Jonathan Lui shares what he has learnt from establishing his new startup SOHO overseas

Jonathan Lui, Founder of SOHO and co-founder of AirTasker

Advice | Entrepreneur | Featured

By James Harkness

Starting your own business can be distressing at the best of times. It can take a lot of work to make everything look smooth on the surface, when in reality you’re dealing with the chaos and uncertainty of being a startup founder. So if you’re starting up a business for the first time, it’s good to do a bit of research in advance so that you’re not running in blind.

For any early stage business, mistakes are costly. And when you’re taking a risk like expanding, overseas or otherwise, knowing what you’re getting yourself into is vital.

My experiences in business, both as a co-founder at Airtasker and now as the founder of SOHO, have shown me that there is always something to learn. Despite what experience I thought I already had when expanding SOHO to Singapore, I often find myself re-learning how to do things better, and being very excited in experimenting with different approaches to the same problems.

But while the process of expanding your startup can be difficult at times, it’s important to focus on the lessons that you learn and use those to become a better founder, entrepreneur and manager.

Pay attention to the culture

Arguably one of the most important, yet difficult, obstacles you face when expanding overseas is quickly and appropriately adjusting to your new culture.

Many Australian companies look to our Asian neighbours for their tech expertise as well as close geographical ties. But remember, it doesn’t matter whether you’re expanding to China, Singapore or Japan, every country has a different culture that needs to be understood and respected.

For instance, Australia has a very nine-to-five mentality when it comes to the working day, and we are not often available to do business or workoutside of these hours. I brought my first Singaporean team member to Australia and thought that telling him to make the most of his time withlate night shopping until 9pm on Thursday was an exciting prospect.

Of course, I then remembered that in Singapore shopping centres are open until at least 10pm, every day of the week. Knowing how and when people operate in both business and personal hours can be immensely useful. I would strongly suggest putting cultural immersion at the top of any entrepreneurs’ list.

Know what economy you’re expanding into  

Singapore and China may be close neighbours, but one is considered part of the South-East Asian economy and the other is a whole different ball park. Operating across continents can be tricky, as each country still has its own structures, laws, customs and ways of conducting business. Knowing the ins-and-outs of which continent and economy you are expanding into cannot be exaggerated if you want to be able to find success there.

A good example of navigating this difference is understanding the intricacies of the property space (as is relevant to me). It’s the same in every country, yet the way it operates can be very different depending on where you live. Of course, property was always going to be a big factor for SOHO, but understanding property ownership and how it’s managed in Singapore was, and continues to be, vital to our expansion. It’s made life easier both for finding an office location, as well as understanding the culture around that location.

Understand your weaknesses and play to your advantages

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that expats are well sought after overseas. They’re highly valued because of the additional knowledge and experience they bring to the economy.

Play this to your advantage and see what other strengths you can build on. In Singapore, I found that despite the differences between the Australian and Singaporean cultures (such as doing business out of hours) our startup culture is very much the same. Knowing this, I was able to draw on my experience in Australia and use it to my advantage.

Existing relationships are key as well. The US may be considered our ‘big brother’ when it comes to tech, but our neighbours across the Asian startup scene are equally as active — and significantly closer.

There’s a reason Singapore has emerged as an appealing expansion target for Aussie startups. Looking into these relationships might not only make you consider a new area, but you might even save money while doing it.

About the author

Jonathan Lui is the CEO and Founder of online property network SOHO. He is also the co-founder of AirTasker and served as the company’s COO until late 2016.

Related: Solo with Soho: Jonathan Lui on following up Airtasker with a ‘LinkedIn for property’ app


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