This is sort of a reply to James Seng’s post. James is considered one of the Internet pioneers in Singapore, based on Wikipedia. He is also an advisor to the non-profit organization my friend Ming Yeow founded – The Digital Movement. I should start by thanking him for approving the E27 submission on Tomorrow.sg, Singapore’s top social media news outlet (which James founded). Thanks, James. =)
James had 3 points on why Singapore is not ready. I generally agree. I am nowhere near James in terms of repute nor experience and all I am doing is to offer my humble viewpoints. Almost exactly a year ago, I blogged about finding zero Web2.0 startups in Singapore, only to amend that statement when I found some and profiled them at the first E27 event. Still, we are a far cry from the Web2.0 frenzy in Silicon Valley. I know its unfair to compare, although recent media exposure on the national (rather the government’s) desire to create the next “Youtubes and Skypes” from our shores have made this a hot topic again. Below are my personal views on his various points.
Lack of Talent
Chats with friends in the Computing faculty also do not reflect well on the faculty staff who are neither favorable towards supporting new initiatives (such as events on web 2.0) nor proactive in communicating the newest trends in the IT industry to them. There is a high emphasis on pragmatism in the design of the curriculum which aims to, IMHO, produce only skilled technicians, network administrators and “technical plumbers”. In other words, with our already small population size, the odds of finding tech visionaries like Steve Wozniak, Marc Andressen, Blake Ross is disappointingly low. Numerous theories abound on this phenomena like lack of funds, national policy focus etc. I dun want to guess.
Solutions? We need to hire professors who understand what Web 2.0 is, invest some funds on flying entrepreneurs and visionary leaders from Silicon Valley, Israel, Japan, Korea, China a to speak here and do some workshops, seminars etc. Curriculums need to be amended too. And a culture of optimism needs to be injected across the faculties in order to change people’s mindsets that IT is a dead industry. This culture has to be bottom-up too, in the form of brainstorming sessions, hack days, unconferences in order to foster idea-sharing and provide a social support ecosystem to like-minded thinkers and entrepreneurs. Let those who have ideas know where to go and who to talk to to share ideas in this field.
Singapore thinks small.
We might be small, but our appetite for web-based media is voracious. Many times have Singaporean-related news memes made it on Technorati (for either blogger chicks, controversial hangings and s’pore elections) and even the recent “Pok Curry” video on Youtube garnered 6-digit views, coming in above 400,000 for the first video alone. That is very good ratings for a Youtube video with the short span of time it was available.
I disagree on using Metcalfe’s law to measure network value. Reed’s law is more appropriate in explaining viral processes that grow exponentially on the web through group-based channels like email or IM. I think Reed’s Law explains the cliched “network effect” better than Metcalfe’s Law, the latter of which was conceptualized more for technical networks (like telecom or fax) where the marginal cost of a connection/ link is higher than social networks like email/IM networks where linkage cost is negligible.
At a consumer level, I am saying we do seem to have the masses for good content. The real problem I see is in scalability of our content material. Stuff that we like are culturally contextual. Our content producers are not geared towards making content for a regional or global audience. Our jokes simply do not work outside of our meager 700+ square kilometres. Maybe a bit of Malaysia or Indonesia but it stops there. It doesn;t help too when our media laws here do not sustain a gossipy culture with paparazzi and tabloids coming up with sensational juicy materials. Our “boring” media culture with coverage and scrutinty of local celebs are very civil with whatever few scandals contained within the evening Chinese dailies. If we have a HK-style paparazzi, we might be able to have more content sites here that can sustain more adventurous experimenting with social networks, blog networks and create more advertising inventory to challenge the mainstream print media monopoly here.
Note I am only talking about content-based sites here. An extension from content-centric sites will be to build communities around them like those social networking sites. I am shying away from the really innovative service-based companies like search, Joost-style P2P media streaming services or web telephony services like Skype here cos we don’t have the technical talent. I think we stand a better chance with content and community-based sites as there is a shortage of Asian-oriented online ad inventory.
Xiaxue and Mr Brown are examples of those. Hardwarezone forums too. No fantastic technology but they earn money at least by displacing spending on traditional tv, print, radio. There’s now a gold rush towards the buying out of content-heavy sites like CollegeHumor.com .
No VC funding
MDA can argue there is the $500M IDM fund now. And I agree that to really push a Web2.0 industry forward here, you need investors who have made their money successfully on investments or startups that do not think too much about short term revenue obligations.
But Web 2.0 doesn’t need too much money to start, seed-funding wise. The lack of funding is not really an issue because when Web 2.0 startups really start gathering the traffic numbers, VC money from Singapore-based VCs will flow back from India/ China, or we can get money direct from the Silicon Valley VCs. Rather than argue about lack of money, I think the more important issue to focus on is lack of traffic.
Until traffic and inherently bandwidth costs become an issue, I think it is premature to say that Singapore has no VC money to support a successful Web 2.0 site that has say, a million page views per month. I know of almost no Web2 .0 sites, save for TYLER projects, that have that kind of high traffic. You can setup the servers, code out the applications with free open-source software platforms and rely on web marketing, which again, dun cost money when you target the right communities with the right message.