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Look before you leap: Why Australian businesses should research carefully before expanding to Singapore

As Australia battles another COVID-19 outbreak and increasing lockdown fatigue, Australian businesses are shifting their gaze to Southeast Asia, with Singapore standing out as a particular beacon of stability. However, truly flourishing in Singapore takes time, research and more than just a salesperson with a hot desk. 

A rebounding economy, a contained COVID-19 virus and a relative semblance of normal life: this is the current picture for Singapore as it emerges from Heightened Alert and enters the second half of 2021. 

Singapore’s government is projecting gross domestic product growth of between four and six per cent this year. Meanwhile, Singapore’s Southeast Asian neighbours of Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia also have maturing markets and rapidly digitised populations. 

Across the region, areas such as fintech, gaming and e-sports and e-commerce are flourishing, with TikTok owner Bytedance recently announcing plans to ramp up its Singapore presence. 

However, to misquote the infamous Boromir meme: ‘One does not simply walk into Southeast Asia’. And if they do, success is far from a guarantee. Recent years have shown the high cost for those entering the market without realising the nuanced approach required. Many influential global brands, such as Carrefour and Wendy’s, have tried and failed to make a crack at the local market. 

Stamping a footprint in Singapore and Southeast Asia more broadly cannot be achieved by simply putting a salesperson in a co-working space and waiting for the revenue to roll in. 

But with the right market research and intelligence gathering, businesses can at least land in the market with a good foundation in place. 

Research before committing

For any new players in Singapore, it is always essential to stake out the competition, market opportunities and constraints. Competitors with an entrenched position in Singapore will naturally be better placed to take advantage of superior strategic market awareness.

It never fails to even out the odds by doing research and gathering data. The more done in the early stages will pay the most considerable dividends in the long run. 

Another critical component to success is to state your intent. Southeast Asia is cluttered with here-today-gone-tomorrow start-ups panning for entrepreneurial gold. 

However, those that succeed are the start-ups that communicate their commitment to Singapore and the wider region. This means showing a genuine interest in the region rather than relegating it to just another global outpost. 

Achieving this doesn’t mean forking out vast sums of capital. But it does require outlining a clear vision for the region, value proposition and growth plans. Communicating this effectively to stakeholders, potential investors, employees and clients make a profound difference. 

Local partners are key

The third key to success in Singapore and Southeast Asia is finding the right partners before entering the market. Investing in in-house talent may not be viable in the early stages of opening a business. And even so, it pays better to leverage on-the-ground partners who understand the landscape, challenges and competitors better than you. 

Although this can seem a minefield in itself, differentiating between good and bad partners can be seen in client retention rates and your peers’ recommendations. Personal connections can go a long way in Singapore, which helps to make the most of them from day one. 

And finally, broaden your messaging and make your growing team ambassadors for your brand across all markets in Southeast Asia. Finding talent, especially in the tech scene, will not be easy. According to a report by Google, 70 per cent of local hiring managers claimed a shortage of tech talent had negatively affected product development. 

However, unlike in North America and Europe, where your brand carries more equity, in Asia, you are competing with the likes of homegrown giants including Alibaba, Grab and GoTo Group (the newly merged Gojek and Tokopedia). Homegrown and established brands with a growth story carry a higher currency than smaller challengers in the hunt for much-needed talent. 

Overcoming this involves thinking hard about your employee proposition: what culture can you offer, especially in these times of remote work? What’s your corporate social responsibility and your diversity strategy? Although these may seem like add-ons to a company’s operations, they will be what differentiates you against your competitors in the region’s talent rat race. 

Southeast Asia is a lively, vibrant region that, pre-pandemic, was showing the seeds of promising economic growth. With Singapore’s post-pandemic economic recovery on the cards, a deepening of its neighbour relationships looks on the cards to foster regional recovery and growth. 

With these in mind, it is unsurprising the region remains popular as an international market. But for any leaders to truly capitalise on this promise, the key is to think well beyond the first sales hire. 

While it might be easy to rent a hot desk, a more focused approach enables your business to flourish in the region. Preparation, building intelligence and effectively communicating your vision is the difference between success and failure. 

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