Tuesday, 7 May 2013
A nation of me-toos.
Vox has just made a post about how entrepreneurs are vanishing in the western world, and I'm not surprised. With so many regulations and taxes choking small and medium enterprises, it's only natural that things end this way, with obvious repercussions for the economy.
Oddly enough, we appear to have similar problems, despite the Singaporean government being more friendly to startups than most. After all, if I had a great idea as a student and was willing to draft up a business plan for it, I could have conceivably have went and applied for a government grant of about ten thousand dollars to help me get started. Not that much, admittedly, but when you're a small startup every dollar is going to count. We don't have that many regulations choking us (yet), and the environment is still quite pro-business.
Maybe I should have phrased myself better: our problem isn't so much that there aren't so many start-ups. It's that almost all of them fizzle into nothingness. Singapore has only one truly big name to its fame: Creative. Oh, and that star has long since- well, it hasn't merely set, more like faded into obscurity with a whimper. Just compare the sale of iPods verses Zens, and that should speak for itself.
Let me illustrate the problem with an example. About a decade ago, some fellows locally thought it a great idea to put tapioca balls into milk tea and sell that. Whether it was the chewiness of the balls or some strange appeal, it rapidly became a big hit. Of course, things couldn't last - the moment word of bubble tea's popularity spread, suddenly everyone wanted to be a entrepreneur. So all the crazy stuff started - buy seven cups of tea and get one free, buy six, buy five - I think there was even a place where it went down to three.
And no one thought of a different way to try and differentiate their bubble tea from everyone else's. Nope, almost everyone was copying everyone else's "buy x and get one free" deal. In the end, everyone's supernormal profits got eaten away, and while bubble tea outlets still exist today, there are so much fewer of them then when they were in their peak, when even my secondary school (junior high) canteen was throwing tapioca balls into random drink and it STILL brought in the crowds of students.
Tapioca balls. People are enthralled by the stupidest things. Oh, and bubble tea? It wasn't a local invention, its country of origin is Taiwan. Oh, and it'd been around since the 1980s. I suppose one could argue that whoever who brought it here did the work in identifying an untapped market yadda yadda yadda, and I would have left it there, if...
...If only I hadn't seen it so many times in this country. Meals being sold out of vans to office workers. Luohan fish. Anyone remember chestnut porridge? That was when I was a kid, I think - it was so long ago. Same story always happens; plenty of entrepreneurs but not much in terms of creativity, lasting utility or even competitive advantage. Doesn't help that once the novelty has passed, there's so much less of a market to pander to.
This, my friend, is the Singaporean entrepreneur:
While our dear local satire websites may be more than a little hyperbolic, there's more than a grain of truth in it. Sure, inherent NE Asians' risk-averse nature may play some part of it, but to be honest, I'm not really surprised we are a nation of me-toos, more than other cultures with similar genetic roots. When you think about it, me-too-ism is pretty much the entire bloody national culture. All throughout Singapore's industrialisation in the 70's and 80's, we always had a game plan to follow that someone else had tested before. All right, let's follow Japan's style of industrialisation. All right, let's invite western MNCs in here and use their experience to get us started. All right, this is how we're going to do things, because it's been proven and why waste time, money and effort getting things right on your own when you can just follow in the footsteps of someone else's success and get things done easily with a much higher chance of success?
The problem begins when the path ends and uncharted wilderness begins. All right, now we've industrialised, what do we do? We can't stay where we are, because there are people behind us catching up. At first, the nation tried doubling down on the original game plan, trying to me-too itself like the bubble tea vendors offering lower and lower by x get one free offers, but even that had to give way at last.
That's when things got hilarious. Let's build a technopolis! Let's build a biopolis! And so those things were constructed at great cost, researchers with big-name MNCs lured here at great cost to the taxpayer...and how many new jobs for locals were created again? At least the casino resort has had some success so far, although it's still too early to get a good measure of the true extent of that success.
But it's hilarious to see both government and people flailing about, trying to do something - hilarious in a "I can't help but laugh at how the ship is sinking" fashion.
What happens to me-toos when everyone else is failing and there's no one to copycat?