Wednesday 31 May 2023
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on July 12, 2021 - July 18, 2021

The seemingly never-ending waves of the pandemic in Malaysia are difficult to predict. To state the obvious, an increasingly large number of confirmed cases and deaths indicate that Covid-19 is now out of control in the country and has impacted the economy in a negative way, bringing great uncertainty to the business environment.

Organisations are now more careful with their money because they need to ensure there is enough of a cash reserve to tide them over any unexpected situations. Because of this, it is now harder for start-ups to build trust with prospects like larger organisations because it requires a longer sales cycle to eventually win a deal. The gold standard methods of business-to-business (B2B) start-ups that leverage outbound sales, inside sales and virtual sales to capture revenue may be less viable at this moment in Asia.

I have personal experience of this as the executive director of a B2B artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics start-up, KewMann. However, we have managed to not only survive these times, but accelerate. I would like to share a few of our strategies, most of which could be adopted by B2B start-ups with a minimum budget.

First, make the best use of your alliances and channels. These are typically companies in adjacent markets with respect to your own target market. Basically, they deal in products, markets and know-how that are complementary to your own, so they are not direct competitors.

KewMann is always on the lookout for collaborations to improve the quality of our products and services, as well as help us expand our network and grow our customer base.

It is important to collaborate with companies to create synergy and help each other out to achieve a win-win situation. We do our research to find companies and communities that share common aims and typically reach out to them via email. 

How does this work? Let me give you an example. Since a part of our business is centred around banking and financial services, a banking solutions provider that does not offer AI and big data analytics would be a natural fit.

First, we organise webinars to discuss topics that are relevant to these companies to bring about a more impactful and insightful sharing, building upon the strengths that these companies already have. Once we build trust with them by having deeper discussions, we lay the groundwork for more serious collaboration. We teamed up with NCR, a large ATM and digital banking company with a sizeable presence in Southeast Asia, through this method.

Our existing partners also help act as channels for us to increase our sales. For example, we secured a joint win with our partner Skyworx Indonesia, a prominent loan origination system provider in that country, by organising such a webinar together, getting business from attendees such as PT Pegadaian, Andalan Finance and BRI Finance. We also created a good pipeline of potential clients with the other attendees.

There is a proviso here, though. Your chances of success will be higher if you already have some solid products and traction in the market. Otherwise, there could be some challenges, especially for very early-stage B2B start-ups.

And don’t underestimate the value of networking. One of the easiest ways to generate successful outcomes is to leverage your existing and previous stakeholders’ contacts. Having worked in the industry for more than 20 years, I periodically review my contacts on the phone and keep in touch with the stakeholders.

I also review the business cards I have collected and try to think of potential synergies with each contact. Once I figure this out, I will not hesitate to reach out to them for further discussions or even to ask for help to refer me to the right parties. I always bear in mind that the messaging (when I reach out) should be around the concept of WIIFM — “what’s in it for me?” to enhance the success rate of the collaboration. This means I spell out the potential benefits of the collaboration for them.

Last year, for instance, I thought it would be a good idea to get into the retail industry in Indonesia with AI, and identified FPG Indonesia as a potential partner. I reached out to my existing contacts and found a common contact who was willing to refer me to the general manager of the company, Setiawan. 

My team and I prepared well beforehand for an introductory call with Setiawan and we managed to convince him that the collaboration would bring benefits to both our companies.

The partnership was built on an iterative process, where we discussed some retail customers’ problem statements and refined our materials and approaches until we arrived at an optimum go-to-market strategy. Since then, we have been actively having discussions with various fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) players, large retailers and hospitality groups, and look forward to closing some deals very soon.

The other thing we do, which I think is underrated in its possible impact, is leveraging government initiatives and programmes. During this economic downturn, the government has continually come up with various initiatives to support businesses, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

We always check the latest government news and apply to as many of these initiatives, as we are eligible for, as possible. In Malaysia, we actively check the portals of government agencies such as Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (Miti) and Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC). In Singapore, we check out the websites of Enterprise Singapore (ESG) and Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).

We subscribe to the newsletters and email updates of these government agencies as well as local media such as The Edge, The Star, Malaysiakini, Todayonline and The Straits Times in Singapore.

Because we actively keep tabs on whatever is going down and apply for everything, we have been able to secure some grants as well as expand our networks and customer base locally and globally. For instance, we managed to get into the MDEC GAIN (Global Acceleration and Innovation Network) programme, which is made up of 150 tech companies that MDEC believes can be grown into global tech champions.

How have we benefited from this programme? First, MDEC assists all the companies in this programme by providing the necessary resources and connections to help more local tech companies gear up for the global market. It organises regular events to help us discover new opportunities from partners and stakeholders in Southeast Asian markets such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

It was such an honour for KewMann to gain entry into this programme. We were introduced by a common contact and our capabilities were strictly assessed. We became a GAIN member in 2019.

Since then, we have been actively participating in events and networking sessions organised by MDEC. Through one of the programmes organised by MDEC GAIN, called MDEC GAIN CONNEX, we were linked up with software service providers from different countries. KewMann has secured two useful partnerships via this programme, namely with Indocyber Indonesia and Axtronics Taiwan.

We are working on a few financial services opportunities with Indocyber while Axtronics, which has customers in the banking and government sectors, started to introduce us to them after we signed a partnership agreement a few months ago.

KewMann has an office in Singapore helmed by locals familiar with the Business Grant Portal, a website run by ESG. Knowing which grants are available and how to apply for them is half the battle. 

Therefore, we spend valuable time reviewing the relevant government websites and seeking consultation with government officers. Contrary to popular belief, most of these officers were quite helpful in providing advice and guidance during the grant application process. 

We managed to secure a grant under the Enterprise Singapore Market Readiness Assistance (MRA) programme last year. This particular grant gives SMEs an international boost and it helps cover part of the cost of bringing our business overseas, for example, to events or trade shows and, right now, their virtual equivalents.

As you can see, we don’t take the grant application process lightly. The key to success, I think, is to align your objectives with that of the government providing the grant. Reading the information on the grant website is not enough. You need to do more research and have active discussions with the government officers. For example, one of the objectives of the grant we won is to increase exports. So, we included that in our application and it helped increase our chances of approval.

Although things are difficult and the economic environment, for the most part, is painful, there are still opportunities out there, especially for B2B start-ups. This is a now-or-never, do-or-die moment. You just need to be smart about using the right strategies and look for the right opportunities to grow in this crisis.

Kew Yoke Ling is executive director of KewMann, an artificial intelligence and big data analytics company that leverages behavioural science to predict and influence human behaviour

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