Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Singapore's entrepreneurship X factor

Ike Lee

2 Dec 2015

It should not aim to become like Silicon Valley but exploit geography and cultural mix to become a world-class launch pad
I'll confess, I am a late adopter of Singapore. Although originally from Asia, I had not set foot here until April last year, when I was invited to speak at NUS Enterprise's Innovfest conference for entrepreneurs. Since that first visit, I have been back eight times and, each time, I notice something special; something that gets my heart racing.

It's the same feeling I got when I first arrived in Silicon Valley in the late 1980s - a buzz that comes about when a place has achieved a particular critical mass of physical, human and intellectual infrastructure. Like a chain reaction coming alive, this magical formula is the X factor that powers entrepreneurship and innovation. It's what has made Silicon Valley the global ground zero of the tech industry.

I travel tens of thousands of kilometres every year and wherever I am, at every entrepreneurship event I attend, the question is asked, "How can we be more like Silicon Valley?"

The answer I give is straightforward: don't be.

1 Focus on the customer: Every decision and every feature of your product should be assessed and framed according to how it improves the customer experience.
2 Target the small but significant: Many big successes come from making small changes, reinventing something used every day.
3 Soak up advice: Networking is crucial; absorb as much knowledge as you can from others. Learn to process and sort through that advice and how to apply it to your business.
4 Practise and practise your pitch: There is no set format to a successful pitch but learn to tell your story in 10 seconds or less. It helps focus your mind.
5 Have a plan: Do thorough market research, build a plan with short-term and mid-term projections. Put down on paper a process that shows your concept works.
6 Trust your instincts: If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. This is especially true when choosing a business partner, mentor or investor.
7 Avoid talk of failure: The start-up industry is driven by results and track record. Mistakes happen but failures - especially avoidable ones - will be held against you.
8 Don't be discouraged: Knock-backs are inevitable; some people will underestimate or look down on you. Take this as a challenge.

The Valley is unique. It's a standalone ecosystem that grew organically from a particular local culture and circumstance. It is not something that can simply be copied, lifted up and transplanted to another place on the planet.

Nonetheless, there are lessons that can be learnt and applied elsewhere by those with experience of the way the Silicon Valley works.

With that in mind, I recently took up the offer of an adjunct professorship at NUS Business School, furthering my association with the university as an adviser to NUS Enterprise.

It's an opportunity for me to share my expertise, to help support ambitious Singapore start-ups and scale them into world-leading enterprises. And it is an opportunity to uncover some "diamonds in the rough" - the emerging business ideas that need that extra little lift to truly shine.

Singapore has already built a solid foundation for its own entrepreneurship ecosystem. It will not be a facsimile of Silicon Valley, but by developing and nurturing its own magic formula it can be part of a new generation of "Valleys" based upon its own culture and circumstances.

With government support and its strong educational infrastructure, Singapore is well past the early phase of generating excitement about start-ups. Its world-class universities are investing heavily in supporting entrepreneurs, fuelling the flames of creativity and turning ideas into viable businesses.

Now the challenge is to focus that energy on developing ambitious entrepreneurs and businesses with regional and even global reach. Doing so requires individuals willing to take that risk, who can develop networks outside of their home turf and are willing to accept and adapt to different ways of working.

It's also important to seek the advice of others, listening to and understanding what they have to say. As the old Cub Scout motto says, "be prepared".


As an angel investor, it's exciting to see in Singapore so many optimistic, energised entrepreneurs, eager to bring their products to market. All too often in many parts of the world, scepticism is what dominates. A tendency to find reasons why something won't work - rather than reasons why it will - spells death to creativity and innovation.

Having instead a positive mindset - a passion for your product - is critical for entrepreneurs to succeed. Passion is about having a belief in your product, that it can change lives and that it is the best it can be.

Equally important is the personality to convey that passion to others, to those who can help bring dreams to reality.

But passion and personality alone are not enough. Dreams, however big and potentially world-changing, can quickly fade or run out of steam, and too often great ideas die because the entrepreneurs behind them are dazzled by short-term success.

Almost always this comes down to the simple reason of failing to set out a viable business plan.

A willingness to take risks goes with the territory of being an entrepreneur. But youthful ambitions must be tempered and risks must be calculated, aligned with a strategy, and drafted into a comprehensive plan.

To experienced business leaders, this might seem obvious. For headstrong and ambitious young entrepreneurs, however, this can often be ignored in an overconfident rush to get their product to market.


Among many of the younger generation, especially here in Asia, there is a drive to start a business simply because everyone is doing it. Enthusiasm should be encouraged, but it should also be moderated - passion must be balanced with pragmatism.

Increasingly, I read articles or hear talks saying entrepreneurs should not be afraid to fail, that a cultural fear of failure - especially here in Asia - is what prevents many from realising their entrepreneurial potential.

I believe this risks encouraging the wrong mindset.

If you think about failure and you have a safety net, people begin to think, "Oh, I can fail, and there won't be any consequences".

Many Asian cultures have an inbuilt aversion to failure - I don't believe that is a liability; instead, it is an asset.

In the hundreds of start-ups I have mentored, we never talk about failure, only success. To borrow a phrase from Apollo 13, failure is not an option.

Yes, mistakes are inevitable; but I believe that over-emphasising failure encourages the wrong mindset.

In Silicon Valley, companies are born and die every day. There is no safety net and that is a powerful influence pushing entrepreneurs to succeed.


Singapore's prosperity comes in part from its fortunate geography, placing it at a key strategic trading crossroads. It is still an important asset. Today that position and Singapore's cultural mix are competitive advantages that can help it become a world-class launch pad for entrepreneurs and their ideas.

Generating the critical X factor energy to fuel this means adopting and adapting aspects of Valley culture, and then fusing them with Singapore's own unique strengths and advantages.

After 30 years in the start-up business, I am excited to bring my advice and experience to NUS Business School, helping to bring this into reality and mentoring a new generation of global entrepreneurs.

The writer is Adjunct Professor of Strategy & Policy at the National University of Singapore Business School, CEO of Lee Technology Consulting, and an angel investor, venture capitalist and mentor to start-up management teams.

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