You are probably aware that Southeast Asia is one of the world’s fastest-growing tech opportunities in the world. The internet economies in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines are growing by 20–30% annually; Indonesia and Vietnam are growing in excess of 40% a year. With the third-largest labor force, behind China and India, SEA has outpaced the rest of the world on growth in GDP per capita since the late 1970s. Since 2017, the dramatic rise in successful regional startup early-stage fundraising rounds has led to ever-increasing interest from SEA diaspora and foreign talent in joining the SEA tech scene.
With that in mind, how do SEA diaspora and foreigners scout and jump on the best opportunities?
From our vantage point as venture capitalists and founders based in Southeast Asia, we have spoken to and observed the career journeys for hundreds of generalists from non-technical backgrounds that have worked for 4–10 years in consulting, finance, general management and other business functions at brand name companies.We lay out the reality for both locals and foreigners, advice on how to overcome common obstacles and additional helpful resources.
The general obstacles to note are the increasing requirement for local experience, existing conservatism for hiring generalists in Southeast Asia by smaller tech companies, compensation realities, and market size.
Accept that you will probably be joining a smaller, earlier-stage and less recognized company vs. US and Europe
Even during COVID, the SEA tech scene continued to grow due to the rise of the middle-class and increasing influx of VC capital. Singapore continues to accelerate the growth of VC capital by matching VC investments, and deploying grants. Vietnam’s capable containment of COVID has enabled their fast-growing tech ecosystem to continue growing. Relative to the US, the SEA tech ecosystem has not been impacted by layoffs or hiring freezes to the same magnitude.
That being said, the size of the SEA market is an order of magnitude smaller than the US and UK. Crunchbase shows that there are around 300 Series B and above companies in SEA, vs. over 11,000 US companies and 1,500 UK companies. Although SEA is one of the fastest growing tech ecosystems, the absolute capacity to absorb generalist talent is small.
Get ready to compete against increasingly experienced local startup talent
A decade ago, it was common to find talented generalist foreigners with no experience in SEA running companies here, ala Rocket Internet funded companies. That is increasingly rare due to the emergence of local talent who have cut their teeth in the Uber vs. Grab vs. Gojek, Lazada vs. Shopee and other market-by-market wars. We have also seen the rise of local executives who have launched regional markets for US and China Big Tech companies like Stripe, Wework, and Facebook, who now find roles in the regional startup space attractive. As a result, startups and VCs are increasingly prioritizing entrepreneurial talent who exhibit both domain and local experience from branded international companies.
The pandemic has also accelerated this trend. Multiple border closures to foreigners has forced startups to prioritize citizens and pre-existing work visa holders. Startups increasingly mandate that candidates already understand or rapidly learn the local language in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam. The Singapore government has also slowly tightened labour requirements for expatriate hires by increasing the burden of proof for local talent searches.
For candidates with less local experience, we have seen success when they take riskier bets in smaller regional markets like Malaysia and Thailand. Easier visa requirements allow for in-person networking for roles. While working in Singapore tends to be seen by foreigners as an attractive beachhead, it should be noted that the competition for roles in Singapore is intense.
Proactively tick the boxes for interviewers
Hiring for ‘experience versus talent’ has been a long-standing debate. Outside of the Big Tech companies, we find that Southeast Asian startups (particularly early-stage) are more risk-averse against generalists compared to other tech scenes, requiring candidates to more clearly ‘tick the boxes’ as opposed to hiring inexperienced but talented individuals.
Michael Milne of Kaishi Partners, a leading headhunter for early-stage startups, observed that it is much easier for generalist talent to be hired by Series C/D+ tech organizations like Carousell, Grab, Go-Jek, etcs, as opposed to smaller startups. This is especially true for those without SEA working experience, and hiring by large regional & international tech firms should be regarded as one of the main ways to break into SEA.
However, breaking into the early stage scene is still possible. Prem John, founder of Vèritè Partners, another leading headhunting firm, shared that 25–40% of his successful candidate placements were simply startup founders who expressed that they were ‘potentially looking’ for new joiners, resulting in conversations that took place over months, with a strong relationship growing off the back of those conversations. The eventual role would often be a blend of both an existing job description being shaped for the individual as well as carving out an additional headcount from the budget.
Overseas-based talent working full-time will likely find it hard to build relationships remotely. Catching up with key people through regular video calls and meeting in person when returning to Southeast Asia during holidays are great ways to build relationships. For those with a greater risk appetite and desire to build something of their own, explore talent accelerators like Antler and Entrepreneur First.
Manage your expectations on compensation & timeline upfront
Gross compensation is typically lower in Southeast Asia, vs Silicon Valley, New York and London. However, arguably the better metric to track would be take-home pay, which can be higher after taxes and cost of living is considered. Being realistic about a drop in gross compensation seemed to be the recurring message from headhunters. Multiple headhunters also noted that equity for employees also tends to be tighter in SE Asia versus in the US. Interviewers may ask for your last-drawn pay and/or options package, which is currently legal across SEA and illegal in the US.
We also have observed that headhunters and recruiters have a longer email turnaround and application notification process compared to US recruiters.
Adopt these headhunters’ tactical advice to get a leg up
Here are some tactical advice that headhunters would give to generalists hunting for roles:
“Keep a close eye on US-educated founders that tended to have a slightly higher preference for hiring generalists.” — Michael Milne, Kaishi Partners
“Try and get warm referrals to headhunters, investors, and CEOs as they are a great way to expedite the search process.” — Patricia Teo, Kerry Consulting
“It is important to understand which sectors were actively hiring. Fintech and biotech startups and focused funds were especially hiring during COVID. Large movements in the tech space like Singapore’s Digital Bank License created significant opportunities, with candidates holding multiple offers in these spaces, even during COVID. Job sites are not a good way to get a sense of who is hiring. Have a lot of conversations with those who have a strong pulse on what is happening on the ground. Building interesting and relevant content and knowledge never hurts!” — Prem, Vèritè Partners
A non-exhaustive list of Headhunters in the SEA startup/tech scene:
- Kaishi Partners (early stage)
- Redwood Search (early stage)
- Beyond Search (early stage)
- Principle Partners (Financial services)
- Vèritè Partners (Financial services)
- Kerry Consulting (wide coverage)
- K2 Partnering Solutions (wide coverage)
- Spencer Stuart (tends to later stage)
- Space Executive (wide coverage)
- Deborah Ng (Healthcare, life-sciences & tech)
- ConnectOne (early stage, wide coverage)
- Singapore Global Network
- Check out SEAcosystem.com for companies and talents currently hiring
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About Jeremy Au
Jeremy Au is a proven entrepreneurial leader who founded a Series A edtech startup (exited after raising >$8M capital) and bootstrapped an impact consulting platform. Bain consultant, Harvard MBA, Forbes “30 Under 30”, and won MassChallenge and the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition. He now coaches and podcasts great founders, executives and investors at www.jeremyau.com