In my years covering the tech scene in Malaysia, I've waded in and out of interviews that touched on infocomm technology (ICT) entrepreneurship quite a few times.
Conveniently coined as technopreneurship, this industry for Malaysia is still fairly nascent, with some tagging it to be about 16 years old, if we were to use the inception of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) Malaysia as a reference point.
The MSC Malaysia was the brainchild of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who envisioned a technology hub that will not only bring foreign investment into the country but also the transference of high-tech ICT skills and knowledge to the country.
With the advent of the MSC Malaysia, the nation began focusing its efforts on making the ICT sector one of the cornerstones of its economy, and along with that, quite a few Malaysians began dreaming about making a mark in this sector as technopreneurs.
Then came the dot-com boom of the new millennium where pretty much everyone with an idea tried to get into the ICT game in hopes of making big bucks. Local companies here also got caught up in that chase, but we are all too familiar with what happened when the dot-com bubble finally crashed.
That was almost 10 years ago.
Thankfully, there were some local dot-com survivors which managed to pull through and have managed to grow their businesses beyond the Malaysian shores. Names that come to mind include Jobstreet.com, an online recruitment agency with presence in Southeast Asia, MOL AccessPortal, an online payment service provider, and Pulse Group, an intelligence market research firm.
But according to some industry watchers I spoke to recently, there haven't been many success stories of technopreneurs who have made it big in Malaysia, and in the region, let alone globally, especially after the first wave of dot-com survivors.
V. Sivapalan, chief evangelist of Proficeo, a coaching and mentoring consultancy, notes that despite the existence of the MSC Malaysia, various funding initiatives and government grants as well as the efforts in nurturing startups, the fact remains that Malaysia has not managed to establish and grow regional and global companies. "One of the main challenges is that technopreneurs today have a small worldview of their business with many of them not having a regional or global target market from the outset."
Aziz Ismail, president of the Technopreneurs Association of Malaysia (TeAM), concurs. "We simply can't compare with the west like the U.S., where the domestic market is so big. Our markets are too small and so Malaysians must go global."
Aziz also says that as a fairly new nation involved in technopreneurship, the country is also up against very stiff competition from all over the world. As such, for Malaysians to succeed, they would need to find niche markets to exploit. "For example, the old economy for software is about enterprise resource planning. Today, it's about mobile apps and software-as-a-service (SaaS). Malaysians must be looking at these new areas for it to succeed."
Another challenge, opines Renuka Sena, chief explorer at Proficeo, is that there is a gap that currently exists in the industry which has to do with the "what to do" factor rather than the "how to do it" factor.
"What technopreneurs want is for targeted coaching-style programmes that are customized to their needs and to provide them with the 'show-how'," Renuka says. "Entrepreneurs today do not lack the knowledge as they have access to academic knowledge via education and the Internet. But, what they don't have is access to experience and they're looking for individual coaches and mentors to teach them how to go about doing it."
This view was shared too by government-managed entrepreneur fund, Cradle Fund, which has been tasked to be the overall manager of the Coach and Grow Programe (CGP). A specialized curriculum designed to help non ICT-based entrepreneurs as well as technopreneurs, the CGP helps entrepreneurs of various maturity receive mentorship from other more experienced people who can claim to say: "I've been there, done that."
The CGP was mooted with the intent of overcoming challenges faced by entrepreneurs by looking into the key reasons why they fail to grow or scale during crucial stages of their lifecycle, says Nazrin Hassan, CEO of Cradle Fund. "So we hope that the CGP will help entrepreneurs face the many challenges such as difficulty in securing early adopters, challenges in achieving sustainability, scaling and expansion, and the fear of going regional or global without a strong strategy."
Within the CGP, there are differing mentorship levels designed to aid businesses which are in different stages of maturity. These range from pre-seed (idea stage to late-stage product development), to growth (eight months to two years post development), to global (at least 12 months post commercialization) to pre-IPO (high-growth and potential at regional or global) stages.
Just like a child having reached puberty and needing to be mentored and guided as he or she grows into adolescence, the technopreneurship industry in Malaysia too must receive the right nurturing and guidance in order for it to flourish further.
It's good to see that the government and the private sector coming together to try to help the local entrepreneurship move to the next level.
Such moves not only help budding entrepreneurs and technopreneurs gain access to real experiential know-how, but also puts them in contact with possible angel investors who may end up funding some of the more promising startups, which will help them grow beyond national borders.
However, to see something positive come out of these efforts, technopreneurs would need to realize that these efforts to bridge the gap can only take them so far. At the end of the day, they must ultimately be responsible for their own ambitions and work hard and passionately to ensure they will succeed not just in the domestic market, but overseas too.
With this, it's my hope that when we revisit the Malaysian technopreneurship landscape in 10 years, there will be true regional and global success to fill these pages.