Johan Nasir of MAAYE on witnessing the development of Malaysia's startup ecosystem.

And insights on upcoming trends as the country and region continues evolving.

Johan Nasir of MAAYE on witnessing the development of Malaysia's startup ecosystem. | BEAMSTART News

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The Duke of Wellington once said, "Wise people learn when they can, fools learn when they must".

Today, we're incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to tap into the mind and experience of one of the individuals who helped shape Malaysia's entrepreneurial ecosystem - Johan Nasir of MAAYE. 

Formerly part of Cradle's Coach and  Grow (CGP) program that was launched in 2011, Johan has supported and coached many of Malaysia's startups that have become industry leaders today.

Today, Johan is actively involved in MAAYE, an organization focused on supporting young founders below the age of 45 to grow and connect to resources that could propel their businesses to the next level.

Below is our interview with Johan:

1) We understand that you are one of the coaches in the CGP (Coach & Growth Programme). Can you share with us more about CGP? How did you get involved with CGP?

The Coach & Grow Programme (CGP) was launched in 2011. 

It is a public-private partnership between Cradle Fund and Proficeo and funded by the Ministry of Finance, as a 12 months C-Level program designed to support Start Ups as they grow to Scale Up stage. More than 1000 entrepreneurs and over 366 companies have graduated from the program. The current cohort will see another 100 plus companies graduate in 2018.

As of 31st December 2017, the combined cumulative revenue growth from CGP companies was tracked at RM1.714 Billion. Export revenue from these companies was over RM237.8 Million and more than RM346 Million funds were raised by companies in all 4 batches. The track record and success stories that have come out of the program speaks for itself about the effectiveness of what we have accomplished with the army of well over 80 experienced industry coaches. 

I have fortunately been involved since the beginning of the program and have coached multiple companies in all the batches. My role now in addition to coaching covers Ecosystem Partnerships for Proficeo and as one of the Program Managers for other entrepreneur development coaching programs that Proficeo runs. I was also previously the Senior Investment Manager in Cradle Fund during its early years in 2004 until 2009 and was also part of TeAM Council at one point for a few years.

2) With your experience in CGP and 20 years in the local ecosystem, what areas do you think we are lacking and need improvement?

Technology evolution and the industry landscape has changed so much in the past 20 years and yet the same problem statements keep reoccurring over again. The main difference now and then is the fluid access to multiple funding opportunities and mechanisms available to entrepreneurs which hardly existed in the past. 

Back then, you probably had to join entrepreneur industry related associations like TeAM, PIKOM or NEF, (who ironically are still making a great impact today), to manoeuvre your way to navigate and access the ecosystem. Today there's ECF, P2P, Bursa's LEAP Market, Angel's, 500 Durian's and more options than the limited few VC's or grants that existed for entrepreneurs then. Even Investors have incentives and perks. There's also a more vibrant scene of young entrepreneurs, accelerators, incubators, co-working spaces, entrepreneur development programmes now which makes this current and future generation of entrepreneurs very very fortunate today to not have to struggle as hard to get access to a lot of things that didn't exist enough back then. Government agencies are also now coordinating and collaborating better with one another.

That being said, the maturity in the ideas has not evolved in tandem despite being in the rapid age of social media. I've seen and evaluated more than 1500 business ideas over the many years and the quality is not that innovative in coming up with the big game changing ideas. Sure, being on the front lines has its perks. I get to see the future and that there are plenty of great new things being launched or developed in the region but most are addressing current market needs because of identified industry problem statements, modified copycat ideas from overseas and recycled iteration of ideas that i've seen before applying for funding locally. More of the clones, unicocks and hybrid mutants, very rarely see the disruptive aliens, new species or unicorns.

The gap also exists with the quality or skill set of today's entrepreneurs, who get seduced into this lifestyle world of entrepreneurship to create companies but lack the experience in building, growing and scaling sustainable businesses. The result is the death of hundreds of ideas that never make it out to the commercial market which i've witnessed first-hand so many times, despite having funding in some cases.

Thankfully programs like CGP are in place to mitigate that but it's not enough to cover the entire industry as there's more entrepreneurs now being bred than those we can coach. Fortunately also, Cradle has also made their new funding recipients go through coaching as part of the contract. The good thing is that there's enough funds and programs out there to give even mediocre ideas a shot and maybe they might get lucky to catch a break and survive the initial turbulent years.

We could improve in the way we manage the country's innovation and overlapping funds better. 

Sadly there's no central repository to capture the wealth innovation we have created, from all the university research to startups to mature commercial entrepreneurs and neither is there a single source of information for all the various funding, incentives and assistance available to our entrepreneurs. It exists but in small disconnected clusters through TERAJU, MIDA, SME Corp, AIM, MoSTI etc and even then it still doesn't cover everything available. We sadly have so many parties working in silo's and have not managed to organize all this big data effectively despite all the innovation that's available. There's also some gaps to export or regional commercialization initiatives but it's slowly improving, thanks to great initiatives being done by MITI, MATRADE, MIDA, NEDO, MaGIC and MDEC.

3) Can you share more about MAAYE and how it helps young entrepreneurs?

Malaysian Association of ASEAN Young Entrepreneurs (MAAYE) is a private sector initiative by Malaysian Young Business Leaders below 40 years of age, under the patronage of the ASEAN Economic Minister and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). 

It was set up in 2015 in conjunction with the AEC formation during the Malaysian Chairmanship of ASEAN. It functions to activate & connect Malaysian young entrepreneurs with the ASEAN market more effectively through official & regulated channels such as the ASEAN Young Entrepreneurs Council (AYEC), ASEAN Young Entrepreneurs Association (AYEA) and ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN-BAC). MAAYE promotes empowerment in business skills, regional market insight, services & innovation.

MAAYE official website

4) What has changed in the local ecosystem? Has there been any major differences compared to 20 years ago?

Being involved with MAAYE has given me a wider ASEAN perspective in terms of the regional landscape and at the same time a wider insight into our country and where the population and economy is heading. 

Domestically, 20 years ago, most of the entrepreneurs that came from the top 20% of our population in urban areas and had all the opportunity to make it big and capture market share in this country while the Middle 40% (M40) had to struggle to build their MSME non tech businesses. 

Today the M40 has the upper hand as our population statistics have changed dramatically to being nearly 70% in size predominantly Malay, with a healthy spending power as compared to the 45-48% size of Malays back then. Like it or not, they are a sizeable and powerful customer segment. The other races have shrunk despite total population increase. Even the foreign workers have a huge percentage in numbers, documented or not. Paying attention to this kind of demographic change is key in understanding addressable customer segments and their needs. A lot of entrepreneurs fail in doing this crucial market validation before launching their idea.

From a regional perspective, there are numerous entrepreneur companies making inroads into the Asian countries, rapidly gaining traction and market share and leadership by becoming USD20-100 Million in size companies in multiple countries but systematically and intentionally avoiding our Malaysian market. They rightfully say it's either too small or too saturated. What is scary is that a lot of our local entrepreneurs are not aware of this external threat that exists because we are a very insular market pampered with so many perks. Most of our entrepreneurs doing similar businesses are spoiled for choice in terms of assistance of every kind the ecosystem offers, ignorant or comfortable to just thrive or serve just the shrinking local urban market and vulnerable to the eventual entry of these regional players that would literally crush them if these big guys entered our markets.

Look also at our 2017 trade export numbers reported recently by MATRADE at RM935 Billion and with export to ASEAN commanding a 29.2% market share. The majority of it is in the traditional industries such as E&E, O&G, Chemicals, Metal & Machinery. Tech Entrepreneurship products and services industry is hardly even visible. That should gradually change in the future as more corporate's start spending on new tech upgrades in the areas of big data, automation, IoT, AI and other supply chain areas. The Budget 2018 announced has very favourable tax incentives and funds to encourage large corporate's to step forward and tap into the ecosystem, especially in the Industry 4.0 areas. The recent National Regulatory Sandbox initiative under MoF, MaGIC and Cyberview will also be a great catalyst for faster green lighting of disruptive tech commercialization.

That being said, this M40 market is booming now, as seen from MDEC's E-Usahawan program that has over 50,000 companies registered to date and these products have a very high export potential into our ASEAN markets if nurtured correctly, because of similarities in their middle income population traits. Even MAAYE is paying attention to this sector with a few agencies. The majority of big money ironically, is not in tech, unless you made a killing in crypto currencies, medical or manufacturing tech. Only a few will get there like Grab, iFlix and 123RF and the rest will eventually fizzle and fade away as i've seen like reruns over 2 decades. At the same time, this M40 entrepreneurs are making double digit millions with their "PM Tepi" approach in the retail, clothes, cosmetics, food and herbal industries. Just look at the Lofar's, Duckies, Vida's, Nurraysa, D'Herbs of Malaysia and billboards along the highways as an indicator. Maybe VC's should be investing here instead to get better ROI's. Hint hint!

Personally being on ground all these years with various entrepreneurs, having the opportunity to work and build relationships with so many friends in the industry and government agencies and now having a wider perspective to ASEAN through MAAYE, all helps to build a better understanding and future for everyone. The perspective, wisdom and network are used to help others on both the micro and macro levels, be it in coaching, being a voice in the industry affecting change or laying the path for others to build on, all of it empowers the entrepreneurs, that i get to help in many many ways in the various roles i have.

5) What are your tips for newer founder/startups that are starting out and raising venture capital funding?

Do not raise venture capital funding if you are just starting out. VC's today are a hell lot smarter and demanding than before. 

Find alternative sources first, bootstrap, grants, angel investments, accelerators etc. Establish some track record commercially. Build your business with a regional strategy from Day 1. You want to get VC funding? Build your revenues, valuation and traction. Validate your business model and customer segments with proof of revenue conversion. Put in proper discipline for operational and financial procedures in place, tracking your metrics and numbers as you grow. Get some mentoring and coaching. Hire a good financial guy if you are not smart. Make friends with the VC's and share your growth story from time to time. Position your revenue growth to be possible even without VC funding. 

Trust me, the industry gossip will take notice of you and the next thing you know, VC's will be fighting to seduce and give you the funds to scale up. And if you do miraculously get the first round, start planning future rounds immediately but never over raise too. Remember that you are managing someone else’s hard earned money, so be responsible with it.

6) What is MAAYE's plan for 2018?

MAAYE has had a rollercoaster journey since the time we started. 

We have been very fortunate and thankful to be able to cut across and work with so many amazing parties like government agencies, industries, corporate's, the entire entrepreneur ecosystems, locally and internationally and every level of society. In part, it's because we form the local gateway network to the ASEAN markets via our sister young entrepreneur associations present in all 10 ASEAN countries and the formalization of the ASEAN Young Entrepreneur Association (AYEA) in 2017.

In 2016, we created the ASEAN Young Entrepreneurs Carnival (AYEC) which had its inaugural event in Malaysia at MATRADE. The second AYEC was held in host country Philippines on 6th-8th September 2017 and was the most attended official ASEAN event last year. AYEC has been absorbed into the ASEAN calendar, and this year it will be held in Singapore as host, which is nearby for us to go across the causeway.

In 2017, we also successfully created Next Entrepreneurs Exchange Track (NEXT) held in December at MITI, with over 15 government agencies like MaGIC and over 20 ecosystem partners including BEAM, as a lead up to the Global Entrepreneurship Community Summit. We sought to bridge the gap between 10 Corporate companies like (Maybank, IBM, GDEX, SYM, Sunway iLabs, etc) and the Entrepreneur ecosystem by facilitating deal flow between them as part of the Corporate Entrepreneurship Responsibility initiative. There were also other elements of NEXT, which included NEXT Labs to tackle the regional export and trade issues, a video idea competition called VIDEA and of course our BOSS Awards.

In 2018, we are going to be busy with another new program called Dunia Niaga ASEAN (DNA) targeting the M40 market segment and of course, NEXT 2018 with another 10 new Corporate's coming forward to shop for innovation by entrepreneurs. There will also be smaller programs being done here and there, as cross collaboration initiatives with other partners and also with selected corporate's leading up to NEXT 2018. Best way to know more is to follow our FB page at

7) Best piece of advice you can give to entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs.

Validate, validate, validate. Research, research, research. Stress test your idea with others until there's no holes. Execute without overthinking. Know your customer segments. Pivot if necessary. Build solid revenues and strong profit flow independently. 

Don't be afraid to get coaching or mentoring. Join MAAYE. Think regional from the start. Know your regional competitors. There's more advice of course but that's chargeable. Hey, I'm an entrepreneur too. ;)

Get in touch:

Disclaimer: All of the opinions expressed in this article are the author's own views and do not reflect the official view of the various organizations mentioned in any way.

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