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It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than half a year since I left the cozy confines of Yahoo to join the Pollenizer roller coaster. It’s been an amazing learning experience on a personal and professional level. As the year draws to a close, I thought I’d share some reflections. This post focuses on my experience opening Pollenizer’s Singapore office. For bigger picture reflections on how Pollenizer sees the world these days, please check out this year end post from our CEO and co-founder Phil Morle.

To recap, we opened up shop in Singapore in August, 2012. Our motivations for expanding to Southeast Asia were to provide geographic outlets for our Australian businesses, to access additional funding sources, and to participate in the Southeast Asian internet boom. Our primary goal for 2012 was to deepen our understanding of the market and set our direction for engaging with these markets. To that end we’ve had hundreds of meetings with entrepreneurs, investors, government officials, potential co-founders, and potential team members in Singapore, Manila and Jakarta. We’ve run trainings via our Academy program, participated in numerous community events, and brought our first business to Singapore by moving the Accruto team up from Sydney.

So that’s what we’ve been up to. And now here’s five things we’ve learned along the way.

1. Long Distance Culture is Hard

As an ex-Yahoo, I’m no stranger to cross-continent conference calls. And being a small company, it’s been easy in some ways for us to manage across multiple offices. Like any new venture, however, culture is a huge part of what we do at Pollenizer. And maintaining that culture through a geographic expansion has been challenging. As a Pollenizer newbie, it’s been hard for me to fully channel the Pollenizer spirit from afar. And and as a company with cultural DNA tied to a single office in Sydney, it’s been hard for Pollenizer to fully integrate its new Singapore reality. Culture is an amalgamation of small gestures. Long distance culture requires greater intentionality because these gestures don’t flow as naturally. It’s not impossible to make it work, but it does mean I’ll need to be more consistent about waking up at 7:00 AM every Monday morning to attend a Google Hangout version of our weekly standup 🙂

2. Customer Development is for Incubators Too

Pollenizer partners with non-technical co-founders who have cash to invest, domain expertise and a disruptive idea. This seems to be a well-defined customer profile. (Not to mention a differentiated one within the incubation space). But when I started at Pollenizer, I didn’t actually know much about what makes these potential co-founders tick. It’s only now after meeting dozens of them that I can shape a mental picture of their motivations, capabilities and concerns. This picture is in turn shaping my views about which co-founders to target, my strategy for closing deals, and even my ideas for tweaking the Pollenizer model to build stronger co-founding partnerships. So all this lean startup talk about intensive customer interviews, it really works! And incubators who preach lean need to make sure they’re eating their own dog food.

3. Lean Startup is the Real Deal

Learning more about the lean startup movement was one of my key motivations for joining Pollenizer. After digging into the reading material, delivering trainings and practicing the Pollenizer version of lean on actual businesses, I feel confident to say that lean startup represents the state of the art in entrepreneurial practice. From the commitment to customer engagement, to the preference for meaningful metrics and data driven decision making, to the insistence on experimentation and fast failure, lean startup summarizes our industry’s best practices in a compelling and pragmatic way. As Marc Andreesen has pointed out, this doesn’t mean that every startup should run lean. Nor does running lean guarantee success or replace the need for great instinct, entrepreneurial drive and lots of luck. But it does mean that, all else being equal, applying lean startup practices will increase your chance of startup success.

4.  Governments Can Help 

I moved to Singapore in January, 2008. I attended the first Echelon, back when it was an unconference. I submitted an application to iJam when it was still just a $50K grant. My time in Singapore has coincided with an amazing period of growth for the startup community. When I look back at this growth, it strikes me how much of it can be tied to the IDA, MDA, Spring, NRF and the other government bodies providing grants, investments, and incentive schemes. Singapore is a special place, with tons of talent in the government, results-driven policy making, and quick bureaucratic responsiveness to market forces. So perhaps Rama from Daily Social is right that a government-centric approach to startups won’t work in other countries in the region. There are also open questions about whether the government in Singapore has done too much, such that the ecosystem does not have enough organic momentum. And most importantly the Singapore ecosystem is a few big exits away from being considered really successful. But putting such questions aside, as an American raised on free market ideologies, it amazes me to see a startup ecosystem in which significant growth has been fueled in large part by government intervention.

5. We Need to Expand the Club 

The Singapore startup ecosystem is buzzing with events. There’s literally something on every night. It’s an awesome part of our community, even if events alone do not make a successful startup ecosystem. But one thing I’ve noticed about these events is that they feel very inward looking. I don’t mean that we don’t welcome outsiders. What I mean is that, like any community, we’ve cultivated a certain vibe, and the people we welcome are people who get that vibe. This is understandable. But it also means we’re missing a big opportunity, because most of the people in Singapore do not get the vibe. These are our friends in the corporate world. They know that something’s happening with startups. They have nice phones with apps. They read about IPOs. Many of them are leaning over the edge of the pool, wondering whether they should take a dip. These people have talent, connections and money. They can be our CEOs, our investors, our customers. We need to a better job of helping them dip their toe in the pool by creating events and forums like NextBank that mix our startup vibe with something they recognize.

I hope the reflections above prove interesting. We plan to be very active in 2013 putting these and other learnings into practice as we co-found companies, run trainings, participate in community events and work to grow the ecosystem. Please stay tuned for more and in the meantime all the best for a wonderful holiday season.

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