When Right Click Capital partner Benjamin Chong attended a VC conference in Bali last month he was dismayed to discover he was the only Australian there.
It wasn’t a big surprise – he had been the only Aussie at the Asia Leader’s Summit for the last three years – but he was still sorely disappointed at the lack of Australian participation at the conference that included esteemed guests like Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital.
“It was an opportunity to get together, share information and experiences and really help each other,” Chong tells StartupSmart.
“I lamented the fact that more Australians weren’t there. It’s not like there’s a bar on Australians – there’s a real desire to engage. I’m disappointed more of my colleagues didn’t take the time out to go over and enjoy the company of other VCs and thinkers.”
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Missing a huge opportunity
According to Chong, this speaks to a general unwillingness for Australian investors and entrepreneurs to engage with the Asian market and fully take advantage of the wealth of opportunities on offer.
“We need to think of Asia not just as a holiday destination but as a real business opportunity,” he says.
“There are consumers who are coming online every day that are highly educated and on mobile devices. If you’ve got a service or product that can actually benefit the lives of people then I think it presents a tremendous market opportunity for Australian startups.”
He says that while Singtel Optus and muru-D are beginning to try to push startups towards Asia, most are forgoing the closer region in favour of the US or Europe.
“Other incubators and investors are failing to see the size of the opportunity to our north,” Chong says.
“There’s something like 60% of the world’s internet population and they’re growing numerically and in GDP.”
Although acknowledging certain cultural and market differences, Chong says Australia’s proximity and close ties to Asia give local startups an unrivalled advantage.
“As a startup you want to access a market that is extremely mobile savvy and experienced,” he says.
“What a market to come in and use some of these lessons, and we’re so close.”
Getting in on the ground floor
With the rise of the “Asian century”, he says now is the time that Australian startups and investors need to look to expand to the region or miss out on the booming market.
“What better an opportunity for us to leverage that friendship, let alone the geographical proximity, and get in now,” Chong says.
“Relationships take a long time to develop – it takes years and years of cultivation. There’s a need for us to continue our engagement, to invest, learn and make mistakes to set us up for future success.
“Is it not better to get involved in something at the ground level and build our relationships from there?
“In five, 10 or 20 years as the Asian century takes hold, we’ll actually be there having been a good friend for however many years instead of a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ that goes, ‘hey, where’s my seat at the table?’”