by Rob Kay
On a recent trip to Malaysia I took a detour to Singapore to visit Sanju Goswami, a former Hawaii resident, and good friend. My interest in seeing Sanju was more than social. I was curious how he and his family had adapted to life in Singapore. I also wanted to know what opportunities there were for Hawaii entrepreneurs.
Prior to making the move, Sanju had lived in Hawaii for about six years, running a successful IT consulting company.
Sanju has an interesting bio.
Born in Uganda and raised in New Jersey, he’s a West Point grad with an Electrical Engineering degree. He’s also a veteran of the Gulf War. After military service, he spent 6 years building quantitative analysis and risk management systems on Wall Street for companies such as Kidder Peabody, Paine Webber, and others.
Driven by an entrepreneurial spirit and passion for technology he decided to shift gears from IT to health care products. He started formulating Ayurvedic supplements and later founded Wow Nutrition, a health care product distributer.
Tired of the rat race in the Big Apple, Sanju moved to Hawaii in 1999 to pursue a more holistic lifestyle.
He enjoyed Hawaii but things changed after the birth of his first child. He and his wife Anne decided a move to Singapore was imperative. Anne is from Singapore and being closer to family became paramount. What’s more, business opportunities in Asia were promising. “Moving to Singapore”, he said, “was the logical thing to do both for my family and my career”.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sanju’s relocation proved to be the right decision. In nearly a decade he and his wife have grown their health products company from a “mom and pop” business to an 18-person operation.
He believes that Singapore offers opportunities for other Hawaii people. “You don’t have to move here to do business,” he said, “but you do have to understand the business culture.”
The following is Q&A that I recently conducted with him:
Q: How does the business climate in Singapore differ from Hawaii?
A: Well for starters it’s incredibly competitive here. Hawaii also has a competitive environment but it’s not the same. Singaporeans are hard charging people, often working in businesses as family units. I’m talking 24/7. I’m not saying that Hawaii people don’t work hard…but I would say that people here are unflagging. They will work you under the table.
In Singapore I know people that started from nothing and, through sheer perseverance created very successful businesses. They didn’t necessarily go to the best or the name brand business schools, they just worked very hard and very smart. I think that in Singapore, whoever you are and where ever you’re from, if you can offer a value proposition that makes sense, you’ll do well.
Keep in mind, Singapore is a tiny country with no natural resources. It counts on people being really productive. To compete in Asia you have to be at the top of your game. As proof of concept tiny Singapore is one of the richest countries in the world.
Another notable aspect is that the government is corruption free and extremely well run. They are also very supportive of businesses and job creation. For example if you call or email the Singapore Economic Development Board with any question they will get back to you immediately. If you happen to contact the wrong person they will forward your call or email to the right person.
Q: You came here knowing no one except your in-laws who were not involved in the business community. How did you succeed with no local connections?
A: You bring up a really good point.
When I first got here my business plan worked. However after a few years, the business climate changed and there was a period when my strategy was no longer viable. I’ve always operated as a loner but figured it was time to meet people and learn from others. I decided to join E.O., the Entrepreneurs Organization. Through this network I met a very solid group of business people in Singapore. The organization also provides opportunities for learning through sharing, during forums. They also have periodic seminars.
Through this group, I really learned about the Singapore work ethic.
Of course there are any number of other clubs or orgs that you can join such as Rotary.
A: The cost of living. Some things are really expensive, such as real estate, but others are very reasonable. For example if you settle here, getting people to take care of your kids is inexpensive. The “secret sauce” is that you don’t need to worry about doing chores—the cooking, the cleaning, shopping for food, etc. You can devote 100% of your psychic and other energies to your work. In my case, I run a family business. Both my wife and I work. We have two kids but because we have domestic help we don’t have to sweat the kinds of hassles with child care, etc that Hawaii residents have.
Q: OK, let’s say I’m a Hawaii entrepreneur and I want to do business in Singapore. What kind of business products or services produced in the Aloha State would sell in Singapore?
A: Based on my experience in health products, I would say Hawaii has some very cool, locally produced products—coffee, mac nuts, chocolate, soaps, juices, oils, algae, astaxanthin, etc. These could be exported to Singapore. People here are educated and affluent. In Singapore, we import just about everything and there’s ample discretionary household funds for “green” and “natural” products. Hawaii has a great brand and Singaporeans would buy Hawaii goods given the opportunity. They will pay top dollar for good stuff. You see select Hawaii products such as Hawaiian Host and others. There’s no reason why other brands can get in on the action.
Q: How do I find distributors in Singapore if I don’t know a soul?
A: I would start with the Singapore Economic Development Board. They are really good at helping you set up a business. They even will also introduce you to investment partners. They invest in local business. matching you up if you want to do business here. They are also terrific helping you get started in launching a company. Spring Singapore and IE Singapore provides information on government grants, management development and access to markets.
A: Again, check out the Singapore EDB. They will make introductions to regional partners around Asia.
Q: What other advice do you have for someone new in town?
Spring Singapore and International Enterprise (IE) Singapore are government support platforms for small or medium sized businesses. They will also provide information on government grants. For example, they personally visited my office, explained all the grant programs and actually helped fund our office operation in the US.
I flew to Singapore via Penang on AirAsia, a low-cost airline headquartered in Malaysia. It’s a no frills carrier that operates scheduled domestic and international flights to 100 destinations in 22 countries. The carrier has numerous flights to Singapore from throughout its system.
The best, and least expensive way to get to Malaysia from Honolulu is via Hawaiian Airlines, which among other Asian destinations, has routes to Seoul, Tokyo and Osaka. The route went via Seoul connecting us to Kuala Lumpur. From Seoul I took Air Asia X, the long haul subsidiary of the Air Asia Group.
The Penang flight was on AirAsia, the company’s domestic carrier, which reminds me a great deal of Southwest Airlines. Rock bottom prices, fine service and as they say in the airline industry modern “equipment” (airplanes). You pay for food, water and other “extras” but that’s how they keep the prices so low.
On the way back to Seoul from KL, I was fortunate to be upgraded to business class on Air Asia X. There were 12 seats in the business class section and, I was pampered. They offer what’s known as Business Class “Flatbed seats”, which have standard business class specs of 20” width and a 60” pitch. They stretch out to 77” in full recline position, hence, the “Flatbed” designation. There were only 12 premium seats in the cabin (it’s an A330-300) which is substantially less in number than the typical configuration of 36 first class or business seats. I felt we got the flight attendants’ undivided attention.
Short of breakfast, I didn’t have the opportunity to sample much of the airline’s cuisine. What I had hit the spot.
I was offered an omelet or a typical Malay breakfast—nasi lemak. This consists of white rice cooked in coconut milk, then topped with peanuts and dried, salted anchovies. It was garnished with a slice of boiled egg and sambal, a spicy condiment that is synonymous with Malaysian cuisine. I wasn’t disappointed.
I thought the level of service equal to any of those offered by some of the more popular brands of business class carriers. (Hawaiian’s business class is excellent but they don’t have the reclining seats). What I appreciated the most was a 40 kg baggage allowance in order to bring my goodies back to Honolulu and most importantly, a power socket so as to plug in my computer and write this article.
Business class fares start as low as $600 (one way) which for this mode of service, is very, very reasonable. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a less expensive business class out there. In essence you get all the space of any premium service sans the fancy food.
The link between Seoul and Kuala Lumpur was about 6 1/2 hours and Air Asia operates this route daily.
A little bit on the background on this carrier, which is probably not as well known to North Americans as other international carriers. It was acquired in 2001 by Tony Fernandes, a brilliant and charismatic entrepreneur often compared to Richard Bransen. Prior to Fernandes running the show, AirAsia, was a heavily indebted carrier owned by the Malaysian government. Fernandes and his partners bought the then heavily indebted AirAsia from its Malaysian owner a token one Malaysian ringgit (US$0.25), and agreed to take on the airline’s $10 million debt.
Starting with two Boeing B737s, he transformed it into a regional powerhouse and in in less than two years repaid that debt. From its birth in Malaysia, AirAsia has now grown into a regional airline group that includes the short-haul carriers AirAsia Malaysia, AirAsia Thailand, AirAsia Indonesia, AirAsia Philippines and the up-and-coming AirAsia India and, the long-haul carrier AirAsia X.
Photos by Rob Kay
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