Expert Insights: Expanding to Singapore with Simon Brender

In our Rainmaking Expand: South East Asia program, we are closely working together with companies to accelerate and establish their growth into markets within South East Asia. Within the cohort, there is a great interest in Singapore, where we have invited Simon Brender to offer his insights and expertise around entering the Singaporean market.

Singapore offers a unique entry point for startups looking to expand both within ASEAN and further afield. Looking beyond the physical proximity to other major markets across Asia, great transport links, access to a global talent pool, stable currency, high living standard and a business-friendly taxation and regulatory environment, Singapore has long been established as a leading Financial, Legal and Technology hub within the region. The National Research Foundation reports that 80 of the world’s top 100 technology companies have established a presence in Singapore, including Google, Microsoft, AWS and many others. In recent years, the Singapore Government has recognised the development of a robust startup ecosystem as being a strategic priority and invested significant resources, under the ‘Research Innovation Enterprise 2025 plan’ (RIE2025), to help nurture the local startup ecosystem and establish itself as a regional hub for startup funding and innovation.

All indications are that these investments are paying off. Singapore now offers the highest VC Funding per capita globally (Source: Pitchbook). January to August 2022 alone has seen c. US$10.9 billion invested in Singapore-based startups, representing 63% of South East Asia’s combined investments over that period (Source: Deal Street Asia). The recent introduction of the Oversees Network and Expertise (ONE) Pass, continued growth of Family Offices and continued momentum in new Funds being raised within Singapore offer huge potential for even faster growth of this already vibrant ecosystem over the years ahead and provides a great platform for the startup community, whether looking to setup in Singapore or as a stepping stone towards international expansion.

Singapore is very attractive for companies to expand into. We sat down for a quick interview with Simon to dive further into what companies should consider when approaching Singapore.

I want to give a big thank you to our guest today, who has shared such great insights on the Singaporean markets to companies in our programs looking to enter the region. To start off with, would you like to introduce yourself?

I’m Simon Brender. I started my career in early-stage B2B startups in London before being fortunate enough to take on a short-term advisory engagement for a group of investors in Dubai. I loved Dubai and didn’t want to leave so personal factors led to me taking on a Project Management role with one of the largest regional banks (EmiratesNBD), as part of the transition team helping to consolidate systems following a recent merger. I moved back to London towards the tail end of the Global Financial Crisis and worked in various roles with established public software companies (BMC and Informatica). That early part of my career never left me though and the desire to move back into the startup community led me to late-stage US-based startups (Protegrity and DataRobot) and ultimately Singapore. Getting back into an environment where I’ve had the opportunity to build teams and work with clients across such a vibrant and varied region has been hugely satisfying and reignited my passion for helping B2B startups at even earlier stages.

That is amazing, and great to see someone so passionate in this area. You definitely bring a lot of value to the companies that you work with. Would you be able to outline some of the key reasons you believe companies should consider when entering Singapore?

Very few people would argue against Singapore being one of the most multicultural cities in Asia. The unique mix of the population provides a great entry point for international expansion for both startups expanding from the East and those expanding from the West. As it’s a relatively small city, opportunities to integrate and interact with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences are easy to come by, creating a very heavily interconnected community that gives you access to a really varied talent pool and some truly world-class professionals. Not to mention the support that the Singapore Government offers to the startup community – I’d be remiss to not call out the support EDB (Economic Development Board of the Government of Singapore) and IMDA (Infocomm Media Development Authority), in particular, have provided me over the years.

When you’re looking to build out a business in Singapore, it’s important to recognise that the market in Singapore is mature in its adoption of technology and provides a great starting point for attracting initial customers but you also have easy access to the rest of Asia, thanks to the efficiency of Changi airport! Time zones work well for collaborating with other founders and peers across other major startup ecosystems and Singapore’s favourable position as a neutral and business-friendly country makes it easier to transact globally.

Absolutely, it is important to recognise the strengths of Singapore within the global ecosystem and leverage it effectively. In turn, what should companies be careful about when entering the Singaporean market, and what mistakes should they avoid?

Given the diversity of companies that we’re seeing looking to enter the Singaporean market, the stage of growth of the company together with the cultural nuances of their home markets all play a factor. Perhaps the most common trend we see is people entering the market and defaulting to what they’re comfortable with and approaches that have worked elsewhere. Whilst there is a lot of overlap across the different communities, people tend to cluster around like-minded professionals from similar backgrounds. Forcing yourself out of that trap can open up a broad range of opportunities and new perspectives that are otherwise hard to gain.

It’s worth making the effort to understand other people’s culture, as well as your own, as it can play a major role in successfully launching in any new market. Whilst this is a point that is fairly widely recognised, there’s a tendency for discussions to focus on protocol and formalities, when the reality is that nuances of how you communicate and negotiate have a much larger role to play. Subtle variations in how information is conveyed, down to how diagrams are visualised, impact understanding especially where there isn’t a shared native language. Differences in the importance placed on relationships over facts and data also play a huge role and are dependent on more than just how people interact. Finding ways to make it easier for a broader pool of interested parties to transact, instils confidence in the company’s commitment to the market and lays the foundations for much healthier long-term relationships.

It’s definitely not unique to Singapore, but for early-stage startups, we often see founders trying to juggle initial sales in new regions alongside wearing multiple hats. Trying to do that with limited bandwidth and, in some cases inexperience in the region, can lead to undervaluing the technology and opportunistic sales that dilute focus, resulting in technical and operational debt.

Like any city, there’s a mixture of really exceptional world-class advisors, service providers and talent and many that don’t live up to expectations. Whilst you can navigate your way over time, identifying coaches and mentors that have experience in these areas saves time and money, so is a great starting point. Keep in mind that Singapore has a mixture of established technology companies and startups from across the globe, therefore, you need to be really focused on understanding who exactly your target customers are, what value you bring to them and what sets you apart.

Thank you Simon for the insights!

In this article, we covered a lot of ground and we recognise that it can be hard to translate into practical steps. To summarise, we encourage all founders and senior executives at companies looking to expand into and across Asia to start with these really simple and (hopefully) easy to follow steps:

  1. Iterate in small steps. Every market across South East Asia is different so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The Go-to-Market strategy will need to be tailored and tested based on your unique selling points and value proposition. Decisions on approach need to be data-driven and fact based. Taking an iterative approach to testing out the market, ahead of investing in local teams, is a great way to avoid over or under committing yourselves. Singapore provides a wide range of multilingual candidates to help with testing the markets.
  2. The Government is your Friend! There are very few countries that are as intentional and effective at helping to grow industries and support the development of companies. Singapore is very clear on its strategic priorities and maps them out in the RIE 2025. By showing a commitment towards Singapore, (co-)developing Intellectual Property and Intangible Assets in Singapore and helping to develop the local Singaporean workforce you will quickly gains credibility, build trust and will see returns in the support received back from the Singapore government.
  3. Formalities are unnecessary (mostly). Across most technologically advanced industries, Singapore has a relatively young and upwardly mobile workforce, many of which are very comfortable meeting in non-business settings and having discussions over messaging apps. Be yourself, have some fun and build a community. It will pay dividends in building closer professional relationships with the market and establishing yourselves as an integral part.
  4. …but read the audience! The diversity of the population within Singapore means that you have to be very attuned to adapting the style of interaction to suit the stakeholders you’re selling to. Building a diverse team helps create a more inclusive feel that better reflects the community you’re selling into and makes it easier for the company to establish the breadth of relationships needed to help drive accelerated growth.
  5. Know your Value. Singapore has established itself as the gateway for South East Asia (and beyond) for enterprises and growth/late-stage startups from around the globe. Combining that together with the vibrant local startup ecosystem creates a highly competitive environment. Having a clear understanding of the pains/gains solved by your solution and your target customers can save you time and money when pursuing opportunities.
  6. Map the territory and lead the charge. Investing the time upfront to identify key technical, delivery and advisory ecosystem partners that work with your target personas can play a major role in identifying opportunities to target. This can help uncover potential candidates to hire and open up access to various speaking and networking events. Whilst these relationships are essential, the crowded market and preference for being agnostic amongst the business community makes it hard to rely solely on partner-led sales. Investing early in building out a scalable direct sales motion (even if only to kick-start a Product-Led Growth Strategy) is essential for standing out from the crowd.
  7. Three Two-degrees of Separation: Due to Singapore’s size, the business community is very closely interconnected and therefore easier than most to navigate. News travels fast across the city and reputations are formed fairly quickly. Making yourself visible and meeting as many people as possible is a great way to build your profile – it’s a very sociable city and most people are very happy to meet strangers and share their experiences and advice. Make sure you make the most of that.
  8. Choose your Advisors wisely. Singapore is a hotbed of investors and professionals from across the globe that can help open doors and accelerate growth. Whilst there is a lot of overlap across populations, they tend to cluster around like-minded professionals from similar backgrounds. Surrounding yourself with the right investors and advisors (whether formal or informal), at the right stage of the company’s growth, can have a profound impact on the pace of growth.

Interested in joining a dynamic program to support you through your Market Entry needs and collaborate with you to achieve commercial outcomes. Explore one of our market entry programs now.

This article is part of the Understanding Market Expansion Series, stay tuned for more articles and insights.

This article is a guest post written by Simon Brender, which has been edited and adapted by the Rainmaking team for publication.

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October 11, 2022
This post was written by a guest author.