It was a defining moment for San Francisco-based Singapore start-up Key Reply, an artificial intelligence firm co-founded by three Singaporeans in 2014. Last November, the Singapore Government announced the launch of a Facebook Messenger chat bot, which would be able to interact with users via all of Gov.sg’s social media channels. It was designed by the firm which had relocated to San Francisco in 2015, when its founders realised there was a high interest in their AI messenger bot services by US-based companies.
With the Singapore Government as the latest – and arguably largest client, for now – things have come full circle. Co-founder Spencer Yang believes the decision to move to Silicon Valley gave them the edge over their competitors. He says: “Being based here helps us to catch on to trends faster – we know more people on the ground who are involved in this space and understand the local sentiment. I think it helps that clients know we are based in Silicon Valley, because they know we are out there and are a thought leader in the space.”
FOREFRONT OF TECHNOLOGY
It is this proximity to the centre of the global technology and start-up ecosystem and the chance to be among the first to experience the latest potentially life-changing technologies that are drawing a small but steady stream of Singaporean entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley.
“While Silicon Valley is not for every Singapore start-up, the appeal of the location lies in the innovation and dynamism of the companies here. The exchange of ideas is fluid and it’s very exciting for many to keep themselves at the forefront of technology. Furthermore, the US market is vast in comparison to Singapore, and this serves as a fantastic test bed for adoption of new ideas and market validation,” says Dr Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise, one of three organisations involved in Block 71 San Francisco, the US branch of the Singapore-based start-up incubator, Block 71.
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While there are no official figures, she estimates that about 70 Singaporean start-ups have consulted with or worked with the organisation since it was launched in 2014. For many ambitious entrepreneurs, the incubator not only provides them with a space to work out of, but also, more essentially, helps them gain access to the network of talent, investors and venture capitalists that populate the Bay area.
“Many of our successful Singaporean companies also come here to meet investors and venture capitalists to source further funding for their growth. In essence, Silicon Valley gives them access to resources, allowing them to grow beyond market and geographical boundaries,” she adds.
MAKING ESSENTIAL CONNECTIONS
While the Silicon Valley network may sound mythical to those outside that region, those who have experienced it say it does live up to the hype. Take, for example, Paul Yang, co-founder of Lomotif, a music video editor app. “There is serendipity at work in Silicon Valley,” he says, recalling an incident when he missed a flight out. He ended up spending his extra day at Block 71 San Francisco, where Victor Tan, director of SGInnovate in San Francisco, introduced him to a founding member of StartX, a non-profit business incubator associated with Stanford University.
Paul Yang says his acceptance into the programme was a turning point for his business, which has about eight million users. “From not having enough connections, our network just exploded. Our mentors ranged from founders of top-notch companies to general partners of venture capital firms. I still meet some of them regularly and they are generous in offering input,” he says.
Sharing information works both ways, with even the smallest, fledgling start-ups playing a part in testing the feasibility of ideas.
Chin Su Yuen, co-founder of MomoCentral, an on-demand tech talent platform featuring programmers, developers and designers, says she notices a difference in receptiveness to ideas. She splits her time between Singapore and San Francisco and observes: “People in Singapore are quick to critique, whereas in Silicon Valley, people may ask questions out of curiosity to understand how an idea works but they won’t put it down. They’ll encourage you to pursue it, and see how it succeeds or fails.”
MAKING IT IN THE LITTLE RED DOT
That said, going to Silicon Valley is not necessarily the be-all and end-all for entrepreneurs.
Budding entrepreneurs may also be surprised by the cultural differences in the business environment between Singapore and the US. Mark Sin, president of Singapore Connect, a community organisation for Singaporeans in Silicon Valley, says: “The secret to putting down roots in the US starts in understanding the culture here: how things go viral and how to get people to trust in your product and service. Making a winning pitch to investors, marketing to the demographic of interest, and then scaling up to a fairly homogeneous market many times the size of Singapore does not come naturally, even if one has good English or watched many American movies and TV shows.”
These marketing, sales and business development skills can be learnt, says Tan, but it takes time and determination to code switch and fit in with the American culture.
Besides, those whose businesses are focused in South-east Asia and the region would do well to focus their efforts in Singapore, as the country certainly lives up to its global reputation as a business-friendly country with little administrative red tape and paperwork, observes Chin.
Desmond Lim, a serial entrepreneur who has started various businesses in Singapore and the US, including being a co-founder of Quik Force, a consumer logistics start-up, agrees.
He says: “Singapore has a great funding environment, in terms of support from the Government, investors and the greater start-up community. The culture is very supportive, and fellow entrepreneurs always help one another out. It is akin to a family where people are willing to spend more time, and speak to you at length. There is also a unique South-east Asia focus and diversity that cannot be found in other parts of the world.”
THE WEIRD AND THE WONDERFUL
Here are three start-ups from Singapore taking their unique brand of creativity to the United States. When they become The Next Big Thing, remember you read about them here first!
BEAM ME UP, SCOTTY
Before you pack your bags and make the big leap across the pond to the United States to chase your entrepreneurial dreams, here are some tips from Victor Tan, director of SGInnovate in San Francisco, on how to make the most of your time in the Bay area.
Have a clear objective
Whether you are here to learn about the market or to better understand the culture of Silicon Valley, know what you want to get out of your time here. Do not be shy in asking for help, or you won’t be able to achieve your objectives. Ultimately, even if you discover that this is not the right place for you to do business, that is an achievement.
Work on your sales pitch
Whether you are speaking to clients, potential investors or even local collaborators, you will need to perfect your sales pitch. While Americans excel at sales talk, Singaporeans tend to be more understated. This is a subtle strategy that can make all the difference to turning your dream into reality.
Learn about the nitty gritty
From the unforeseen challenges in obtaining a work visa for the United States, to dealing with the tax code, these are little things that could become stumbling blocks if you are not prepared.
Have enough money in the bank
Once you have committed to setting up an outpost or business and have done a feasibility check, be sure that you are financially sustainable for six to twelve months at the minimum. Deals don’t come out of the air and you will need to keep yourself going while you hustle.
Realise funding is not a done deal
The biggest misconception that many would-be entrepreneurs have is that the streets of Silicon Valley are paved with gold. Most US investors are focused on US-based start-ups, so you are likely to be turned down if your aim is to raise funds for business expansion in other parts of the world. If you wish to get funding, figure out if your product is competitive in the American market, as investors will ask you to focus on your business here before expanding abroad. Otherwise, look for venture capitalists who have a track record of investing outside of the US or who have set up separate funds in your home region.