Jawed Karim, cofounder of YouTube, Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList, Konstantin Guericke, cofounder of LinkedIn, and Saad Khan, a partner at CMEA investments, took a trip to Malaysia last week. And they weren’t there to splash in tropical waters.
The group went to speak and inspire some 1,000 entrepreneurs during a two-day conference designed to teach critical skills to startups on taking ideas to market, raising funding, and finding talent.
Except this wasn't your average skill-building symposium. The conference was designed to spur an entrepreneurial ecosystem in a country that’s trying to combat a decade-long brain drain and keep economic momentum high after a recovery in 2010.
Backed by Startup Malaysia, an organization founded by Dhakshinamoorthy Balakrishnan (Dash) and presented the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) which advises the Malaysian government, and Global Entrepreneurship Sdn Bhd, a Malaysian nonprofit that provides education and mentoring for high growth startups, Startup Malaysia's co-founder Rebeca Hwang tells Fast Company that these gatherings are a proven way to generate jobs and growth.
First by showing it is possible to start and build a thriving business in your own country. In addition to Silicon Valley’s luminaries, speakers included successful Malaysian entrepreneurs such as Groupsmore’s Joel Neoh, the 28-year-old head of the online bulk discount startup with a million subscribers that was recently acquired by Groupon for an undisclosed amount.
Another presenter was Green Packet Bhd’s managing director and CEO C.C. Puan, who originally took his networking equipment ideas to Silicon Valley in 1990s. Though he failed in the tech hub, the MDeC provided another chance to start the business in Malaysia. Green Packet is now a prominent provider of networking products and through its subsidiary also provides wireless broadband service.
Success stories provide the spark, but Hwang, cofounder of YouNoodle, a company that helps schools and other organizations run competitions through a collaborative, online platform and acted as technology partner to the conference, notes there is plenty of muscle behind the initiative, too. Malaysia's government is offering incentives such as tax breaks, initiatives to provide funding, and encouraging training in universities.
Malaysia has a very young population, 65% of which is under 35, as well as the need to create jobs quickly. Hwang says entrepreneurship can create alternatives to other activities. "In many cases the government is responding to demand by the people," she says, like in Indonesia, where a grassroots movement began.
"The government recognized entrepreneurship to be a good cause to engage young talent and create alternatives to other activities." She observes that the U.S. government has been promoting entrepreneurship in Muslim-dominated countries with this goal. "The GIST initiative is a partner of Startup Malaysia."
Encouraging execution of ideas with a capital kickstart from the government is just the beginning, writes Joash Wee, a Malaysian contributor to e27, which covers web innovation in Asia. "A strong startup community rides more on private equity than on government funding."
Government funding often comes with restrictions and paperwork, too, so the conference addressed a universal challenge faced by any entrepreneur in any country: attracting angel investors and venture capital. "Many of the investors who traveled to the conference made the point that angel investors are frequently emotional investors," says Hwang. "they invest in markets they know and people they trust."
She points out that any company going after global funding from a conference should focus on building long-term relationships. "You need a champion who is willing to vouch for you even if this includes a trip to clusters with funding like Silicon Valley." Develop a story to back the idea and leverage any local resources such as grants, competitions, press, to show how the business has gained traction, too, she adds.
But the conference even turned the pitching exercise on its ear. The speakers chose 51 candidates for one-on-one sessions prior to which startup founders got together with different teams to work on a new idea. The objective was to teach idea-generation skills without the baggage of the emotional investment that founders typically have for their own project, says Hwang.
Though pushed to create something fresh, some entrepreneurs fell back on familiar strengths to deliver their pitches. One was rapped by musician-turned-activist Atama Katama to Saad Khan, which the venture capitalist proclaimed unforgettable.
Patrick Ooi of mobile9 says he presented his existing app store business with over 40 million users to Khan and Jawed Karim, and the two offered specific advice on to take the company forward. "Events like this aren’t just informative for entrepreneurs, it inspires us to really do."