Commentary: Singapore start-ups should solve problems, not focus on achieving 'unicorn' triumphs

Commentary: Singapore start-ups should solve problems, not focus on achieving 'unicorn' triumphs

Singapore’s start-ups should consider the road less travelled when it comes to business partnerships, says one observer from Amadeus.

SINGAPORE: It’s 7.30pm after a long day in the office; you’re meeting someone for the first time. All you have to go on is their online profile and the hope that maybe, this time, they might be “the one”.

Finding the right business partner can be as tough as finding a soul mate in Singapore – only there’s no Tinder for business match making.

“What do you look for in a partner?” is a question I’m frequently asked.

Since setting up Amadeus Next – a community to nurture travel technology start-ups - I’ve had first-hand experience of how partnerships between big and small businesses can change the fortunes of budding entrepreneurs. 

But my answer to this question often surprises people.


This year’s Budget emphasised the importance of partnerships to turbo-charge Singapore’s economy and, with an integrated PACT scheme launching earlier in March to further encourage established businesses to partner with start-ups, there are going to be even more opportunities for the country’s fledgling businesses to find their fairy godmothers.

This is great news for Singapore’s ever-growing army of entrepreneurs. Not only is partnership often a fast-track to experience and connections, but for the lucky ones it can also be a stepping stone to investment.

However as more opportunities open up, the level of competition in the region is growing too.

Iswaran at MTI COS Budget 2018
Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S Iswaran speaking at his ministry's Committee of Supply debate on Mar 2, 2018, where he announced an integrated PACT scheme.

Indeed, the last few years have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of start-ups globally, not least in Asia where there are over 47,000 listed on Singapore is at the centre of this boom thanks to its location and generous government subsidies.

This means that – just like in the dating world – finding and attracting the right partner means going the extra mile to stand out from the crowd.


However I see many entrepreneurs, particularly in their early days, focusing their attention in the wrong places.

Many fall into the trap of trying to create companies with mass consumer appeal. Everyone’s seen the success stories of Lazada, LINE and Grab. These companies are well-known and their brilliant simplicity is attractive to entrepreneurs who dream of similar levels of success.

Yet in reality, these “unicorn” triumphs are rare - hence the name.

For novice entrepreneurs it can be very difficult to get mass-appeal companies off the ground in the first place, particularly competing with the huge marketing budgets of established players.

By comparison, while starting a business-to-business (B2B) company might not sound as “sexy”, it definitely has its advantages.

A ComfortDelgro taxi passes Uber and Grab offices in Singapore
A ComfortDelgro taxi passes Uber and Grab offices in Singapore March 26, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su)


For large companies there’s always a long list of problems, of varying levels of priorities, that they just don’t have time to fix themselves. 

It’s these non-urgent tasks – the 21st, 51st or even 101st business problems that are pushed to the bottom of to-do lists – that could be the real sweet spot for Singapore’s start-ups to tackle.

The added advantage is that rather than the stress of worrying about sales figures or spending time marketing to attract new customers, the start-up can instead focus on serving that one customer with that one product.

Take a hotel, for example. Maybe they want to cut their laundry bill or determine how rooms can be cleaned in a more efficient way to offer early check-ins, accommodate late check-outs, offer an awesome guest experience and drive loyalty. 

It could even be how to improve internal efficiencies or help companies manage their supply chain better.

Other industries will have their own unique problems just waiting to be solved – from restaurants needing to reduce their food waste, to long-distance haulage companies grappling with the perennial issue of over-tired drivers, to concerts wanting to sell all of their seats at the best price.

The list goes on.

So my top tip for budding entrepreneurs and anyone dreaming of setting up their own business is that identifying specific pain points is the best place to start. In fact, the more specific the problem, and the simpler your solution, the better.

As Singapore invests in more and more initiatives to encourage entrepreneurship and big-small partnership, the opportunities are huge.

No doubt we’ll see more consumer giants following in the footsteps of trail-blazers like Grab, but for now my money is on the start-ups that can solve the region’s business problems.

Simon Akeroyd is vice-president for Corporate Strategy and Business Development at Amadeus.

Source: CNA/sl