Bukalapak and MoneySmart founders on tackling the fragmented Asian market

Everybody talks about rising of the East and the growth possibilities for eCommerce players in Asia, but with it comes its own set of challenges. Besides having high smartphone penetration, innovation and e-payment adoption, Asia Pacific is also incredibly fragmented. Facing diverse regulations, cultures, and consumption habits, how can companies make their foray into the region and strike a common with their target audience?

For Indonesia-based eCommerce platform Bukalapak, which opened its doors to consumers from Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Hong Kong and Taiwan through the launch of BukaGlobal in May, experimentation is key.

According to Bukalapak co-founder Fajrin Rasyid (pictured left), while price is decided by merchants on its platform and is not a variable that the company can play with, the platform does tailor its offerings to the countries it has a presence in. It does this by curating products that are relevant for each of its markets and deciding what should be shown to different audiences.

“We are tech company so we conduct experiments almost in real time. When we first started, we could not do much personalisation. But over time, we collected more data as we built the customer profiles through machine learning,” added Rasyid.

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Meanwhile, Singapore-based online financial platform MoneySmart CEO Vinod Nair (pictured right), the secret to thriving in a fragmented region is identifying human aspirations and adapting the business to help meet those needs. Currently, his company has a footprint across Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. He said:

I think the universal commonality is that everybody cares about money.

“People go through life stages where money suddenly becomes top of mind and a big concern. You graduate, get the first job, have a house, kids, travel the world. These are common regardless of where people come from, explained Nair.

Synergising regional teams

As companies expand, more challenges can arise internally, such as communication breakdown, inconsistent service standards, and misaligned values. Employees are the backbone of any company and therefore, they have to be on the same page for any expansion goals to be possible.  To ensure that the business and the employees are one the same page, business owners have to take the lead in trickling down their visions for their companies.

Rasyid was quick to reinforce that Bukalapak was not just an eCommerce company, but a platform that can help Indonesians overall and make a positive impact to society.

Some of the measures implemented include bi-weekly emails to staff announcing the company’s achievements and monthly live virtual town hall sessions, where employees in other offices can join. It also engages merchants regularly to find out how the company has impacted them, and communicate the stories to the various teams.

Although you may be unicorns in your home country, when you expand to other markets, you are practically starting from zero. You have to be remain humble.

Meanwhile, Nair believes instilling the right culture starts with hiring the right talent who carry values that align with the company. Those values, said Nair, have to evolve as the company grows as well. He added:

It is important for startups to strike a balance between having a family-like culture and performance tracking as they scale. 

“It’s the responsibilities of the leaders in the respective markets to make sure they are paying attention. They should praise and recognise employees who display behaviours that are aligned. That is what keeps the culture going,” he said.

Navigating business environments

Beyond marketing strategies, Rasyid reminded businesses that when they expand, it is important to look out for possible pitfalls as well. Paperwork and legal matters can be costly and resource-intensive.

Indonesia regulators, in his experience, took approximately two months for approval when Bukalapak got its first investment in its early days. However, he noted that there have been improvements in the past few years with the roll-out of a consolidated online system in Indonesia, shortening the process to only a few days.

MoneySmart, on the other hand, chose to expand into Indonesia through an acquisition. MoneySmart acquired Indonesian counterpart KreditAja, now known as, in 2014.

“We didn’t want to go through the process of incorporation. As a foreign entity, there is a lot of capital that you need to have – I believe approximately SG$1 million, which depending on your company’s stage, may be a significant sum to commit to,” said Nair.

To start a company in the region, Nair said Singapore is probably one of the easiest companies to get a business going. Nonetheless, he added:

Do as much research upfront, so that when you are on the ground, you are actually scaling and not experimenting on things you could have found out.


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