When I quit my public sector job in 2006 to start HungryGoWhere, a food website with user reviews, the technology start-up ecosystem was very tough. Getting seed funding was difficult, employing good, reliable people to work in start-ups was virtually impossible, and crucially, there were no broad groups of high profile exits which freed up homegrown technology entrepreneurs to become mentors and inspire new local start-ups.
How things have changed.
The global digital/social media boom post-2008 (in part facilitated by the smartphone revolution), coupled with the shift in interest towards Asia have greatly increased Singapore’s attractiveness as a technology start-up destination for entrepreneurial talent and venture capital. These developments have encouraged our technology entrepreneurs today to start way younger.
I frugally saved my start-up capital over many years, before being able to kickstart my dreams. Over the past two years, while giving entrepreneurship talks and mentoring Singaporean interns/youths at HungryGoWhere, I have noticed a growing trend of “student entrepreneurs”. Much more surprising to me – and we older folk trained to prize job security and stability above all else – are the students I meet who plunge straight into entrepreneurial pursuits without working in previous jobs.
They will have a very tough time. They will also change the world. And most importantly, they will change Singapore.
The rapid speed of digital/social media disrupting traditional markets has brought about unprecedented merger and acquistion (M&A) activity. Over the past two years, frequent reports of exits by the first generation of digital/social media entrepreneurs include Jobscentral (acquired by Career Builder in May 2011), TenCube (McAfee, July 2010), Beeconomics (Groupon, December 2011), Brandtology (Media Monitors, Feb 2011), and the most recent, HungryGoWhere (Singtel, June 2012).
Back in 2006, everyone thought I was suicidal for quitting my job to become a technology entrepreneur. People thought digital/social media would die. But the recent spate of exits show that it is not futile to create value by disrupting traditional industries via digital/social media platforms.
Significantly, these exits have kickstarted a virtuous cycle. A growing number of technology entrepreneurs are giving back by either sharing their experiences at technology events so that start-ups can hopefully avoid the mistakes we went through, or by actively mentoring promising younger start-ups. This will increase the pool of successful technology entrepreneurs in the future, who in turn give back by nurturing another generation. Successful homegrown technology platforms such as e27 and SGEntrepreneurs (once brave start-ups) have organised events enabling budding entrepreneurs to link up and get things going.
Our local ecosystem nurturing technology entrepreneurs for the global stage is far from complete, but the positive trend is clear. The international audience will start noticing the prolific number of digital/social media companies and entrepreneurs from Singapore.
This brings me to my second point. Singapore has always been an open economy and constantly embracing new technologies rapidly. Think smartphones, tablets, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, YouTube. But most of this value creation is happening outside of Singapore. We are importing these technologies, and hardly capturing any of this value for Singapore.
Why not create the value here, and export to the world instead?
To do this, we need a vibrant group of entrepreneurs residing here. Imagine if we have thousands of entrepreneurs, all passionately working in their own small groups to proactively solve “pain points”, (a term used to describe places where a business feels “pain” as a result of poor operational structures, bad software or plain old inefficiencies.)
In my own journey, I have found that technology entrepreneurs make a disproportionately large impact, thanks to the huge influence digital/social media has in today’s society. The solutions technology entrepreneurs bring to the market today can be distributed far more quickly than in the past (“go viral”), and solve “pain points” within a much shorter timeframe. And the development costs of these solutions have dropped tremendously, with numerous “software as a service” (SAAS) platforms enabling budding entrepreneurs to roll out solutions a lot cheaper and faster.
Imagine thousands of technology entrepreneurs doing this and the positive impact it would have on Singapore.
This is the (near) future that I am seeing in Singapore. It gets me very excited because Singapore is our home. A common trait in strong communities is the ability of individuals within that community to proactively rally around a passionate (usually self-appointed) leader and solve a glaring problem together.
With the ongoing digital/social media revolution, it has become far easier for us to step forward, either as entrepreneurs (a thought leader, proposing solutions, adding value) or as supporters (employee, user, paying consumer rallying around the product, service or solution). Even in a “trivial” space like food we can bring about positive social change.
We started with a dream of creating HungryGoWhere to empower passionate food lovers to share their dining experiences so this results in everyone eating better, and giving small start-up restaurants a chance to survive via viral digital marketing on our site. We have changed the way people search and discover food today. Restaurant start-ups now have a better chance of surviving if they attract the interest of HungryGoWhere’s one million strong audience.
The social impact is real. During the tough early days (no revenue in first year, no salary for almost three years), I was humbled by the countless emails I received from the HungryGoWhere community encouraging me to press on. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say HungryGoWhere changed lives – and built careers. Think of small cafes and restaurants that might otherwise not have attracted the customers they deserve. And to think that when I started, many thought I was crazy to do this, especially since I was an arts student, not a hardcore computer programmer!
If you too have a dream and aren’t sure where to start, there are numerous technology events and forums where you can just immerse yourself in the atmosphere and get a feel of how things are buzzing. For example, e27’s annual Echelon is a good place to start.
Not every start-up will be a commercial success. But for those with the hunger to create change, the digital/social media sphere in Singapore offers unprecedented opportunities.