Singapore-born Zi Yong CHUA is an inspiration for those who want to start up a scalable company in Southeast Asia. He has overcome many challenges founding Stream Media, a company building the Movend payment platform for mobile gaming with most of its users in the US and Europe. The company was funded by Singtel Innov8 in 2011.
He tells us here what he’s learned starting up a company right after University graduation and what to consider when choosing a geographical location for your tech business.
1) What did you learn and do in college that made you become a tech entrepreneur?
At University in 2005, I wanted to start up a business because of personal ambition. I was motivated to learn what it took to become successful: I participated in entrepreneurship clubs and I ran social entrepreneurship at NUS. Then I went to UPenn in 2007 as part of the NUS Overseas College (NOC) program. At the beginning, I thought that tech businesses had a similar trajectory as traditional businesses. The NOC program expanded my world view and exposed me to how companies like Google, Amazon got off the ground. I participated and reached the finals in global business plan competitions and networked a lot.
I became interested in mobile technology when I bought my first iPhone in 2008. At that time, the market was still dominated by Symbian, Windows and Blackberry. I embraced Android when it came out and that’s how my involvement in the space started. In Singapore in 2009, Android was nascent: in fact, I was one of the first people to evangelize it to the community.
Mobile became my passion and there was no company in Singapore working on Android, and, hence, I had focus on it and start my own company. It was not about starting a company per se, it was about doing great things.
2) What have been the main challenges in growing a company in Singapore? Any interesting anecdotes?
We’ve been challenged by the fact that most of our customers are in the US and Europe, and not in Singapore. Around 60% of our income comes from the US, 35% comes from Europe and 5% comes from the rest of the world. In my industry , being in Singapore has made it challenging to engage with the developers in the US and Europe and getting them to sign up. Not only is there a big time difference, but also the culture in the US and Europe is different. We persevered, understood their needs and responded quickly. At the end, it’s been a good experience but I didn’t expect that it would have been this challenging. This is what entrepreneurship is all about.
It’s been difficult to reach scalability because every time we want to expand into a new country in APAC, we have to consider whether we need to redefine our business model and market-driving strategy. For example, Singapore, with a small population of 5m, is different from the rest of APAC in terms of culture, diversity and socio-economics, and being successful here does not mean you will be successful elsewhere. In a lot of ways, the Singapore market is more similar to that of Australia, where 80% of our pay-per-download revenue is, than to other countries in APAC, such as Indonesia.
Note that the South-Asia region is growing quickly, has lots of untaped opportunities. If you succeed in overcoming the cultural differences, you can be very successful here.
However, the Singapore government provides advantageous financial support and has straightforward, transparent and efficient regulatory requirements, compared to many countries, including China and the United States.
3) Any advice about choosing a geographical location to start a company? Any specific advice about Singapore that may be applicable to other regions?
a) Try to be near of your target geographical market. If not, you need to have the right people on board that can engage with your audience. In my case, I started in Singapore because my early research indicated that there was a gap to be filled here, but I did not spend enough time to analyze where my target market was going to be in the early stage, i.e. in the US and Europe.
b) Make sure to develop an application that will be scalable in your region. In our case, we’ve had to tailor our approach for many countries in Asia-Pacific. If you do so, make sure that’s it is worth the investment (and that you can get it!).
c) Singapore is not necessarily a gateway to China. You have to be in China to sell to China. Foreigners, have a disadvantage there, even Singaporeans.
4) Can you tell us about your experience recruiting good developers?
Developers who have passion and tenacity in what they do, combined with experience and coding skills, are very hard to find. There are many initiatives to engage developers here. However, the education funnel in Singapore does not produce enough students. There’s still more demand than supply: the pool is very small, and many developers start their own company.
We found our developers by engaging with them early on. I needed to know them on a personal level. And in order to get the cream of the crop, I had to identify them while they were still at school. We have a “United Nations” in our office, comprised of Singaporeans, Malaysians, Iranians, Burmese, Indians and other nationalities. I knew some of them on a personal level while some of them were interns from NUS and the Singapore Polytechnic.
Zi Yong is founder and creator of Movend – Stream Media, Singapore.