TL;DR – We certainly have a long way to catch up – and we need to do it fast.
This article is contributed by Lee Ming Hui, a local entrepreneur who constantly looks out for new opportunities in and outside of Singapore.
A lot has been said about the the rich Chinese investors and how everybody wants to break into the China market.
However, it wasn’t as straightforward as what I expected it to be.
Last November, I made my first investment-related trip to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. It was a 5-day program organised by 71 SG, a startup accelerator that aims to help local startups expand and succeed outside Singapore. I was there to learn more about their tech scene as well as pitch to potential investors.
Upon arrival, we were expecting the venue to be a casual lounge with a small crowd and a somewhat relaxed atmosphere. You know, the setting of a typical pitching session.
We were ushered into a huge event hall and greeted by at least 500 people in the audience ranging from university students, media representatives and the likes of Tencent and other major venture capitalists.
The sheer scale of the event stumped us. We felt like we were on The Voice of China!
The entire event started off with a martial arts performance followed by an opening by a professional host. Two speakers from established startups were then invited on stage to share their experience.
There were four Singapore teams and four Chinese teams who took part in what they call the “PK-challenge” – similar to how students from Jay Chou’s team had to compete against Wang Feng’s team to move into the Top 10 of Voice of China.
Each startup was given exactly 90 secs to do their pitch in the first round with a huge countdown clock ticking away in the background.
The Chinese sure know how to ‘gamify’ almost everything.
After a 90-second rapid fire round, everyone in the audience picked up their mobile phone to vote for their favourite startup via Wechat. General audience vote counts for 1 point, media’s vote counts for 2 and investor’s vote count for 10.
Representatives from the eight teams were still standing on the stage while these voting and scoring were taking place. As much as I was trying to see the funny side of this, I couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed by the ‘scrutiny’ we were getting at that moment.
When they finally announced the results and our team managed to get into the top 4, it was a great relief to me. I really thought it was over.
But no…the best is yet to come.
We were escorted down the stage to prepare for a SECOND round of pitch. This time, we were given 10 minutes to speak.
Oh and did I mention that we had to do the entire pitch in Mandarin? Never have I appreciated my Chinese teachers more!
And so, we finally went back on stage after a nerve-wrecking 30-minute wait. To be honest, I didn’t expect to get into the top 4 and wasn’t as well-prepared as I had wanted to be.
I was sure my decent command of Mandarin played a part in winning over some votes and hearts. It probably helps when you speak a language that resonates well with the audience.
Anyway, our team managed to come in 2nd overall yes, we were happy to come this far.
For myself, the intensity of preparing everything in Mandarin and the stress of presenting a business idea to a foreign crowd in such an extravagant format truly blew me away.
The entire Wuhan experience was like a rollercoaster ride. Nothing like what I had expected.
Singaporeans are definitely living in a very small space and we deal in a very small market when it comes to business. Running a business in Wuhan alone is equivalent to having a market of Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia combined in terms of population. And the diversity within a province, from urban to rural, is very much akin to the diversity of different countries in SEA.
Even for a small domestic market like Wuhan, we would expect the rate of technological advancement to be lagging behind Singapore. But I was again proven wrong.
From full-sized retailers to the local street stalls, you’ll always find a QR code available somewhere. All you got to do is scan the QR code via Wechat or Alipay and you can walk away with your purchase. Everyone, including the older folks, is doing that in China!
While we are still struggling to propagate digital payment in Singapore, China has grown by leaps and bounds. I mean, TransCab taxis still accept cash only.
We certainly have a long way to catch up – and we need to do it fast.