Since e-commerce is still relatively new to Southeast Asia, there is an air of uncertainty of how it will change the economy. While the rise of online marketplaces and platforms will undoubtedly be a convenience for consumers, as they no longer have to sit through traffic to pick up every item they need, the fate of brick-and-mortar employees is less certain.
Some of us may look to the US as a reference and grow worried. Amazon, after all, ate into the market share of traditional bookseller Borders, with its wider selection and cheaper prices until the latter had to shut its doors in a widely-publicized bankruptcy. Blockbuster met a similar end at the hands of Netflix, and many other brick-and-mortar retailers—Sears, Best Buy, and Barnes & Noble—may fall into their own death throes in the next few years.
To worry or not?
If this is the kind of news that filters from the US to Southeast Asia, the concern of workers in the region is understandable. But they shouldn’t be. While the digital economy may lead to some job loss, they ultimately create more opportunities for people to upskill themselves into entrepreneurs. The prime example of this trend is in some of Silicon Valley’s two-sided marketplaces, like Airbnb. Yes, Airbnb disrupted the hospitality industry with its business model, inevitably leading to job cuts at hotels, motels, and inns, but the platform enabled many more people to become entrepreneurs. Through Airbnb, people could now manage their own chain of properties for short-term lease, beginning often with their home and then expanding to more units. In a previous lifetime, some of these people may even have been displaced hotel staff—Airbnb, like other platforms, enable them to move up the chain in value creation.
More entrepreneurs in the making
Though it has largely gone unnoticed, the digital economy is also creating more entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia, both through international platforms like Airbnb as well as local companies. We need to highlight the entrepreneur-creating function of digital platforms in the region to rally more support for them from regulators, policymakers, investors, customers, and other stakeholders in the broader business community.
Take Mober, for example. We help both individuals and enterprises with same-day delivery for their items. A common misconception is that Mober owns all the trucks that service our users. The truth is that we rely on a large network of partner drivers and operators.
Support and growth
Some might object to the idea that our partner drivers and operators are actually entrepreneurs, counter-arguing, perhaps, that they are still employees. The difference, in my view, is clear. Employees earn a set wage, attend work on a particular schedule, and are generally told what they must do. Our partner drivers and operators meet none of these criteria. Instead, like entrepreneurs, our partner drivers and operators earn depending on their own diligence, set their own schedule, and can run their delivery operations as they wish.
Mober, in short, is not an employer, but a tool and resource for entrepreneurs we empower through our platform. There are many fields in Southeast Asia, from agriculture and education to finance and tourism, that would benefit from platforms that can enable entrepreneurship. But such cannot occur if we view the forward march of technology with a suspicious eye, assuming that digital platforms do nothing but displace workers in adjacent industries.