Travelling Malaysia Part IV: Getting To Know The Local Entrepreneurs

I began my last post in this travelling Malaysia series by saying that the more time I spent in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the more I liked it.

Well, forgive me for sounding like a broken record, but a few days on that rings even truer!

I think that the first week to ten days in any city is not enough time to really get to know a new place – which is a shame because a week to ten days is all most of us get when we spend time abroad.

It’s only after a good chunk of time – or a few repeat visits, that cities, countries, islands and territories start to give up some of their secrets. You can do all the reading up on a destination that you want, but in the final reckoning nothing beats the experience of simply being there. Not least because some of the reporting on travelling abroad is wildly inaccurate. Ten minutes on Trip Advisor is enough to put anybody off of travelling – well – almost anywhere!

This is why I’m glad to be spending the best part of 3 months on my travels in SE Asia; it gives me extra time for, in my case, attending local events for entrepreneurs, startup founders, fans of fintech, coders, and business owners, and to hang out with people who know far better than I do what Kuala Lumpur, from a Westerners, and a local’s perspective, is all about.

Startup Grind

The first event I attended in KL was one that is familiar to me – StartUp Grind. StartUp Grind is a collective of all of the above personalities who meet on a regular basis, all over the world, usually to listen to a “fireside chat” with an entrepreneur who has an interesting story to tell about how they built their business. Networking with attendees, usually buttressed with food or drink from some new foodie startup or other – bookends the chat.

I’ve been to several of these in London – they usually take place at WeWork, in Moorgate – which means free beer! When I attended the Kuala Lumpur chapter of Startup Grind, at the Common Ground co-working space in the Western part of the city, it was to hear from Alex Fernandez, the founder of Streamline Studios. Instead of beer, there were mini-burgers, supplied by a startup who’s name I forget. Shame, because they were delicious. So good, in fact, that the first person I chatted to, a KL native who had left his consulting job to join a car hire startup, munched his way through 3 burgers before the event had even started!

Alex Fernandez had emigrated from Mexico to Ohio as a young boy, and in America’s sink or swim culture, computers were his ticket to a better life. He found work in Silicon Valley, before moving to Amsterdam and starting his own games design studio and selling computer game art.

The startup boomed, and then it went bust. Fernandez relocated to Malaysia where he found the design and development talent he needed to rebuild  the company, and the rest is history, he told us. Streamline Studios now has more than 200 staff in Malaysia, Europe, the United States and Japan, working with top titles like Street Fighter, Gears of War, and Final Fantasy.

Fernandez was gushing about Malaysia as a destination for business. He could not believe, he said, the depth of talent that was available. He had heard the rumours, but even so…and judging by the number of young, tech savvy locals and ex-pats who attended the event, there is little danger of the talent pool drying up.

Malaysia cultivates a business-friendly environment. In Kuala Lumpur, like in any big, modern city, there are plenty of ambitious, curious, and hungry entrepreneurs. Almost every Uber driver I chatted to was working 2 (or more) jobs. An online marketplace by day, Uber by night. Uber by day, a catering company in the evenings.

The latter catering pitch was delivered by a half Thai, half Malaysian lady Uber driver at half past midnight as we tore through Kuala Lumpur in her sporty Toyota with leather trim, listening to (and watching) a risque hip-hop song blaring from the car’s video dashboard. You never know where the next opportunity is coming from!

The Confidence Coach

For entrepreneurs, having a US or European background can be of help. On my last night in KL, I catch up with someone I had met at the Startup Grind event, a startup and lifestyle coach from Montreal, Jean.

Jean has been travelling Taiwan, Singapore and now Kuala Lumpur, before heading to Thailand, and back home. He had been running a startup building underwater IoT devices, dividing his time between San Diego and Montreal. One night he decided to hit a bar and blow off some steam – by the end of the night, he had befriended a manager at Apple, who offered him a job on the spot.

And off to Silicon Valley he went.

But he didn’t find what he was looking for in California, and so he hit the road, determined to learn, and help others learn, about the art of leadership. He likes to ask people questions like “how do you define yourself?”, and “what would you do, and more importantly, who would you be, if you lost your job tomorrow?” The usual response to such questions tends to be silence, amazement, and then either “don’t ask me any more questions like that”, or, “you’re hired”!

Jean has worked with numerous Malaysian and Taiwanese startups; his casual shorts, flip-flops and t-shirt approach, he says, goes down a storm in Asia, where entrepreneurs less familiar with Valley startup culture think he must be some kind of guru, or eccentric billionaire – not necessarily a disadvantage, he jokes.

His experiences have taught him that entrepreneurs in Asia sometimes have a harder time “embracing failure”, or taking big risks than in the Valley. “Let’s just try it and see where it goes”, is not an expression you hear a lot on the Asian startup scene, he tells me. Startup founders are too meticulous, too afraid of failure, to take big risks. They can focus too much on the pitfalls, and not enough on the opportunity.

This is in part due to the fact that for many, taking such a risk in Asia truly is greater than in the West. Wages in Kuala Lumpur are low – the average salary is around $400 per month. Even top firms like Google pay engineers considerably less than equivalent roles in other countries. It’s not much by Western standards, but highly competitive in Malaysia. When good wages are harder to come by, perhaps it’s understandable that nobody wants to register a failed business on their CV.

But support networks are beginning to take shape on the startup scene, as I have written about in some of my earlier posts. The government understands the need for millennials to experiment with new ideas. If anything, as Alex Fernandez and his Brazilian interviewer and manager of Startup Grind’s Kuala Lumpur chapter, Laís, concluded, Malaysian millennials can be too hard on themselves. Budding entrepreneurs could afford to be a touch more arrogant, because they have the ability.

Coffee & Coding

Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s only “Alpha City”, and it is a great place to be; it’s developed, it seamlessly integrates different nationalities, cultures, and religions in a way that should be a model for modern European integration, it’s safe, and there’s no shortage of things to do. Oh, and you can fly pretty much anywhere in Asia from Kuala Lumpur airport.

But in addition, everywhere you look you can see the potential for further disruption – in the good sense of the word. Hipster cafés with attitude are everywhere, and skinny jeans and skinny lattes are the order of the day amongst some of the more progressive youth. Millennials are restless and you can sense they are demanding more from themselves and form the society around them.

One day, I take a taxi to a nearby suburb where I find OJO Coffee, the venue for “Coffee & Coding”, a MeetUp group set up by another Canadian traveller, Denis. “Let’s drink coffee and code together”, he says in the blurb.

Ok. Done.

OJO Coffee is the model coder’s café. Good coffee, plenty of space, not too hot (or too cold – KL’s cafés can sometimes overdo it on the air-con front if you ask me – the irony of wearing a jumper when it is 30 degrees outside!), Apple MacBook’s and Surfaces everywhere you look; mood music.

Besides Denis (Surface user, building a website that runs on free cloud storage, ridiculously well-travelled) I meet Jose from Brazil who is working on 2 projects – a tinder for travellers who want to find somewhere to go places with, and a connected device for controlling your home remotely. He says he prefers Thailand to Malaysia, but he has only been here a few days. Like I say, give him time.

I meet Steven, a Malaysian who works in advertising, Matthew, a Swede who has lived on and off in Kuala Lumpur for more than 40 years (and knows everything), and various other techie types come and go throughout the afternoon and early evening I spend at OJO.

It took me a while, but I now realise that get-togethers like this happen every day around Kuala Lumpur. As I mentioned before, the more layers you peel off, the more you get to the heart of a city’s culture and discover what it is all about. I’m not suggesting everyone in KL is a wannabe entrepreneur, merely that it took me a while to locate the ones that are. But once you know where to look, it’s like fishing with dynamite!

It’s not just Westerners who are coding away happily in Café OJO – there are many locals too, although Denis points out that the majority of locals would struggle to afford the price of a coffee or a sandwich here. Coding tends to be the reserve of the well-educated middle class, but having said that, all of the locals I meet seem more than comfortable with the latest technologies, and it wouldn’t surprise me if coding becomes widespread amongst the less privileged sectors of society. Talent is not an issue.

Fancy emigrating?

Western entrepreneurs like Alex Fernandez with drive and ambition will find everything they need, and may well be able to mobilise more quickly, and more cheaply here in Malaysia than in London, Paris, Stockholm, or California. During my time here, I have bumped into more than one Venture Capitalist, too, and there’s no doubt that Malaysian entrepreneurs are familiar with the model, even if many are more than a little apprehensive about taking the plunge.

Taking millions of Ringgits off of somebody without a clear plan as to how you intend to either pay it back or deliver a return just doesn’t sit that well with a lot of people. 9 failures out of every ten? To be fair, the idea takes some getting used to.

But boot-strappers should not have to bootstrap forever – that’s not the point. So, there’s a huge opportunity here for Westerners or locals with a “Silicon Valley” mind-set – be they coaches like Jean, entrepreneurs like Alex Fernandez, coders like Denis and Jose, or Venture Capitalists like Jin Hui – to make a difference.

The world is getting smaller and there are fewer secrets about living abroad than their used to be. This isn’t The Beach, and Leo DiCaprio’s character is well and truly a throwback in this day and age. But if a tropical climate is your thing, and you are hunting for opportunity and have a can-do attitude, I’ve no doubt you’d be very welcome, and maybe very successful in Malaysia.

There’s no rest for the wicked, however, and unfortunately I cannot stay longer in KL. Still, I am off to Singapore, which in fintech terms is basically the mothership, so I can’t be too disappointed. Look out for my next post, coming soon! Edmund.

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