Asian Entrepreneurship is Poised for Growth
Entrepreneurialism, previously the province of those few lucky enough to have been born in Silicon Valley or one of the handfuls of other startup hotbeds, has been democratised and globalised. There can be no doubt that the obstacles that used to prevent most ambitious would-be business builders from acting on their dreams have been, if not altogether removed, reduced dramatically. Nowhere has this shift been more pronounced over the last decade than across the Asian continent throughout which startup hubs are propagating at a rate that no Western country has ever seen.
The challenge, however, is that Asia has lacked the same ecosystem as places like the United States where there has been something of an apprenticeship program for decades enabling young entrepreneurs to cut their teeth within somewhat larger, more successful ventures. This is largely a function of just how quickly the Asian startup ecosystem has evolved, the growth has been so rapid that there have thus been significantly fewer such opportunities. In turn, this presents a unique challenge - how does Asian entrepreneurship train its young people to ensure they have the right necessary skill sets?
Colin Darretta, a serial entrepreneur and investor, thinks the answer is most easily, and perhaps unsurprisingly, solved by technology. "Nearly all of the skills one needs to be successful as a business builder can be learned online," he says. "So the first thing to understand and really appreciate is that any barrier around access to information simply doesn't exist anymore. The bigger challenge is really ensuring that people are spending time learning the right things that have the biggest impact on their early success. No one can learn every skill you need to run a business; that's why you build organisations with many people with different areas of expertise. The trick is learning the basic skills you need to run a business just long enough until the point at which you can start to build a team around you."
Three broad primary areas of knowledge are requisite for any aspiring entrepreneur - and while the specifics of them will inevitably differ by industry and aspiration they are consistently useful and valuable for anyone seeking to develop the skills required to successfully start a business.
Technical Proficiency: Depending on the type of business an entrepreneur is building there is almost always a need for some measure of digital fluency. Even the industries most would perceive as analogue - clothing manufacturing and electronics, for instance - now have huge parts of their day-to-day operations differentiated by how technologically adept they are. It goes without saying that the more technical a business is, the more critical it is that the entrepreneur knows how to code and be comfortable with all kinds of digital tools. Countless coding courses exist online, many of which are free, and the speed at which the popular languages change means that by the time this is published there may be a new flavour of the month. Fortunately, vibrant communities of young technologists exist to eagerly point other aspirants in the right direction.
Financial Modeling: It is often said that the financial model is to a burgeoning business as a map is to a ship at sea. "I have watched talented people end up with a great product but a really bad business," says Darretta. "Understanding basic financial modelling - so you know whether your business model fundamentally works from a profitability perspective is absolutely critical." The crucial piece all entrepreneurs must understand is that without basic financial competency it is very difficult to understand whether the core business dynamics are set up in such a way as to create a viable business. Being able to provide thoughtful responses around pricing strategy, marketing efficiencies and the like is crucial before the business has ever launched.
Domain Expertise: This is something of a catch-all that varies substantially between industries. For an entrepreneur interested in making the next great clothing line: do they know the latest trends? For an entrepreneur trying to run a chain of retail stores: how familiar are they with supply chain management? For an entrepreneur building a new software product: do they understand development cycles, sprints and their go-to-market strategy for selling to their prospective customers?
As might have become clear from the above, knowing what one is building will in turn inform what one needs to learn to be successful in that endeavour. Any aspiring entrepreneur will likely need some measure of knowledge in all three of these key areas to have a shot at successfully getting their business off the ground and subsequently securing funding.
"Fortunately," says Darretta, "there are tons of really specific courses online that will teach people how to do all of these things. The most important thing before embarking upon any entrepreneurial venture is to know what the absolutely fundamental things one needs to know are and then build a thoughtful plan. Everyone needs to learn just enough about these functions to get the business off the ground with the knowledge that eventually they'll hire people with far greater expertise."
With all of that being said, Darretta is also quick to point out that there are more opportunities than ever for Asian entrepreneurs to do apprenticeships at Western firms. He notes that his businesses have eagerly snapped up talent when they've found it, regardless of where the person is domiciled. Collectively they now employ around fifty people, an increasing number of which are now located in places other than their New York headquarters. The number abroad, while still small, is an area of focus for the future. While the hope is that eventually there will be enough of a local ecosystem for that to be unnecessary, the rising prominence of distributed teams means that aside from inconveniences associated with time zones there is little preventing someone in Bangladesh from working for a firm in New York. In fact, Darretta insists, "firms in New York are desperate to find great talent outside of their immediate geography. Other people bring new skills and perspectives and are also oftentimes a lot less expensive than local talent."
It seems a near inevitability that the growth of the startup ecosystem in places like Bangladesh and throughout the rest of Asia is only just beginning to really accelerate. The challenges have never been more surmountable and the future has never been brighter.