Execution, not new ideas, give startups edge

Success for a startup boils down to execution and timing more, rather than an original business idea.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Startups should be less hung up over how to reinvent the wheel with new ideas, and focus on execution because that is critical for overall success, such as shrewd strategy and decision-making, and assembling and retaining a strong team of talent.

There is no such thing as a brand new idea anymore, but rather different variations and combinations of existing ideas, said Steve Melhuish, co-founder and group CEO of PropertyGuru. The online property search site began in Singapore in 2007, and now has sites in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

The debate about original and cloned ideas is beside the point, as startup success is contingent on execution, rather than new business ideas.

"We didn't invent PropertyGuru's business model. [Before we started] there were property sites in Australia and the U.S., and we adapted that here," Melhuish said at the sidelines the Startup Asia event Friday.

Likewise, many successful Chinese companies from Baidu to Alibaba started out by copying Google, eBay and Amazon from the U.S. in Web search and e-commerce, he added.

"There's nothing wrong in cloning and adapting to the [local] market," he said, noting the criticism aimed at Rocket Internet.

Founded by German brothers, Oliver, Marc and Alexander Samwer, the Berlin-headquartered incubator makes its fortunes by rapidly replicating ideas of successful U.S. startups in other countries, creating companies there to be sold for millions in investment dollars.

During his interview onstage at the event, Stefan Jung, co-founder and managing director at Rocket Internet Southeast Asia (SEA), said: "A huge part of Rocket Internet's success is that we have global leverage." The company expanded from two offices in Berlin and Munich two years ago to offices in 43 countries, he added.

A single idea can be executed across the world within weeks because the company finds local co-founders which helps to execute the business fast, he said. For instance, online food delivery site, Foodpanda, was rolled out in 25 countries at a very fast pace, said Jung, who is based in Jakarta, Indonesia.

But the intense speed of opening launches also results in casualties sometimes as well, and some businesses get shut sometimes, Jung acknowledged.

Earlier this week, Zalora, the online fashion retailer backed by Rocket Internet, said it will downsize its operations in Taiwan.

There are times when a "tough decision [needs to be] made but it is the right decision", Jung said, describing it as the data-driven thought process at Rocket Internet.

"Say we get US$20 million from investors, [it's about] how do we allocate this capital most efficiently. The market in Taiwan for Zalora was not as strong, so we will run it more as a remote business from a centralized location [elsewhere] but not shut it down. [Deciding between] investing US$1 in Taiwan or in Indonesia, where is there more bang for the buck and the most sense to invest the money?"

There is no such thing as a brand new idea anymore, but rather different variations and combinations of existing ideas. 

-- Steve Melhuish, co-founder and group CEO of PropertyGuru

While some see their business methodology to be nothing more than cloning, Jung said Rocket Internet is looking at the "opportunity to globalize on investment ideas". As an example, he pointed to mobile payment app startup Square, which was founded by Twitter's Jack Dorsey. "[Given his credentials] Dorsey has many connections. Yet Square, which was launched in the U.S. in 2007, is only now expanding to Canada. By the time it makes it to Europe, we can be the market leader there."

Execution matters more

Ultimately, decisions and execution, and not new business ideas, are what get startups successful in the end, said Casey Lau, co-founder of StartupsHK, an open support group for Hong Kong startups, and community development manager, Asia-Pacific at SoftLayer.

"For example, Steve Jobs making the decision to go to mobile phones and coming up with the iPhone. Apple is a software and computer company. Why didn't Motorola or Nokia, which are phonemakers, get it first?" Lau, a Startup Asia panelist, said in a separate interview with ZDNet Asia.

The argument for and against copycat ideas and startups is also beside the point, he added. "Whatever you pitch [at the start], you'll have a different idea completely three months down."

Facebook and Android are all examples of execution trumping new ideas, he noted. While it was not the first mobile platform, Android deviated from the "walled garden" approach of iOS, which contributed to success of the now ubiquitous platform, he pointed out.

As for Facebook, which has copied various ideas from social networking of MySpace to location check-ins of Foursquare, the world's biggest social network continues to roll out new features aimed to beat their competition, Lau said, pointing to its recent Home for Android software.

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