How easy is doing business Singapore and what should you know before setting up in the country? As a gateway to some of the world’s most exciting markets, Singapore presents excellent opportunities for British companies, says Alex Runne, the Asia business leader of innovation agency ?What If!
Founded in 1992 by Dave Allan and Matt Kingdon, ?WhatIf! is the world’s largest independent innovation consultancy. Employing 250 staff globally, it turned over £34m last year, helping clients such as Google, Unilever and PepsiCo unlock their in-house creativity. With UK offices in London and Manchester, strong growth in the last two decades has seen the company expand into São Paulo, New York, Shanghai – and, last year, Singapore.
Alex Runne, the company’s Asia business leader, has been with ?WhatIf! since 2006 and was tasked with setting up the firm’s new Singapore base. “We’ve been working in Asia for about 15 years,” he explains. “We used to be serviced by a team from London, who’d travel to Asia and work on client projects, but as we grew we decided to set up a permanent base. We opened our Shanghai office in 2006 and our base in Singapore in 2013.”
Why Singapore? “It used to be that a western business like ours would open up one outpost in Asia. They might have picked Hong Kong or Tokyo, or if they were especially adventurous, mainland China. As the economies of Asia have become more robust and sophisticated, the region has segregated. You now have two major economic zones within Asia: greater China – where the most important hub is Shanghai – and Singapore.”
Aside from its favourable tax rates, Singapore has a business-friendly government, and great transit links. “Geographically, Singapore is at the heart of some of the world’s most exciting markets,” explains Runne. “It’s close to Australia, Thailand, Myanmar [Burma], Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia – giving businesses access to a huge swathe of the world’s population.”
Making a move
On arriving in Singapore, the first step for ?WhatIf! was engaging with the government. “There’s an organisation called the Economic Development Board (EDB), tasked with growing the country’s commercial base. In our early dealings with the government, a couple of things happened: they hired us for a number of small-scale engagements and we started talking to them about the scope of the broader opportunity landscape.”
At the same time, a number of the company’s multinational clients, who’d been working with the agency in China, wanted to branch out to Singapore, but couldn’t afford to fly members of the ?WhatIf! team to the region every day. “You have to look at the difference between a greater China base and a Singapore base as the difference between London and New York geographically. You wouldn’t expect, if you were a British business working with the US, to be able to fly your consultants over for a two-hour meeting every other day. That’s why it made sense for us to have an office in Singapore.”
There is also great demand for innovation consultants in the country. “We’re very lucky because we’re one of very few scaled, global players in innovation. We’ve generated great returns for our clients over the years so since being in Singapore we’ve been approached to do a lot of fantastic, high-impact work.”
Nor has the business needed to engage with the British Chambers of Commerce in the country. “Everything is legally transparent and it’s simple to incorporate, so you need less support. Work and socialising blend in a very organic way in Singapore – you meet people you might want to work with, or for, or alongside, really easily.”
Singapore, he adds, is highly globalised. “It’s comfortable, extremely clean and all business is conducted in English.”
“Although we haven’t faced too many difficulties, human capital in Singapore is a challenge because it’s a very small, regulated domestic market,” says Runne. “There’s about 1.8 per cent unemployment in the country so it makes the hunt for great talent very competitive. ?WhatIf! is a creative and strategic business, and finding people who can wear both of those hats is no easy task, even in huge markets where people are actively looking for jobs.”
The business employs five staff in Singapore but the goal is to expand to 25 people over the next 24 months. The agency is also looking to hire more local staff. “We don’t recruit people on the basis of tax benefits, but the EDB does offer incentives for training Singaporean citizens or permanent residents into new jobs. If you find a great employee who also happens to be a Singaporean permanent resident or citizen there is often government support for the salary during the training and development period.”
Runne explains that employment laws are very similar to those in Europe and the US. “It’s employer friendly. Hours in Asia are generally a bit longer than the UK, but because Singapore is fairly westernised there’s a healthy respect for weekends and not working really long days. It’s inevitable you’re going to have out-of-hours calls working from Singapore, though, because your business and your client base will doubtless have stakeholders in London, New York, Paris or other countries.”
In the coming year ?WhatIf! is focusing on expanding its presence in Singapore. Runne believes there’s no other country with a more friendly business environment for SMEs. “Singapore is one of the most dynamic countries you can imagine. We’re creating solutions for some of the most sophisticated market economies, such as Japan and Australia, as well as helping drive growth in the freshest emerging economies, including Vietnam. You’d struggle to find any other market on the planet where you get that kind of exposure – it’s a very exciting place to be.”
Singapore Fact File
The four official languages are English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.
“The botanic gardens are immense – it’s an interesting place to visit and great for a stroll,” says Runne.
“Singapore has the best street food in Asia: an incredible mix of Indian, Malaysian and Chinese cuisine. My favourite thing on earth is to go to the East Coast Lagoon Food Centre and sit on the beach with a Tiger beer and satay.”
Where to stay
“The Ascott near Raffles Place has really nice apartments. Asian hotel standards are higher than in the West because the properties tend to be newer and people anticipate a higher level of service. Raffles Place is where a lot of the action is for business, so as long as your hotel is near there or the MRT, which is the subway, you’ll be fine.”
Singapore Airlines flies daily from Heathrow to Singapore.
(020 7838 5989).