To Malaysian Founders, a Visit to Silicon Valley is Eye-Opening

October 18, 2012

9:00 am

Before Malaysian entrepreneur James Khoo traveled to Silicon Valley this summer, he believed his startup had to succeed before he could be truly happy. So he worked and struggled and worked and struggled, waiting for the day when he would have happiness and success.

But one of the things he learned in Silicon Valley was that happiness should come first – it helps you work harder and enjoy the journey.

“Every morning you just need to wake up and do a little prayer and appreciate what you have,” says Khoo. “This is one of the wake-up lessons for me.”

It was one of many “wake-up lessons” for four Malaysian founders who traveled over 8,000 miles to Silicon Valley. They were among 50 attendees from 13 countries at the second YouNoodle Camp, a one-month-long summer program that immerses foreign entrepreneurs in the region’s startup culture. StartupMalaysia, a local support organization for entrepreneurs, selected the group of four. In addition to classes at Stanford, the entrepreneurs went to networking and speaker events, and visited companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. And hyper-connected Rebeca Hwang, the CEO of YouNoodle, made introductions to VCs and other startups.

The culture of sharing and openness was a bit shocking to the Malaysian founders. “In Malaysia … if there is a secret on how to succeed, most of them would not share it,” says Khoo. He gets occasional emails from entrepreneurs, who ask for advice but don’t really reveal what they’re working on. And comments about your startup idea tend to be more negative.

Bryan Gan, the founder and CEO of FanCross, agrees. “People here are not so willing to share. But in Silicon Valley they just give the advice for free and they are really helpful.” He adds, “I was surprised that actually they don’t really care who you are, where you came from – as long as you are smart, you have good ideas, you are dedicated, and you can prove that your idea really works.”

For Ai Ching Goh, the cofounder of Piktochart, one of the best examples of this was a visit to Udemy. A rising-star education startup in Silicon Valley, Udemy gave the founders an inside look at how they measure user activity and use the data for marketing. “They just let us in and showed us everything,” she recalls. “It’s a real culture of giving, giving, giving, giving as much as possible.”

The four Malaysian founders at YouNoodle Camp (from left to right: James Khoo, Ai Ching Goh, Fadzli Anuar, and Bryan Gan)

One month in Silicon Valley might not seem like a lot, but whole perspectives can change. Some startups pivot at YouNoodle Camp, or get introduced to VCs. AdByMe, a Korean startup that attended last year, recruited an employee from Mexico.

Gan was chatting with Pepe Agell from Chartboost at a mentor dinner when he realized that his startup wasn’t solving a real problem. At the time, he was working on OctoPost, which helped brands schedule their Facebook posts and optimize engagement. Agell suggested looking into cross-promotion for brands on Facebook, and FanCross started to take shape. It lets you promote your posts on other business’s pages; for example, a florist’s ad might appear on a wedding venue’s page.

At the end of the camp, Gan won third place at demo day. Former Apple and Microsoft executive Jeff Barco told him, “I think you’re going to be successful some day. Just keep doing it.” It was a shot of confidence, sending him home to Malaysia with the motivation to forge ahead.

The fourth Malaysian founder, Fadzli Anuar, also learned to be flexible about his original idea. He was listening to the team at Circle describe eight ideas they tried and rejected in under a year.

“It hit me. The only common thread that they had was the problem they wanted to solve … How they were going to do it, they didn’t care. They were just going to keep experimenting,” says Anuar. “One of the biggest mistakes that we’ve made in Malaysia was that we had a problem, proposed a solution, and would die trying in that one singular direction.”

When he returned to Malaysia, he convinced his team to strip down Voucheres, build in analytics, and just observe – to find out where their real focus should be. “Well duh, that’s how everyone should have done it. But not being in Silicon Valley, it’s very easy to miss that point,” says Anuar.

Goh is also going to infuse her product, Piktochart, with some serious analytics. But more importantly, a month in Silicon Valley taught her to be more aggressive. For a while, she was telling people that Piktochart wanted to raise $200,000. But one mentor told her to go back to Malaysia, do some work, and come back looking for $1 million. “He’s like, ‘When you have more aggressive plans to grow, come back.’ It was almost like a wake-up call,” recalls Goh. She realized that she was tampering her ambitions to match the lower company valuations in Malaysia.

The four founders are now back in their home country, but their outlooks have changed. Gan hopes to return to Silicon Valley once FanCross picks up traction, and look for funding. Khoo, who got first place at demo day, applied to the AngelPad accelerator (ranked the #6 startup accelerator in the US). Goh will be making frequent trips back to Silicon Valley. And Anuar hopes to bring a bit of Silicon Valley back to Malaysia:

“The biggest question I was asking people … was, ‘What makes Silicon Valley the way it is?’ And I’m already assuming that you can never recreate Silicon Valley in another market. But what are those really crucial milestones that have happened?”

“Personally, I felt a duty to bring back some sort of value that could affect the ecosystem,” he adds. Malaysia is far from Silicon Valley, both literally and figuratively, but programs like YouNoodle Camp help bring it a little closer.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact

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