What’s Stopping ASEAN From Having A 100 Billion USD Tech Company?
Having been in the ASEAN start-up ecosystem for close to 10 years since 2009 and having been extensively studying how 100 billion USD start-ups are built.
I think I have a pretty good idea of what’s preventing a 100 billion USD tech company from ever getting produced in ASEAN.
Investors Who Are Too Risk Adverse
Investors and VCs here in ASEAN are simply too risk adverse to invest in something that could truly change the world and become the next Facebook or Google.
VCs here are mostly trend followers, not visionaries who can see and build the future.
Stubborn Fixation On Regional Copycats & Revenue Generating Start-Ups
For some reason, VCs here seem to have a stubborn fixation on regional copycats of globally proven business models and start-ups that simply sells something online, solves a small regional B2B problem or start-ups that generate revenue from the get-go.
Perhaps that’s because most VCs in this region come from banking or private equity backgrounds, and are only used to evaluating established late stage or listed companies with strong revenue and cash flow.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way to evaluate world-changing start-ups. Google and Facebook barely had any revenue for their first few years of their lives.
Instagram and Whatsapp too.
If you insist on only investing in start-ups that are copycats or generate revenue instantly, then you would have missed out on investing in Google, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp if they started in ASEAN. You would have failed terribly as a VC.
Lack Of Ex-Founder VCs
Most VCs here were also not founders themselves. Most have never started a start-up themselves or even been part of a world-changing start-up during its early days.
While you don’t have to be a founder to become a VC, the best VCs, especially early stage ones are usually VCs who were once founders themselves.
VCs who were once founders themselves would know how to identify the right founders and teams to invest in because they have been there and done that themselves.
They would also know what an early stage founding team needs and can provide all the key support and connections the start-up needs to help them grow and get where they need to get.
Unfortunately, most VCs here have never started a start-up themselves. Even if they had, no one here has built a world-changing start-up worth 100 billion USD before. The most successful ones we have are only regional copycats, ad agencies, simple offline to online businesses or local versions of B2B Saas solutions that are common in develop markets.
In fact, most are from banking, private equity or management consulting. Perhaps that’s why VCs here tend to invest like banks or private equity rather than true VCs.
Perhaps that’s also why VCs here have a strong preference for copycat start-ups and start-ups that generate revenue instantly and are only solving regional problems, because that’s what they have the most experience in.
Maybe it’s time for VCs here to start learning how to properly identify true outliers and once in a lifetime business opportunities so you can invest in the next Facebook and Google and do your job of generating a handsome return for your LPs and investors?
Wrong Structure Of Venture Capital Funds
Apparently, word is that a good number of Venture Capital Funds here in ASEAN are structured the wrong way to begin with. They are structured as loans, with VCs being employees and are not incentivised to take risks, which totally defeats the purpose of starting a venture capital fund.
As employees, VCs don’t get a stake if their investment does well, and are naturally encouraged to be more conservative so they don’t lose their job. If the VC fund is structured as a loan, that would also force them to put in unfavourable terms into their investments that might prevent a start-up from raising further rounds from good VCs.
VCs That Invest Like Banks & Private Equity
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why many VCs here in ASEAN actually behave and invest more like banks and private equity than true VCs.
Misallocation Of Resources
This is probably a problem with gatekeepers who aren’t well versed with shortlisting truly promising start-ups. I suspect there is a narrow guideline that categorically disqualifies any start-up that doesn’t generate any revenue yet, sounds too ambitious or are not in a few narrow “accepted categories” like e-commerce, Saas and so on.
The problem is, most e-commerce or simple listing or booking app start-ups don’t really need much of the crucial resources offered by accelerator or incubator programs like AWS credits and other software development tools.
If you’re just selling stuff online, you don’t even need to build a custom app, you can just use WordPress, Oddle or Shopify.
Most start-ups that get into local accelerator programs won’t even use AWS Credits in their lifetime. Most don’t even really know how to use AWS.
Truly innovative start-ups trying to solve big global problems who require custom server setups like Wowwwz, on the other hand, who truly and desperately need AWS credits because their custom server setups can costs a couple of thousand ringgit per month to support hundreds of concurrent users at the same time can’t get even AWS credits because they can’t get into those accelerators and incubators in the first place because their start-up doesn’t fit into one of those narrow categories, seem too ambitious or does not generate revenue during its early years.
This severe misallocation of resources, where resources are wasted on start-ups that don’t really need it, and those who really need it can’t get it, is one of the reasons that is preventing a 100 billion USD start-up from ever getting built in ASEAN.
It’s very sad.
No One Has Built A 100 Billion USD Start-Up Yet
Well, one of the more obvious reason why no one here seems to know how to identify or invest in the next 100 billion USD start-up is because no one here has done it yet.
The jarring difference between ASEAN and China VCs I see that got me so frustrated was mainly due to a huge difference in mindset between those who have seen and hence understand how 100 billion USD start-ups look like when they first started — China VCs and those who have not but stubbornly think they know it all — ASEAN VCs.
Since VCs are paid such a handsome salary to identify the next big thing and generate handsome returns for their LPs and investors, perhaps those who have not seen what it is like to invest in a 100 billion USD start-up during its early days should take the initiative to learn more about what kind of start-ups can truly generate 10000x returns for your portfolio and how to properly invest as a VC?
I don’t know. It’s just a suggestion, but it only seems right that that should happen.
Risk Taking Is Still Generally Discouraged
For some reason, risk taking is generally discouraged in ASEAN.
If you tell someone you are trying to solve a global problem everyone faces, most people will think you are arrogant, over-confident, delusional or doesn’t know their place.
Maybe it’s in our culture to prefer false humility over courage, I don’t know.
There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious and confident, that’s how great things get built and how society progresses. We need to take more risks and try to solve big problems in order for us to progress as human beings.
We shouldn’t be too quick to judge and say that something is impossible or someone is incapable just because they have big dreams.
Try understanding more about what that person is saying and what they have actually done with the extremely limited resources they have and whether their plan actually makes sense before passing judgment.
Risk-taking and ambitious goals should be encouraged, as long as the person is willing to take responsibility for their failures, keep learning, keep improving and have an actionable plan to achieving their goals.
After all, they are the one sacrificing their time, life, health, money and reputation trying to achieve ambitious goals. Who are you to judge if you have never tried anything meaningful and have sacrificed nothing?
We should learn to give people the benefit of the doubt and support people who have the courage to take risks and solve big problems, not condemn them.
Market Isn’t As Accepting Of New Ideas
ASEAN is actually a pretty pampered market.
Most of us here in ASEAN have never seen the first version of Facebook, Google, Instagram, WeChat, Alibaba or any innovative tech product, app or platform that was first invented/started in Silicon Valley or China.
Mark Zuckerberg built the first version of Facebook in Harvard in 2004, which was essentially a very bare bones college directory with hyperlinks that listed which course the students took in Harvard.
There was no news feed, no photo tagging function, no wall and the UI/UX wasn’t that great. Most of us have never seen that early version of Facebook.
When Facebook finally came to ASEAN in 2008 or 2009, Facebook was already a big and fast growing tech start-up that has raised plenty of funding and has been rapidly growing and evolving for the past 4 years.
That’s why the first taste ASEAN users have of truly innovative products are usually when they are already very polished and very well-built.
What ASEAN users need to understand is that if a Facebook or Google ever gets built in ASEAN, their first version would probably be pretty lousy, just like how Facebook was just a bare bones page with hyperlinks to students profiles, with no newsfeed, no nothing.
We need to be more accepting of new ideas and not be too picky on bugs, design and UI/UX for a new product that is trying to solve a problem.
Support new ideas, new products, give constructive feedback and don’t be too quick to write people off for their sloppy first products, because they are usually built with limited resources and you need to understand that amazing products like Google and Facebook looked like shit and had plenty of bugs when they first launched too.
We need to learn to applaud people’s mission and courage to even attempt solve such big problems and built such tools and products.
If we condemn every buggy app that launches that’s trying so hard to solve a problem for you, you are essentially killing your next Facebook or Google from ever taking off.
A Young Ecosystem That Isn’t Ready
Ecosystem takes time to build, Brian Chesky from Airbnb had Mark Zuckerberg as a mentor, Mark Zuckerberg had Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as mentors, Steve Jobs had the founders of Hewlett Packard as mentors and so on.
A mature ecosystem like Silicon Valley took generations of risk-taking and innovative entrepreneurs who dared to go against the status quo to build.
Our ASEAN ecosystem is still young, and isn’t ready.
I know, because I have been sacrificing my life and trying to build the first truly innovative world-changing start-up from ASEAN for 10 years now.
But someone has got to be the first. We have to start somewhere.
Today, our most successful start-ups are regional copycats and regional champions. There is nothing wrong with that, they are great entrepreneurs, great people who created great value for ASEAN.
Now, maybe it’s time for us to look ahead, and start supporting truly innovative start-ups gunning for global problems too.
We can do it, we have the money and the talent. We just need a shift in mindset among VCs and key gatekeepers to allocate resources more efficiently in order for that to happen. We got to have more faith in ourselves, and give ASEAN a chance.
Lack Of Support From Pioneers & Established Companies
I was talking to the person in charge of monetising Pinterest, and wanted to know how to monetise a product, because something like Wowwwz would eventually have to do the same thing. We discussed this topic in detail and I asked plenty of questions.
I realised that established companies in Silicon Valley like Microsoft have something they call an “experimental budget” which they used to support new platforms and start-ups when it comes to things like advertising.
They would put in anywhere from 60k USD to a couple of hundred thousand USD just to test out how effective a new platform or app is in promoting their Microsoft ads.
Facebook did make a meagre sum of 2k USD pre month by showing Microsoft ads on its platform during its early days, so in a sense they did have some revenue, but that was because Microsoft has this “experimental budget” they used to try out new platforms like Facebook when it was just a college directory.
In ASEAN, it would be though for you to even get RM500 in ad spending from an established company. Any established company or brand with a digital advertising budget would rather spend it on a digital agency or spend it on an established platform like Google or Facebook.
It would help if established companies here in ASEAN would be more willing to experiment and try out new platforms and start-ups that could turn out to be more effective than existing platforms.
Because you were the first people who gave that start-up a chance, you can bet that that start-up would go head over heels to help you achieve your targets and promote your brand. Perhaps it is time for established companies here in ASEAN to start giving chances to new platforms and start-ups.
Visionary Founders Don’t Get The Funding & Support They Need
Because of all the factors above, visionary founders who have what it takes to build the first world-changing 100 billion USD start-up from ASEAN are not getting the funding and support they need. They are judged an written off by the things they built with a severely limited resources and support from the ecosystem.
Yet, they still persevere and are sacrificing their lives trying all they can.
Vision & Confidence Is Often Mistaken As Arrogance
Worse still, a founder’s vision and confidence is often mistaken as arrogance or greed.
That is just so unfair.
Stagnant Mindset Of Key Gatekeepers
Many key gatekeepers of resources and funds in our ASEAN ecosystem actually don’t have the right mindset or know-how to fairly and efficiently allocate resources to the start-ups who really need it.
If this continues, ASEAN would never see a Facebook or Google emerging from our ecosystem. There needs to be a change in mindset among the key gatekeepers of resources and access to capital in our ecosystem in order for the first 100 billion USD from ASEAN who solves a global problem and builds a product that everyone in the world uses to ever get funded and properly get off the ground.
They need to open up their minds, learn from the best, and acknowledge that there is still plenty that they don’t even know they don’t know.
Let’s hope that happens.
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