I so wanted to write this post, but I was concerned. I technically delayed 2 months thinking about whether I should write this or not. I was concerned about what the community would say, I was concerned about what my potential and current investors would say, but heck I do think some of these things I came across would help fellow entrepreneurs out there!
I was in Singapore for a good month in February, getting a know many people in Singapore. I talked to fellow entrepreneurs, VCs, government regulators and many different kinds of feeders and leaders in the Singaporean start-up community. I wanted to understand the eco-system. I had, at one point, even thought of basing myself in Singapore, mainly because it’s much easier to travel back and forth to Sri Lanka where I am originally from. I had visited Singapore many times earlier, but was never to do anything entrepreneurial. I was a tourist. I had only seen Singapore from a tourist eye. Well, I liked what I saw as a tourist. That sort of made me want to go and explore Singapore in to ventures. I have to be honest, it’s not what they paint it in media to be. It’s much different. Below are a few reasons why Singapore has a long way to go as a startup community.
The ‘culture’ doesn’t fit a start-up community. What I mean by culture here is not the startup culture, the culture in the society in general. I wouldn’t say Singaporeans are rude, but the culture isn’t open. They mind their own business (which might be a good thing in a way). Hardly talk. I have not come across many Singaporeans who would smile with you. May be it’s a Chinese-type of a thing? That’s what an Italian I met said. After a few days I was very frustrated about this, really. I am not used to NOT smile with people, NOT look people in the eye and talk, etc. I am used to make friends, hang-out, make a joke about things and what not. I don’t think anyone would care even if you were dead on a side-walk. I personally experienced a situation where an old man had fell off of an escalator at China Town and seemed to be bleeding pretty bad, but not a single person gave a rats-ass! Everyone would look at him and just walk away. If this was States or even Sri Lanka, it would have been very different. The culture in general makes it very difficult for people to get used to.
The Statup Comunity is really, really small. Based on what the press talks about Singapore, you tend to think the startup community is vibrant and much larger. Not really! It’s only a few people. A famous VC in Singapore told me that Bangkok’s scene is much bigger and much more vibrant than Singapore and I was shocked! The government always talk about South East Asia when they talk about entrepreneurship, because they want the place to be the startup hub in SE Asia. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s much more in other communities than Singapore. You can technically have 100K in hand, call yourself a VC and still people would not know.
There’s a much bigger language barrier than we think there is. You automatically tend to think the in Singapore, people speak very fluent English, but not really! I was having a very hard time communicating with some of the startup founders. I am talking about local here, not the folks who’ve come down to Singapore from different parts of the world. I think Indians speak much better. It’s a bit frustrating when you are not able to make a joke or whatever when you speak. The government has done a much better job in getting people to read and write in English comparing to some of the neighboring countries.
It’s ungodly expensive! I don’t think I’ve ever lived in any other place as expensive as Singapore. To make you understand how expensive it is in Singapore, a single room in the down town would cost you about $900 to $1200. I once looked at a room in Yishun, which is about 30 minutes on the MRT, then about 20 to 25 minutes in LRT and then about a 15 minute walk, was priced at $650. The apartment had 4 rooms. The owners family (mother, father and a child) in one room, 2 girls in a common room, another mom and two children in the 3rd room and he was renting the 4th room and that is what we were looking at. That’s how many people were in one apartment not to mention how small these apartments were. Singaporeans in general are very frustrated about their living standards, really. In most of these apartments, you are not allowed to cook either. Here’s what Numbeo says about Singapore costs, but I don’t think it’s accurate. In the US, one could at Mcdonals and get a minimum wage paycheck and yet afford to rent an apartment, own a car, etc etc. In Singapore you can’t even own a room if you work at Mcdonals. Forget about owning a vehicle. I met several founder who thought moving to Valley or any where else is better than Singapore, because of its the costs they are not able to cover. I personally got sick of paying for my mobile tariffs and data usage.
Government regulations are not as good as they say it to be. I have started to doubt the ratings on Singapore for ‘Regulations’ in Benjamin Joffe’s ‘Ecosystem 101: The Six Necessary Categories To Build The Next Silicon Valley’ post on Techcrunch. Sure enough, regulators have marketed the hell out of Singapore, but rules are not flexible enough for a startup community. There’s no paypal in Singapore anymore, the banks have much higher transaction fees, there’s no proper visa scheme introduced for startupers and the list goes on and on. There’s absolutely no proper mechanism for them to filter tech communities from anyone else doing business in Singapore. For those who are in to commodity sales, etc would have better changes of getting things setup than a tech startup.
Too much pride? Singaporeans sure have some pride about their selves. There’s nothing wrong with having a pride about the country and being patriotic, but some times it might look like racism so they have to be careful! I have lived in southern part of US in Ark-LA-Tex area where everyone says that’s the most racist part in US for two years, but I never felt anything like this there either. Everyone was much friendlier. This situation in Singapore starts to annoy you after a little while.
Show me the money! This is very frustrating at times. The money first type of a culture is really bad for a startup eco system, because any startup community is made with a lot of givers mentoring founders. I faced a situation where the server at a restaurant didn’t keep the food on the table until I paid for the food as if I was going to run after the meal. I was with my wife too. All hotels are pre-paid. It’s not like the US or Sri Lanka where you pay at checkout. In Singapore you pay for everything before you receive the service. If the service is bad, too bad for you, just don’t go to that place again.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they had banned me from entering Singapore ever again for writing this post!