Singapore ahead in cultivating a robust ecosystem for startups to grow in the region
Deeper resource pool, access to mentors, hub positioning makes major difference
THE novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet for me when it comes to looking at Singapore’s startup ecosystem.
Its place of dominance in the enterprise tech space is obvious enough, with the regional headquarters of multinationals littered across the island nation.
But when it comes to the catalysing and nurturing of entrepreneurship and startups, the quality of the inspirational extravaganza that accompanies the dance to hustle, build, dazzle, disrupt and profit – my word, can Singapore put on quite the show.
It hasn’t been six months since I’ve moved here, but I’ve never been more exposed to war stories, nuggets of wisdom and eloquent articulations of disruptive visions – both local and international. And I don’t even pound the startup pavement full time.
The launch of BASH (Build Amazing Startups Here), an integrated startup facility by Infocomm Investments Pte Ltd (IIPL) this week really put this into stark relief for me.
The turnout was an impressive display of corporate representatives, investors and entrepreneurs. Steve Leonard, executive deputy chairman of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), said that the level of interest in BASH was so high the current challenge was juggling access so as many as possible could be accommodated. [IIPL is the IDA’s investment arm].
A friend working with startup accelerators said that he found it quite something, the willingness of entrepreneurs from markets like Indonesia and Thailand, to fly in to attend all manner of events.
"And Singapore is a pretty pricey place given the exchange rates," he added.
It's not hard to see why though.
There's no doubt the nation also benefits from a much longer roster of successful entrepreneurs who have exited and are choosing to ‘give back’ to the ecosystem.
Dennis Goh, cofounder of food and restaurant review website HungryGoWhere, acquired by Singtel for US$9.4 million in 2012, was part of a panel discussion held that day, and had the audience laughing during a recap of the early days.
“When you have three arts students as cofounders and one programmer for a dotcom startup, who do you think is boss?” he quipped.
He also shared that he believed entrepreneurs needed a self-deprecating sense of humour to survive the rollercoaster ride – along with partners and cofounders who’d appreciate it.
The day’s main event however was a panel discussion featuring Tim C. Draper and a few other members of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), a venture firm whose notable investments include Tesla Motors, SpaceX and Baidu.
“Tim Draper is in Singapore?” said one entrepreneur friend in Kuala Lumpur after I posted a photo on Facebook.
“Damn I need to move, I need to be based there. I just need to figure out how,” he added with a wistful note.
To confess, at that point I only knew him as “that guy who bought the Silk Road Bitcoin stash from the FBI.”
A Google search later and he became “that third-generation venture capitalist guy whose father was an early investor in Skype.”
Draper is no doubt an interesting personality, but I was actually more impressed that three senior members of DFJ affiliates were also in attendance – a situation made possible via Singapore-based Wavemaker Pacific, a recent addition to the DRJ global network.
The sharing was frank too, with thoughts on over-invested sectors (ad tech, taxi apps and drones) and under-invested (med tech).
At one point, when asked about knowing the difference between visionary and crazy, David Cremin, managing director of DFJ Frontier, grabbed the microphone and said: “Oh that’s a good one! I’ve definitely funded crazy before.”
Turning to Draper, he said: “There was this one entrepreneur who was just crazy, me and your dad invested in her, lost all our money and then you funded her again because she didn’t tell you about that!”
“But the thing is that you really do sometimes have to fund the people whose visions you’d never have thought of yourself.
“And these guys don’t make it easy and are not always the easiest people to deal with, but that is the nature of venture capital,” Cremin added.
It certainly served to highlight the message that investors are not perfect, nor do they know everything.
“We just want to be known as the good guys that entrepreneurs with crazy ideas can talk to. And if we like what we hear, we’ll fund it,” said Draper.
Simon Cook, the London-based chief executive officer of DFJ Esprit, also highlighted the changing nature of the game.
“When an idea happens, it happens at almost the same time in every country – and these days, it also doesn’t mean the Americans will win them all anymore,” he said.
Draper was also very vocal about his appreciation and respect for Singapore, crediting time spent and connections made here for sparking DRF's foray into China.
Yeah, life can be pretty good when you're living in a hub.
During an interview last year, Acronis chief executive officer of Serguei Beloussov, who now calls Singapore home, remarked that country is an expensive place to be for a bootstrapped startup, and therein lies the challenge for the Government and its entrepreneurial aspirations.
“In the short term, it makes it harder for startups to grow as they don’t have money in the early stages – they will have money in the future, which then makes the situation less important.
“There’s a need for programmes that can make Singapore a cheaper place to do business for startups and their employees.
“The country is not really driven by startups yet but there’s positive progress. Technology startups are required to sustain the economy and develop the level of expertise required to be competitive. Without them, it is impossible to move forward,” Beloussov added.
From the outside looking in, it’s tough not to be impressed by the progress Singapore has made and how far along the ecosystem is, compared with the rest of the region.
Yet it remains a ways away from perfect, plagued by its own list of issues.
You could argue that an environment of safety and convenience, where things just work as they should, results in lower numbers of ‘hungry' and driven would-be entrepreneurs – or solutions to First World problems rather than South-East Asian ones.
You could worry that the deep-seated miasma of shame entwined with the notion of failure prevents the more creative of ideas from being attempted, compared with other markets where taking that risk is sometimes a circumstance of having no other recourse.
You could raise concerns about the divide between the expatriates, the connected and the under-exposed, resulting in unfair advantages based on networks and not merit.
You could bemoan the fundable, profitable but uninspiring waves of ‘me too’ clones drowning the possible discovery of the truly extraordinary.
You could even point out that the Government’s eager desire to proactively play a role might result in more-than-necessary handholding or ‘nanny-ing.’
But at the rate this developed oasis is moving within an emerging sea, you'd be hard pressed to lament the lack of access to money, mentors, tools, knowledge and – ironic given this is an island with a population density of 7,618 people per square kilometre (London is 5,177 per square kilometre) – space to build a dream.
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