With the One Belt One Road initiative and other projects designed to develop infrastructure in ASEAN, outward-looking Singaporean companies have a unique opportunity to ride on these developments. Thus, the next few articles will be focused on overseas expansion.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Joseph Koh, COO of MC Payment; a Singaporean fintech company founded in 2005 that has since expanded into 8 countries. A pioneer Omni Channel payment provider, MC Payment provides innovative payment technologies and merchant services that enhance the end-to-end value chain of commerce transactions for clients ranging from banks to retail stores.
Trends in the region
Attitudes and lifestyles are shifting and what was novel in the past might be viewed as the norm today. A ride hailing app no longer turns heads as no one will choose to physically flag down a cab anymore. As technological advancements bring about more disruptions, SMEs urgently need to adapt. The retail industry in particular needs to change quickly. In neighbourhood areas, retail stores are often the first to close down, while coffee shops, child care and tuition centres continue to thrive. Increasingly shopping malls are also becoming eateries as retail stores struggle.
Asia is experiencing rapid economic and population growth. Currently the ASEAN population stands at 640 million making it the 3rd largest market in the world, behind China and India. (ASEAN UP, 2017) By 2035, the ASEAN population is expected to grow to 741 million. (The Straits Times, 2017) Mr Koh has also observed that the start-up culture is sweeping the region and bringing along massive foreign investments. For example, funding for tech companies in South East Asia has grown from $281 million in 2012 to $3.1 billion in 2016. (The ASEAN Post, 2017)
Merchants are also expanding overseas which in turn drive the demand for cross-border support services. Mr Koh gave the example of Indonesia which is unable to support payment systems used in Singapore since less than 5% of Indonesians own a credit card. (Techinasia, 2017) Thus Indonesians often shop online, pay for a code at a 7-eleven and then use that code to pay for their online purchase. With such radically different systems and infrastructure, support service companies like MC Payment are well poised to contribute to the value chain by expanding with the merchants.
Riding on the trends
By the time the impact of new trends is felt, those who take a reactive approach will be swept away. For example, companies that have just started setting up basic websites may yield little results as websites themselves have evolved and static pages no longer attract repeat visits. As such Mr Koh emphasises that companies need to be proactive and keep an open mind. This will involve bravery to constantly update business models instead of sticking to what has been tried and tested.
While most recognise the need to change with the times, companies often get too comfortable in Singapore and are unwilling to devote resources away from their core business. However, we live in dynamic times and what used to work may not be viable in the near future, thus Mr Koh emphasises that companies need to start planning for their next phase of growth.
Given our proximity to emerging ASEAN economies, Singapore is an excellent springboard and if companies can value-add to the region, they will benefit tremendously from the regional boom.
Planning for overseas expansion
Selecting the right country to expand into is paramount for successful expansion. Asia is growing rapidly, but companies need to be mindful of their target country’s phase of growth. In countries like Myanmar and Cambodia, the infrastructure generally is inadequate for value added services, but ripe for property developers. On the other hand countries like Indonesia and Malaysia which have adequate infrastructure, will play host to a myriad of opportunities for value added services. (PWC, 2017)
If a company can find their niche to contribute their solutions to gaps in foreign markets, there will be much potential for growth. Singaporean companies generally have more advanced capabilities than our neighbours and by leveraging on this; Singaporean companies can differentiate themselves from local competitors by offering unique solutions. MC Payment themselves grew in the region as they found a niche to provide more value for their merchant clients who were expanding overseas and needed new cross-border payment solutions which MC Payment was able to provide.
Exploring new markets is also far less daunting when done with a reliable partner. This was the case for MC Payment which first started supporting one of the leading international merchant banks who named MC Payment a “certified payment technology partner”, an honour reserved for a select few considered to have exceptional business principles, integrity and technical expertise. As the relationship grew, MC Payment went on to support this bank in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Macau.
Challenges in expanding overseas
Companies with outdated business models want to change but often do not know how to. In this regard, companies can use the free e-guides and consultation services of SPRING Singapore which nurtures local companies and IE Singapore which helps companies expand beyond Singapore.
Additionally, the fear of being too costly leads many to shelve change. On this issue, SPRING and IE offer generous grants to lighten the financial load. However more can be done to spread awareness, as those who are unaware of such schemes often have the most outdated business models.
There is also a fear that updating their business model will be too tedious. As such, more can be done to spread the success stories of companies who have changed their business models for the better, in order to convince others that the effort to change is worth the subsequent growth.
Finding a reliable overseas expansion partner may also be difficult as SMEs generally lack overseas contacts. In this regard, IE can connect them to overseas industry players and governments.
Call to Singaporean companies
Expansion may soon be necessary for survival as technological advancements revolutionise the way business is conducted. As such, companies must keep an open mind to adopt new business models and use Singapore as a base to grow but ultimately set their sights on the world outside. Due to the geographical proximity and synergistic characteristics, ASEAN will be a good place to start and if companies can find their niche, there will be space for them to thrive in the future.
ASEAN UP. (2017). ASEAN infographics: population, market, economy – ASEAN UP. [online] Available at: https://aseanup.com/asean-infographics-population-market-economy/ [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].
PWC. (2017). Understanding infrastructure opportunities in ASEAN. [online] Available at: https://www.pwc.com/sg/en/publications/assets/cpi-mas-1-infrastructure-opporuntities-in-asean-201709.pdf [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].
Techinasia. (2017). Tech in Asia – Connecting Asia’s startup ecosystem. [online] Available at: https://www.techinasia.com/indonesia-foreign-startups-10-things-know-list [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].
The ASEAN Post. (2017). Startup funding exploding in Southeast Asia. [online] Available at: https://www.theaseanpost.com/article/startup-funding-exploding-southeast-asia [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].
The Straits Times. (2017). Asean: Next 50 years. [online] Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/asean-next-50-years [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].