Go local when expanding into S-E Asia

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While a lot of international companies tend to lump all South-east Asian countries together, each market is very different and has its own nuances, said Shobhit Shukla, chief revenue officer and co-founder of Near.
JANUARY 15, 2020 - 7:15 AM

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. As most market players highlight that the business environment is different overseas, they advise firms keen on expansion abroad to tailor their products accordingly. 

While a lot of international companies tend to lump all South-east Asian countries together, each market is very different and has its own nuances, said Shobhit Shukla, chief revenue officer and co-founder of Near, a Singapore-based AI platform which analyses data to understand the real world behaviour of consumers. 

For example, things take time to process in Indonesia, so one needs to be patient when doing business in Indonesia, Mr Shukla told The Business Times (BT). 

Due to these internal differences, Mr Shukla said there is “no one-size-fits-all approach” when doing business here. 

Having just piloted in Thailand its software for trucking companies to track the behaviour of their drivers, Alvin Ea, chief executive officer and co-founder of Haulio, said unlike Singapore, the Thai logistics industry has different standard operating procedures from Singapore. 

For instance, the Thai logistics industry is “heavily reliant on relationships and reliability,” he said. “The Singapore government also plays a stronger role in enforcing processes across businesses.”

Evan Tan, chief of staff, Holistics Software, pointed to the different talent profiles in each country. "For example, from our personal hiring experience, Vietnam has been a great source of engineering talent, while in Indonesia we've had a fair bit of success in hiring designers,” he told BT. 

Holistics provides a data analytics platform for companies to prepare and manage their databases.

Market players and watchers gave three tips for Singapore companies looking to expand into South-east Asia: engage with local partners to suss out the situation on the ground, localise the products, and go in with a humble mindset. 

Engage with local partners 

Kumaran Rajaram, a senior lecturer at Nanyang Technological University’s Nanyang Business School, said: “There must be a sound understanding of the product or service-market fit that the company is keen to venture into.”

“(Even if) Vietnam is a growing market, it does not necessarily mean that your business is viable for it, (or) does not necessarily mean that they might want your solution,” added Haulio’s Mr Ea. 

Mr Ea said: “We don’t go into a market unless we have a pool of really strong users or any sort of partners that we have already identified.” 

Holistics' Mr Tan agreed on the importance of local partners, as they will have a deeper understanding of the local market and may pick up on nuances that foreigners fail to grasp. 

Mr Shukla of Near added: “(Having local partners) goes a long way in getting potential customers, as they would have the comfort knowing you are really investing into the market.” 

Oliver Tan, cofounder and chief executive officer of ViSenze concurred, as he looks out for the innovation culture and a strong appreciation for data in potential partners “to break open that market and set a high bar for the rest of the market.” 

ViSenze powers the visual search function for e-commerce companies and physical retailers such as Asos and Uniqlo.

Localise products

Other than working with trusted local partners, market players said it is important to localise product offering. 

For example, even though Near’s global data analytics platform is in English, when the tech firm ventures into different markets, “it’s not just changing the (operational) language to the local language,” said Mr Shukla. “It’s also about how the customers use the product.”

For this reason, Near’s product teams are split according to different regions due to different requirements of the customers. 

Similarly, Mr Ea hopes to better understand Thai trucking companies’ preferences via Hualio’s pilot test in Thailand, and thereby localise its software accordingly. A pilot test also helps a company to see “whether there is a use case for your product,” he said. 

Be humble

ViSenze’s Mr Tan noted there is a tendency amongst local companies to “ride our high horses”, and try to apply the same solution overseas regardless of fundamental differences between markets. 

“I think Singapore has unfortunately given itself an arrogant image to its neighbouring countries,” said Mr Tan. “If you start to preach to them, they don’t like (it).” 

If you enjoyed this story, we recommend you check our accompanying piece “Tech change brings about wave of opportunities in S-E Asia”.  

Enterprise Singapore is a useful resource if you are looking to go overseas. The agency can tap its network of eight offices across South-east Asia to share on-the-ground developments and insights with companies, advise them on setup and regulations, connect them to curated partners and point them to potential projects. Firms can participate in organised trips - such as Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s Travel and Learn Programme and business missions led by Enterprise Singapore and Singapore Business Federation - to get a sense of the situation on the ground and establish contacts there. 

You can also check out our business guides at aseanbusiness.sg