Cover Story: Grow Fast, Go Global

Malaysia’s own ‘Fab Five Scale-ups’ are flexing its muscles to go global

By Nur Atifi & Aron Raj

The journey of an entrepreneur is full of ups and down; weathering them can only make you stronger. And often, these can lead to fresh opportunities for growth. This was the key takeaway that we learnt from Malaysia’s own ‘Fab Five Scale-ups’:  Aerodyne Group; KATSANA Holdings Sdn Bhd; Billplz Sdn Bhd; The Lorry Online Sdn Bhd; and Getslurp.

All five companies have gained success within their respective industries over the years. If there ever was one thing that stands out during Business Today’s interviews with these companies, it is this: accepting failure as a lesson has paved the way for them to grow beyond expectations.

To find out more about how perseverance can produce great results, we picked the brilliant minds of Kamarul A Muhamed, Founder and Group CEO of Aerodyne; Syed Ahmad Fuqaha, Co-Founder and Managing Director of KATSANA; Nazroof Hakim, CEO of Billplz; Nadhir Ashafiq, Executive Director of The Lorry; and Reza Fahmi Razali, CEO of Getslurp.

Opportunities Abound

There was an air of excitement when all five company leaders congregated in the spacious meeting room of Aerodyne’s headquarters in Phileo Damansara. After all, it is not every day that we get to sit down with five charismatic decision makers to talk about their entrepreneurial journey in Malaysia.

It became clear that the scale-up community in the country is tightknit: everyone either knows, or have interacted with each other, at one point of their scale-up life.

While the core of each business may be different, a common denominator is their involvement in on the digital ecosystem. From Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics, to payment gateway, freight and F&B management, these companies have evolved to meet the current business demands within their industries.

For Aerodyne, it was not always about providing AI-drive drone managed services for enterprises. The Group was incorporated in 2014, initially providing high-end visual solution with a strong root in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) services.

“Those days were about beautiful pictures, but we quickly realised that there is more to it than this. There is potential of what can be derived from aerial data. This was our first transformation, from beautiful pictures to ‘beautiful data’,” says Kamarul.

The company has embarked on several transformations, which soon after proved to be disruptive to larger enterprises. He explains: “A year into successfully delivering actionable data, we realised we needed to provide more. And that was our second transformation, where we provided an integrated drone-based total solution in 2016.

“Our business grew manifold as we were able to deliver real values to our enterprise clients. After all, our mantra is ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper!’”

Similar to the development of technology, digital transformation is a continuous process – a work in progress, so to speak. Just like Aerodyne, KATSANA has undergone a business transformation, which now involves the company in collecting more than three million kilometres of driving data every day.

“We too started our business in 2014, starting from a simple idea of tracking stolen   cars. Since   our   inception,   KATSANA has recovered 94% of the stolen cars under our charge,” shares Fuqaha.

From 2015 onwards, large enterprise fleets started using KATSANA. The company shifted from providing security for vehicles to providing fleet managers with the ability to understand drivers on the road and how to improve accountability among drivers.

Fuqaha adds: “New algorithms and features were engineered to provide meaningful insights for fleet managers, allowing them to rank drivers based on their behaviour on the road.”

While Aerodyne and KATSANA had to re-evaluate their business models to stay relevant, companies like Billplz, The Lorry and Getslurp, were addressing the needs from their respective industries to innovate and add value.

The payments industry has grown leaps and bounds in the advent of eCommerce. For Billplz, it means addressing the pain points for merchants who engage with payments services by providing the ability to get paid faster, at the lowest cost possible.

Nazroof, who at the time was working as a young manager in Pos Malaysia, wanted to steer the national postal service towards the eCommerce economy. He shares: “Even back in 2010, eCommerce was already showing very promising compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for gross merchandise volume (GMV) and transaction volume.”

According to Nazroof, eCommerce has three main pillars, namely merchandise, payment and delivery. “PosLaju was already doing well in delivery, so payment is the obvious thing to focus next.”

However, he got tired of waiting: “I decided to quit Pos Malaysia and applied for a grant from Cradle to develop a prototype. I also received strong support from MDEC, while MAVCAP (Malaysia Venture Capital Management Berhad) and 500 Startups joining as investors in 2015. The rest was history.”

As for The Lorry, its land freight platform connects customers to owners of lorries, vans and 4×4 pickup trucks. It is currently working with more than 5,000 drivers in three countries: Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

“Our vision has been the same from day one. It is to innovate and provide value-add to the logistics industry with technology. The industry has always been seen as a dinosaur industry – one with slow adoption of technology. We want to change this by being a proponent and champion of technology, which reduces cost and increases efficiency,” explains Nadhir.

Using technology to help other businesses, Getslurp, as the name suggests, is focused on F&B operations management. It aims to provide small to medium businesses (SMBs) in the space with the right tools, so they can compete with bigger operators that have access to numerous analytics and resources.

“The F&B market in Malaysia itself is huge. An advantage for us is that Malaysians are early adopter of technology. This has enabled us to quickly test out new ideas and technology easily,” shares Reza.

Addressing Challenges

It is easy to see that all five of these companies have worked hard to get to where they are now. All of them agree that it will usually take at least three to four years before one can fully reap what they’ve sowed.

When asked about their early days, the affable entrepreneurs recollected that while there were opportunities, there were also challenges. Nadhir recalls that the first three months was definitely tough.

“It was just us, two co-founders, working day in and day out to ensure we got as many bookings as possible. At the same time, we were trying to remain sane facing all the operational headaches,” he shares.

“Aside from operations, we also had to focus on driver recruitment, digital marketing, selling the idea to corporate clients, fund raising, hiring and about 1,001 other things! It was super hectic. It was also not easy for us to get things off the ground and gaining credibility in a traditional market.”

Similarly, for Nazroof, putting together a business strategy for Billplz was easier said than done. “I was clueless. How do you hire? How do you lead those you hired? What is even Billplz’s business model? It was then I realised why there are more employees than employers in the market.”

As for Reza, Getslurp started off with the wrong foot: “We started with a software that our merchants did not really want to use.”

He soon learnt his lesson and listened to merchant feedback – incorporating them into Getslurp’s software. In turn, the process of selling its software gradually became more easy.

Building Foundations

Having the right support system has also helped these companies to drive further growth. All five businesses have been identified as high potential companies under MDEC’s Global Acceleration and Innovation (GAIN) programme – which is helping them to expand and become global players through market access, leadership and capability development, brand visibility and scale-up capital.

“The current digital ecosystem in Malaysia is very conducive for Malaysian digital entrepreneurs. We are so blessed with all the kinds of assistance available at our disposal. Such assistance became a catalyst for growth for many companies, us included,” says Kamarul.

Fuqaha adds: “I’m beaming with pride seeing that local start-ups have mushroomed and are able to compete in the international markets. We have benefitted directly from local investments, including venture capital and government grants.”

According to Nadhir, he believes that the digital ecosystem in Malaysia has grown leaps and bounds following the dotcom bubble era.

“Malaysia is definitely not lacking in talent and the drive to build great companies. The support provided by the Malaysian government through agencies –  such as MDEC, MaGIC (Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre), Cradle and TERAJU – also contributed to the propagation of entrepreneurship in the country.” In fact, each of the five companies have been working closely with local government agencies throughout their growth journey.

“Billplz works with all the relevant agencies in Malaysia, especially with MDEC and MyNEF (New Entrepreneurs Foundation). Aside from grants, they are active in sharing business leads and aligning their agendas with actual market demand,” shares Nazroof.

KATSANA has also worked together with numerous agencies, in particularly TERAJU. Fuqaha explains: “We were the winner of the first TERAJU SUPERB Grant, awarded by the Prime Minister in 2014. The grant helped us tremendously in our research & development.

“Being a technology company, R&D costs are high. Through this, we had been able to sustain the company while our technology matures. The grant and TERAJU’s support was instrumental to our early growth.”

In his bid to ensure business continuity in its early days, Nadhir worked closely with MaGIC.

He shares: “Through my early start-up failure, I had known early on that I did not want to build The Lorry in a silo. I made it a point to join the community by signing up for a co-working space at MaGIC. I also participated in programmes such as MaGIC Academy to bolster my knowledge in digital marketing, product development and business development.”

These agencies have opened doors for the five companies to find success in Malaysia, and brought them to the point when they are now expanding their sights beyond Malaysia.

“If you are looking to expand beyond Malaysia, MATRADE is a great place to start. They have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to entering new markets,” shares Reza.

Reiterating this, Kamarul reveals that MATRADE has been helpful with its global expansion. Part of its third transformation, Aerodyne has re-engineered itself to become a global company.

“We started in March 2017 and by the end of the year, Aerodyne was already in 10 countries. Fast forward to May 2018, we are now in 18 countries, with more to come,” Kamarul shares.

Following suit to expanding beyond Malaysia is Billplz. Nazroof shares that the MDEC EXPAND programme is “a fantastic way to play your expansion”.

“I participated in the MDEC EXPAND Indonesia and found many eager partners ready to collaborate,”
he adds.

Gunning for Growth

Moving forward, the companies have plans to conquer the market and become the leaders of their industry. With more than a million F&B establishments in the region, Getslurp hopes to do well in the local market before expanding throughout the region.

For KATSANA, a high recovery rate of stolen cars of 94%, plus having its solution and scoring method adopted by the Malaysian insurance industry has been its biggest milestone so far. KATSANA now aims to make improve road safety.

A positively inspired Fuqaha says: “We want to show that our locally grown technology can be a catalyst for reducing accidents throughout South East Asia (SEA) through the intelligent use of data analytics, impactful engagements with the drivers, partnerships with motor insurers, and support from regulators. We hope to one day be the de-facto driver scoring standard across the region.”

Speaking about regional development, The Lorry aims to be the regional land freight champion that serves six key markets. Nadhir confidently replies: “I would love to be able to tell people that one out of 10 goods that are transported in SEA is done by The Lorry.”

Meanwhile, Kamarul knows Aerodyne is only going to get better.  The company is currently ranked 7th globally in the list of Top 20 drone services.

“We want to go for global market share. PwC forecasted drone-based services in the Infrastructure vertical is going to be worth more than US$42 billion (bn) by 2020. And we want to get a substantial market share of this. We think 10% is achievable…maybe even 30%,” he shares.

He adds that Aerodyne aims to be a renowned global player with leading edge AI-driven drone technology to drive notable changes in the way businesses are run. “We have some very interesting stuff hidden up our sleeves, especially with AI. This is where the future is. It is going to be mega disruptive!”

Billplz, on the other hand, has its sights on getting an IPO in the future.  “I believe every action is based on your fitrah, your primordial nature,” very strong words from Nazroof. Hitting RM1million daily in GMV (gross merchandise volume), and securing MAVCAP as an investor, are just two of the proudest moments for Billplz.

When asked what advice he has for new start-ups and entrepreneurs, he answers, “Timing is everything. Can Uber be Uber before 2007? Get A-Team to produce A result because B/C/D team produces B/C/D results. Traction for your business will materialise accordingly or not based on your timing and team.”

Reza echoes Nazroof: “Take your time to build your team and manage the cash flow. Always keep your cost low.”

“When you have an idea in mind, find a way to test it at the lowest possible cost, as fast as possible. If it works, continue to build more features, and provide value-add. If it does not, pivot to something else,” says Nadhir.

Going back to budgeting, Fuqaha adds: “I would advise would-be entrepreneurs against spending money on the development of technology when you have no customers or understanding of the market needs.”

He strongly advises to only invest in technology development after communicating with potential customers, understand their problem, and see if they are willing to engage you to solve their problem.

As Kamarul simply puts it: “Be different, as you do not become successful by just doing what others are doing. Be fluid –  as your first brilliant idea may not be the most brilliant. That said, it is not just about ideas; it is all about execution, delivery and preserving trust.”

The article was originally published in Business Today May 2018.

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