Entrepreneurship and diversity: A Singaporean signature dish

Singapore-based entrepreneur and CEO, Henri Bong shares his entrepreneurial journey and how diversity of culture and experience has led to the success of his company UnaBiz.

A little bit of Chinese, a slice of Indonesian, a touch of French, and a dash of Singaporean – my start-up-turned-tech-company, UnaBiz has diversity ingrained in its DNA and that has led it to become one of the fastest growing Internet of Things (IoT) venture in Asia-Pacific.

I hope my entrepreneurial story provides a motivational recipe for budding entrepreneurs, along with the blueprint of the menu where the ingredients are put together – a Singaporean classic.

At times, it feels as if a special ingredient used to create the finest dishes has followed me through several key moments of my life.

Born in a remote village in Indonesia to Chinese parents, I was only eighteen months old when my mother was forced to leave our home and take me to France. It was troubled times and my father only followed us two years later.

Living and surviving in France wasn’t easy. It was necessary to step out of my comfort zone and prove I was daring and creative. At eighteen, I was finally offered French nationality, and by the age of 24, I had graduated from a French digital engineering school. I then went on to complete a double MBA at ESSEC Business School and Guanghua School of Management, Beijing University. Soon after, I landed a job, along with a diplomatic passport, working for the French Embassy in Singapore.

Throughout my youth, I never really felt at home anywhere. I wasn’t Cambodian, I wasn’t Indonesian, I wasn’t French. People called me Chinese, but I’m not really Chinese. I thought this identity crisis would follow me all my life. That was until I arrived in Singapore and founded UnaBiz.

The company made it possible to transform my identity into a strength that today makes me feel like a citizen of the world. My experiences have persuaded me that it is a great plus to understand cultures and blend in their traditions. It also works the other way round. Customers relate to UnaBiz’s willingness to get to know them. Even though I’m a bit of a foreigner for everyone, but I’m also a little closer to everyone - and that’s what matters.

Bringing It All Together

The experience gleaned while serving as a French diplomat sparked off the successful entrepreneur in me. My job brought me into contact with European companies wanting to set up business in Singapore and the APAC region – but the fundamental role is really to bring people together. I noticed many of them didn’t understand how Asian people - Singaporeans and Chinese - actually reacted to their business offer. I often felt that if I were in their shoes, I would do things differently. This idea motivated me to start on my own company. Taking heed of instinct, I took a gamble and launched myself.

My first venture was a failure, but my second is UnaBiz, an IoT company specialising in customised IoT solutions that began with investor funding of S$1 million. Five years down the road, the company now employs 68 people and is selling in 28 countries. I often ponder how we managed to do it.

Insight, cultural awareness, and a plunge into the risk of leaving a safe, interesting corporate job for a start-up are what I feel has been most instrumental in my entrepreneurial journey. Right from the beginning, my vision has been to convince companies that Singapore is the best place to start a company or establish a headquarters. The stability of the laws and the government, plus the country’s multinational identity, with English as the first language, makes it ideal for setting up businesses.

As a national or permanent resident, starting a business in Singapore is a very quick and easy process. People are daring and thinks about innovation in technologies. Moreover, in the smart city initiative, Singapore has always been the place to start. It may be a small market in itself naturally because of its geographical size, but it is a great testing ground to prove user cases and skills - eventually preparing you to win bigger markets in the region or even further afield.

Culture Pays

My multicultural background has rubbed off on UnaBiz. Speaking several languages, fluently is one of my strength and one I realised I wanted the company to have too. Today, it reflects both at the team level and among our Board. Our team of 68 employees count eight different nationalities, with a balance of male and female employees. Our board members include one Japanese, one French, one American, one Singaporean, one Taiwanese, and two co-founders, both French-Chinese.

A good example is this. A lot of foreign companies struggle to enter the Japanese market. But guess what? We have a board member who is Japanese. A year where business was on the upturn, we won our most significant contract in Tokyo - A multi-million smart gas metering project in the Asia region connecting 850,000 gas meters sensors and collecting consumption data.

If you look at our shareholder table, we’re 30% of everything, and that is what makes us stand out. Everyone feels a sense of pride associating themselves with us: the French consider us as a French tech company, Singaporeans recognise us as a Singapore-headquartered company – so it’s a Singapore company that won this Japanese deal.

This is what I think is the most important part of the story about UnaBiz - the Asian DNA of doing business is essential to us. The strengths and weaknesses on the cultural side of our co-founders – and I’m not even speaking about tech - have been passed down to the company. In some ways, we are a Singaporean signature dish of cultures and perspectives. We’re hybrid. That has been one of the keys to our success.

The final touch is focus. If there is any tip I can offer to budding entrepreneurs and upcoming start-ups, it would be to know what you are good at and how your customers and stakeholders perceive you. Focus on your strengths and be the best at what you do. Aspire to become extraordinary in your field instead of becoming ordinary in every field.