Watching start-ups grow up


I attended my final evaluation meeting yesterday as an panel member of ACE Startup Committee. Yesterday’s session was a marathon one as some groups were re-invited back to present as the panel had queries on various aspects of their proposals in earlier sessions, and the rest were those rushing to meet the deadline for the final session before the startup funding programme is superseded by the recently announced Startup SG initiative.

It has been a fulfilling journey. I was invited to be on the then-newly convened panel in late 2011. I recall in my first speech in parliament in October 2011, I had offered to help with the government’s effort to develop entrepreneurial attitudes amongst students and youths. So I accepted the invitation readily.

The committee initially met monthly to evaluate application for startup grants from SPRING Singapore of up to $50,000 per successful application by new entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs-to-be. This was later changed to bi-monthly meetings. From time to time, as an ACE representative, I also sat in presentations at polytechnics, at ITEs and at non-government groups which were also centres where their alumni / mentees could apply for the same SPRING Singapore grants.

I must have listened to some 300 presentations through these session in these 5 and a half years as a panel member.

A lot has changed since I took the plunge to be an entrepreneur in end 1999. Back then, government support structures were lacking. It was not so cool to give up secure careers to try to realise the dream to create a new business in uncharted waters. The first wave of dotcom was just hitting Singapore. Some enthusiasm had built up due to the success of silicon valley in the 1990s and that caught on in Singapore around early 1999 with some dotcom listings on our stock exchange. It died very rapidly too with the NASDAQ crash of April 2000. The crash nearly killed our business too as we had started the business but had barely raised funds when all equity funding sources dried up. It forced us to be disciplined to chase for revenues and to evolve our business models to what services the market would want to pay us something for. Eventually, we had a lucky break when e-learning became an essential service in our target market and we successfully sold off our already profitable business in 2007 with decent returns to our investors. That’s another story you can read about in my earlier blog posts.

Now as panel member, I face eager new and would-be entrepreneurs of all types, determined to convince the panel that they have a differentiated, interesting and viable business. We see business proposals of all types – the typical tech and mobile / internet ones, to interesting ways to disrupt age-old businesses such as fashion and food. Many proposals were accepted but many more were not supported for various reasons, and hopefully they will have the resilient to move on and explore alternatives.

The ecosystem has changed much since my journey more than a decade ago. It is certainly more ‘cool’ now for young graduates or even undergraduates to try for that start-up dream. I have seen many top graduates and even highly qualified and successful professionals give up lucrative careers for the hard work of running a start-up. Passion is key to making startups work. We cannot artificially mandate entrepreneurship. It has to come from the founders as they will need that inner belief and drive to make it successful through the endless challenges that will come. It helps that the universities and to a lesser extent, polytechnics have taken on this message seriously and have created their own ecosystem to make it easier for ideas to be incubated. Whilst funding is nowhere as vibrant as that in established and more exciting markets like the USA and China, there is definitely a lot more channels for good ideas to chase for funding.

Our market size remains a huge constraint for startups to really grow big and take on the world stage. In some cases, regulators are opening up to create friendly environment for startups, though a lot more can be done. I would like to see more vibrant sandboxes in as many industries as possible. In some industries where the government itself is a big user and purchaser of services, such as education and defence, it can be more open to working with start-ups, and to create environments where startups can evolve innovative solutions. Whilst there has been a lot of preaching by our leaders about our country needing innovation and entrepreneurship to drive it forward, I still get a sense that many in the government services lower down have not bought into the vision. They are still creating rules that control and restrict, and relying on old ways that will not encourage vibrant industry ideas to flourish in their sector. Hopefully leaders themselves buy into what they preach and look into how there are rules and habits in their own backyard that can be changed to encourage national innovation.

I am happy to have played a role as best as I can as an individual in this scene. I had the opportunity to mentor some of the startups actively, particularly those in the education sector. It is still a great challenge that they face and will face, as this path is hardly an easy one. I have seen some grow after much sweat and even change of business directions, sometimes more than once. I have seen some give up too. Many will fail for every major success we hear of. Yet, try we must and I am glad that many of our best and brightest are indeed trying.

 

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