It’s no secret that Singapore has, in the last couple of years, become something of an Asian hub for startups, thanks to a combination of a tech-savvy population, comparatively easy access to funding and a quality of life (and yes, favorable tax rates) that attracts overseas talent and investors. The Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) recently called for a major review of its initiatives and barely a week goes by now without the announcement of another big buy-out of some young upstart (you can read all about this year’s acquisitions at local tech and innovation blog e27.co). But what’s really going on behind the million-dollar headlines? What do the successful startups have in common? Is it hype and hot air or hard work and honest labor? And what can you learn from them if you’re thinking of starting up yourself? (Aside from the need to kit your office out with ping pong tables.) We spoke to more than a dozen of the biggest names in the scene to find out.
1. Be great at more than one thing.
If you’re a multi-instrumentalist who writes songs for a living, you might be an amazing musician. And if you clock in more than 48 hours of coding a week across languages, you might be an amazing hacker. But if the goal is to found a startup, be prepared to be a jack of all trades. Advice from Derek Tan, co-founder of the fastexpanding indie film streaming platform Viddsee: “Don’t limit yourself to just being an artist or a programmer. I’m trained as an engineer, but I make films.” That said, it doesn’t matter what kind of million-dollar idea you have—having some programming knowledge is key (see video by Code.org). “I didn’t start off as a programmer; I was from business school,” says Bryan Lee, co-founder of Intraix (a nifty home energy management system). “I learnt iOS programming from my team because it’s important to have some basic programming skills so that if it comes down to it, you can create your own product easily. Outsourcing creates a lot of problems. It’s OK to know less, as long as you know some.”
2. Three’s a company.
Many of the companies we spoke to at the recent startup open house event Walkabout SG, described their first few months of work as being an excruciatingly painful experience. Intraix’s Lee even went so far as to say he wouldn’t want to do it again. “It’s a very tough process. You need to find a good partner. Two minds working together is fine, but three’s better because then you always have someone there to break up an argument or keep a discussion on track,” he says. It seems this formula works across the board—some of the most talkedabout startups in Singapore today, including mobile marketplace Carousell, online grocer RedMart and TaskAmigo, a Singapore-based task and errand platform, are run in threes.
3. Disrupt the status quo.
A good idea—or several—can sustain a business. But Singapore’s game changers have rather different aspirations. DropMySite founder John Fearon—whose company is one of the biggest local startup success stories—defines startups as businesses that are trying to change the status quo, and are prepared to move fast and break things (a line also popular with Mark Zuckerberg). His cloud backup solution for email and websites recently won funding of up to $250,000 from prominent global seed accelerator 500 Startups, and is targeting a valuation between $10-50 million, a number you’d associate with Silicon Valley, not Singapore.
4. Keep it simple.
That said, starting a revolution doesn’t need to be complicated. “Many people here are just going for the cool, sexy stuff like loyalty programs, coupons and special boxes—you know, premium style—instead of addressing the basic needs,” says Vinnie Lauria, founding partner of Singapore-based seed fund Golden Gate Ventures. “Basic services may not be attractive to get into, but for an investor, that’s the sexy stuff. I would love to invest in something that’s just straight up e-commerce; selling a product with a stated price to an end user. Every startup I see now spend too much time in fluffy stuff like flash sales. Stop it—just stick to the basics.”
Want to meet people like Vinnie Lauria? See Singapore’s top startup events.
5. Have fun, don’t stress.
Clearly, tough times are inevitable when you’re an entrepreneur, so it’s important to avoid burning out or worse, giving up. Several Singapore startups have got this down pat. “When things get crazy, we try to remind people why they’re in a startup—to enjoy bigger and more immediate gratification for hard work—and to have fun,” says RedMart’s CEO Roger Egan. “We also bought a Nespresso machine to celebrate our 1,000th customer, maintain a well-stocked pantry and throw monthly pizza parties.” The team at online beauty store Luxola also goes the extra mile to have fun. According to their regional marketing director Camille Schu, the team goes on a treasure hunt slash pub crawl during Christmas time, and is moving into a big industrial space in June that will have all the works: couches in the lounge, makeup counters, ping pong tables and yoga mats.
Looking for an affordable working space? See our roundup of co-working spaces in Singapore.
6. Eat humble pie.
Hugh Mason, CEO of one of Southeast Asia’s most successful seed accelerator programs JFDI.Asia, quotes emotional maturity and the willingness to put ego aside as key characteristics of a successful startup. He identifies “winners” not by their idea, but by how “coachable” they are. “We all have to take a few of life’s knocks to learn the lessons, me included!” he says. Vinnie Lauria reiterates this by saying that startups need to “not be full of themselves”. Humility is hard to measure, but many of the startups we spoke to, like Carousell and travel aggregator Flocations, used the term “flat hierarchy” in a matter of fact manner, insisting that everyone gets to express their ideas, which will all get a chance at execution. Roger Egan attributes much of Redmart’s success—they recently hit $3 million in annual revenue—to never thinking you know it all. “I’ve learnt that I have a lot I still don’t know in terms of being a CEO and that my team members are often the best source of learning,” he said.
7. Just get it done.
“Your idea may be brilliant, but it’s probably not as unique as you think. 10 other people may have already thought of your idea. The key to success is execution,” says Jamie Wang, the director of P2P car rental platform iCarsClub. Every other Singapore startup we spoke to agrees. Said Viddsee’s Tan, “Startup success is 5% idea and 95% execution.” And again, it doesn’t need to be too complicated. Lauria is surprised that so many people come to him with only an idea: “Entrepreneurs need to have built some form of prototype before expecting to pitch. It just needs to address the point they’re going after and can even be put together by some third-party service. It doesn’t even need to look nice.”