On January 9, 2007, when Steve Jobs revealed the iPhone to the world, it is unlikely he fully visualised the growth of the on-demand economy.
Sure, Taxis are obvious, but these days, we use our phones to hire dog walkers, laundry service and even a shoulder to cry on.
In Malaysia, the industry has developed its own unique characteristics — it is the birthplace of Grab — with logistics, household cleaning and travel planning producing successful startups.
e27 asked the leaders of three of these on-demand startups — ServisHero, Vidi and TheLorry — to hear their experiences of running their companies in Malaysia.
If a company figures out how to integrate technology, Malaysians will embrace it
Malaysians generally love their tech, so getting the average consumer to test a new idea is not overly difficult.
This means, it is the entrepreneur’s job to figure out how to integrate technology into their specific vertical.
“Malaysians love new technology and mobile apps so getting users accustomed to using new technology is pretty easy. We also have supportive public and private sector institutions that want to see Malaysians increase digital tool adoption,” said Karl Loo, the Founder and CEO of ServisHero.
ServisHero is an app that allows people to hire cleaners on-demand with a fixed price and cashless payments.
For Loo, the pain-point in the home services industry came from both ends of the supply line — the consumers and the service providers — and the key to fixing the problem was bringing the industry onto our little pocket computers.
To exemplify this point, Loo mentioned that ServisHero is just as much a sales channel for an SME as it is a platform for someone to get their room cleaned on-demand.
TheLorry is in a similar situation, attacking a paper-first logistics industry that could dramatically benefit from digital streamlining.
Nadhir Ashafiq, the Executive Director of TheLorry cited an old system that made it difficult to find decent lorry transporters. Customers had to find service providers under a tree or tree signs and security was always a question mark.
“We solve this by creating a platform that’s easy-to-use with transparent pricing. We screen through our partners by running background checks and providing in depth training,” he said.
A point of interest is that both Ashafiq and Loo brought up the same point in independent interviews: their services help the companies just as much as they do the customers.
It’s important to go regional from Day One
Malaysia is in a quite unique position in Southeast Asia. In terms of macro-economics, the country is fairly wealthy, but, while it’s bigger than Singapore, the market size is not large enough to independently support a startup.
This is why it’s important to think regional from day one.
Aaron Sarma, the Founder and CEO of Vidi, which is a one-stop shop for travel related activities, said the decision to think beyond Malaysia quickly is how the startup became successful.
“A key distinction is that we have been regional from day one. Our team works tirelessly to curate and feature the best deals from qualified partners. Additionally, we provide benefits from being part of the AirAsia group by providing additional add-ons like BIG Loyalty Points, Tune Insurance and AirAsia flights as bundled packages,” said Sarma.
ServisHero has operations in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand while TheLorry runs services in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.
The challenges in Malaysia
No startup ecosystem is perfect, and Malaysia, just like anywhere, has its own particular pain-points.
One refrain that consistently gets mentioned to me when I visit the country is that Malaysians need to do a better job of broadcasting their success stories.
Loo echoed this sentiment — pointing out that while other countries get attention as growth markets or startup hubs, Malaysia has consistently produced extremely successful startups.
“I think Malaysia and Malaysians would do a service to themselves by being more aggressive at promoting themselves as a startup mecca in the region – by doing so, we’ll be able to attract funding and talent which would further develop the startup/tech community,” he said.
Part of this requires private sector participation, which Sarma pointed out helps build touchpoint with SMEs, corporates and government-linked companies.
For Ashafiq, it is time for mentors to play an active role in the Malaysian ecosystem. Mentors are crucial for any young entrepreneur, and the Malaysian ecosystem has been around long enough that successful founders can now teach the next generation.
Which brings up the next point.
The future is bright in Malaysia
Malaysia has done a nice job of integrating a supportive government while still promoting a hands-off approach to startups.
Agencies like MDEC have provided vital support for companies like TheLorry, Vidi and ServisHero. Recently, MDEC took home the Malaysia Rice Bowl Startup Awards 2018 for Best Ecosystem Initiative.
All three of these companies are beyond the need for financing from the Malaysian government, but when they were teams of three or four people, the grants provided made a difference between survival and death.
“We have a vibrant startup community that is open to co-supporting and collaborating which has made growing a business from Malaysia efficient and fun!” said Loo.
The takeaway from all three entrepreneurs about the Malaysian tech ecosystem is that it is good, and it has been good for a while now, so the next step is to think about the next horizon.