Startups are the buzzword for today’s generation. Everyone wants to chance upon an innovative idea that will change the way the world works, get an angel investor to pump in the moolah, then see the zillions roll in.
But the reality is somewhat different. Depending on whom you read, the failure rate of startups ranges from three in four to an eye-boggling nine in 10. Often, what helps to push up a startup’s chances of success is a mentor’s experience and expertise behind the scenes – priceless commodities. Think Donald Trump, without the comb-over and smarminess.
In Singapore, a strong culture of mentoring is taking shape, thanks in part to the tech incubators that aim to grow startups. Besides access to funding and helping startups take their products to market, incubators also offer much-needed mentoring and networking opportunities.
Says Dr Lim Jui, CEO of NTUitive, Nanyang Technological University’s innovation and enterprise company and startup incubator: “The focus of our innovation and enterprise team is the real execution of start-ups involving real-world experiential learning rather than another theoretical re-hash.”
To that end, key resources have been put in place including early stage funding, facilities, and mentoring. NTUitive says only about one out of 100 ideas it receives manages to be funded, with about three startups on average being funded a month. It selects startups that offer untapped market opportunities, not ideas that follow “the yellow pages rule”. He says: “Business that you can find in the Yellow Pages will probably find it hard to get funded through our ecosystem.”
Another incubator is NUS Enterprise, formed at the National University of Singapore to help its graduates become entrepreneurs. Says a spokesman: “Start-ups are varied in the help they need when they incubate. Physical space to work on their ideas is important, but more so is the mentorship and advice we give them. Additionally, being part of a supportive community opens many doors – entrepreneurs can meet their co-founders, investors or clients through a strong network…
“We are proud to see several companies we helped return to our community, to start new companies, mentor and/or invest in the next generation of start-ups. These serial entrepreneurs are a significant part of helping us grow a nurturing and supportive environment; they show our students that being an entrepreneur – not a traditional path in Singapore – is possible.”
We speak to the mentor-mentee pairs and find out how much their mentoring support helped their startups grow.
Professor Chua Chee Kai, 54,
School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, College of Engineering,
Nanyang Technological University (NTU)
Fang Kok Boon, 29, Chief Executive Officer, Blacksmith
For Fang and his 3D printing start-up Blacksmith, the chance to be mentored by Prof Chua, a giant in the 3D printing world, simply could not be passed up.
Today, this mentor-mentee relationship has paid off. Barely a year after starting, Blacksmith is mid-way through production on Genesis, a portable 3D home printer that’s also a 3D scanner, said to be the first of its kind in the market.
Their relationship works on several levels. Blacksmith focuses on producing the machine while the well-connected Prof Chua opens doors to partners and advises on refining the product. The professor is a renowned expert in 3D printing, rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing, who has literally written the book on these industries. His Rapid Prototyping is a standard textbook used in schools and universities around the world and is currently in its fourth edition.
To date, Blacksmith has received at least $150,000 in funding via an angel investor as well as government grants. It has also raised close to US$82,000, through crowdfunding platform Indiegogo. Some 50 orders have been placed and the first batch of Genesis machines, costing US$2,200 each, should be ready early next year. Discussions are underway to put Genesis on Challenger and Best Denki shelves by March 2015.
Genesis’s, well, genesis is simple. A gadget geek, Fang bought a 3D printer two years ago and found that it printed objects in a conventional, grid-like fashion. He wondered if 3D printing could be done in a less cumbersome, circular manner instead.
That’s when a flash of inspiration hit – why not create a 3D printer like a record player? Its rotational design would mean several benefits, including the ability to scan an object 360 degrees as well as space and cost savings. More space could also mean the addition of a scanner too. So, with Dr Alex Pui, then an NTU doctoral candidate, he set about creating the first Genesis prototype.
Fang quit his research design job at A*Star in January 2013, and the two set up Blacksmith in August that same year. They also signed up at a start-up incubator at NTU called Ntuitive (pronounced ‘intuitive’, which until recently was known as NTU Ventures). Ntuitive introduced them to Prof Chua and allowed them to do research at the $30-million NTU Additive Manufacturing Centre.
Says Fang: “We were a limited start-up with limited connections. We couldn’t do it alone. NTU is also famous in engineering. Ntuitive brought us to Prof Chua.”
Prof Chua himself believed that Genesis was “ingenious”, he says. “I remember telling them to move faster. Out there (in the business world), everything depends how quickly you get things done. Thankfully, they achieved their target and I’m very happy. They are my pride.”
But there were challenges, such as perfecting the rotary platform. Even Prof Chua notes that it was “very tough” at the start. “It’s not like in a lab doing research. Your client expects high quality with zero downtime. So to reach this stage is not a simple task, and I congratulate them.”
For Fang, one of the biggest takeaways has been personal, not technical. He says: “I learned from Prof Chua’s attitude. He is high ranking but humble – more so than me! The way he pushed us by motivating us was also good.”
Without Prof Chua’s help, Blacksmith would not have been able to dream big. Now, says Fang: “Ultimately, we want to be the market leader in consumer 3D printing worldwide. We want to see a made-in-NTU Genesis in every home.”
Marcus Tan, 31, Co-founder, Carousell
Vinnie Lauria, 35, Managing Partner, Golden Gate Ventures
Entrepreneur, Venture capitalist
Having to share a hotel room is probably as close as any mentee can get with their mentor. That’s what Tan and his fellow Carousell co-founders, Quek Siu Rui and Lucas Ngoo, can say they’ve done with Lauria, one of Asia’s most famous venture capitalists.
Arguably just as famous today is Carousell. Ask anyone below the age of 30 and they would have heard of this online marketplace that lets people buy and sell items. Since its launch in May 2012, more than a million items have been sold via an easy-to-use app. Carousell now counts a team of 10 staff, and is looking to expand in Southeast Asia and Taipei.
But before it became known as South-east Asia’s Ebay, Carousell was a fledgling startup. Lauria saw the potential and eventually invested in the business. He says: “E-commerce is still not 100 per cent tapped on here. Also, for me to mentor a startup, we have to like each other and want to be friends, then build on that to possibly become partners. It’s their energy that gives me energy.”
So what is their partnership like? “Very comfortable enough to share a hotel room!” exclaims Lauria, to chuckles from Tan. The Carousell trio had bumped into Lauria during a startup conference in Kuala Lumpur recently, and he invited them to share his room as they didn’t have accommodation.
More importantly, Lauria shared practical advice on monetising and scaling up their business. For example, to combat user retention problems, he proposed using transactional emails. Tan says: “He made this goal a top priority for us. It helped us to see a bump in engagement.”
For Carousell, and likely many local startups, scalability was a problem. But Lauria couldn’t emphasise the issue enough. Today, one of Carousell’s stated aims is for millions of users to use its app. Lauria explained: “The investors I met while travelling expect to see returns from a giant base. Silicon Valley rewires your brain to look at it from a massive scale.”
A former IBM computer engineer, the New York-born Lauria co-founded the forum hosting service Lefora and started the renowned Silicon Valley NewTech Meetup in 2006, reviewing hundreds of startups. He now lives in Singapore, advising companies and mentoring young entrepreneurs.
The Carousell trio had gone to Silicon Valley in 2010 on an overseas attachment while studying at the National University of Singapore, and were inspired by the risk-taking culture. As avid collectors of items such as cameras, they were frustrated by online forums that were “stuck in the ’90s” and tedious to buy and sell, says Tan. “So why not build something for the mobile generation to shop? Something simple, inspiring and friendly.”
They took part in – and won – Startup Weekend Singapore 2012, a hackathon to develop business ideas. Their prize included a S$7,000 grant by NUS Enterprise, which later linked them with Lauria.
Today, their roles have changed. Lauria is no longer a mentor but a full-fledged investor who sits on Carousell’s board of directors. Yet, although Tan and his co-founders meet up with Lauria about once a month, compared to weekly face-to-face updates when they first started, they still communicate often over Whatsapp and email.
Says Tan: “It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To be at this space at this age and to work with energetic, likeminded people like Vinnie, we’re very fortunate and humbled by the experience.”