THERE has never been a better time than now to be a tech investor in South-east Asia.
The region's tech companies saw investments worth US$5.99 billion in just the first half of 2019, with early-stage investments rising sharply. Tech companies, many of them just a few years old, are transforming traditional industries today.
Take Tokopedia for instance. The first Indonesian unicorn dreamt of uniting buyers and sellers dispersed across the country's 17,000 islands through an online marketplace. The company had to reimagine online payments, with seven out of 10 people in Indonesia not having access to banking services.
Tokopedia is now the most visited local e-commerce platform in Indonesia, with monthly web visits topping 140 million. Its mobile business platform connects consumers and merchants to a sprawling tech-enabled network of payment methods, including micro-payment partners like local shops and post offices. Last year, Tokopedia announced a partnership with mobile wallet developer Ovo, bringing online markets and services closer to everyday Indonesians.
It is astonishing to think that more than a decade ago, it took Tokopedia two years to raise the initial capital to start the business, as its e-commerce model was new to the region then.
But times have changed. South-east Asia's emerging tech space is drawing attention – and investment – globally, from Silicon Valley to Shenzhen and Tokyo. Of South-east Asia's 11 tech unicorns, five of them attained that status in just the last two years.
An exciting phenomenon is powering the rise of such transformational tech companies today. I call it technification.
Technification is transformation done right
Technification is not just about using tech in your business operations, it is the use of technology to transform industry verticals – education, finance, healthcare, retail, and anything in between. It is about completely changing the way that business is done, and creating new business models. Importantly, it is not about opportunistic productivity gains or simple digitalisation of real-world goods and services.
For instance, a logistics company using data analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to increase digital traceability of delivered goods is not technification. That is just making services digital rather than analogue. A company that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to strategically optimise third-party logistics assets across an entire service vertical – from deciding where logistics assets should be built, to optimising delivery routes and customising user experiences – now, that is technification.
A first-mover in China: Cainiao
I first witnessed the raw power of technification in China. During my four years as a Venture Partner at GSR Ventures, I saw multibillion-dollar tech companies that did not exist 10 years ago dominating industries across the board.
Cainiao is one first-mover that has transformed the face of logistics in China.
In 2010, the logistics market in China was fragmented and inefficient. The norm then was for firms to contract separate carriers for asset-based logistics, storage and warehousing, and independent service providers in supply chain and inventory management. Saddled with poor service standards, ineffective package-tracking methods, and dismal delivery timeliness, it is no wonder that the top 20 logistics companies controlled only 5.5 per cent of the market.
When Cainiao came along, it used technology to reimagine every part of the logistics value chain – from automating entire warehouses to crowdsourcing last-mile delivery partners, and even plans to use unmanned helicopters for inter-city deliveries.
How successful is it? Cainiao is now valued at 100 billion yuan (S$19.4 billion) and processes 70 per cent of all packages in China.
Companies like Cainiao, Alibaba, Didi Chuxing and Liepin.com harnessed tech to provide cheaper, more efficient and seamless services, and in doing so, won over consumers and the market.
Alibaba, which owns Cainiao and invested in Didi, is the world’s fourth-largest internet company specialising in retail and e-commerce, while Didi Chuxing is China’s leading ride-hailing provider and Liepin.com is China’s largest e-recruitment portal by revenue. (see amendment note)
First-movers in South-east Asia: Ninja Van and Glints
While technification is in full swing in China, it is just starting in South-east Asia. Like China in the mid-2000s, South-east Asia is in the midst of modernising its infrastructure, meaning its industry verticals still consist mostly of traditional, brick-and-mortar business models. Also like China, South-east Asia has a mobile-first population with a growing middle class – in other words, a tech-savvy consumer base ready to pay for tech-enabled services.
My firm, Monk's Hill Ventures, spends time looking for entrepreneurs who will go after big chunks of the economy and who use technification to make a real difference. One of the first companies we invested in is Ninja Van, a last-mile logistics company that is changing the logistics landscape in the region.
Ninja Van is laser-focused on getting a package to your doorstep – a critical issue in South-east Asia. Also known as last-mile logistics, this stage of the shipping process has always been an issue because of the inefficiency and cost of delivering small volumes of packages to distant, and often inaccessible, locations. While there are already three million e-commerce deliveries executed daily in South-east Asia, e-commerce is expected to account for almost 40 per cent of the region's US$300 billion Internet economy by 2025.
Yet, according to the Google,Temasek and Bain e-Conomy SEA 2019 report, logistics infrastructure in South-east Asia is still underdeveloped and large numbers of people live in remote, suburban areas – this is where Ninja Van sees opportunity.
Ninja Van's complementary business model solves critical last-mile delivery challenges for major logistics players using technology, positioning the company as a strategic partner for regional expansion. Ninja Van uses machine learning and other technologies to solve thorny last-mile issues such as tracking, fleet management and location accuracy. It even lets consumers change delivery points instantaneously online. In less than five years, the company is already matching the delivery volumes of more established logistics giants, embarking on a strategic partnership with Grab, and seeing increased funding from investors.
Logistics is not the only sector in the region ripe for technification.
In recruitment, for example, we have Glints, a tech-enabled talent recruitment and career development platform. The nature of this industry requires a human touch, and this is what differentiates Glints' business model. As opposed to purely online recruitment platforms, Glints enables real recruiters to leverage data and recruitment process automation, making the company's recruiters far more efficient than traditional ones.
Clients of Glints today, which include Gojek, FWD Insurance and UOB Bank, make successful hires much faster at 28 days on average, compared to industry standards of 40 to 50 days. Furthermore, they do this at recruitment costs that are 40 to 100 per cent cheaper to boot.
Roughly half of South-east Asia's US$3 trillion GDP is driven by the service sector, and yet inefficiencies exist in all of its industry verticals. This gap is where entrepreneurs are using technified business models to create value.
Building tomorrow's iconic companies
As South-east Asia's tech entrepreneurs disrupt retail, transportation, logistics, supply chain, recruitment, insurance and even financial services, investment opportunities are opening up. Venture capital investment in South-east Asian tech companies hit US$3.4 billion in the first half of 2019, a threefold increase from the same period in 2018. And with so much capital pouring in, you have to be strategic about where you invest it.
My advice for prospective investors? Take time to understand the region. More important than just following trends, you need to know the local scene. Know the people and sectors you are investing in and build networks. Work with your founders on building a regional strategy that can effectively scale their business.
For entrepreneurs building companies in South-east Asia, reimagine the sector you operate in, and think hard about transformation through technification. You might be helming the region's next unicorn – or who knows, you might just be in a class of your own.
When technification took China by storm, it created new multibillion-dollar companies that became major players in the global economy. South-east Asian unicorns are already gaining traction as the region gets more international interest. There is no better time to look towards South-east Asia – you might just stand to gain from the rising tide of technification in the region.
- The writer is co-founder and managing partner of Monk's Hill Ventures, a venture capital firm investing in early-stage tech startups. This article was first published on the Singapore Economic Development Board's website.
Amendment note: The article has been corrected to reflect that Alibaba invested in Didi; it does not own Didi.