Opinion

Singapore MNCs, a little more originality please…

James Chen

In this guest post, James Chen argues that Singapore’s multinationals lag behind local startups in bringing to market innovative tech products and brands.

Since sgCarMart’s US$48 million acquisition by Singapore Press Holdings and Rakuten’s reported epic US$200 million deal to acquire video streaming site Viki, Singapore has seen more new ventures looking to be the next multi-million dollar startup exit.

Last year saw Singapore’s online grocery store RedMart make the headlines in its Series B round with Garena, SoftBank Ventures, Visionnaire Ventures, and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin as investors. Also making headway in 2014 was Carousell, which has raised a series A round worth US$6 million led by venture capital firm Sequoia Capital.

On the flip side though are the MNCs in Singapore looking to make technological unicorns, by leveraging their industry knowhow, technical competencies and market clout. So far though, none seem to have been that successful in making any kind of notable progress.

Corporations as clumsy elephants? Not necessarily so…

Asian tech giants have shown they can be nimble and give the consumer what he wants. Naver Corporation, Korea’s premier internet company, created the Line messaging app in 2011. The popular app was specifically originated from engineers at NHN (Naver Corporation’s former corporate identify) Japan.

In the Indian Subcontinent, Bharti Enterprises and Softbank created a joint venture in the form of Hike Messenger. And if you are not already in the know, the hugely popular Chinese mobile messaging app, WeChat, was developed by Chinese media conglomerate Tencent.

In Singapore though, there is a line of not-too-successful tech projects strewn by the wayside. In the list is MediaCorp’s Mocca Perks, which set itself out on giving Groupon a run for its money. Well apparently not, Mocca Perks did not even fly far in the Singapore market, where MediaCorp was the market leader broadcaster. The project was unceremoniously canned in 2012.

Mocca Perks closure notice

Mocca Perks closure notice

Not to be outdone is the company’s ilovebooks.com project, which was positioned as its answer to Amazon.com (actually it seemed to be more of a slogan for Amazon). But without any distinct differentiation, the project shuttered in 2013. Another venture (from the same firm) bites the dust.

ILoveBooks closure screengrab

ILoveBooks closure notice

Singtel, Singapore’s biggest telco operator, also joined the bandwagon around the same time. It launched NewsLoop (Read: A Flipboard wannabe) in the middle of 2012. Okay, at least the app is still functioning.

Singtel app

The company has also launched (lo and behold) Wavee. In its corporate press release, the company calls it “an all-in-one next generation communications app”.

The app, though, looks like Line/WeChat with a more amateurish user interface. Maybe it was meant to be a previous generation mobile messaging app, and not a next generation communications solution?

Here are screenshots of Wavee vs. Line vs. WeChat all form Apple’s App Store for an objective comparison.

Apps compared

WeChat, Line and Wavee

World renowned tech site, TechCrunch, ran a story of the app titled “Southeast Asian Telecom Giant Singtel Releases Wavee App, A Skype And WhatsApp Competitor”.

Everybody is entitled to their own points of view, but instead of putting Skype and WhatsApp in their crosshairs, Singtel might be better off chasing the download numbers of more realistic competitors like BBM and Wire, before setting its sights on the more illustrious targets and having even loftier ambitions.

When launching into an already crowded market, to succeed, you need to be conceptually unique. A niche is required to provide some form of defence against the competition.

Line with its stickers and other cutesy functions, has differentiated itself from WhatsApp, which prides itself as a no-nonsense, utility messaging app. Otherwise, businesses can gain a foothold in a substantial market, as WeChat and Hike Messenger have done in China and India, respectively. And no, Singapore is probably not the answer for a substantial market in terms of sheer user numbers.

Perhaps, local MNCs do know where their limitations lie and seek to maximise their success of hitting upon a tech unicorn. Singtel has its own VC arm in the form of Singtel Innov8, while MediaCorp has its Mediapreneur incubator program. Maybe, just maybe, they will unearth a gem from a pile of unpolished startups. After all, as the lyrics of the song goes, “There can be miracles. When you believe..”

James Chen is executive director of the Media Publishers Association Singapore, and former acting editor of TravelWeekly Asia and Events Asia. These are his personal views and not representative of those of MPAS.

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