Newly-elected president ‘Dash’ Dhakshinamoorthy aware of challenges 10-year-old association faces
TeAM to rejuvenate and reinvent itself, needs proper ‘start-up’ mindset and needs to attract young blood
WHILE the Technopreneurs Association of Malaysia (TeAM) was holdings its annual general meeting (AGM) on April 8, 1337 Ventures chief executive officer and founder Bikesh L – who was at the meeting – posted on Facebook under his sobriquet ‘Mike Smith.’
He cheekily, and pertinently, asked whether anyone knew what the acronym TeAM stood for, and what the association does. More pertinently, he also declared that he “never did like that word Technopreneuer.”
I tend to agree – ‘technopreneur’ is such a Malaysian, late 1990s, Web 1.0 kind of term, when you could be an entrepreneur without having to use or develop technology. And I admit that Digital News Asia (DNA) has been also guilty of using that oh-so-very Malaysian term.
In today’s Web 2.0, or perhaps even post-Web 2.0, world, you can’t be an entrepreneur in the truer sense of the word – that is, to create a new kind of business or to innovate, and not merely to set up your own small business – without having some tech in it.
That distinction is important because TeAM, set up in the first dotcom flush, seems to have been in Rip Van Winkle mode for the last few years.
TeAM members DNA spoke to before the AGM had complained that the association had lost its way, seemed as bureaucratic as a government department, and most importantly, had failed to attract enough new blood – especially from within the ranks of the exciting young start-ups that seemed to be popping up just about every week.
During the AGM, one attendee actually SMSed DNA, saying he was lost in all this talk about government programs, policies and projects! There were also complaints that ordinary members did not seem to have a say in the association’s activities.
It’s a host of complaints that new TeAM president Dhakshinamoorthy Balakrishnan (pic) is well-aware of. “We need to operate as a lean start-up. We also need to unlock and unleash the opportunities that come TeAM’s way to ensure they touch all its members,” he told DNA after succeeding former president Aziz Ismail on April 8.
[Full disclosure: Dash is a columnist with DNA. TeAM also co-organizes the monthly Disrupt panel discussions and gatherings with DNA.]
Dhakshinamoorthy, more popularly known as ‘Dash’ and the founder of StartupMalaysia.org and co-founder of the Founder Institute in Perth, noted the need for TeAM to rejuvenate.
“Every now and then, every person or organization needs to ask itself these questions: Why do we exist? Are we serving the purpose of our existence? Are we still relevant and how can we remain relevant?
“We need to get out to speak to people to see the organization from their eyes and then come back to see what we can fix, or else any organization will decay,” he added. “Decay is a given in an organization – the challenge is to keep renewing oneself.”
It was with this intention to rejuvenate the association that Dash said convinced him to return to TeAM, which he had left in 2007 or so after having served as its secretary. At the April 8 AGM, he was selected to be a member of the TeAM council, which then elected him president.
“Reinventing the association would require two types of people,” Dash said. “I call them those who build the tracks and those who drive the train.”
“Those who build the tracks are the seniors who understand the changing needs of members and the needs of the non-members (a more important group) and how we can address them. These people not only know and understand the ecosystem, but also possess the knowledge to navigate system, which comprises both the private sector and the Government.
“The ‘drive the train’ personality is one of execution once directions are set. These are people who are exacting and will do what it takes to get the job done,” he added.
Dash believes TeAM already has a strong team, no puns intended, who can help get the job done. In the council are ecosystem experts such as Cradle Fund CEO Nazrin Hassan, Azlan Yaacob (past vice president), Koh Lee Ching (past president), Low Huoi Seong (past vice president). In terms of young blood, he said he has invited NEST's Fadzli Shah Anuar (of Voucheres fame) and the incorrigible Bikesh himself.
“The council is not complete yet – we have identified a few more people we would like to join us to create an impact in the ecosystem,” he said, adding that the challenge would be in finding the right things to do.
“It would be a shame to do the wrong thing extremely well, so the council needs to have people who can dive deep and ask themselves, given TeAM’s mission, how they can contribute positively.”
TeAM says it currently has 500 members, with Dash determined to see this rise to 1,000 within a year. His full Q&A with DNA is reproduced below:
DNA: What do you think the top three challenges are for TeAM moving forward, and how do you plan to address them?
Dash: The first challenge would be finding new, young members.
Many young entrepreneurs view TeAM as an organization comprising old guys who have lost touch with what is needed on the ground. They also have the impression (rightly or wrongly) that the council members are all in it for themselves.
This has to change. We have set up a Twitter account (@TeAMInsights) to hear their views and to keep the entire council’s ears plugged in.
We also need to redefine TeAM’s value proposition to this young group. We want the tech entrepreneurs of Malaysia to be members of TeAM as soon as possible so that we can listen to their needs and help address them.
Also many young entrepreneurs who have studied or worked in developed ecosystems question the need for committees and organizations like TeAM to solve their problems. They rightly believe that it's individuals who solve problems, and not committees.
Though this is true in developed ecosystems, in developing countries like Malaysia, there exists what is called the ‘institutional void,’ a term first coined by Harvard professors Tarun Khanna and Krishna Palepu. An efficient ecosystem needs specific institutions to be present or functional. In the absence of these, there will be a void.
I think organizations like TeAM can help to address this need because it has a collective voice.
The second challenge would be to deepen policy – TeAM has lagged in this area. Understanding issues deeply is the first step. Putting them right also requires structural and policy changes or new policies.
All this can only be done effectively if we have council members who are well versed in this area. So we are looking at this very seriously and will bring in members who can contribute here.
The third challenge would be ‘airlifting the ecosystem’. Brad Feld, the founder of the accelerator TechStars and also the author of the Startup Communities, says that to build a strong ecosystem, you need to have four elements:
1) Entrepreneur-led: The ecosystem must be entrepreneur-led. Entrepreneurs are the leaders. Everyone else, he calls the feeders – government, universities, etc.
2) Long-term view: To build an ecosystem, you need a long-term view; a 20-year view. TeAM has been around for 10 years. During this time, it has contributed a lot to the ecosystem – the birth of organizations like Cradle is a testament to the relevance of TeAM. There are many other programs. The last two years, I guess, was when we hit the plateau in the S curve. It is now time to rejuvenate.
3) Be inclusive: Bring everyone into the ecosystem. Don't reject or exclude. This definitely needs a mindset change from how it is now in Malaysia, where there is competition between ecosystem players in the ecosystem. So, we need to change this.
4) Events & activities: TechStars’ Feld says we must saturate the ecosystem with events and gatherings. This will help build trust and enable everyone to know everyone else. This is what TeAM aims to do.
DNA: Given that we’re in a very different world (Web 2.0 and beyond) from when TeAM was first formed, do you think that the association is still relevant? If yes, why? If no, what are you doing to make it relevant again?
Dash: In its current form, TeAM can be said to be not entirely relevant, maybe even obsolete! It has lost its ‘precarious mind of the start-up.’ It has become quite comfortable in operating with what is there.
This kind of mindset will only lead to decay, whether it’s in a person, a business or an organization like TeAM.
So the new TeAM mandate is to reinvent. The current committee is called the TeAM Reinvent Committee.
In fact, we are doing away with the term ‘committee,’ which gives the impression of ‘just talk and no action.’ I am calling them Apps.
Each App has to define its mission within the broader vision of the organization, solve a specific problem in the market-place, get out there and talk to as many people as possible, come back and reinvent itself if needs be, and then get things done.
When an App becomes irrelevant, we will delete that App. Each App needs to justify its existence – it’s not a right, but a privilege.
DNA: TeAM does not seem to have very many young members – the ones founding start-ups today. Why is this? Has TeAM lost its connection with younger entrepreneurs?
Dash: The answers are above. We need to address new needs and be current in our thinking.
We also need to have events that are cool, that attract young people. The old tie-and-suit culture has to go. We need guys and gals who will come in jeans and t-shirts, who are passionate about getting things done, who knows this is where they come to create an impact in the ecosystem.
This may also attract some ‘bad actors,’ but eventually the system will weed them out – as the community is pretty small and the bad ones will be found out.
DNA: With so many boot-camps and entrepreneur workshops going on, what will you be doing to differentiate yourself from the pack?
Dash: We will have our own signature event to call our own soon. But TeAM will also partner with current event organizers to help cross-promote. ‘Inclusive’ is the operating word here.
DNA: Has TeAM become too chummy with government? Or do you still believe that government has an important role to play? Please elaborate, either way.
Dash: The Government definitely has an important role to play, as a feeder but not as a leader in the ecosystem. It can be an amazing facilitator for the ecosystem. I believe both the entrepreneurs and the Government have the same intention – to have world-beating companies emerge from Malaysia.
The disconnect may be in how people see their respective roles; the trust that needs to be built between the players; and how this government-private sector partnership can be used to spur entrepreneurial success.
I am not sure about the word ‘chummy’ here, but if it means being the Government’s ‘yes man,’ I am afraid that may have been true up to a point, but not entirely. Relations have been very cordial and this may have been necessary to some extent.
However, the current council is conscious of this and will be engaging government positively with the aim of strengthening further the ecosystem, with them playing an effective role.
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