Southeast Asia has great potential for growth: unicorn entrepreneurs

When asked if ride-hailing giant Grab is keen on expanding beyond southeast Asia, Grab co-founder Tan Hooi Ling said the company is lucky to be sitting on a "gold mine of untapped opportunity" in the region.

Tan was among the four prominent entrepreneurs who spoke at the "Unicorns: Fast Take-off" session at the second day of the 19th Forbes Global CEO Conference in Singapore on Wednesday. The annual event was attended by some 400 global CEOs, tycoons, entrepreneurs, up-and-comers, capitalists and thought leaders.

The other panellists were Eric Gnock Fah, chief operating officer and co-founder of travel platform Klook; Forrest Li, chairman and group chief executive officer of Sea, parent company of Garena and Shopee; and Tan Min-Liang, co-founder and CEO of gaming company Razer.

Against the backdrop of a less than "fantastic" broader macroeconomic environment, everyone is looking at southeast Asia as the region that offers the "biggest opportunities for continued growth and innovation," said Grab's Tan.

Grab now offers the region's 650 million users a wide range of on-demand transport, food and package delivery services, as well as payments and financial services.

"In many ways, southeast Asia has been underserved and because it is the place we call home, it is the market that we know the best... And when you have this group of passionate and talented individuals who want to make a real difference, why go anywhere else?" she said.

Reflecting on Grab's starting journey, Tan said that everyone had initially thought it was a simple matter to "copy and paste" solutions from more developed markets into southeast Asia and it would work well for its customers here. But that "wasn't quite true when it came to services that, like ride-hailing, have a physical aspect as well as a technology, operational, online aspect," she said.

Other speakers also pointed to the tremendous growth opportunities in southeast Asia and how Singapore is a fertile ground for unicorns and start-ups to flourish.

To Razer's Tan, southeast Asia is also a very "interesting" place to be at this point in time. An added bonus is that it is home to one of the youngest populations which has a global perspective and many are bilingual or even trilingual.

For Sea's Li, Singapore is a "natural" hub for talents for southeast Asia. In fact, many of his hires leading the Shopee business in Indonesia have spent many years in Singapore, studied at Singaporean universities, made many Singaporean friends and "understand the working style and culture" across Singapore and Indonesia, said Li, adding this becomes an advantage when they go back to their home to expand the business.

On its advice for other companies, Razer's Tan said that the secret is to "keep a very open mind" towards new business models.

"Disruption will come at you from completely (different places), it's going to completely blindside you, but keeping an open mind is probably one of the most important things that we remind ourselves every single day," he said.

In this dynamic digital world where anyone can be a competitor, companies have to be on "survival mode" and to constantly innovate and outrun their next competitor, said Gnock Fah.

While there is the threat that airline companies and hotels might start to offer similar services as Klook, Gnock Fah said that Klook has successfully managed to corner this mobile-driven space and is a leader in this industry.

"If they were to enter this space, which they already are, they may be able to take a share of the pie, but we believe the majority of the pie exists on mobile as an in-destination and that is what we are pioneering," he said.

"In this world, I really do believe that it's going to be fast fish that will eat the slow fish, rather than the big fish that will eat the small fish," said Gnock Fah.

Source: China ASEAN Business Council