If you want to do a startup in Asia, you should go live abroad first



Granted, there’s plenty of griping in Asia about education systems and cultural barriers that prevent startup ecosystems from growing. In startup circles throughout Asia, you often hear things like “we have some good startups, but our ecosystem is so bad because of our education system and our environment.” The complaints are endemic. Sadly, there is a grain of truth to this that is worth looking into.

Jack Ma, one of Asia’s most celebrated tech entrepreneurs, was first introduced to and compelled by the internet on an extended trip he took to the United States, where he worked as an interpreter. It was this important exposure that drove him to launch a number of website projects which culminated in the eventual massive success of Alibaba. But Jack’s experience is not isolated. Littered across Asia’s tech landscape are hundreds and thousands of entrepreneurs who paid their dues in the West (usually the United States) before coming home to build their own startups.

Vietnam’s study-abroad startups

In the case of Vietnam, there’s a handful of startups that fit the same criteria as Jack Ma. The founders studied abroad and ended up coming home to start up. This isn’t a new trend. Vietnam’s most notable successes like VNG and Vat Gia both have founders who studied abroad before returning to Vietnam to start up. A new generation of startups like Greengar, Not A Basement Studio, and Ticketbox also follow suit.


Why studying abroad is so powerful

Studying abroad has several benefits that you just won’t find at home. Institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other developed nations top the world’s charts for best universities. As Jimmy Rim from K Cube Ventures mentioned to me at Startup Asia last week, “dropouts and graduates from top level universities make much better entrepreneurs than ones from lower end universities. The ecosystem shouldn’t be encouraging anyone to become entrepreneurs, it should be encouraging the top people to become entrepreneurs.” And where are the top universities? In the West.

Second, what happened with Jack Ma is also worth elaborating on. Silicon Valley is always at least a few years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of technology ideas and execution. It’s home to the most valuable technology companies and it’s a worldwide trendsetter. Exposure to what is happening in the Valley is a glimpse into the future of one’s own ecosystem. And although most Asian investors will firmly tell Asian entrepreneurs to “stop reading TechCrunch and start solving real problems in the local market,” there’s still something to be said for looking at what ideas are popping up in the Valley. Exposure is eye-opening.

Third, exposure doesn’t just clue potential entrepreneurs in on technology trends. It also allows people to self-reflect. This is huge. No doubt, most countries in Asia (with the exception of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan) are far behind the world’s developed countries in terms of infrastructure, economics, etc. This provides insight into one’s own economy. It allows an entrepreneur to see what holes a startup can fill.

Fourth, a feeling of inadequacy turns into entrepreneurialism. With the insights gained from the above, a potential entrepreneur can have a burning desire to fix what is wrong back home or fill in the market gaps. It’s with a sense of national pride (or shame) that these entrepreneurs go home to bring their country to the next level.

Fifth, a new sense of identity and place in the world. By simply being exposed to another world opens anyone up to the wider universe around them. It’s no longer just their home country of Vietnam or Thailand that is part of their identity, they are now lucky enough to have another perspective. That also means they understand their local market and culture better than foreigners trying to enter and locals that never left. They are endowed with a wider vision.

These factors and more build into making successful foreign-exposed entrepreneurs. It is no wonder that Loo Cheng Chuan of Singtel decided to live in the Silicon Valley for a year and brought back with him a host of tips for entrepreneurs in Asia. Jack Ma did the same thing.

Let’s step back for a second

Of course, this is not the only formula for success in Asia. There are plenty of startups that have founders who did not study abroad, but foreign exposure undeniably gives local startups an extra edge that their unexposed counterparts do not. Foreign-educated founders have a window into another world. They see what their country could be, they see what is behind, and what is ahead.

At the end of the day, it’s the truly prescient founders who are able to see directly into the future irrespective of their exposure, but that is a truly rare thing. Are you such a luminary? Even Jack Ma had to go abroad and Steve Jobs ran away to India. So get out of your home country for a change. It’ll open your eyes.

(Editing by Paul Bischoff)

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