journey to the southeast

journey to the southeast

As the end of my year-long sabbatical comes into sight (I can see pretty far!), I’m confronted with real questions like: “where do you want to live?”

Moving out of the US

Being in the US for close to a decade has it perks. I’ve been spoiled by the access to new ideas in technology. When abroad, I realized my tendency (hovering at a 95%) to respond to lifestyle inefficiencies with “there’s an app for this”. Living in Seattle, smack in the middle of Amazon’s home, I was constantly testing out new ways to not checkout my groceries, new ways to have Christmas presents delivered in under an hour, new ways to have said Christmas presents delivered to my own living room. The first time I came back West after traveling for a year, I let out a very happy sigh. US has become a land of familiarity, of unparalleled comfort. There were organic supermarkets, anti-plastic bulk sections, fresh salads with quinoa.

The problem with living in one of the fastest cities in the world is that you get complacent. Isn’t it backwards if $XXXM is going into the next food delivery app when there are scarier and harder problems to solve? A lot of the B2C ideas in the West (cough SF) are focused around making the cushy lives of the wealthy even more comfortable. I am greeted by crypto castles, lifestyle influencers, and all this jargon. People talk ‘disruption’ but the ideas blur into just another raindrop in the middle of a storm.

People who leave say the market’s saturated. I disagree with the phrase for two reasons: 1) there’s plenty of specialized fields that need technology for advancement. The disconnect here is that these fields usually require a PhD unless you’re technical, 2) the market is not saturated as much as there is noise.

So, what’s next?

The question still remains. I want to find the next ‘up-and-coming’, I want to make an impact. There’s almost an altruistic, social good component to the next (job + location = adventure) I want to embark upon.

I settled on Southeast Asia (SeA). The area is diverse in culture and ethnicity, needs and challenges. And more importantly, SeA is a fast-growing developing market that’s hungry and full of untapped talent.

Some stats
  • Collective GDP of SeA is $2.56T (IMF). Growth rate is ~5% (Bloomberg)
  • 50% of SeA is under 30 years old (Accenture)
  • Over 700M of mobile connections (Singtel). This number exceeds the region’s population
  • Over 3.8M new users connected per month (Think with Google)
  • > $323B committed in pipeline towards infrastructure (Seasia), including a Kuala Lumpur-Singapore direct rail
  • 77% of the population in unbanked, and in countries like Cambodia, the figure is as high as 95% (Worldbank)
  • 362% growth in alternative financing (FinTech SG)
  • Chinese tech giants acquisitions and (Fortune)
  • Collaboration of top VCs to capture entire startup life cycle (i.e. Jungle Ventures + Accel = Seedplus)

The data’s all there. Opportunity, people and money.

Communities that are entrenched and highly active on one channel (in this case, mobile) is very valuable. There’s a large testing ground, and it’s easy to scale. It’s also easy to leverage existing successes (internationally) across multiple industries and localize it. By skipping the PC movement, SeA is leapfrogging straight into developing for the Now (all around the world).

And most importantly, there’s appetite. SeA is growing richer, and countries like Philippines are gaining international attention for being one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The sub-30 population is tech-savvy and excited about innovation. They know how to use their phones and are open to new ideas.

The playground

Here are some initial (very scrappy) thoughts based on the research above. Each bullet is worth a mention despite the maturity of the market in SeA.

  1. Mobile-first: more insights of Us, more interconnectivity between applications (across industries), more personalization
    • Payments: shops-customers, banks-customers, governments-citizens, employers-employees, p2p, inter-currency exchange
      • Model/further research: M-Pesa in Kenya (for banking the unbanked)
    • Entertainment: gaming, streaming etc
      • Existing startups: HOOQ (JV with Sony), iFlix, Indie Games accelerator (Google), Goama (games)
    • Healthcare: user-focused applications (not research) so scheduling, symptom matching, lifestyle / diet management, tracking of vitals, better delivery of medication, increased awareness of new medicines. Full stack solutions opportunity
      • Further research: ZocDoc, Oscar, wearables
  2. Increasing disposable income:
    • E-commerce: growth of niche players, dissolvance of physical-virtual, at-home try-ons
      • Like: Bulletin (flexible startup retail space)
    • Lending/Shared platforms: clothing, gadgets, cars
      • Like: Rent the Runway, Turo
  3. Leapfrogging:
    • City planning: “smart cities” focused on IoT, human-centric planning, low environmental impact, autonomous *shared* vehicles
      • Model/further research: SideWalk Labs (Google)
  4. Niche/culture sensitivity:
    • Lots of room for international expansion (i.e. MuslimClothing.com)

Final thoughts

We live in exciting times where ideas are transferable, talent is everywhere and people are passionate about doing good. As our world becomes more inter-connected, I’m excited to see what SeA can contribute. Models that are successful in SeA can easily be scaled internationally in other developing markets like Africa (and vice versa). There’s so much I’m excited to learn.

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