Beyond a borderless mindset: Here are the most important principles of building a successful startup team in Southeast Asia

Moses Xiao
Moses Xiao
December 7, 2023

As a founder in Southeast Asia, you already know too well the care and consideration required in building the right team that can truly unlock the potential of your startup. The future success of your startup is quite literally in the hands of the talent you hire. In fact, according to a study by CB Insights, 25% of startups can attribute their failure to the absence of the right people in their team.

Unfortunately, it is never as simple as having a clear description of a role and a good offer to get the best candidate for the job. The constraints that startups face in hiring can be categorized into two – the vagaries of the current market and the common mistakes that startups find themselves making.

Constraints within the current market in Southeast Asia

The challenge of building the right team is multi-faceted. In the current market everyone is experiencing a crunch in capital, as well as facing competition with other global and home-grown companies vying for the best hire from the same talent pool.

The Big Crunch

Globally, startup funding has been scaling back, a trend seen since 2022. So the old-school methods of hire-and-fire or offering ever-increasing salaries are in the past. Every founder has become more conservative to keep in mind the cost of hiring, and recruitment and retention of the right talent is critical.

Competition to hire top SEA talent

Historically, Southeast Asia has seen waves of hiring competition from different quarters of the world. This was seen with the big US tech companies, followed by homegrown companies that matured. Now we have tech companies from China looking to tap into the talent pool in Southeast Asia, driven by market expansion and rising tensions in the region.

Common mistakes we see startups make to address these constraints

To address the challenges of the current market, we see startups overcompensate in other ways:

Limit hiring to a single market

Many startups, including ours, have historically focused on hiring exclusively from their home market. In an attempt to foster a more cohesive team, we confined ourselves to a narrow talent pool, often leading to hiring mismatches due to budget constraints or urgency bias.  Some startups even found themselves stretching their budgets if they strictly wanted to hire from a single market, as you might find in such places such as Singapore and Hong Kong, where most roles tend to be costlier.

Fully remote and highly distributed hiring

At times, startups swing to the other extreme where no two employees come from the same region. There might be an engineer in India, another in Eastern Europe, a designer in Malaysia and so on. While this approach may be more cost-efficient, the problem with this model is that the relationship that is built with each employee becomes transactional. There is no meaningful work culture to bind the team together and feel a shared sense of vision. A strong work culture increases productivity and retention, both extremely necessary in today’s market.

Focus on the perfect product and miss out on local market requirements

Startups can lose sight of the bigger picture when the product takes precedence over the pulse of a market. In our early days, we had a full Singaporean team trying to enter other markets like Indonesia, and this made us completely miss out on an opportunity to hire hyperlocal sales and marketing teams. These teams could have swiftly contextualized our product for the new local market, emphasizing the importance of adapting strategies to specific regions.

What is the Borderless Mindset?

So the question is what is the secret to breaking free from these constraints and hiring A-players for your startup? The key to overcoming this reality is to adopt a ‘Borderless Mindset’.

Take for instance the successful Singapore startup GetGo carsharing company. Launched in 2021, it has currently grown to have the largest fleet in Singapore. A company that had started with a team of ten, GetGo now has a team of 150 and growing. Like any other startup, they had to navigate competition for hiring talent and cost pressures to fill various roles including sales, marketing, technology, and corporate services.

So instead of sticking to single-market and highly distributed hiring, they embraced a borderless mindset and established teams outside of Singapore, accessing a much larger talent pool available in Southeast Asia. The result was a company that became more profitable quickly while scaling operations at great speed.

Transformation of the global supply chain and what we can learn from it

This paradigm shift can be likened to the transformation of the global supply chain. During the pandemic, the global supply chain was hit badly. But today we see a more resilient global supply chain that can withstand various crises.

Firstly, companies are strategically placing their suppliers and production facilities closer to markets they serve, thereby redistributing their supply chain to avoid relying on a single market to do the same. Furthermore, they have also diversified their sources of supply to insulate themselves from disruptions beyond their control.

Another step that companies have taken is investing in technology and AI. Technology plays a pivotal role today in supporting supply chain functions and enhancing communication. This proactive approach has not only helped in preempting potential crises but has also fostered greater connectedness across the entire supply chain.

These two trends of the global supply chain, redistributing and diversifying suppliers and production, and the adoption of technology are important takeaways for startups building a team. By redistributing and diversifying suppliers and production, the global supply chain created a ‘borderless’ network to work with, increasing resilience, widening options, and gaining more hyperlocal experience that they could use in their strategies. The adoption of technology helped them bridge any gap or concerns that arose from multiple suppliers and sites of production.

Opportunities within Southeast Asia to build a borderless team

Southeast Asia stands as the world’s fifth largest economy with an annual growth rate that surpasses global averages. The region’s startups had an aggregate valuation of $340 billion in 2020 and this is said to triple by the year 2025. This means that there’s immense opportunity for companies to look at Southeast Asia not only as a talent marketplace but also as a potential consumer marketplace. The local governments have also taken measures to improve ease of business in their countries with new trade agreements.

Moreover, there is an anticipated twofold economic growth across Southeast Asian countries from 2022 to 2030. This growth is attributed to post-pandemic acceleration, the increasing role of artificial intelligence, and a progressively globalized financial market.

With 12 million university students graduating every year and a 10% year-on-year increase in highly skilled professionals, Southeast Asia has a lot to offer to a startup looking to widen their talent pool. Moreover, young Southeast Asian professionals are excited about working for a startup. Professionals in Southeast Asia are also increasingly open to opportunities beyond their own countries.

For these reasons, Southeast Asia is becoming a favorite amongst companies to build teams outside of their home market. More than half the population of Southeast Asia is below 30. Tapping into this potential early can reap long-term benefits for companies that build a strong work culture and build lasting work relationships. This proactive attitude welcomes new and ever-changing market demands and can prove to be more adaptable to change.

Building effective borderless teams: Three key pillars to a winning formula

There are three fundamental parts to building a truly borderless team that becomes a winning force in your hiring strategy: 

  • Borderless teams push startups to think of regional strengths that can be utilized to build talent hubs. 
  • Building co-located teams in a market can make way for hiring a larger talent pool but still keep an important sense of interconnectedness and work culture that is missing from fully remote teams. 
  • Establishing hyperlocal sales and marketing teams helps a startup cater to the cultural nuances of a market and build an immediate connection to the local consumer.

Making informed decisions on hiring based on regional strengths

Understanding regional strengths and culture can help startups look for talent in the right places. Singapore, for example, is preferred for its pool of senior-level talent and is particularly suitable for roles requiring cross-cultural adaptability. On the other hand, places like the Philippines or Malaysia, known for strong communication and relationship skills, can be ideal for corporate service or customer service functions. For a focus on innovation and tech development, Vietnam and Indonesia offer a wealth of high-potential candidates.

Creating co-located talent hubs

To cultivate a strong work culture, startups should look at building co-located teams, which we call talent hubs. These talent hubs ideally consist of a critical mass, typically 3-5 members, sharing a working space. Embracing hybrid working models, which have demonstrated enhanced productivity and reduced costs compared to traditional single head offices, can be particularly effective.

Research from the Southeast Asia Startup Talent Report 2023 also revealed that 88% of startup employers in Southeast Asia prefer a hybrid or a fully work-at-office model. Creating co-talented teams gives you the best of both worlds – talent across borders and a strong connection to the workplace.

An empowered hyperlocal sales and marketing teams

Instead of trying to build a team from outside a target market, build local sales and marketing teams that can hit the ground running with their understanding of the local consumer and market dynamics. Adopting hyperlocal strategies in sales and marketing enables the development of practical and cost-effective approaches tailored to the targeted market.

While teams from elsewhere may provide guidance to hyperlocal teams in the initial stages, a startup can truly benefit from a hyperlocal team that takes full ownership and drives the vision of the startup. This not only adds diversity to the company’s culture but also ensures a deeper understanding and seamless integration into the local business environment.

The main takeaways

As a startup in Southeast Asia, overcoming growth hurdles involves adopting a borderless mindset and adhering to three key team-building principles:

  • Accessing talent across Southeast Asia: Embrace a borderless mindset to tap into a diverse pool of talent across various countries in Southeast Asia. Explore and leverage the unique skills and perspectives present in different regions to strengthen your team.
  • Building co-located talent hubs in a hybrid model: Form co-located teams comprising a minimum of 3-5 individuals, fostering collaboration and synergy. Implement a hybrid working model that combines remote and in-person work, optimizing both productivity and team connectivity.
  • Investing in strong hyperlocal sales and marketing teams: Prioritize the establishment of hyperlocal sales and marketing teams to understand and cater to the specific needs of local markets. Allow these teams to take ownership of the vision, adding diversity to the company’s culture and enhancing market adaptability.

By adhering to these principles, startups can harness the full potential of a borderless approach, capitalizing on talent and opportunities throughout Southeast Asia.

Build your borderless team with Glints today

Glints TalentHub is our complete talent solution that covers all aspects of talent acquisition, management, and development. Our team can help you access the extensive talent pool across Southeast Asia and build great teams quickly and affordably. Simply schedule a call with us and our dedicated experts will be thrilled to guide you in your journey towards building a borderless team.

This article is brought to you by Glints TalentHub. Leading companies are actively building their borderless teams in Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and beyond. However, the prospect of going borderless can be daunting due to complex regulations and cultural ambiguities. With Glints TalentHub, you’ll have a dedicated team of in-market legal, HR, and talent experts by your side at every step of the way.

Glints TalentHub offers an end-to-end, tech-enabled talent solution that encompasses talent acquisition, EOR, and talent development. We empower businesses to leverage the strengths of regional talent efficiently to build high-performing, cost-efficient teams.

Schedule a no-obligation consultation with our experts to receive a tailored proposal today. 

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