Why unicorns are going to be elusive in Malaysia
By Anwar Jumabhoy December 16, 2015
- US success comes from large homogenous market, R&D culture, etc.
- It is important to remember that competence is far more important than passion
THE January 2015 Fortune article by Erin Griffith and Dan Primack, The Age of the Unicorns, created quite a stir in the technology venture community.
‘Unicorns’ are startups that have achieved billion-dollar valuations. These companies have a robust business model, are capable of achieving stellar growth, are led by a strong team, and have been able to secure funding at lofty valuations.
Xiaomi, the Beijing-based smartphone company, is currently valued at US$45 billion. Uber, the current poster child, is valued at US$50 billion. In total 80 companies are listed, including Airbnb, Snapchat, Pinterest, and Malaysian-founded GrabTaxi.
It’s worth remembering that Travis Kalanick’s early attempt at fund-raising – that is, before Uber – was at quite a pedestrian valuation. His first technology startup, formed just before his graduation from UCLA, was called Scour, the first peer-to-peer software company, predating Napster by about 18 months.
That was in 1998, when Kalanick raised US$4 million for his company, giving away 51% ownership of common stock!
Kalanick has spoken of this experience several times, including at a video presentation at FailCon 2011, where he said they were “kids out of UCLA” and not familiar with Silicon Valley terms.
Kalanick and other founders are now major angel investors and finding successes with a host of new technology companies. It’s no wonder that the lure of entrepreneurship is so strong, and that so much emphasis is placed on innovation and entrepreneurship as engines of growth.
What have been the drivers for the phenomenal success of technology companies in the United States, backed by Silicon Valley venture capital (VC) funds?
There are reasons for their success. Some are obvious, like outstanding entrepreneurs, access to leading technologies, ability to find early adopters, and the very large homogenous US market.
Other reasons are less obvious and relate to the operating environment that seems to favour companies operating in the United States.
What is the ‘US Technology Wealth Creation’ model, and can it be adopted by countries outside of the United States?
The US advantage
Before we address that issue, we need to understand the US environment. By the end of the Second World War, the United States had developed the world’s largest industrial capacity. Supporting this industrial might was a very significant investment in research and development (R&D).
Outside of this national effort, private equity funds, in particular VC funds, were turning their attention to technology companies.
By the late 1980s, ICT companies, possibly spurred by the success of Silicon Graphics Inc which was founded in 1982 and listed in 1986, were actively seeking funding from VCs.
There was a significant growth in private equity (PE) funds starting in 1990. And not coincidentally, from 1990, there was also a rise in IPOs (initial public offerings) that attracted VC funding.
So the new money was finding a good return through IPO exits, and was being actively recycled.
The United States, arguably the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world today, has a population of 319 million, a GDP (gross domestic product) per capita of US$37,800 and a population that has a literacy rate of over 97%, based on World Bank data for 2014.
The Malaysian challenge, and Asean
In contrast, Malaysia has a population of 29.9 million and a per-capita GDP of US$10,933. Does this huge difference in market size have an impact on business potential?
Definitely! Ask any of our entrepreneurs. The larger the market, the more opportunity to find a customer who will value (and pay for) the service or product you have.
Naturally, therefore, the larger the market opportunity, the larger the profit potential – which translates to a much higher valuation!
Small countries are at a disadvantage, hence the importance of open regional groupings like the European Union.
It is important, therefore, that Malaysians are able to target and serve the regional market. Efforts are being made by government agencies to change the market paradigm. Access to the large Asean market of 625 million, across 10 countries, covering 4.4 million sq km, is important, even though it is not a homogenous market.
In Malaysia, national ICT custodian Multimedia Development Corp (MDeC) is actively supporting a regional push of its MSC Malaysia status companies, as well promoting a broader adoption of technology in companies to improve efficiency and productivity.
The R&D issue
The availability (and harnessing) of technology, of talented individuals, the interest in the market for new solutions and access to funding, did drive the growth of US technology companies.
Clearly these were strong drivers that favoured US companies, but there were others. A strong R&D base was critical. There is a huge commitment to R&D from corporations as a means of creating new products.
These are other factors that came into play with we call the Technology Wealth Creation model.
Let’s look at a major driver of R&D and innovation – funding.
Malaysian Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD) is actually quite high, yet there seems to be a paucity of successful technology companies.
According to the Malaysian Science & Technology Information Centre, GERD in 2012 was RM10.612 billion, which represented 1.13% of GDP. The GERD to GDP ratios taken from OECD data for other countries are: Japan (3.47%), United States (2.73%), and United Kingdom (1.63%).
Malaysia’s expenditure as a percentage of GDP is close to that of the United Kingdom, but in real terms, its expenditure on R&D (2013) at £28.9 billion is equivalent to RM183 billion – 17 times that of Malaysia!
Besides expenditure on R&D, the critical ingredient is the quality of the researchers, and it is in this area that the United States has a big advantage – the best brains from around the world compete to work at the world’s best universities.
International students in the United States account for 70% of the full-time graduate students (Master’s and PhDs) in electrical engineering, 63% in computer science, and 60% in industrial engineering.
We only have to look at two recent CEO (chief executive officer) appointments, where both candidates went to the United States for their Master’s degrees and stayed on to work there: Satya Nadella of Microsoft, a graduate of the Manipal Institute of Technology; and Sundar Pichai of Google, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur.
Total expenditure on R&D is driven by the pressure on companies to stay competitive through innovative and that drives technology generation, the first of the Three Wheels of Wealth (3WWC) illustrated below.
The three interlocking wheels show the interplay between Technology Generation, Business Creation, and Wealth Creation.
Working in harmony, the 3WWC promote the development of appropriate technologies, encourage and support the development of early stage companies, and finally, reward the participants with financial wealth from IPOs and acquisitions – which in turn frees up funding and support to keep the three interlocking wheels in motion.
Underlying all the wheels are a number of positive driving factors.
The willingness to take risks is a critically important factor across all the wheels. At the creation stage, founders take risks, mostly with money from others but they are comforted by the fact that should they fail, there is no stigma attached to failure. They can go back to the job market, or start a new venture!
This is a unique feature of the US landscape, particularly in Silicon Valley.
Passion vs professionalism
What is equally interesting is the willingness of early customers who take on unproven products and solutions.
Why are they willing to take this risk? Well the answer is pretty simple: The companies are constantly looking for a competitive advantage, and generally the companies are privately owned and managed by professionals, who are measured by their performance.
Much is spoken about the need for passion in business creation, or actually, in most endeavours. It is therefore portent to remember that competence is far more important than passion.
Ben Horowitz of Netscape fame earlier this year gave the commencement speech at Columbia University, which he titled Don’t Follow Your Passion.
He said, in reference to the quality of the contestants in the show American Idol, “just because you love singing does not mean you should be a professional singer,” and “what you are passionate about at 21 is not necessarily what you’re going to be passionate about at 40.”
One needs to have a sense of reality and self-awareness.
Finally, with wealth creation, the market (intuitions and individuals) is willing to buy shares in new companies at huge forward valuations.
Some companies show earnings performance, many don’t. A few companies survive, others get acquired, fortunes are made, and money is recycled – not just in new companies, but in huge research grants and endowments to the leading universities.
Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and others have become the centres of research because of the quality of their labs and access to huge funds from benefactors.
Harvard University has the largest endowment fund in the United States at US$36.4 billion and for the year 2013, paid out US$1.5 billion to support its programmes, some of which are dictated by the donors.
Yale, Stanford and Princeton all have endowment funds in excess of US$20 billion.
Outside of the United States and China, which share some commonalities with the United States (population, technology generation, propensity to take risks, etc.), following this strategy would not be viable path.
Honestly, any attempt to unearth a Malaysian ‘unicorn’ is not likely to end well.
But we do have large corporations and industries that are faced with an increasingly volatile world, and they need to find a formula for success. Added to their problems is the fact that we live in a world that is getting increasingly competitive.
Leadership skills will be severely tested – no more fair weather captains need apply! To quote Prof Jay Rao, of Babson College, speaking on leadership today”
“Several different kinds of leadership – heroic, transformational, charismatic – worked prior to the 21st century. However, as VUCAH (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and hyper-connectivity) increases around us, those types of leadership are quite inadequate. Entrepreneurial Leadership is what works better in today’s world.”
This new world requires all companies to put in place new management practices which need to take in the ‘attributes’ of entrepreneurs who are experts at dealing with change and finding opportunities.
Otherwise, the future for large companies is bleak.
Anwar Jumabhoy is passionate about bringing entrepreneurship into large companies, and is co-author of the book Beyond Corporate Entrepreneurship, which will be released in February 2016.
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