International expansion during a pandemic: not such a bad idea?
This article was written in partnership with The Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and was originally published here.
In a pandemic, why would any business leader spend money to expand abroad?
Just ask Zoom, which expanded its footprint in Singapore by opening a new R&D centre in December 2020, or Evidation, a healthcare data analytics startup which pioneered a personalised health pilot in Singapore over the course of 2020.
These companies are part of a growing wave moving to capture the abundant opportunities in Southeast Asia. With a projected internet economy of US$300 billion by 2025 and a growing middle class, the region has begun to produce new unicorns such as Grab, Sea Group and Gojek to rival those of Silicon Valley.
In a March 10 panel discussion hosted by B Capital and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), panellists shared their take on why expanding to Singapore and Southeast Asia was a natural choice. Here are the key takeaways.
Embrace the disruption
Instead of fearing disruption, Zoom and Evidation Health embraced disruptive trends as a key part of their strategy. “The pandemic crystallised trends that were already under way, such as remote work, the gig economy and distance learning,” said Abe Smith, Head of International at Zoom.
For Evidation Health, the growing adoption of digital health solutions due to the pandemic provided a unique opportunity to drive the future of health. The company drew on real-life data from wearables to create customised healthcare interventions for patients. “In the future, the doctor would call you when something’s wrong, and all this will be monitored through your devices,” said Christine Lemke, co-founder and co-CEO of Evidation Health.
Companies should think deliberately about how to move fast to capitalize on these disruptive trends. Zoom’s first office in Singapore consisted primarily of sales and service support, which eventually expanded to include data centre, R&D and marketing functions. These capabilities allowed the company to scale to a volume of 300 million daily meeting participants. “We had to be thoughtful to build a sustainable company, and speed is a surprising and challenging element to manage,” said Abe. Likewise, this consideration weighed heavily on Evidation Health’s future plans. “I took a note from Abe that we should consider being more aggressive about our home base for international expansion, sooner rather than later,” said Christine.
Get close to the customer
For Evidation Health, customers came first in their decision to expand to Singapore. The company benefited from a digitally savvy population when it launched a novel Singapore-based personalised health pilot known as Lumihealth in partnership with Apple and the Singapore Government in October 2020. Singapore’s Smart Nation project has made technology a way of life for many residents, and they were quick to adopt Lumihealth as a way to enjoy customised health reminders and fitness tips.
Abe echoed the importance of being close to the customer base. “Service delivery is key for Zoom. We needed to be in the right timezone and language, and an in-market presence allowed us to get intimate with our customers,” he said. Zoom’s presence in Singapore allowed the company to be in close proximity to their regional markets, and customise go-to-market strategies for each of them.
“Our decision [to expand in Singapore] was largely driven by customer needs, as we needed a tight feedback loop to drive our innovation cycle.”
Talent, regulation, innovation test-bedding, business development. Startups have a wealth of issues to tackle in their overseas expansion, and local partners are crucial in smoothing out bumps in the road. In navigating Southeast Asia, Zoom and Evidation Health benefited from strong local partners and investors who understood their needs and helped them to navigate the local funding and technology ecosystem.
“Don’t go it alone,” agreed Christine. “Evidation Health had a lot of help from the Singapore Health Promotion Board and Apple. We’ve been surprised at how welcome we have been as an American company!” The importance of local partnerships has been a tested strategy for other tech titans such as Salesforce, which partnered with world-class talent in Singapore’s local universities for its first Asia-based AI research centre in 2019.
“You need to be aligned with partners who matter.”
Source your talent from the world
COVID-19 has drastically changed the hiring process, with companies looking beyond their shores for talent. Companies like Zoom and Evidation Health have adapted accordingly and reaped significant benefits from sourcing talent on a global basis.
“Finding great people is the most important part for any company,” said Abe. “We seek people that are determined to deliver happiness and care with skill and competency.” This approach has allowed Zoom to tap on Singapore’s exceptional engineering talent to hire hundreds of staff for its local R&D centre, to support its engineering leadership team in the US.
For Evidation Health, global teams have equipped the company with a significant advantage: operational monitoring on a 24-hour basis. “It took work to hire amazing people, but now we have folks monitoring systems, servicing bugs and making improvements around the clock!” said Christine.
Isn’t managing remote teams hard, though? Zoom and Evidation Health have embraced the challenge, using virtual onboarding and collaboration tools to keep their teams on the same page, while taking great pains to ensure that their hiring process was thorough and deliberate. “You have to be really detailed in your hiring and HR processes,” said Abe. “It’s been transformational — even for Zoom!”
For Abe and Christine, their presence in Singapore is only the first chapter in their regional plans, and they remain bullish on the region. “We want to deliver happiness to our customers everywhere — and where better than here?” concluded Abe.
About EDB Singapore
The Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) is Singapore’s lead investment promotion agency, which provides international businesses with information on the business landscape, connection to industry partners, and support for investment, transformation and growth initiatives in Singapore. EDB also plans and executes economic and industrial development strategies for Singapore, to enhance Singapore’s position as a global center for business, innovation and talent.