The South China Morning Post interviewed Quest Ventures’ James Tan for his perspective on how Singaporean firms have, over the decades, moved from a ‘first wing’ – the domestic economy – to a second, namely regional expansion and how a new group of entrepreneurs is assimilating into other economies and building localised businesses rather than brandishing the city state’s brand.
“Drawn to China by the simple desire to fish in “a bigger pond”, he founded online daily-deals site 55tuan.com with four other schoolmates in late 2009, after graduating from Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.
The firm would go on to become the first Chinese e-commerce firm listed on the Nasdaq index in the United States, with a presence in more than 200 cities in China today.
“It may be hard to believe now in an age of Grab, Airbnb and Meetup, but gathering a group of people who do not know one another and who want to do something similar together in 2009 was difficult,” Tan said, noting that 55tuan.com took off only after group discounts at restaurants were built into the service.
Being at the heart of the massive Chinese market meant Tan and his team had to deal with swarms of competitors, including many scam companies.
“China back then was not a nice place to kick new business ideas off the ground. People would take your idea and run with it. Even up till five years ago, there was this term called C2C, or Copy to China. Everything you can find in Silicon Valley, you’d be able to find a copycat version in China.”
But a lot had changed since, he said – including China’s building up of its own technological muscle.
“The Chinese are no longer just copycats. They’ve taken ideas and made them even better,” Tan said. “It’s not just Alibaba or WeChat. Just look at ride-sharing apps like Didi Chuxing and drone manufacturers like DJI. There’re also social media apps like TikTok – who knew it would become this big? The US is no longer the world’s only source of inspiration.”
Tan founded venture capital firm Quest Ventures in 2011 to focus on the untapped potential of Southeast Asian start-ups, instead of those trying to break into the Chinese market.
“Five years ago, it would have made sense to focus on start-ups entering China, but not any more,” he said. “Now you also have many haigui [people who return to China after studying abroad]. Like everyone else, they can see that opportunities no longer just exist in the US, but right there in their home country, in China.””