return to the States to study at Harvard Business School.

“My parents pinned it on me, the oldest son, to get us out of poverty, and my mother thought going to Harvard was the best thing. I didn’t think I could get in, and we had no money for the fees, so I was very scared of going,” he told Peak Magazine in 2013.

He managed to secure a scholarship, but lived on US$4 a day eating only one meal a day at a nearby all-you-can-eat Korean eatery that costs US$3.25. His mother also secretly shared his dorm room to save on living expenses.

Chatri ended up teaching Muay Thai and took on other odd jobs such as delivering Chinese food. He would also skip on taking public transportation, and walked instead to his school or any other meetings just to save further.

It was financially difficult, but his time at Harvard laid the path for his future wealth.

From Silicon Valley To Wall Street

“I got very lucky in my second year of business school. My other partners […] were second-year students as I was, and Soon Loo is one of my best friends in life,” Chatri told me as we chatted in his office located in the heart of Singapore.

The 47-year-old CEO recalled fondly, “He said, ‘Chatri, let’s start a company together.’ [I said,] ‘No, no, I can’t, I’m poor. I got to focus on a job.’ [But] he was persistent, [saying,] ‘Chatri, I want you to be a part of this.’”

Needless to say, his mother wasn’t very keen on the idea because she was worried that he would fail like his father.

She thought it was “crazy” and felt “afraid”, but she ended up supporting him anyway because Chatri insisted that starting a business was what he really wanted to do.

According to him, both Soon Loo and himself invested about US$1,000 each to start up NextDoor Solutions, a software company which The Peak described as an “eBay for services”.

In the same year, at one of the conferences held at Harvard, the duo met an angel investor who, “within a day… maybe in an hour of meeting”, offered them US$500,000 to seed their business, according to Chatri.

That was how the then-27-year-old went from a business undergraduate to a software startup co-founder.

“It’s crazy, right?” Chatri gushed when I asked him how he had felt.

“Because in my personal life, I’m living on US$4 a day, eat one meal a day, and my mum lives in my dorm. On the other hand, I know this crazy guy Soon Loo, who’s now the CEO of the EDB of Brunei who was like, ‘Dude, we got to do this!’”

After graduating with an MBA in 1999, he moved to Silicon Valley to launch their startup, bringing his mother along with him.

He procured a small office and furnished it with cheap desks. It housed about eight employees in the day, and after work hours, the office became his home.

“Back then, we didn’t even know what we were doing [with our] business plan, but we worked really hard in business school and after we graduated, we just went for it.”

“We ended up raising about US$38 million in venture capital, and later hired 150 people. But eventually, we sold the company,” he recounted.

Chatri became a millionaire at 30 but he wasn’t ready to call it quits.

Growing up, Chatri said that he is very passionate about three things: martial arts, entrepreneurship, and the stock market.

“I thought to myself, ‘Look, I ‘escaped poverty’,” making quotation marks with his hands, “‘but I hadn’t made enough to retire for the rest of my life.’”

“So what can I do? I love the stock market. Let me go and learn how to invest on Wall Street […] and learn from amongst the best hedge fund managers.”

He considered himself lucky as he landed a managing director role at Maverick Capital, where he managed US$15 billion of global hedge funds.

“Then I started my own fund, raised US$500 million, and was doing global investing — buying and selling companies […] around the world.”

He was a multi-millionaire at 32, which was why Chatri claimed that he was “already set [for life]” when he retired as a hedge fund manager. He left Wall Street at age 37.

Yet, he still felt like something was “missing in his soul”, he said in an interview with The CEO Magazine.

“I thought naively that the answer to happiness was to make a lot of money.”

He recalled sitting in a sushi restaurant in New York after his firm, Izara Capital Management, saw high profits after a year of outstanding performance.

Chatri questioned if all his money-making efforts were fulfilling, so he ended up turning back to his first love: martial arts.

Becoming A Startup Entrepreneur Again

During his stint in Silicon Valley, Chatri told me that despite his passion for entrepreneurship, he realised he didn’t have the same energy for engineering and technology.

However, he found that he had a strong interest in product development and marketing.

Armed with the new-found business knowledge, he started up ONE Championship in 2011.

“Technology is a big part of what ONE Championship does, and I think if I didn’t have that Silicon Valley experience, I would not be able to apply it so rigorously here,” he reflected.

Through ONE Championship, Chatri wants to change the biggest misconception about martial arts: that it is about fighting and violence.

“But what people don’t understand is that martial artists, through thousands of hours of training, [have] forged in our unbreakable warrior spirit: integrity, humility, honour, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion. This is the bedrock of Asian values.”

“Without my martial arts, I would never have been able to escape poverty. I really believe in that because martial arts not only gave me that warrior spirit to be unbreakable in life, but it also gave me all the right values to apply in life,” he added.

Martial arts had been there for Chatri in both his poorest and wealthiest times, so he made sure that he would set aside an hour a day for it no matter what.

Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight

He shared with me his other failures in his younger days — how he got called into the principal’s office for getting into fights, how he threw a prank in university that eventually involved the police, and for getting bad grades because he was busy “chasing girls”.

When he wanted to establish ONE Championship, his mother, once again, raised her concerns.

“She wasn’t afraid that I would fail in that regard, but she thought it was a dumb idea,” he said candidly with laughter.

True to her worries, ONE Championship was once on the brink of failing.

He shared that people didn’t understand ONE Championship’s vision then, so many broadcasters, brands, advertisers, and even potential employees turned him down.

“At the end of the third year, I remember calling my mum and said, ‘Mum, things are not going so well.’”

“She was like, ‘You see, I told you so,’” Chatri gave a knowing laugh.

“We talked some more and then she asked, ‘Chatri, why don’t you just quit?’”

“Of course, the thought flashed through my mind, ‘Should I quit?’ Because literally, nothing was happening.”

But it was a good thing that he didn’t throw in the towel. Instead, his mother’s words ignited another fire within him, and he was determined to make it work.

From that moment on, video views on ONE Championship’s social media grew from 300,000 in 2014 to close to four billion in 2018.

“Like Joseph Schooling, [for example], no one cares about swimming in Singapore. But once he won the gold medal, everyone knew the incredible life story of how his parents had mortgaged their house and put him in America when he was 14 years old,” he said.

“Then [he came] back, bringing honour and glory,” he paused. “[That’s what] happens to our world champions [too].”

“We finally figured out that people don’t watch because of the punch or the kick or the submission. People watch because their heroes are representing their country on the global stage of martial arts.”

On that note, Chatri often tells his team that while their genre is martial arts, their platform is based on humanity.

“To earn the best days of your life, you have to fight through the worst days first. I fought through poverty and abandonment by my father. If I did not fight, I would not be here today,” he asserted with a loud pounding on the table.

“If I did not fight through the worst days of ONE Championship, I would not have seen the best days of ONE Championship.”

In 2017, ONE Championship is said to be worth US$1 billion and Chatri himself was ranked third in FOX Sports’ list of Asia’s Most Powerful People In Sports.

Most recently, the company has raised US$166 million in a Series D round.

How To Overcome Failure? Embrace It

Chatri later admitted that he could’ve forgiven his father earlier instead of holding on to the anger.

“I watched my father go bankrupt [and] abandon the family, and we were [seen as] a castaway family,” he said somberly.

“In Asia, I agree that we’re too focused on success and there’s not enough emphasis about […] the value of failure. What I don’t agree with Asian culture is how everyone is supposed to be perfect, everyone can’t fail, and failures are horrible,” he continued.

Failing in Silicon Valley, he explained to me, is like getting a “badge of honour” from the investor community.

“Ask any entrepreneur and observe the success stories in Asia, and you’ll notice that they have failed over and over to finally achieve their success.”

When Chatri was at Wall Street, he realised that money is “just a by-product” of what you do.

“The world needs inspired souls who are alive, truly alive with passion and purpose so that we can make this world a better place. That’s ultimately what entrepreneurship is about – making this world a better place.”

Chatri’s motivation for his work is his strong belief that ONE Championship is making a positive impact in the world.

When he thinks back to his Wall Street or Silicon Valley days, he feels like he’s living the life of his dreams now, he told me happily.

His advice to fellow entrepreneurs: embrace failure, have resilience and grit, understand that there will be doubters and naysayers, and be prepared to tackle any problems that come your way.

“I think the greatest entrepreneurs are able to attract and retain the very, very best talent to fight with them,” he added.

“I’ll tell you, for ONE Championship, it’s just the beginning. Watch us three years, five years, 10 years from now.”

Featured Image Credit: C.J. Sameer Wadhwa

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