Making Malaysia MaGIC-al

Startup wizardry, here in Malaysia.

For the past few years, Malaysia has been experiencing what I would call “startup fever”, where there is this surge of startup ventures appearing like mushrooms, all catering to some particular need. You can have your own opinions on whether these new enterprises are viable (I sure have mine), but you cannot deny that Malaysia has built itself quite a reputation as being a regional proving ground, thanks to geography, its multicultural society and infrastructure.

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One of those “infrastructures” in place is the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre, or MaGIC for short. In essence, it’s a one-stop facility, where budding entrepreneurs can get support, coaching and funding for their projects – all part of making Malaysia a “dynamic entrepreneurial nation”.

Of course, government initiatives (usually) don’t get much hype when they start, but one individual really got the ball rolling. To use rap terminology, she’s MaGIC hype lady, if you will – MaGIC’s face and voice, until she left the agency in January 2016. That said, her pulse is still in the scene, and she’s looking forward to what Malaysia has in store.

Meet Cheryl Yeoh.

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Meet the lady that got the ball rolling.

When MaGIC first started, it needed a leader who didn’t only have a wealth of experience in building successful startups, but possessed a vast network of contacts and resources to draw upon. Cheryl fit the bill. During her time in America, she launched CityPockets (a digital wallet and secondary marketplace for daily deals) and Reclip.It (a personalised shopping list app), selling off the latter to Walmart Labs.

Question is, with her success stateside, why come back to head MaGIC?

I can always do another startup anytime, but it’s not every year that you get invited by your country to take on a national agenda that will have a large impact right off the bat.

Since its launch in 2014, MaGIC has built quite a reputation around the region. “In almost two years, ecosystem builders and governments from countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Korea, Thailand, Kazakhstan, India, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and many more have heard of MaGIC and approached us for collaboration or to learn from how we set things up here.”

I asked her about the major challenges in Malaysia’s startup ecosystem, and she had quite a few words to say.

“One of the challenges in building the startup ecosystem in Malaysia would be to change the public’s mindset towards ‘entrepreneurship’… In Malaysia, it’s still almost taboo to fail and can be a deterrent for the younger generation to be an entrepreneur, take risks and create impact.”

She opines that there must be a willingness to share information between entrepreneurs. “Some Malaysian entrepreneurs worry that if they share, they lose.”

To startups, funding can be an issue. It can be a problem, but it’s not the problem. ”Focus on growing a sustainable and scalable business with solid fundamentals… If you learn how to build the product yourself, you won’t need a lot of money to get started. Needing funding to start a company is a myth these days.”

A mindset change is paramount if you want to grow. “To be a great entrepreneur, you need to be optimistic and be open to possibilities to think bigger.”

For those looking who start their own enterprise, Cheryl has this piece of advice. “You should look into what industry you’re currently in and what industry observations, insights or key skills you’ve acquired, and see if you can build something that solves a deficiency or problem in that industry. Or if you’re passionate about another area, see how you can dabble closer to that field and pick up side projects there to see if there’s a big enough problem you can solve.”

After her two years in MaGIC, with its share of ups and downs, does Cheryl regret helming the centre? “All in all, [it was] a decision I didn’t regret, even though running MaGIC was admittedly harder than running my own startup because I’m still bound to my stakeholders under government constraints.”

When MaGIC first started, I had a lot of skepticism, on whether it would turn out to be a white elephant, or just something for the-powers-that-be to flaunt. The “lofty” (to me) aim of transforming the nation didn’t help quell my doubts either.

I’m glad to say that after two years, I’ve been proven wrong. I’m pleased that they chose the right person to help pioneer and pave the way for future entrepreneurs to thrive. Sure, there were missteps (like its narrow focus on technology), but I would argue that it helped MaGIC – with a tighter focus, it was easier to move forward. And it paid off!

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”Focus on growing a sustainable and scalable business with solid fundamentals.” Image credit: cherylyeoh.com

Now with Cheryl taking her leave from the centre, I’m interested to see what her successor can do for all (not just tech) startups. Let’s see if MaGIC can work the same… magic with other industries.

As for where Cheryl is post-MaGIC, you might want to keep your ears open – she’ll be making an announcement in the coming weeks.

Featured photo credit:  In the Black Magazine

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About Andrew Yew

Storyteller. Doodler. Gamer.

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