Building a startup has many challenges to overcome. And with so many pitfalls and high failure rates, what can be done to improve the chances of success?
Mentorship is one of many resources which entrepreneurs should get access to. But how important is mentorship and why should entrepreneurs seek out mentors?
I ask three NEXT50 mentors on their insights on the ecosystem and the topic on mentorship for startup founders.
How the startup ecosystem in Singapore and South-East Asia is evolving
To start off, I asked the mentors for their insights on the evolution of the startup ecosystem.
Carmen Yuen, Partner at Vertex Ventures and part of the SEA team, observes that the Singapore startup ecosystem is more developed than it was 10 years ago, where few with super brave souls will dare to venture into. But now, entrepreneurship is now becoming a choice occupation.
She further adds, “Part of the development has to do with the millennial mindset, but also that the government programmes have been somewhat successful in driving more incubators, accelerators and co-investment funds into this space.”
Joelle Pang, Director of Regional Business Development at FastJobs, a Singapore Press Holdings subsidiary which is a mobile recruitment platform for the non-executive workforce, sees “a current trend of AI, fintech, blockchain and crypto-currencies, and this is where investor money rushes in, and startup founders follow suit to launch a startup to capitalise on the opportunities.”
More interestingly, she wants to understand what future consumers and corporates are looking out for.
This is an area where I believe China is clearly leading the pack — from the way the startups compete their way to be the best in the field and then go on to dominate across all other sectors, to the way the innovative companies really leverage on Internet and Technology to empower the rural populations and drive inclusive growth.
Even the depth by which the Chinese government is getting involved to drive true scalability is fascinating to me. And they have the most number of unicorns in the world to validate this.
Anu Gupta is Associate Director at Asia PR Werkz, one of the largest Singaporean public relations firms. In her assessment, South-East Asia is a highly fragmented place with difference values, languages and styles of doing business, which makes the growth journey more challenging for startups.
She believes that PR play a key part in the growth of any startup, and her experience shows crafting their PR message is key when entering different markets.
The importance of mentorship for startup founders
So why the need for startup mentorship, as one may ask?
Carmen mentions that we are only human and have our blind spots.
We have our ‘if only…’ moments and wished someone could have pointed us on some aspects so as to save us from making a mistake or taking a longer path/ time to solve an issue.
Similarly for founders, they are 150% devoted to their venture and with multiple concurrent issues to address, they can do with some guidance or observation.
At the same time, mentors can serve as companions on entrepreneurs’ times of dark days or tough uphill journeys.
Anu talks about mentoring during her course of work.
For many, PR is what founders have either encountered, often in a corporate or well-established firm where they spent their formative years, or what they perceive from news on established technology companies. Both approaches will never work for a startup.
We meet a lot of founders/startups who are in a rush to get their name out there. They believe PR is the easiest way to do this. [But in actuality], it can only be effective as long it reflects the growth of the business.
We mentor Founders so they can understand when the ‘right’ time for PR should come in and more importantly what kind of messaging needs to be out there at different stages of growth.
Joelle finds mentoring important for startups because it is important to fail fast and learn faster.
Mentors can help startup founders to avoid critical pitfalls, such as getting an ill-fitted co-founder or investor, especially if they have gone through the same challenges themselves and overcame it.
In an environment where many startup founders are sacrificing a lot to pursue their dreams, being able to avoid making one or two mistakes or getting critical feedback to take their startup to the next level makes a big difference.
Mindsets Singapore founders need to break
Joelle finds Singapore founders are not dreaming big enough.
I’ve came across too many Singaporean founders who strive to be the best in their industry in their home market, or to be recognised and celebrated as the top entrepreneurs in Singapore.
If you’re focusing only on being the best in Singapore and competing with other Singaporean founders, instead of thinking how you stack up against other entrepreneurs on the world’s stage, I think you’re missing the plot.
[Singaporeans] are a very fortunate bunch where we are given resources that many others in the world don’t. Most of us didn’t have to fight for basic rights, such as access to good education and personal security.
This may desensitize us and lessen our ability to empathise with the everyman and our effectiveness at coming up with solutions to solve their everyday problems. In today’s context, it may be this thinking: ‘Let me give this a try, apply for a government grant, and if it doesn’t work out, I can always head back to a day job.
Carmen finds that Singapore founders have a ‘crutch mentality’ to apply as many government grants as possible to help in validation and cashflow. But it is in her opinion that founders should not bend backwards to obtain them as these businesses will be hard to scale because their deliverables is whatever that helps check off boxes to enable grant monies to be disbursed.
For Anu, it is not about mindsets needed to break, but more of a new mindset to adopt.
Adaptability is key as a company starts to expand overseas. Having the ability to imbibe the business locally, understanding local cultures and mindsets as well as ensuring that there is an able team, are some of the key ingredients that lead to a startup’s success.
Inspirational people startup founders should follow
Carmen cites R. G LeTourneau, a classic case of multiple failures yet he preserved. She founds him impressive that with his wealth, LeTourneau has decided to build a school to train and teach entrepreneurs.
She further adds:
All entrepreneurs are inspiring, especially those who have gone through multiple bad patches. The easy way out is to give up, but entrepreneurs who persevere on, and somehow find the cash to sustain the business – they are heroes that need to be remembered. With their grit, they ensured their staff are able to put bread on their families’ tables. These entrepreneurs create jobs for majority of our population.
Joelle finds successful entrepreneurs who started with nothing continually inspires her.
In a way because they serve as a role model for most of us who are truly starting from scratch – no/little networks, and/or no family money to speak of.
WhatsApp founder Jan Koum was born in Ukraine and came from poverty, and we all know now how his story ended. Many of these entrepreneurs didn’t choose to enter an existing market, but rather, they created new ones based on solving real consumer problems creatively and impacted the way current markets eventually evolved.
Entrepreneurs who look to give back to the society and communities also inspire me greatly.
Warren Buffett and Bill Gates show how wealth can be used to drive equality and improve the quality of lives; Sheryl Sandberg leverages her position to empower women around the world to lean in and step up in the workplace; and closer to home, Spacemob founder and now MD for WeWork SEA, Turochas “T” Fuad is one who doesn’t shy away from mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs and providing a platform for new generations of entrepreneurs to shine.
Mentorship advice to startups
Carmen shares fundraising advice as a VC.
Be realistic on valuation but don’t be too punishing on the equity you should have. This boils down to how much money you should raise. Keep the first cheques to something modest, but watch your expenses so you can stretch the cheques for 18-24 months. In this case, valuation should not be too rich, so you can still keep a decent percentage for the founding team.
There is also no need to ‘must have’ VCs as investors. The key is to do good growing businesses, and also to keep an eye and mindset for the business to eventually be sold. Build in processes (and have good documentation) so that the company is sale-ready.
For any founder, be it man or woman, the journey is one of resilience, agility, adaptability. A woman’s situation may sometimes get more complex as we tend to be more emotional and instinctive (especially if the person is a mother). There are several other distractions (even in a day). But the key challenge is to stay focused and think of why one started to do this in the first place and if one is really doing what one set out to do. As an entrepreneur myself, I believe that it’s about never giving up. It’s about being fierce and making sure you build your business the right way. The rest will follow.”
Joelle ends off this article, “Focus on understanding that one problem that you are willing to dedicate your life’s work to solving, instead of blindly chasing trends in hopes of creating the next unicorn and cashing out big time.
You’ll realise that the moment you find your life’s mission statement, the various solutions you have towards solving that problem can all become ideas for your startup, and they will be ideas that you’ll have enough passion and grit to see your startup through.
Also, remember that an idea is free – it is only worth something when you take that first step to start executing on it.
This article was first published on e27 on September 13, 2018.
The NEXT50 mentorship network is a pro-bono community initiative which allows Singaporean startup founders to access to over 80 mentors of various fields and expertise.
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