Five trends in the Southeast Asian startup ecosystem

Southeast Asia is a diverse region made up of 11 countries, each with their own languages, cultures and religions. And when it comes to market expansion for startups, the region is further characterised by several challenges, with a lack of logistical infrastructure (especially in the archipelagos of Indonesia and Philippines) and a large share of an under-banked population amongst others.

On the other hand, the region also presents interesting opportunities with most people directly leap-frogging PCs and laptops into mobile. Digital consumer behaviour is fundamentally different, and while many other regions are flat-lining in digital growth, Southeast Asia’s internet penetration still has significant room to grow.

This was a presentation prepared by my colleague Kevin Hoong and I, for founders arriving in Singapore for 500 Startups’ Global Launch Program in early 2020. (Yes, this was right before COVID-19 blew up – and it’s odd how things are so different now)

Here are five digital startup trends which I found (more) unique to Southeast Asia:

  1. The rise of the “super-apps”
  2. Solving last-mile logistics with a distributed agent economy
  3. Offline to online digitisation
  4. Leapfrogging credit cards with new payment infrastructure
  5. Mobile entertainment and shoppertainment

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Franchising as a market expansion strategy

Market expansion is one of the most challenging tasks for any entrepreneur – the pursuit is often resource intensive, but on the other hand, it can also be one of the most rewarding as you open up your products and services to brand new customer segments and markets.

For some entrepreneurs however, an age-old playbook which is well-established can help to blitzscale market expansion — and that is no other than franchising. Through working with HYPE’s portfolio companies like Sandbox VR in the past year, I have also opened my eyes to franchising as an expansion model and the opportunities that come with it.

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3 tips to succeeding in your market expansion

"A Crash Course on Market Expansion" at 500 Startups' Insider event
The presentation at 500 Startups’ Insider event

A month ago I was invited to a 500 Startups: Insider event to speak to a room of early stage founders on “A Crash Course on Market Expansion”. After having spent the past year advising founders across various sectors (education, healthcare, e-commerce etc.) on their market entry strategy in Asia, as well as operationally helping to scale startups like Homage, Carousell and Sandbox VR in the region, I must admit that it was challenging to try and condense all of those learnings into a 20-minute presentation.

But I managed to put together a couple of slides for the presentation and am now uploading them after receiving requests to do so. Looking at how brief my bullet-points were on the slides, I’m also going to take this opportunity to highlight some of the key points I covered. In this post, I’d jump right into my sharing on operating principles in market expansion.

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Desire machines

A scene from Black Mirror’s USS Callister episode

There will probably come this point in time, possibly in the near future, when our human consciousness can be plugged into desire machines.

An experience evolved beyond what we call virtual reality these days – of clunky headsets you put over your head with only the superficial visual and auditory experiences. After all, everything we experience, we experience through our consciousness which can be codified. The feeling of the sun on our skin, the touch of a wooden table, the smell of roses, the sounds of the waves, the sight of the beautiful towns of Cinque Terre – these can all be translated into signals to our brains. Just as we are unable to refute the existence of a God, nobody can disprove with confidence the idea that we may be brains in a vat.

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How to politely decline a job offer after acceptance

I’m now 8 months into my first job and recently spoke with a friend when I was reminded of the stressful decisions I had to make last year, at the point of choosing the career path I wanted to pursue.

It was fall 2015, after my summer internship with Procter and Gamble (P&G) when I was offered a conversion to join the firm as a Finance Analyst after graduation. A penultimate year student then, I jumped for joy. And naturally jumped at the opportunity. That first internship with P&G validated all the good things I’ve heard about the firm – a vigorous culture of bottom-up empowerment and investment in your personal development, the promise of a steep learning curve and rewarding journey etc… I felt no hesitation when the contract was presented in front of me.

But fast forward a year later, I experimented with consulting internships and then became certain of my interest to pursue strategy consulting. At that point of time, I was reading A.G. Lafley’s “Playing to Win” (sorry to say, I didn’t think it was very enlightening) when I got curious and did a LinkedIn sampling of ~70 names which were quoted in the book as anecdotes of P&G’s success stories. It turned out that an overwhelming majority (>90%) of examples involved folks who were in the Marketing function, which validated my thoughts that a non-marketeer in P&G rarely has opportunities to shape its corporate strategy. Symbolically, that was also me putting on my consultant hat in hypothesis testing.

The reasons why I loved P&G did not change. But when it came to setting strategy and making impact, the Finance role in P&G simply wasn’t as well-positioned compared to consulting. In December 2016, I then made the decision of declining the P&G job offer I’ve accepted and signed more than a year back. A year back. Trust me when I say that I was terribly stressed out on trying to find the best ways to weasel myself out of the contract.

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Don’t be afraid to take part in Hackathons as a ‘non-techie’

In May 2017, I took part in Accenture’s global Artificial Intelligence Hackathon after some encouragement from a colleague. When it comes to hackathons, I’ve always felt like an outlier looking across the street at a house party, not having the guts to join in. My greatest ‘achievements’ in computing were html / CSS blogskins a decade ago (shout-out to those who remember Blogger!).

With my colleague’s encouragement, I signed up, managed to get through about 20% of the learning materials the organisers shared, got extremely confused, and at one point found myself inundated with different application windows, tutorials and web searches about debugging errors sprawled across my screens. But come the day of the hackathon, I pulled myself out of bed, slapped on my ‘fake it till you make it’ determination, met up with the team in office and ‘hacked’ for the next 2 days. Just a week ago, we received news that we beat 92 teams globally and won 2nd place. Not just that. I also didn’t write a single line of code.

This was my first hackathon so I wouldn’t claim to know a lot, but in writing this I hope to encourage those of us with little or no technical skills to not feel intimidated by hackathons and hold ourselves back from joining them.

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How listening to podcasts changed my life

I first discovered the brilliance of podcasts one and a half years ago – previously only viewing them as an alternative, low-budget, lesser form of entertainment productions (why only listen when I can watch + listen?). But boy was I wrong! Since discovering the wonders of podcasts, I have never left home without at least 5 GB of podcasts on my iPhone. I am completely honest when I say that looking back at 2015/16, podcasts were the single greatest factor which helped me learn and grow as an individual. Sorry mum, sorry professors.

Today, in an attempt to convince you to adopt podcasts into your life, I want to share a couple of reasons why I love these audio nuggets of wisdom to bits:

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Why consulting decks look so different from our TED Talks

In written communication, many who aren’t in the consulting industry would easily consider the decks (presentations) that consultants so happily churn out as “death by PowerPoint”. These PowerPoint slides are usually sectioned, in some occasions even up to 6 parts: 3 charts, 3 supporting qualitative lines. Something Steve Jobs might roll his eyes at.

Image: giphy

In contrast, the greatest presenters we model after from TED Talks all seem to have slideshows never with more than 20 words in a slide – or more commonly, simply just a picture.

So, are all consultants doing presentations wrong?

Working with associate consultants in my pro bono consulting engagements, I’ve frequently had many of them wonder openly about how to bridge this divide. In this blog post today, I’ll talk about the reasons as to why both school of thoughts co-exist in the professional environment, and how despite their differences, they carry the same underlying principle.

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Off the beaten path: day hiking in Bellagio, Lake Como

Having spent a semester studying abroad in Milan, I have long been seeking out hikes in several of the countries I have been to – and it comes as no surprise that in many of these areas, routes and maps are few and far between online. The majority of hikers head to the local tourist information centre at the start of the trip and seek out recommendations – if they do have the luxury of time.

In early May, I took a day trip from Milan to Lake Como with the intention of hiking the surrounding areas – and boy was it rewarding! I started the hike from Bellagio, going down south before exiting the trail at Mt. San Primo, one of the highest points around the area at 1,681 m. The hike was constrained by the fact that the single bus line running between Bellagio and Como,  Line C30, has a limited schedule on weekends.

For those of you keen on hiking, scaling up Mt. San Primo is highly recommended – quite a steep climb from the trail I took, but definitely worth the couple hours of effort. I will also share links to a couple of useful resources I have discovered while researching on this hike.

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The difference between pleasure and happiness

Image: Flickr, .imelda

I was listening to an interview with Shawn Achor (author of the book The Happiness Advantage) on the Entreleadership Podcast a month ago when I came across his definition of happiness and found it really helpful. Especially as a graduating student soon moving on to a new phase in life, I found it as a good guide for myself.

He began the interview by sharing the way the ancient Greeks defined happiness – the joy you feel moving towards your potential. Contrast that to our modern interpretations of happiness, which is often commingled with pleasure – the feeling you get when you take a first lick of an ice-cream, or when you win cash at a gamble. But this pleasure often only leaves us wanting more.

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