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Beyond Borders: How to Expand Your Southeast Asian Start-up

Two start-up founders share how their organizations successfully expanded to new territories

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BY Melissa G. Bagamasbad - 09 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It is the ambition of many start-ups to not just grow their organization in their area but in other countries as well. This has been a gradual process for two Southeast Asian start-ups, Kalibrr and C88 Financial Technologies, with both currently operating in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Kalibrr is a Philippine-based jobs platform that now operates in Indonesia, while C88 is a digital financial marketplace originally from Indonesia and now operating in the Philippines.

Dexter Ligot-Gordon, co-founder and CEO of Kalibrr, says that they chose to expand from the Philippines to Indonesia because they’ve always wanted to tap in the regional market. There are also similarities between the Philippines and Indonesia, in that both are mobile-first markets and possess massive social media penetration.

For C88 Financial Technologies, one of their co-founders is Filipino while the other two have been based in Manila for many years. “You could say that C88 started in Manila, as our engineering and product development is headquartered here and has been since 2008,” says JP Ellis, co-founder and group CEO of C88 Financial Technologies. “Taking the decision to launch commercially in the Philippines was, therefore, an entirely logical decision and one that has worked out very well for us.”

He adds they are also keen on the values of Filipino employees. “The work ethic, cultural values, and creativity of our Philippine colleagues is outstanding and it has been and remains a great pleasure to collaborate with them every day to build a fintech company whose mission is to champion financial access to every citizen of every nation we serve — those being the Philippines and Indonesia now,” says Ellis.

Thinking of going beyond your horizons? Here are tips shared by the two start-up founders:

1. Have a strong local point person in the territory you’re expanding in

Gordon says that it’s essential to have a strong local point person or in Kalibrr’s case, a country manager who knows the market well. This country manager can connect with investors and the start-up’s first generation of customers, as well as help navigate challenges in that area.

Ellis adds having a solid team is important in expanding. He remembers the saying that nine women cannot give birth to a baby in one month; some things take time. “If the entrepreneurial team is not ready to expand or doesn’t have the mindset or that vision, forcing it will likely make matters worse rather than better and spread resources too thinly,” he says.

2. Get the right partners

It matters who your investors and clients are, according to Gordon. “It will make a difference on who will want to work with you,” he explains. Conversely, having the wrong partner will make some people not want to work with you.

3. Localize but maintain your value proposition

Gordon says one can make business decisions based on the trends in that country’s market. Hence, marketing strategies can — and, more often, should — be localized.

However, he also says that while it’s important to localize, the value proposition of a start-up’s product or service shouldn’t be lost.

4. Remember that Southeast Asian markets are different

Ellis explains that in Southeast Asia, even if markets in the region can be similar, each is still structurally different with different regulators, customers, languages, and so on.

“So any expansion is not as easy as an American start-up, for instance, expanding from California to New York — ASEAN doesn’t yet work like that,” he says. “The upside is that if there is a founding team who can handle that level of complexity, there is a lot of survivorship bias in the medium to long term. Fads come and go. Headlines come and go. But founders need to build enduring businesses, that’s what a founding team should be focused on.”

5. Resolve whatever challenges you have with your first market

Gordon says that it’s important to work out your problems in your first market, or in Kalibrr’s case, the Philippines, before expanding to new territory. “Make sure your solutions solve your problems in the first market,” he says.

6. Actively manage your start-up’s culture

Expanding successfully also means that there is cultural consistency in all your branches. “Make sure there are strong organizational ties between the two,” says Gordon. “Different work cultures can pull a start-up in different directions.” This is also why one has to actively manage the various branches of one’s start-up. Gordon for example, flies to Indonesia frequently to manage their office there. Kalibrr also sends business heads at least once a month to Indonesia.