2015 looks to have been another stunning year for Southeast Asian startups. According to Tech in Asia’s database, total venture capital funding from Q3 of 2014 to the same period this year stands at US$1.7 billion – more than double that of 12 months before.
While the region is nowhere near stealing India’s thunder – the country brought in a hefty US$6.4 billion in startup investments – there’s plenty of room for optimism.
With the year almost in the rearview mirror, we now look to 2016. Here, we trace six startups that could make a huge impact in Southeast Asia next year, as well as the larger trends they signify.
Honestbee: battle of philosophies
Singapore’s Honestbee burst onto the scene as a service that sends shoppers to buy groceries on your behalf. It’s Asia’s version of Instacart. It quickly secured US$15 million from investors to go on a regional expansion spree.
This buys it time to prove its model can work. Approach-wise, Honestbee and Indonesia’s Happyfresh stand on one side of the ring. Singapore’s Redmart sits on the other.
Honestbee believes it can scale fast by leveraging existing supermarket infrastructure to deliver the goods to consumers. It’s an asset-light model requiring less external capital.
Redmart opposes this philosophy. It thinks Honestbee’s model is more expensive overall and the cost could pass down to consumers. So Redmart has chosen to build its infrastructure almost from scratch. Costs racked up quickly, and it’s scorching through the decent-sized investments it raised.
2016 will be crucial for these companies. For Honestbee, it’ll need to significantly boost order volumes for its business to make sense. And it’ll need to do so without passing costs to consumers – or at least hope it can make enough money off people who don’t mind the extra cost.
For Redmart, it’ll need to raise a ton of money, especially since its upcoming Hong Kong expansion will likely require a huge investment.
The company’s ability to fundraise will be the ultimate test of how confident investors are in an unproven model. Consider this: Asia has so far gravitated towards asset-light ecommerce. Lazada evolved from a firm holding its own inventory towards becoming a marketplace. Alibaba in its early days connected businesses to one another, but didn’t touch logistics.
The story of the tortoise and the hare – at least the beginning part – is apt. Honestbee is off to a running start with rapid expansion in the works – it targets expansion to six cities by next year.
Redmart takes it slow and steady, and as far as we know, it’ll only be in Singapore and Hong Kong next year despite starting out in 2012.
Go-Jek: giving GrabTaxi a tough fight
GrabTaxi may be the King Kong of taxi apps in Southeast Asia, but it has to swat away competitors on all fronts.
GrabTaxi is the leading option if you’re ordering a cab, but fellow giant Uber is the best choice if a private car is what you’re after. If it’s shuttle buses in the Philippines, U-Hop is the on-demand app of choice.
As for motorbikes in Indonesia, there’s Go-Jek. The startup burst onto the scene in 2015, and while it refuses to disclose ridership numbers, sources tell us growth has been staggering. The Go-Jek helmet is now ubiquitous on Jakarta’s clogged roads, and the company has done well enough to receive funding from top venture capital firm Sequoia.
Go-Jek has no doubt circled 2016 on its calendar. It’s facing growing pains and finding it increasingly difficult to appease its riders. It has begun testing delivery services as a core offering, jumping ahead of Uber, who has only dipped into logistics with marketing stunts.
Go-Jek needs to pass these tests to reach the stratosphere.
BeLazee: can it bring magic to Southeast Asia?
Magic emerged out of famous startup accelerator Y Combinator in 2015, with funding from Sequoia at a US$40 million valuation.
The killer pitch? It serves as a concierge you talk to via text to help you get things done, whether it’s shopping on Amazon or ordering food on GrubHub. Simply tell the service what you’re looking for, and it asks you a series of questions before sending the order to you.
Essentially, it’s a convenience layer built on top of existing ecommerce services. And it bets you’ll pay for it.
A bevy of similar startups have mushroomed. In Southeast Asia, Be Lazee (or Be Malas in Malaysia) is leading the pack after securing seed funding. Other players include Djenee (pronounced “genie”) and YesBoss. Facebook has also gotten into the game with M, which uses a mix of human and machine to fulfil requests.
We don’t know if this model will work in Asia – or anywhere else, for that matter. Even Magic itself hasn’t been validated. In 2016, Be Lazee and gang must prove they aren’t marching towards a graveyard.
Carousell: challenged on all sides
Carousell, the current darling of Singapore startups, is the first to crack consumer-to-consumer mobile ecommerce in Southeast Asia. It’s one of the hottest lifestyle apps, topping the charts in multiple countries. We hear that its gross merchandise volume is in the hundreds of millions.
Yet the ground is shifting beneath its feet.
Facebook is working on turning itself into more of a marketplace. Shopee, an app by Garena, a Southeast Asian tech company with vast resources, is another one to watch. It’s getting scores of downloads, and contains features Carousell lacks: in-app payments, as well as pick-up and delivery.
And I’ve not mentioned Tokopedia, Bukalapak, Duriana, and Trezo. The space is getting crowded, which means inevitable consolidations and deaths.
We’ve yet to see how Carousell will react to Shopee’s entry. Despite being first to market, it hasn’t introduced payments or logistics features yet. Will it go down the path of Friendster? Or will it respond with aplomb?
Ninja Van: battling against giants
Ninja Van is selling the shovels to Southeast Asia’s ecommerce boom. The startup specializes in next-day deliveries, and claims to have developed algorithms to make logistics faster, cheaper, and more reliable.
Another key tech is the ability to meet sharp spikes in delivery demand by tapping idle vehicles in other companies. It recently expanded into Indonesia, which will be a key test of its mettle.
The startup is up against a number of players in the region. SingPost’s key advantage lies in its partnership with Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba and its expertise in cross-border logistics.
Rocket Uncle, meanwhile, wants to conquer same-day deliveries. Even Go-Jek is shaping up to become a logistics player with its fleet of riders. Anchanto, Courex, and aCommerce are the other startups looking for a larger piece of the action.
With ecommerce likely to continue growing in emerging markets, these players may have room to co-exist. But given this is a volume game, expect some mergers.
iflix: Patrick Grove’s next big venture?
Patrick Grove has perhaps cemented himself as Southeast Asia’s most successful internet entrepreneur with his latest exit, iProperty, which was priced at US$534 million.
So what’s next for Patrick? With online streaming site iFlix, he’s now looking to overturn the cable and television industry in Asia.
And what a time to enter the space. 2015 feels like a setup for the titanic struggle that’s coming next.
Netflix is entering the region, bringing with it a lineup of in-house content that’s pretty darn good. Not to be left out, Singapore’s largest telco SingTel has launched Hooq. HBO Go has entered Singapore by partnering with cable TV company StarHub.
It won’t be a cakewalk. Traditional broadcasters and cable operators will fire back.
Plus, content subscription works in developed markets where consumers can afford to pay. That’s territory Netflix knows well, and its Asian expansion plan play to that. It launched in Japan, and will debut in Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan in 2016.
Emerging markets are in the cards, but it hasn’t signaled how it wants to crack them. Given the consumer’s lower purchasing power and reluctance to pay for content, it might need to lower its pricing.
iFlix and Hooq have plunged headfirst into developing Asia. Both cost about US$3 a month, much lower than Netflix’s lowest tier of US$7.99.
Unlike Netflix, iFlix and Hooq allow people to download shows for offline viewing. An iFlix spokesperson tells Tech in Asia that it’s a crucial feature in countries with intermittent and slow internet access.
“It removes the need for an internet connection to enjoy iFlix. It opens up more user scenarios, obviates the need for high quality connectivity because you can download when the connection is good, watch offline when the connection is bad. It also guarantees a perfect viewing experience for the user,” she adds.
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