Singapore as an Entrepreneur Hub

Minister of Finance Tharman ShanmugaratnamRecently, the government of Singapore announced that it will be establishing an Economic Strategies Committee (ESC), to be headed by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, to study the long-term economic transformation of Singapore.  While our country has taken decisive measures (to the tune of S$20 billion) to wrestle the recessionary Bear by its paws, Prime Minister Lee said there was still a need to review specific strategies to develop different sectors.

We have to let the resources shift from the businesses which are shrinking to the businesses which are growing, and gear up for the changed new world, rather than wait in vain for old business to come back.

– P.M. Lee Hsien Loong

Check out the Channel News Asia article and you’ll soon notice P.M. Lee leaning firmly towards entrepreneurship development.

The critical thing is that you need to build up the entire enterprise ecosystem – the whole environment where you can attract talent, develop entrepreneurship, which means people with bright ideas, the passion, the drive, and the organisational ability to take a spark to a brainwave, to a start up, to a company, to an IPO, and then we hope, a Fortune, and a roaring success.

Habanero splashWhile touting entrepreneurship as the answer to our nation’s never-ending quest for economic growth isn’t new to the ears of our bureaucracy’s policy makers, what heartens me is our political leaders’ willingness to once again lend their weight behind this crusade, and give entrepreneurship yet another shot.  Despite what cynics may deem as limited success by past government initiatives to promote entrepreneurship, we’re certainly not chosen to take the line of once bitten, twice shy.

Yet, as always, the proof is in the pudding.  There is probably a general consensus on what the future of Singapore’s businesses should look like; high gross margins, high value-add, vibrant, intellectual property-based businesses that (1) will help our nation to attract and anchor the best and brightest of talents to this ‘little red dot‘, and (2) propel Singapore’s reputation beyond that of a mere high-tech manufacturer and services provider, to a creative and inventive city state.  There is much less certainty on how we, as a nation, can get there.

One thing we’ll know for sure though – the luminaries  that will make up the ESC (ctrl-alt-del, press esc key to continue and reboot Singapore’s economy?) will be announced before the end of this month.  While a young’un like me would certainly not be worthy to be called upon to serve at the ESC, I write these with the slimmest of hopes, that some part of this entry gets to the eyes of sympathetic like-minded members of the ESC, and can play a small part in bringing about meaningful and lasting change to the entrepreneurial landscape of Singapore.

It’s all about the People

People, people, peopleA prominent VC, on being asked what the top three aspects of a start-up he’d look at were at a conference, once said he could look past “people, people and people”.  Solid A+ entrepreneurs and their teams with far-sighted vision, thorough understanding of market needs, deep technical expertise, dynamic leadership, captivating personality, resourcefulness, adaptability and teamwork can take the worst of ideas and business models and turn them around.  Incidentally, these are also traits that are impossible for our organic pool of talent to acquire through schooling or mentorship.  While I do think academic entrepreneurship has a part to play in the overall scheme of things, our organic pool would be insufficient to get us to critical mass (and successes) quick enough to yield any meaningful economic impact for our nation.

Instead, Singapore could position itself as the entrepreneur hub of Asia with a two-pronged approach; (1) court entrepreneurs, their start-ups and their investors on a personal basis with red carpet treatment akin to what we extend today to high net worth individuals investing upwards of $1.5 million in Singapore (via Contact Singapore), and (2) provide them with ample access to local top engineering talent.

Build a world-class engineering faculty

Although NUS and NTU do have good engineering faculties, neither one can claim to play on the same level as that of the University of Texas at Austins, Carnegie Mellons, Stanfords and Berkeleys of the world.  Even lower wages won’t cut it in the near term.  Top start-ups will be able to attract funding to pay for top engineering talent, and these same top engineering talents go on to define and build core technologies and products – bringing significant value to their company and the city/nation they operate from.  I’m tired of sidestepping the issue by telling foreign entrepreneurs that it’s easy to bring talent from around the region into Singapore on an employment pass if they can’t find any from the local pool.  Price differentiation of our workforce is not something we should be stepping into as a nation anyway.

Clear, concise and relevant metrics a must

Cold as NumbersTraditional divisions of our economy may mislead us in our evaluation on how to progress into a knowledge-based economy.  Technology convergence has resulted in a rapid blurring of otherwise traditional industry lines; Is Green IT cleantech or IT?  Is Consumer Web 2.0 SaaS digital media or IT?  Instead of segmenting businesses by SSIC codes, wouldn’t it make more sense for ACRA to group and bin companies by their gross margins?

The ESC would also need to draft the success metrics that minimizes latitude in interpretations (by implementing bureacrats) and maximizes relevance to its desired outcomes – imho this will be the ESC’s single most important piece of work.

Have a long-term view of things

Mondo-Zoom LensStart-ups and entrepreneurship in itself are inherently risky sectors to be in – we will need to steel ourselves for the possibly massive paper losses and slow progress as we go through the bottom of the J-curve.  Make plans to stick around for the long haul, as it will be highly unlikely for most initiatives to bear fruit within 3 to 5 years.  Do not repeat the mistakes of our past – some VCs and entrepreneurs I’ve met during my time in the Valley consider the Singapore government as a fair-weather investor, thanks to the lack of a second-round of fund-of-funds by the now-defunct TIF Ventures.  Once the targets has been set and the appropriate metrics put in place, our operational teams should be encouraged and empowered to hit their targets.

Pick the right people for the job

Now hiring!This brings me to my fifth and final point, which sort of links back to my first as well.  The ESC can have the best plans and success metrics in the world, but all would be for naught without the right team of entrepreneur-like bureaucrats to implement their plans.  The people of this team will need to have more than pure passion, but also view entrepreneurs as partners instead of vendors.  Rapid and reliable execution on the ground (account management, speedy grant application facilitation and reimbursements) will be vital towards gaining trust within these entrepreneur networks and circles.  Depending on the entrepreneurs’ locality, the teams will need to have members with relevant backgrounds to schmooze and win the hearts and minds of entrepreneurs.

However, with a target to submit a list of recommendations for Singapore’s Budget in 2010, it’s likely we’re not going to be seeing any new initiatives come out of this for the next 12 – 18 months (at the earliest).  If you’re waiting (for some action) in the meantime, you could consider doing what I’ll be busy with in the meantime – pore over our Prime Minister’s speech!

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.