Julien Labruyere is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Sleek, a fast-growing Singapore-based business incorporation and management startup. Find out how he built a business in Singapore and expanded his company to the region.
13 July 2020 / By Julien Labruyere
When I first relocated from France to Singapore at the age of 25 in 2008, I had never imagined that I would one day settle here with my family of four. Despite being young expatriates unfamiliar with the region then, Singapore quickly became home to a vast range of amazing experiences for my wife and me.
I started Sleek in Singapore in 2017 after a successful business management career and setting up 4xLabs, a fintech startup innovating in foreign exchange. From my own experience as an entrepreneur, I knew how cumbersome legal and accounting processes of business incorporation could be. I also saw immense potential in using technology to revolutionise the market.
That’s why I started Sleek – to simplify the lives of entrepreneurs and investors through completely digital incorporation and management services. With Singapore as a launchpad, Sleek has assisted over 2,000 clients, raised US$5 million (S$6.96 million) in seed funding, and expanded our operations into Hong Kong in just three years.
Southeast Asia’s internet economy is growing quickly, and for innovators looking for new markets, the time is now.
(Julien Labruyere (pictured above) is Co-Founder and CEO at Sleek.)
Singapore: Premium, but top-notch ingredients
Building a startup takes a complicated recipe with the right mix of ingredients. I chose to build Sleek from Singapore not only because of my familiarity with its incorporation market, but also because it provides the right ingredients for success.
First, access to capital is critical for startups to innovate and commercialise. In just 10 years, Singapore’s startup scene has grown from a small ecosystem to a hub of more than 55,000 companies. Concerted national initiatives and active venture capital firms are driving this surge, providing startups with capital to develop and market ideas quickly. Singapore’s transformation into an innovation ecosystem explains why this is one of the top regional startup hubs.
Second, accessing human capital is also vital for startups in a knowledge and technology intensive industry. Singapore is home to a pool of high-quality, global talent. Albeit at a higher cost, hiring top talent is a key investment for Sleek, as we are looking for exponential returns on investment to drive innovation and differentiation of our services.
Understandably, smaller startups like ours may find it challenging to compete for talent, given Singapore’s density of multinational incumbents such as e-commerce giants Amazon and Alibaba, as well as leading regional ride-hailing superapps Grab and Gojek. However, it is up to us to win our talent over.
It is precisely a startup’s exciting potential for expansion that provides employees opportunities to thrive. You can certainly attract talent if you can demonstrate your commitment to grow your people’s skills and careers quickly.
(Being in Singapore has allowed Sleek to hire a diverse team of global talent. The team has 14 nationalities from the United States of America, Australia, Britain, Canada, China (inclusive of Hong Kong), Denmark, Philippines, France, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.)
Rae Indah-Purnama and Charles Pitts, co-founders of Singapore-based sustainable brand Purnama Outreach, shares that the business always pushed for a lean supply chain and the use of environmentally preferred choices. “We work with our makers to use organic, natural, vegan materials, aiming for zero waste. Then we went further by creating our upcycling project turning waste into bold fashion and accessories.”
Purnama Outreach was formed after the couple’s relocation to Singapore in 2008 and were among the first members of the Singaporean Social Enterprise Association which is now known as raiSE. “They were instrumental in creating a real community among social enterprises with various concerns, stakeholders, and business models. We have been fortunate to partner with several forward-thinking local companies,” the founders share.
The brand had recently worked with partners at the NUS Business School (National University of Singapore) under its Social Enterprise Internships Project and found that 43% (3 in 5 APAC) of consumers purchased at least one product because it was manufactured by a company committed to a social cause. 86% of those surveyed were willing to pay more for socially conscious brands – showing that the industry is evolving from tradition.
A reliable recipe for startup success
For a startup like Sleek, it can be daunting to take on a complex ecosystem of investors, consumers and competitors. Using my analogy of a recipe in building a startup, if you miss one ingredient, the whole recipe goes bad. Predictability is a big thing in building a business, and that was my other reason for choosing Singapore.
From the get-go, Singapore’s political and economic stability really give startups that are constantly grappling with uncertainty an advantage. Reliable infrastructure and pro-business frameworks allow us to focus on building our business, instead of grappling with basic operational challenges.
More importantly, a stable environment allows startups to take risks with confidence, and adjust business models according to external contexts. For instance, during economic downturns, such as the COVID-19-induced one we are living through, startups must scale down quickly to minimise costs. The Singapore Government has stepped up quickly to tide businesses through this challenging time. For example, we are eligible for wage support through the Job Support Scheme, which helps to offset a proportion of local employee wages.
COVID-19: Unfounded worries for Sleek?
If I had one worry about Singapore, it would be that COVID-19 will inspire lockdowns that isolate our interconnected economy. Success is a function of the number of nodes in our system. If you remove a node, the network fails. Sleek is a strong lover of creating connections for our clients. Singapore’s industries rely on global supply and demand, and we will certainly face strong challenges if connectivity is lost.
Surprisingly, Sleek has not seen a drop in business, but instead a rise in client demand this year. I observe that demand for business incorporation has not dampened during this challenging period, given companies’ continued confidence in Singapore. Further, SEA is a growing internet economy with many companies looking for digital solutions in a post-COVID-19 world, driving demand for fully-digital incorporation companies such as ours.
COVID-19 has also served as an accelerator, forcing businesses to rethink product offerings and target markets. As most of Sleek’s clients are small and agile, they are better positioned to cope with fluctuations. Many of our clients have successfully repurposed their businesses to sell products in higher demand, such as healthcare products and services.
Such innovation and dynamism have provided Sleek with opportunities for growth. Moving forward, we will improve the quality and affordability of our services through automation, diversify our product offerings and expand geographically. Sleek will continue working with Singapore in symbiosis.
A place to work and live
Most hearteningly, Singapore’s vibrancy is not limited to its startup space. After living here for over 10 years, I cherish how there is a different Singaporean experience for each stage in my life. My wife has built a successful career for herself, my two young boys are growing up speaking French, English and Mandarin, and we enjoy the safe environment, world-class education and healthcare systems that ensure our family is well taken care of.
(Julien moved to Singapore in 2008 with his then girlfriend and now wife. The Labruyeres have experienced different Singapore adventures at each stage of their lives.)
While the journey towards creating Sleek was not always smooth sailing, I have never regretted my career path or my choice to relocate to Singapore for good.
Asia’s startup scene is growing quickly and promises great opportunities for those bold enough to take on its challenge. For innovators, Singapore provides an ideal starting point to access the region, and a wonderful place to enjoy your entrepreneurial journey.
Tips for prospective startups
If you are keen to find out what the other key ingredients of building a successful startup are, here are Julien’s hard-won insights and lessons for a smoother startup journey.
About Julien Labruyere
Julien is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Sleek, a fast-growing Singapore-based business incorporation and management startup.