Singapore is well known for being the center of capital for startups and tech businesses across Southeast Asia but the diverse nature of the region makes running venture capital programs, incubators and other early-stage initiatives challenging.
We recently looked at the unique take that Golden Gate Ventures — a new arrival fronted by US entrepreneur Vinnie Lauria — is adopting to tackle that issue, and now another new business has arrived to offer an alternative choice, after Australia-based early-stage specialist Pollenizer set up shop in Singapore.
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The company has an interesting approach to aiding promising startups by providing much of the know-how and experience for entrepreneurs with a view to developing a promising idea into a business. Former Yahoo Asia executive Isaac Souweine is its recently appointed general manager in Singapore and he took time out to discuss the Pollenizer vision and approach to growing companies, which has already seen it work with 30 startups over 4 years in Australia.
“When you think about traditional incubators, the hypothesis is that there are good teams that need capital, a place to work, access to a network, guidance, packaging and more,” Souweine tells TNW. “We provide all of the things that a typical incubator does, but our approach is to find startups where the concept is strong but the co founder needs help to execute on his vision.”
In essence, Pollenizer is part-accelerator, part-investor. For the experience, expertise and services it brings, it takes a 50 percent stake in its companies. More than that, however, the company helps bring together all the necessary elements to a form business, from technical staff, to co-founders and more mundane (but entirely necessary) administrative elements, such as HR or payroll.
As well as fleshing out startups, this approach offers a solution to the ‘technical co-founder problem’, Souweine explains.
“We are there to help non-tech co-founders and would-be entrepreneurs who can’t get going through lack of tech know-how or experience. We want to give them all the required building blocks, we both put capital in and build the business together.
That hand-holding model is one that Souweine believes has great potential in Asia. Like Lauria, he believes that, for various cultural reasons, many potential founders steer clear of the risk associated with building their own businesses.
“There are a lot of people in Asia who could be great entrepreneurs but they are too conservative. Often they have worked hard to get a good job and don’t want to risk it all to chase the startup dream.”
An opportunity to learn without risk
The other side to that is encouraging raw talent — which Asia undoubtedly has in large supply — to “adapt to finding and fixing problems”. Asia’s lack of a culture of startup building is partly to blame here, but Souweine believes that Pollenizer’s model can help address this.
“The system could work anywhere,” he says, “but less mature ecosystems, such as Jakarta, Manilla and others, are well suited to it.”
The one commitment that Pollenizer does seek in its startups is that they have gained some initial capital. That is for a number of reasons, Souweine says. Firstly it’s a way of showing that an idea is viable and, most important, that the founding team has “some skin in the game”. If the right project presents itself without funding, Pollenizer’s strategy is to work to bring an investor in at the seed stage to capitalize the business, he adds.
Pollenizer, as an investor, can really show its worth when it comes to raising future rounds and, to that point, it is working to establish relationships with VCs, both in Southeast Asia and beyond.
With authorities in Singapore ramping up seed investment for young businesses, Pollenizer could be a very natural fit for some startups, particularly those with relatively inexperienced founders at the helm, who are looking to push their businesses on.
The Pollenizer experience and value isn’t reserved entirely for founders since the Australian-based company is also hiring its own staff to work its ‘pod’ system. To explain, pods are the support group for would-be Pollenizer startups. Pods, which consist of a lean product manager and a platform engineer, are assigned to startups to effectively become their co-founders and technical teams.
The attraction for Pollenizer staff, who work within pod teams, is the exposure to raw startup experience while drawing a regular salary and equity minus the risks that discourage so many in Asia, and other markets, from making the leap into entrepreneurship.
As someone who watches promising talent gravitate to big companies or agency work, the potential of a pod experience is one that could really appeal to budding entrepreneurs keen to get their hands dirty with a view to running their own show at some stage.
It isn’t just about new blood and Souweine admits that the system can adapt experienced pros into lean startup entrepreneurs.
“Our ideal candidate is someone with a background as an engineer or project manager with experience of early stage projects, consulting and other startup work. However, we’re pretty open, and I think it could suit those with big company experience who just need to dial down into our lean startup process.”
The company isn’t against hiring outside of that bracket, young and hungry candidates “have their advantages” over more seasoned individuals but Souweine stresses that Pollenizer must deliver on its promise to bring in the best staff support network that it can.
I put it to Souweine that, in a country like Singapore, which is focused on developing its startup ecosystem, a tie-in with educational organizations and the government could fit nicely, and he agrees that apprenticeships or training scheme could be on the horizon. For now, however, his focus is occupied with three primary goals: staffing the organisation, building relationships with investors and, of course, seeking out promising startups themselves.
Entirely focused on Southeast Asia
Souweine anticipates that the first company from Southeast Asia will be on board by October, with the possibility of another entrant before the year is up. Once the firm is settled, he sees a new company joining every quarter with 4 or 5 pods active after the first year of business.
As for future plans plans, the former Yahooer admits that, though countries like China and Taiwan are attractive, the company needs to initially keep its focus on Southeast Asia. That drive may even necessitate local presences being established in key markets like Indonesia.
Pollenizer is bringing a very interesting and unique concept to Southeast Asia which, in addition to offering a distinctly new option for fledging startups, could play a significant role encouraging the startup ecosystem across the region. It will be fascinating to observe how the company settles in, and whether it can gain traction within the region.
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