The Benefits And Challenges Of Being A Start-Up In Singapore: Cameron Priest of TradeGecko
How an expat entrepreneur is growing a global business from Singapore.
Founded in early 2012, supply chain management start-up TradeGecko’s stated aim is “making wholesale commerce as easy as shopping on Amazon.” Its super user-friendly cloud-based inventory management solution enables “any small business owner to kick arse,” in the words of 29-year-old CEO Cameron Priest. “We get to work with thousands of businesses, help them grow and achieve their goals,” he says. “We power commerce.”
Though not yet in profit, according to Priest the company is now “doing millions in revenue,” with more than $8 million in funding secured to date from investors including Golden Gate Ventures, Jungle Ventures, 500 Startups, NSI Ventures and Wavemaker Partners.
Here, the young Kiwi entrepreneur explains why relocating the start-up from New Zealand to Singapore was a savvy move, and discusses the advantages and challenges of building the business from this Southeast Asian hub.
I come from New Zealand, which is a beautiful country, but it’s definitely not a business centre in any regard. Being young and ambitious, for me, it was a choice between moving to San Francisco or Singapore. I liked Singapore, I liked what it stood for being in the centre of Asia — being based here gives you access to an amazing market. A lot of people aspire to San Francisco but it’s tough to be a big fish in a small pond there. Singapore felt like somewhere international business was done. I’d tried to raise funds for the business in New Zealand and failed — partly because I was 24 and had no idea what I was doing, partly because it was New Zealand — and then I applied for JFDI (Joyful Frog Digital Innovation), an incubator here in Singapore, got accepted and jumped at it. TradeGecko’s founders [Cameron and his CTO brother Bradley, and CMO Carl Thompson], we came here with nothing. Burned the boats. Left our partners, had no friends here. Singapore’s exciting. It’s not easier being here by default, but access to capital, that’s definitely easier. Every round of funding we’ve taken so far came from people we met at JFDI.
Government assistance has definitely enabled what we’re doing, our first round of funding came from one of the NRF TIS (National Research Foundation Technology Incubation Scheme) funds, the tech incubator scheme funds. In fact I think all of our investors have had assistance of some form from the government, so it’s affected us in the sense that there are venture capitalists here, which I think was the goal of these schemes, with the NRF TIS and now the ESVF (Early Stage Venture Fund), so while we haven’t had funds directly from the government, our investors have. Our first round of funding, about US$1 million, and second round of about $7 million — sure, raising $30 million would be tough anywhere, but raising one and seven million came a lot easier because of what the government did. Hopefully now it’s created a self-perpetuating animal that doesn’t need to keep feeding off government support.
I would say hiring is my number one challenge. But similar businesses in the US, they don’t find it any easier to hire. The talent pool’s a bit bigger, but it’s way more competitive — and way more expensive. So yes, our biggest hurdle is hiring the right person for the right job, but I don’t think that’s a Singapore problem. That’s a business-wide problem. I think that’s always hard, for any business, you won’t ever have everyone you could possibly need for every role. We have more than 90 staff now, 70 in Singapore, 25 or 30 of them Singaporeans. Some of the non-Singaporeans are PRs, and we definitely want to hire more locals, but we’ve got people from all over the world working for us, and that’s one of the things I love about Singapore — it’s a melting pot. Singapore is one of those places that people want to try living for a few years.
Act Local, Think Global
There are a lot of great companies here that focus on Singapore and regionally. We’re not doing that. Our biggest market is the US, second is Australia, then Canada, the UK, New Zealand, then Singapore, Hong Kong, so we are an English-speaking focus, western market — and that’s been a holdup for us. We would probably be a bit further along if we were based in the US or Australia; we’d be less international, have less customers in other countries, but in the short term that’s less important. It’s hurt us a bit. But on the flipside, we’ve been able to be a big fish in a small pond. From the talent pool that is here, we’ve been able to pick some pretty amazing people we wouldn’t have been able to recruit in other cities, partly because they don’t have a lot of other options here, so it’s not something we did but something the market did for us. But in terms of the product we’ve built, we have had a few challenges by trying to build a western product from Singapore — which is probably a mistake on our part, but we didn’t know any different, that’s who we are. Our market isn’t Asia, it’s the top eight western countries. In that sense it’s a little bit of a disadvantage being here, in terms of acquiring customers and understanding the markets (where TradeGecko is most popular).
Smells Like Team Spirit
The great thing is, I get to work with amazing people who are great at what they do. I hope I’m good at what I do, but I’m nowhere near as good as my individual members of staff are at their individual things. For me the best thing is having people who are world class — I’ll see design come out, product come out, marketing, and I’ll be like, ‘That’s awesome!’ That’s the best thing, seeing autonomous teams create amazing things. And when you put people in place you can really trust, that’s when you can focus on the long term, bigger picture. I’m curious if I’ll enjoy running a 5,000-person company, because then the focus is on managing people. I’m like a lot of entrepreneurs — what I really like is creating things.