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Insight: Indonesia’s startup scene

· future of work,Southeast Asia,startups

Key players in Southeast Asia’s startup ecosystem gather on annual basis for Echelon Indonesia, a global conference in entrepreneurship and tech, geared towards the local Indonesian context.

Among the attendees, speakers and exhibitors included the usual suspects:

  • Startups and social enterprises seeking funding, partners, networking and brand awareness.
  • Venture capital funds looking for the next hot idea and deal to invest in.
  • Developers discussing challenges and trends in the field, while also showcasing their latest innovations.
  • Support service providers such as digital marketing agencies and app developers.

As I gear up to attend this the next upcoming event, it feels appropriate to review my list of big takeaways from last year's conference:

1. The Indonesia startup scene is very young — we’re talking just a few years old. Several speakers on panels talked about how just a couple years ago there was hardly any startup activity happening and now the scene is blowing up. I believe that there is not one particular answer to the question, “Why now?” but that there are actually several factors come into play in the birth of this new movement. And so I wondered, what are the ingredients that make up the startup recipe for the rise of entrepreneurship? I believe it is some combination of technological advances (think increased internet connectivity, cheaper hardware and smartphones, social media explosion), a handful of venture capital firms looking for emerging markets to invest in, a cooling down of a unicorn driven atmosphere in the west, and a rising population of middle class, educated and more connected than ever individuals and communities that have new sets of market demand and needs to serve. Which means…

2. There’s massive room for innovation in the region. It is no wonder that financial capital is starting to flood in, there’s a rising population of a largely untapped market for new era technology, apps, products, and services. Therefore, there is not only room to bring business models and tech from mature markets to an expanded geographic reach but also a huge opportunity to create entirely new concepts that cater to an rapidly modernizing marketplace. Contextual market nuances and challenges will certainly lead to fine-tuned localized offerings rather than the “copy-paste” attempts that often end up failing when crossing borders and cultures. Which means…

3. In order to survive, startups need to cater to very specific localized needs and conditions. There may be good reasons why the startup scene is so young in Indonesia —it is no small feat to be able to understand and serve a vast archipelago of 17,000 Indonesian islands (read: logistical nightmare) while being sensitive and appropriate to a multitude of different cultures and languages. Add in the challenge of navigating a complex administrative and legal infrastructure on both national and provincial levels and you’ve got a business environment that is not for the faint of heart. Not to mention that only 41% of Indonesians have bank accounts99% of all transactions are cash payments, and only 20% of the population have internet access. Thus, the rising tide of e-commerce and online business will need to find ways to tap into a largely unbanked and unconnected population. For example Kioson, an Indonesian startup exhibiting at Echelon, is on a mission to foster the digital economy in rural Indonesia where micro and small businesses are experiencing the effects of the digital divide when compared to businesses in urban areas. By supplying shop keepers and micro-retailers with hardware, software, and training, Kioson is effectively keeping brick-and-mortar (or thatch roofed) cottage industries competitive in the fast changing world of chain stores and online retailers that pose a new threat to their livelihood.

4. Social enterprise is finding a footing in the way we do business more and more. The term “social enterprise” is increasingly being used within the business and non-profit world. From what I’ve heard and read, some embrace the term and others question the label. Here’s a recent perspective on the label from Alex Hillman, veteran business and community builder, who tweeted, “There are countless people, myself included, who don’t identify as “social entrepreneurs” but build meaningful, sustainable businesses.” The fact is, social enterprise and social entrepreneurship has been around for decades, though under different names and forms. Regardless of what label you most identify with, the trend is undeniable — organizations are increasingly crafting commercial strategies that aim to improve human and environmental health and well-being through their operations. A great representation of social enterprise at Echelon was Bali startup, Gringgo, who is creating an app that connects cash to trash to help clean up Bali’s waste management issues by connecting buyers and sellers. Through the use of technology, Gringgo is solving a social, economic, and environmental problem all at once.

5. Women in tech and female founders are gaining traction. It is not just Silicon Valley that’s putting in the effort to increase gender diversity in the tech and startup ecosphere. I was impressed that the panel talks and exhibitors addressed the need to increase the involvement, education, and opportunities available to women in business and tech. It is exciting to see that although the startup scene is still in its youthful years in the region, gender diversity and equality are topics that are being given attention from the beginning and therefore being infused into the culture during the formative stages. I got to meet one of the companies that the non-profit, Girls in Tech, had been mentoring and it was so refreshing to see women in tech having local support and empowerment to grow their business. Not only do women have access to mentoring and capacity building but also to funding opportunities from organizations like SoGal, a female founder venture fund, aiming to close the gender diversity gap in the next generation of entrepreneurs and investors.

6. The last but not least insight gained from the Echelon Indonesia conference is that more events like these need to happen in order to continue to connect and build the startup ecosystem in Indonesia and the rapidly growing Southeast Asian region.

See you at the next conference?

Author: Melissa Loh

Mel is a People-Planet-Profit driven business coach, consultant and project manager helping to evolve the future of work and redefine business as usual. Access more of her writing and free resources by subscribing to her newsletter

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