Today, William Tanuwijaya is a formidable force.

As CEO of e-commerce site Tokopedia, the 39-year-old is one-quarter of the leadership of the newly- merged GoTo Group — Indonesia’s most valuable technology company.

But his business may never have come to be if it weren’t for his determination in the face of critics.

“Tokopedia’s story almost ended before we even started,” Tanuwijaya told CNBC Make It.

Inspired by U.S. icons

Tanuwijaya was just in his early 20s when he set out on a mission to “democratize e-commerce” by creating a website for Indonesia’s millions of small business owners to sell their goods online.

It was then the mid-2000s and the internet was taking off in the country. But with no established tech industry or local role models to learn from, Tanuwijaya had to look to the greats.

I do not come from the Ivy League … I always consider myself a graduate from internet cafe.

William Tanuwijaya

co-founder and CEO, Tokopedia

“We don’t have a success story like Mark Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin, Steve Jobs or Jack Ma. There was no such story of entrepreneurs from Indonesia building technology companies during that time,” he said.

Inspired by their stories, Tanuwijaya knew he — like them — would have to raise private investment to get his idea off the ground. But as a young Indonesian from a rural background and humble beginnings, he soon realized he didn’t fit the mold.

William Tanuwijaya, co-founder and CEO of Tokopedia, part of Indonesian tech giant GoTo.


“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,” said Tanuwijaya, who studied at Binus University in Jakarta while working night shifts in an internet cafe to support his family. “I always consider myself a graduate from internet cafe.”

Then they’d ask him about the wider market opportunity.

“They’d ask me, William, can you name one person who has been successful in Indonesia because they’re building a technology company or internet business?” he said.

‘All of your role models, these Silicon Valley founders, they are born special, you are not.’

William Tanuwijaya

co-founder and CEO, Tokopedia

Despite being home to the world’s fourth-largest population and a rapidly growing middle class, investors were unsure of Indonesia’s potential or if he was the man to realize it.

“Your idea is very simple,” he recalled them saying. “You want to build the Amazon of Indonesia or the Alibaba of Indonesia. What about when all these global giants come to the market? They have the technology, they have the capital, they have the know-how, they have the resources that you do not have. How can you compete?”

Adopting the American dream

Then came the day when he met with one private investor who changed his life forever.

“He said: William, all of your role models, these Silicon Valley founders, they are born special, you are not,” Tanuwijaya recalled. “Please stop daydreaming; find something more realistic to do.”

For Tanuwijaya, it was the catalyst he 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.

Indonesia actually has an Indonesian dream concept … ‘Dream as high as the sky. If you fall, you fall amongst the stars.’

William Tanuwijaya

co-founder and CEO, Tokopedia

Like his U.S. idols, whom he said to embody the American dream of self-determination, Tanuwijaya said he discovered a drive to be undiscouraged and help other Indonesian business owners.

“That day I remembered that Indonesia actually has an Indonesian dream concept,” said Tanuwijaya. “Our founding father, the first president of the country, once said … ‘Dream as high as the sky. If you fall, you fall amongst the stars.'”

“I find that’s beautiful and that’s the Indonesian dream,” he said. “So I decided that no matter what happens, I will try to build Tokopedia.”

After launching Tokopedia in 2009, Tanuwijaya and his co-founder Leontinus Alpha Edison soon secured seed funding from the Indonesian investment firm PT Indonusa Dwitama. It has since received buy-in from SoftBank, Sequoia Capital and Alibaba Group.

More than a decade on, under the GoTo Group, Tokopedia counts 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.

Don’t miss: How these millennial tech founders pulled off Indonesia’s biggest-ever business deal

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