Singapore, Indonesia, and Lazy Founders

Willis Wee
11:00 am on Feb 24, 2012
lazy folksss

Funny quote. But not too funny if it is put into practice. Credit:

Singapore is the best place to startup because it is easy to legalize a business and it is a comfortable place to live — that is if you have the money.

But is that sunny island what investors are really looking at in Southeast Asia? I don’t think so. They are looking at countries like Indonesia and Vietnam in this region, and the huge potential they represent.

In all honesty, Indonesia isn’t at all ready for harvesting, at least in my opinion. It is far behind the cycle compared to China or even India. But it has the potential, which is why investors are flocking into the country. Japanese investors have been very fast to enter the Indonesian market with Batavia, CyberAgent Ventures, and GREE Ventures leading the way.

Interestingly, Batavia and CyberAgent Ventures didn’t even bother to set up shop in Singapore. Both marched straight into Indonesia to immerse themselves with the local culture and entrepreneurs. And GREE Ventures is dedicating half of its fund to Indonesian startups even though its office is based in Singapore.

No matter which angel you are, Indonesia is booming hot. Perhaps too hot. Even the locals are setting up venture funds and accelerators. I’m also hearing that the Chinese investors are looking at the Indonesian market, according to a reliable source. Whatever it is, it’s surely good news for the entrepreneurs. But but but… potential is still just potential. Will it ever be realized?

So let’s go back to the basics. What makes any tech ecosystem exciting isn’t the money that the investors bring in. It’s the entrepreneurs.

The ones who are hacking early in the morning and late at night building products that solve problems. If the entrepreneurs suck then yes, the ecosystem will suck too. Period.

I have spoken to several investors in the Southeast Asia region. The common and consistent feedback that I get is that entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia and Indonesia are way too laid back. Or to put it bluntly, lazy. Few people want to sound the painful truth publicly. I was also kind of glad that Serkan Toto said something similar onstage at our recent Startup Asia Singapore conference. Investors also noted that it is easier to spot the hardworking ones out of a crowd of lazy bums.

It goes so far out that investors have to test how hardworking entrepreneurs are by calling them on Friday nights or sending them email over the weekend to check if they are working (I’m serious and that’s a little ridiculous). I don’t think that’s slave driving, if that’s what you’re thinking. If the entrepreneur is really passionate about solving a problem, working late nights and over the weekend is expected. It shouldn’t be enforced as a rule. It never should be that way. It should be a culture that every entrepreneur takes to heart. The team within the startup should be passionate and working their asses off, not entirely for money but because the things that they are doing that could potentially make a great difference. Founders should lead by example and influence by actions.

Don’t be sad though, not all is gloomy. The potential and huge markets are still there. And of course, not all entrepreneurs are lazy (you know who you are!). We need to bring our skills, dedication, and perspiration, because a big market alone won’t get us there.

  • Sameer Narula

    Interesting take Willis. While I agree with you that, for a start-up, the ability to react quickly is very important, I disagree with the hypothesis that regional entrepreneurs are any less active or hardworking than their global peers… 

    Different national and corporate cultures require different approaches for companies and entrepreneurs to be successful. And, at risk to my own profession, I dont believe that an investors interest can be a primary gauge of how successful a business can be – its about profits, customer satisfaction and longevityHaving been an entrepreneur myself and seen way too many founders burn themselves and their teams out by being too aggressive, I strongly believe that balance and the ability to take things at the appropriate pace are at the core of a successful entrepreneur’s DNA.China and India made up more than half of Global GDP for a majority of human history, I dont think either of these countries can claim speed of business as part of their entrepreneurial culture… but in the long run, consistency and an ability to pace oneself has always produced more successful businesses.Anyone who has worked in Japan, China or India knows that pushing clients/vendors/entrepreneurs too much can lead to disaster in our part of the world. Every region’s corporate culture has a pace it is comfortable following. Just because the Asian pace might seem slower than the US doesn’t mean that its entrepreneurs are not as hard working or as determined.Companies like the Tatas in India, Suzuki in Japan and Boustead in Singapore might not be known for their speed of growth… but have outlasted many faster and more ADD inflicted entrepreneurs by a couple of centuries each.Early stage VCs and investors in general are like Caddys, we can put the ball on the tee, but the entrepreneur has to take the shot. Push them too much, and more often than not, you will end up in the “rough.” Which investors wants to explain to his LPs and other portfolio companies how he drove an entrepreneur to failure by pushing too much?!?At the risk of demonizing western companies – our entrepreneurs in Asia are the David’s to their Goliath at this point in history. A Gandhian approach to business might not be a bad idea at this stage in our evolution. While we need to move fast in totality, this shouldn’t happen in a manner that antagonizes our clients, vendors and staff.In conclusion, given the nature of VC investment, the ability to move quickly is an important trait in a start-up, however the understanding of when to do this and when to pull back are pivotal – after all a New York minute isn’t the same as a California minute!

    • Willis Wee Shin Chuen

      thanks for the comment Sameer

      china is phenomenal. the chinese entrepreneurs are very hungry. India and Japan too. No doubt about it and this article points to southeast asia. i can specifically comment only on singapore and indonesia. again, this is just my personal view and no offense intended.nothing wrong to be laid back. but if folks choose to be an entrepreneur then they will have to accept it as a lifestyle. and im not sure why you’re talking about pushing clients and stuff… but it’s more about the entrepreneurs pushing themselves.if folks want to be have work life balance. then be part of a corporate. nothing wrong about either path, just my $, you might want to see a healthy discussion among indonesians here: that’s interesting.

  • Sameer Narula

    No offense taken Willis :) just think lazy is too strong a word to use… work styles and corporate culture can and does vary in correlation with national culture. People in Shanghai have issues with Beijing’s work ethic, entrepreneurs in Bombay think ones in Delhi are arrogant and the ones in Bangalore think the ones in Goa are just hanging out on the beach drinking feni!
    Horses for courses!

    • Willis Wee Shin Chuen

      ha. true enough. but i guess you have to be here in indonesia to see it. im no expert about the market. but the culture is way different and easy to sense. i did consult quite a bit of people (investors and entrepreneurs) before writing this. but of course, no one really wants to reveal their names!

  • Muhammad Ghazali

    Hello Willis!
    Great post, I enjoyed to read it. I could not a 100% agree with the statement “If the entrepreneur is really passionate about solving a problem, working late nights and over the weekend is expected”.
    For me it’s okay to working late nights on Monday through Friday, but not in Saturday and Sunday. There is a me time and family time that I have to enjoy. On weekend I prefer to refresh and recharge my energy back, so I can be feeling so fresh to work in Monday of the first week.
    best regards.

    • Willis Wee Shin Chuen

      Hi Muhammad! Thanks for the comment. It’s a choice, isn’t it? Do your best i guess. End of the day, my purpose for this post is for people to discuss and be pumped up as an entrepreneur. It’s a matter of individual choice in the end. Work smart, work hard! :)

      • Muhammad Ghazali

        Hi again Willis, you are welcome. I’m glad to discuss something with open-minded people like you.
        Yes, life is a matter of choice and I choose it wisely, hopefully :)

  • nickchhan

    A good article. I just wanted to add that there’s a difference in getting something done, and getting it done well. If you’re really passionate about something, you’ll be able to spot something 0.3mm off center. If you love cleaning windows, you’ll do it better than the average Joe. In short, time taken to work at nights and over the weekends is only a SINGLE measure of spirit.

    • Willis Wee Shin Chuen

      +1 on that.

  • novis

    Willis, I couldn’t agree more. Passionate founders who believe they are working on something really big will work days and nights including weekend. They want to launch their product asap before someone else do that. They want to be responsive to feedback from their users. Bugs found on Saturday should be fixed on Saturday, can’t wait until Monday. Working hard till late at night 5 days a week and taking a rest on the weekend sounds like consultants, not founders to me.

    • novis

       I mean consultants/good employees…

  • Chrysto

    Agree with the article. That said I think one has to be smart about working. It’s about results not hours spent. Nobody cares if you spent 70 hours at the office (or wherever you work from) or not (aside from your family or partner, if there is one (still there :)). In a start-up, or as en employed person, you need to look at results. Work is like a revolving door, the more work you push out, the more comes in. This is particularly true in a a start-up.

    I was thinking about this exact same topic a few days back. Estelle won so many grammys. First post-grammy annoucement was that she was going to take the year off. There is a point, I’m getting there. Doesn’t the same happen to startups that raise their seed or first round? First thing they want to do is a make a big purchase and take a fat holiday.

    What people often fail to see is the road to success. If, touch wood, and when you get your breakthrough, you finally get recognition from people (your customers, followers, investors, etc…). At that moment, they believe they’ve found something in you. They expect to see you deliver on the promise they see in you. However, it’s maybe taken you months if not years to get here! So what if you’ve run yourself into the ground (by working over hours, day after day and putting in weekends after weekends). You now need a break (no matter how passionate you are about your idea, it can consume you)

    We’re all at different stages of our lives (single and fresh grad, recently married, or married with a newborn just to name a few).  Each stage of life requires something different from us (novis for example is probably single person with no dependents). Some stages (like when growing a family for example) require non-work time from us (I believe this is where Muhammad Ghazali’s is coming from and we can all relate) and that means that if you’re an enterpreneur, you will want to avoid working on weekends. It doesn’t make you less passionate. I believe it makes you a more well balanced person. Your prototype may come out a month or two later than if you had put in all weekends, but ultimately if you execute flawlessly on your ideas (since it’s all about executions at the end of the day) you shouldn’t be at risk. A start-up doesn’t fail because it’s a couple of weeks or months behind plan… it fails because people don’t execute well (or at all).

    Ultimately and in the grand scheme of things, time is not as relevant as we’d want it to be. As Nickchlan said, it’s only a SINGLE measure of spirit.

  • The Startup Centre

    I get the point you are looking to drive, might have needed a slightly different packaging. Everyone thinks they are hardworking, in their own way :)

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