An open letter to government round table by industry veteran Jeffrey Paine

In an open letter addressed to the government, Jeffrey Paine talks about the state of affair of startups in Singapore and how we can solve them.

Hang around in the local community long enough, chances are you would have cross path or at least heard about Jeffrey Paine. Known among the community as the guy who runs Founders Institute Singapore, Jeffrey also runs a huge list of other initiative to help the startup community in Singapore. One of his latest venture is a partner at the Golden Gate Ventures, and Jeffrey is often invited to speak and judge at various conferences and competitions.

Recently, Jeffrey was invited for a government round table discussion but was unable to make it. Although he was absent, he penned down his thoughts through his blog and it was widely circulated around the various social media channels. In the open letter, Jeffrey articulated his thoughts on the various challenges for Startups in Singapore along with the solutions, current situation as well as his own wishlists.

Read on to find out about the state of affairs of startups in Singapore, and what are the solutions Jeffrey propose. I assure you, Jeffrey knows his stuffs.

Open Letter to Government Round Table by Jeffrey Paine

To whom it may concern:

Thank you for inviting me to a government round table discussion next week to discuss about the state of affairs of our startups in Singapore and what challenges they face and solutions we can implement and finally how the government can assist startups through their policies.

Unfortunately I am away on a panelist engagement at Google I/O on July 29, 2012 in San Francisco. I will try to voice my thoughts with this letter and if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

Challenges for Startups in Singapore

A. WEAK IDEAS - In short, many Singapore based founders start out with small visions and weak ideas (not bold nor crazy enough nor targeting a large enough market). This is fairly common if they are first time entrepreneurs and perfectly alright. Not enough research is done on market size (TAM), go to market strategies (CAC/LTV) and the full customer development process. We suck at this, and we need to change that.

Solution:

  • We need more people who knows their shit here in Singapore (mentors, advisors, serial entrepreneurs, investors). The best of the best have data points about the high growth venture business that noone else in the world has. I’d say, bring more mentors to town!
  • Run Ideation (including Startup Research/Customer Development/Lean Startup/Bootstrapping) Bootcamps and/or workshops with strong mentors to educate and help guide aspiring founders with their ideation process. Big ideas are grown not born.
  • Burn these 2 books (The Lean Startup & The Startup’s Owners Manual) and have aspiring founders drink the ashes.

What is happening now: We have JFDI, e27 with the Visiting Mentor Program sponsored by the MDA. Spring Singapore is also subsidizing travel costs for mentors at Founder Institute Singapore. These programs bring great mentors to our shores. But, we need more from them while they are here (isn’t it always?). It is an extremely great start. Kudos to MDA and Spring Singapore. Thank you!

Wishlist:

  • For MDA’s case, top mentors do not have 2 -3 weeks to spend in Singapore (its a time commitment KPI issue). Shorten the time of stay and KPI requirements and you will have more top calibre mentors signing up globally (not saying those who signed up already are mediocre, they are great – many are Founder Institute mentors in the US <3 they rock).
  • For Spring’s case, increase the budget to be comparable to MDA’s offering (rather than a % subsidy capped at the certain number).
  • A government pooled budget (administered by ONE Agency with a clear and efficient decision making process ) to fly top mentors from around the world to Singapore to be attached to various incubators, accelerators, academies, conferences, private mentor/speaking sessions etc. Apply based on merit and leave 20% buffer on budget for ad-hoc requests over the year.

B. PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT - The second challenge for startups in Singapore is to get “some product” shipped. A lot of founders (technical or not) will face challenges here. The concept of minimal viable product, private alpha/beta launches (and how to manage them), post alpha iteration, user experience design, user testing etc. sounds foreign to most business founders. It comes down to Talent to produce and the know-how of how to produce.

Solution:

  • We need more founders who are building technology companies to know programming AND user experience design! You are running a technology company, you should know what the fundamentals/best practices of programming and shipping a product is.
  • If talent (hires/cofounders) is hard to come by, learn to outsource. For e.g. SGFI companywww.contractiq.com helps startups qualify and recommend good outsourced development shops.
  • All the above points can be solved by conducting lessons online and offline much like a school for startups with strong instructors/mentors. A tie up with companies like Udemy, Appsumo, Mixergy etc. to bring courses to our startup founders (Industry development of sorts).

What is happening now: We have local and foreign development shops based in Singapore, talent is scarce here to hire full-time (that is not what you want to do anyway early on if you are non-technical), many events and meet ups to meet potential hires/cofounders, Startuproots Singaporepromotes internships in startups for university students. Our currency is strong enough to afford talent (outsourced) in neighboring countries. But no coding school or training specifically for startup technologies and know how except maybe for Founder Institute (but we have a rigorous selection process). Founder Institute Singapore is still not enough.

Wish list: 

  • A government subsidy for startup talent upgrading (capability building). Forget the CITREP type certification which is mainly geared for larger SMEs/GLCs/Stat boards, we need to go fast as technology changes every minute. Get the community involved and get going already.
  • Create a beta tester list that includes people from MNCs, local SMEs, startup ecosystem, and volunteers from the public.

C. GROWTH HACKING - The third challenge of startups here in Singapore surrounds go to market and customer acquisition strategies. A new term has been defined recently called “Growth Hacking” (by Andrew Chen). To be clear, the true work of Growth Hackers focuses on products that have achieved product / market fit. We need to help startups in Singapore get to product/market fit as early as possible with some techniques learnt from Growth Hacking.

Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?” and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph. On top of this, they layer the discipline of direct marketing, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement, scenario modeling via spreadsheets, and a lot of database queries. If a startup is pre-product/market fit, growth hackers can make sure virality is embedded at the core of a product. After product/market fit, they can help run up the score on what’s already working.

Many Singapore startups have been given grants and equity funding, some have gone through accelerators/incubators and have secured their own set of advisors/mentors. What we are seeing now is a number of startups who are at risk of being a living dead company or worse deadpooled within months. In Malaysia, the government Cradle program implemented a Coach and Grow Program nation wide, in Singapore not as yet. We can change that.

Another challenge is knowing which beach head market to conquer vis a vis what product/market fit the startup has and when to pivot or shut down. More on the difficulty of market targeting is addressed in my previous post.

Solution:

  • We need to do more Growth Hacking & Getting to Product/Market Fit workshops and bring the best of the best growth hacker mentors to town from various markets. Dos & Don’ts and Best Practices.
  • Do more immersion trips to large growth markets for Singapore Startups (they do not have to use Singapore as a test bed all the time). E.g. USA, China, India, Indonesia, Japan.
  • Finally how to iterate and know when to pivot. What metrics should be measured and how?

What is happening now: A few adhoc talks with Singapore based entrepreneurs and also visiting mentors like David Weekly, and David Kadavy (most recently). IDA has been supporting iStart Programs in the US and (Indonesia most recently and China coming soon). And of course our current mentors who are good in this based in Singapore are also mentoring and helping.

Wish List:

  • Set aside a budget to run more workshops on growth hacking. Bring the best mentors from various markets that make the most sense for Singapore based companies. Share their best practices. Run more immersion trips to Silicon Valley, China, India. Open up a small a shared office or take up some coworking desks at co-working spaces in the San Francisco SOMA area for Singapore based companies to work out off while they are doing their business in the SF Bay Area.
  • Support more of our informal network for Singaporeans working in startups in various markets. For e.g. in Silicon Valley we have www.sgfounders.com (some visibility, PR, cash sponsorship). ACE.SG set up a branch in Beijing, they can do so in SF Bay Area, Jakarta, and/or Bangalore.

D. CAPITAL - Lastly, Singapore startups face still a challenge in getting risk capital in the country. For risk capital below S$600,000, in most recent times there are more funds that issues those check sizes but it is still relatively difficult to get. Grants from $50-100k is available as well but the grant programs present sets of conditions that may hinder speed, growth patterns or flexibility of pivoting. Finally, the Series A gap is pretty gaping in Singapore, although there are new entrants to the game (from Japan, Russia, Europe), but it is still not enough. That means startups have to be careful designing their capitalization strategy, they are pressured to be focused more on revenue growth early on which leads some of them to start “clones” or be too short termed for their own good (it isn’t bad, but it hinders game changing ideas).

Solution:

  •  As a country, we (perhaps through ACE.SG) should try to partner with Angellist in the US and help Singapore companies raise capital in these markets if they are so deserved.
  • Set aside new capital for schemes to solve the S$1-5 million Series A glut (e.g. a new fund of fund scheme? a new matching of funds scheme etc.). Double down on companies that clearly showed product/market fit and help them grow (skill and market wise). Something Temasek, Vertex, EDBI, IIPL can consider jointly or separately?

What is happening now: For the digital media space: MDA iJAM grants, NRF TIS Incubators, Spring Seeds programs. Angel tax incentives are also in place. Many new events are being sponsored and organized locally which drives buzz and new influx of entrepreneurs and investors.

Wish list:

  • Revive the Spring Seeds 2 for 1 scheme (rather than 1 for 1).
  • Reduce the NRF TIS Incubation minimum investment size of S$250,000. Although TIS and iJAM although receives money from the same pool (NRF), they both operate differently with different people staffing it, criteria and processes. They are different beasts, trust me. We need to take more risks earlier on.
  • Please make the process easy and staff the people who makes decisions better, if not, get out of the way. What entrepreneurs do not have is time. In short, more money, better people (internal/external) administrating it.

WHAT WE ARE DOING:

  • We address A & B: We run Founder Institute in Singapore where we bring up to 20 mentors from the US/Europe to Singapore. Founder Institute Singapore graduate over 30 companies a year with a network of over 1,000 mentors worldwide, with market access to over 26 cities, and camaraderie of over 700 companies worldwide. Our graduates are surrounded with people who are the best at what they do and who can and will help founders who deserve it. Graduates also have the chance to attend and pitch at Founder Showcase (happening 4 times a year) where they are exposed to more mentors, founders, and investors in the US.
  • We address B & C: We are starting a community initiative called Startup Academy to address founders’ shortfalls/gaps from product development (programming), user experience to growth hacking/startup research by setting up formal classes to educate them. Taught by the  best as well as supported by the community.
  • We address A, B, C & D: We have been running Founders in the Bay program in Silicon Valley for the second year running. Bringing locally based founders to the Bay Area to visit conferences, incubators, events, company/mentor visits to get feedback on their product, US market entry fit, and financing options. We also make tons of friends in the Valley along the way.
  • We address A, B, C & D: We (grads, mentors) run events such as Walkabout SG,Superhappydevhouse, iOS Dev Scout Hackathon and the upcoming Failcon to bring the community closer together, build endearing relationships and learn from one another.

GOVERNMENT (SPRING/ ACE)

Spring Singapore Incubation Development Program (IDP)

Pros: Much needed initiative. Good diversity of sectors

Cons: Need to iterate and be open to new ideas. Keep incubators competing with each other on programs run. So what if they have similar programs? Let founders choose! If possible, set up a private sector led panel or committee to work through incubator’s performance and how to iterate to make it better each year. Incubators are startups sometimes and they are iterating as well.

Fixes: Keep iterating and measuring performances. Do 360 reviews from founders as well as incubators (inside and out). See what gaps from incubators are still missing and try to fix it by steering resources towards them and help them do it. Be flexible.

Spring Singapore Seeds Capital

Pros: Great initiative for many years with large amount for 1 for 1 matching.

Cons: Slow process, criteria not clear, panel needs to be refreshed within a set term of service, 2 for 1 is “always” better <3

Fixes: Test various options of the approval process. Rotate a list of panel members and measure their commitment and feedback. Panel members should spend more time with the founders to get a better idea of their competence, not just through paper and a few face to face presentations. A little more budget to back companies who clearly gotten their formula right and need capital to grow fast and double/triple down on them (this maybe where the 2 for 1 matching comes in).

ACE Startup Grants

Pros: Help first time entrepreneurs to launch with grants and mentor help

Cons: No structured program to help grant recipients to flourish (maybe Founder Institute can help design a program for them or have them enrolled in our program with special passes where they will not be kicked out). The grant should also apply to first time product company founders or repeat entrepreneurs who failed the first time. We should encourage more people to try again or think bigger. For e.g. a founder who started a F&B business with his wife, now wants to start a product company that can trenscend geographies should have the equal opportunity to receive the grant. At least make it a case by case and not a total shut out (it is not founder friendly sorry), trust me you will get better/stronger ideas that meets your KPIs.

Fixes: To increase quality deal flow, relax the criteria slightly (maybe have a case by case panel to approve outlier submissions). Instill a structured evaluation and mentor system to help startups get to product market fit with S$50,000. Partner with Founder Institute to enroll some of the successful applicants. Ideas can be fluid, either grant them and have them enroll or have them graduate SGFI before granting them.

Featured Image Credits: Jeffrey Paine

Jacky Yap

Having spent one year abroad in Shanghai under the NUS Overseas College Programme, Jacky has an avid interest in entrepreneurship and web based startups. Jacky used to run N-House, Singapore's first entrepreneurial themed residence in NUS, and was also part of the organizing team for Startup Weekend Singapore 2012. You can reach him at jacky [at] e27 [dot] co

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  • http://twitter.com/aananth aananth

    Great points Jeff. I guess the govt needs to also think about “entrepreneur visas” and other mechanics to get talent to come, visit or stay in Singapore.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Saurav-Bhattacharyya/564294094 Saurav Bhattacharyya

    While government funding is great and necessary … we should also be careful in not providing too many crutches .. Ultimately, whatever be the issues, a good entrepreneur will always find its way ….

    With all the funding schemes around, I believe that it has become difficult for investors to weed out marginal entrepreneurs and has invited invited anyone (or rather everyone) with an idea to become a marginal entrepreneur. This could lead to a very confusing situation!

    Saurav.
    Quantum Inventions.

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  • http://twitter.com/jpaine Jeffrey Paine

    Agree. Eventually the market will be efficient. As a Singaporean, the intention is great from the govt but optimizing it for success is the way to go rather than for failure or worse.

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