The future of start-ups: ‘You don’t need to mimic Silicon Valley’

19 Jul 2018

From left: Mo Harvey, Enterprise Ireland; Yuka Nagashima, Astia board member; Maha Al Balushi, Oman Technology Fund; Niamh Given, Nest VC; and Silicon Republic editor John Kennedy. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Inspirefest’s Thinking Global panellists encourage start-ups everywhere to do what comes naturally, and innovate anywhere and everywhere.

Start-ups across the globe should realise that not all roads necessarily have to lead to Silicon Valley.

That was the consensus of the Thinking Global panel at Inspirefest 2018 which included Oman Technology Fund managing director Maha Al Balushi, Astia advisory board member Yuka Nagashima, Nest VC’s chief growth officer Niamh Given and Enterprise Ireland’s fintech lead for Asia-Pacific Mo Harvey.

“I don’t think the world should be trying to mimic Silicon Valley,” Nagashima opined in response to a question about the global start-up revolution.

“One of the great things about Ireland that I’ve learned is that it has its own sense of culture, own sense of the land. And yet, the best entrepreneurs from Dublin and the rest of Ireland come to Astia and they are no different than any of entrepreneurs that we’ve seen. They make sure that geography becomes irrelevant, so while they have these strong roots in Ireland and they know they are Irish, they see the global community as their market, their playing field and they don’t let geography hold them back.”

Nagashima said that when it comes to women and entrepreneurs of colour, Silicon Valley hasn’t necessarily been open to them. “So why try to be that and try to fit into that when they can disrupt the system and figure out the road that they need to get on?” she proposed.

“Entrepreneurs have that need to create, need to innovate, need to lead and that’s what they do – and they don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to do that.”

Go forth and explore

Maha Al Balushi agreed and said that too many young start-ups in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region look to Silicon Valley. “It’s a dream to them. But I totally agree with what [Nagashima] said. We don’t have to mimic [Silicon Valley]. Again, we are special with our own culture and characteristics of our own societies and communities.”

Al Balushi said that the one thing that start-ups from the MENA region need to do is focus on their own ideas rather than trying to mimic what has already been done.

“The quality of start-ups is really brilliant, but maybe the lack some sort of exposure.”

Enterprise Ireland’s Mo Harvey said that Irish start-ups in particular need to look towards Asia and not just Silicon Valley.

“Just look around,” she said, referring to Silicon Docks. “You have Facebook right beside us. You’ve Google around the corner. So we’re churning out a quality of talent in any event and it’s these sort of companies that are working around us in Dublin that are making people think more globally anyway.”

She said that while Irish entrepreneurs are ambitious and passionate they need to figure out the Asian market and overcome the perceived cultural differences.

“What works for your company and your product in Ireland might not work in China, in Hong Kong.

“The other thing is just getting people out there. Ambition is one thing but don’t be afraid to scale and scale big initially. We have a habit of looking towards the UK (it’s an hour on a flight), the States (five hours on a flight, same language), but Hong Kong the language of business is English and China’s getting like that very much so as well. it is the same for much of China too. Getting people out on a plane to experience it before you make that decision is absolutely critical. And there’s people like me out there, or the likes of Nest, to help you integrate and become part of that ecosystem that you’re trying to embed yourself into and sell into, ultimately.

“It’s just about getting out there, experiencing it and appreciating the opportunity that if you are successful in Asia, it’s telephone numbers business that you’re doing versus our local market. But it’s just being brave and going east instead of west.”

Nest VC’s Niamh Given is a veteran of Liam Casey’s PCH International operations in east Asia and believes the scale of activity in Asia needs to be understood from an entrepreneurial perspective.

“I didn’t realise such a big gap that was there of the understanding of what was happening in China and the potential of the market, and Asia itself as well. And that completely shocked me because I’d been just living and breathing it every day. But I see it starting to shift, very slowly, and that’s the great thing about my role at Nest now because we focus on Asia, Middle East and Africa,” she said.

“We’re pulling start-ups over to Asia. When we see an opportunity for them to work, maybe, with a corporate partner, we’re going after them and telling them: stop looking west, look east.”

Given concluded: “Look at the size of Thailand, look at the size of Indonesia and how your product can apply there. And you can start seeing people being more open to that, which is amazing to see.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Updated, 19 July 2018 at 11.13am: This article has been updated to clarify some of the quotes included.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years