I am writing this on Friday night while on a plane somewhere above the South China Sea, enjoying a double espresso and a Jack Daniel’s on my way back home after 2 excellent days at the inaugural DEMO Asia conference in Shanghai. To be honest, when I was invited I was not sure if I should accept the invitation. Work at unitedstyles.com is incredibly busy in the start-up phase and often conferences are a lot of fun but not very useful. But this conference exceeded all my expectations.
It was my second DEMO conference, after attending one in Silicon Valley last year (where I was invited through Seraph Group, the angel fund that I am part of). I wrote a blog post about that one, comparing the start-up conference to TechCrunch Disrupt. What I did not know at that time was that unitedstyles would go on to be one of the finalists at the next TC Disrupt (in Beijing) and that I would be invited to speak at the first DEMO conference in Singapore.
The Singapore conference was held in Biopolis, a new office/research area in Singapore close to the INSEAD campus. I knew the area from when Grace did the last 3 months of her MBA there back in 2003 (time flies…), but the place had changed completely. I had actually been in Fusionopolis (next to INSEAD) during my last trip to Singapore a few weeks ago, but I did not realize that there are more buildings like that around INSEAD. At Biopolis DEMO had 3 floors and an auditorium to its disposal, just enough to fit in all the 76 (!) start-ups from 14 countries (incl. Mongolia and Brunei – and probably some other exotic ones, but these two presented in a session that I commented on).
I flew into Singapore on Wednesday afternoon and was picked up by a Mercedes-Benz. Having a nice car to pick you up is a small thing, but to me it shows the organization pays attention to details, so I appreciate it. I stayed at the brand new Park Avenue Rochester, a good hotel in walking distance from Biopolis. I had a suite with a view of Biopolis on the hill opposite the hotel. More important, the wifi was very fast so I spent the first hour doing emails, chatting on Skype with unitedstyles colleagues and downloading some software. Then I went for a quick swim in the rooftop pool before taking a shuttle to Biopolis (I didn’t know walking would have been faster).
I shared the shuttle with Matt Marshall (the executive producer of DEMO and chief editor of Venturebeat, one of my daily must-read blogs) and Jeff Clavier (founder of SoftTechVC, a well-know and very successful Silicon Valley early stage VC). At DEMO we were welcomed by the the staff and got our badges and then had a drink at the welcome reception. I met a lot of investors and government people that I had seen during my last trip to Singapore, and they introduced me to many other people. Within 2 hours I had given out 30 of my 100 business cards, and I started to worry if my stack would last the whole conference. I also had 3 short meetings (2 to prepare for panel discussions I was on and one with a potential partner for unitedstyles) before we went for dinner.
Dinner took place at an upscale Chinese restaurant at Rochester Park (this was literally next door to where Grace used to live, but at that time the area had not been developed yet), a small treelined street with good bars and restaurants in renovated colonial villas. The Singapore Media Development Authority had invited some of the speakers (next to Matt, Jeff and myself also Adeo Ressi (Founders Institute and TheFunded.com) and Chris Shipley (Guidwire Group)) with Michael Yap of the MDA to discuss among othe entrepreneurial climate in Shanghai and the latest trends in technology.
We had some nice wines (including a Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir – we flew over the winery in our helicopter during the January trip to New Zealand) and an Australian Chardonnay, and the food was excellent. When I heard we would have Chinese food I was not too thrilled at first (I get that almost every day if I at home), but the atmosphere of the restaurant and the quality of the food was outstanding. The dishes consisted of a mix of Beijing, Shanghai and Cantonese cuisine, that could compete with the best restaurants in Shanghai. Discussions were great as well, especially Adeo gave some good feedback on the Singapore system of attracting entrepreneurs and he compared it to Chili. The way he delivered his (not always positive) feedback was pretty good: not in a direct, offending, way (as Westerners often tend to do) but in a way that showed respect for the way Singapore is trying to grow its economy and understanding that it’s not easy to do this from scratch. I learned a lot during the night, among others that I want to check out Chili: the country has very favorable policies for entrepreneurs with a climate similar to California, and with high snow-covered mountains on one side plus beaches on the other, it sounds like a great place to live.
The next morning I had breakfast with Adeo in the hotel before walking over to Biopolis. I was a panelist in the first session, so I wanted to make sure I would be there on time. The conference started about 20 minutes too late because of a traffic jam (something that is apparently not normal in Singapore), so I had some time to do my emails and check Facebook and Twitter on my iPad. After the opening speeches I was on a panel about investing in Asia, discussing the pros and cons of doing business here. I decided to talk about the problems unitedstyles is facing in China (difficulties to get enough visas for our foreign employees, problems to reach our servers outside the Great Firewall etc.) and how that makes life for start-ups in China more difficult.
I like to be a bit outspoken, and this time it had the added effect of several additional media interviews related to this topic. Today Singapore’s largest newspaper even carried an article with the title “Web start-ups face tough time in China”! I really feel that for companies like unitedstyles that mainly focus on the market outside China, the mainland is not the best place to run a business anymore. After the panel I did a few press interviews, had lunch with some people of Infocomm and then watched a one-on-one between Jeff Clavier and Matt Marshall. Jeff made some good points about how investors see start-ups from Asia (“You should move to the US yourself and arrange your visas and company formation, we don’t fund moving over your company”) that gave me some food for thought.
After that I was on a panel with among others Jeff to discuss some of the social media start-ups that had presented on stage. Generally I was impressed by the ideas that they had and by the ways they found to monetize them. But one thing I noticed while watching the presentations, is that many of them were focused only on a small market like Singapore. I liked their innovative ideas , but I probably would not invest in any of them (except for a new company called Trade Hero, but they are still in the idea phase) because of the lack of vision. Jeff saw that different though, in the Valley there are better ways to exit companies (or founder teams) like this, adding them on top of sites like Facebook or Foursquare. It gave me an interesting insight in how different US investors think from Asian investors.
After the panel I did a couple of other media interviews before going back to my hotel to do a few calls and change into jeans and a more casual shirt. Then I went back to the conference for a reception. There I met Virginia Cha, who is among other teaching entrepreneurship at INSEAD. Virginia and I go back a long time, because coincidentally she used to be my landlord (and neighbor) in Shanghai in the time that we started Tudou. At that time she was still an entrepreneur in Shanghai, but after that she got her PhD in Singapore and started a teaching career (while still investing in start-ups of course). She introduced me to a ton of people and then I had couple of drinks with her and her husband in their amazing Sentosa home. Their place is fantastic, probably the nicest place I have seen in Singapore so far. Directly on the ocean with a view over some of the islands in the distance and a marina on the backside. I told her that if I should ever more to Singapore she can become my landlord again if she can rent me this place!
Virginia drove me back to the hotel where I worked until 1 AM before getting a few hours of sleep. My plan was to go for a run at 6:30 AM, but it was still completely dark outside, so I decided to be lazy and sleep an hour longer. Then I had a big breakfast and went off to the conference. Originally my Friday schedule was quite empty, but overnight the organization had gotten a few more media interview requests. The result was an overfilled schedule (2 interviews or meetings per hour!), but I did not mind. During or in between the meetings I did some photo shoots as well and got a new business idea (if 3 photographers take pictures of you in one day there should be a more efficient way to handle this, right?). It was busy and a bit stressful (reporters kept on asking me about Tudou and I kept on telling them I am not part of the company anymore and can’t (and don’t want) to comment on the company), but I prefer to run from meeting to meeting instead of not having much to do. The downside was that I did not see any of the start-up presentations on Friday. And by 12 noon I had given out all 100 of my business cards. I among others still had meetings with 2 CEOs of government agencies, but could not give them my name card anymore. Not good, next time I’ll bring 2 packs of card.
Looking back I am happy that I joined this conference. I got to know many new interesting people and I got to tell a lot of people about unitedstyles (visits from Singapore to the site were up big time today), so it was the right decision to go here. I really feel Singapore’s entrepreneurial climate has developed a lot over the past years and it’s slowly becoming the Silicon Valley of South-East Asia. It’s great to experience that first hand and I hope to be back soon. Thanks team DEMO Asia for inviting me!