Tuesday 30 October 2012

SME community 'needs a shot in the arm'

Plans to boost business zeal among young, simplify rules: Teo Ser Luck
By Grace Chng, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2012

ALTHOUGH Singapore already has a good foundation of schemes and funds to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) chairman Teo Ser Luck believes the SME community needs an injection of new life as Singapore's economy shifts towards higher value-add activities.

Mr Teo, who is also Minister of State for Trade and Industry, is looking at various ways to do this, such as taking lessons on entrepreneurship to schools and simplifying the application processes of existing support schemes for SMEs.

Encouraging young people to start their own businesses is one direct way to lead a revival of the SME community, said Mr Teo in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times last Thursday.

Mr Teo, who assumed chairmanship of ACE mid-last year, said he has a plan to create greater awareness of entrepreneurship among students.

Details will be available soon but one aspect of his plan will be to let students hear the stories of entrepreneurs.

"They hear about Google and Facebook and other start-ups, how their founders became multimillionaires," he said.

"But 99 per cent of start-ups also fail. So I also want them to hear these stories, how they picked themselves up and started again."

These students will likely be an enthusiastic audience, as studies show a growing interest in entrepreneurship among young people.

In a Global University Entrepreneurial Spirit Students' Survey completed earlier this year, four out of five tertiary students in Singapore said they were interested in starting their own business.

"Today, more people want to chart their own life and do something they are passionate in. Starting their own business lets them do this," Mr Teo said.

ACE's job is to help people who are taking that risk of striking out on their own by ensuring that the roadblocks to founding start-ups are removed, he added.

So another area he is looking into is simplifying and broadening rules. For example, the Young Entrepreneurs Scheme for Start-ups under Spring Singapore had an age cap of 26.

But entrepreneurs come in all ages, so he removed the age cap to open up the scheme, now known as ACE Start-ups and administered by ACE.

"Another pet peeve of start-ups is documentation for government schemes and the lengthy approval time. I'm looking into this now, (to) see how we can make it simpler and get approval quicker," he said.

While the Government supports and facilitates entrepreneurs through various schemes and funds, Mr Teo believes successful businessmen also have a role to play in helping their younger counterparts. Often, the Government and the business community can work together to make opportunities happen, he noted.

"I met an entrepreneur recently who made footwear. She had sales but couldn't find a factory to make them because her order was small. So I got in touch with the Charles & Keith people to get help."

Charles & Keith co-founder Charles Wong did some research and got back to Mr Teo.

"He paid for the mould to make the slippers and let the entrepreneur ride on his larger production order. The new entrepreneur paid for the production but now she can fulfil her orders.

"This is how I hope successful entrepreneurs in Singapore could collaborate with new start-ups to help them grow."

Mr Teo hopes such collaborations will happen more frequently now that ACE has brought together a network of 60 mentors, all a phone call away from the start-ups under their wings.

"When start-ups have problems, they don't want to call a hotline; it's so impersonal. Better they speak to experienced entrepreneurs. Mentoring is a way to ensure the new start-ups have the best chance to succeed," he said.

One ACE mentor is Mr Manoj Sharma, chief executive officer of strategic consultancy DifferWorld, who is currently mentoring two companies funded by ACE.

Mentoring is useful to new start-ups, he said, as many are first-time entrepreneurs with little or no experience in juggling diverse activities such as managing, marketing, sales and hiring all at the same time.

Mr Teo is also counting on successful businessmen to help start-ups venture abroad. For example, Beijing-based Mr James Tan, co-founder of China's second largest group buying site 55tuan, now leads ACE's first foreign chapter in the Chinese capital.

"Now that the Beijing chapter is running, we'll look at expanding to other cities such as Shanghai and to other countries as well," Mr Teo said.

Mr Tan, who also chairs the ACE overseas sub-committee, said that the Beijing chapter will provide a "soft landing" for Singapore start-ups interested in expanding their businesses in China.

It recently held its first ACE Beijing Bluesky conference there last Friday where about 400 participants, including Singapore start-ups and government representatives, came to hear about business opportunities in the country and to network with Chinese entrepreneurs and investors.

Group planning website to help start-ups
By Grace Chng, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2012

A MENTORING group is considering launching a website to help answer the commonly asked questions posed by new entrepreneurs.

The Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) mentoring sub-committee has noticed that when starting a new business, many entrepreneurs face similar stumbling blocks and questions.

The group is thus looking at ways to disseminate information about such common issues.

Mr Jackie Lee, the managing partner of investment holdings company Kyosei Ventures and a member of the sub-committee, said new business owners usually ask rudimentary questions.

"They want to know how to draw up a contract, get legal and financial advice and a lot of other things," he said.

"Mentoring at the moment is very one-on-one. But there are so many new businesses being set up and we want to ensure that the advice the mentors give can be shared with as many people as possible."

The sub-committee is considering launching a website that provides information on common topics such as how to get franchises or draw up contracts.

It is also drawing up a framework for its mentoring programme so that the relationship between mentors and start-ups is clear.

"We don't want to structure this process too much, but we do want to avoid disappointment," Mr Lee said.

"For example, mentors must commit to a minimum engagement of at least a year. Start-ups must also not expect mentors to invest in their companies."

ACE mentor Manoj Sharma, chief executive officer of DifferWorld, is advising two companies funded by ACE.

He is committed to face-to-face meetings twice a month for one to three hours each time, which are supplemented by phone chats and text messaging.

Usually, the mentor starts off by helping the young entrepreneur to develop his ideas. He then helps the start-up to get on its feet, providing guidance on issues such as product development, marketing and business development.

The mentor would also introduce relevant contacts to the start-up, so they can help develop the company further.

Sometimes, start-ups must also be given a reality check, said Mr Lee.

"I tell them nobody owes them a living. They have to get real quickly. This isn't the United States, no one is going to fund you millions of dollars until you're acquired by a big company.

"It's okay if you don't make money at proof of concept or value, but you must know how to make money and sustain the business."

Mentors give online advice to budding entrepreneurs
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 31 Oct 2012

A NEW initiative launched yesterday will make it easier than ever for budding entrepreneurs to get answers and advice from mentors.

ASK ACE is a website from the Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) that allows start-ups to ask and receive specific business advice from seasoned entrepreneurs.

ACE chairman Teo Ser Luck called the initiative timely, as more Singaporeans are now keen on starting their own businesses.

Ask Ace features 10 mentors, including Mr Derek Sivers, who started CD Baby to sell independent music online. He sold the company in 2008.

Mr Sivers said it is useful to get different perspectives and new insights from unrelated industries.

Another online mentor is Fly Entertainment founder Irene Ang, who lauded the importance of good mentors at a panel discussion during the launch event at Safra Mount Faber. She noted that a mentor had taught her to say no to investors who were not in line with her business' interests.

Mr Teo, who is also Minister of State for Trade and Industry, said interest in ACE's grants has multiplied "a few fold", with the the Start-ups Grant receiving 350 applications, out of which 20 were approved, since it was launched in January. Its mentoring programme, which began in May, now mentors more than 20 start-ups.

Mr Teo later told The Straits Times that Singapore needs more new businesses and entrepreneurship. He said that places such as South Korea and Taiwan were very vibrant because of their start-ups and that Singapore could be the same.

"I'd like Singapore to be known as that - such an exciting city to start up businesses in, with Singaporeans really adventurous and going out there to start up businesses," he added.

"We're more than just a bunch of good workers, good technocrats, good engineers. I think that is what is needed in the character of the country in the future."

ASK ACE's website is at http://ask.sgentrepreneurs.com

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