Early-stage startups are particularly susceptible to the conundrum of needing partnerships to grow. They also face tremendous difficulties convincing clients and businesses to trust them and their products.
However, there is an arguably straightforward solution to this quandary. On Nhu Binh (Eric), CEO of Vietnamese ride-hailing platform EMDDI, once pointed out that knowing the pain points of clients and stakeholders empowers startups to provide the essential “painkillers” to resolve these issues. Startups are recognizing the power of collective action and the multiplier effect it can have, and how actively engaging with various stakeholders such as government bodies, academic institutions, corporates, and non-profit organizations can generate meaningful impact.
This was precisely the approach EMDDI undertook to develop partnerships as a young startup. When it noticed that incumbent taxi companies in Vietnam had yet to digitalize their operations and were losing out to ride-hailing platforms like Grab and Gojek, it offered to build apps and other digital infrastructure for these companies so that they could also obtain a share of the digital ride-hailing market. EMDDI also noted that digital payment companies were trying to come up with user retention strategies for their platforms and astutely integrated the services of taxi companies with their digital payment apps, giving taxi companies access to digital payment infrastructure while providing digital payment companies with more customers and users.
EMDDI’s partnership-focused approach is hardly anomalous. During the Deloitte Southeast Asia Innovation Festival 2023, nine startups and venture capital firms from seven cities in Southeast Asia were selected to showcase how partnerships are essential to elevating young businesses and amplifying their potential for wider societal change.
Notably, Do Bui, founding partner and CEO of ThinkZone Ventures, emphasized the importance of empowering everyone within the ecosystem to create and contribute value. By providing value that other parties need, one can then find alignment with larger organizations or governing authorities.
Leveraging partnerships to create more value for stakeholders also forms the core of Filipino startup Kraver’s Canteen (Kraver’s)’s operations. Kraver’s works with local food and beverage businesses to foster customer loyalty and ensure that their customers have a seamless dining experience, thereby accelerating their growth.
Victor Lim, co-founder and CEO of Kraver’s, initially set up the company as a cloud kitchen. However, due to changing post-COVID conditions, he found that cloud kitchens were not meant to be standalone businesses. In fact, they can add more value to F&B brands by providing another mode of customer engagement. By ensuring that all customers receive high-quality culinary and delivery experiences, Kraver’s enables smaller and independent F&B brands to retain their customers. The brands are also able to sidestep the difficulties of competing directly with the behemoths in the food delivery industry, like Grab and Foodpanda, in terms of pricing. Instead, they can enhance their competitive edge by delivering better customer experiences and engagement.
Building new paths for better health and wellness
Beyond the establishment of partnerships within the startup ecosystem, the growing emphasis on health and wellness is spurring global action for more to be done—and Southeast Asia is no exception. Startups in the region are harnessing the power of technology to transform eating and wellness routines, giving consumers access to a higher quality of living while ensuring sustainable resource allocation.
Nanka, a Selangor-headquartered food tech company, Malaysia, has researched and developed plant-based alternatives to meat products for human and animal consumption using a local ingredient: jackfruit. Jackfruit is one of the key crops in Malaysia for export, and could also augment Malaysia’s internal food security. Additionally, the fruit is both nutritious and hearty, making it a valuable food source to Malaysians.
The potential of jackfruit has piqued the interest of food distributors and F&B companies across Asia. For Syafik Jaafar, co-founder and head of strategy at Nanka, the opportunity lies in supplying jackfruit as a substitute for meat products and using its rinds for animal feed. By doing this, startups like Nanka can not only reduce the reliance on traditional livestock farming, but also utilize resources more efficiently and significantly lower their greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly, this could pave the way in encouraging the public to eat more healthily and be more conscious of their consumption choices.
The aspiration of healthy living weighs on the minds of consumers in Indonesia as well. With high rates of malnutrition and unhealthy eating among the Indonesian population, more can be done to shape healthier diets in the country.
Enter Lemonilo, a fast-moving consumer goods startup with a vision to nurture a healthier generation of Indonesians. Best known for its iconic “green noodles”, the startup produces healthier alternatives of popular local food and snacks. Having identified working mums with kids as its target audience, Lemonilo strategically balances healthy options with cost and sustainability, performing quality checks with its suppliers and managing its overall supply chain to keep costs reasonable.
Acknowledging the mammoth task ahead of them, Bryan Gunawan, vice president of people at Lemonilo, says that its aim is to change consumers’ mindsets via conscientious trial-and-error. The focus is not to achieve immediate results from product development. To Gunawan, innovation does not always constitute adding more features to an existing idea—it can instead be about returning to the drawing board and starting out with something entirely different.
The focus in Thailand has been slightly different, with the accessibility of mental health services becoming one of the country’s key priorities. Kanpassorn “Eix” Suriyasangpetch, founder and CEO of Ooca, highlights the potential in Thailand for online counselling services to be consolidated and digitalized. Ooca unites disparate parts of the Thai mental healthcare system through a digital platform that connects people with mental health professionals to access online counselling services. The startup partners with various companies to offer its range of services and collaborates with healthcare providers, hospitals, and insurance companies to ensure that its services remain affordable and adhere to local health regulations.
Joining the ranks of larger mental health companies, Ooca’s unique position in the Thai telemedicine landscape has presented it with the opportunity to co-create new fields of knowledge and training standards in both urban and rural Thailand. Ooca envisions improving access to psychiatric medicine dispensation and giving back to the community through wellbeing initiatives, such as the Wall of Sharing that channels donations toward underprivileged Thai university students, enabling them to access mental health support.
Co-creating social mobility
Social impact and doing good need not just be charitable endeavors—they can also form the cornerstone of a company’s business. This is exemplified by Truong Bomi Nguyen, founder and CEO of Rootopia, a fintech startup that connects parents with local angel investors to help them secure affordable loans and financial sponsorships for their children’s education.
Drawing from his personal experience, Nguyen noticed that education in Vietnam costs more than what most local families can afford. A significant number of students and their families do not possess good credit, making it difficult for them to secure loans from formal financial institutions. By finding angel investors who are willing to invest in purpose-driven products, Rootopia channels this capital toward affordable education loans. To date, the company has disbursed over 3,000 loans to parents, students, and young professionals interested in upskilling.
Similarly, earned wage access (EWA) startup Gimo is helping blue-collared workers in Vietnam to improve their financial literacy and credit scores. EWA is a financial service that lets users access a portion of their salaries before their regular monthly payday.
Quan Nguyen, co-founder and CEO of Gimo, shares that banks currently serve less than 25% of Vietnam’s population. This leaves a large untapped market that requires access to financial services. Gimo’s solution plays a significant part in plugging that market gap by broadening workers’ access to financial services. It collaborates with local labor unions to teach workers basic financial literacy concepts. Once these workers possess foundational financial literacy and can consistently use Gimo’s services, they will be able to build up their individual credit scores and eventually obtain opportunities to bank with formal financial institutions.
Startups have the unique opportunity to uplift underserved communities when they embrace a community-led business approach. The work that they do and the solutions that they provide can foster social mobility, nurturing a future generation of talent that will further drive innovation and change.
Synergy at scale
The Deloitte SEA Innovation Festival 2023 featured “Collaborating for Change” as its theme to address societal concerns such as social mobility and public health, and highlight the importance of maintaining a robust ecosystem among companies, stakeholders, and consumers.
In each city, startup founders have assessed their local markets and customized their solutions to effectively plug gaps in these markets. The next consideration for these companies would be to scale their businesses. Given the highly fragmented business landscape in Southeast Asia, companies that can capitalize on wider regional opportunities would have a competitive edge over those that are slower on the uptake.
Glimpses of this changing landscape and its implications were highlighted in a fireside chat featuring Ion Mobility, a Singapore-founded startup that currently operates across Asia Pacific. The electric two-wheeler developer has recently established its presence in Jakarta with the overarching goal of serving the Indonesian market. James Chan, founder and CEO of Ion Mobility, articulated his vision for cross-border collaboration, which has influenced the way his company has established itself as a full-stack electric two-wheeler production company that manages its own design, engineering, and manufacturing functions in Singapore with its partner subsidiaries in Shenzhen.
Partnerships remain a key focus for Ion Mobility, which has struck up agreements with organizations across the globe, including India-headquartered motorcycle manufacturer TVS Motor Company, Indonesia’s national grid and electricity provider Perusahaan Listrik Negara, and more. These organizations share common resources and amplify Ion Mobility’s impact in sustainable mobility.
Overall, the unique challenges encountered in Southeast Asia’s electric vehicle market can be extrapolated to examine common opportunities for innovative problem-solving in the region. Lacking public infrastructure, limitations in technology, and the impacts of climate change make everyday living more unpredictable, and continue to pose barriers to adoption. New products must be robust to overcome these issues while capturing valuable data for meaningful iteration. These could come in the form of innovative pivots and extensions of existing products, such as using hardware to enhance software, and vice versa.
While collaboration is essential for younger companies with limited resources, the prevailing trend suggests that, now more than ever, startups of all stages share a common need to pursue synergies at scale, transcending challenges related to navigating overseas markets, diverse cultures, and product development opportunities.
About the authors: This article is co-authored by Seah Gek Choo, Tan Shuo Yan, Teo Zhixin, and Danielle Sim. Seah Gek Choo leads the Deloitte Southeast Asia Innovation team, a cross-function, cross-country unit dedicated to driving innovation as a long-term value creator across Deloitte’s Southeast Asia operations. This article was co-written by Tan Shuo Yan, Teo Zhixin, and Danielle Sim, members of the team.