In 2012, Durwin Ho left Silicon Valley and landed in Singapore. What he encountered was a lackluster startup scene. Energized by his pioneering spirit, Durwin rallied friends and volunteers to breathe life into Startup Weekend. Now, the event is the largest hackathon in Southeast Asia.
He is now the CEO of StartupX, an innovation, venture and startup enabler in Southeast Asia. Their next hackathon, Startup Weekend: Seeds of Tomorrow, will take place from April 23 to 25. If you’d like to volunteer, sign up here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
KrASIA (Kr): What was the most valuable part of your college experience in Silicon Valley?
Durwin Ho (DH): I was part of the first few batches to take part in the NUS Overseas College (NOC) program. It was life-changing. The culture shock and lifestyle changes were expected. The program requires us to secure our own internship, and I secured mine at Appbackr. I’m still grateful to my boss, Trevor, who gave me the opportunity to engage in business development. He pushed me to take up opportunities and socialize. No one told me that you have to rehearse for networking events. It was rough at first, but I was able to bring all the experience and skills back to Singapore. Also, people in Silicon Valley are extremely smart, and you feel like an idiot all the time. You realize why when you step into a classroom. There, they were asking questions I never knew could be asked. The angle they took to learning and questioning really opened my eyes.
Kr: Do you recommend NOC to young Singaporeans? Are there similar programs that can take them overseas for immersive experiences?
DH: If you have an opportunity to do so, just go for it. There are many variants of NOC available in different cities. Learning while being overseas is more about the mindset. You have to be clear about the goals you want to achieve by travelling overseas so that you can make the most out of it.
Not everyone has the means to go overseas, however. Fortunately, in Singapore, we’re well supported by the government. There are policies and investments that support companies headquartered in Singapore. There’s definitely a difference in other places, but Singapore does not lack opportunities either.
Kr: Was there anything you had to unlearn when you were overseas?
DH: It is human nature to go for things that are familiar to us. One thing I had to unlearn was to stop looking for commonalities. I had to stop seeking out students or Asians or friends that allowed me to be comfortable. It changed my mindset and my approach to things, and made it easier for me to step out of my boundaries.
As an entrepreneur, one thing to understand is that Southeast Asia is a melting pot of cultures. Unlearn the idea that we are of one culture. Technology that’s developed has to be localized. Meetings and networking have to be localized.
Kr: How did you localize hackathons when you brought them to Southeast Asia?
DH: Singapore is different from countries like Australia or the United States, where people are enthusiastic about hackathons. Singaporeans are much more conservative and less eager. However, we do have ideas and dreams to share. I wanted to bring back the concept of trying something new and fun, especially as a young adult. When I first hosted a hackathon in 2015, it was small, with about 50 people or so. I realized that I had to build a community around it and have people connect to it. Even if people don’t build a life-changing idea out of a 48-hour hackathon, at least they have fun. They eat good food, meet like-minded people, and walk away with friends.
To make the hackathons bigger, we invited more exclusive and distinguished mentors. Eventually, in 2017 to 2018, we were doing mega Startup Weekends. Startup Weekend is a global event, and it used to average to about 30 people until we joined. We add about 300 people from Singapore. We’re trying to raise the standard so that people look at our hackathons and events as quality events.
The most fascinating part of our Startup Weekend is that we never give out money. In 2017 and 2018, we were charging up to SGD 150 for entrance. Of course, we were providing great food, snacks, and goodies, but that’s also part of the experience to make it a memorable event.
Kr: What common traits do we see in Singapore’s blossoming entrepreneurs?
DH: In the past, there was a lot of attention on fintech and big data. Then the attention shifted to cloud computing and blockchain. More recently, the focus has been on medtech and pharmaceutical tech, along with insurance tech. Sustainability is a really hot topic these days as well. We have teenagers coming to us wanting to reinvent plastics before they’ve even graduated.
Another trend is related to the entrepreneurial experience. The idea of dropping out of school and starting a business is stale and unrealistic. The most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who work years in a corporate office or at a startup, and have built expertise in a few areas. Not only do they have a strong network to tap, they also have real-life experience dealing with customers, managing teams, and handling crises.