Commerce evolves to keep up with demand, retain market share and keep consumers spending. The era of the startup began in the early 2000s and has since been used to describe anything from massive tech companies (aptly known as unicorns if they’re worth USD1 billion or more), to little hipster outfits which are like the 21st century’s version of the tortured artist – looking for investment, talented and ballsy.
There are so many definitions for what a startup is but one of the most appropriate is a business that is technologically inclined with great potential for growth; but with distinctive challenges including getting investors willing to take a risk.
A glaring difference between an old-school company and a startup is the people that run and work for the latter. There’s enthusiasm bordering on exuberance, tenacity and creativity; usually aged between their mid-twenties and 40.
Fabian Wetekamp, Head of Product at dahmakan
Let’s begin with what is the core of dahmakan’s business – tasty, healthy food delivered to your doorstep. The premise sounds simple as it’s basically food delivery and this is nothing new. Ordering is done online or via the app, and there are different cost-effective packages. So what makes dahmakan stand out in this rapidly saturated market?
It’s all about the food, accessibility and to a certain extent, the packaging (funky colour-coded lunch boxes). Healthy and tasty used to be an oxymoronic description but dahmakan has managed to find the balance without sacrificing on flavour. Think brown rice, fresh local produce, having daily vegetarian and fish options, and wholesome snacks.
Now, let’s get to the people behind the brand – Fabian Wetekamp to be precise. With a background in computer science and business, and enthusiasm for building things to make people’s lives better, Fabian found himself travelling through Asia and loving everything about this exciting region.
So it was fortuitous that in 2015, a good friend from his student days in Munich asked if he wanted to join a food delivery project in Malaysia, which he had co-founded.
As Head of Product, Fabian’s biggest influence is the customer and listening to praise and criticism is what drives the direction for the business. “Food affects people’s emotions more than any other product so we get a lot of love and honest criticism, which motivates us to go beyond our limits.”
As with every business, there are unexpected challenges and for dahmakan, a kitchen fire due a gas leak was a defining moment. To renovate the kitchen would’ve taken months and led to losing customers and worst case scenario, the business. Everyone from the kitchen helper to management pulled together to solve the problem, and within three weeks, meals were being delivered again!
Finding team members who share the same vision is imperative for a business to work, especially for a startup.
“We’re not just looking for employees. We’re looking for builders, smart misfits who possess the ambition to build something great and impactful,” Fabian says with conviction.
To support their belief that having the right team is so important, they’ve implemented an interesting programme called Entrepreneur in Residence (EiR) instead of internships with the aim of engaging the brightest minds from top universities; and it has been their most effective recruitment channel.
When asked what it was like for an expat in the local startup scene, Fabian says, “The scene is small but continuously growing. Startups are very well connected and there’s constant change. Building a business can be tough so it’s vital to share knowledge.”
There are exciting times ahead for dahmakan and with Fabian’s innate passion for the brand and what it represents, they may well become the go-to healthy food delivery service in the region... and it all started in KL.
Claire Berneron, Co-founder of Bumbung
When Paris-born financial analyst Claire visited Malaysia in 2003 for a holiday, her entrepreneurial instincts kicked in and she knew she would be seeing a lot more of the country in the following years. The growing rate of Internet penetration, widespread mobile usage habits, and relatively cheap startup costs here motivated Claire to leave the stifling bureaucratic work culture of her corporate finance job in France to start afresh in Kuala Lumpur.
She realised early on that there was a problem with finding properties for sale or rent.
Frustrated by the sluggish pace of house-hunting due to an overwhelming number of ambiguous property listings online and questionable agent practices, Claire and real estate negotiator, Gadiy Lim, co-founded Bumbung (meaning ‘roof’ in Malay), an online property platform matching home seekers with the five most relevant real estate agents or property listings within 24 hours.
“Bumbung has provided around 5,000 leads to agents in over a year, and we have a lot more to give”, Claire says, explaining that real estate agents can list different properties by paying various nominal subscription fees.
“We initially targeted only agents, but we’ve recently opened the platform to homeowners too, the market is definitely going towards more customer-to-customer (C2C) transactions.”
Claire has worked with large corporations in France and Romania for several years. While she’s not about to sugar-coat the challenges of running a startup in Malaysia, she lists a number of reasons which have kept her going, and she recognises the country’s growing appeal as a workplace hub for businesses around the region.
“Malaysia has historically suffered from a lack of ‘coolness’ compared to Singapore and Hong Kong, but it has improved in the last few years.” she says.
She’s noticed that many startups struggle to attract world-class talents, simultaneously dealing with the ‘brain drain’ in the Malaysian workforce and a lack of private capital. Even so, Claire’s penchant for diffusing tough situations with a touch of creativity and razor-sharp financial prowess has worked exceptionally well for her over the past year, when she and Gadiy raised seed funding for Bumbung and saw it through the initial stages with a ten-member team.
“When you accumulate two rare attributes (being a female and an expat) in the startup scene, it’s up to you to turn it to your advantage. I’ve found it useful; as my own brand ambassador, people remember me easily,” Claire says.
Her personal growth as an entrepreneur has been due to keeping in constant connection with more experienced mentors, being in tune to the local business scene, and understanding what works best with managing a team.
Things can go wrong at any moment, and Claire recounts one instance when a product demonstration went awry. Every crisis that’s thrown her way evolves into a useful adage for the future. As she puts it: “Running a startup is navigating in the dark and being able to find a way out every single day.”
Pawel Netreba, Founder and CEO of Bfab
If you had to identify the figure behind a startup related to the beauty services industry here, Pawel Netreba may not fit the bill at first. The former co-founder of online food delivery service Foodpanda began his career in management consulting back home in Russia and Europe, before joining forces with Sergey Gaydar and Raeesa Sya to launch the online beauty services booking platform, Bfab in Malaysia.
Why the jump from online food delivery services to a beauty and wellness e-marketplace? Like most entrepreneurial ventures, it was a matter of good timing and opportunity.
“I was sent to Malaysia to oversee Foodpanda’s acquisition of Room Service (another food delivery platform by the Food Runner brand). I didn’t want to travel around and just fix things within Foodpanda, so this was the right time to jump off and start my own business,” says Pawel.
Noticing the lack of beauty appointment booking platforms here compared to Europe or the US, Pawel turned his sights to filling the market gap between consumers and beauty salons via a platform that let users instantly book appointments with a variety of curated beauty and wellness services.
Today, Bfab gives customers an all-in-one view of prices, services, locations and available appointment time slots of 650 salons in KL.
The challenge, Pawel says, is that many people still prefer the ‘offline’ method of personally reaching out to their favourite stylists or salons. Fortunately, the market segment to which Bfab appeals are busy working professionals who want the convenience of booking appointments as quickly as possible. Much to Pawel’s advantage, it was a segment of the market that wasn’t yet dominated by big players.
The idea appealed to investors even during the preliminary stages. “Bfab itself was an ambitious plan given the limited funding and the extent of the project,” Pawel says. Before it launched, Bfab raised a round of seed funding led by Singapore-based venture capitalist firm KK Fund, followed by 500 Startups and Captii Ventures seed accelerators.
A great idea needs great timing, as Pawel’s experience has taught him. “If you’re early in the market before other established players, it’s in your hands to change it, to educate the market, to affect the direction of the business,” he says, with a stalwart sense of confidence amidst challenges.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and Pawel attributes part of his resilience to the collective experience and support of other innovators in the startup community.
“When it gets tough, I think ‘If it was easy, everyone would be successful.’ It takes a lot of work, dedication and sweat to get where you want to be, and there will always be obstacles.”
Lais De Oliveira, Chief Community Officer at FlySpaces
To succeed in business, ambition, intellect and street smarts are necessary. To succeed within the startup arena in a foreign country, add risk-taking and determination to the list.
Lais De Oliveira started studying law in her native Brazil but would spend more time outside the classroom organising events and joining UN models. During her first year at college, she joined a global NGO called AIESEC – a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to developing the leadership potential of young people. This led to stints in countries like Mauritius, Chile and Argentina working in recruitment and organisational culture.
She got her first taste of startups by leading an accelerator in Buenos Aires where she organised networking events. It wasn’t exactly what she was looking for but it did give rise to an idea that would eventually become the KL chapter for Startup Grind (global startup community). When a job opportunity arose to come to Kuala Lumpur in 2014, Lais came knowing just two people!
“Malaysia was in an ‘ecosystem building’ rush by the time I arrived. I quit my job, got hired by Startup Grind HQ (based in Silicon Valley) to expand their local communities in Asia-Pacific and Africa. Six months later, I began work at MaGIC as Community Ambassador.” Everything happened quickly and she found herself organising and attending events, networking and building a viable community.
Her first business venture was 8Spaces.co, which became a marketplace for boutique spaces for work-related activities. Surprisingly, her main clients were big MNCs looking for unique spaces to hold their events and within two years, the company was acquired by FlySpaces, the largest digital platform for workspaces in the region.
When asked what her opinion was on the startup scene here, she says, “Malaysia is a great launchpad to Southeast Asia due to its good infrastructure (internet, banking, logistics), English speaking public, competitive costs for running a business and rich talent pool. It also shares cultural and language similarities to one of the hottest and biggest markets in the region – Indonesia.”
What does the future hold for Lais? A timely and empowering project called moregirls.co, which is exactly what it sounds like – bringing more girls to tech events. Starting with a Whatsapp group comprising all the women she met and knew in the tech industry, it soon grew into a regional network.
“We aim to be a ‘marketplace for knowledge’, to increase the representation of women speaking about business, tech and innovation at events; and enhancing their profiles and brands.”
The aim is to target MNCs needing advice related to digital transformation by connecting them to women experienced in design thinking, lean startups, products development and agile methodologies. This will prove a challenge, but if there’s anyone who can forge ahead with this, it will be Lais.