Startups in Singapore are caught in a bind. While located in the heart of Asia, the city has a minuscule domestic market and is surrounded by countries with varying levels of internet adoption.
Developed economies like Japan and South Korea, while tech-savvy, pose language challenges. China, meanwhile, plays by its own set of rules. US and Europe aren’t a walk in the park either.
Nonetheless, Singapore-based startups aiming at developed markets do have several possible paths to pursue.
Gamemaki offers one blueprint. It looks like a Silicon Valley style startup on the surface. Its most visible product is a mobile social network where denizens earn points for completing fun, real-life challenges. Not exactly a certain money maker.
But beneath the fun and youthful image is a serious side: It offers a gamification platform for large corporations. Limiting labels like B2B and B2C don’t quite apply to GameMaki. The company straddles both spheres in an interesting way.
Singapore is its cash cow, one that it is milking to good effect through personal connections. On the other hand, the fun stuff, GameMaki’s reason for being, largely happens in the United States. It’s sort of like an office worker who does all his fun stuff outside his 9-to-5 daily routine.
That’s not a bad thing, considering the alternative: It could take its funding from investors and burn it on a social network that may never take off. It’s what Silicon Valley startups do: Raise cash, burn it, pivot, raise some more. Rinse and repeat.
But GameMaki’s approach is sensible and works well in the Asian context.
I bumped into Keith Ng, co-founder of GameMaki, at a quiet corner in a shopping mall. While he was earning a respite from hyper-energetic kids at a youth innovation event organized by ACE, an organization that promotes entrepreneurship in Singapore, his platform was powering the gamification element of the event app: Kids answer quizzes and play scavenger hunts to win real-world incentives.
The reception to the game has been positive: Over 1,000 signups and 3,000 completed challenges were registered.
2012 has been great for GameMaki, a dramatic turnaround from the previous year where they were on the verge of collapse.
An investor had pulled out the second tranch of a deal at the last minute, causing Keith to apply for three credit cards just to do balance transfer to keep the startup afloat. The same investor even defaulted on paying for GameMaki’s office, and they almost had their water and electricity cut off.
Keith, who flirted with depression, was forced to source for personal loans while his company did some service work to ensure that it had operating capital. The staff, meanwhile took a voluntary pay cut.
Faced with desperate circumstances, GameMaki went for broke on entrepreneurial reality show Angel’s Gate, and it paid off.
“Crystal Horse and Angel’s Gate were our saviors,” says Keith, adding that Crystal Horse Investments threw them a lifeline with a USD100,000 investment. The business deals then started flowing in.
In addition to campaigns it’s been running for Ideate.sg and F&B establishments like The Lawn, Standing Sushi Bar, and Broadway Cafe, GameMaki scored a deal this year with Digital Life, a prominent consumer tech magazine in Singapore, to run a Diablo 3 competition.
It powered the Ideas.Inc Business Challenge app held in October, which engaged 350 participants who took part in 19 challenges. It also licensed its technology to DBS, a top consumer bank in Singapore, to run a design-a-credit-card contest on its Facebook Page.
Keith points out that GameMaki has been generating revenue from all these projects, and these leads are generated without much government assistance. Of course, the big question is whether the company is generating enough from these campaigns to be financially self-sufficient. Turns out that it is.
“We’re making enough revenue to cover expenditure,” he says, “and we’re able to afford a reasonably comfortable life. But it’s definitely not enough for us to expand aggressively.”
With growth in mind, GameMaki is already raising another round. But they’re not in a hurry.
The startup is entering the market at the right time, where it is benefiting from the private sector’s embrace of gamification. It is working on the impending launches of a few more white-label games in verticals like food and travel — ensuring a positive cashflow for the near future. It also has a new consumer-focused app in the works.
“We do the unsexy stuff to switch on the lights, and working out of those lights to develop something consumerish… the end goal of doing the unsexy stuff and consumerish stuff is the same — to make life a lot more fun and interesting for everyone,” he says.
Read: GameMaki’s blog post in 2011 which narrated the rough year they had.