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Shinta Dhanuwardoyo: A digital trail-blazer enabling the next start-ups

December 31, 2016

Shinta Dhanuwardoyo is founder and chief executive of Bubu.com, one of Indonesia's first internet companies. She was a digital pioneer when she launched Bubu.com as a web development business in 1996. It has since grown into a leading full-service digital agency. Dhanuwardoyo is also a start-up mentor and investor. She spoke with Julian Lorkin at the BusinessThink Indonesia forum in Jakarta. 

An edited transcript of the conversation follows. 

BusinessThink: Can I start with Bubu.com? After all, it's been around for 20 years. That's really quite consistent for an internet company which can often rise and fall. How have you achieved such consistency over two decades? 

Dhanuwardoyo: [When] I started Bubu.com in 1996 [we had] a humble beginning. We started as a web design company. So at that time, not many people were actually using the internet, and we wanted to create a company that helped to design websites as a company profile for different companies. And so what happened is that I was not only selling products, which were websites, but I ended up educating people about the internet. So first we would talk to people about, 'what is the internet?', and second we would describe to them what a website is. 

It was not really easy at that time to start a company, you know, selling websites, which people probably didn't need and didn't understand what [they were]. But I'm such a believer in the internet, and actually I fell in love [with the] internet and it became one of my passions. So that's why I was able to stick [with it] from 1996 until today, in which Bubu has now become one of the leading digital agencies in Indonesia. 

And I believe all that is because I have the tenacity to really build the company, and push through and take risks, and actually I'm probably failing more than [having] success. But that's part of being an entrepreneur, and if you don't fail then I don't think you are an entrepreneur yet. But I believe that in creating a company over almost two decades, what you need is [to] be creative and be innovative and [to not] give up. That's the recipe. 

BusinessThink: How do you do that and not just get discouraged? After all, for many people, if they have a company and it fails, then they may be thinking, 'Why bother?' How do you just keep on going and understanding what went wrong? 

Dhanuwardoyo: First of all you need to make sure you're doing your passion. And like I said, the internet has become my passion, so I always wake up feeling energised, like this is what I want to do every day. I found that with the internet, and so I create things around [it]. I've been creating more than 10 companies within that 20 years, so Bubu's not the only company. But it may not have survived, because I was either too early, or the market was not ready. So I learn from that. I learn from that mistake, and you just need to fail and then you have to get up fast, and faster than before. And that way, you push yourself, and when you push yourself, and you push something that is your passion, you'll be happy doing it, and hopefully you'll get that success that you want.

‘If it’s not the right thing, you have to get ready to biff it. You have to make sure it’s better than what you’ve done before’ 

– shinta dhanuwardoyo

BusinessThink: And the internet certainly seems to be moving so much faster nowadays as well. After all, 20 years ago you'd be looking at timescales of years to create a website and gradually establish a company. Now many start-ups are hoping to get the website up within a couple of weeks, and they've got a three-month timespan to make money. How do you manage to achieve that now in such a short timespan?

Dhanuwardoyo: Actually, when you talk about start-ups, especially in Indonesia ... I mean, we've talked and we've had a lot of discussion on start-ups, and actually we've seen some great ones coming up from Indonesia, [such as] Go-Jek. And there's Tokopedia, Bukalapak and Traveloka, [which have] been disrupting the market and the industry. When we talk about technology, it's all about speed and how fast can you get things done. But it is also, like I said, [about] how fast can you see whether this is the right thing that you're doing? And if it's not the right thing, you have to get ready to biff it. You have to make sure it's better than what you've done before.

BusinessThink: So how can Indonesia take its place in the global digital space? There are lots of start-ups in Indonesia that are very big in the country, but how can they then expand, and expand globally?

Dhanuwardoyo: I think there's a lot of challenges that we face within the start-ups in Indonesia itself. One is that we may not have a lot of high-skilled developers or programmers, which I think is the basic need of any tech company. And unfortunately we do not have many of them. There are some – I'm not saying there's none – but there are not enough if we want to grow all the companies in Indonesia to be tech-based, because at the end of the day when you talk about a digital economy, any industry will have to go into tech.

When everyone's getting into tech, you need the right human resource to help you and support you in doing that. And so as you can see, a lot of the big tech start-ups in Indonesia [have] ended up hiring programmers from India, from eastern Europe, which is the thing that we probably need to solve from the beginning. It's like how can we create the high-skilled developers in Indonesia?

So one way to do it is probably we can work with corporations, big tech giants, that are already in the country and help to do workshops or train our developers. That's one [thing]. And I myself do a number of initiatives to help the tech start-ups. One is that I created a non-profit organisation which is based in Silicon Valley, because when we talk about tech start-ups, we talk about Silicon Valley. I've been grateful that I have [gained] a lot of network in Silicon Valley.

So what I do is every year I [take] a number of Indonesian tech start-ups to Silicon Valley for a week, and then I open my network, together with my partners in Silicon Valley, because there are four of us. The organisation is called Silicon Valley Asia Technology Alliance. And what we do is bring the start-ups to meet, for instance, a Facebook vice-president, to meet the head of developers at Apple, to meet venture capital funds over there, to meet developers, to meet other tech start-ups in Silicon Valley so they can network, so they can get inspired. Those are the things that I think start-ups need to see and embrace.

And another thing that I'm doing is I've created an angel investor network, called Angel-eQ Network, where I have 14 of my friends – so there's 15 of us – that are ready to help fund tech start-ups in Indonesia. The idea is not only helping start-ups to get funded, but I'm actually educating high net worth individuals to start investing in tech start-ups. So half of our angel investors has done investment; the other half has not done it. So when we do it together, co-invest together, everyone will feel more comfortable investing.

BusinessThink: And yet it seems to be such a difficult thing for people who have come up with, say, maybe a great idea for a new digital product, a new website, to get their head around everything. You may get people who are very good coders, other people who are very good at being creative, and other people who are good at raising money. The few start-ups that seem to succeed are the ones that do everything. Now, how can you advise people to get a holistic view of everything together so they can get their start-up to succeed?

Dhanuwardoyo: I think my advice to start-ups is always execute, because I get start-ups [coming] up to me and they ask, 'Bu Shinta, how do I make sure that my ideas don't get stolen?' For me, that's, like, ridiculous, because if you have ideas, then that's only ideas. If you don't execute, it's nothing. So [it's like] the saying that ideas are cheap, execution is king. Unless you execute, your idea's nothing for me.

And then I always tell them that like any other entrepreneur, if you create a company the first thing you need to do is monetise. Make sure a company can monetise and make money, just like if you're creating any other company, not just tech companies.

BusinessThink: It's surprising the number of start-ups that may have a great product but have no idea about the importance of ...

Dhanuwardoyo: Of monetising.

BusinessThink: Exactly.

Dhanuwardoyo: I came from a background where I had no angel investor, I had no mentor. I started everything from zero. So I say, 'It's doable, guys. Just do it. Build a company where you know it's going to make money, and it's going to survive by itself. Don't think that you're building a company to raise funds', which is ... that's very wrong.

‘I always tell them that like any other entrepreneur, if you create a company the first thing you need to do is monetise’ 

– shinta dhanuwardoyo

BusinessThink: Another lesson for tech start-ups is to have people who are very good at individual areas. And indeed, men and women can often come up with different ideas about different areas, which is very good, just having those different concepts coming into a start-up. Maybe that's why – and I've seen some forecasts – that Indonesia will be  Asia's e-commerce centre. Why is Indonesia again so good at selling stuff over the web?

Dhanuwardoyo: Well, first of all, we have to see that Indonesia's such a big market. We're the biggest market in ASEAN. So we're predicting that 52% of the e-commerce market will be in Indonesia. So with that start, we already have the market, which is 250 million plus people. And I think e-commerce is going to be a very important integral part of Indonesia, because we're such a spread-out country – 17,000 islands – the answer is having an e-commerce to connect everyone in distribution.

And we're predicting in 2020 we'll have revenue of about US$130 billion ($170 billion) from e-commerce. So I think it's just the necessity of this country. I mean, everyone's so spread-out, and we see that e-commerce could be a solution to help everyone.

BusinessThink: And Indonesia seems be very successful in terms of social media. There seem to be more people active on Twitter in Jakarta than anywhere else in the world, and the same for many other aspects of social media. Why has Indonesia so embraced social media, and what are the e-commerce opportunities there?

Dhanuwardoyo: I think, first of all, Indonesia has a very young population – 50% of our population is below 30 years old. So from there, you see this young population that is eager to try anything. And we notice that the Indonesian youth love to try social media, so that's why we're big on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

And it's so funny that a lot of the e-commerce started from social media. We see how people are actually selling stuff over Facebook, over Instagram, and they make tons of money. It's not just a small amount of money. So I think this is a great way for Indonesians to actually educate themselves, to be starting what you call the e-commerce. It may not be a full-blown e-commerce, but it's a good gateway for people to start learning how to do e-commerce in Indonesia. It's through social media.

And, you know, people say, 'Oh, Indonesia is high on social media. It's because Jakarta has so much traffic.' So that's another excuse that we usually give out – like, 'Oh, yeah. Because we're 'so traffic', and we have nothing to do in the car, so we start using our mobile phones and do social media.' But for me, I think it's more because we're just such a young population, and we're so eager to try and [create] innovations out there. 

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