This warm welcome that greets you the minute you arrive in Jakarta is at once genuine and infectious. Just like India, it makes visitors immediately feel at ease and indeed, welcome!
A special thanks here to our hosts, the Draper Venture Network (DVN), Wavemaker Ventures and also Sudhir Syal of BMS Indonesia, who gave us an opportunity to engage more deeply with the South-East Asia tech ecosystem.
In a course of a week – our inaugural trip to Jakarta – we interacted with peer VCs, start-up founders, and early to mid-stage investors from different corners of Asia. A key highlight was meeting Indonesia’s largest internet unicorns like GO-JEK and Tokopedia, and hearing their growth stories, the challenges they face, and where they’re headed.
This blog post chronicles key learnings and observations from Jakarta, preceded by a trip (amongst many earlier visits) to Singapore. This trip follows on the heels of our inaugural, larger China trip that the Blume core team and a much larger contingent of both Blume founders (as well others) made earlier this spring.
Our “Journey to Jakarta” culminated in an evening fireside chat with Tim Draper (founder of Draper Associates, Draper University and DVN), bringing together the Indonesian ecosystem along with a number of visitors from Singapore, Japan and China.
Accompanying Blume on this trip were 6 of our portfolio companies:
- Mausmi Ambastha @Threadsol
- Nishith Rastogi and Krishna Khandelwal @Locus
- Shachin Bharadwaj @Sminq
- Shivkumar Ganesan @Exotel
- Prashant Dixit @Dataweave
- Dr Zainul Charbiwala @Tricog
We met different actors on the Indonesian (and Singaporean) start-up ecosystem stage:
- VCs – Wavemaker Ventures, East Ventures, Alpha JWC, CyberAgent, GREE Ventures, MDI Ventures, Plug and Play Accelerator
- Startups/tech giants – GO-JEK, Tokopedia, Shopee, Lazada, BookMyShow [Indonesia]
Outlined in these next few sections are an account from the eyes of one Indian VC and also from our founders, exploring first-hand the ecosystem and sharing on-the-ground observations and learnings from this very important South-East Asian market – the third largest in Asia outside China and India, and an anchor for expansion beyond the Strait of Malacca.
Please join us on this journey as we dive deep into the South-East Asian tech ecosystem. We welcome your feedback and thoughts.
South-East Asia (SEA) – from the eyes of an Indian VC and founders
Nishith Rastogi, Locus
- Manila, Jakarta, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are six key cities of SEA representing a combined 2.4x volume of users than entire India, who transact online. Each city is broadly less than two hours (less than a Delhi-Mumbai flight) apart.
- Thinking of SEA as one large country with six metros makes it an attractive target.
- Jakarta, contrary to what one may feel due to its heavy traffic conditions, has one of the highest percentages of organised retail (80%) compared to anywhere else in the world.
- In Jakarta, interestingly, e-commerce and fulfilment are not linked at all, unlike in India where Flipkart, Amazon, Myntra, BigBasket all have own in house captive logistics fleets. Tokopedia is an example of a notable e-commerce unicorn – it relies solely on third party logistics (= the opportunity)
- Jakarta as a city of 12-15 Mln itself, is a sizeable domestic market as well.
- Singapore is like clockwork (not surprisingly, these exact same words are echoed again and again). One can easily do eight different face-to-face meetings in downtown within the same day.
- Is a small domestic market, but a big reference market like Dubai (important for a founder expanding into SE Asia when he/she is asked “do you have any kind of presence in / linkages to Singapore?)
- Is similar to Tokyo, in two aspects – a) internal processes and b) secondly, the value of real estate. For example, Uber exists but isn’t particularly huge in either market, as both existing public transport and cab systems are efficient. Similarly, these countries have supermarkets stocked with folding racks, which allows clever ways of maximising space utilisation.
Shachin Bharadwaj, Sminq
- Super-efficient country that works by the clock. “I was able to do six meetings in a day (across the city) and could make it on time for each place (traffic, parking, lifts, everything is aligned to reduce friction) – with time to spare!”
- The government is pushing entrepreneurship in a substantial way. I was told that for every $ invested as foreign direct investment (FDI) in Singapore, the government will back it with $4 (off-course T&C apply).
- The ease of doing business is amongst the best in the world.
- People here are willing to pay for convenience. So, you don’t have to worry about “free deliveries” (i.e. the impact on your margins as a startup founder)
- Local cabs and GrabTaxi are more loved than Uber – “I personally got very attractive deals on Uber (hence, only used that), but Grab and others were running well even without the subsidized coupons”.
- For startups, Singapore is a great place to be located to attract capital, with the advantage of IP protection, tax benefits (with Govt leverage) and so on.
- You need to understand and speak Bahasa to do business with locals.
- Post GO-JEK, it seems that Indonesia as a market has been “suddenly” discovered by VCs.
- The government and VCs want businesses to be set up here and are very welcoming with money and any help, to get things started
- Cost of living is very reasonable [“I found many daily use items cheaper than India (eg Pune)].
- Public transport is broken (hence Go-JEK and others) and Jakarta has a daily floating population of 2-3 mln who travel in and out of the city every day for work. Once again, an opportunity for logistics.
Shivkumar Ganesan, Exotel
- While companies in South-East Asia have a general idea on some start-up brands in India, the awareness levels are low. This means that many of us have to approach these countries as though we are starting from scratch (“on the flip side, once you’re in, switching costs are higher and you can establishe and maintain mindshare”).
- There is a need to establish credibility and trust apart from proposing value. If you are already working with large brands in India, that certainly helps to hit the ground running.
Mausmi Ambastha, Threadsol
- People are technically aware and there are a lot of expats in positions of leadeship and influence from South-East Asian countries.
- The expat community is strong and helpful, if you approach them well.
- The laws are fluid and keep changing very often. You need to mandatorily use a consultant who can guide you through the maze of paperwork and laws that may seem confusing.
- Visa norms are very strict for Indian passports. If you travel for business or leisure often, more than 3-4 times, they do not give you a visa. You can get a long-term visa if a company in Indonesia invites or sponsors your visit. More than a letter, the company has to take responsibility and submit documents to the Ministry of External Affairs in Indonesia and only then the Indian Embassy awards a visa.
- Digitization process of government agencies is not yet in place, so a lot of work is still done on paper.
- All the paperwork in Indonesia is done in the local language, Bahasa.
- Hiring and firing norms are pretty strict.
- You can do multiple meetings in a day and metro is the easiest mode of transportation.
- The corporate banking sector has solutions for all. However, you need to have a big ticket to get preferred banking services.
- The personal banking sector is a lot more painful and difficult. It’s not as easy and simple as it is in India.
- The city is very safe for women and the implementation of laws are very strict. Its one of the safest cities in the world, likely THE safest.
Dr Zainul Charbiwala, Tricog
- Very expensive to get anything done, but when it gets done, it is quick.
- Very easy to do meetings there. In the two days I was there, each meeting ran on time and that were 10 of them spread over the city. Since there is no traffic, getting from once place to another is a breeze.
- Because it’s a small market, if you sell anything to Singapore, it doesn’t count for much. This is a primary reason why many of the convenience services that we take for granted just don’t exist there, like BigBasket, 1MG.
- The healthcare space is highly regulated and in the hands of a few large players. Getting into those markets is hard but possible with the right connections.
- Living costs for one person in the country is about 150,000 USD per annum. Getting permanent residence is not an easy task but again, if you have the right contacts, it gets done quickly.
- The Economic Development Board (EDB) in Singapore is the leading government agency for business activities. Their mandate is to do more business and encourage employment in the country instead of getting people from outside. Getting experts from outside is fine.
- Tax and IP advantages are big advantages pulling startups to Singapore.
- Indonesia is just like India, in almost every aspect.
- Their smartphone penetration is higher than India.
- Because of a large market size and opportunity, a lot of Indian companies and startups are considering opening centres there.
- I spoke to a few people about what it takes to do business in Indonesia. First, it has to be co-owned with an Indonesian national, so a joint venture (JV) is probably the best entry point. Second, you need to hire a minimum of 5 people to start a business – a country manager, an accounts person, an operations manager and two sales people. The first three can be expats but the sales professionals must be local.
- The above formula is pretty much the only formula that has been known to work for external companies trying to set up businesses there.
- The country as a whole lacks tech expertise. Tokopedia, one of the largest e-commerce players there has the CTO and tech team brought in from Indian startups (Paytm, etc). Similarly, GO-JEK has a fairly large development team in Bangalore.
- Setting up a business there and running it is just as hard, if not harder than India. Their land mass is spread out over 17,000 islands which makes logistics a nightmare. Much of the logistical activity gravitates towards Jakarta and the other larger cities.
- “Tech people are treated at the top of totem pole – so all you CTOs aspiring for a leadership position and an interest in SE Asia, consider migrating!”
Prashant Dixit, Dataweave
- Jakarta – City with nightmarish traffic and friendly people. Relationship selling is key to set a foothold in this market.
- I see Indonesia as a land of immense opportunities primarily driven by domestic consumption.
- The use of technology is evolving and I see a lot of potential for SaaS based companies.
- I had some good interactions with the likes of Tokopedia, Blibli, Zilingo and others. The DVN event, the informal mixer for Blume founders hosted by Sudhir Syal (of BookMyShow Indonesia – thanks Sudhir!) helped me in building some good connects. A lot of investment is flowing into Indonesia and this could be the next big land of opportunities.
- Overall the trip was quite fruitful and I believe we should have more of these events.
Sanjay Nath, Blume Ventures
“When most founders think of expanding into South-East Asia, they usually think of Singapore. Founders should tap the capital and network effect strengths of Singapore, at the same time venturing out into Indonesia and accompanying regions, both via direct sales and strategic partnerships. The real growth is out there – think of Singapore as a beachhead, a launching pad…. to go out and penetrate the surrounding frontier markets”.
Singapore, with a population of just 5-6 mln, is actually more a “mothership”, the key node in a hub-and-spoke network for the broad SEA region. It is a rich capital and network base that houses the Asia Pacific region’s largest corporate headquarters, banks, corporate entities and investors. Moreover it is also a business and tax-friendly, IP innovation-led hub; but a very small market in and of itself (and a high cost base for startups). The real growth then is in the adjacent “frontier markets” surrounding Singapore. On this particular visit, we dove into Indonesia, the largest of the ASEAN countries.
I’d advise founders to understand and recognize the relative benefits of each region before embarking on their expansion plans. At a fast growing population of 225 mln and counting, Indonesia represents a lower cost, not-to-ignore market opportunity for Indian founders targeting SE Asia as a serious expansion outpost”. In Part 2 of this blogpost, we’ll discuss the backgrounds of some of the local VCs and leading unicorn founders, areas of success they’ve found so far, and uncover potential synergies between India and Indonesia, two of the largest Asian internet economies [outside China].
- With a population of 250 mln and a staggering 200 mln mobile non smartphones with active data, Indonesia represents a massive mobile-first opportunity. Half of Indonesia, around 130 mln, are internet users with ~ 94 mln smartphone users
- The evolution of the Internet leaders’ B2C and C2C marketplaces has been quite sophisticated. Their strategy to dominate and capture market share has been driven by building trusted and transparent platforms, and around perfecting customer adoption and satisfaction. Some instances
- All mobile-first, smartphone-first strategies
- Driving stickiness – comes from a variety of tactics including strategic promotions – “99% off” or “free shipping up to 30,000 IDR [Indonesian Rupiah]”
- An emphasis on “Education Seller Programs”
- Ability to compete comes from their ability to grow both the base of sellers and SKUs
- The angel and VC ecosystem is small and fairly close knit. Many VCs have a Chinese/Japanese heritage and also LP bases. Most early stage VCs invest from seed, angel and through A rounds, and some also have on-the-ground incubator/spaces to house and co-locate startups
- The cost of living and doing business is fairly reasonable, with many daily use FMCG items cheaper than even India; explaining why startups and VCs often have their HQ in Singapore, but keep their larger teams and ops in Jakarta
- Investor interest in India is driven both by B2C and in the case of B2B, “taking India to Indonesia markets” [more on this in Part 2 of the blog next month]
Note: This blog post is based on our personal observations and supported with data wherever possible. Part II of this blog post will delve further into South-East Asia’s tech ecosystem and also explore the synergies between India and Indonesia.