“Boldness, without the rules of propriety, becomes insubordination” –Confucius
“The Chinese parenting approach is weakest when it comes to failure; it just doesn’t tolerate that possibility” –Amy Chua, author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”
Of all the entrepreneurs I met in Asia, James Khoo was the most uncertain – or maybe he was the only one willing to admit his fears. “In Malaysia, especially when you’re Chinese, failure is not an option,” he said flat-out. This may be one of the reasons Khoo struggled so much in the early stages of his company, secQ.me, an app that helps people send out alerts when they’re in danger.
To him, working as a sole founder was “demotivating,” especially after he failed to advance to the second round of Malaysian startup TV show Make the Pitch. “After spending 8 months on growing out your product, and your product is being rejected by a group of successful investors, you start to doubt your idea,” he said. For a week, he browsed job listings and didn’t feel like working.
At a conference called Silicon Valley Comes to Malaysia, however, Khoo heard that failure is nothing to be ashamed of; it’s just an opportunity to improve yourself. He was especially inspired by former Priceline CEO Jeff Hoffman, who quipped that failure means you haven’t talked to the right people (Hoffman is now an adviser for secQ.me).
Riding on this newfound wave of motivation, Khoo earned the first runner-up spot in the Global Innovation through Science and Technology initiative, securing $10,000 in funding and a trip to the United States to get mentored at MIT and meet investors in Silicon Valley. There, at YouNoodle Camp, he took first place in the demo day competition. Eight months after we first met, he told me over Skype that the culture in Malaysia is changing – and so is his attitude.
The first DEMO Asia conference, where Khoo pitched onstage, took place in Singapore in early 2012, drawing over 500 attendees. A modern, multicultural city in the midst of Southeast Asia, Singapore boasts an extraordinarily supportive government (at least for startups) and a huge tech community. But it’s also home to kiasu, a concept from the Hokkien Chinese dialect that means “fear of losing.” Singaporeans often describe themselves this way, and “it goes deep into the culture,” said Hugh Mason, cofounder of the Joyful Frog Digital Incubator (JFDI) in Singapore. As “chief executive frog,” Mason wants to help entrepreneurs give themselves permission to be creative – even if it takes a little frog humor and plants in the shared office space (dubbed the “forest”).
Other leaders are showing support in Singapore by investing in local startups. Dmitry Levit – a general partner at Digital Media Partners, which has a $13 million fund for Southeast Asia – was cautious and precise in our interview but still spoke strongly about fear of failure:
“Most of the cultures in the region – to the extent I can speak to that, and I cannot usually – do not let you fail all that easily. Failure is a big black cross on your life for the rest of your days, and so it takes much more courage to start something around here than it does to start something in more forgiving environments. There are subcultures of rebels, there are subcultures of folks who will defy and deny authority; in each country it’s different.”
This culture is absorbed naturally from many sources: the teasing of a friend, the injunctions of a teacher, and (often) pressure from the family.
23-year-old Peach Rojwongsuriya was a bit lucky: his parents only wanted him to work at a big Thai business. Fearing the bureaucracy, slowness, and old technology, Rojwongsuriya resisted: “I think I could do better,” he told me.
I met Rojwongsuriya at a Starbucks in a posh mall in Bangkok. Wearing a white Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, he chattered in great English about keeping his startup “lean,” Ruby programming, and the state of ecommerce in Thailand. In other words, he’s part of a modern young generation who are increasingly attracted to startups.
For him, the deciding factor was his time at a small web design studio. “It was pretty scary on the first day – I was complaining a lot about how I should have gone to other places because it didn’t look safe,” he recalls. But he learned a ton – not the least of which was that many Thais are reluctant to take risks, a lesson absorbed from his American boss. Rojwongsuriya is taking his own risk now with two startups: MyColorscreen, where Android users can share and get inspiration for their homescreens, and Bucketlistly.
But it’s not just startups that parents fear; some related industries can provoke raised eyebrows, as well. Daniel Tan, who has a respectable job as an associate at a Singaporean venture capital firm, has to fend off constant questions. “My family? There’s also some resistance,” he said. “Their favorite saying is, ‘Why don’t you get a job at a bank?’” And a tech blogger I met in Indonesia told me he spent a good two years defending his job choice to his family and girlfriend.
While the pressure isn’t insurmountable – and all these entrepreneurs are testament to that – the problem doesn’t stop once they make the leap. The little reminders are always there that the path they’ve chosen is different, narrow, and a bit slippery.