Thoughts on SEA ecosystem and location

Lots of twitter activity over the this post :: http://www.nokpis.com/2014/08/28/hong-kong-versus-singapore/

As mentioned I wanted to follow it up with some thoughts on this post :: http://thenextweb.com/asia/2014/08/23/time-founders-southeast-asia-accepted-location-used-advantage/

Let me preface I did not attend GOAB nd I don’t know Mona. I used to follow her on twitter but she broke my follow rule of never replying to my replies. One of my twitter rules is if I reply a few times to folks – famous or not and they don’t ever reply back then I figure there is no point in following. The point of twitter is reasonable discourse – at least for me anyway.

Mona nails well the recent rise of the SEA ecosystem and how one can most likely build a startup anywhere. Totally agree! However I think there are still some issues.

I will add that this is a tough soapbox to get on for me these days cause I will admit I am NOT in the scene as much as I used to be but this is also one of my weird opinions on the local scene. People talking about the scene and eventing tend to get more attention than those just heads down actually building a startup. Maybe that is just my personal feeling but the local media tends to focus on funding, rumors and covering events talking about the scene more than going deep on what is getting built, by who and the obvious failures that can happen. If I had more time I would do a few things – start a podcast talking to folks building things about how they got here and why they are building what they are building. I would start a review service going deep on all the consumer facing products that are coming at us everyday – some good and of course some bad. An investigative service trying to uncover why local startups fail so we can all learn from it. Alas – I don’t have the time. I am too busy with Spuul and my family to take on any more tasks. I will keep up my mentoring and writing as I see fit. The podcast idea is still brewing cause I miss TWIA and figure there is still some local demand for a good audio feed.

That being said, unlike my time at Yahoo, I am not running around at events or attending many startup focused conferences. Which leads me to another need in the local ecosystem, there are not many events or communities to lean on for those in the local startup land that are a few years in and maturing. This will hopefully improve over time.

Back to some of my thoughts on the article…

- I think seed funding is getting pretty easy to get. However it might all depends on your definition of it. Let’s say less than 150k USD for starters as a rough estimate. I think anyone with some connections, a good idea and some perseverance can land some money in this range. But anything past this I think is hard – there are some trends that buck this. Do something in ecommerce or transportation and for some reason the money is just flowing. Try to do anything with a large risk portfolio, hardware or enterprise and I think the money is much harder to find. Jump in the 150k to 1 million range and unless you have rockstar metrics, a super connected angel or crazy PR – it gets quite hard to find. This is from my personal experience and what I hear from companies I either mentor or talk to a fair amount.

- Location is still tricky. We at Spuul experience this some. The local press tends to pass us up cause they don’t see us in Singapore much. The Indian press always wonders why we are not in India and the USA press tends to overlook global plays from Singapore in general. I think the funding conversations take a similar tact at times. I think for location to work well for you it might make sense to be sure that you can dominate in the market where you have your HQ. Then figure out your regional play and maybe the globe later. Saying you are here and working on the globe might not work for those that like a tangible way to grok things. Of course you may have built something killer or viral that just works for everyone. I am speaking in terms of products as well – not the notion of outsourcing or being a vendor.

- The silicon valley stigma. I look at this one from a different angle than others. I base this on doing some focus groups with yahoo and talking with anthropologists who also study tech. If you get in a room in let’s say in Indonesia. You have a set of normal people who use tech and the internet. You present them with a novel product idea, some screens and user stories. You ask some of these people would they use this if it it came from Indonesia. Or Singapore. Then ask some of them would they use it if it came from Silicon Valley. What happens is they almost always get more excited about the product from the valley. Always. I don’t think this will change anytime soon. It is no different than people loving a Hollywood movie. It is not about what is better but just the cultural aspects that appeal to folks. I think startups in the region have to contend with people on a very local level to win or doing something very unique. If you build something similar to something else that comes from the the valley I think it won’t be successful. Granted this does not pertain to closed or unfair markets like China or say Vietnam who don’t allow truly level playing fields.

The local scene is exploding – just figure out where to make your mark.

Hong Kong versus Singapore

This is a good read :: http://ventureburn.com/2014/08/hong-kong-and-singapore-meet-the-evil-twin-startup-ecosystems-of-southeast-asia/

I won’t really dig into the startup issues cause my experience with startup land has mostly been from the HQ of Singapore. When I lived in Hong Kong, many moons back for about 5 years, I was focused on enterprise software and at the time Hong Kong made more sense. We were looking to grow in North Asia and Hong Kong was the better location for that. I think back in those days everyone felt that the “gateway” to China was Hong Kong. Now it seems the gateway to China is going to China. So for some the need to be in Hong Kong makes less sense than it did before.

Singapore is sometime’s known as the “gateway” to other parts of SEA region. Again – if you want to focus on Indonesia, you can just setup there. However maybe it is better to establish your HQ in Singapore for various legal reasons. Of course if you are looking at a regional play – Singapore makes a great base for SEA – easy to argue that this is a better place to setup than Hong Kong. It could be that for startup land the North Asia, SEA/South Asia split still plays out. You want to tackle Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan? Hong Kong makes a good base. You want to go for India, Pakistan, and SEA? Singapore is the better choice.

However – maybe you plan on going after the globe, this is what Spuul is doing, and you still need a home base in Asia. For this I reckon that Singapore is the much better bet than Hong Kong. Again here I am not commenting on the HK ecosystem or the I want to live there and do a startup. Or I find HK is a better city for me so I plan on doing my startup there. Great. You should do it wherever you want. That is the cool thing about doing a startup – for the most part location doesn’t matter. I will write some more about this though since I have some stuff to debunk from this article :: http://thenextweb.com/asia/2014/08/23/time-founders-southeast-asia-accepted-location-used-advantage/.

So back to the I want to tame the globe and I plan on living in Asia – which place is better? Hong Kong or Singapore? I think for this decision to be made one has to dive into some of the practicalities of living – not just the startups issues. On this note I think Singapore is the only choice. Reasons:

- The air is much cleaner. Hong Kong air pollution is epic and worsening.
- Much easier to have a family in Singapore. Yes – not all startups are devoid of real adults, with families. Singapore is easier to manage a family than Hong Kong.
- Public schooling is English first in Singapore and much more modernized. In Hong Kong an expat must put their kids in International Schools unless they speak Cantonese as their main language.
- Permanent residency is much harder to obtain in Hong Kong. Seven years of residency and employment prior to applying. I got my Singapore PR in less than 3 years of working in Singapore.

I am sure there are other issues to consider or even good reasons to refute the list above. Local people may not need to factor any of these issues but I would argue that startups are global in nature with employees from all over the world. These employees will look to settle, have families and for this – Singapore is the obvious choice.

App store hell…

I have written about this before and just had another experience with Apple that reminds me how broken the whole process is.

First off Google is broken but in another way – Google let’s everyone and everybody publish anything – you can steal an app, pirate content and break lots of rules but you can still publish on the Play Store until someone alerts Google. Then they may take it down but not always. Google should change their process to vetting every first time app from each developer. They check the app and if cool it hits the store. If is is not cool the developer needs to address it. If they don’t address it the app is not published and this bad mark, so to speak, is remembered. Developer tries to publish another app under the same account and the same process is repeated. Once said developer is allowed to publish a valid app then Google let’s that developer publish without anymore reviews. This would help, but not alleviate, some of the crap in the Play Store. It won’t fix it but at least create some barriers to entry. God knows there are enough apps.

On the Apple side the issue is broken the other direction. Here we have an app that has been around for a few years and still go through the same process as a new app or new developer. We have the normal review time and all that jazz. What is worse is our history means nothing and Apple does make mistakes. Their reviewers don’t always read the notes and reject the app due to not reading the notes. We lose days when this happens. Then we have to either leave rejection comments or republish the app – thus waiting the same review period. Developers should go through the review for a new app and maybe till the .2 or .3 release. Then Apple should let the developers publish at will until they do something wrong or break a rule. Then they are back to square one with some rules for getting out of the review doghouse. Not saying this is a perfect solution but something is better than waiting a week or sometimes two to publish an update to a mature app due to reviewer incompetence.

Let’s also note that this review process does not ensure quality around apps or keep the crap from proliferating in the App Store. Tons of crap and zombie apps in the App Store.

Either way I am baffled that two companies making billions off of phones and apps can’t spend some time fixing the developer process. Just Silly.