Modern Singapore is arguably the world’s most successful startup. When Singapore declared independence from Malaysia in 1963 the tiny island nation was little more than a fishing village. During the past 60 years Singapore has matured into a business and financial juggernaut, Singapore Inc.
While the city-state may be best known for strict rules and observance of the law, efficiency and practicality reign supreme. Singaporeans enjoy some of the best public services, highest per capita incomes, and highest living standards on the planet.
Modern Singapore is a global capital for banking and finance, and Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds, GIC and Temasek, boast portfolio holdings of more than half a trillion dollars under management. Its national air carrier, Singapore Airlines, is a paragon of airborne luxury, connecting the world. The country is also investing heavily in technology startups, hoping to spur future waves of innovation and entrepreneurship.
But none of this success happened overnight.
Just like all successful startups, Singapore rose to prominence through vision, persistence and dedication of remarkable teams. The following are six startup lessons you can learn from Singapore.
Plan for growth
Singapore expects to grow its population from 5.3 million today to nearly 7 million by 2030. To reach this goal the city is building two new lines of the MRT, Singapore’s underground mass transit line, relocating the container ship port (the world’s second busiest), and investing heavily in infrastructure to support new arrivals. While it sounds like quite massive growth, it boils down to 300 new arrivals each day for 20 years. But the newcomers will need housing, jobs and services, all of which must come from somewhere.
Startups should always plan for growth. “What isn’t growing is dying,” as they say. While you may be small today, it’s vital to think three to five years ahead of where you are today–which probably seems like an eternity for most young companies–and start building a roadmap to the future.
Always have a Plan B
Singapore buys its fresh water from neighboring Malaysia, but is constantly on the hunt for new ways to be self sufficient. Currently 16 percent of drinking water in the city comes from water purification plants that convert the city’s sewage into so-called “NEwater.” Singapore recently brought online new treatment plants and water desalinization facilities that can produce up to up to 70 million gallons per day.
Without water there is no life, and Singapore, with its extremely limited resources, is ready to meet current water needs, and to handle worst-case scenarios.
As a startup you need to constantly be thinking about ways to cope with unforeseen emergencies and existential threats. The pivot is a time-honored entrepreneurial tradition, because it’s often what is needed to survive hard times. Take stock of your assets, liabilities, and potential opportunities to turn a disaster into a fresh start.
Constantly seek user feedback
Customer service is in Singapore is unparalleled. People are genuinely helpful, to the point where it can be disconcerting–at least as an American. But civility never goes out of style.
Traveling through the airport this I noticed something new, touch screens everywhere asking passersby to rate their service experience. Whether it was customs and immigration, or a noodle shop in the food court, my experience was never short of excellent. The conspicuous emphasis on improving customer service was definitely going the extra mile. It demonstrates true concern.
People love Zappos customer service. It is considered among the best of any ecommerce site on the Internet. Their speedy, no-questions-asked return policy has earned them legions of raving fans. As a startup you can’t have better public relations than when you constantly meet and exceed customer expectations.
Always focus on the bottom line
Singapore Inc. would not be a global financial capital without a strong profit motive. Basic needs are met for all citizens, such as the right to shelter, but most luxury goods are extremely costly. High quality of life comes at a high price.
While you may be in business to make the world a better place, never forget that you can only do this if you can feed yourself and pay your employees salaries. Making profits isn’t just cool, it’s vital to the success of any business. Never be afraid to do what generates profit for your business in order to ensure its long-term health and stability.
Invest in culture
Singaporeans joke that eating is their national sport. The country is widely regarded as Asia’s culinary capital, with approximately one restaurant for every 50 people.
Many startups offer their employees catered meals, kitchens stocked with snacks, or a keg of beer on ice, to boost morale and foster camaraderie. Others build team spirit in other ways.
Whatever you choose to make “your thing,” remember that happy employees will stick with your company through hard times, and a well-known company culture can make your business a more attractive target for an acquisition at higher value.
Don’t be afraid to borrow best practices
Singapore is a highly diverse and cosmopolitan city. While more than 70 percent of the Singaporean population are Chinese, the remaining 30 percent are mosaic of world cultures, including Malays, Indians, Indonesians, Europeans and people from nearly every corner of the globe. Because Singapore is so small it has to look to the world for answers, and this naturally helps to uncover the best ideas.
Borrowing best practices allows Singapore to implement what clearly works for others, and customize successful strategies to fit local needs. This often leads to technology-sharing partnerships, and collaborations and new commercial opportunities for both parties.
As a startup don’t think that you always have to invent the wheel. You will waste a lot of time. Kissmetrics cofounder Hiten Shah was very blunt saying that his company copied every bit of his competitors’ marketing, because it allowed his team to leverage the investment and testing that had already proven results. Find what works and improve it.
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