The most important advice anyone could receive when they want to understand the people, environment and culture of a given country is to visit in person.
Whether it is a startup trying to enter a new market or an investor looking for their next home run, if the person doesn’t actually visit the country, how could they possibly understand the opportunity?
One of our own, Programmes Manager Jiaway Koh, just finished a whirlwind trip whereby she visited 11 countries and met with hundreds of startups.
Because she was in charge of our TOP100 programme, she spent months pouring over applications, meeting startups, liaising with community builders, investors and recruiting corporate and government stakeholders.
This kind of experience is nearly impossible to replicate and means she has a unique understanding of where the Asian ecosystem stands in May of 2018.
“After getting back to Singapore, many people asked me, ‘How were the startups in the countries you’ve been to?’ After all, in addition to the countries that are familiar to us, like Thailand or Malaysia, we also travelled to unchartered territories like Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Mongolia,” Koh said.
“After listening to more than 300 startups pitch, here are some of my key takeaways.”
Secondary startup scenes are progressing nicely
While cities like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta have become regional hubs, the gap between these metropolises and other places — think Phnom Penh, Astana or Yangon — is not overly wide. Every city Koh visited was full of startups that are making their cities proud.
“A common remark I would here upon our return from the trips was, ‘Do they even have a startup scene?’,” said Koh.
“Yes, they do. Some factors that contribute to this are an increase in mobile phone usage, improved general tech knowledge, globalisation, government support and the exposure to local unicorn stories,” she said.
Koh pointed out that entrepreneurs share personality traits — hunger, passion, a desire to solve problems and a love for business. These attributes can be found anywhere in the world. Think about it, some of the world’s best companies have come out of places that seem random on the surface.
“Inspiration can come from anywhere, whether from personal experiences or external factors, these local startups will surprise you and will potentially take the world by storm,” said Koh.
She added that investors should start looking more closely at secondary markets. By connecting with governments, accelerators and local stakeholders they may be able to find a niche startup in Bangladesh that turns into the star of their portfolio.
However, regional startups are stuck in a local bubbles
While its important to understand a local community, it is no Infinity Gauntlet.
To expect that an international company cannot see the same problem would be naive, so this means local startups need to start comparing themselves to global companies.
“A lot of startups are still contented with staying within their local boundaries and painting a nice picture of progress. This results in a false narrative of the local startup scene. It is problematic because while local players are telling a fairtytale, everyone else is moving ahead,” said Koh.
Let’s say a Founder wants to start a Thailand-friendly social media company? They should not compare themselves to a Thai competitor, instead they need to figure out why this company can beat Facebook and sell the hell out of the idea.
One of the ways to move into an international mindset is by leveraging the support of governments and investors.
Policymakers are in a unique position to understand the international landscape, this means that if they don’t view it as a competitive landscape, but rather find areas of collaboration, they can become the catalyst for regional growth.
From an investor perspective, it doesn’t have to come in the form of seed investment or launching a Kazakh-focussed fund. There may be M&A opportunities for companies already in a portfolio. Maybe it is not about finding the Facebook-of-Vietnam, but instead looking towards Hanoi for aquihires, market access or technology that makes the Singapore-based Series B startup more likely to grow.
This is how ecosystems grow and how we will move beyond analysing the Thailand startup scene versus the Malaysian scene to simply discussing how the “Southeast Asian startup scene” is progressing.
Strength in numbers
The whole point of TOP100 is to set up an infrastructure whereby we can discover the unknown companies and pull them into the ecosystem.
“Our aim was to find APAC’s most promising startups through pitching competitions, and boy did we find them,” said Koh.
While most of the community understands that there is strength in numbers, the ideal doesn’t make sense if nobody is pulling the needles out the haystack. If no one is there to showcase or highlight them, then they stay undiscovered.
This was the goal. To find the talent that will make everyone excel. In working towards this checkered-flag, we found a lot of companies making Asia proud.
Interested in meeting these startups? They will be exhibiting, and pitching, at Echelon Asia Summit 2018!
Echelon Asia Summit 2018 is e27’s flagship platform that brings together startups, investors, corporates, governments, tech ecosystem players and customers.