So I had the privilege to be a judge at the DTAC Accelerate Demo Day Batch 6, which took place in Bangkok in August 2018. DTAC is touted to be the #1 Accelerator House in Thailand.
More than a thousand participants attended the event. Our senses were tickled by the creative stage lights, sounds, and Thai traditional performance; not to mention the food and drinks – which is a must-have. It was a wonderful show to mark the end of a four-month journey for the 11 startups, under the tutelage of mentors who are mainly tech founders in the Thai ecosystem.
What impressed me — as a second-time participant at the DTAC Accelerate Demo Day event –were the following three things:
Thai mentors are so willing to give of themselves
For a country which has embarked on the startup journey a little later than Singapore, Thailand seems to have more willing mentors than Singapore did even as recently as a couple years back.
Perhaps my lenses are tinted from the interactions with the more successful incubators in Thailand, but what I noticed was that each of the eleven startups has mentors who are individuals on a somewhat similar journey – they are either founders of startups or working in more mature startups (e.g. Grab or Sea).
These mentors helped to refine pitches for the startups, challenge their business propositions and on Demo Day, introduce these startup teams to the audience. Their engagement with their startups can be defined using one word — intense.
This means mentors have to juggle the pressures of running their own businesses while devoting time to meet their mentees at DTAC’s premises. It’s a level of dedication that is admirable. What was evident at Demo Day was the great chemistry between the mentors and their startups.
Singapore has come a long way in the startup journey, and looking back, it was just a few years ago when we, the more ‘progressive’ startup nation, was considering how much to pay mentors to get them involved and interested in guiding startups.
For sure, we have founders such as Lim Der Shing and Shao-Ning Huang who, after selling their earlier venture, were themselves mentoring startup founders. Among the beneficiaries of their guidance were Jeffrey Tiong of Patsnap and Roshni Mahtani of Tickled Media.
However, to founders who are on their startup journey – what is holding them back from mentoring other startup founders?
I suspect, to some extent, it is the training they had undergone in schools, universities and even work, where it is expected that they should be right many times. I like to think that they are not perfect – at least not yet – so they will never be able to provide foolproof counsel.
What is necessary though — and I see this among many of the Thai mentors — is their sincerity, authenticity and commitment to journey with the founders. Perhaps in Singapore, we have to be deliberate in slowing down when we meet.
We should learn to be respectful of each other’s time and we should consider laying aside our technology addiction (to our devices), and listen more and speak less. Many times, mentors end up being enriched by the very people whom we are supposed to help.
Local companies’ involvement in the startup space
As judges, we have to select four winning teams who will receive sponsorships to attend either the TechCrunch Disrupt in San Franciso; WebSummit in Portugal; or the LINE Developer Day in Japan.
Other than LINE, the other events were sponsored by Thai Corporates – Mueng Thai Insurance, PTT and Sansiri. One might imagine that there has to be a good fit between the sponsors and the winning teams. However, this does not seem to be the case – as far as I recall, the judges’ decisions were based on merit and not on relevance to the sponsor.
I wonder to what extent our Singapore incorporated companies would be willing to sponsor teams which may have products/ services that do not necessarily contribute to their business outcomes.
Having spoken with startups, there are marquee conferences that they would want to attend, for example, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every January, but the cost is prohibitive.
While Enterprise Singapore provides grants for the participants, perhaps it is also time for some of our other growing or established local businesses to consider supporting deserving Singapore startups so that these startups can re-deploy the grant money to other working capital needs.
This move will be akin to foundations setting up scholarship funds in schools to give a lift to the deserving students to encourage them to press on and persevere. Perhaps the one condition sponsors can lay on the startups is: that they should pay it forward and sponsor future startups for similar events.
Startups need not be the most advanced
The 11 startups at DTAC Accelerate Demo Day were not all providing frontier technology solutions to change the world.
Some of the propositions were issues concerning their peers and are relevant/pertinent issues of the society, for example, Career Visa – which is an online career counselling platform to minimize the possibility of students selecting an education route that they will regret years later.
While Career Visa was not one of the winning teams, it’s still a winner in my book. The Founder has provided counselling to some 6,000 students over the last few years, and has brought in corporate partners, who either volunteered as coaches or contributed video content that provided insights about their work.
It is a winner also because the founder had seen the problem of disillusioned young people in the workforce and decided to trace the problem back to its possible root cause (that of selecting courses based on parents’ desire).
The founder was brave enough to develop a solution to address it. Will Career Visa be the ultimate solution? Perhaps, or perhaps not; but it has provided a platform for which future refinement and enhancements can be worked upon.
Build the momentum and reap the harvest
As a venture capitalist, we are trained to spot investment opportunities that will yield the best financial returns. Putting my VC hat aside, I am reminded that there are more companies that may not provide the financial returns as expected by VCs, but they are great businesses nonetheless.
The ingredients of tech startup success are already available in Thailand, given the dedication and involvement of willing mentors, and the opportunities for startups to stand on shoulders of giants (Thai Corporations) to validate and roll out propositions.
For founders in Thailand, they must know they are in a privileged place and hence should seek to develop the best antidote to problem statements they are trying to solve.
Carmen Yuen is a Partner at Vertex Ventures Singapore. Prior to joining Vertex, she was with Majuven, a Singapore angel fund. Carmen currently serves on the Board of TickledMedia (dba TheAsianParent.com).
Disclaimer: Jeffrey Tiong and Roshni Mahtani are both founders of startups that Vertex invested in.
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