• Singapore Sling: Entrepreneurs Head In – and Out – of Tiny Island Nation


    Murli Ravi is the head of South Asia investments for JAFCO Asia, and from his perch in Singapore, he’s never seen so much cross-border activity as in the last 12 months. Ravi joined JAFCO in 2008, after studying the regional venture community as a senior analyst with INSEAD. “Let’s just say I’ve made three trips the U.S. in 2013. I made zero trips to the U.S. in the four years prior,” he observes.

    Late yesterday, we Skyped with Ravi to learn more.

    Globalization is an ongoing trend. What are you seeing?

    I cover a lot of territory – Southeast Asia, India, Australia – and I’m seeing a preponderance of people not just coming to Singapore and staying here, including U.S. companies, but I’m seeing startups in Singapore whose attitude is to quickly expand. I see many more of them looking to enter China and India, which are both about five hours away [from Singapore] by plane, and even sometimes Japan and Europe and the U.S.

    What’s changed in the last 12 months?

    I think Southeast Asia as a whole just has a much larger pool of talent coming online now for startups to harness. Also, historically, broadband penetration wasn’t high. Incomes were low. The smart guys would typically leave. All of those patterns are reversing.

    What types of companies are coming to Singapore from the U.S.?

    Broadly, you have a lot of small U.S companies and Australian companies and even Japanese companies that are realizing that Southeast Asia is an interesting market. If you just look at the English-speaking countries across the region – India, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and almost all the others have some English in a business context – that’s close to two billion people, or roughly 30 percent of humanity.

    You also see companies move here because [their product is better suited to the market in Asia]. I sit on the board of a company called Bubbly , formerly Bubble Motion, that was founded in the Valley but moved to Singapore.

    I remember reading about that move and thinking that it boiled down to lower costs for the company.

    Well, Bubbly is a social messaging service like Twitter, except that instead of read and tweet, you speak and listen, which also appeals to the markets here. Unlike on Twitter, where you’re talking to the world and hoping someone will talk back, with Bubbly, it feels like someone is talking to you because you hear them in your ear, whether it’s a friend or a celebrity who has recorded a message about picking up her kids or an upcoming show. Unlike on Twitter, by the way, consumers here are also willing to pay to listen to celebrities. Right now, the biggest markets for Bubbly are India, Japan, Indonesia, Philippines – all of which have their own celebrities.

    Do other recent transplants jump to mind?

    A couple of other companies that have taken the same route are Vuclip — which hasn’t quite moved its headquarters to Asia, but does focus mostly on Asian and especially Indian audiences — and Mig33 — which did move and has seen success in Indonesia in particular.

    You also have companies like Line and Kakaotalk that didn’t originate in Southeast Asia but now have a huge user base in this region. Coincidentally or otherwise, these messaging companies have a lot of similarities with Bubbly.

    What about enterprise companies?

    It’s so far been a little less common for enterprise companies to move here, and I see that as a major untapped opportunity. There are lots of inefficiencies in the way big business is done in some of the countries here, which gives more competitive firms from elsewhere a potential advantage if they choose to come here. Equally, some startups from this region who are able to thrive here have shown that they are quite capable of stepping onto the world stage, because the historical lack of resources available to small companies is a sort of trial by fire.

    Corrections: The original version of this story featured news of a particular celebrity on Bubbly; while the celebrity is expected on the platform soon, he isn’t yet “live” on the network, we were told after this piece was published.

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