Acepac International is taking an organic and paced approach to growth. The company, which specialises in supplying packaging products and materials to the likes of global logistics giant DHL and local pioneer and leader in e-commerce logistics, SingPost, is now looking to expand its operations to value-added services such as international procurement and project management.
According to Acepac International’s Head of Operations K.S. Ho, growing organically also requires the company to stay relevant and adapt to the economy. The company has opted to go down this route by digitalising their manual business processes that had been in place since it started.
“Before joining The FinLab, we had already started using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software,” said K.S. “We want to use the OCR for our customers’ POs (purchase orders), as the software can capture information into our system, such as the PO number, name and address, and generate the invoice. This can make our documents more consistent and error-free.
The solution would also help us save on labour, because if a customer comes with a PO with 11 line items, you don’t have to have to manually key in the individual line items 11 times, especially as you need to check for accuracy,” K.S. said.
Joining The FinLab introduced Acepac to innovations they have not seen, such as Spotto, an Australia-based IoT start-up which has developed a ‘tag’ that can be placed on any object to give it an online identity and record. Acepac saw that the tags could enhance the Warehouse Management System (WMS) and help them better monitor and manage their inventories, so they started their pilot with Spotto during The FinLab’s programme.
“Unlike the software we’ve bought before, Spotto’s technology operates in the cloud and helps us view our inventory through a dashboard that can be accessed from mobile or laptop devices anywhere. This can help us to scale as we can process the goods and information real-time and with more efficiency,” K.S. said.
“We’ve been giving feedback to Spotto, which has helped them to develop and improve on their product-market fit. It’s a good collaboration process and we are looking forward to bringing the partnership to a higher level after the pilot,” he added.
If you have a technology solution to help SMEs grow, apply here.
C.S. also shared the challenge in seizing the new opportunities presented by e-commerce:
“When you talk about digital transformation, the difficult part is getting out of your comfort zone and settling into a totally new environment. But the bigger challenge is the uncertainty of everything, we do not know what is going to happen next or whether our customers are going to respond as we anticipate.”
For myCK, the company saw an added value in understanding how to augment their online selling experience, by integrating videos in the sales journey and enabling robust customer engagement and feedback. Finding solutions for these areas would be the competitive edge for myCK.
According to C.S., e-commerce adds another dimension to the retail experience that is absent in physical shops. By leveraging this, he can add value to his customers’ online shopping experiences, making them more enjoyable and informative.
“In a shop you may see the basic model, you don’t see the demos on how to use the products, or what the products can do. But online you can have videos, you can have walk-throughs, things like that. By providing this two-dimensional marketing approach, our customers can understand that when they buy a certain product, it might come straight to them, but at least they know how to set it up and use it. They know what to expect when they unbox the product, so these are things that I would want to delight my customers with,” he said.
ASEAN is poised to experience one of the fastest urbanisation rates globally, with accelerating incomes, expansion and wealth accumulation, and SMEs cannot afford to be left behind in this race. By embracing new online channels, SMEs can stay competitive in a world that is transforming rapidly.
C.S. asserts that failure is inevitable when trying something for the first time, but the key is to stay focused on innovation.
“Everything is trial and error but most importantly it’s in the mindset. We must always continue with an innovative mindset,” he said.
If you have a technology solution to help SMEs grow, apply here.
Preparing SMEs for the new digital economy was the key motivation behind The FinLab’s Cycle 3 Smart Business Transformation programme. This year, The FinLab programme expanded its scope from FinTech start-ups – which it focused on in 2016 and 2017 – to help SMEs in Singapore undergo a smart business transformation.
From March to August 2018, The FinLab welcomed 11 Singapore-based SMEs whose owners understand the need to digitalize and wish to capitalize on the opportunities. It introduced the SMEs to new innovations that are applicable to their business and matched them with suitable solution providers of these innovative technology solutions. Beyond that, the SMEs were also equipped with the tools and know-how to self-innovate and keep pace with the fast-changing environment.
These 11 SMEs comprise a diverse range of industries such as retail, logistics, construction, wholesale trade, and travel. Digitalization is a need that applies across industries, and what is paramount is these SME owners have the desire to transform.
Over the four-month programme, The FinLab and the SMEs, together with the relevant solution providers co-created and ran pilots in areas such as social media marketing, new sales channels, business processes, change management and data analytics. Cycle 3 was designed with the view to use technology to address the most pressing business needs of today’s SMEs, as well as create avenues for the technology providers to commercialise their solutions.
Being the first acceleration programme in the region, the Smart Business Transformation Programme of The FinLab imparted and gained many lessons and insights into this essential digitalization journey of SMEs and solution providers across sectors. These will be valuable in serving SMEs in the region, as The FinLab brings its flagship programme to Thailand. By working with regional UOB offices, local governments and partner agencies, the programme will deliver and help drive smart business transformation and connectivity for more SMEs in the region.
The Journey of The FinLab Cycle 3:
Saying that Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of Singapore’s economy is an understatement. As they make up 99 percent of all enterprises, it is fairer to say that they are also the flesh and blood of Singapore’s economy.
However, SMEs today stand at the precipice of a new industrial age – one that is leveraging technology in ways we could not have imagined before. This is not only in relation to the great strides made in the development of once-niche technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and blockchain; the ever-expanding reach of the internet to people across the globe – and the mobile platforms that online content is being consumed through – has transformed the demands of today’s consumers.
And with evolving demands, all businesses need to adapt. Technology has given birth to new sales and distribution channels, but the cost and implementation of the right technologies remain a significant barrier to businesses bereft of the resources of large corporations. In a business environment that is being increasingly saturated with competition on the domestic and international fronts, SMEs now need to digitalize; not only to survive in the new economy but also to leverage the new opportunities and thrive in it.
While future-proofing is necessary for businesses looking to operate sustainably in today’s economy, going digital is not simply a process of latching onto whatever solutions that are present in the market. Like any new opportunities or investments, businesses need to understand what approach they wish to take that will be aligned to their strategy, followed by which technologies are right for their business model and staff.
For instance, a brick-and-mortar retailer may want to expand their customer base. The most immediate way might be to build a website to sell directly to consumers or sign up to an e-commerce platform. Each approach serves different objectives. Once the channel is decided, the retailer needs to consider how the new channel will impact inventory and delivery, and if the existing sales and marketing team can handle the requirements involved in promoting an online channel versus a brick-and-mortar one.
The retailer can also consider improving their sales efficiency by investing in technology that is able to meet the new demands of the fast-paced digital economy, to capture and share data effectively, and to plug into other third-party tools easily, and to scale it up as the business grows. These should be on top of the ability to help the business manage processes such as procurement, inventory and customer relationship management seamlessly.
Technology is ultimately an enabler for SMEs. Going digital is about seeing the big picture, choosing the right strategy and approach, and investing money and resources in the right technology. Right strategy and commitment in implementation are the keys to success in digitalization.
Eric Lew, a leading provider of land transport engineering solutions and systems with a presence in Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar and China. He also helped start Wong Fong Research & Innovation Centre (WFRIC).
In the short span of 5 years, Eric helped inject a can-do spirit in his family business, and listed the company on SGX in 2016. Today, he shares his insights and journey with us.
What were some motivations for joining the family business?
There was always an obligation to help my dad and uncle, who were working so hard. It was really out of the feeling that I could contribute and make things easier for them.
What difficulties did you face in trying to convince them to digitalize?
The generation gap poses a real challenge especially in family businesses, as the generations were brought up differently resulting in different opinions and approaches. The way to overcome these differences would be to present your ideas in a professional and logical way, and debate it bearing in mind our common objectives.
It is also important to be respectful of the core business. Don’t try to change it, but look at evolving and innovating from the core business model. The predecessors have taken much pain to build that business and this needs to be respected even as we are looking to convince them on new ideas.
What convinced you to digitalize or implement tech solutions in your business?
This was a natural progression for me, also because it is quite difficult to define ‘digitalization’. Implementing solutions like Customer Relationship Management (CRM), being active on social media, and internet marketing came naturally and gradually. Of course, this process has potential to be improved but this is always a work in progress.
What drove you to start the Research and Innovation arm of your business?
We SMEs are often stuck in a reactive stance. Often we are waiting for government organizations to take the lead in stimulating the market by awarding more contracts or grants; much like waiting for durians to fall from the tree. So with Research & Innovation, we are looking to formulate a preemptive stance, and take a more aggressive approach to growing our business. Looking at how fast technology, the economy and the business environment are changing, I think we needed to be less reactive and more proactive.
How have these implementations raised the profile of your company?
We took a rather audacious step but the true motivation was to inspire people. Firstly for our own company to have the confidence to make these leaps in innovation, but also to inspire other Singaporeans to do the same.
It is difficult to measure it in terms of dollars and cents as the value is intrinsic. Besides being known as a brand that can-do and will-do, the knowledge from the research and development work put in can be extended and applied to other areas and products as well. These will eventually bear fruits in time to come.
What would you like to see more of in the tech and digital space, in relation to SME business transformation and digitalization?
I believe strongly in the cross pollination of ideas. Things like design thinking and futuristic mindsets can be applied to traditional businesses. I think there is more room for cross disciplinary collaboration. Many industries are already overlapping, and initiatives that bring different forms of expertise together in collaborative efforts will be successful. At this rate of change, it is not business as usual anymore, SMEs have to consult the right experts and make the necessary changes.
What advice do you have for SME owners who are looking to digitalize?
It is good to digitalize, so as to keep up, but SMEs must be careful not to invest too aggressively or take too large a risk in trying to implement new solutions without first understanding how these impact overall business and process flows. For example: don’t implement in silos, but take in the big picture instead. There must be a right balance.
Darren Lim, a homegrown manufacturer of drapery, soft furnishing and shading systems. He is also the second generation slated to take over this business that was started by his parents in 1989. Over the 28 years, Estil is known for the quality of their products particularly in the commercial property sector.
In the 2 short years he joined his parents’ company, Darren made simple changes using essential technology solutions, and made significant improvements to the business revenue, processes and operations. He shares with us some insights into the journey.
What were some motivations for joining the family business?
I initially wanted to experience the corporate world, but as I was looking, I realized I already had relevant work skills to help out in the family business as I had run my own business while in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Hence I understood the struggles, ins and outs of business.
At the time, Estil Furnishing was not doing too well, there were very little sales and enquiries, so I decided to put whatever skillsets I had into helping my parents first. Seeing them stressed about their business and livelihood motivated me to want to help alleviate the pressure and grow the business.
What difficulties did you face in trying to convince the older generation to digitalise?
I think that everyone that wants to change will face an initial resistance. My parents did not understand why they should change, or why they should spend a sum of money on something they didn’t believe in.
I soon understood that this was because of cash flow problems. If you could not afford to support the monthly salary of your staff, how would you be able to spend on digitalizing? A lot of SMEs in Singapore adopt a reactive, fire-fighting stance towards business. When times are good, the business owners enjoy the success, but few have contingencies for rainy days.
So how did you overcome this resistance?
You overcome the resistance by giving the older generation a taste of what’s out there. I started by introducing my parents to Google Drive. The idea of using Google Drive or Dropbox didn’t come as naturally to them as they did for me and my peers, but when my parents saw the convenience of using Google Drive, it helped our productivity.
Initially when clients made enquiries, we would need to scan images one by one from a physical catalog, before emailing it to the client. I then helped them redesign their product catalog into a digital format, making it consistent, and then uploaded it onto Google Drive, which gave them instant access to all their product information. This greatly simplified the work process. So giving the older generation a taste of what tech can achieve, will help them open up more to the idea.
What convinced you to digitalize/ implement tech solutions in your business?
I see myself as an effective worker, I do not like to waste time. So I’m attracted to any process that allows for unnecessary work to be cut out. In my family business there were too many workflow inefficiencies that relied heavily on pen and paper, which was what drove me to implement some form of tech solutions.
What were some of the tech solutions that you implemented? And how did they raise the profile of your business?
I think the most basic thing was to update our website and social media presence. Though this was a no brainer for me, it was something completely new for my parents. Furthermore, it’s not only about building a website, but also using Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) to make sure that we were visible online.
Another challenge was that my parents were not willing to trust a hired salesperson with the business contacts and tricks of the trade, given that Singapore is so small. So I managed to convince them to engage a ‘digital salesman’, which was our website. I worked out the sums, and the amount they would need to create and maintain the website – and do digital marketing – was cheaper than hiring a full-time worker. After SEO and SEM, there was a large, noticeable improvement in the number of enquiries and clients that we got, so I think employing this strategy was a simple first step that paid off.
Should SMEs digitalize? Why?
I don’t think it’s a question of should SMEs digitalize anymore. Simply put, SMEs MUST digitalize. Ten years ago, the answer to this question might have been different. Mobile technology and the internet was still relatively unproven, and traditional processes still worked. But the rate at which technology is changing and disrupting business is too fast for SMEs to ignore. SMEs must start implementing tech solutions, at least at the basic level with a website or social media presence. “Everyone is impatient now, and if you are unwilling to change, the world simply will not wait for you.”
The advent of the new digital age has been coined by some as the 4th Industrial Revolution. Digitalisation is reshaping consumer behaviour, and in turn businesses, with new tech solutions being developed at an unprecedented pace. For the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) today – who account for majority of businesses in Singapore – the rate of change means that there is much ground to catch up on, especially for SMEs operating on a traditional business model.
This speed of change was recently discussed at our Smart Business Transformation event for SMEs held at ACE International Centre on 8 February 2018. The FinLab’s MD Felix Tan moderated a panel comprising Patrice Choong, Director of the Sandbox at Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP); Eric Lew, Executive Director of Wong Fong Industries; and Darren Lim, Marketing Manager of Estil Furnishing.
While the need for transformation was evident because of the rapidly evolving landscape, the panel shared insights on challenges faced by SMEs embarking on this journey. These include finding the right talent, managing change within the company, and having the right skillsets and knowledge to strategise and innovate.
“SMEs find it difficult to scale overseas”, said Patrice, “mainly because it is challenging to find the right talent willing and able to relocate to other countries”. Patrice subsequently shared that educational institutions like NP are looking to help the SMEs bridge this skills gap. “By allowing students to run their own start-ups in exchange for academic credits, we are empowering them with the practical, real-world skills that the businesses of the future so greatly desire”, he said.
Additionally, Darren mentioned that it was “difficult to convince [his] parents to digitalise because they were initially quite resistant to change,”. He continued that business transformation typically “happens from the top down, and it is hard for someone in the middle to work against that flow of authority to bring about change,”. This underlines the major issue facing all new technologies today – that no matter how useful or relevant the technology is, its application in the real world will face the natural change resistance of the people who will be using it or the people that will be displaced.
Change management is hence a core skill that SME leadership teams will need to have, as well as the ability to lead the company amidst the rapid winds of change.
Despite the challenges raised, the panel maintained an optimistic outlook. Technology is now more accessible than before, with cloud-based solutions that can enable SMEs to adopt proportionately with its growth. If used appropriately and combined with the right strategy, technology offers SMEs a chance to level the playing field and reach new customers. .
Eric noted that SMEs could also have the agility of a start-up, if armed with the right mindsets and skillsets for innovation and progressive change. This is something that can be first imbued in the classroom, and then inculcated through frequent practice.
The panel agreed that SMEs enjoy the great breadth that the ‘Singapore’ brand carries. “As a centre of political stability and economic prosperity, Singapore serves as a gateway to ASEAN and the world,” Patrice said.
So despite the shifting headwinds of change, the SMEs in Singapore have a chance to innovate and digitalise, forging the way as the next generation of SME champion for Singapore. The need is clear, and probably easily summarised in the common saying “Innovate or die.”