A guide to Singapore’s startup scene for Canadian entrepreneurs

For Canadian entrepreneurs looking to do business in Asia, Singapore is one of the natural hubs to consider. The island city-state’s economy has been ranked as the most open in the world, and one of the most pro-business. The city has a thriving entrepreneurial culture, ranking number 21 on the 2019 WE Cities index of the top 50 cities for female entrepreneurs, (where Toronto ranked nine, and Vancouver 11).

Bloomberg reports that over 100 companies including Microsoft are running incubator or accelerator programs in Singapore, and as of 2017 there were over 4,000 startups with over 22,000 employees (up from 2,800 startups in 2003).

“Asia is very varied, and very often in Singapore, we could take for granted some of the very basic conditions for empowering women.”
-Singapore minister, Grace FU Hai Yien

According to Dell’s WE Cities index, Singapore ranks highly because it’s a tech-forward, connected city, with a robust internet infrastructure and government ambitions to become the world’s first “Smart Nation,” with a number of smart city projects already underway. However, the report also cited challenges to doing business in Singapore, including a high cost of living, gender parity pay issues, a lack of accelerators, as well as relatively few female board members. It should be noted, however, that the Singapore government has set up a Council for Board Diversity to encourage women participation on boards.

At this week’s Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Summit event in Singapore, local entrepreneurs and leaders spoke about Singapore’s entrepreneurial environment, about doing business in Asia in general and why it’s unique from doing business in the Western world. Local leaders highlighted demographic trends in Asia, including the aging population, as well as the variance between Asian cities when it comes to doing business, as well as how favourable each city is specifically for female entrepreneurs.

While the report cited a lack of strong role models, Singapore does have a host of high-profile female entrepreneurs, including Sabrina Tan, the founder of beauty company Skin Inc., who mentioned her company’s reliance on Shopify in her talk; Rosaline Chow Koo, an LA-raised entrepreneur who runs soon-to-be-unicorn health startup CXA; and Ankiti Bose, the founder of unicorn online retail company Zilingo. The city is also home to unicorn startup Grab, a ride-hailing app akin to Uber, which has raised $9 billion to date.

“Singapore does not represent Asia. Asia is very varied, and very often in Singapore, we could take for granted some of the very basic conditions for empowering women,” said Grace FU Hai Yien, Singapore’s minister for culture, community, and youth.

While Dell’s report highlighted a lack of accelerators and a lack of female entrepreneur role models, there is a robust startup network in the city. There are at least 150 VC firms in Singapore who invest not only in local entrepreneurs but in global companies. According to data from PitchBook, a SaaS company that delivers data on investments and M&A transactions, venture funding in Singapore has increased from $800 million USD in 2012 to $10.5 billion USD in 2018. The Singaporean government also provides business grants and has matching programs available for local businesses raising capital.

Canadians in Singapore

For Canadian entrepreneurs looking to work with Singapore-based companies, it can be a friendly environment. English is one of the four official languages, and it’s the main working language. There’s also a large expat community, with over a million foreign workers living in the city. Singapore is also a central hub for travelling to other APAC (Asia-Pacific) centres including Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

Canada’s startup ecosystem already has some links into Singapore through a MaRS-Singapore FinTech partnership formed in 2015.

Toronto entrepreneur Jodi Echakowitz attended this week’s Dell conference, and used the event as an opportunity to meet with a potential client for her enterprise communications firm Boulevard PR. Echakowitz focuses on helping clients gain exposure in the U.S. and Canada, which is what appealed to a local Singaporean company looking to build their brand in Canada.

“We provide multinational technology companies with a local perspective on their global business. We know the nuances of the local market, have good insights on key media and industry analysts they should be talking to, and it’s likely that we already have existing relationships with beat reporters or business writers that align with their focus,” Echakowitz said. “Plus, given our expansive network, we can add even greater value by connecting them with other local resources.”

Echakowitz said she has always looked to have international links for her business, as she’s part of a global network of communications firms, PR Network. The network allows her to leverage global agencies in markets like APAC without having to bring team members on board in local markets. It also means she can provide North American support to member agencies who don’t have expertise in those areas.

Cultural nuances

When doing business with Singaporean or Asian companies, local business leaders highlighted the importance of understanding local nuances.

Sherry Boger, the VP of the infrastructure and platform solutions group at Intel, has spent more than a decade in Singapore, Vietnam, and Shanghai. She spoke about the nuances of doing business in Asia, and said she found the most pronounced difference was how important relationships and social settings are in order to get business done. In the Western world as in Asia, having a strong network is important, but she said that in a Western context a lot of business is done transactionally.

“In an Asia context, relationships are extremely important and business is done through relationships.”

“In an Asia context, relationships are extremely important and business is done through relationships. Western business is transactional, Asia is much more relationship-based,” she said, adding that when she was invited to dinner with a group of associates, her reaction was to decline so she didn’t inconvenience them, but it was the wrong response.

It was noted that colleagues, partners, and customers want to build a deeper relationship outside of work, but those social events are also opportunities to get deals done.

And while Singapore is one market to consider assessing for expansion, investment, or finding clients, Asia has 11 cities on the WE Cities index, and Zilingo’s CMO Marita Abraham said the key to expanding across Asia is understanding the nuance that exists in each Asian market.

“My first learning has been that you can’t really paint a city or a country within a particular region with the same brush. You really have to investigate, learn, and research each and every region for what it is,“ she said. “You need to also have a scalable playbook of what are the traits of your business and your product that are scalable and transferable across these cultures and societies.”

Abraham also advised companies setting up shop in local Asian markets to identify, hire, and empower local leadership that is aligned to the company’s goals, but who can also be a voice for that market.

“It’s a fine balance of localization and scale,” she stated.

Photo by Julien de Salaberry on Unsplash

Erin Bury

Erin Bury

Erin Bury is a Co-founder and CEO at Willful, an online estate planning platform. Also a former Managing Director at Eighty-Eight, a creative communications agency based in Toronto. She was formerly the Managing Editor at BetaKit. Follow her on Twitter at @erinbury.

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