Brunei start-ups should explore ‘developing backyard’

|    Danial Norjidi    |

CHALLENGING times actually offer great opportunities, and it is important for businesses to gain exposure to the opportunities in “our developing backyard”.

These were some of the points highlighted by Adrian Tan, a seasoned lean start-up coach who has mentored and scaled over 1,000 start-ups and large enterprises in Asia, while speaking in an interview with the Borneo Bulletin.

Adrian is the Programme Director of the Vietnam Innovation Start-up Accelerator (VIISA), an accelerator and venture fund based in Vietnam with $6 million to invest in over 100 promising young ventures to grow them into globally competitive players over the next five years.

Entrepreneurs and executives also turn to Adrian for agile development, human-centred design and corporate innovation. His client list includes Schneider Electric, Manulife, Bosch, Sivantos and several other regional and global names. Originally from Singapore, Adrian is now based in Vietnam.

Adrian was recently in Brunei to lead and conduct a Local Business Development (LBD) workshop on September 28.

Asked for his thoughts on Bruneian start-ups, he said, “I think the consensus, I feel, is that Brunei start-ups may not know how to or they do not feel confident to expand.

“I think that Brunei does have expertise and skills, but it’s just about the exposure of the young people and the businesses to other parts of our developing backyard.”

Asked how such exposure can be attained, he said, “I feel that one of the experiences is really to expose your university students, perhaps through three to six month types of internships, not just in developed countries but also in developing ones.

“So maybe like a programme in Vietnam. For example, I host interns from Singapore who spend six months in Vietnam and being able to feel the pulse and speed of development inspires them to also see opportunities.

“It’s a long-term thing because you need them to be the pathfinders. As you do it year after year you develop a core group of people who are willing to take the leap for local businesses to expand.”

Tan spoke on his own personal experience of finding opportunity in Vietnam after having first visited as a tourist. “The sheer speed of development just astounds me. Back in 2011, I don’t remember that many cars on the round, and I saw a Bentley SUV the other day.

Adrian Tan, Programme Director of the Vietnam Innovation Start-up Accelerator. – DANIAL NORJIDI

“The pace of development inspires me, and I think for myself on a personal level, I ask myself ‘what is my unique value proposition as a person?’” he said. “For me, in Vietnam, the macroeconomic aspects look great – 100 million people, 50 per cent under the age of 30, and you know that middle-class is going to consume.

“So I saw a lot of opportunities. It was a personal decision, there was a pull factor, and I think it was, in my own small way, helping Singapore businesses to expand,” he said. “We tend to forget our backyard. Even in Singapore, there’s a bias to look at the first world.”

He added, however, that the opportunities are in “places that are growing” and “places that need help”, saying, “that’s where I think your value comes in, and I’ve been very fortunate to get the opportunity to do that.”

Tan also spoke on VIISA. “We run a three-month programme where we invest in start-ups. We are also a six million dollar seed stage fund, and our goal is to identify early-stage companies of $1 million valuation and under, and we take a big approach to invest in 30 companies a year, because we know that we just need a few to make it big, but at the same time, identify talents in this market that we can invest in.”

He also noted that he conducts a programme to help global start-ups with market access.

On what he feels Brunei has to offer, he said, “I think you have an educated workforce, you’re English-speaking, you’re blessed with resources, and you can invest in a lot of these fast-growing businesses in the region, and you can also put Bruneian workforce into these markets.”

A common problem raised by start-ups pertains to attaining capital. Asked on this, Tan said, “I think, number one, there is capital, and I think there is a lot more capital than start-ups need, actually. It’s just the gap between the expectations of investors and the expectations of start-ups.

“So a lot of what we do is educating start-up founders on how you raise money, when you raise money and at what valuation you should raise money. It’s through that knowledge that realistic valuations can be done.

“On the other hand, from the investor side, we are also educating them that investing in start-ups, you can’t look at it as real-estate. You’ve got to look at it as a restaurant (for example). This is someone’s dream. You don’t bargain down on someone’s dream. Yet, how then do you view start-up investments?

“So some of the talks and workshops that are run are for investors, just helping them understand that viewing start-ups as alternative investments like art. Immediate returns are not just your ROI (return on investment),” he continued. “Your immediate returns could be exposure to emerging technology, inspiration for your staff, hedging your traditional business to disruptive technology, and sometimes, many times, it’s also inspiring the younger generation of the family officers to take over, because the young people want to do tech.”

Concluding, Tan went on to highlight that challenging times actually offer great opportunities. “It’s a great time right now to start thinking about starting up.

“It’s about how to encourage more companies to get out there, because these are going to be your explorers, and you need to equip them with the right tools to go out and explore.”

The LBD Workshop on Lean Start-up Principles that Adrian led and conducted was part of a two-day LBD Programme, which included the LBD Forum that took place a day prior.

The 2017 LBD Programme was organised by Asia Inc Forum and its Major Partner Baiduri Bank, and supported by the Borneo Bulletin as media partner and MMW as creative partner.