Giving our own start-ups a fair shake

  • Dear Malaysians, it’s time to lend a little support to local start-ups
  • There may be a correlation between the level of innovation and the market’s own appetite for it

Giving our own start-ups a fair shakeOF all the types of start-ups you could create, in Malaysia it seems the most frustrating one to be is one that offers a consumer product or service.
 
These are the entrepreneurs with a technology product that isn’t quite revolutionary, but rather, a localized twist on an existing model.
 
Think the local versions of Amazon like Lazada, Mudah or Ked.ai. Or loyalty programs like ChopChop Mobile and group-buying sites like WeBuy or flash sales sites like Dealmates.
 
I call such enterprises ‘chicken or egg’ start-ups because to ‘succeed,’ you need a substantial array of products/ merchants to attract users; yet at the same time, you also need a significant user base for merchants/ brands to jump on board.
 
It’s a tough space to operate in when local businesses remain unconvinced about the claimed benefits, and local users – too used to jumping through registration hoops to enjoy their pick from a global marketplace – remain unimpressed. Over and over, in interviews and casual conversations with founders who have committed themselves to this space, the frustration is palpable.
 
“I said I’ll have my guys come in and do everything to get their restaurant listed online, all for free, they just needed to set up the food … but they still said ‘no’!” said one co-founder of a local food portal-cum-restaurant directory. Another founder told me he’s gotten used to being rejected by merchants who couldn’t see the benefits in signing up with his mobile loyalty network.
 
One founder of a local online marketplace bluntly summed it up: “Our Malaysian market is not big and strong enough to test and try out any new technology. Skepticism and doubt on locally made products remain a challenge.”
 
Which brings me to the message of today’s column: Dear Malaysians, it’s time to lend a little support to local start-ups.
 
As a nation we have a lot of discussions about the need to spur more innovation in this country. How do we help or cultivate the next generation to grab the cutting edge of technology and push it even further?
 
The explanation on Wikipedia defines “innovation” as “the development of new customer value through solutions that meet new needs, inarticulate needs, or old customer and market needs in value adding new ways.”
 
Now keep in mind, innovation is a tricky thing to pinpoint within a broad social context and to break it down into executable or replicable servings? Well that’s an even trickier puzzle. But regardless of it all, I’d argue that there is a direct correlation between the level of innovation that occurs and the market’s own appetite for it.
 
Giving our own start-ups a fair shake
How can we expect to nurture innovative start-ups when the very market most of such endeavors would go after first, is an inhospitable one?
 
How can we convince people from other markets to adopt a new service or product when we can’t even demonstrate how well it’s been adopted on home soil?
 
How can we repeatedly call for more innovation, yet do nothing beyond that?
 
I’m not saying just blindly support our local start-ups and give them your money. Why should you? The whole point of being a consumer in a globalized and connected age is that for the most part, you get to cherry-pick the best solutions the world has to offer.
 
No, I’m asking, humbly, that you give a little attention to the local players. Already do most of your shopping via Amazon? How about trying out a local online marketplace for a couple of purchases? Already using a productivity app like Evernote? If you have the bandwidth, give a local variant a trial run.
 
You don’t need to completely abandon what you already have and find indispensable. I’m just saying, allow a little more room for more than one service or product in your life, and more importantly, embrace experimentation.
 
That’s essentially what the local guys are asking for — a chance to change your mind. If they manage to do so, well then, kudos to them and their product.
 
In reality, very few of them will succeed in doing so, but at least you can say, with utter conviction, that a chance was given. And don’t just try a product to see if it lives up to its billing; please take the time to give feedback. Now this is crucial — how will our guys improve if they don’t know what the problems are for their customers?
 
In the world of video games, the beta tester plays a crucial role in the development cycle of a new product. The feedback received during this phase helps the creators address many outstanding issues before its release to the general public.
 
So, why can’t we be the beta testers for our country’s legion of start-ups?
 
We may not have the market volume like Indonesia, which makes it so attractive, nor are we the regional hub for venture capitalists the way Singapore is.
 
But if there is one thing we can definitely aim for in Malaysia, is to be the hungriest. Why not be known for our hunger not just for success, but also for the new and the unexplored?
 
So the next time you’re surfing online or out and about and spot a little sign urging you to try some Made-in-Malaysia app or service -- why not?
 
This column originally appeared in the Metro Biz section of The Star and is reprinted here with its kind permission.
 
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Week in Review: Success begets success
 
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Dealmates pivots its way into a stronger footing
 
Another group-buying site makes a pivot
 
Embedding innovation in the tech ecosystem
 
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