Singapore-based entrepreneur and CEO Henri Bong shares his entrepreneurial journey, tips for the budding entrepreneur, and how diversity of culture and experience has led to the success of his company Unabiz.
Singapore – entrepreneurship and diversity. By Tom Gamble, following an interview with Henri Bong. With warm thanks to Shuhui Fu.
Take a little bit of Chinese, a slice of Indonesia, a sprinkling of France, and a dash of Singapore. What have you got? CEO Henri Bong and Unabiz – a start-up-turned-tech-company that has diversity in its DNA and now an Asia-Pacific must-be in the Internet of Things.
Henri Bong’s entrepreneurial story provides a motivational recipe on using diversity for budding entrepreneurs, and also a blueprint of the unique Singaporean menu that has made the ingredients come together and work.
Diversity and the art of survival
At times, it could seem that the special magic that makes the best-ever dishes has followed Henri Bong throughout several key moments in his life. Born in a remote village in Indonesia of Chinese parents, Henri’s family had to leave during troubled times, his mother taking him at the age of 18 months to France, his father following two years later. In France, it was necessary to show proof of daring and determination and at eighteen, Henri was finally offered French nationality. By the age of 24, fate smiled again. First graduating from a French digital engineering school, he went on to take a double MBA at ESSEC Business School and Guanghua School of Management, Beijing University and landed a job – together with diplomatic passport – working for the French Embassy in Singapore.
‘This is important,’ asserts Henri. ‘I never really felt at home anywhere. I never felt at home in France because I wasn’t Cambodian, I wasn’t Indonesian, I wasn’t French. People call me Chinese but I’m not really Chinese. It was a sort of identity crisis that followed me all my life until I got to Singapore and founded Unabiz. It was possible to transform that diversity into a strength which today makes me feel like a citizen of the world. Though my experience, I’m persuaded that it’s a great advantage to understand several cultures and speak their languages.’ It also works the other way round. Customers identify with Unabiz’s willingness to get to know them. As Henri Bong says, ‘Even I’m a bit of a foreigner for everyone, I’m also a bit closer to everyone. And that’s key.’
Bringing it all together
The experience gleaned while serving as a French diplomat in Singapore sparked off the successful entrepreneur in him, his job bringing him into contact with European companies wanting to set up business in Singapore and the APAC region. Henri noticed that many of them arriving in Singapore didn’t understand how Asian people, Singaporeans and Chinese people, actually reacted to their business offer. ‘I felt that if I were taking their role – being French-educated and Asian,’ says Bong, ‘I could do it better. And thinking about doing it differently gave me the motivation to start on my own.’ His first venture was to bring French SIGFOX technology to Asia-Pacific. ‘As an entrepreneur, at times there’s a little voice that tells you that you’re the only one that can bring this in the right way to the market,’ states Henri Bong. ‘So, taking heed of instinct, I took a bet and launched myself.’ His second venture is Unabiz, a company specialising in IoT and sensors that began with investor funding of SGD15m. Four years down the road, the company now employs 68 people and is valued at SGD100m. ‘Which is unbelievable – like, how did we do that?’ smiles Henri Bong.
Insight, cultural awareness and a plunge into the risk of leaving a safe, interesting corporate job for a start-up are Henri Bong’s natural ingredients that answer the question. But there’s also that unique Singaporean flavour too that serves as a foundation to the success of the company. ‘Right from the beginning,’ states Bong, ‘the vision was to say that Singapore is the best place to start a company, to have a headquarters because of the stability, of the laws, and the government. And Singapore is very multinational because English is used.’
‘As a national or permanent resident, starting up a business is very fast and the country is a great reference place to set up business. People dare to think about new uses in technologies and in the smart city initiative, Singapore has always been for us the place to start. It may be a small market in itself – naturally because of its geographical size – but it’s a great testing ground to prove user cases and skills and prepare yourself to win bigger markets in the region or even further afield.’
Henri Bong’s rich background of cultures has rubbed off on Unabiz. ‘I speak several languages,’ he says, ‘and I realised that this was my strength and the strength that I wanted Unabiz to have.’ Today, that is reflected both at team level and among the Board. The 68 Unabiz employees count eight different nationalities, with slightly more women. The board counts in its members one Japanese, one French, one American, one Singaporean, 1 Taiwanese and the two co-founders, both French-Chinese.
Culture pays: with business on the upturn, the most significant contract of the year was won in Tokyo. A multi-million contract, it stands as probably the biggest gas metering project in the Asia region, equipping and connecting 850,000 gas meters with sensors and interpreting collected data. ‘Japan is a market that a lot of foreign companies try to get into – and they’re struggling,’ says Bong. ‘But guess what – we have a board member who is Japanese. And if you look at our shareholder table, we’re 30% of everything. And that’s beautiful. And everybody’s proud of us now: French people consider us as a French tech company and Singaporean people consider that it’s a Singapore-headquartered company – so it’s a Singapore company which won this Japanese deal.’
‘And this is all about what I think is the most important part of the story about Unabiz,’ continues Henri Bong. ‘I think that the Asian DNA of doing business is important to us. And that the strengths and weaknesses on the cultural side of the co-founders – I’m not even speaking about tech – was passed down to the company’s DNA too. We’re hybrid. We’re in some ways a Singaporean signature dish of cultures and perspectives. And that has been one of the keys to our success.’
A final touch is focus. And if Henri Bong were to offer a tip to entrepreneurs and startups it would be just that. ‘You should really know where you’re good and how the customers and stakeholders perceive you and keep on building on that instead of growing on too many things where you will be average,’ says Bong. ‘Focus on your strengths. Be the best in something instead of average in everything. That’s the biggest mistake of a lot of entrepreneurs.’
- Discover Unabiz and IoT
- Link up with Henri Bong via linkedIn
- Discover the ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific campus in Singapore
- Follow an ESSEC Business School GMBA
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