Asian startups, a new landscape for entrepreneurs

WeChat and Whatsapp logos next to each other.

During The Lean Startup Conference kickoff at the Nob Hill Masonic Centre (San Francisco) on Monday, Lean Startup movement advocate and serial entrepreneur, Kevin Dewalt tried to answer to a question more entrepreneurs should ask themselves: ‘why should you care about Asia and not only Silicon Valley when it comes to startups?’

For most of us, it seems obvious the first logical step is that you should try to win America. How could you succeed as an entrepreneur if you can’t even find the right product-market fit in your own market? Yet Dewalt warned the audience against that unwavering statement.

WhatsApp vs. WeChat, a global war in mobile messaging

It’s been years since China outpaced the USA as the largest consumer market in the world. Meet WhatsApp, the instant messaging subscription service for smartphones that was founded in 2009 by two former Yahoo! employees. Today, although WhatsApp counts 300 million active users, its primary competitor, the Chinese mobile messaging service WeChat, was founded in 2011 and now claims more than 300 million registered Chinese users and 100 million international users. Its fast international expansion was made easy by partnering with Starbucks and Nike to release Spanish and English versions of the app. As a consequence, WhatsApp is now aggressively expanding overseas, particularly in Asia.

That’s a perfect example of why you should care about Asia no matter where you’re launching your business — you have indeed high chances of getting crushed if you stick to your local market. Dewalt tried to open our eyes: “Enter Asian markets early!”. The good news is that, according to him, the lean startup model and the underlying customer development also work there. Only the execution is different.

Learn to speak the same language

Before scaling your business, you need to find the product/market fit. When you get to that point, you want to find out where your growth is going to come from. Rather than assuming that you’re aware of the customers and their culture, which is most likely false, find local lean startup meetups and get advice from there.

Dewalt tried to make the Masonic Auditorium audience aware of specific tactics: “In Silicon Valley, we’re openly talking about the problems we have. In Asia, unless you create a conversation by talking about industry trends and bringing valuable information to your future customers, they won’t be as open as we are. At first sight, they all claim they have NO problems”.

You should understand that we have a very specific language that doesn’t always apply overseas. We’ve been normalising talks about “accounting innovation” or “MVPs aimed at validating the riskiest assumption”, but local partners, investors or employees might think you’re actually talking about LeBron James.

It’s also worth mentioning that relationships aren’t built on the same structure. In Asia, you’ll most likely need to give, share, help or teach to become someone worth knowing before doing successful business. All in all, if you understand that Asia isn’t a threat but that it’s our greatest business opportunity, you’ll be different than 99% of the entrepreneurs.

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