In this year’s For the coming UnConference 2009 organized by E27 team in the Biopolis, I will be doing a breakout session entitled “Much Ado about Social Networks in Asia” about online social networks in Asia. I will discuss the trends and observations emerging that I have seen from my experience in building an online private social network (SENATUS), investing in social networks (iHipo, Eteract) under Thymos Capital LLP and observing dominant home-grown social networks in Asia (CyWorld – Korea, Mixi – Japan and Xiaonei – China). This talk will assemble some of the material that I am currently for a sample chapter for a book that I am working on with two other authors. As a primer, I decide to present the slides on a talk which I have recently given in Barcamp KL 2009 entitled “The Importance of Being Social” (which was featured on Slideshare as the Presentation of the Day) where I presented a framework to understand social networks and a whacky idea to how a next generation Linkedin (based on a weighted social network idea) might look like. In this earlier talk, I discuss (i) the context of online social networks – why some have succeeded and some have failed and used CyWorld as an example of one which succeeded in Korea and failed in Germany and US, (ii) the technology of online social networks – why different features make an online social network platform different in its earlier days since SixDegrees.com (the first online social network), and (iii) the business behind online social networks – why some Asian based social networks particularly in East Asia are trouncing their American counterparts. If you think that I am going to replicate this talk for Unconference 2009, let me tell you that the talk I will be giving will be slightly different in what I have presented.
In this year’s Unconference 2009 organized by E27, the topic led by me for the breakout sessions is entitled “Much Ado about Social Networks in Asia.” The talk addresses the trends of online social networks in Asia. Since it is not a keynote address nor panel discussion, I broke the session into two parts. In the first part of the breakout, I presented a set of slides which I have prepared that give a broad and perhaps academic definition of online social networks and its features, followed by looking at the generic trends of social networks in Asia. Then subsequently, I proceeded to look at the lessons learned from the three successful social networks in East Asia: (i) CyWorld – Korea, (ii) Mixi – Japan and (iii) Xiaonei – China. The second part of the event focused on an interactive discussion with the audience on the facts and thoughts I have presented. In that part, I have also presented additional slides that will facilitate the discussion further. I will summarize some points during the interactive session with the audience here:
- Plan B for Applications Developers on Social Network Platforms: During the session, I asked Leonard Lin, co-founder and CEO of Tyler Projects to discuss the problems encountered by application developers working on established platforms. He has indicated that after a run-in with Facebook for his product BattleStations during a platform change that reduced his business revenues, he realized that there is a need to publish the same game on another platform. They have also tried to put BattleStations on Friendster but it did not generate any revenue for them. It is important that if you are an application developer, you should have an exit strategy for another platform if the primary platform you work can throw you out anytime.
- Can Friendster make a comeback?: A member from the audience posed this question to me given that I broke the story about Friendster losing her dominance in Malaysia to Facebook. My answer is pretty simple. It is about finding features that can bring the users back to the network. I explained why Facebook was able to have so much user interaction because of the transition from a static to a dynamic profile management, giving friends and people who share the same interests as yourself to know what’s going on in your life. Friendster needs to find features that can lure their users back or risk being superceded by Facebook and Hi5. Note Friendster is on the decline but they may abandon the traditional SNS and turn towards mobile social networking.
- There is a role for Ning too in the social network landscape: Someone posed the question on whether Ning is able to survive given so much social networks out there. My answer to that question is that there are small and medium enterprises out there who can still use Ning to build a simple and quick social network to service their customers. I gave the example for Because i Matter – a Singaporean-based site on getting people to report on security using a Ning social network.
- Social network aggregators for managing and aggregator data: Given the plethora of user data that might be distributed across different social networks, there exist an opportunity in social network aggregators analogous to ping.fm in sharing links and microblogs. The social network aggregators have taken two routes: (i) the desktop aggregators built on Adobe Air – OrSiSo, TweetDeck and Seesmic Desktop or (ii) Power.com (web-based aggregator). The issue is that people will still visit the main sites given that most users might want to play their favourite games or use their favourite apps which may not be compiled by social network aggregators.
- Interesting Social Networks which you can find in Singapore and Malaysia: Here are some interesting social networks which you can take a look at for Singapore – iHipo, Eteract, SENATUS (all the three networks I am involved in), Settlr and for Malaysia – Ruumz, Social Wok and Pacmee.
Acknowledgements: I thank Yung-Hui (GreyReview.com), Daniel Cerventus (Malaysia Entrepreneurs), Gwendolyn Tan (SG Entrepreneurs), Patrick Linden (iHipo.com), Colin Charles (Bytebot), Thorben Linneberg (OrSiSo), Leonard Lin (Tyler Projects), Jonathan Wong (Armchair Theorist) and the audience for the interesting twitters and interactive discussion that sparked all the thoughts and opinions in this breakout session. You can check out Richard Korffr’s Qik video on my breakout session as well.
I have been contemplating about purchasing William Cohan’s “House of Cards” on different occasions. It is not until the interview with William Cohan by Jon Stewart in the Daily Show, I have decided to grab a copy and read about the chronology on how the collapse of Bear Stearns have triggered the eventual downfall of Lehmann Brothers and proceeded by the global meltdown in Sep 2008. Of course, the most memorable line between them during their exchange on the Daily Show where Jon Stewart asked, “What is the difference between a Ponzi scheme and an investment bank?” His tacit reply is that the investment banks are playing by the rules whereas the Madoff scandal is playing outside the system. Once I started the first hundred pages of “House of Cards”, I realized where Jon Stewart drew the chronology of the material when he fired at Jim Cramer and CNBC for their faulty reporting on the financial institutions earlier. Of course, Stewart highly recommended this book on his show. It will be interesting to review Cohan’s book in detail here. [Read more...]
Last weekend, over a few drinks, Nicholas Aaron Khoo threw an interesting question to me that prompted his recent discussion on whether the Internet can be self-regulated. The question has been examined in the early days from the submission of the “Proposals for Internet Freedom in Singapore” by a group of bloggers to the engagement with public feedback on the government appointed AIMS Report – Engaging New Media: Challenging Old Assumptions with regards to the issue of community moderation. To Nicholas’ credit, he constructed a well-thought counter example by looking at the example of Ping.sg, a blog aggregator in Singapore that is suffering from the lack of community moderation despite the tools made available by the owner of the platform. Hence my intention of this article, rather than just argue only on the merits of community moderation, also examines the many faces of moderation and self-regulation of the Internet in Singapore
Recently, while flipping through a research paper made me think about the estimation of π (which we know is 3.141… ). Here is an interesting problem which is associated with a method to estimate π. A needle of length a is thrown on to the plane covered with equally spaced parallel lines with seperation b. What is the probability that the needle will cross a line? How can this be extended to a random curve of length A? I thought I might just share a simple mathematical solution for both the Buffon’s Needle and Buffon’s Noodle problem that I have worked out years back on this problem during my PhD years.
During the US 2008 Presidential Elections, during a press conference, Senator Barack Obama (now President of the United States) offered his answer to a question from the press on how he would select his cabinet through quoting this book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, an acclaimed historian. If you have watched “Meet the Press” in the days of Tim Russert, she was often invited as a political pundit to comment and reflect on how lessons from past presidents can be applied to look at the presidential elections or politics of today. The summary of the book narrates how the US President, Abraham Lincoln (famous for the abolition of slavery and winning the civil war) had managed to rope in his rivals (who ran against him in the 1860 election) in his Cabinet from 1861 to 1865. The most notable of his rivals who served him as Cabinet members are: Edward Bates (Attorney General), Salmon Chase (Treasury), and William H. Seward (State). The book revolves around how Lincoln manage to reconcile people of conflicting egos and personalities (with their political factions) to resolve the greatest crisis which faced US at that point of time. [Read more...]
If you have read the book “Wikinomics” by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, then you should not miss this new book “Grown Up Digital” by Don Tapscott. Believe it or not, ten years ago, the same author wrote a book entitled “Growing Up Digital”. In some sense, this book is a sequel and traces how the Net-Geners have evolved. The book was inspired by a US$4M project “The Net Generation: a Strategic Investigation” started by the company “New Paradigm” founded by the author and funded by large companies. With a survey of 11,000 young people, this book looks at the new generation who have literally grown up digital, a cultural phenomenon characterized by a few things they do: (1) texting friends, (2) downloading music, (3) uploading videos, (4) watching shows on YouTube, and (5) communicating via social networking platforms such as MySpace and Facebook. If you are a practitioner of social media or a policy maker involved in crafting new policies for the net generation, this might just be the book to read to understand the trends and strategies in the realms of education, citizen activism and parenting. So, here is my review of this interesting treatise: [Read more...]
A couple of incidents for the past year recently made me ponder about the way how entrepreneurs in Singapore, or generally Asians handle their potential investors differently from their western counterparts. Perhaps, in terms of Gladwell’s “Outliers”, the cultural legacy could be the major fact that contributes to their behaviour. Since raising money in such difficult times is so much more challenging, it may also be good to provide some thoughts for those who are optimistic and willing to give it a shot. Sometimes, it’s not their fault to sound that way but they have made it so difficult for the investors to really say yes, for 99% of the time, they really did not know what the other side is thinking. I decide to summarize a few general cases for them so that they don’t make such amateur mistakes.
- Do not sound arrogant to investors you meet: I understand that ego is part and parcel of the trait of an entrepreneur. However, there is a base line which each investor have with arrogance. Arrogance can deter an investor away easily. Never make the investor feel that they owe you a living or some entitlement. If you made it sound that your investor owes you a living, it is almost certain that he or she will never put a single cent in you. The problem with arrogance is the following: if you do not sound humble even dealing with him, how can he have the faith to entrust that sum of money with you? It also means putting checks and balances on you can be a pain for the entrepreneur to manage. I have seen very experienced investors turn down good deals because they know that they will incur more pain and depression dealing with an arrogant prick.
- Do not tell the investor that you don’t need money: The most common mistake that an entrepreneur made is to tell the investor that you don’t need money. Oftentimes, you don’t need it when it is offered to you and when you really need it, the person who offered the money will say, “Good luck with your ventures” which implies that he or she is not going to put money in you. It is alright to be polite to say that you are planning for future investments and tell the interested party that he or she will be informed, rather than outright tell the investor that you don’t need money. I have a story where a company was offered US$10M for 10% equity when the product was launched. They really did not need the money and told the investor that they don’t need it. In the end, when they are in cashflow problems, they ended up selling the company for a much lower price.
- Do not tell the investor that you are just checking them out: This is something that I learned the hard way in Asia, and I bet no business school actually teaches that. I once hear an interesting innovation by an entrepreneur in a business plan competition some years back as a judge. The entrepreneur was queried about the business model and the technology by the judges. After minutes of probing, we realized that the technology is not ready for consumption and we ask the entrepreneur why he took part in the competition, and he said that he was checking the investors out. The funny part is that when the judges discussed the team, we all agreed that they should be the lowest scoring team because they violated the cardinal rule of telling investors that they are “checking them out”.
- Do not ask the investor to share his contacts or share the privileges his portfolio companies receive with you: I often think that it is just basic etiquette that when you reject someone for investment, you should not ask for more. I have the unfortunate experience of being asked to share my contacts with investors or the privileges of the link-ups my portfolio companies have to China and other parts of the world. It happened with many people who I taught that they are professional enough to realize that it is not appropriate to do that. Let me put it in another way, if you made so much effort to build these contacts as an investor, will you share it if there is no value proposition for your business and even worse, you need to account to the other partners in your firm? Actually, when I was living in Cambridge and visiting Boston to meet potential investor, I was told by mentors and experienced entrepreneurs that there is a basic etiquette. Of course, some young entrepreneurs in Singapore think that they are being smart to squeeze something out from the investor, which backfired on them practically all the time. If you ask someone for something without reciprocation, you will not expect that someone will give it to you. Not to mention that there is the professional reason that the investor has to keep his core competitive advantage to run his funding business. That being said, if you meet up with one of the investor’s contacts by your own merit and ask the other person to refer to you for reference, that is allowed and completely appropriate. In fact, some businesses ended up getting funding just on that account where the investor did not get directly involved.
- Do not press your investor or even tell him how to conduct his business: Never try to press your investor to give you money and tell him how to conduct his business. Even if the process is taking a long time, you should not lose patience and demand an ultimatum from the investor. That is just suicidal and if not stupid. Perhaps, it might be easier to share with you the other side of the story. Every investment an investor makes, depending on the stakeholders who they need to account for, they need to ensure that every stone turned and every page flipped so that their money will gain returns from the opportunity.
I am not advocating the entrepreneur not to negotiate and suck up to the investor without principles. The essence is that there are issues which are negotiable. The equity stakes and some aspects of the term sheet can be debated and argued. If you don’t think that the valuation is fair, you can always walk out. Here is the part which I find it ironic when I do my deals. The shortest deals I have concluded within a span of a month is inversely proportional to the potential of that deal. In fact, those companies are the best in my portfolio that has potential for greater heights. Sounds strange, partially because the entrepreneurs made none of the mistakes above and in fact, have done another company before this venture. Hopefully, it might help those to bear this in mind when approaching potential investors.
In times of crisis with people gravitating towards the government for assistance in domestic concerns, it is usually a good time for ruling parties (from UK to Singapore) to call for a general election. With recent happenings in Singapore, is it worth the effort of the ruling party of Singapore to call for a general election? In this article, we examine the progress made by the government and the factors that might be for or against their favour in calling for one in the coming year.
With a global financial crisis propagating across the world since late September this year, most countries including Singapore will likely face a long period of negative growth. For some of us, this may be the most disastrous financial disaster in our life times which started off from a subprime mortgage crisis in late 2006. Depending on your own perspective, it is also a challenge because great wealth is usually created in such times.
How does this affect Singapore’s political landscape? Given that the political scene in Singapore is strongly linked to the government’s performance of managing the economy, it may be a possibility for the ruling party to call an election when people will gravitate and rally around a common cause in such difficult times. If you look back to the last two elections held in 2001 and 2006, you will see some emerging trends. The election in 2001 was called after September 11 and the internet bubble bursted. At that point, the ruling party used global events to rally the people, winning a landslide with 75.3% of the popular vote. Compare to the most recent election in 2006 where the economy was recovering, the ruling party only won 66.6% of the popular vote.
What has happened between last election till now? In 2006, Singapore was undergoing an economic recovery followed by the decision to build two Integrated Resorts and organizing the IMF-World Bank event. Within the last two years, Singapore has also brought the first F1 night race into her shores. With the building of the integrated resorts and Singapore’s reputation as a financial hub for southeast Asia, there is a strong growth in private wealth, drawing not just from the rich within the region but from China, India, Middle East and Russia. With such growth, the domestic side of Singapore faced a different reality. The electorate has faced with the rise of the good and services tax (GST) from 5 to 7%, followed by a lot of real estate activity via en bloc sales, and finally led to a year of extraordinary inflation of 4.2% coming from rising costs from NETS payments, transportation, costs of living and utility bills. Of course, there are other issues which took centre stage over the past two years: the University of New South Wales debacle, the ministerial pay increase, the rise of retirement age to 67 with annuities scheme looming over the horizon, the recent purchase of shares on UBS, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch by Temasek and GIC and today, the losses of S$12M made by town councils from the constituencies held by the ruling party. With some issues that threatened and eroded the strength of the ruling party, the option to hold an election during such tough times may not be as appealing for the ruling party as compared to the one in 2001 that is focused mainly on national security.
There are a few factors that could tip the election both ways for the ruling party. Let’s start from an optimistic position for the ruling party. The first will be the vast talent pool that the ruling party enjoyed in her selection of candidates. The strength of the PAP to attract competent talent who might have been dissenting voices against them in the past leaves the opposition very little opportunity in party growth. Even though the Workers Party (WP) has managed to attract professional talent in the last elections, it is still an uphill battle for them to be able to get people to contest in all the constituencies. In fact, in such difficult times, even with the electorate begrudging the high ministerial pay and the rising costs of living, they will prefer to vote for the ruling party with a pragmatic perspective given their strong track record in economic recovery. The second reason is strong grassroots support within the ruling party. The ruling party has a strong grassroots machinery that can be fully utilized to last a nine day election campaign from marketing to canvassing votes. In the last elections, the Workers Party had to rely on very few volunteers to help them with 10,000 flyers over one estate. If the strong infrastructure of the ruling party is not a factor, they have also provided good incentives for the electorate to vote for them, from estate upgrading to progress packages before and after the election.
How about the flip side of holding an election next year? Of course, if you are away from Singapore for the past two years, there are some changes on the ground. Being back from Cambridge for the past three years, I have witnessed one general election and a lot of interesting events moving from cyberspace to the real world.
Social or the “not so” new media has become a new tool for the opposition and civil society groups to take on the establishment on several niche issues. In fact, in the recent rally speech, the PM has made two announcements: (i) to allow political podcast and videocast online and (ii) the opening up of Hong Lim Park for protest. It is a telling sign that the ruling party has come to terms with the realization that there is no way to regulate cyberspace given the power of technology and social practices of netizens to spread information at such a quick rate. Even though the ruling party has adopted the principle of selective liberalization, it has given the society more space and diversity for debate with restrictive conditions. Within weeks of the opening of Hong Lim Park (aka Speakers’ Corner), the online activists have now moved into the offline world, for example, the recent protests made by Tan Kin Lian in a non-partisan effort to seek redress from the financial institutions for the investors who bought the highly toxic structured Lehman products from the banks. If not more, we are also seeing a more outspoken younger generation who even used Facebook to organize a petition against transportation hikes in the polytechnics.
If that is not enough, a lot of young people in Singapore are lately inspired by the campaign ran by Barack Obama calling for change from the younger generation. The social media has transformed various political landscapes within the span of one year from US, Korea to Malaysia. The next election will be exciting because the last election only showed the Internet emerging as a platform to verify and counter checked the news from the mainstream press, like the famous Hougang photo from Alex Au. It has not reached the level of vote canvassing or political donation like the way how the Obama campaign has done with the US Presidential elections.
Recently, I have made a gentleman’s bet (over a pint of beer) with Sze Meng (a fellow colleague here in SA) that the next general election will happen in 2009 (but seriously, it should be 2010). How will be the next general election decided upon? It depends on the people, the economy, and how the ruling establishment plans to navigate the country out of recession.
Author’s Note: This article is originally published in the Temsoc Newsletter at the invitation of Ms Gayle Goh, the Temasek Society; a Singaporean political and current affairs society in the University of Cambridge. Note that I have made some edits to the original article published here.
Author’s Afterword in 2010: So it did not happen last year and looks like I owe one colleague of mine in Singapore Angle a pint of beer. :)
Somewhere in the younger and passionate days of my life, I enjoyed writing poetry even though my passion is often unraveling the mathematical equations of the cosmos. Since six years ago, the will to express myself through rhymes and verses left my life and perhaps took away the more expressive and passionate part of my life. The last poem I wrote came from a postcard sent to me by a friend from New York named Mendy Chan (who is now happily married and settled down there). On the postcard was a painting entitled “Dance me to the End of Love” by Jack Vettriano, a prominent artist from humble origins who have painted a few famous paintings about ballroom dancing, for example, Waltzers and the Singing Butler. That postcard sparked me with the inspiration to write the poem in 15 minutes. In fact, I met the artist in real life and shared the poetry with him during his talk in Cambridge Union. I also ask him about the inspiration behind this painting and got his autograph on a card with the same painting which I don’t intend to reveal for a future purpose someday. While the year has been ardous and presented difficulties and challenges, I thought that it might be good to share this last poem of mine here in my blog (like I share a mathematical solution to the famous birthday problem last year). There are two interpretations of this poem to many people who I shared it with, and I hope that you find yours in the process. [Read more...]
Last Monday, through a last minute call from Daniel Cerventus, I met up with Mark Surman in Loof, together with Andrew and Heidi (Ford Foundation). We have an interesting discussion on an idea or passion which I have for sometime. Not many people really know why my real passion in life is all about. The idea is to build a foundation to fund thinkers (or academics) in theoretical sciences or humanities similar to how the Medici family have funded the best thinkers in the Renaissance during the 15th century. While chatting with Mark, I thought that I should sketch out some of my ideas on the blog. Of course, I may not make the money to build it, but I hope to continue pursue the idea into reality. Even if it is within my lifetime to achieve it, I hope that the idea can spread far enough until someone can help fund and create the foundation.
The problem of today is that the Universities today do not encourage creative thinking between different discipines. Most academics are locked in their silos and with the universities becoming more and more like an educational institutions, it becomes harder for people to pursue original and interesting ideas taking a multi-disciplinary approach. One interesting model which is similar to this idea is the TED Foundation, where they bring in people from various disciplines for a conference and they have made it open for everyone to access the talks. The fellowship I have in mind is for longer term and gives the thinkers the affluence to continue pursuing their ideas.
The idea is to create a virtual institute that will fund an academic after his or her PhD for seven years. The academic will be able to pick the university of choice, or choose to move between places over the years. Once the funding ends in seven years, the academic will no longer gets another round of fellowship. The aim of this fellowship is to encourage new and original ideas in innovation and give the academic the best times of his or her years to do original and exciting research. The funding only applies to people in theoretical sciences and not in applied sciences. Why theoretical sciences? The best example to support my case is the development of quantum theory in physics during the 1920-1930s. If quantum theory did not happen, we won’t get the engineering innovation of transistors that power the computers today. Through my interaction with fellow academics in the humanities, the funding should apply to the social sciences such as psychology, economics and philosophy where new ideas can emerge that brings in the scientific approach.
Of course, there is some differences in my proposed model as compared to the type of fellowships offered in other foundations. In order to stop inbreeding or create silos by various PhDs in certain areas, particularly, nowadays it is easier for students under famous supervisors to get jobs in academia. For the application, I have set a different criteria for the fellowship: the academic’s recommendation must be made by someone from another discipline. For example, if you are a physicist, you cannot solicit a senior physicist to write your recommendation for the fellowship. It has to be someone from a totally different discipline who sees the spark in you to generate new knowledge.
I have made my pitch and will consolidate my ideas into a full proposal on this foundation from time to time. Hopefully one day, we will see it happening.
Acknowledgments: The original idea of the virtual institute came from Professor William Saslaw from University of Virginia (one of my collaborators in both papers of physics and economics) but I have made a lot of modifications to the idea to be more reflective of the current times.
I have been thinking about the political films discussion that took place during the Seminar on Internet Regulatory Reform. Two of my colleagues, Alex Au aka Yawning Bread and Gerald Giam have voiced their opinions about section 35 in the Films Act and their reaction to the comments made by Mr Cheong Yip Seng, the Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMES). Alex Au is worried that AIMES may be trying hard to justify why section 35 should stay after hearing Mr Cheong’s point about the high impact factor that a political film can sway how people think after his visit to a conference in Canada. To reinforce his point, Mr Cheong also cited that Japan and Korea were the other two countries that banned political films. On the other hand, Gerald took a different position by arguing that the political films act benefit PAP more than the other opposition parties. In this post, I adopt the relationship between the demand & supply with the impact of a political film to explain why banning section 35 is a worse option for the PAP to stay in power. [Read more...]