Session Start-Ups: Driving Innovation at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN 2018. Image: World Economic Forum / Sikarin Thanachaiary

Last September we attended the World Economic Forum on ASEAN 2018, with Eddie speaking on a session named “Startups: Driving Innovation”. Panel speakers included:

  • Simon Milner, Vice-President, Public Policy, Asia-Pacific, Facebook
  • Reynazran Royono, Founder and CEO, Snapcart
  • Shailendra Singh, Managing Director, Sequoia Capital
  • Tan Hooi Ling, Co-Founder, Grab
  • Edward Thai, Partner, 500 Startups

The panel gave a candid look at Southeast Asia’s distinct challenges, from language and currency differences to hyperlocality. That said, these are the catalysts for success: companies that are able to scale beyond borders are stronger than ever, not despite, but because of the multitude of Southeast Asian countries. The speakers strongly believe that Southeast Asia is now a land of opportunity, where entrepreneurs show unprecedented tenacity, resourcefulness, and courage to make incredible things happen. Here are our 8 takeaways from the session, with answers (edited for length and clarity) from the speakers themselves:

 

1. Southeast Asia is the land of opportunity

Hooi Ling of Grab opened the discussion by stating her belief that “Southeast Asia is the land of opportunities. Everywhere I look, I see inefficiency, I see opportunity; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

This entrepreneurial spirit has always been the main driving force behind the rapid economic growth of ASEAN countries. “In the span of several years, I went from seeing a non-existent startup ecosystem in Southeast Asia to dedicating my career to it, with what is now the most active early-stage venture firm in Southeast Asia. Why? The fast macroeconomic growth, better internet access, and most importantly the demonstration that founders in Southeast Asia can be just as good as founders in other parts of the world,” Thai shared the main reasons behind 500 Startups’ dynamic presence in the region.

The panel mentioned the unprecedented opportunities to scale in the digital age. Milner of Facebook added: “There’s never been a better time to follow your dream. If you’ve got an idea, there’re so many opportunities in Southeast Asia for you to grow that idea into a business, get funded, and market your product using platforms such as Facebook.”

 

2. Founders here have the hustle to make incredible things happen

Singh of Sequoia expressed his belief in founders’ resourcefulness: “In the vocabulary of startup and innovation, there’s no ‘pessimism’. That word doesn’t exist in our vocabulary. Founders do magical things from nothing. They have the hustle, the tenacity, the perseverance to make incredible things happen, even when the world around them might think there’s no hope. Founders don’t look for excuses, founders look for only a ray of light to believe that there’s the sun on the other side of the door.”

 

3. “Mutants” are becoming giants

He also stated that startups in the region are specifically equipped to provide practical solutions: “Often startups in India and Southeast Asia are criticized as being clones. We think of startups as clones, mutants, or new species. Clones solve known problems in known manners. The much more interesting startups are the mutants: mutants solve known problems, but the solutions are highly localized. So they’re actually doing new things, and often mutating very fast.”

 

4. Companies need local know-how in order to grow in Southeast Asia

Another strength of startups here is hyper-local knowledge. As Royono of Snapcart puts it: “People who’re disrupting the ASEAN market have a much better advantage over people who are coming from outside of ASEAN. There’s certain local knowledge you need to have in the startup world.”

 

5. There’s no longer a fixed path for technology

The multitude of Southeast Asian countries is also a catalyst for diverse technology solutions. Singh pointed out another advantage of starting a business now:  There’s no longer a linear line of technology. People are trying to transform a very large industry in what we call a ‘full stack’ manner. Companies are effectively trying to disrupt retailers, transportation, banks, etc. in a much more holistic fashion than just following the linear line of technology, which you may have found 5 or 10 years ago.”

 

6. ASEAN is cultivating a dynamic culture of entrepreneurship

“In Vietnam, tech entrepreneurship is now a national passion. The government talks about turning Vietnam into a startup nation; it’s now acceptable to parents to let their kids go into startups instead of working corporate jobs. The climate is much more encouraging now,” Thai shared his insights into Vietnam’s startup ecosystem.

Citing an initiative from the Indonesian government called NextICorn (Next Indonesia Unicorn), Royono added: “The culture of entrepreneurship in ASEAN is very rich. In Indonesia, there are more than 3 million mom-and-pop stores, run by local entrepreneurs. When I started the company 3 years ago there were quite a lot of hurdles to creating a company, now it’s becoming very easy with government support.”

 

7. Diverse Southeast Asian companies reflect the diversity of the region

When asked about diversity and gender participation in the startup world, Hooi Ling said: “Knowing that Southeast Asia in itself is so colorful and diverse, we can only provide the best solutions to our customers by having a diverse team as well. Grab has more than 40 nationalities, and more than 40% of the employees are female. Despite that, Anthony [Tan] and I never said: ‘We need to hire the most nationality ever’. To us, all that matter was we brought in the best people and the best leaders for the specific roles that we were hiring.”

 

8. Building thriving ecosystems is a top priority

In navigating and steering the regional growth, the panel agreed that there was still more work to be done. Thai expected concerted efforts towards innovation and globalization: “We need to avoid leaving people behind a digital divide, and to make sure that digital innovations help everyone, not just the urban elite. That will require both the government and the private sector to work on increasing internet penetration, digital literacy, and general education. In the long run, people wouldn’t have to leave the country to acquire international business knowledge and expertise. Fostering a thriving global ecosystem, right here in Southeast Asia, is something we think about every day.”

Citing the success of Grab, Go-Jek, Tokopedia, and Shopee among others, Singh observed that “many of these platforms are already enabling others to become entrepreneurs on top of them. The presence of role models is a very big stimulant in new markets, for people to become entrepreneurs. Once a few role models got established, a lot of young people started believing that they could do it too.”