Startup Asia is one of South-East Asia main tech conferences, with two days of speeches, demo, contests and networking. The opening pre-event talk this week in Singapore was an opportunity to learn more about the differences between South-East Asia countries, and how you have to adapt to a large area made of different languages, religions, sizes, histories and cultures.
It was of course mainly about technology, marketing strategies for startups, but also on local ecosystems and how these countries – these competing countries – built their own communities to enhance innovation, attract creative minds and in the end grab the title of tech capital of South-East Asia.
Our three guests for the night were Reza Budi Prabowo, responsible for Developer Relation at Blaast in Bandung, Indonesia, Oranuch Lerdsuwankij aka Mimee, who heads ThumbsUp, a local tech online magazine in Thailand, and Mike Tran, founder and CEO at Keewi.me, a ticketing solution in Vietnam.
Lack of banking infrastructure as a double-edged sword
A main and shared concern was the poor state of the banking infrastructure in three countries. With different states of advancement towards a connected and banking-ready population, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand to a lesser extent all experience an “online payment gap”. On one hand, their inhabitants are well connected, notably through mobile subscriptions. With a minority of bank account owners, new solutions have to be found.
(sources: World Bank, We Are Social Singapore, MasterCard)
An alternative to online payment with credit card is possible with prepaid credit, virtual currencies or B2B monetization through the phone bill, which in turn allow users to pay for goods and services online.
Birth and growth of start-up scene
All three countries have similar patterns for the birth of their startup scenes, with different timelines. The first batch of startups, usually created between 2006 and 2008, have made possible success stories a few years laters. Buyouts from larger tech companies such as Yahoo with Koprol in Indonesia in 2010 (a Foursquare-like) or Rakuten, Japan’s e-commerce giant, with Thailand’s Tarad in 2009 made exits possible. A second wave of startups, created mostly by students, has hit these countries since 2010-2011.
Still, the race for technology supremacy in South-East Asia is far from solved. Mike, from Vietnam, sees his country 4-5 years behind Singapore, for instance, and it’s almost a mathematical rule: “4-5 years means we have 4-5 less successful investors or startups. If Singapore has 100 top investors, we have 20-25. Same for every part of the tech ecosystem”.
You can check outÂ this informative piece from SGEntrepreneursÂ to know about the main buyouts in South-East Asia.
Bottom-up innovation through communities rather than government
A second trend from these countries is a tedious support for government initiatives, which sometimes understand poorly how to help local tech innovation, when it’s not purely preventing it. Indonesia government is trying to tax bandwidth use, and has a plan to have every website accessible to have a server in the country.
The creativity and innovation come mainly from self-organized tech communities all around these countries. A good advice for people interested in these fields would be to avoid focusing only on capitals. Chiang Mai in Thailand, Bandung and Yogyakarta in Indonesia or Hanoi in Vietnam have lively developer communities, and office space is cheaper too. However, business and investors are still more in Bangkok, Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City.
Cultural differences must be understood
All three countries have very different historical backgrounds, cultures, religion and habits, which must be taken into account for any venture willing to expand in these markets.
A question in the audience asked about how to expand an online dating website in these countries.
- In Vietnam, for instance, it seems awkward to have an open “profile” on a dating website, as can be the norm in Western countries. The trick will be to offer larger groups offline ways to interact, with for instance organization of events such as a picnic, an exhibition or an outdoor activity, then users can hang out without being alone or online.
- In Indonesia, on the contrary, suggests Reza “everybody talks about sex online!”, and chatrooms are popular spots for the youth to meet, talk and eventually date.
- In Thailand, some speak about the “kingdom culture”, which means more conventions when interacting. Taking a picture of someone on the street is possible but after asking.
Tech trends for Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia in 2013
Adventure seekers can try to dig in these trends offered as a conclusion of a fascinating talk.
- Mimee, from Thailand, bets on what she calls “niche radical markets”, with established communities for baby wear or lady beauty for instance. Crowdfunding seemed to be another field to develop, as well as big data monitoring and analytics tools to better understand what internet users say and do.
- Reza’s trends for Indonesia focus on tourism and e-tourism, on e-commerce and online payments as it’s a way to unlock opportunities for every possible venture, with pre-paid credits for instance.
- Vietnam, says Mike, is a traditional country for outsourcing, but gaming is doing pretty well too.
Thanks again folks for sharing these precious insights and Tech in Asia for offering us a though-provoking opening!
2 thoughts on “Tech and cultural trends from Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia”
I missed this talk, and thanks so much for the succinct summary! Really helpful as a guide towards approaching this region.
You’re welcome Tiang !
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