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Singapore Needs A Support Ecosystem For Its Startups

Singapore - Where're our startups?

I submit to you that, in Singapore’s entrepreneurial scene, there is a lack of a proper ecosystem around our fragile startups to nurture, sustain and help them survive in this increasingly difficult times.

It’s not about the lack of money. There are good schemes out there for startups to tap on. I am referring to the lack of a support system – the media, for example, and legal, financial, public relations and other kinds of consultancy services that cater to the unique needs of a startup.

I asked TODAY journalist Hedirman Supian, who writes for the paper’s technology desk, what he thought about my view. His reply:

“I think startups and entrepreneurs have to grapple with the reality that they exist in an ecosystem that’s unfavorable for them at the moment. I wouldn’t exactly say it’s nonexistent.

There are various Government initiatives to drum up funding and support for local entrepreneurs and networking sessions to get them connected to the right people – and to be honest, they’re actually very passionate about pushing local companies to the world stage. Yes, it’s not quite organic but it’ll form the bedrock for a better ecosystem once we’ve got a good track record of launching successful startups. There are also a handful of local entrepreneur communities like The Digital Movement and e27 that foster a more grassroots approach. If you look at the attendance for their meet-ups and events, you can see that the crowds are slowly swelling.”

If it is not money or grassroots support, so what are the missing pieces in our ecosystem then?

1. Lack of Specialized Services catered for Entrepreneurs

Interestingly, Hedirman reveals that he’s never been approached by a specialized PR agency on behalf of a local startup before. This to me is somewhat shocking, as he’s been writing about local startups for more than two years now. Is it because there are no public relations agencies in Singapore that is specially catered to the needs of startups, or is it just because startups simply cannot afford one?

This does not apply to public relations alone. How about specialized legal services, since many startups are not equipped with dealing with intellectual property issues or even something as basic as crafting a contract? Or financial services to help startups balance their books?

2. Where are our Mentors?

One of the key reasons why Silicon Valley has been so prolific in producing successful startups is because it has an ecosystem of successful entrepreneurs who give support to newer startups. Here’s what Sarah Lacy wrote in her book, Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0:

“But the earlier generations would play a huge role in their Internet lives, ensuring that this wave of companies would go about their business in a manner totally different from those of a few years earlier. For every youngun with a cool new project, there was a guardian angel of sorts from previous startup cycles, making sure he or she didn’t get screwed. These guardian angels would frequently find their young charges.”

Josh Schachter of del.icio.us may not have gone anywhere without the backing of Netscape‘s Marc Andreessen. Kevin Rose of Digg.com got help from Equinix‘s Jay Adelson. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook? Peter Thiel of Paypal. The list goes on.

So where is the Singapore equivalent of such mentors? Sim Wong Hoo of Creative Technology – what’s he been up to these days anyway?

3. Publicity and the Media

Singapore media who are interested to write about local startups are few and far between – such stories are rare and on an ad-hoc basis. Very few, like Hedirman, actively seek out startups to write about. That’s one of the key reasons why I have this blog in the first place, and why the folks from Techgoondu.com has to do this.

4. Market Adoption

Of course our startups should aim for markets beyond our shores, but it’s thoroughly sad when many don’t even find market acceptance in Singapore.

For all the government talk and support that EDB, Spring Singapore, MDA and IDA throw at our local startups, the rest of our civil service seems reluctant to give our startups any business. More government agencies should take the lead of the Land Transport Authority, who is currently working with local startup Gothere.sg to develop a user-friendly travel advisory for public transport journeys.

With government projects in their portfolios, it will only be easier for the startups to penetrate the private sector.

We need an ecosystem for our startups. And we need it fast.