Southeast Asia - The Next Big Opportunity
Mar 27, 2020 by Brian Ma
I’m starting an accelerator for southeast asia. For those that aren’t super familiar with the region, that means companies that primarily serve customers in countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Those of you that tried to reach me last week have gotten an auto response that I’ve stepped away from Divvy. Divvy is doing great and I’m very thankful for my cofounders, team, and investors for supporting me through this transition. Given all the emails I’ve already received asking ‘What’s next’, I thought it would be easier to write about it publicly and post about what I’ve been up to.
Making the decision to leave the company I founded has been one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life, but just like I knew back in 2016 that I had to start Divvy Homes or else I’d miss the Proptech wave, now again I’m faced with the dilemma of starting Iterative or else I’ll miss the Asian century.
Southeast Asia’s Economy has hit an inflection point
Southeast Asia is growing incredibly fast. After founding, helping, and just generally being around startups for the past 15 years of my life, I now know that growth rates are the signals you should follow. High growth rates lead to large TAMs very quickly. But why is this region growing so fast? A couple reasons:
- There are now 350 million internet users - About 40% growth in the past 4 years. That’s about 2 million new people every month that experience the internet for the FIRST time and entirely on mobile. For comparison, the US has about 320 million internet users, and it took about 30 years to get here.
- USD $100B in internet economy - for the first time, people now have access to instant communication, entertainment, education, and ecommerce (product, travel, food, etc). This economy has TRIPLED in the past 4 years with eCommerce and Ride-Hailing leading the charge. By 2025, it’s estimated that this will triple again to $300B. It’s not hard to see that multiple unicorns are going to be coming from this region - and they’re being built right now.
- Fintech is about to breakout - the adoption of digital payments (one of my personal favorite categories) is expected to cross $1 trillion by 2025. 7 out of 10 adults in Southeast Asia is unbanked and rapidly experiencing financial services for the first time. Building for wealth creation for the quickly growing middle class is going to be very exciting.
- Strong founders are going home - there’s now a big influx of “Sea Turtles” coming home, a term used to describe asians who have finished studies and tech work abroad and are now going home to start companies. Sea Turtles have all been on the founding and exec teams at existing unicorns (Go-Jek, Grab, Traveloka, etc) and we’ll only see more as the founder, talent, and advisor networks start to develop and tech opportunities continue to increase.
- And the government and universities are all on board - the current tech successes are the result of decades of long term planning thanks to multiple government entities and universities. Everything from Block71’s initiatives in Singapore, to MTEP in Malaysia, to programs like Nexticorn in Indonesia. It’s great to see the entire ecosystem pulling together for founders.
So what’s the problem? Lots of capital, but not enough great startups. Why? Because founders aren’t hitting the milestones they need to be hitting for funding.
Southeast Asia needs an Operator-led accelerator
After now talking to over 200 companies (yes, you need customer development as an accelerator too!), it’s quite clear what’s happening. There’s a glut of accelerators in the region, but founders are still finding themselves not able to hit funding milestones to get to the next stage of growth. The VC’s here also confirm that this is true.
We meticulously track our “sales pipeline” with accelerator applications. Have spoken now to over 200 companies.
It kills me every time I hear about a company jumping from accelerator to accelerator diluting themselves to oblivion while making little to no material progress. For those in the US who haven’t seen this behavior before, this is a company diluting themselves 15-20% at one accelerator, not being able to raise money, and then going through another one for another 15-20% dilution. This is more common than reasonable. I’ve even seen companies go through 3 or even 4 accelerators. The worst thing that an ecosystem can do is to waste a high potential founder’s time and energy on things that don’t matter.
Just to make it more concrete, a few key themes have already surfaced on mistakes founders are making:
- Not focusing - Building 10 features poorly to become a “platform” which solves nobody’s problem, rather than one thing 10 times better.
- Copying poorly - Copying straight up US analogs without understanding the local demographics, unit economic, differences in the region, and what actually makes an innovative model work.
- Solving for too many customers - or not knowing what customers they’re really solving for. Many companies also have a hard time strategically thinking through how to stage their target customers and win segment by segment.
- Research without market - not understanding and iterating on the market / go-to-market on long research or long build projects. Founders like to talk about lean, but are struggling to put it into practice.
- Fake “AI” companies - don’t even get me started on this one.
Founders need best practices, mentorship, and support to navigate their startups and we will provide that, along with our network of Silicon-valley based experienced mentors.
It turns out being a founder is REALLY hard, largely because it’s so different than anything else you’ve done in your life. We’re going to be here to help founders through it. While we’ll be providing capital from the get-go ($150k USD investment), the biggest value add will be our time working together during the 3 month program to make sure the company has the traction and position it needs to actually take off on demo day.
While I’ve built several companies from scratch before, I’ve never built a accelerator nor done investing full-time. I’m looking forward to learning from those that have gone before me and excited about this new challenge. Stoked to have the privilege to work with amazing founders as they embark on their journey to impact millions of people.
- If you know any great companies or founders, please have them apply here.
- If you can be a partner, mentor, investor, or advisor, we’d love to talk to you as well. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or just connect with me on Linkedin.
- And lastly, if you just want to come along for the journey, feel free to subscribe to our blog below.
Lets do this!