Singapore’s collective efforts toward nurturing its startup ecosystem is now bearing fruit. Recently, Singapore has been listed as the No.8 startup ecosystem in the world. It’s now become the second highest-ranked Asian ecosystem after Beijing and it’s still heading up.
As the 1st volume of our brand new interview series – Startup Ecosystem Expert Interview – we are honored to have Paul Paul Meyers, the Head Coach of Asia Founder Coaching joining us to share his 30 years of experience in the Singapore Startup Ecosystem.
From this interview, you will be able to learn
- Who is Paul and why is his insight valuable?
- Why is Singapore ecosystem great to start a startup or expand to?
- What’s the most important thing (hidden rule) that founders should know?
- What’s the biggest challenge that founders are facing in Singapore?
- Who are the people & organizations founders should know in Singapore?
- What Paul is looking for?
Below is the full transcript of the interview
Welcome today to our startup ecosystem expert interview. I’m very excited to have today an expert for the Singapore startup ecosystem. In every of our startup ecosystem interviews, we are looking at different countries and regions and what is special there, who you should know, what kind of startups are emerging there, and how international entrepreneurs or international startup enthusiasts can actually enter these ecosystems.
Today we have Paul Meyers here and he will help us to get a better glance at the Singapore startup ecosystem. Welcome, Paul.
Thank you, Jelte. Happy to be here.
1. Who is Paul and why is his insight valuable?
Okay, let’s go to the first question. First of all, we would like to get to know you. Could you please introduce yourself to the audience so that we know, who you are and what you do, in the Singapore startup ecosystem?
Sure, happy to. I’ve been in Singapore for just about 30 years. I’m American originally. I came to Singapore as a filmmaker, not as a startup person, not as an entrepreneur.
But my startup experience started really with Internet 1 .0 and helped start a company that was four of us to begin with and ended with 650 of us in a NASDAQ listing, kind of the whole rocket Internet 1 .0 rocket ship. And there I learned to raise money and set up remote teams and understand the entire public company process. And once bitten, I kept going down that path.
So I helped start that company. It was called Asiacontent.com. And we brought Western media brands to the Asian Internet space and did localized versions in eight different countries. And I was the co-founder there and a COO for a while and then head of business development. I then went on and started another couple of companies and probably one of the more successful ones was I got a company called Acme Mobile and we were the largest distributor of mobile games in Southeast Asia. This is before there were app stores or Google Play or anything like that. And when you were buying games and ringtones from telcos. And so I had a team of about 40 people across Southeast Asia ran that for seven or eight years and eventually sold that.
After a couple of years of doing different kinds of things, I moved into the space of helping other founders. I started mentoring, although it wasn’t really called that, it’s more like just giving advice and eventually became the EIR, the Entrepreneur in Residence for MOX, the mobile-only accelerator. which is part of SOSV, one of the largest venture companies in the world right now. And I was the EIR for Southeast Asia.
And that led to me running an accelerator program, a regional accelerator program for Telstra, the Australian Telco, and that was called muru-D. We had an early-stage accelerator program across Asia and eventually then moved on to the Asian Development Bank and helped them set up their venture fund for early-stage impact ventures across Asia.
And then ended that and COVID hit and I re-evaluated what I wanted to do. And I decided I wanted to go full-time into being a founder coach. Taking what I’ve learned over the previous years, all the bumps and bruises and some successes and a lot more bruises and be able to provide guidance and assistance to younger and newer founders. I didn’t have the 7 to 10 years of patience left to do another startup to change the world, but I could help you change the world. So that’s kind of my role now. My company is called Asia Founder Coaching and I’m the coach.
2. Why is Singapore ecosystem great to start a startup or expand to?
Amazing introduction. Thank you so much. Sure. So let’s dive now into Singapore and why this is an amazing startup ecosystem for people.
Singapore is pretty unique in that the government is very hands-on in terms of economic planning. Early on, Singapore was a very small country when it became independent, about 55 years ago. There were about a couple million people here, not very developed, and the government took a very hands-on, pro-planning stance and approach. Over the years, they brought in different technologies to both create jobs and enhance the skill sets of the population. That was very successful.
Singapore, at one point, was the largest manufacturer of hard drives in the world. And that was very much because the government decided that they wanted to bring in this particular industry and they targeted it and made it easier for hard drive manufacturers to come here and set up and train people and create jobs and create wealth in the community. They’re very successful at that. About 15 years ago, really at the very start of the whole entrepreneurial startup ecosystem days, the government decided to put resources, at that point mostly money, into making Singapore a startup hub and making it easy for companies to start here and grow here.
Singapore is still relatively small. For people who don’t know about it, it’s about six million people now. But that’s still pretty small. You look at New York or you look at Jakarta or you look at Bangkok and the cities are bigger then and have more people than Singapore does. So the government’s very conscious of making sure that there’s growth and economic growth and that people are trained and people have job opportunities and it continues. And they’ve been very, very successful at doing this.
If you’ve seen pictures of Singapore, you’ve visited, you see it’s an extremely modern city and a lot of that is due to the government’s very, strong vision and execution prowess to make that happen. 10, 12, 15 years ago, the government decided that they wanted to get in on the startup scene. They see Silicon Valley, they see a little bit of what’s going on in Israel, and they wanna do that. So they started putting money into startups, government funds, and government programs, with some degree of success. It wasn’t super successful, but they learned and adjusted and ultimately got to the point where they started to, rather than invest themselves or hand out money or grants directly, what they do are they funded a number of VCs, local VCs or joint venture VCs outside of Singapore to be the investment arm, right?
Also, the money partly came from the Singapore government and partly came from, just like with any venture capital firm, there are independent investors, different kinds of partners, LPs. So then that covered kind of the initial seed stage funding and a number of companies started up that way and some were successful, some were not. But over the years, the Singapore government also understood that there needed to be different tax laws and different investment capabilities and make it easy for angel investors to come in and benefit from investing in startups. So that ecosystem has essentially grown now to a very, very strong one. And if you look at all of Southeast Asia and ASEAN, Singapore is kind of the leader that way in terms of the structures put into place to enhance the ability to grow companies and grow startups.
So you have a concentration of VCs here, both locally grown ones and foreign ones and joint ventures, okay, who operate regionally because Singapore is a relatively small market. Most of the VCs here in Singapore invest regionally and either that’s Southeast Asia or it’s across Asia, including up into Japan and Korea and India. You have that, you have a number of accelerators here, you have a number of corporate innovation hubs because there’s a number of regional HQs for multinationals here. And so there’s an entire ecosystem that’s been built with a plan in hand from the government to make this happen.
So what’s happened then is you have a number of successful startups, starting from creative technology, if you remember your Sound Blaster card, if you’re of a certain age, that was kind of the first publicly kind of consumer-facing successful story. But then there are a number of companies that have gotten to the unicorn stage and have been bought or gone public, including SEA in the gaming space or Garena or companies like that.
But I think the majority of the companies now that are coming out of Singapore are fintech, deep tech-focused because that’s where the government is putting its incentives. One of the ways that they do this is they make money available in certain sectors in order to draw capital and expertise and other companies in. And then startups kind of grow around that space. So it’s been very smart. They’ve done a very, very good job.
And I think because of that, other countries around Southeast Asia now are looking at the Singapore model and saying, hey, we want a piece of that. We want to make that happen. Indonesia, about seven or eight years ago, said we’re going to do a public-private partnership here to help create an ecosystem of entrepreneurship. And it meant changing some investment laws and changing some legal structures. But they’ve done that. And now Indonesia is kind of booming on the venture side. You see it in Vietnam. You see it starting to happen in the Philippines, and a little bit happening in Thailand. But, you know, everybody looks at the Singapore model and says, wow, that’s really great.
Second, the government has made it extremely easy to set up a company here. I mean, if you and I this afternoon can go in and we write a check for a couple of thousand dollars and we’ll have a private limited corporate structure by the end of the afternoon. It’s very, very easy to do that. It’s clean and clear. So what happ ens then is that a lot of companies that may not be domiciled here in Singapore, they may be a Philippine company or they may be an Indonesian company. They’ll put their assets here and they’ll put their corporate structure here. And that’s where the investment comes in. And that may even be where the IP lies because the legal system is clean and clear. The financial system is clean and clear. Everything’s very easy. It’s not messy or confusing.
So if you’re a Silicon Valley VC, it’s very hard to go into a country, especially the Americans don’t understand how the legal system works or the banking system works. And it’s not familiar. But Singapore has made it really easy, clean, clear international standards. And so a lot of the regional companies then have their IP here and have their bank accounts here and have their money here, which obviously is good for Singapore and keeps them in the center of the universe, which is kind of the point. But they’ve done a really good job at doing that. And it’s been very much government hands-on and saying 10, 15, 20 years out, we want to do this, this, this and this. And then generally they do it. You know, it may be a little different by the time they get there, but, you know, they point the ship in that direction, and off they go. And they’re pretty good at it.
3. What’s the most important thing (hidden rule) that founders should know?
Thank you. This was great. So next question. What’s the most important thing or hidden rule that founders should know if they want to build a startup in Singapore?
I’d say there are two important things that founders need to know if they’re expanding to Singapore. Well, three actually.
One is you need to know why you’re coming here, right? If you think you’re going to become a big player instantly in Singapore, you know, really look at that and study that because it’s deceptively easy looking at it from the outside.
It’s a good place, it’s a great place to be for regional headquarters and a regional hub, okay, because you’re within two hours of, you know, Bangkok and Jakarta and KL and Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, you know, so the centers of a lot of the ASEAN countries are very close to here, very easy, multiple flights, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, those kinds of things.
And having a headquarters here is important, but it’s a very small market. So if you’re looking to sell domestically, especially on a consumer product, it’s pretty tough because I’d say, you know, two-thirds of the population here, so-called 4 million people are Singaporeans, and I’d say a third are workers from abroad. So they tend not to be your customer base. If you have a consumer product, so you have a customer base of 4 million people, which isn’t really that big, and there’s competition no matter what sector you’re in. So selling into the domestic market here on a consumer product is pretty tough.
But there are a lot of corporates here as well, and there’s a lot of corporate regional HQs or maybe the headquarters themselves. So if you’re looking at fintech products and banking and different kinds of deep tech now, which is the focus, that’s a pretty good sale. But what you’d be looking at and coming to Singapore, would be looking at it as a regional play, and this is going to be where you’ll set up because it’s easy to set things up, okay?
But, and this is a big but, because it’s so small, there’s very little local talent, okay? So if you’re looking for software engineers, get ready, you know, you got to spend a lot of money because you’re competing with everybody else. Google’s here, Meta’s here, the banks are here. Unless you’re paying those kinds of fees to your team, it’s going to be very hard to find quality people. So a lot of local companies now hire and outsource development or have teams in Vietnam or Taiwan or used to be Ukraine or Estonia or wherever. Initially, the government wasn’t happy about that because they wanted, you know, to have full employment here and it’s their money. But I think everybody understands now that there’s a limit to how many people there are in Singapore and, you know, you could have a hundred great software engineers, but if you need 10,000 of them, it just doesn’t exist here. So a lot of your technical human resources are going to probably be somewhere else, okay? That’s a big surprise to people when they come here.
And also that if you’re looking at it with regional sunglasses on, every region is different, you know, Thailand’s not the Philippines, not Indonesia, not Taiwan, you know, each region is a different market with different laws and different consumption patterns and different kinds of companies can have different kinds of needs. So from afar, and I’m talking like as an American here, but I see it from Europeans as well, that from afar, it kind of looks like a unified block of, oh, ASEAN looks cool, you know, but it’s very, very distinct, different countries, laws, regulations, industries. And so Singapore is a great place to domicile yourself, but each one of those places is a very different market.
So be prepared for A, lack of human resources, technical human resources on the ground, and B, it’s not one size fits all coming to the attractive 800 million people of ASEAN which looks like a nice juicy market. It’s really like seven different countries, right? I think those are the big surprises that I’ve seen for companies setting up here.
4. What’s the biggest challenge that founders are facing in Singapore?
You already covered my next question, which is what are the biggest struggles for entrepreneurs to start in Singapore? Is there anything else where you would say this is a particularly hard struggle for entrepreneurs in Singapore or startups entering the Singapore market?
I think a lot of founders are surprised by the competition in Singapore. You know, it’s a small country. From afar, it looks like it’s pretty easy. Come on in, set up, and step on the gas. But in most instances, you’re going to find competition in the sector that you’re in. Some of them are well-funded, some of them domestically funded, and some of them are already regionally established, so you have more competition than it would look like initially from afar.
So I think I teach a course on expanding in Southeast Asia, and one of the things I recommend, like every three minutes, is come, get your feet on the ground, research, talk to people, understand your market really well, because what it looks like from afar is different than what it is when you’re actually on the ground here. So while Singapore has this great, beautiful open door saying, yes, come on in, we’ll help you set up, we’ll get you a bank account, we’ll get you these kinds of things, that’s great, but that’s different than actually doing business here.
Establishing your business is really easy, doing your business might be harder than you initially anticipated. So doing research first and coming here and coming to the different markets where you’re thinking of expanding is very important. And expansion is pretty much required if you’re coming to Southeast Asia, which means Singapore.
5. Who are the people & organizations founders should know in Singapore?
Great advice here. I’m a big supporter of it takes a whole community of people to raise a startup. So now let’s look at who are the people that you would recommend to other startup founders to know if they want to dive into the Singapore startup ecosystem. So those can be VCs, other startup mentors, founders that are super helpful, anybody who’s really open to supporting founders on the ground or entering the market?
Good question. So a little history is required to answer this question, I think. Initially, there was no ecosystem in the Singapore startup ecosystem. There were no lawyers who are focused on this, and your big four accounting firms were not used to doing fundraising or Series A rounds or Angel rounds or anything like that. There was no infrastructure for the support of a startup company.
Over the years that’s changed, and now there is. Which is really good and they come in all different flavors and shapes and sizes. Small companies to help you set up your business or PWC is to handle early large accounting kinds of multinational issues. Everything in between exists here now.
Accelerators were set up here and lots of people set up accelerators and the government funded them and different companies funded them but as in other parts of the world, we learned that accelerators can do so much and they don’t return capital very quickly. So that if you’re a corporate and you set up your accelerator, it’s not gonna pay for itself in three years. It may pay for itself in ten years but generally, corporates are not like that patient. And there’s a change of the board level or change of the CEO level and the strategy changes so that the corporate accelerators disappear.
I think we’ve gone through that whole cycle here, so now what we’ve seen is, finally, it’s starting to happen where founders have gone through the entire cycle of building companies, if not selling their company or at least being able to monetize some of it and now investing again into other startups. And that’s really the inflection point I feel to make the next phase of what’s going on here in Singapore important because it hadn’t gone through that whole cycle yet.
One of the things about Silicon Valley and other areas where you see a lot of startup success is that the founders then reinvest in other companies. Either they start new ones or they do angel investments or seed investments in different other startups and they help other founders. If you don’t have that, growth is pretty small and slow in the ecosystem. Past 3 or 4 years, that’s changed in Singapore. And you have founders who go through the entire cycle and now reinvesting. Starting their own companies or founding somebody else. That’s really accelerating what’s going on.
The same thing happens with the VCs, you know, like you raise funds and you hope that in three or five or seven years, you have some successes that you get the money back and you can get a new fund going or grow the funding mechanism. So we’re seeing that as well. On both sides, the founder side and the investor side, you have experience now, people have gone through the cycles, and they understand how it works, the good, the bad, and the ugly of how all of the startup ecosystem works. There’s some wisdom here and there’s some money here that has experience, right? And I think that’s really important.
Let’s start with the government then. The government makes it very easy for companies to set up in Singapore if they’re in specific target sectors right now. Deep tech is one of those sectors. FinTech was, it’s a little less so now. But like deep tech and a lot of food-related startups are being attracted to come to Singapore because the government has said, these are areas where we want to excel and we want to build up our strength. So the government has some programs for that. That would be the first door I’d knock on and look at. What part of the government’s offering, what kind of incentives and what kind of money and how do they make it easy to land and set up here.
There aren’t too many independent accelerators left. One that I like quite a bit because I used to work with the people who run it, is called Accelerating Asia. And it’s kind of like, It assumes that you’re already a relatively successful, solid startup, and you have traction, and you have a team, and you have a product, and you have product-market fit, and all those kinds of things. And in many ways, it’s kind of like a graduate accelerator program. It gets you to the point where you can start to raise money. So that’s very good. It’s hard to get into. It’s very competitive, but they’re very successful. And they attract the best VCs as well, so that if you’re in this accelerator program – Accelerate Asia, they will help you get in front of the VCs and introduce you. There’s a good relationship there.
In terms of VCs, local VCs that I know and work with earlier-stage startups – Golden Gate Ventures, they’ve been around for a long time. They were one of the very first VCs that got initial funding from the Singapore government and have grown to have a few nine-figure funds now, at least one. I don’t have my facts in front of me, but at least one nine-figure fund that they’re investing in regionally. And they tend to invest at different levels of a company’s growth, so it sticks with you.
So this was already great advice on some institutions and organizations to know if you want to enter the Singapore market, but now coming to people. Because at the end, great startup ecosystems, they are based on people, right? The founders that come back and invest. Who would you say are three to five amazing people in the startup ecosystem in Singapore that you would recommend to anybody that they should know them?
Okay, great question. I think what we’ve seen in Singapore are founders who become investors or investors who have moved on to work at key positions and sort of your three big supporters of the ecosystem, you know, Meta and Google and AWS all have programs that support founders here. So some people I’d recommend speaking to, Jeffrey Paine from Golden Gate is certainly one of them. He’s one of the original OG kind of VCs and has been through it from very much the first days of being a venture capitalist here, and has been very successful and is very happy to share information.
An early accelerator program here in Singapore was called JFDI, maybe the first one actually. And so there are a lot of alumni who have come out of that. It doesn’t exist anymore, but a lot of the alumni who have come out of that now have positions in the ecosystem.
So Adrian Tan, who is one of the people there, now helps startups out of AWS. Fannie Soubiele is doing the same thing for Google for startups. These are people who have been in this business now for 10 or 12 years and have really seen it grow from nothing to this. And they have a lot of expertise and viewpoints on that.
Michael Blakey from Cocoon Ventures came as an angel investor from the UK and now has a small but powerful venture firm here, based here called Cocoon Ventures. And he’s very generous in terms of his knowledge and learnings and, you know, very frank, but he’s always willing to talk and help other founders. And I think that that’s really important. So those would be some of the people that I’d recommend.
6. How can the global community support Paul?
Cool. No, that’s great.
Coming to the last question. So we dive into the startup ecosystems. Today we dive into Singapore and we pick your brain on what to do and what to know about Singapore. However, we also want to return the favor and we want to know what the global community can actually do for you, and how they can help you. Is there anything where we can support you or the listeners can support you?
I think one of the things, so the last couple of years I’ve been on this new adventure of becoming a coach, right? And unlike my advice to founders, I didn’t research the market first. I didn’t look for where there were gaps, did none of my research, didn’t follow my own advide. I just decided, hey, I’m going to be a coach. And so I’ve had varying degrees of success doing this. But I’ve learned a few things along the road.
And one of those is that, especially for first-time founders, asking for help can be hard, right? We all know if you’ve been in the driver’s seat as a founder starting a new company, that it’s very difficult on many fronts. There’s a lot to learn. There’s always going to be problems. There’s a lot of emotion here and there. There’s family partner wear and tear. There’s you don’t sleep well, you don’t eat well, you don’t exercise well. And so for many founders, it’s very hard to say. Help, I need help, yikes, you know, reach out.
It may not be apparent that it’s okay to do so, and they may not know where to go to ask for those kinds of assistance. So as a coach, what I’d say is to reach out, and ask questions. If you’re stressing and you’re having problems, and we all do, it’s not just you, and it’s not a dirty little secret, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, it just means that you’re in the middle of it, and there is expertise out there, and there is experience out there, both with other founders, but then also with, specifically with founder coaches, who have been founders who understand what’s going on, reach out and ask questions and ask for help.
And what I’d say is if you have and are experiencing those kinds of things, and we all do, feel free to get in touch. My hashtag is #BetterCallPaul, has a nice ring to it, and that’s exactly what it is, come and let’s see what we can do together. Let’s see how I can help you, and if I can’t help you, let’s see if I can steer you to places that can help you. That doesn’t necessarily mean raising money or making your company successful, but it means less wear and tear on you and helping you become a better founder and maybe change the world in a very positive way, which is why you’re doing this, right? So I’m all for that, and I’m all for supporting founders in that, so that’s what I’d say.
This is amazing. So if you are an entrepreneur looking for a coach, reach out to Paul. And you can have a first session chatting about what problems you have. And I can definitely underline this and stress this not enough. As a founder, you will face tons of problems and not everything is about business. So you need someone to steer to talk with, right? Paul is for that.
Thank you so much. This was an amazing session. Really good insights on the Singapore startup ecosystem. And yeah, we are looking forward to connecting you to other global startup ecosystem experts in the next couple of sessions. Hopefully, also more deep dive into the region, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, because all of this is very exciting and different, as you mentioned. And yeah, looking forward to that. Thank you so much, Paul, and have a great day. Great. Thank you.
About Paul Meyers
Paul is a popular veteran Asian entrepreneur – with 3 exits, 2 train wrecks and a zombie – who has been coaching startup founders through his Asia Founder Coaching platform since 2020.
With a long history on all sides of the entrepreneurial journey – founder, investor, board member, accelerator head, mentor and VC builder – Paul is now leveraging his experience as a Founder Coach to help other Founders discover their best selves and help change the world.
He offers private and group coaching engagements, as well as the renowned monthly Founders Circle mastermind sessions in Singapore and across the region.
A long-time Southeast Asia resident, Paul lives in Bangkok (but works regionally can be reached via LinkedIn or via email@example.com
About Start Ecosystem Expert Interview
Founders Lair is conducting a series of interviews where we go pick the brilliant brain of startup ecosystem builders on our platform to share their valuable insights about the startup ecosystem they are in.
We hope this personal observation from startup veterans can prepare global startup enthusiasts with the mindset that they need when entering that market.
You will be able to learn
- Why is that region great to start a startup or expand to?
- What’s the most important thing (hidden rule) that founders should know?
- What’s the biggest challenge that founders are facing in that region?
- Who are the people and organizations that founders should know in that region?