Think global, change lives: how tech firms can take on SE Asia

It may seem overwhelmingly large, but Southeast Asia can be a rewarding market for firms willing to get to grips with the market fundamentals

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 10:43pm

Southeast Asia may comprise 11 countries and 650 million people, but tackling this diverse market is achievable if companies have a global mindset and are willing to understand market fundamentals.

That was the message from a panel of investors and executives who addressed the South China Morning Post ’s China Conference in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.

Modern businesses today were no longer constrained by geographical boundaries, and could easily reach international markets by launching apps on Google Play or the Apple store, said the co-founder and chief executive of e-commerce marketplace Carousell, Quek Siu Rui.

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“You can launch an internet service anywhere in the world today, with Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services and so on,” Quek said. “Infrastructure, distribution and talent are truly global now and borders have been broken. We have to embrace a global mindset.”

While global technology companies of previous decades have mainly come from the United States, those of the future could come from Asia as more of the region’s massive population gained access to the internet thanks to affordable smartphones from China, said Ku Kay-Mok, managing partner of Gobi Partners in Southeast Asia.

You can launch an internet service anywhere in the world today
Quek Siu Rui, Carousell

“In the context of Asia, besides technology, you need to have a huge impact on emerging markets [to be a world class company],” Ku said, adding that successful firms needed to have an impact on their customers’ lives.

Indonesian tech start-up Go-Jek was one company that had made such an impact, said Hian Goh, co-founder and partner at Open Space Ventures, one of Go-Jek’s early institutional investors.

Hian said Go-Jek’s chief executive Nadiem Makarim had used his knowledge of Indonesia’s local services market to emerge as the leader in the country’s food-delivery industry.

“I’ve always believed in betting on local expertise, local knowledge,” Goh said.

However, for Southeast Asian companies looking to serve various markets, there was a “fine balance” to be struck between localising services and being prescriptive, said Alan Hellawell, chief strategy officer of Sea, a Singapore-based technology firm that operates e-commerce platform Shopee and gaming platform Garena in the region.

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“There are different distribution structures in different markets, and it lies with [Sea] to make sure that the experience is uniform,” Hellawell said.

He added that regional companies that successfully operated across various markets could win the business of customers by offering them just one solution.

Carousell’s Quek said technology talent was still scarce in Southeast Asia and that bringing in workers from more mature markets was one way to raise the bar.

Carousell itself faced this problem in its early stages, said Quek. The company eventually turned to investors who helped it bring on board seasoned engineers from India who had previously worked for Amazon.

“You need to hire passionate, hungry, talented people who have huge potential because they can learn quickly, but you also need a few bar raises who know how to scale,” Quek said.