According to author Zak Dychtwald inYoung China, the late great Steve Jobs and Alibaba founder Jack Ma once faced off in a heated competition of sorts. As part of China’s bid to encourage more entrepreneurship and innovation, the school section at most supermarkets was filled with notebooks and other supplies bearing the likeness of Steve Jobs. Up until 2012, Jobs was the “king of the back-to-school-section” in the words of Dychtwald.
When Ma led Alibaba to the largest initial public offering (IPO) in history in 2012, he also dethroned Jobs from his perch atop school stationery. Now Ma’s likeness was the most popular image on school supplies, including even on rubber erasers.
This anecdote is interesting in its own right, but it also underscores the fact that all of Asia — not just China — has far fewer tech heroes than Silicon Valley. The average person in Asia’s business scene would be able to tell you who founded a social media network out of their Harvard dorm, or who exited from PayPal before betting his personal wealth on electric vehicles and space travel, but you might get blank stares if you asked them to recount the story of one of our region’s best founders. We simply don’t know them as well.
While it’s fine to idolize the likes of Bill Gates, Travis Kalanick, and Jeff Bezos, any entrepreneur in Asia should also closely follow the stories of tech founders who have succeeded here in the region. Such study amounts to more than just keeping up with startup gossip, but will distill knowledge that can make a very real difference for you and your own business.
Here are three reasons why you should learn more about Asia’s best founders:
1. Market research that’s battle tested
As a founder in Asia, there are many public and private organisations that you can turn to for market research on your particular industry or product category. These reports are macro-level analyses. While it’s fine to get a bird’s-eye-view of your landscape, how do you know what works on the ground?
Studying the stories of Asia’s founders is a form of market research, and it’s one that’s been validated: We can at once see what works and what does not work in our local landscape, sparing us the trouble of having to learn these lessons first-hand on our own.
We can see this principle at work in the story of Go-Jek founder Nadiem Makarim. In its earliest days, Go-Jek had little growth from its initial pool of 20 drivers. Later on, Makarim leveraged the entrance of Uber and GrabTaxi into Indonesia to successfully raise the venture capital that would jettison Go-Jek toward its current prominence.
Like Makarim, other founders in Asia do not need to view the entrance of regional or international competitors as an insurmountable challenge. You can instead point to their presence as a catalyst for your own fundraising: This space really is going to be significant, if they’re here. Such lessons are invaluable for any tech founder in Asia.
2. Inspiration to move up the value chain
For a long time, Asia was considered a kind of back-office. Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam were outsourcing hubs – for customer support and information technology, respectively — while others like China and Taiwan manufactured things. In this paradigm, we are one small cog that’s a part of a much larger process.
The best entrepreneurs in Asia show us that we can move up the value chain and do so in a decidedly emphatic way. We can create our own consumer-facing products that we sell to customers and businesses under brands of our own making. Instead of making things for Apple, we can be an Apple. Instead of servicing Amazon, we can be an Amazon.
A prime example is Pundi X, which was founded by Zach Cheah out of Indonesia but is already going global in a manner of speaking: The company is currently deploying 100,000 of its Pundi XPOS across the globe, including recently at FAMA Group restaurants in Hong Kong and Ultra Taiwan 2018. These devices enable people to purchase goods at brick-and-mortar locations with crypto via a Pundi XPass Card.
Cheah’s story is notable because the Pundi XPOS and XPASS are really innovative products, as they enable cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin to have functional use as a currency. Other entrepreneurs in Asia should take a boost from success stories like Cheah’s. Rather than ask ourselves who we can service or even what products we can manufacture, we can aim and dream even bigger: How will we change the world?
3. Affirmation of our social responsibility
While Asia is not Silicon Valley, many local founders can lose sight of this fact, creating apps that have beautiful interfaces but address no real problems for people in the region. To avoid this tendency, it’s helpful to look at the most successful founders in Asia, who can remind us of our unique opportunity to really help people in the region.
One such example is Carousell. Founder Quek Siu Rui was famously offered $100 million to acquire Carousell. Most twenty-year-olds would snap up the proposal in a heartbeat, but Rui declined on account of wanting to continue building the platform.
Carousell, you see, helps individuals and small businesses across markets in Asia sell their second-hand items. The message of Rui’s refusal could not be any more poetic: Founders in Asia should view entrepreneurship not as a means of getting rich, but as an opportunity to enrich the lives of others.
This article was first published on e27 on October 1, 2018.
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