Building an ecosystem: The pieces are here already

Building an ecosystem: The pieces are here alreadyIN the week that JFDI.Asia announced its US$2.1-million funding, cofounder Hugh Mason and accelerator manager Ray Wu were in Penang sharing insights with local startups and the people who support them. Over the next two weeks, they will deliver more workshops in Malaysia as part of the MSC Malaysia Accelerator Lite programme. Along the way, Hugh is keeping a diary and here is his first instalment.
It’s now four years since Meng Wong (Wong Meng Weng) and I cofounded JFDI.Asia, with a lot of help from a lot of people. We ran startup weekend events in six different cities and set up the region’s first accelerator programme in Singapore, giving us the chance to work with something like 200 different startup teams so far.
They inspire me every day because they’re all so positive. The people are different but they share one passionate belief: That they can make tomorrow better than today.
More than a belief, actually. They Just Focus and Do It. In big and small ways, they are making the future happen.
Made In Malaysia
I’ve been to Penang once before, but only on vacation with family in Georgetown. This time our colleagues Muhu, Jezamin and Zalila from Multimedia Development Corp (MDeC, which manages the MSC Malaysia project) put us in touch with Curry Khoo from TE4P ( and he picked Queensbay Mall in Bayan Lepas as a place to run our three-day workshop.
Sixteen local teams applied to take part but we only had room to include about half of them this time. We hope everyone else will be able to join us tomorrow night.
Building an ecosystem: The pieces are here alreadySo strange to pass Fairchild and all the semiconductor fab labs on the way here from the airport. I remember when I built my first home computer in 1981 that the 6800 microprocessor at its heart had ‘Made In Malaysia’ printed on it.
I wonder if it was made right here in one of these buildings! It was so exciting to watch that little chip come to life. 

Back then, the idea of having your own computer was amazing. I don’t think the 15-year-old me could have imagined I’d be living in Singapore 30 years later.
Even stranger would have been the idea that I’d have a supercomputer smartphone in my pocket that shoots video, and shares it wirelessly with the world, for free.
In the first part of my career, I was a film-maker and I made a ‘history of the future’ series for the BBC and Discovery Channel. Twenty years on, my strongest memory from that was realising how we always over-estimate the short-term and under-estimate the long-term when we think about the future.
From day to day progress can seem slow, but look across a few years and it's amazing how fast things change.

On which note, it’s been an honour to be invited as an investor panellist to events in Malaysia like MSC InnoTech for several years in a row. The increasing confidence of the teams pitching and the number of startup events happening there is very obvious when, like me, you see a snapshot once every few months.
There’s so much I still don’t know about Malaysia but the energy and the laughter from the great people we are meeting here tells me it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.

Building an ecosystem: The pieces are here already

The biggest question for me is why there aren’t more headline-grabbing startups from this country, given that there’s so much talent and enthusiasm here.
Perhaps we will find a different answer in the three locations we are visiting, but Ray and I both had the same first impression of Penang. It feels like many pieces of the jigsaw are here and they just need joining up, something DNA has covered before here and here.
The fact that this is such a great place to visit and live should attract the pieces that are missing, and of course JobStreet came from Penang. Who knows, perhaps the next generation of local heroes at Piktochart will follow the same path.
Building on history
In many ways Penang reminds me of Singapore when my cofounder Meng Wong and I met in 2009. Back then there was no one place where the geek community got together. So folk who should have been working together just never got the chance to meet.
That all changed when Meng and a bunch of younger people set up Singapore’s first hackerspace ( in a heritage shophouse in Kampong Glam.

Building an ecosystem: The pieces are here already

I thought of that shophouse when, yesterday, two wonderful women who have restored South-East Asia’s oldest Chinese medicine hall (Ren i Tang) came by the workshop. The story of how they took on a massive local project was truly inspiring and completely illustrated Harvard Business School Professor Howard Stevenson’s classic definition of an entrepreneur as someone who pursues an opportunity without regard to the resources they currently control.
I do think it’s the people in a community (the software, if you like), not the buildings they live and work in (the hardware), that makes a vibrant ecosystem for startups.
But being involved with Hackerspace in Singapore showed me that the buildings and the history do matter too. I feel huge respect when I pass the clan associations in Singapore. Those men and women setting out from their home villages in boats to start a new life had true courage. Across seas and cultures they built trust and the wealth we see today. We need that same spirit today.
Just believe
I guess entrepreneurship is like a faith in some ways. You’ve got to believe that something is possible even if no-one around you has done it yet and you can’t touch the thing you are trying to create. Every religion has some kind of temple or church or mosque where people who believe come together, and it feels like Hackerspace did that in Singapore somehow.
Looking back, a real key to the impact of Hackerspace was that it came from the community itself. It wasn’t a commercial initiative or something set up by government. I remember how a guy came from a hackerspace in New York and shared with us how they did it and his advice was to ‘Just Do It’ so maybe that’s where the idea for our company came from.
Certainly Hackerspace became Singapore’s first co-working space and both JFDI.Asia and came out of it.
Later this afternoon I’m looking forward to meeting the folk from Work Palette, which I think is Penang’s first co-working space. The signs are good that Penang startups are getting their act together and I will certainly be back.
Actually if the stats from our application process for MSC Malaysia Accelerator Lite are any indication, there is strong potential across the country. I'll list the data below and follow up with more from Kota Kinabalu next week :)

MSC Malaysia Accelerator Lite

  • 129 teams expressed interest, i.e. started an application. Considering we usually get 300-400 for JFDI internationally, that's a great response.
  • 69 teams finalised their applications. Only the teams finalising applications were analysed further. Percentages represent the fraction of those who finalised applications.

By location (Finalised Applicants):

  • 48 teams (70%) applied from Kuala Lumpur
  • 16 teams (23%)applied from Penang
  • 5 teams (7%) applied from Kota Kinabalu

Type of team

  • 8 teams (12%) included or were led by female founders
  • 23 teams (33%) were single founders
  • 8 teams (12%) say they have some kind of revenue (but we don't have information if that is scalable or recurring)

Type of business

  • 2 teams (3%) are doing hardware, the rest software or services
  • 34 teams (48%) are doing B2B
  • 22 teams (32%) are doing B2C
  • 13 teams (20%) are doing platform businesses.

By broad sector of operation

  • 12 teams (17%) are doing marketing communications
  • 9 teams (13%) are doing e-commerce
  • 6 teams (9%) are doing travel
  • 5 teams (7%) are doing directory services
  • 4 teams (6%) are doing each of consultancy, social networks
  • 3 teams (4%) are doing each of dev shops, entertainment, education
  • 2 teams (3%) are doing each of media channels, toys
  • 1 team (1%) is doing each of consumer electronics, content, greentech, healthcare, productivity, property, real-world service, recruitment, retail, security, training

Building an ecosystem:
Embracing cultural differences
Building the right culture


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