Subba’s Serendipitous moments

June 18, 2009

What ails Singapore entrepreneurs?

I am not talking about the entrepreneur who sells red bun and starts yet another coffee shop. I am talking about technology entrepreneurs who create products, services, generate jobs and stimulate growth.

Singapore is probably the only country in the planet which has a Ministry of Entrepreneurship staffed by eminent and scholar Ministers. The first to head the Ministry in 2003 was Raymond Lim a Rhodes and a Colombo Plan scholar. Subsequently it was headed by Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan for a very short time before Lee Yi Shyan took over.

Despite such scholar Ministers, Singapore has had limited success as entrepreneurs and very less of technology and new media entrepreneurs. The Government has put in all kinds of incentives and generous funding.

My own assessment after having done some serious thinking is as follows:

  • Few angel investors or Series A investors
  • Start ups don’t collaborate and create partnership networks themselves
  • Start ups don’t think global – they depend too much on the local market
  • Big Singapore companies are not encouraging about start ups
  • Start ups build business the traditional way – Not disrupting anyone
  • They try to copy other successes blindly
  • Clearly no game changing ambition
  • Less idealistic, hence do not get the new business models.
  • Excessive focus on making money quickly – No big picture or long term picture in mind
  • Focus on sales, not on a compelling value proposition
  • Start ups don’t even do simple, free marketing – blogs, viral marketing etc.

James Chan has some interesting observations and I would agree with all of them.

Does anyone have anything to add to this?

Isn’t is a paradox that we were once a nation of entrepreneurs? Our forefathers from China and India arrived here without any support with barely to survive and set up businesses. Even today the Chinese and Indians have successfully set up businesses not just in their own countries, but all over the world.

Where and how have we lost the spirit?

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6 Comments »

  1. Hi Subba

    I think the govt must shoulder the blame for not fostering a culture of entrepreneurship. By bulldozing their way into the market and controlling all major companies, they have snuffed out any chance of building an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

    Comment by cram — June 19, 2009 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  2. Been a VC since 1999 and spent last 5 years in China. Frankly, I think it is unfair to say our Singapore entrepreneurs are lacking in many areas. My personal views:
    a) I won’t disagree with all the points above but not all the issues raised are necessarily critical.
    b) the cost of failure of starting a business is very high in Singapore. A lot of us forget that family and society have powerful influence on individual’s decisions to be an entrepreneur. On the flip side, one can always argue that true entrepreneur should just ignore family and society pressures. No matter how you look at it, it does help to have a more supportive environment to support entrepreneurs who fail so they can try again.
    c) I would argue there is too much money in Singapore, with various agencies competing against each other. I met some entrepreneurs who feel there isn’t any need to think so big because they are surviving quite well taking various funds/support from various government agencies. They make quite a comfortable living. I would argue that there should be better co-ordination amongst agencies to avoid duplication and have central agency to champion startups on a LONG TERM and on a CONSISTENT basis. If we are willing to burn billions of dollars for bad investments, why can’t we set aside 500m evergreen fund to help startups and be prepared that many of these companies don’t make it. Instead, what we have is a poorly conceived SEED funding intiative that has been passed through many hands, managed by various groups (from EDB to PSB)and subject to the fancies of various leadership. One moment startup is hot, the next moment the next person taking over thinks otherwise.
    d) If we are willing to give free scholarship to Chinese students to study in Singapore and loosely bond them to work in any company in Singapore for 3 years, why can’t we do the same for scholars. Put them out there in the private sector (force them to work in Singapore) and see how they survive instead of providing them with cushy jobs in the civil service which saps all the creativity and drive from these young scholars. How many stanford or ivy league graduates do you know are starting companies in Singapore? I think they would rather join a VC instead if given a chance. In China, many chinese cannot wait to start their own companies once they finished their overseas education in top schools from the West.
    e) To have angels, we need more successful entrepreneurs who have made it and decided to come back to Singapore to help those that are like minded like them. We cannot rely on the family businesses (which are doing quite well but staying below the radar screen),rich individuals (which are mostly civil servants,professionals etc) to kick start the angels funding community. So I would aruge that we need more role models.
    d) Communication skill is important but I would go for someone with a clear vision and right attitude anytime. It would be silly to bet on a company because of a slick presentation and beautifully crafted powerpoint slides. I have met Singaporeans trying to make it work in China. They are not your savvy technology entrepreneurs with fanciful business models. But it is a successful business. To me, these people are heroes in my eyes and definitely an entrepreneur. People always forget, most of the successful businesses in the world are not VC-backed and they all have humble beginnings.
    e) there are at least 10 funds (at least people that I know) or more that looked at early stage deals in Singapore. Whether you get funding from them is another thing.

    I believe in Singaporean entrepreneurs. They are a rare group. Not the most sophisticated ones in the world, but definitely good enough if given the chance and opportunity.

    Comment by yantao — June 19, 2009 @ 12:55 pm | Reply

    • While I respect your sentiments and thought on entrepreneurial Singaporeans, what private enterprises (other than Creative) comes to the top-of-the-mind as companies that have made a mark on the world? Hyflux is proabably the other one in the making.

      I may sound repititive, but I still believe that only adversity can drive innovations. Without innovations there cannot be large successes…. In Singapore, the moment an obstacle peeks out of the horizon, people look towards the government for support and sustainence… thus killing the inner instinct of survival… The government and it’s policies, activities, subsidies & grants etc (in spite of probably one of the lowest tax rates in the world; in a place with no natural resources) cushions the impact of every adversity. This results in less than desired hunger for sustenance and success.

      As you rightly mentioned, Singaporean entrepreneurs are a rare species.

      Comment by Santosh Nair — June 25, 2009 @ 12:04 am | Reply

  3. I am an Indian national who lived in Singapore between 1979 and 1994 and subsequently migrated to USA. I was an entrepreneur most of the time I was in Singapore. The problem with Singapore is that entrepreneurship does not have a high status in society as it does in USA or India. In a society where the brightest join the Civil Service, it is the public mind set that discourages entrepreneurship. For entrepreneurship to succeed in society, entrepreneurs should be the heroes of the society rather than its ministers or civil servants. In India and USA even the President cannot hold a candle to people like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Narayanamurthi or the Ambani Brothers are admired far more than Manmohan Singh in India – in Singapore – for 24×7 you see some minister on the TV screen hogging all the limelight. When that is the case every youngster in Singapore wants to be a minister or a civil servant. So entrepreneurship ends up not being a coveted and admired way to go. That makes a huge difference. I live in Silicon Valley – here working for the government would be the last resort of anyone studying in Stanford or UC Bekeley. Here I do not feel like a freak being an entrepreneur and taking risk – in Singapore people used to wonder where I failed to end up being an entrepreneur. In addition, Singapore suffers from being too small a domestic market for any product development. So, Singapore entrepreneurs should aim their products at China or India and must integrate with either of the two economies to have a good chance to succeed.

    Comment by spinoza — September 5, 2009 @ 12:36 am | Reply

    • Thanks for your comment. I came to Singapore in 1992 and have been here since then though I lived in various parts of Asia for few months at a stretch. I would broadly concur with your views, except that after the dotcom boom and bust there’s less stigma attached to failure in Singapore. Yet, not many people want to to be an entrepreneur. Well please see my other post on Singapore and Israel where I have demolished the small market excuse.
      But your suggestion is spot on.

      Comment by Subbaraman Iyer — September 5, 2009 @ 11:20 pm | Reply

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