Since its launch in 2014, Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) has been the backbone of the country’s startup ecosystem, and has been aggressively encouraging and promoting entrepreneurship in the country by way of launching new initiatives. Ashran Ghazi, who held the CEO’s position from early 2016 to December 2018, played a vital role in making the organisation more popular among young entrepreneurs.
In a free-wheeling chat with e27, Ghazi shared his experience as MaGIC’s CEO, his new initiatives, views on the Malaysian startups ecosystem, and his new role as the chief of Dattel.
Edited excerpts from the interview below:
The common trend is that serial entrepreneurs turn venture capitalists after gaining good experience building ventures. However you, despite being a serial entrepreneur, took a different route by taking on the role of CEO of MaGIC. Any reasons for this?
MaGIC is not like any usual organisation. It’s a government agency that has a mandate in building the ecosystem within the country and beyond. You would also know that while I am a serial entrepreneur, I have also been a community person leading many NGOs that relates to entrepreneurship.
When the opportunity at MaGIC presented itself, I took it as an opportunity to be part of a system that is attempting to make a difference. It had been an awesome journey for me, and now I am back in the entrepreneurial path with Dattel Asia.
Who knows, maybe somewhere down the line, there will be Dattel Ventures — a VC fund that is data-centric.
You took over the CEO’s role in April 2016 after its founding CEO Cheryl Yeoh stepped down in January that year. What are your contributions to the organisation, and the startup industry as a whole, as its CEO?
As the head of the organisation, I took a few new initiatives. They are
- Corporate Entrepreneurship Responsibility Programme — A programme designed to bring startups and corporates for mutual benefits. Fundamentally it’s a corporate innovation programme.
- Impact-Driven Enterprise — Reframed the landscape of social entrepreneurship for impact-driven enterprises to ensure a more holistic way of creating more impact. It allowed and gave opportunity for even existing business to shift in order to create societal or environmental impact.
- Global Entrepreneurship Community Summit — A summit that would position Malaysia as the centre for creativity and innovation towards entrepreneurship.
- PUSH (Great Social Entrepreneurship Programme) — This is a systemising and scaling programme for social enterprises/impact-driven enterprises via a micro franchising model.
- Corporate Open Innovation Programme — A platform to allow corporates to crowdsource solutions from startups.
- Mentorship Platform — A pilot programme for entrepreneurs to get access to mentors.
You stayed in MaGIC only for less than 18 months, which is a relatively short period for bringing in any significant changes. Why did you move out very soon?
To be frank, it was a tough decision on my end. But the opportunity that Dattel presented was too tempting to resist. Firstly, Dattel’s idea of a holistic consumer intelligence platform for Southeast Asia was intriguing enough. Secondly, it was exciting to be a partner and CEO of a regional firm that has immense potential. Thirdly, the Dattel Vision to be the standard for consumer data in Southeast Asia is challenging.
MaGIC has been the backbone of the Malaysian startup industry. But immediately after Mahathir Mohamad came back to power in 2018, there was a controversy and confusion over the winding up of the organisation. Would you mind sharing with our readers what actually happened behind the scenes?
Yea. MaGIC, like many other agencies, was in a pretty unique situation then. True there was some intent as a whole to tighten the ship within the government. In most conversations happened around that time, there was a sentiment that many agencies were overlapping. This seemed to be the case at a macro level, but if you closely analysed things, you will get a different picture. Indeed, all these organisations are doing different activities.
There were naturally many views during that time. So, before MaGIC stabilised and landed as an agency under the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development (MED), I had to educate and inform relevant stakeholders about the work MaGIC has done, its impact, as well as its future aspirations. We were meeting with different people in the new government.
Finally, we got an audience in the form of the MED. He immediately saw the value of the organisation and thought about how MaGIC fits in his aspirations in driving the entrepreneurial community to be future ready.
As soon as the Minister got convinced and appreciated the context, he decided to move MaGIC to the MED family. It was indeed an exciting time for the agency. So it wasn’t so much about the government changing mind but, from my perspective, various ministries needed to get clarity on what they wanted to do and ensure that they had the right agencies under them. I must say that we had a nerve-wrecking experience during those four to five months due to the uncertainties.
But all is well now and the team, as I know, is getting ready to execute big things in 2019.
Do you think a lot of politics are gone into the administrations of MaGIC. A section of the believes that MaGIC has not done much to promote local entrepreneurship. What is your view?
Actually, on the contrary, unlike some other agencies, MaGIC has been sheltered from politics. And I must say that its Chairman then did a pretty good job of ensuring MaGIC focuses on what is needed to be done. This has definitely made my journey in MaGIC more bearable.
I cannot agree with the opinion of several people that MaGIC has not done much. I think we have done quite a bit, but I wish I could do more. I feel there are naturally certain things that the agency can be done well, but there are certain things that can be done better as a private entity. MaGIC is in a transition to scale its impact, and this is what I have been instilling since day one of joining MaGIC. I think MaGIC under the new leadership will be able to see the results of this as the seeds of scale has been planted over the last 2.5 years.
Malaysian startup scene has registered a tremendous growth in the past 3-4 years. Do you think it has the potential to grow as big as Singapore or Silicon Valley? What are the key strengths of the Malaysian startup industry?
Thank you for acknowledging the tremendous growth that we have been experiencing. Malaysia has always had the potential. One can even say that the country is quite ripe for huge growth within the region.
However, it needs to still churn new ways of thinking from the bottom up. We need to have raw entrepreneurial spirit that is resilient in the open market and also need to build more creative and innovative thinking people. People who cannot stand status quo. We have the ingredients, but sometimes what we lack is enough “Michelin Star Chefs” who can mix these ingredients in right proportion.
As per our research, fintech and e-commerce are the two sectors that recorded higher number of VC deals in 2018. What other sectors do you think will accelerate the growth of the ecosystem? Do you think new-age tech like AI, IoT, robotics, blockchain etc. have the potential to contribute to the future growth of Malaysia?
There are definitely lots of conversation around new-age technologies for Malaysia. You literally hear the conversation of Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0) everywhere. But if you observe, the conversation of IR4.0 in Malaysia stems a lot from the manufacturing sector, meaning it is more for encouraging existing technologies in manufacturing plants.
But I feel there are not enough conversations or initiatives that look into catalysing new businesses that leverage IR4.0 in their service delivery. Not many people grasp the concept of IR4.0. The MED’s National Entrepreneur Framework has an element of developing entrepreneurs towards future industries. While this is awesome, the ministry cannot work alone. I think the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC), and Ministry of Agriculture, amongst others, work together towards this goal.
Personally, I hope they can form a cross-ministerial council for future industries. Only then can the country be navigated to contribute to the future growth of Malaysia. Otherwise, Malaysia will always remain a country that could have been.
What, according to you, are the key qualities and limitations of Malaysian entrepreneurs? Do you think the fear of failure is still a major issue?
Generally, there is a lack of exposure for entrepreneurs, and most of them still want to be “me-too” (copy-cat products). There is no self-confidence in them. I think self-confidence and exposure are two of the few ingredients required for entrepreneurs to go farther.
If they get a good exposure, they can connect the dots and make new innovations more effectively. If they have self-confidence, they would be able to articulate things better with clarity and conviction. They will go out and seek information and not complain that they did not get the information.
This is why I feel the general awareness about entrepreneurship needs to go beyond selling food at stalls. In Malaysia, entrepreneurship is often confused with self-employment. In reality, these are two different things. Entrepreneurship needs to be framed from a problem-solving point of view. One needs to possess creative thinking skills to be a good entrepreneur. Without this, we will not see a game-changing Malaysia in future. We need the masses in Malaysia to also think that way.
The government has taken a lot of initiatives for the startup community. Do you think it has a much bigger role to play to accelerate the growth of the ecosystem?
Well, it’s a bit unfair for me to make a statement about new key initiatives, as I am no longer part of the government. Having said that I think the government does have a bigger role to be more catalytic. The government is doing many right things for sure, but it needs to quickly translate them into something that reach the beneficiary. I mean entrepreneurs.
If I may refer to the National Entrepreneur Framework, the National Open Innovation Platform, coupled with the Regulatory Sandbox will be able to bring in a revolutionary change. Based on my understanding, it is designed to be a platform for the government, corporates, universities and startups to solve and deploy challenges in innovative ways. Imagine a situation where the government doesn’t specify how things are done as per its tender specifications, or imagine the government only expresses its desired outcome and intent and the parameters that become guiding principles. Open it up and let the public find creative ways to solve it with new business models.
Public private partnerships are no longer the game of big boys, it can also be done with startups. The government needs to walk the talk and embrace this. Such an initiative will definitely be catalysing and will strengthen the Malaysian startup ecosystem and perhaps even attract foreign firms to join because the framework creates equal opportunities.
Most of Malaysia’s startup activities are centred around Kuala Lumpur. Do you see other cities and regions catching up fast?
Well, Penang via @acat and Johor via StartupJohor are making waves in their respective states. I see lots of other states cashing up, but I do hope they do it for the right reasons and not because it is deemed sexy, so to speak. The intent must be very clear and it needs to be a partnership with the community, and not state-led.
In your view, what role should the private/corporate sector play in order to promote entrepreneurship? Are they doing enough? Do you believe there should be more corporate VCs to speed up the growth?
I think the private sector has a huge role to play. I spoke about corporate entrepreneur responsibility earlier. We are still in the infancy with regards to this, although it is very heartwarming to see efforts being done by corporates.
But if it progresses in the current pace, this kind of thinking will only be mainstream in three years. Education and some government intervention are needed to accelerate this. We don’t have time. Things are moving fast. CVCs and family funds are coming into the scene quite a bit too.
There is a need to capture this information and aggregate them, so that we know what impact it does to the economy. And from a government lens, if there is better visibility of private funding, it can create better policies to support more players onboard.
You quit MaGIC to join Dattel Asia. What is your mandate at Dattel? Do you have plans to return to the startup scene and start a new company in the recent future?
Dattel is in a very unique position if you ask me. While it is a 4-year-old data services company, it is currently embarking on a new business that will be looking at disrupting how consumer behaviour research is done. It wants to democratise consumer behaviour data, so that everyone can make meaningful decisions based on data.
I keep telling Dattelites that Dattel is as a matured company with a startup philosophy — and that we have got to leverage this as a strength. We may be only 120-man strength, but have aspirations to be the standard of consumer behaviour data for Southeast Asia.
We now have three offices in the region and by mid this year, we will be releasing a platform that would give business a new way of handling consumer data. A new way of driving innovations that is data driven. A new way for the government to create data driven policies. A new way of driving marketing and communications that is data driven.
I believe that its aspirations will create an impact to societies and countries. That is why with a heavy heart I decided to leave MaGIC to assist Dattel in achieving its mission. If it wasn’t for the aspirations of Dattel, I wouldn’t have left MaGIC. I think I can do more and use this as a platform to do more.
You asked me earlier why I didn’t go and create a VC firm. My simple answer is keep an eye on Dattel, as it will be the platform for many things including the one that you asked me earlier. Data is a means to an end. In short, I consider Dattel as a player in the startup scene, and I am not looking at any other new ventures at the moment, but only expanding those via Dattel.
Grab took birth in Malaysia and later moved to Singapore, and is now a Unicorn. Do you see any companies in the country which could emulate Grab’s success?