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.

But what a lot of people don’t see are the effort and hard work put in, the number of times they get knocked down and try again.

It’s when they do triumph over those setbacks that they get acknowledged and become celebrated.

In the world of entrepreneurship and startups, it is just like that as well.

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 on how his failures helped shaped him to be who he is today.

Lived On US$4 A Day In Harvard

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Young Chatri Sityodtong with his nursery school teacher / Image Credit: chatrisityodtong.com

Born to a Japanese mother and a Thai father, Chatri fell in love with Muay Thai after watching fights at Bangkok’s Lumpinee Stadium and 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, and the family’s fortune went 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 sold “mangoes on the street” to survive.

Chatri’s father later abandoned the family, leaving his wife, Chatri and his brother to fend for themselves.

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Teenaged Chatri with his first Muay Thai teacher, Papa Daorung / Image Credit: Chatri Sityodtong Facebook

At that time, Chatri had already 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 the Peak Magazine in 2013.

He managed to secure a scholarship but lived on US$4 a day eating one meal a day at a nearby all-you-can-eat Korean eatery that costs US$3.25, and his mother had to secretly share his dorm room.

Chatri taught Muay Thai and did any other jobs he could find like delivering Chinese food to earn a living, and he would walk to school or to his meetings to save money.

His time at Harvard would be where the foundation for his monetary success would be laid.

From Silicon Valley To Wall Street

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Chatri in his Harvard days with his friends Saurabh Mittal (far left) and Soon Loo (far right) / Image Credit: chatrisityodtong.com

“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 do a company together.’ [I said,] ‘No, no, I can’t, I’m poor. I gotta go focus on a job.’ [But] he was persistent, [saying,] ‘Chatri, I want you to be part of this.’”

His mother was, of course, worried because she didn’t want him to fail like his father.

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Chatri and his mother / Image Credit: chatrisityodtong.com

She thought it was “crazy” and felt “afraid” but supported him anyway because it was what he wanted to do.

He said that they both invested something like US$1,000 each to start up NextDoor Solutions, a software company The Peak described as an “eBay for services”.

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

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

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

“Because [on one hand], in my personal life I’m living on $4 a day; eat one meal a day; 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!’”

He continued, “Then one thing led to another, we got half a million dollars of seed capital and it was just shocking. I couldn’t believe somebody would give us half a million dollars!”

After graduating with an MBA in 1999, he moved to Silicon Valley to launch their startup and hire people, taking his mother with him.

The small office housed about eight employees in the day, furnished with cheap desks.

After work hours, the office was his home.

“I couldn’t even afford a bed. So my mother and I slept on the floor of the office at night when everyone has left and [we’d be] in sleeping bags,” he said

“I remember we didn’t even know what we were doing [with our] business plan but we worked really hard during business school (days) and when we graduated, we went for it.”

“We ended up raising about US$38 million in venture capital after that, and then hired 150 people and all. Eventually, we sold the company,” he recounted.

Chatri became a millionaire at 30 but he wasn’t ready to settle yet.

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Chatri practising Muay Thai / Image Credit: chatrisityodtong.com

Growing up he has three strongest passions.

The first is martial arts, calling it his greatest love; second is entrepreneurship, and third is 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.”

Chatri considers himself lucky to become a Managing Director at Maverick Capital, managing $15 billion of global hedge funds.

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

He was “already set” when he retired as a hedge fund manager and was a multi-millionaire at 32 but he left Wall Street when he was 37.

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

“I thought, naively, 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

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Image Credit: ONE Championship

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.

“I think the biggest takeaway I got from Silicon Valley was how to think like a true product owner and from the perspective of the user. And, of course, the whole startup culture, how to raise money, [amongst the other] stuff I learned,” he told me.

So armed with that knowledge, he started up ONE Championship in 2011.

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Image Credit: Chatri Sityodtong Facebook

“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.

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

“Martial arts is Asia’s greatest cultural treasure, it’s part of the fabric of history, culture, tradition, and values that last five thousand years across the continent.”

“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.”

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Chatri practising Muay Thai in 2016 / Image Credit: Chatri Sityodtong Facebook

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

Martial arts had been there for Chatri in his poorest times, it was also there for him in his wealthiest times, as he revealed that he would set aside an hour a day for it no matter what.

“When I was a washer, that’s when I picked up Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I focused more on that martial art and didn’t do as much Muay Thai [during] that period of my life. But now I [have been] doing both […] for the last 10 years,” he shared.

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, for throwing a prank 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 laughed as he said this candidly.

“She’s a conservative Japanese lady and loved the image of her son being a managing director who sees over $500 million global hedge funds on Wall Street. It was like all the right boxes: Harvard and Wall Street and prestigious.”

But ONE Championship had been on the brink of failing.

“The first three years of ONE Championship was living hell. I got rejected thousands of times, I failed thousands of times,” he recounted.

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

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Chatri’s mother (right) with ONE Championship athlete, Angela Lee / Image Credit: Chatri Sityodtong Facebook

“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.

Then he said soberly, “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.”

Luckily, he said, he didn’t quit.

In fact, his mother’s words lit another fire in his belly and he was determined to make it work.

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

I asked him what happened at that three-year mark.

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Joseph Schooling and Michael Phelps at a ONE Championship event / Image Credit: chatrisityodtong.com

“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.

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“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.”

Chatri tells his team that their genre might be martial arts, but their platform is humanity.

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ONE Championship athletes Shannon “OneShin” Wiratchai, Rika “Tiny Doll” Ishige, and Angela Lee during a community outreach in Bangkok in 2017 / Image Credit: ONE Championship Facebook

He shared with me passionately that he believes to earn the best days of your life, you have to fight through the worst days of your life.

“I fought through poverty and abandonment by my father. If I did not fight,” he pounded the table with his fist, “I would not be here today.”

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

In 2017, ONE Championship is said to be worth US$1 billion as Chatri ranked third in FOX Sports’ list of Asia’s Most Powerful People In Sports, and they have recently raised US$166 million in a Series D round.

How To Overcome Failure? You Embrace It

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Image Credit: ONE Championship

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

“Watching my father go bankrupt [and] abandon the family- we were, in Asian society, [seen as] a castaway family,” he said sombrely.

“In Asia, I agree that we’re too focused on success and there’s not enough 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.

“Failure is a wonderful opportunity to learn, grow and evolve, and to become the best version of yourself.”

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

He said, 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 byproduct” of what you do.

“If you’re miserable doing a miserable job, making money is not going to bring you any happiness. But if you’re doing something [that makes] you happy and fulfilled, and you’re driven, you’re inspired, then you make money that is actually happy,” he reasoned.

“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.”

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“ONE: Reign of Kings on July 27, 2018” / Image Credit: Chatri Sityodtong Facebook

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.

“In every stage of your life, don’t ever think [that what you’re doing is] a waste of time. When you pour your heart and soul into something and learn the lessons from it, those lessons might become applicable for your life later and help you to succeed.”

“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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