What founders should know when building a startup in Southeast Asia

There has never been a better time to start a technology-enabled business, given how much low-cost and high-quality existing tech infrastructure can be used, the digital business opportunity in Southeast Asia with exponential growth in smartphone usage and most importantly, localised problems that need to be solved in many parts of this region on a large scale.


Jussi Salovaara

As co-founder and Managing Partner Asia for Antler, Jussi works with a global team dedicated to developing the next generation of world-changing companies and creating a global pipeline for top talents to pursue a career in entrepreneurship and innovation. Before joining the startup ecosystem, Jussi headed the Global Services Commercial Management sector of Nokia. He works closely with the founders to coach them and helps connect them with the right advisors to build their businesses.

The role of startups in Southeast Asia

According to the 2019 internet report by Asia Partners, Southeast Asia is the third-largest pool of mobile subscribers globally and will also likely be the world's third-largest pool of internet users in the next year or two. Bain & Company research also shows that Southeast Asia's investment ecosystem is entering a new phase of growth. By 2024, it is expected that the region will give rise to at least 10 new companies with a market value of more than $1 billion each.

The current gaps in education, healthcare, mobility, employment, pollution and accessibility to certain services for many people in second-tier cities and parts of Southeast Asia are opportunities for startups which can think hyperlocal and use global ideas and adaptable technology to problem-solve.

If there's one thing I have learned from helping build and coach 46 companies in Southeast Asia, and seeing founders take their ideas from the very early stages to build something that has an economic impact, it's that the teams which focus on the problem they are trying to solve have a clearer path to building a business. The solution can change and evolve, but the focus should always be on what your product or service is trying to fix.

Important points to keep in mind while building a startup

Address issues across the business chain

It's not just about identifying a problem and deciding to build something around it - you need to understand the problem on various levels. Do research, find someone who has experienced it first-hand. It's even better if you've experienced it yourself. If it's a platform solution, the team should test all aspects of the product to understand the service. This way you have more than just a customer-centric view. Founders need to be able to have a multi-dimensional understanding of all the components that go into their business chain, so they can pinpoint issues from all sides and address them.

Have confidence in your team members

From the 46 companies that have come out of our three Antler programs in Singapore, it's clear that team dynamics and complementary skills of co-founders play a significant role in the success of a business. Whether it's being clear about what each individual's strength is or the ability to have a healthy debate when team members have opposing viewpoints, founders need to trust that their team is the best group of people to build the company.

Understand technology and use it the right way

Innovation is about doing things better, not just differently. As investors, we have the ability to accelerate the innovation created by entrepreneurs. But to do this effectively, one needs to think outside the box. The problems in this region can seem overwhelming, but I see this as an opportunity to think differently, approach ideas from another angle, and work fast before it hits the market.

Add value to the target market

Finally, today's connectivity and intelligence give founders a chance to go deep on issues and work at a level of precision that could never have been done before. From personalised nutrition plans based on your blood type to AI-enabled personality match dating apps, we live in a time where specifics and personalisation matter. Using data and technology to track and understand what works is an advantage that will help businesses get ahead in their target market. This is especially true in the dynamic region of Southeast Asia, with a population of 650 million, where though each country has cultural nuances. Integration through digital connection and country-specific personalisation is the key.

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