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Tips on how to grow a startup in international markets

Talent@SWITCH Entrepreneurship Exposure series aims to educate youth on entrepreneurship.

Khalisa Zulkiflee
Khalisa Zulkiflee

Creative writer and comedian on the side.


Published: 23 September 2021, 12:58 PM

Start-ups are quite common now in the business world, as youth prefer having their own businesses instead of working as an employee.

But being a start-up owner sounds easier than it really is.

To help you get a perspective of what the startup and innovation world is like now, Enterprise Singapore, in partnership with National Youth Council and *SCAPE held a webinar on SWITCH as part of the Talent@SWITCH Entrepreneurship Exposure series.

The series is aimed at equipping youth with the necessary skills to become an entrepreneur.

The speakers also shared with youth insights of launching a startup internationally and the differences between startup ecosystems in Singapore and other Asian markets. All three speakers at the webinar began their start-up journey through venturing out on pathways that, at the time, weren’t seen as stable or secure. 

 

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Taking an overseas route to build their careers and businesses was a risky move, especially at such a young age. PHOTO CREDIT: YIRANDING VIA UNSPLASH

 

Oswald Yeo, co-founder of online talent recruitment and career discovery platform Glint, dropped out of college to focus on his startup company full-time and even looked for an international market to house his services when he realised the demand in Singapore wasn’t high. 

Carmen Low, founder of Afterglow, started her career in China working for one of the biggest media companies in the world at 23. She wanted to experience working in the heart of a commerce economy instead of getting a comfortable job in Singapore. 

Harry Pham, president of Eco Vietnam Group (EVG), left his full-time job as an engineer to start EVG, an organisation that aims to improve the quality of life of underprivileged communities and educate youth about civic responsibility.

Here are four tips the three speakers have for youth looking to grow a business in global markets. 

Build networks and connections

As entrepreneurs, having a wide network of contacts is important as these contacts can help provide business opportunities. 

For Carmen, building relationships helped her on two levels – personal and corporate. Through forming a bond with her boss and showing him her strengths, she managed to play a bigger role in a landmark cross border project that was at the time “hundred times beyond her pay grade”.

 

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Professional networking can also open new doors for opportunities. PHOTO CREDIT: ANNIESPRATT VIA UNSPLASH

 

On a corporate level, relationships have also helped expand her business. Carmen is planning on a market expansion into China’s markets and her business partner there is the person she got to know on the first day she started work in China 10 years ago. 

The panel stressed the importance of making friends from different countries as a student because it can help your business in the long run to have partners, investors and clients you can trust. 

Picking the right people in your team

When expanding into global markets and building a team overseas, Oswald believes that having the right leader to manage the team is crucial as the country manager serves as a bridge between the headquarters and the local market in that country. 

His country managers tend to be locals of that country with international backgrounds as it makes it easier for them to understand the cultures and languages of both sides.

To further verify the people he hires, Oswald does filtering through reference checks and making sure that they have established reputations in the industry. 

Another way Oswald chooses his team members is by ensuring his hires have the same values as his company. He hires and evaluates their performances against a single set of company values, and this ensures that while there may be cultural and heritage differences the people in the company are like-minded individuals. 

Similarly for Harry, values are the biggest asset they look out for in the people they hire. EVG asks for motivations, expectations and values first before they take a look at what skill sets they have. 

Advice for career destinations

The panel also shared advice specific for the cities they grew their businesses in to give youth an understanding of what to expect.

To Harry, Da Nang and Hanoi are developed cities in Vietnam eager for advances in technology and innovation. He also mentioned that Vietnamese people are welcoming, the place affordable and the food delicious. There are many fields that youth could choose to venture into in Vietnam markets such as fintech, e-commerce, investments and real estate. 

According to Harry, the startup ecosystem in Indonesia has grown significantly in recent years, because of the fields that have benefited from the pandemic such as healthtech, online education and remote working.

 

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The pandemic brought about a time of social distancing and caused a boom in provision of online services. PHOTO CREDIT: MIKEY HARRIS VIA UNSPLASH

 

He noted that entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly mainstream among youth in Indonesia as they gain more interest in building careers in a digital economy. 

As China makes policy changes often and the legal framework there is different from what we’re used to here in Singapore, Carmen’s advice to those interested in the Chinese market is to do research constantly to understand the political climate and how it may affect your business. 

She also recommended having a trusted local as a partner to tell you about the realities on the ground, as the news may not always reflect it. 

Besides that, she also expressed the importance of being committed and staying long-term to show investors your dedication to the business. This would also help you in understanding the nuances of Chinese markets better.

Best way to achieve market validation in an international market

Market validation is the process of ensuring there is a need for your product in your target market. 

Harry believes that developing a sample of the product and testing it in the target market to get feedback is one way that can help achieve market validation. After getting feedback, he would enhance the product to better suit their needs. 

When a new product is introduced, it’s always important to send it out for a test run before fully investing all your resources on it. 

For Carmen, her company gained access into Malaysian, US and Europe markets through entering a competition designed by Enterprise Singapore. With the platform they had, they got into foreign markets efficiently. 

Another way she recommended was by having a local partner in a foreign market to help them understand how their products and services can be enhanced to fulfil the needs of the target market. A strong local partner would also be able to help in the distribution network and connections. 

With Oswald’s company, they decided to take on a different approach of speaking with customers and seeing if their services gain traction. Using a sales engine, a repeatable way to gain sales, they managed to gauge when they gained market validation and were earning enough to start expanding their business further.

A word or phrase to describe their entrepreneurial journey

The webinar ended off with the three founders describing their startup journeys to encourage and inspire future generations of entrepreneurs.

“Never a dull day,” for Carmen.  

She started this journey young because she never wanted a mediocre life for herself. Now as a founder of a plant-based food company venturing into various foreign markets, she feels she received exactly what she asked for.

 

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These entrepreneurs chose a path less traveled when they made the decision to grow their careers internationally, and now find fulfillment in their businesses. PHOTO CREDIT: MIMITHIAN VIA UNSPLASH

 

“Fulfilling,” Harry stated simply. 

When he was younger, he wanted to do something different and maybe even uncomfortable so he could have the opportunities to learn more about himself and experience more. He gained personal development because he learnt what he liked and didn’t like, as well as experience which helped him well in his business. 

To Oswald, it was about “thinking big but starting small”. 

He started off as an entrepreneur who had big goals but wasn’t action-oriented in the early days. His company also had phases where they were action-oriented but didn’t have big visions. He advised that to create more value in your business, you should have an end-goal, take steps to reach it and be willing to start small. 

Growing up in a comfortable environment such as Singapore may sometimes shelter us from taking risks. These experiences shared are meant to encourage young aspiring entrepreneurs to take a more contrary approach to life and grab opportunities as they come. 


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