The Unicorns of Southeast Asia: Meet the CEOs Behind Indonesia’s 4 Biggest Startups

southeast asia unicorn ceos

In ancient mythology, a unicorn is a fabled pony-like creature with a unique single horn which is said to grant it magical powers. On the other hand, in the field of VC and startups, unicorns are defined as tech startups valued at USD1 billion or more, usually measured based on the amount of fundraising achieved.

There are currently four unicorns in Indonesia, all of which are led by young CEOs only in their thirties. In this article, we provide you the inside scoop into the stories behind their success, and what you can learn from their hardships and perseverance from these 4 young CEOs:

1. Ferry Unardi, CEO of Traveloka (30 years old)

  • Startup WebsiteTraveloka
  • Latest Funding Stage: Series A
  • Industry: Travel
  • Estimated Market Valuation: $2 billion

traveloka website homepage

Ferry Unardi graduated from Purdue University, majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science. Upon his graduation, he worked at Microsoft for 3 years. As someone who often returns to his hometown in West Sumatera, Ferry was unhappy with how difficult it was to book plane tickets due to the limited travel routes. That was when the 23-year-old explored a solution to revolutionize the travel industry with the help of technology. Due to his limited business experience, he decided to pursue an MBA at Harvard University to build a strong business foundation.

Unfortunately, things did not turn out well and he decided to drop out of Harvard after his 1st semester. However, seeing as he was only 23 years old at that time, he figured that he is still young and there is no better time for him to explore new ventures and make mistakes. That was when Traveloka was born.

From only 8 employees in the initial stages, the tech gian has grown to a workforce of hundreds of staff, spanning across various nations. Traveloka got funded from Expedia in 2017 for a total of US$350 million, helping them to achieve a total valuation value of over US$ 2 billion.


2. Achmad Zaky, CEO of Bukalapak (31 years old)

  • Startup Website: Bukalapak
  • Latest Funding Stage: Series B
  • Industry: Ecommerce
  • Estimated Market Valuation: $1 billion

bukalapak website homepage

After graduating from Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), Achmad Zaky returned to his hometown in Central Java. He observed many local businesses remaining stagnant due to demanding market conditions over the years. This situation inspired him to seek for a way to create more opportunities for small business to expand through technological solutions. This is where the journey of Bukalapak begins.

His high school friend, Nugroho, was one of the few people who believed in his vision and remains as one of the co-founders and also CTO of Bukalapak until today. Over the years, Achmad approached many retail outlets and online stores to join the Bukalapak platform. Through their determination and passion, Bukalapak attracted over 10,000 SMEs onboard in a year.

Fast-forward to the present day, Bukalapak now has about 1.8million SMEs and processes over 1 trillion transactions per month. In January 2018, Bukalapak officially became Indonesia’s fourth unicorn start-up, adding to the small pool of unicorns in the Republic.

Related: Resilience as a Trait for Success: What These Startups Can Teach Us on Grit


3. Nadiem Makarim, CEO of GO-JEK (33 years old)

  • Startup Website: GO-JEK
  • Latest Funding Stage: Undisclosed
  • Industry: Lifestyle, Logistics
  • Estimated Market Valuation: $4 billion

go-jek website homepage

Ojek (Motorcycle Taxi) is a famous mode of transportation in Indonesia. Due to the congestion and security problems on the streets of Jakarta, Nadiem has always preferred to use Ojek over private vehicles and taxis due to its effectiveness. One day, he had an idea to connect motorcycle riders with prospective customers through the use of technology, and that was when GO-JEK was founded back in 2011.

In the early stages, Nadiem faced some difficulties trying to convince Ojek drivers to join the GO-JEK platform. Through his resilience and proactive measures to build meaningful relationships at the grassroots level, he managed to grow the early GO-JEK into a small family of about 20 Ojek drivers and 10 employees. However, as Nadiem were pursuing multiple ventures back then, GO-JEK’s development was relatively stagnant for several years. It was not until mid-2014 when their growth projectile picked up – due to a group of investors who saw the potential of this platform. It was then when Nadiem decided to go full-time on this venture and went on to officially launch the GO-JEK app in 2015.

Most recently, GO-JEK received 3 new investors this year from the likes of Google, Temasek Holding, and Meituan-Dianping. With this newly injected funding, the value of GO-JEK valuation is now estimated at around USD4 billion, ahead of many other unicorns in the region. GO-JEK is now preparing for expansion into other ASEAN countries.


4. William Tanuwijaya, CEO of Tokopedia (36 years old)

  • Startup Website: Tokopedia
  • Funding Amount: US$100 million
  • Industry: Consumer Internet, Ecommerce
  • Estimated Market Valuation: $1.2 billion

William Tanuwijaya was not born in a rich family. His father worked as a corporate professional and his mother is a housewife. In his 2nd year at university, his father was diagnosed with cancer. William had no choice but to assume his father’s role as the breadwinner of the family. In order to support his family, he had to juggle his studies and work part-time as an Internet cafe keeper. Interestingly, this was when he started cultivating an interest in the field of technology. After graduating in 2003, William worked as a software engineer, while also building websites for SMEs on the side.

It was through his side hustles when William realized a growing demand and market potential for online shopping. However, there seems to be a lack of trust among the consumers to make purchases online. Determined to venture into the eCommerce industry in Indonesia, William eventually founded Tokopedia. William’s biggest obstacle at that time was the lack of capital funds. After constant meetings with various investors, William finally meets an investor from Japan who genuinely believed in his potential and ideas, who ended up helping him to raise his first round of funding to kickstart the business.

In 2017, Tokopedia obtained investment worth $1.1 billion from Alibaba. William claimed that they will use these newly acquired funds to accelerate their growth by building the largest research center in Southeast Asia.

Related: 5 Non-Tech Startups in ASEAN That You Should Know

We hope enjoyed learning about the stories of some of Southeast Asia’s unicorns and their founders. Is there any other unicorns – or other entrepreneurs – we should write about? Let us know in the comments section.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2018 and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Feature Image Credit: Heisenberg Media on Flickr

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Born in Bukittinggi, Indonesia, Josandy graduated from University Utara Malaysia (UUM) with Bachelor Degree in International Business Management. In his study period, he was elected as the President of International Students Society (ISSUUM) the first President from Asia and started to proceeded to engage in different cultures on his campus. He used to be part of ASEAN Future Leaders Summit, as a participant in 2016 and as a committee member in 2017. Currently joining as part of the Research and Development team because he is passionate about leadership and self-development. Grateful for joining the team, he makes sure that his article will help many Millennials to flourish.


  1. In 2017, Tokopedia obtained investment worth $1.1 billion from Alibaba. William claimed that they will use these newly acquired funds to accelerate their growth by building the largest research center in Southeast Asia.


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