Going Dutch in Singapore

On Monday 11 June 2007 evening I was invited to be member in a panel to have a forum discussion on “What does it take to set up a business in Singapore and/or the region” by the Association of Dutch Businessmen (ADB).

This was the description that was sent around by email to all ADB members:

Have you always wondered what it takes -besides guts- to set up your own company, to realize your dreams or to be sent off by your employer to venture into new geographical realms?

On Monday 11 June we have invited a selection of Dutch entrepreneurs in Singapore, presented in a panel, who will both be sharing their own experiences as well as taking questions and discussions from the floor. What did they have to do to come so far and what not? How did the Singapore government support their ideas and in what way? Has ‘being Dutch’ been an advantage? What are easy mistakes to avoid? What business entity of form should you choose and how does registration works? What does it take to penetrate clients such as MNC’s ? 

The panel had an interesting composition:

          Alex Bok, who has setup a company called the Bike Boutique, which has franchises in other countries in Asia and he also initiated a non-profit organisation iwant2bike2work.org

          Peter Smit, who after a being retired for 2 years from Procter & Gamble for which he worked across the globe selling soap, took up an offer to start up an Asian branch office for Chiquita bananas.

          Lennart van der Beek, who is running a small company innotion pte. ltd.

          Bianca Polak (myself), who started Thalassa Consultancy to work as a freelance consultant in the IT industry.

The topic drew quite a crowd, I guess there were about 70 people in the audience (but that’s based on a raw estimate only). Annabelle Deken who organised and chaired the event (and that did that really professionally I must add), opened the evening. To my slight shock, we had to do the forum in Dutch, usually ADB events are done in English (hmm, at least the ones I have attended). My Dutch, though my native language, is not that great anymore after living in Asia for 9 years and speaking English most of the time, but I guess I did alright, stumbling a bit here and there, searching for the correct wordings and throwing in a bit of English when I couldn’t get the Dutch equivalent fast enough.

After we all did a short self-intro, Annabelle kicked off with the first question, to summarize in three words what one would need to set up a company in Singapore/region. I was the first to answer and my three words were:

  1. patience – you need a lot of patience in all aspects, waiting for orders to be confirmed, waiting for payment to come in, etc.
  2. connections / network – not just potential clients, but also in my case, connections as in partners, who can help out when you get a bigger project and you don’t have the time / skill-set to complete the job on your own. And I realised that now I’m trying to venture out into the edutech field, that I have start building up a new network.
  3. guts – you need to believe in yourself, especially running a 1-woman business like in my case.

Interestingly all three of us had patience in our list. Lennart (maybe because of his financial background) had a nice phrase for the money aspect of patience, which he called financial patience.

Alex mentioned it also in a regional aspect that he encountered, when he tried to copy his concept to apply it in the same way in Bangkok and found out that it didn’t work that way, he had to move a lot more mountains, though he had all the logistics organised pretty fast.

Someone in the audience asked whether this is typical for Singapore or this region to need patience, when starting up a company, but we all didn’t really have this kind of experience in Holland or other places in the world and probably it applies across the globe. It’s interesting though, because usually entrepreneurs are fast-thinking, fast-moving people, and patience won’t be the first thing on your mind when asked about a useful habit to have when you want to become an entrepreneur.

Another question that was asked by the audience was “what was a big mistake that you have made and learned from”. Well in my case it took me a while before I had a good answer to that, and let the others answer first. But I did have something that I regretted not having done earlier, which is registering with Gebiz, as I thought I couldn’t do that as a sole-proprietor or had to pay money for registration. When I finally did do it, I found out that it was really easy and that I should have done it from the start! It allows me to bid for the smaller requests for quotation or tenders directly without needing to go through one of my partners.

There were some questions on how to find employees and the hiring and firing in which I could not really participate. JobsDB.com seems to be the preferred way to hunt for new people, you get resumes back immediately, but it’s quite a bit of sifting work to be done to pick out the ones that you want to see. In Alex’ case his business started out of his hobby, being a tri-athlete and avid biker, his friends in this area and through word-of-mouth, he got his first customers but also people interested to work for him, invest in his company, etc.

Peter shared with us his strategy to see if a person would fit into his profile, which is regional sales. He would ask the person what was the first thing they ever sold and at which age. So, if someone already showed sales experience at age of 5 or whatever, they would be suitable for the job and if only sold something first at age of 20plus, they wouldn’t be suitable. Of course not as the only criteria, but just to gauge a person’s nature.

An interesting question came from a veteran who has worked for Philips most or all of his life and is now retired, which is whether it is in your genes to be an entrepreneur. Well, for the four of us sitting at the panel table this didn’t seem to be the case and it was not running in the family. In my case, I blame it on my innate stubbornness. In my first job working as a civil servant I came with lots of ideas that were only acknowledged a year later as being a great initiative, at the time that I had just put in a resignation letter. After that I worked for small companies, in which I was working pretty independently and had a lot of freedom to work in my own way, as long as the goals were met.

Peter, who had worked in P&G for most of his life, argued however that working for a MNC does require a certain amount of entrepreneurial spirit. I tend to disagree with that statement, I believe indeed that probably at a regional sales manager position in a foreign country you do need entrepreneurial characteristics to do well. However, as a general office worker, you need to be able to conform to all the rules and regulations put down by the management and if you exhibit too many creative ideas or opinions that don’t match with the rules, it doesn’t work in my honest opinion.

The last question from the audience was directed towards me, to ask how I cope with doing projects for government organisations here in Singapore as a sole proprietor, since there is always a danger of LD claims. Well, in my case I don’t deliver directly to the government, for big projects that have potential LD claims I offer my services to a main contractor, and there is no direct responsibility for LD’s from my side. Of course, I have to be sure to cover myself, that I deliver in time and am not the responsible party for any delays. But yes, it will be a reason over time to change my business to a limited liability company.

Other things discussed were how to go about work visas, which in most our cases was not an issue. But some had experience applying for Employment Pass based on their company business plan.

Alex had an interesting tip to share about his business plan, which is that after a few years he finally decided to write his business plan on just 1 A4-sized paper, including his dreams, his goals to realise his dreams and concrete action points. (I hope I remembered it correctly).

At the informal session afterwards, on my way out, I got to speak briefly with Diederik Heinink, who has just setup his business in communications & PR and has an online portal in Holland for networking of Dutch professionals. A bit like iConnectE (which I got to know about recently at the BlogOut) and when I mentioned that, he happened to have just registered and been to the first networking event. Unfortunately I had missed that event, but will probably see him on one of the other events around. Singapore is small 😉

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2 Responses

  1. Great stuff Bianca!

  2. Haha, beter laat dan nooit! Hoe is het met je? Ik ben inmiddels alweer een jaar terug in NL. Mis Azie wel hoor! Wat doe je tegenwoordig?

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