Seattle Singaporeans talk startups

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Singapore — another shining city by the sea. (Photo by Erwin Soo via Flickr)

Singapore tends to be a pretty risk-averse place. But Seattle is attracting some of the Southeast Asian city-state’s most entrepreneurial citizens.

Last Saturday about 75 Singaporeans gathered at the Grand Hyatt in Seattle to hear from successful Singaporean entrepreneur Dennis Goh.

Goh co-founded a first-of-its-kind website for people to share food reviews on restaurants in Singapore. He was visiting the West Coast for a few days to conduct a series of talks.

Being Singaporean myself, I was especially interested in hearing the war stories of an entrepreneur from back home. Years ago, as an intern for a local business newspaper, I had to make a list of 20 Singaporean entrepreneurs. I could barely find ten. Fast-forward seven years and entrepreneurs like Goh are part of a growing and well-respected community.

His company, Hungrygowhere.com, was acquired for S$12 million last year by Singapore’s largest telecommunications company.

“Hungry go where” is local slang for “where are you going to eat?” The term is Singlish – coloquial English spoken in Singapore, mixed with words and phrases from other regional languages such as Mandarin, Hokkien and Malay.

The Seattle-based Singaporeans in attendance at Goh’s talk were from all walks of life; some had settled here for over 20 years, others were fresh-faced University of Washington students. The Singaporeans in Seattle Meetup group is 256 members strong, made up of college students and professionals mostly in tech or finance. While exact numbers are unknown, the Singaporean Diaspora in Seattle is much smaller (and younger) than the Chinese, Japanese or Korean one.

Then again, Singapore is a pretty small country. At just 274 square miles (not even double the size of the Seattle city limits), the city-state grew from a small, underdeveloped former British colony to a thriving financial hub in under 40 years. It’s now home to some of the richest people in the world, including Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.

While Singaporeans are known to be modern and hard-working, they’re also known for being cautious. As a result, successful Singaporean businesses have generally been in traditional industries like real estate and shipping, rather than high tech.

Dennis Goh addresses a meetup of Singaporeans in Seattle. (Photo courtesy Singaporeans in Seattle Meetup Group)Dennis Goh addresses the Seattle crowd. (Photo courtesy Singaporeans in Seattle Meetup Group)

For Singaporean UW student Chris Lim, Goh’s success story was an “inspiration.” Lim told me he faced significant challenges when he founded an online retail company in risk-averse Singapore. He had to shut it down because “it was not worth the effort,” he said.

The vibrant startup scene in Washington state attracted Lim to study here. Upon graduation he hopes to work at a Seattle startup for a few years, before perhaps starting his own venture. “I know I can’t do a 9-to-5 ‘clock in-clock out’ kind of job,” he said.

While the realities of entrepreneurship in Singapore are especially painful, Goh regaled the audience with self-deprecating jokes. Unlike Seattle’s (and indeed, America’s) admiration for and encouragement of bootstrapping startups, in Singapore, you’d probably be frowned upon for giving up stability to start a new venture. Goh himself left a cushy civil service job to start Hungrygowhere.

“When I quit my job, former colleagues said ‘all the best’ in the same way you would say those words to a Kamikaze pilot before he got on the plane,” he joked.

After three years of taking no salary, he was ready to quit.

“My partners and I would joke that a ‘hungrygowhere day’ meant [we made] no money today,” he said.

The company also faced two major challenges: most restaurants in Singapore didn’t understand the potential of digital ads, and while web traffic was growing, social media was still nascent.

Through perseverance, a sense of humor, and the emergence of the iPhone (where the company’s App went viral), Goh was able to succeed. Now he spends his time as a passionate advocate for startups, offering mentoring and guidance to budding entrepreneurs in Singapore.

The Seattle audience peppered him with questions, from his predictions on Singapore’s tech industry (very positive) to how local food was faring there (under threat as many Singaporeans don’t want to carry on the tradition of cooking local ‘hawker’ food.)

Goh’s talk also attracted recent transplant James Norris. After four years of living in Singapore, Norris moved here two months ago to join Fledge, a conscious company incubator based at Impact Hub Seattle.

“Seattle was a better market for my company — we teach people how to lifehack, which is a foreign concept in Singapore but pretty well received in Seattle,” he said.

He called Goh’s talk “from the heart and very realistic.”

Most stories we hear about entrepreneurship fail to adequately capture the pain and uncertainty that’s usually involved.” said Norris, who has seven startups under his belt. “It’s like telling a friend about a roller coaster ride you just went on. Your friend gets it, but only to a degree. Dennis’ talk got to the heart of the experience, while being funny and inspiring at the same time.”

Personally, I’m excited to see the synergies between Singapore and Seattle. My country has only recently seen a boom in its tech industry, so there’s a lot we can learn from the strong Seattle startup scene. Could the next Amazon be a Seattle-Singapore collaboration?

Years ago, it would be unlikely. But as more entrepreneurs like Lim and Norris travel back and forth, these days it may not be so impossible.

Ruchika Tulshyan has lived in six cities over three continents. You may have read her work in Forbes, CNN and Bloomberg, among other publications. Ruchika holds degrees from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Connect with her on Twitter: @rtulshyan.

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