What you need to know about the east if you're an entrepreneur Peter Hinssen - October 10, 2015

China Proandy Enero  Flickr  Need To Know About East

Think `Huge’. In product offering. In market. In geographic reach. In valuation. That is one of the main lessons we – as well as the 20 CEOs that accompanied us – brought back with us from our ‘The Spirit of the East’ Innovation Tour of last week. Let us elaborate on that, while sharing some of the insights we had, visiting two of the fastest growing economies in the world: China and Singapore.


Shanghai was the first stop on our Eastern adventure: the largest city proper by population in the world, situated in a country ruled by BAT-men. Not the kind you’ll find in Gotham, but just as aggressive when it comes to pulling people over to their side – hostile takeovers, friendly acquisitions, partnerships, you name it – and beating all the others. We’re talking about Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent - B.A.T. - which, between them, dominate the internet industry in China. 

For those who don’t know them: Baidu is a dominant force in the ‘search’ engine segment, Alibaba rules e-commerce while Tencent is supreme in social media. In short, they are the Google, Amazon and Facebook of China. In that order. With one BIG difference. “Yeah, THEY are copycats”, is what you’re probably thinking. Wrong. The most striking contrast is that the valuation of this kind of company is completely off the wall. In fact, our conversations with Chinese start-ups taught us that they find most of their Silicon Valley counterparts quite “cheap”. These Chinese start-ups are setting a whole new level of expectation and valuations.

You can also chuck your copycat prejudice in the bin, for that matter. Youku Tudou might sound like a poorly disguised rip-off of YouTube, like ‘Johnnie Worker’s Red Labial’ is to ‘Johnny Walker’s Red Label’ (which does exist if we can believe the internet.) But it’s not. Edward Su, COO of Youku Tudou told us that his company launched two months earlier on the market than YouTube. Even better, it out-innovates YouTube, being this pretty amazing combination of 3 of the most pioneering organisations in the US. Youku Tudou is what would happen if YouTube married Netflix AND Maker Studios and they had a baby (What? It’s possible). They thought `Huge’.

Youku Tudou is NOT the exception that makes the rule. The exact same thing can be said of WeChat – Tencent’s messenger platform. WeChat goes far beyond the most popular messenger services which still mainly think in terms of ‘simple’ platforms. It integrates ten million third-party apps that allow you to effect payments, order taxis, book restaurants, check the news, and much, much more. As Business Insider puts it “WeChat's innovations — particularly its mobile-first, app-within-an-app model — make other messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger seem rather primitive in comparison.” Not Big. Huge.

True, on the whole, China is probably still less innovative than Silicon Valley. But the surprising part is that the top innovative Chines companies are outnumbering – and even out-innovating – the top companies in Silicon Valley. It’s probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on them to see how this will evolve in the next few years.


Next on our Innovation Tour menu was Singapore, one of the most exciting hubs of Southeast Asia which has a vibrant technology start-up scene. In this case, the `Think Huge’ mindset manifests itself as a boundless ambition. The population of Singapore equals that of Flanders (Belgium), where we come from. It has about 5.5 million inhabitants. Yet Singtel – Singapore Telecommunications Limited – delivers services to over 550 million subscribers, reaching far beyond its own borders. The same goes for PropertyGuru, which has 4 times as many visitors as its Belgian equivalent, Immoweb. Even though, strictly speaking, they have about the same local market reach. PropertyGuru simply skipped the local phase and immediately went for the Southeast Asian Region. What we learned from this experience is that if you are small, you just have to be that more ambitious. We have a lot to learn from this approach. It shows that a small nation can have a huge impact.

The beauty of it is that the Singaporean government cherishes those very same large aspirations. The IDA – the Infocom Development Authority – aims at making Singapore the smartest nation on the planet in the next 15 years. How’s that for an ambition? And they really mean it. They have literally investigated all the technology, the sensors, the opportunities – from machine learning through to augmented reality – in order to figure out how to take advantage of that, as a region. Check out the IDA Smart Nation Vision and you’ll see a government that thinks above rules and regulations towards opportunities and the future.

So, this is our message to our readers. Think `Huge’. If you are a start-up. If you are an incumbent. If you are a government. Think huge when it comes to your offering. Look beyond your company, beyond your products, your services, your country, your target market, your employees and your competition. Dream huge. Think huge. Accomplish huge. And while you’re at it, stop underestimating the disruptive power of the East. There are too many `hidden’ gems over there to be ignored.

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Peter Hinssen

Peter is a serial entrepreneur, Forbes contributor


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