Singapore startups spoilt by nagging fear of failure

Until they accept the possibility of failure and learn from it, local startups like Pirate3D will never help put Singapore on the high-tech map or match up to the global success of their peers in Silicon Valley.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Many in Singapore will be familiar with the terms kiasu, which means the fear of losing; kiasi, the fear of dying; and kiabo, the fear of having nothing.

Roll them into a mega phobia-ball and you'll understand why few have ventured into the local startup scene, and why the country still sorely lacks the much-needed entrepreneurial spirit.

During a panel discussion Thursday at Frost & Sullivan's Growth, Innovation, and Leadership conference, this point was raised by Michael Teng, CEO of Singapore Innovation & Productivity Institute (SiPi). He said there were good and bad points about this apparent aversion to risk, since any entrepreneur should be fully aware and careful of potential risks. The inherent fear of failure, however, could prove crippling to the local startup ecosystem.

"That's the main problem with schools here, [where] students here are taught not to fail. The education system doesn't create an entrepreneurial spirit," Teng said.

He noted, though, that this was starting to change, with younger students now yearning to start their own businesses, "especially after seeing their parents slog in the corporate world only to be be retrenched by their companies".

"But society doesn't give you a second chance, so there's a real fear of failure," he said, pointing to a completely different culture in Silicon Valley where young entrepreneurs would gladly boast about the failures they had gone through.

Teng isn't the first to note the difference in cultures. Vinnie Lauria, a mentor at Singapore-based startup accelerator incubator Golden Gate Ventures, said in a previous ZDNet article that while Singapore provided a great platform for startups, with the government providing several funding options, the local scene lacked the "Valley spirit" including a willingness to fail. Lauria further noted that few entrepreneurs here would acknowledge when things weren't working out and attempt to change directions so mistakes could be corrected.

Timely case study: Pirate3D

This advice would serve as timely reminder for one, in particular, Pirate3D, which has made headlines this past week for failing to deliver on its promise. The Singapore startup had raised almost US$1.4 million on Kickstarter with a pledge to ship a 3D printer that "everyone can use". While the project attracted 3,520 backers, Pirate3D has only fulfilled 60 percent of orders and not provided any details on how it's planning to fulfil the rest.

Pirate3D's followup note to its Kickstarter backers

In a note titled "End of a Chapter But Not the Book", sent out to its Kickstarter backers and reposted by TechCrunch, which first broke the news, Pirate3D co-founder and CEO Brendan Goh said the startup was looking at various options to raise new funds. However, he gave no other information on possible refunds or when the remaining orders would be delivered.

In a followup note posted on its Kickstarter page, Goh said it was "not shedding its obligations" but returning to the drawing board at an attempt to design a printer that it could manufacture and fulfil "within cost".

In an interview with e27, he pointed to the importance of "integrity" and having "transparency", and acknowledged that while the company had a good product, his team "messed up in other areas of the business".

"When we started on Kickstarter, we were inexperienced. I think it was just too expensive to chase [both] hardware [and] software ecosystems from the very get-go, especially in a place like Singapore where [companies] can't raise that much money for a hardware startup. It is unheard of," he said. "At the start, we really bit off more than we could chew."

He also highlighted difficulties the startup faced in raising funds, despite the interest it generated from Kickstarter because money from the project came in dribbles, with no insights on when the next round would come.

Goh again made no mention of possible refunds for backers or a timeframe on when the company would resume shipment, but said its backers had been "very very supportive".

Comments posted on its Kickstarter profile, however, indicated otherwise. Several mentioned the possibility of a class action lawsuit, while others said they were promised refunds but received none. "I feel like they straight stole my money. Would love to form a class-action against them," said one backer "Jake Moore".

Pirate3D further drew public ire when it posted a somewhat obnoxious note on its Facebook profile on Friday, after several media reports about its declining fortunes went online, including its interview with e27. It has since removed the post.

Pirate3D's note on Facebook, which has since been removed.

Many noted the lack of an apology and humility in the actions and words of Pirate3D's young founders, who clearly needed some guidance on crisis management and communications. It would have helped significantly in assuring its existing, and potentially new, backers as well as investors that it was serious about running a viable business.

Not surprisingly, Pirate3D does not have any formally established team of mentors who can provide advice to the founders when needed. The team's obvious lack of maturity and experience in managing the business -- and one that is failing -- demonstrates how critical mentorship is to young startups.

Innovation vital to Singapore's survival

Despite its current setback and possibly more to come, Pirate3D and other startups in its position shouldn't deter these companies from getting back up and trying again, and from encouraging other aspiring young entrepreneurs from joining the ecosystem.

The ability to innovate would prove critical for Singapore's survival, said Teng, who noted that the city-state had been "lucky" in the past and able to surge ahead because emerging nations, namely China and India, "were sleeping back then".

"It didn't take much to be ahead of the game then," he said. "But it's a different ballgame going forward. What was successful previously might not work because the world is now more competitive and the emerging markets have all woken up."

"That's why innovation is very important for Singapore," he stressed, noting that the nation would need to look beyond simply improving productivity and instead focus on "innovation-driven productivity" to retain its competitive edge.

To ensure growth for the next decade, Frost & Sullivan's Asia-Pacific head of consulting and Singapore country head, Nitin Bhat, said Singapore would need to assess its competitiveness including social and income pillars, build a pool of ready talent, and drive its innovation ecosystem.

This meant the Asian powerhouse would need to address roadblocks such as the cost of doing business for startups, boosting the VC ecosystem, and identifying new growth sectors, Bhat added.

But, first, local startups must learn to accept that failure is part of the journey and to acknowledge their mistakes when made, so they can move on to the next chapter. Otherwise, they'll only come off looking like a bunch of arrogant spoilt young brats who aren't serious about running a viable business.

Pirate3D is one of the most successful homegrown Kickstarter projects and still has the potential to build an innovative product that could help put Singapore on the high-tech map, and not for all the wrong reasons. It would be a great pity if the startup fails to pick itself up again simply because it was simply too kiasu.

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