As the global economy experiences a downturn, startups in Southeast Asia are experiencing challenges in the funding landscape that demands innovative strategies and resilience. With traditional investment channels showing signs of caution, many enterprises are navigating uncharted waters while also having to keep an eye on changing VC trends. 

As of May 31, venture capital (VC) funding for this year in Southeast Asia had reached USD 4 billion, marking a 65% decline compared to the initial six months of 2022, according to Preqin. The “funding winter” has prompted startups to refine their pitches and business models to survive. 

Navigating the challenging funding winter in Southeast Asia’s startup landscape

The rise in global interest rates and the reduced growth of major tech companies like Grab and GoTo from Singapore and Indonesia, respectively – both serving as benchmarks for venture capital in the region – are impacting the value of younger companies and investor confidence. 

Ryu Muramatsu, a founding partner at GMO Venture Partners, a VC firm that has invested in some of the region’s largest tech firms, noted that the sluggish performance of industry leaders is significantly affecting the worth of startups that are not listed, thereby dampening their potential. With the valuations of tech giants like Grab and GoTo having decreased by over 70% and almost 68%, respectively, since their initial public offerings within the last eighteen months, venture capitalists will anticipate exits at considerably lower valuations, impacting their potential returns.

Numerous venture capitalists have transitioned their focus away from investing in new ventures, instead concentrating on managing their existing portfolios. This shift is particularly noticeable among investors based in the United States, who had been actively entering the region during the pandemic; however, as higher interest rates lead to lower valuations of growth-oriented stocks and restrict avenues for startups’ financial exits, these investors are now proceeding more cautiously.

Less VC investment: Is it a blessing in disguise?

Even amidst the challenging landscape of securing funds, Mei Lin Ng’s story offers a glimmer of hope to entrepreneurs. The co-founder and CEO of Hearth Display, a New York digital touch screen organiser manufacturer, provides a notable example of achieving success by raising less capital. Despite pursuing discussions with venture capitalists during the optimistic period of 2020, she managed to secure only USD 100k in the pre-seed round. 

Over time, the company has raised slightly more than USD 3 million, with its latest funding round occurring in the summer of 2022, totalling USD 2.8 million. This comparatively moderate investment has worked in Ng’s favour, especially given the cautious nature of the current venture capital environment. 

Another entrepreneur, David Rabie, the co-founder and CEO of Chicago-based Tovala, a food-tech service providing meal kits and electric ovens to subscribers, took a careful and disciplined approach to hiring and marketing expenses. In the years following its launch in 2015, Tovala raised a total of USD 68 million. 

Rabie’s experience working within constraints, a situation many startups are currently dealing with, fostered a different perspective. It underlines the principle that not every investment opportunity needs to be pursued. Even during the flush of venture capital funds in 2020, Rabie made the decision to decline an offer, highlighting the importance of judicious decision-making in a volatile investment landscape. Many Southeast Asian startups can take hope and follow the lessons from such stories.

How can startups in Southeast Asia prepare for the next funding winter?

One of the primary ways startups can prepare for a funding winter is by demonstrating a clear path to profitability and sustainable growth. They should shift their focus from rapid expansion at any cost to achieving a balance between scaling operations and generating revenue. By showcasing a solid business model and a strong value proposition, startups can attract investors even during challenging times. 

For startups that successfully secured capital within the previous year, it becomes paramount to delve into strategic avenues that extend the runway of available cash resources. This move entails not only the postponement of substantial capital commitments but also entails a comprehensive reevaluation of the existing terms associated with debt repayment. Beyond these immediate measures, startups should also consider prudent adjustments in their expenditure patterns, reassessing non-essential expenditures and reallocating resources to areas that directly bolster growth and revenue generation. 

The current funding winter has cast its shadow over startups in Southeast Asia and has prompted a remarkable shift in VC trends and funding strategies in the region. While initially posing a formidable challenge, it has ultimately led to a wave of innovation and adaptation. 

Regional startups have displayed remarkable resilience, diversifying their income sources and refining their approaches. As the funding landscape evolves, the lessons learned during this period have forged a more robust and dynamic ecosystem that will undoubtedly contribute to the continued growth and success of the region’s entrepreneurial endeavours.