This is the Secret Weapon of Founders in Asia Pacific
Whenever I mentor aspiring founders in Asia Pacific who are exploring what startup or business they may want to pursue, the most common challenge is they can be overly sensitive to the global competitive landscape. They tend to avoid, in particular, industries that already have an international player operating in the region. “There’s already ...” they will say, naming a foreign company, whose regional traction, I like to remind them, may not be as significant as it seems.
I try to dispel this sensitivity as much as I can. If they are passionate about solving a particular problem, they should let no company stand in their way. Yes, the competitive landscape should be an important consideration, but it shouldn’t be a deciding factor unless you're staring down a truly unbeatable monopoly (I’d caution local founders who want to start a search engine, for example). Fortunately, most competitors are not Google. No matter how invincible they may seem, they can be beaten.
Focus, focus, focus
The sensitivity toward international competitors is by no means limited to founders at the ideation stage. Even leaders of established companies can fall into this trap once a company from abroad enters Asia Pacific. The local leaders often end up following every move of their competitor in the press, on social media, and through the grapevine, planning out responses to all their actions rather than focusing on what they should be: their customers.
We need to put a stop to this sensitivity. Local founders need to realize that international does not equate to better. While the competitor’s product has allowed them to expand to different markets around the world, their progress to date is not guaranteed to continue in Asia Pacific.
In the same vein, if the international competitor is better capitalized, it does not mean that they are automatically equipped with a brilliant strategy. In fact, the opposite is often true: Businesses with fewer funds are more creative, as circumstances force them to be, a tendency that may be amplified further in Asia due to our cultural tendency toward resourcefulness.
I’d argue that we are not only on equal terms with international competitors; we are actually at an advantage. International competitors need to go through the process of localization. They need to think about how to tailor every aspect of their business, from marketing and advertising to even administrative functions like hiring and procuring to individual Asian markets. Localization is a conscious process, and it is by no means an easy one—the business lore of every market is crowded with tales of seemingly unbeatable businesses whose Achilles heel was their failure to properly localize.
A grassroots perspective
Filipino founders do not need to localize our business because it’s our default perspective. We know how the region works, and we know how our home country works even more intimately. We know our malls and our streets, our movies and our celebrities. This advantage is a significant one.
Founders in Asia Pacific need to internalize this: Our upbringing is a decided advantage over international competitors that will enable us to create more value for our customers if leveraged correctly. We look at all of the region’s problems, both big and small, through an entirely different lens, one crafted through years and years of first-hand experience. They should not be afraid to use them to see.