What do you need to build a business in Singapore? This is the question to which we are going to answer today.
Building a business it’s never easy, there are many challenges that you have starting from the lack of experience, insufficient funds, no reputation, no staff, and so many others. Also, the difficulties that you will face depend a lot on the niche you choose and the country in which you are living. Even if you have previous experience in growing a business in another country, if you just moved to Singapore and you want to start something new here, you will have to adapt to the requirements of the local market.
To better understand what are the issues that a start-up may face and also how you should overcome them, we asked Minuca Elena to reach out to 28 Singaporean entrepreneurs and ask them the following questions:
1. “What were the biggest challenges that you faced when you started your business?”
2. “What is your best advice for someone that wants to build a business in Singapore?”
We received an impressive variety of answers. The experts that we selected are business people from different fields, some have traditional businesses while others have online businesses. They all shared awesome advice that you can read in the post below.
In these five years of running a few companies, the toughest challenges always stem from matters that deal with employees and partners. Under an SME environment, it is extremely tough to compete with larger corporations for talent. SMEs pay lesser, offer fewer incentives, expect longer working hours and yet places greater reliance on their employees due to the small size. Each employee becomes rather indispensable and yet greener pastures await them.
It is a huge challenge trying to find the right the right employees for an SME and offer a visible progression for them; people who are able to see the vision and growth in a company despite the challenging environment, and people who are willing to see greater value in personal growth instead of the value in material benefits.
For me, I believe that fostering a culture and community within the company is extremely important in instilling a sense of belonging among our colleagues. I also believe in a servant leadership philosophy where we empower and involve our colleagues in decision making. We treat our employees as friends that we genuinely take care of, can identify with the same cause as us, and friends whom we can most importantly, trust.
Don’t run a business without a clear mission or cause; you will find yourself giving up real soon. Also, find yourself partners who can identify with the same mission as you, commit their time to the cause, cover your weaknesses, and most importantly, be able to motivate you. A team with diversified skill sets, commitment, and a clear goal is a formula for success.
Also do not be resistant to change, stay open-minded, and always be willing to learn. A startup is a very dynamic environment that is constantly changing and moving.
First and foremost was getting paid; getting revenue to drive your business forward. Don’t discount feeding yourself, if your business cannot be profitable after you pay yourself a decent wage, it’s not a sustainable business.
Start small, build a successful business model first before committing large sums of money. You want to minimize as much risk as possible before taking the plunge. Even for fund-raising, you can get a lot more capital once you have a proven, revenue-driven model.
One of the biggest challenges for me was the cultural differences. It’s important to realize that what works for your business in one country won’t work necessarily for another, especially when it comes to marketing your business.
In order to market, you must be acutely aware of your target audience and their desires. You must ask yourself, are you targeting Singapore or do you have a more international audience? Does your messaging resonate with the people of Singapore or is it just general messaging you use in other marketing campaigns in other countries?
Cultural Intelligence is growing in importance, and companies need to recognize this. This also feeds into the importance of doing proper research before you start or do business in Singapore.
Singapore offers a hub of trade and investment, making it among the most competitive Asian countries, and a great place to do business. Once you get started, Singapore has all sorts of perks that can benefit your company, including protecting your ideas via Singapore’s strict enforcement of intellectual property laws, and more.
So good advice going in is that it is important to make your business successful from the get-go. You should be heavily researching the country prior to setting up shop.
As simple as that may sound, many are surprised by government rules they may not have thought of (for example, in Singapore, businesses are required to appoint a secretary within six months.) It’s important to be as aware and informed as possible going in.
When starting up Enjin, we bootstrapped our way to profitability and as one of the first members of the team, we managed all aspects of the business and had to each wear many hats, including taking on roles we never thought we would be in, or have prior experience in.
For me, it was having to dive into spreadsheets to manage financial and reporting. It’s the small things that you naturally don’t want to do but have to do that can be the biggest challenge but also it’s those things that push you to learn and grow the most.
Singapore is very business friendly, and I find that not being afraid to ask for help, whether it be from your colleagues, staff at IRAS or ACRA, or your company vendors, a lot of information comes freely and accurately if you ask directly, and saves a lot of trouble guessing or ‘googling’.
As someone starting out, you don’t need to know all the answers, don’t be afraid to ask questions, there’s a lot of free quality resources and friendly professionals in Singapore.
I faced many challenges, it’s good to have them and it is hard to single out one of them. People, movies, media — all tend to romanticize challenges for one reason or another, but there will always be challenges, as they represent opportunities. That’s just how this world operates.
But primarily, when you want to start your own business, you first need to discipline yourself. And for me, that was always the main struggle.
I always had difficulties with maintaining my health, doing sports, speaking better, being patient, reading the right books, controlling my bad habits, managing emotions, making unpleasant decisions and so much more.
Your mind may want something but to get there, you need to do certain things in a disciplined fashion, and this is the main challenge — the main treasure of the world is inside yourself and it is never possible to manage yourself perfectly.
There are over seven billion people in the world and many are entrepreneurs – so, it’s difficult to give universal advice to all of them. But if I had to choose a few things, I’d encourage everyone to never give up, never stop learning and never expect that anything would be easy.
Yes, Singapore provides a significant support to local startups, it invites perspective companies to be based here, plus it’s a fairly small country, so it’s easier to navigate in the local business circles, but you can never fully rely on governmental support.
You need to outperform the other 99 ventures similar to yours – and there are many ways of doing that. You need to also keep on learning.
No matter what level you are, you have to learn. And so, if you never stop trying and constantly learn, you would avoid making the same mistakes and eventually prevail, no matter how hard it would be.
I think the biggest challenge to any business starting up is customer acquisition. How do you, as an unknown and unheard of business, get your first customers through the door?
For us the answer to that was digital marketing – we started Google Ads campaigns which allowed us to be the first results that people saw when they looked for home cleaning and were then able to build the brand from there.
The next challenge was faced was hiring, as the labor market in Singapore is tight and people did not want to become cleaners. This required a variety of creative recruiting methods from putting up flyers to newspaper advertising.
The best advice for people wanting to start a business in Singapore is to go digital first. This is because Singapore is a country with very high digital penetration where people tend to look for what they want online. Thus going online allows businesses to easily and quickly reach out to a lot of people.
Ways to go online include Google Ads, Facebook Ads – as longa s you appear where people are looking online! Sometimes it may even make sense to setup your online presences first before you start spending a lot of money renting an office, paying salaries etc. etc.
1. Adapting to the High Energy, Fast-paced Environment
One of the most difficult things after defining the vision we had for Art of Click (AOC) was to come up with the appropriate marketing, product and sales strategies to ensure the company’s success. In business, and even more so for a startup, adaptability is a key factor to survival and growth. Thus, it was and still is, vital for us to constantly improve and develop strategies according to the market evolution.
I remembered having to tailor the strategies almost every quarter of the first two years just to keep up with the ever-changing market, especially when it was growing with new competitors every day.
For example, back in 2016, when ad fraud alone incurred 7 billion dollars’ worth of loss in the industry, we realized the need for transparency and clear return on ad spending.
As a result, we had to similarly tackle this issue by using that external threat and turning it into an opportunity to maintain our competitive edge by developing our own technology: The Art of Shield, a powerful fraud detection tool that has proven its efficiency.
2. Dealing with Uncertainty
When I first launched AOC, I had to accept that there would be days when I would need to make personal sacrifices, even without the certainty that my efforts will one day be rewarded. Working throughout the day and night became a daily routine.
Sometimes we had to remind ourselves to not be too quick to consider it a success when a client was willing to give us a huge budget to work with. We had to continuously keep in mind that budgets come and go every day.
When a company grows, those ups and downs turn from daily occurrences, to weekly and even monthly, but at the end of the day, experiencing and working through such highs and lows is essential in bringing sustainability to a company.
3. Picking the Right Team
Once my company was created, I needed to surround myself with qualified and motivated people. I think it’s one of the biggest challenges that I faced by far. I was confronted with two concurrent problems:
Attracting people being a startup. It’s only natural that potential employees would be more interested in working in a bigger and more established company. And our only solution then was to come up with strong arguments to convince them to take up a new challenge where I in turn, would trust that they would deliver to the best of their abilities.
Finding profiles which perfectly matches the company’s needs. At the start, I had to closely determine my strengths and weaknesses to select those whom I believed would be able to not just complement but to also compensate for the areas I was lacking in.
For example, I graduated with a master’s in engineering and had a digital/ advertising background. So back then, I was looking for someone who had the capabilities and skills to handle the technical aspects to develop our platform. And I was fortunate enough to find the perfect co-founder, who similarly shares the same vision I had for AOC.
It is also important for us to find that perfect balance between the number of employees and the current success of the company to ensure that no resources are wasted in the process.
My best advice for someone that wants to start a business are:
1. Ensure Clients’ Satisfaction:
As Series A fundings are scarce, it’s a better option to focus on funds coming from clients’ revenue instead of Series A’s Venture Capital firms. Back when the company was newly established, I saw the importance of making clients my number one priority.
Treat each and every one of them as equally important; one should not disregard the possibility that a client who started out investing with a small budget, may well end up be one of the company’s biggest revenue providers down the road.
Bottomline is, it’s a lot more worthwhile to pursue client’s budgets than VC cash.
2. Utilize Government Support:
Do not be afraid to seek help and to fully utilize on what is provided or is made available around you. In Singapore, we are lucky to have a government who supports birth startups and are willing to assist such companies during their key moments – be it by providing grants or mentorship. So if you are launching a tech startup especially, do consider enquiring on that.
Our biggest challenge in branching out to Singapore was finding an office space that fit our needs. The important thing to note is that in Singapore you typically get a raw space so you need to be creative and leave time for build-outs from the ground up. This was unexpected for us, coming from New York City.
If you are looking to start a business in Singapore, or any new territory, it’s important that you do your research to make sure there is a market for your product or service in the region before deciding to build infrastructure. Once you establish that there’s a need, get to know the laws of the country.
For Singapore specifically, there is a lot of regulation involved so it’s important that you become familiar with the compliance needed in your industry and not make any assumptions. Then, hire a good accounting and legal firm that you trust to help you develop your corporate infrastructure correctly.
“Working for myself” has always been a dream for me (and most of my friends). However, being an entrepreneur is definitely not an easy feat and it comes with a whole suite of challenges; from trying to establish your brand, marketing your services/products within your limited resources, adjusting your pricing to be competitive in your industry.
One of the biggest challenges is finding the right strategy to continue to stay ahead and bringing the company to the next level, especially when we need to balance between short-term profits and long-term goals.
Great things in business are never done by one person. Picking the right team for a start-up can be both stressful and difficult. To begin with, it is not easy to hire in Singapore. On top of that, we are not just trying to find candidates to fill the roles. We need to ensure we hire the right person, considering the cost to the business versus their culture fit and how they’ll work as part of the overall team. Such considerations are exceptionally hard when you’re under the pressure of filling those positions as soon as possible.
1. It’s all about actions. The best way to get everything going is by doing and you cannot afford to sit around waiting for funding nor hoping someone will come along to help you execute your idea. Making excuses such as no bandwidth is the biggest hurdle for you start a business. If you wait until your product or service is “perfect”, someone else will already be doing a better job of helping your customers solve their problems.
2. Be decisive. New entrepreneurs are forced to make hundreds of decisions a day, from big, company-impacting decisions, to tiny, hour-affecting ones. Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon, and most new entrepreneurs will experience it if they aren’t prepared for the new level of stress.
3. Begin with the end goal in mind. Be focus on setting & achieving small incremental goals rather than trying to start a business and instantly build your vision of what the company should be in the years to come. Setting realistic goals and milestones are important in keeping your sanity.
My biggest challenges when I started my business were finding time and money.
Taking on all aspects of the business on my own is time-consuming and as a startup, I don’t have the money to outsource everything either.
There is quite a lot involved in publishing a book – from food tastings, negotiations with restaurants, brand partners and retailers, to the design and production of the book; and of course, the marketing and PR for it. And let’s not forget about the back-end administrative work like finance and website management.
Nowadays, everything can be done online which is more convenient and helps a lot, but it’s tough work to build and manage a website, integrate everything with social media and customer relationship management (CRM) systems.
On top of that, decide on what to do for Google AdWords to maximize my advertising dollar. Trying to become an expert in all these aspects of the business overnight is extremely challenging but the rewards are equally immense when something works out.
I tried outsourcing certain elements of the business – to varying levels of success – but it’s a steep learning curve and I would say that I have gotten a lot better at it and have found great partners to work within the process. It has made me better at maintaining focus on what’s most important and that will add the most value to my business rather be tempted to chase every lead.
Do it! If you want to start your own business, just do it. Of course, you will need to think it through, plan and strategize but don’t wait for the perfect moment – it doesn’t exist.
I started my own business while still working full-time which was a challenge because I had very little free time, but it also gave me the chance to focus on what I thought was right for the brand instead of what would make money right away. I think that’s very important to keep in mind.
Make decisions based on what’s right for your brand or business, and not based solely on profits, it is more beneficial in the long run. While I would like Table Tales, to do well, more importantly, I want to stay true to my original concept and intent and value-add to people who own a copy of Table Tales, my partner restaurants and brand partners. It’s important to make sure you have the right balance.
One of the biggest challenges I faced in my time in Singapore had nothing to do with starting a business. I was fortunate to start a business with people that I already knew and trusted.
For me, it was overcoming a personal obstacle and self-doubt. I had to learn to start believing in what I can achieve and taking that leap into the unknown. With starting a business, I had to learn to step out of my comfort zone and learn to be accustomed to worrying about cash flow, chasing suppliers and vendors and payroll.
I live by this personal motto, “there is no one else to blame but yourself”.
Prepare for a few knock-backs along the way but do not give up. Singapore is a highly competitive market, which is great! It forces you to think outside the box and push you to your creative limits.
Singapore is the perfect starting ground for anyone looking to start a business anywhere in the world. There is a lot of support from the startup communities and government available. But be aware of potential pitfalls along the way.
My advice would be never to make assumptions but instead, be diligent in doing your research. There is a danger in getting carried away by a “great idea” but you should always ask yourself why isn’t anyone else doing this yet? You should consider limitations with regards to regulations, cost or the fact that it might not be commercially viable.
Plan, plan and plan again! Before you embark on a project, plan, budget, and decide on a clear objective and vision first. Be as superstitious as you want (I know I am) but be conservative and realistic, do not rely on hope alone to pull you through. When in doubt, Google it! Chances are, someone else had asked the same question before.
Contrary to popular opinion, my advice is to embrace red tape and regulation. See it as a friend, it can be daunting at first but there is a valid reason for its existence. Take comfort in the fact that you now have a competitive advantage. Remember if it was easy then everyone would be doing it. But do not be naive, and do not play the victim, the book stops with you. Always ask questions if you do not understand and ask again.
Regulations are not there to trip you up or pull you down. Guidelines and procedures are there to ensure that there is consistency and a level playing field. But put in a buffer, things may take a lot longer than anticipated, so prepare for that and have a plan b & c.
Do not surround yourself with “YES people!”. Have people who will continually question, motivate and challenge your direction. Some of the best outcomes have come out of collaborations. Remember to be social and plan downtime.
There is a saying, there is six degrees of separation but in Singapore, it’s more like three! So take the time to get to know people, but filter out the noise! It can either be a blessing or a curse! Never see your competitors as the enemy but as potential partners. Chances are, you may need them for something one day so do not burn bridges and never fully shut the door.
But essentially, stay fierce and your hard work and determination will be rewarded!
Coming from a banking background, only with experience in banking, I had to learn everything about running a retail and distribution business from scratch. That proved to be extremely difficult.
I had to be conscious of making a distinction between finding brands that I personally would buy and the brands my target customers would link and purchase. I had to learn through trial and error, the right quantity of stocks to order so that we do not suffer from opportunity cost in the event stocks run out or having to run clearance sales because we over ordered.
On top of that, I had to learn to pace our expansion and adapt quickly to market changes. Last but not least finding and retaining good staff!
Have good partners and do your homework! Understand the industry, especially the challenges, identifying trends, and your competitors.
Always make friends but know your enemy (ie the competitors), and find out and exhaust all the support you can get from various government agencies.
Starting out as an entrepreneur, I struggled to do sales. Over time, I was able to achieve more effective sales by focusing on sharing with clients my passion for the business of emotions rather than selling the scents as products.
Besides this, I had a hard time dealing with uncertainty. Yet, whenever we do something new, we WILL need to deal with uncertainty. This could be uncertainty about results, profit, and cost – details that ebb and flow according to the situation. It’s a MUST for an entrepreneur to learn to be comfortable and live with uncertainty.
To the entrepreneurs, I would advice to never stop learning and always be open to critics who challenge your ideas. Do not surround yourself with ‘YES people’.
More often than not, you learn more through your failures than your successes, so be sure to do your homework, get used to trying different things and accept failure as part of the learning process. Stay humble, be prepared to work hard and be answerable for your business 24/7.
Some of the biggest challenges you can face are:
Finances – as mentioned above, as a developed country and the most expensive city in the world, Singapore office space is not economical.
Hiring talented employees can be challenging too, but the issue can be alleviated as long as the company is willing to pay market price for talent.
Competition with established brands and companies – as discussed above, a market study and analysis for the business is necessary before investing.
Here are a few key points to take into consideration when starting a business in Singapore:
1. Singapore is one of the most business-friendly, transparent and legally-regulated business environments in the world. It is the Asian headquarter for many multinational businesses.
2. Singapore’s government is very pro-business, and taxation is relatively low, making Singapore a competitive business environment.
3. Starting a new business in Singapore is relatively simple and straightforward with no hidden procedures.
4. As a developed country, Singapore is one of the most competitive economies in the world. There are many recognized players there with established market shares. Understanding the current business landscape, especially the market segment that the new business wants to compete in, is important. A market study and assessment are “a must” before investing.
5. As a city-state, Singapore is the most expensive business location in the world. The costs associated with rental real estate and employees are not economical. Living expenses can range from moderate to high depending on housing and dining locations.
6. Because of the very high cost of real estate on the island, low-cost manufacturing is not a good business pursuit for Singapore. High-end manufacturing and professional, service-oriented businesses are more appropriate.
7. With some of the best universities in the world in Singapore, access to a talented workforce is a plus. Nevertheless, competition for talent is always fierce, similar to any major cities.
8. As an island country with about 5.5 million in population, the business market is relatively small. Depending on the type of business, expanding the business beyond the Singapore border may be necessary. Businesses can use Singapore as a base or headquarters and establish operations in neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. where a low-cost labor force is still available.
9. New businesses need to be sensitive to Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-cultural society. Singapore’s citizen population consists of about 76% Chinese, 15% Malay, and 7% ethnic Indians. There are also Eurasians in Singapore. Despite the multi-racial and multi-cultural nature of the society, Singapore is a harmonious society with little racial tension.
10. Singapore employs a tripartite model to advance the labor-management relations. National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) represents over 800,000 workers in Singapore across more than 70 unions, affiliated associations, and related organizations. NTUC works closely with the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in a tripartite model to ensure a positive and harmonious labor-management relation.
11. Investors can contact the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), a government agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry. EDB is responsible for strategies that enhance Singapore’s position as a global center for business, innovation, and talent, and will assist investors to plan and set up businesses in Singapore.
Singapore is one of the easiest places to set up and be in business – not only in Asia, but globally. There are numerous government incentives that make Singapore an attractive base from which to build an Asia operation.
With the availability of quality technical, digital, project management, sales, and managerial talent across a variety of industries, combined with its business-friendly environment, high standard of living, and track record of innovation, it’s no wonder that Singapore has grown into a major international business hub.
It is important to work with government agencies like the Economic Development Board, or EDB to ensure a smooth landing. One key factor to consider is a company’s 5-10 year plan, and which markets it plans to penetrate. If Southeast Asia and India are of primary interest, Singapore is the obvious choice. However, if Greater China is a greater priority, Hong Kong may be a better option. Start with a strong leader – preferably someone with ties to the region, and someone who knows the peculiarities of doing business in specific Southeast Asian markets.
If this is a company’s first foray into Asia, it is also important to ensure the Asian operations are not isolated from the operations of the rest of the business. Frequent visits from executives from HQ, global strategy meetings, and regional training all go a long way to ensure the Asian operations aren’t left to their own devices. This is particularly important in the early months and years.
Finally, it is important to “localize” your strategy. Just because something works in Europe or the US, doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in Asia. Audit all SOPs and ensure they’re appropriate for specific markets in Asia.
In the beginning, it is important to start with a strong nucleus of managerial and operational talent. Invest in good people and ensure they see the long-term vision and upside of building a regional hub in Asia. In the beginning, we followed a one-size-fits-all approach – particularly when it came to sales; and at some point, it became clear that we needed to fine-tune our approach to be more Asia-centric. Striking a balance between global operational frameworks and local strategy is key.
Also, it takes some semblance of critical mass to build momentum and build a definable corporate culture that is specific to a particular market or region. Looking back, I would have pushed for more headcount from the beginning to start off strong and to ensure stability and long-term growth.
As a service business we’ve never needed capital investment but we’ve had a business overdraft facility from day 1, which helps with working capital. Most of our clients are businesses so they expect credit terms of at least 30 days– and even the most considerate clients can sometimes pay late.
But a start-up rarely has the same luxury; you will always want to pay salaries on time, and you certainly don’t want to risk late payment for critical outgoings like rent and utilities. An overdraft facility helps to smooth the inevitable peaks and troughs of cash flow, and you only have to pay interest during the troughs.
Singapore is a great place to do business! I’ve set up companies in many different countries and Singapore has proved to be one of the most straightforward of all. Of course, there’s some bureaucracy, but registration, tax, and employment procedures are generally transparent, efficient and clearly explained online.
There are sharks in every country, but levels of integrity seem significantly higher in Singapore than anywhere else I’ve done business, allowing entrepreneurs to focus more on the exciting parts of running a business and less on managing risks.
This also means it’s relatively easy to find reliable, reasonably-priced suppliers for back-office functions such as accountancy and IT, making it all the most important not to try to do everything yourself.
Sure, if you’re smart enough to set up a business you’ll probably be able to work out how to do your own book-keeping or configure your office’s wifi network, but you’ll grow your business faster by focusing on whatever it is you do best rather than becoming a jack of all trades.
One of the great advantages of Singapore is its role as a regional hub. Whether your focus is B2C or B2B, be prepared to sell to visitors to Singapore who are based in other countries. As a Singaporean business you benefit from perceptions of your own integrity and quality focus, and the whole ASEAN region becomes your local market.
Consider translating your website or at least a brochure into the languages your potential customers speak, and take the time to set yourself up to accept international and foreign currency payments in a way which is easy for your customers – and which doesn’t cost you a fortune in fees and poor exchange rates.
First, raising capital, and second, being isolated. As a consultant/independent contractor, it was hard to get a small business loan to launch my company. Many banks didn’t understand the business and were hesitant to make even a small loan.
So rather than fight that battle (which I assumed I’d never win), I ditched the traditional view, and use a virtual office, and virtual employees. We don’t even have to be in the same country to accomplish what we want. Today, it may seem like an obvious solution, but it was somewhat radical more than 10 years ago!
Although I work with clients every day, I initially felt isolated as an entrepreneur. So, I made it a priority to get out of my office. I make time and expend effort to attend A LOT of events – conferences, social gatherings, workshops and more. Mostly it’s to continue to build my network, and sometimes it’s just for fun.
It’s easy to get out and about in Singapore, so there’s really no excuse! Today, I have a fantastic network to whom I can add value, and they reciprocate. It also makes work more fun.
Be clear about your value. I made the mistake of accepting some opportunities because I was excited to get any business. As expected, they were much more work than I had imagined, and because I had underpriced my offering, I ended up barely breaking even. I learned to be better at assessing client needs and to ask more questions, so my proposals were better aligned with their goals.
Be flexible about how you design your business. It’s easy and fairly straightforward to do business in Singapore. That said, with the explosion of the gig economy, consider new and different ways to operate. You might be surprised!
As we advise in our book Access to Asia, in Singapore, selling value over price is one of the biggest challenges. It’s imperative to create a relationship with every single person in the decision-making chain to earn their trust and credibility. The culture in Singapore is also very network-oriented, so you must earn your way in to the right circles to gain social capital.
Patience: Don’t be surprised during a business meeting if you drink 16 cups of tea, while simultaneously discussing everything other than business until just before the end of the meeting.
This has happened with Singaporean counterparts advising 5 minutes before the meeting ended that they’d like to work together. Building relationships takes time and can feel inefficient, but it is the bottom line to successful Singaporean ventures.
1. The best advice is to take into consideration the cultural dynamics and background of the organization, investors, and individuals with whom you’re seeking to do business. Singapore is a rich blend of Chinese, Malay, Indian and other expat cultures. Who you’re dealing with matters just as much – if not more – than what you’re doing and will determine your approach to business relationships, contract negotiation, and communication.
Naming conventions, gift giving, and dining etiquette will all vary according to the cultural group. You don’t want to find yourself in an awkward situation of mixing up someone’s name, offering alcohol to someone you didn’t know was Muslim, or using your left hand to pass something – a taboo in Malay and Indian culture.
Do general cultural research on Asia for key concepts such as high context communication, saving face, and codes of conduct. Then, look at the particular cultural group you’ll be working with for a specific, nuanced understanding that will guide you how to handle first impressions, deliver presentations, and be successful at the negotiation table.
Get to know the culture through sports, food and the arts so that you have useful conversation topics aside from business, which is critical to relationship building.
2. Corruption in Singapore is extremely low. Start-ups will want to know that offering or suggesting bribes, or skirting the regulations, will not be tolerated. Even the appearance of corruption is rare or non-existent as the punishment for it is high, which includes being banned or jailed.
3. Negotiations can be long and drawn out in Singapore because of the level of transparency that the government requires. (additional information can be provided.)
4. The Singapore legal system is based on English common law, such as the Sales of Goods Act (cap. 393), along with Singapore Statutes derived from a customized mix of statutes derived from other Commonwealth jurisdictions. The nation prefers modeling other regimes that have time-tested laws.
5. Singapore’s Companies Act originated in the English Statute of the same name; however, amendments are based on the Corporations Act of Australia.
6. The Singapore Competition Act is based on Ireland’s and the U.K.’s provisions. g) The penal code is based on Indian law. i) Securities and Futures Act is based on Australian law.
7. Takeovers & Mergers Code is based on the U.K’s similar code.
8. ACRA – Accounting and Corporate Regulatory AUthority – every organization doing business MUST be registered and detailed company information for directors and shareholders submitted.
ACRA’s “Bizfile” application is available for a fee.
9. Local Contact: It is very important to have local Singaporean legal representation to help you navigate the system. There many regulations to be aware of, and familiarizing yourself with registration requirements, corporate governance and compliance is essential. The Singaporean approach is very pragmatic; contracts are followed to the letter in Singapore. In this culture, “comebacks” or amendments are rare, unlike in other parts of Asia where the contract is viewed as a guideline.
One of the biggest challenges I faced was staying motivated and surrounding myself with like-minded people. When I first started my business here, most of my friends were still in university completing their degree so it was difficult to have common topics to talk about.
As a business owner, you have to be able to get used to and adapt to the solitude as most people would not understand the path that you have chosen especially in a conservative nation like Singapore. Eventually, I overcome that with time and also, by luck as I eventually got to know more people in the online community.
The best advice I would give, (especially to my past self, if I could) would be to stay focused and not allow myself to be distracted. In a city-state-nation such as Singapore, distractions are everywhere and unless you have the discipline to say no to people. You will find yourself being unproductive and also unable to accomplish the objectives you had set out to do.
Singapore is the gateway to Southeast Asia. But, once that gate is opened, you still need boots on the ground in each APAC country your business serves.
Understanding local cultures and nuances across the different countries in Southeast Asia goes a long way in enabling businesses to forge meaningful and long-term partnerships. It’s also the best way to improve and customize your go-to-market strategy for each region.
Singapore is an ideal point of entry for any business hoping to break through to Southeast Asia, not just because of its strategic location, but because of its excellent connectivity, highly-developed infrastructure, and business-friendly policies.
When we opened our APAC hub in Singapore, we were excited to engage with the local talent. I’d encourage any entrepreneur starting a business in the region to do the same. There’s a phenomenal pool of ambitious workers in Singapore who can serve as the perfect bridge between the business cultures of the West and the East.
Having a diverse workforce has helped us strengthen our strategic planning and better helps us address the needs of our global customer base.
Over my career, I have started several new businesses and achieved reasonable success. The biggest challenge when starting something new – is really the understanding of the subtle nuances of the business.
The biggest challenges as a new business:
Building credibility within the industry, feeling confident in your new business
Building your networks – you first 10/ 25/ 50 clients are always the hardest. Once you cross the threshold that is right for your business/ industry – growth is more organic.
Understanding or Knowing the best in class industry standards and finding a way to match that
Knowing where to invest your marketing dollars! Getting that right early on helps save much wasted $$$.
We often, start a business with the intention of being successful or making money and based on that we come up with excellent strategic plans – using our rational, logical mind. This is what I did, in my earlier businesses.
I am not saying this is inconsequential – but if you are looking to create excellence in a certain field, and have a long-term vision, you have to be doing something you love – something that is coming from both your heart and mind and where your individual strengths are being put to best use.
Otherwise, the motivation will be short-lived, and the possibility of excellence – minuscule. So go find out what you love to do, and then do it to the best of your ability!
The biggest challenge is to get over the feeling of isolation when you are starting out. When it feels like it is just you versus the world it can become a very lonely place and it is easy to fall back into your shell when you don’t get success straight away.
It sounds obvious but many business owners want to just send out an advertisement and then wait for the business to roll in.
It won’t work like that in Singapore, you need to hustle and get yourself out there meeting people and getting your message and your personal brand out in front of people as often as possible.
The easy part actually is setting up the company. The real challenge is turning it into a business.
The best advice I would have for someone interested to start a business in Singapore is to network like crazy. Singapore is a very small place and the usual 6 degrees of separation is more like 3 in SG.
By networking well, you can gain valuable introductions with senior executives at large multinational businesses that in other countries just isn’t viable.
Join sports teams as well as very often the key client avatars are playing sports there or perhaps they are a parent of a player from a team. We have enjoyed many referrals to multinational CEO’s from their young adult children recommending our products and services.
When we just started, no one would lend us money in the beginning. But now we are a 4-year-old running business with growing revenue streams, we have debt financing as a significant part of our strategy. With a growing revenue stream and expanding the business, we need a lot of cash to fund the growth.
Equity financing is a good way but it’s expensive, business loan, especially a reasonably priced loan that is secured with collaterals such as receivables makes it a very good way to finance our company’s growth rapidly and at an efficient cost of capital!
Don’t do it. It’s hard, it’s risky, you have to sacrifice a lot, and your opportunity cost is very high (your life is probably pretty good now already). And after you hear all of that and you still want to do it, then just do it.
1. Most venture capitalists in Singapore expect your product to expand outside of Singapore because of the market’s narrowness. However, culturally, Singapore shares few aspects with its South East Asian neighbors, such as Vietnam and Thailand. Thus, localizing products for these other regions as you expand in Southeast Asia is a major challenge, especially for expats.
2. For expats, the visa process can take quite a bit of time, especially if you are a founder of a company. With a few hundred thousand dollars in funding or more, it’s quite an expedited process. However, in order to deposit funds or open accounts, often times a visa is required. So, that can be a challenge but UOB offers solutions to this.
Regarding starting a business in Singapore: UOB is the best bank for startups in Singapore, as they go above and beyond to cater to startup needs from a customer service perspective. They also offer many perks to venture-funded startups, such as lower fees and access to interesting opportunities.
Venture capital in Singapore is much like the rest of Asia in a sense that it is much harder to raise funding here than places like Silicon Valley. One of the best methods for identifying funding is by finding angel groups and contacting the organizers of these events to:
1. Check out your product
2. If they are interested, invite you to pitch to their angel investor group.
Regarding operating in Singapore, it is fairly easy to get in touch via phone with regulators from all areas of concern: From labor regulators to securities regulators. It is highly advised to reach out to them as you build your business and get candid answers on how to overcome regulatory hurdles. This is one of the biggest benefits to Singapore that should not be overlooked.
1. Going narrow: I was most passionate about helping people with their sexuality issues. While I established myself as the subject matter expert in Singapore, I found myself being pigeonholed as not being as good in helping people in other areas which in turn, limited my income not to mention professional growth.
2. Focusing on what I liked doing: In focusing on what I seemed naturally good at (empathy when working with clients and coaching skills), I was neglecting the other skills I needed to be successful in running a business e.g. sales/ networking. I now realized that after some time my limitations will hold me back. Our limitations will generally also be the things we don’t like to do (and so we don’t try to get better at them).
3. Not having a business mentor: I am required through my training to have supervision; however, the sessions focused primarily on coaching skills. I wish I had the hindsight to get a business coach earlier.
4. Not having a community: Being a helping professional can be tiring as we give so much to others. Being an introvert and constantly feeling overwhelmed caused me to withdraw socially in my desire to recover and rest. This furthered my sense of alienation and lack of support.
There are many ways to have a community, and it could have been in a way I was comfortable with – rather than not having one at all.
When I started Tutoroo I first focused on finding customers.
I would say Singapore is a pretty good place to start a business if you already have a business model, not just a business plan. Singapore is an expensive city so your development phase might be limited when compared to other countries.
Singapore remains, however, one of the best locations across Asia when it comes to connecting to investors to grow your business.
I started my business at a young age, so the biggest challenge I faced when I was starting out was being insecure about my age. Most of my customers are middle-aged men and women from the United States, so I had several insecurities given that I was almost half their age.
However, I have come to realize that people care most about the results, and I now focus more on delivering results because that is what counts more. I feel that the same applies to people who are too old as well. Everyone has a chance to succeed if they put in the work, although not everyone can start something successful.
My advice to any aspiring entrepreneur is to do sufficient research, and then just get started now! As Singaporeans, we tend to be very ‘kiasu’ and wait until the perfect moment to do something. Do not waste any more time waiting because you never know what you can or cannot do until you actually jump in.
It also helps that the Singapore government is extremely supportive towards new businesses. Plus, taxes in Singapore is much lower compared to other countries. In other words, Singapore is a conducive space for you to get started on your new business. So do it!
I believe that the biggest challenge faced aside from business itself is the ability to believe in myself that my business can actually be viable and sustainable in my pursue of idealism. It was a leap of faith for myself to start my landscape consultancy business at the age of 26.
There are many challenges and fears just thinking about it even now because I had been living by the grace of God. Just a few fear will scare people from starting one. Fear of uncertainty of income, fear of giving up luxury in life, fear of derailing plans to start a family earlier, fear of loneliness as enterprising can be lonely.
But having an adventurous spirit, I fear more in living a life of mediocrity that leads to a boring, unfulfilling life that my spirit drags to himself to stay alive. So it’s enough a complying reason to live out my idealism.
2. My best advice to people who wants to start their business is to start dreaming, start asking questions of how they would be able to take small steps to move closer to realize their dream and they will be on a good start.
A big thanks to all the entrepreneurs that contributed to this expert roundup!
As you have seen there are unique challenges and opportunities if you want to build a business in Singapore. Hopefully, by following the advice from this article you will be able to avoid some mistakes that beginners do.
If you enjoyed reading this post, please share it on social media with your friends and followers. You never know who may be planning to start a business and could benefit from the all the information shared here.
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