Sexy startups? ‘Old-school’ boys still rocking it

  • It may not be sexy and may lack the glamour, but ‘building pipes’ has its place in the tech ecosystem
  • Too many of today’s so-called ‘tech startups’ are merely services companies that happen to use tech

Sexy startups? ‘Old-school’ boys still rocking itA COUPLE of months before Digital News Asia (DNA) launched in May, 2012, I was at an event at the HELP Institute, which had just announced that it had recruited two industry stalwarts to an advisory board that would help it sharpen its ICT curriculum.
The two were Rototype International chief executive officer Harres Tan and MOL Global founder and CEO Ganesh Kumar Bangah. You couldn’t have had two more contrasting ICT personalities in a room. One was an old school boy, the other a dotcommer; yet both had similar concerns about the lack of good ICT talent, especially developers, in the country.
Rather than just whine about it, they were both doing their part to help guide the tertiary institute to ensure its courses met industry demand. On the sidelines of the event, I joked with Ganesh that companies like his were also a problem.
“You guys are doing all these exciting, fun things, which developer wouldn’t want to be a part of it?” I told him. “Problem is, who’s going to want to develop boring stuff like financial software? Who’s going to be left to build our pipes?”
With all the attention people are paying to sexy startups -- those involved in building apps, doing stuff around social media and creative multimedia, consumer tech, e-commerce, loyalty programmes and what-not – we forget that the tech landscape is actually driven by the stuff at the backend. The pipes and other boring stuff that is critical but lacking the glamour.
Yes, and DNA takes some of the blame there, although I would point out that unlike many other tech publications, we do pay attention to these less glamorous fields.
At many a Disrupt session, those monthly panel discussions and networking events we hold with the Technopreneurs Association of Malaysia (TeAM), Dr Gabriel Walter, CEO of high-speed LED start-up Quantum Electro Opto Systems Sdn Bhd (QEOS), has scolded us for describing many of the companies we cover as ‘tech startups.’
“There’s no ‘tech’ in them, they’re just services companies that happen to use the Internet,” he has pointed out on more than one occasion. And yeah, I agree with him, actually.
Which is why I love it when we can profile some of these ‘old-school’ boys who are building actual tech companies, including Walter’s own.
I mean, look at Silverlake Axis and its billionaire CEO/ founder Dr Goh Peng Ooi. His company has become a great success doing … wait for it … core banking applications. He left IBM to start up his own company because he felt that Big Blue just didn’t get it.
It’s that same, inspiring story that the ‘father of semiconductors’ Gordon Moore would tell you if he could, about why he and Robert Noyce left Fairchild Semiconductor to start up the company synonymous with computer chips, Intel.
Then there’s GridMarkets, founded by Mark Ross and Hakim Karim – both ‘old-school’ boys, the former from the tech world and the latter from the financial services world. Their under-rated company is in the kind of business that would have most people scratching their heads: “So simple, yet so obvious! Now, why didn’t I think of that?”
Remember in the late 1990s when we all downloaded that piece of software from the US-based Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (Seti), so that when our Internet-connected PCs were idling, our excess capacity could be used to process Seti data? GridMarkets has the same concept, but for the enterprise world, where access server capacity can be leased to others who need it.
Then there’s Cuscapi Bhd and its youngish but definitely ‘old-school’ CEO Her Chor Siong, a company that is being backed by old ‘old-school’ guy Larry Gan, who as the second-ever chairman of the national ICT association Pikom, is as old-school as you can get.
Cuscapi isn’t just building a tablet app for restaurants, it is building an end-to-end solution for the F&B industry. There’s your scale right there.
[As an aside, notice that all four companies – QEOS, Silverlake Axis, GridMarkets and Cuscapi – were profiled by our startup-loving but ‘old-school’ founder Karamjit Singh? Who says old-school guys can’t be awesome?]
I remember reading Karam’s piece on Cuscapi, and remembering a startup-pitching event I attended in the early days of DNA. One of the entrepreneurs pitched a loyalty app. Although I wasn’t a judge, being a busybody (read: professional journalist), I started asking questions, which led to the entrepreneur giving out more information than he had originally planned.
The founders of this startup came from a branding and marketing background. Their app would be collecting a lot of data on the customers of merchants who used their system. When I found out what kind of data, I asked them what would be the next step. They blinked.
“You’re going to gather the building blocks of a possible CRM (customer relationship management) system here, and if you play your cards right, you can actually be CRM consultants to the merchants who use your service,” I said.
They blinked again, and asked me, “What is CRM?”
That’s the bit that’s also lacking in the Malaysian startup space: People who come from ‘boring’ old-school backgrounds, with the depth and breadth that this entails, to found startups that create ‘must-have’ solutions, rather than just ‘nice-to-have’ apps.
Let’s face it: Silicon Valley wasn’t made by Facebook or even Apple; it was that ‘old grey mare’ Hewlett-Packard which really got the ball rolling.
Related stories:

Start-ups: Treasure your techies
QEOS targets US$100m valuation by end 2013
Moment of truth for 'most promising startup' GridMarkets
Malaysia’s ‘stealth’ software billionaire
Will the ‘REV’ tablet turbocharge Cuscapi’s F&B business?
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