Expatrio Diaries: Venturing into Southeast Asia

Shortly before global lockdown was declared, Expatrio’s Managing Director, Tim Meyer, came back from Singapore, where he spent a month representing Expatrio in the program of German Accelerator Southeast Asia.

Today we are sharing some of the insights he gained from his trip and are inviting you to explore the secrets of Southeast Asia together with us.

“Good to be back!” is my first thought when entering the shiny arrival hall and breathing the typical scent of Changi while directly approaching Jewel, the one-of-a-kind waterfall experience inside Singapore’s high tech airport, and right before the glass doors are opening for the humid 32°C air to hit me. 

That Singapore’s Changi has been awarded the World's Best Airport by Skytrax for the eighth time running is not surprising at all when looking at what this city state has accomplished over the past 55 years of independence.  Singapore is regularly ranked as one of the happiest, safest, least corrupt and most innovative countries with one of the best infrastructures, educational systems and public health care systems in the world - just to name a few. Let’s get back to that later on though and focus on the professional side of things for a minute.

Jewel at Changi Airport in Singapore
Jewel at Changi Airport in Singapore

Namely, Singapore being home not only to one of the happiest populations in the world, but also to German Accelerator Southeast Asia, an initiative of the German government that supports high-potential German startups in successfully entering the U.S. and Southeast Asian markets. Via their programs, German startups get introduced to the vibrant ecosystems of the Silicon Valley, New York City, Singapore and more. The program is supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, has partnerships with institutions like bitkom, Bundesverband Deutsche Startups and GTAI and has contributed to the international expansion of well known companies such as N26 and Celonis.

For us at Expatrio, the main motivation to participate in the program was stemming from our desire to better understand not only the Singaporean, but the whole Southeast Asian market - or rather all the individual markets (Southeast Asia is everything but homogeneous). Driven by an urge to get closer to our customers and partners in the region, we saw an opportunity to learn more about the unique characteristics of each market which will help us enhance our product-market fit to offer bespoke solutions for each country, each profession and each age.

Among the markets Expatrio is offering solutions in, Southeast Asia plays a special role. It is a steadily growing region both in terms of population and business activity. Although foreign companies often struggle with adjusting to local cultures and habits, the different demographic structures of Germany as compared to many Southeast Asian countries offer a great opportunity for cooperation. Southeast Asia has an excess of young and highly qualified professionals who are becoming more mobile due to globalization and partly desire to go overseas for scientific exchanges or work. At the same time, Germany is suffering from a shortage of skilled workers and hence tries to attract international talent by offering many opportunities for academic and professional growth. The successful relocation of Asian professionals creates a win-win situation for both parties and offers an opportunity for Expatrio to help solving international labor market issues.


Germany's population pyramid
German demographic pyramid (Source)
Indonesia's population pyramid
Indonesian demographic pyramid (Source)


Bridging the Gap Between Germany and Southeast Asia

Having spent some time in Singapore before, I knew what would expect me on the ground. However, due to the work of German Accelerator Southeast Asia, I was able to experience an even more diverse and professional face of the city state than ever before which is why I would like to share some of the program’s key elements in the following.

Having put a great focus on communication and mutual learning, cohort team building events at venues like the One Kind House are one of the cornerstones of the program. By making friends within the cohort, the distance to home appears smaller while the beer next to the accelerator’s office automatically tastes better - and hustling with your friends always feels better than doing it on your own.

Tim at One Kind House
Our Managing Director, Tim Meyer, and our Regional Advisor, T​​​obias Fischer,
at One Kind House

Another cornerstone of the program is the vast network of mentors in all fields, ranging from Marketing to Venture Capital, from governmental institutions to startups and MNEs. Getting advice on your market approach and strategy from such a valuable group of people certainly makes you willing to hustle even more. From haptic workshops to networking events and pitching sessions, everything is focused on finding an individual approach for each startup to better understand their customer journey and adjust their communication to local standards to better articulate ideas and reach the right audience.

One of the main factors for businesses to not make it in (Southeast) Asia is missing awareness of cultural differences. Therefore, the education on these constitutes another cornerstone of the program. With speakers from all countries across Southeast Asia as well as fantastic evidence from the advertisement space and stories of personal experiences, the program equips its participants with the needed focus on adjusting to these differences, ranging from “showing face” to - let’s say - lowered expectations towards your meeting partner being on time or the importance of local incumbents and religion (see The Culture Map).

Culture map


Life in Singapore and Southeast Asia

Ok, let’s get back to the other part that keeps exciting me even after having lived in Singapore for a while and visiting regularly. As described above, even though being among the smallest countries in the world, Singapore is well-known for its achievements, especially in the areas of finance and technological innovation. While having the reputation of being the most competitive country in the world, Singapore also has a special lifestyle to offer to its residents (the difference between citizen, PR and EP is one of the most ubiquitous topics islandwide btw). 

Life in Singapore - similarly to most of Southeast Asia - means fast pace, vibrance, never ending change, diversity, open and bright minds, cultural variety, exceptional food and much more. While it would go beyond the scope of this article to explain each of the points in depth, I can say that the hawker centers, the respectful cohabitation among humans and increasingly with nature and the excessive range of travel destinations (tropical islands like Bali, historic places like Angkor Wat, booming cities like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City or Jakarta, and so on) are impressing me the most on a personal level. 

What has impressed me on a more global level is the extraordinary goal setting in fields such as sustainability and waste reduction, self sufficiency (e.g. via the "30 by 30" goal), Artificial Intelligence or technological advancement in general (e.g. via SGInnovate), fueled by a well-educated labor force, innovative ideas, promising budget allocation and the power of will. This goes hand in hand with Singapore’s ability to nurture habits like precision and efficiency by thinking big, sustainable and seminal.

From a business point of view, despite the fact that Singapore is on the top list of countries with the best conditions to start a business, there are still a few challenges that many businesses (especially international ones) face in Singapore and Southeast Asia in general. While having touched upon the cultural differences already, it might be worth mentioning that the sales cycles and setting up partnerships usually takes much more time than we are used to in Europe. Also, many expanding businesses seem to underestimate the fact that Southeast Asia is not one big market, but rather consists of smaller very unique markets with their own sets of cultural and economic habits.

Authentic Singaporean dishes at a Hawker Center
Authentic Singaporean dishes at a Hawker Center


To Wrap it Up

Though the region, and especially Singapore itself, was not new to me, it continues to inspire me for various reasons and German Accelerator helped me to understand its people, cultures and habits on an even deeper level. In summary, I would like to stress a few points for anyone interested in visiting the region as a tourist or in starting to do business there.

  • Be patient: Rome wasn’t built in a day. Same goes for close relationships and fruitful projects in Southeast Asia.
  • Do not be too direct: though it might be appreciated in Germany if you are expressing your thoughts directly to the point, you should adjust this approach to the Southeast Asian way.
  • Stay open minded to learn and get inspired: most of the people you meet have great thoughts to share.
  • Show face: especially for doing business, being on the ground and having in-person meetings makes it much easier to get to know your partner/client and it helps reaching your goals faster (or at all)
  • Warm introductions are playing an even bigger role than in Europe and will take you places you would not reach when not getting introduced by a common friend
  • Adjusting yourself and/or the brand of your business to the local way of thinking is essential

Taking all these learnings into account, we at Expatrio will continue deepening our regional network and tailoring our bespoke solutions based on the unique needs of different countries and user groups in Southeast Asia. The goal remains to adjust to the real market situation wherever we go.