Is being in Asia a disadvantage for startups?

Is being in Asia a disadvantage for startups?

By J. Angelo Racoma

In some cases, it could be, although OnlinePianist CEO Nimrod Cohen advises entrepreneurs to find their strengths

Is being in Asia a disadvantage for startups? This particular argument has been raised time and again. While there are opportunities specific to the region (or any other region for that matter) that would be ripe for the picking for entrepreneurs, there are simply some industries that can prove difficult to crack.

For example, even amid a globalised environment in entertainment, it will not always be easy to license content on a global scale. Sometimes, application developers will find this a big roadblock in development. Given this, startups that cater to a music-oriented business might suddenly find themselves lacking for content, if no deals can be brokered with the relevant labels or studios.

Such is the case with Tel Aviv-based company OnlinePianist, which launched in May 2010 after its co-founder decided to pursue his childhood dream of learning to play the piano. According to Nimrod Cohen, Co-founder and CEO, OnlinePianist, it sometimes takes years before other industry players will get to notice a startup. This can be particularly challenging if your startup requires licensing agreements before being able to distribute or carry content. In the case of Cohen, songs are the lifeline of a music app, and licensed music might be difficult to obtain, otherwise.

e27 got the chance to interview Cohen, to ask about his experiences as the Co-founder of an Israel-based startup with an international staffing (in Toronto and Florida). Here are some highlights:

What is your take on Israel being considered a startup hub in Asia?
Well, this is not surprising at all to me actually. Asia has a huge potential to become the biggest market for technological innovations, which is Israel’s expertise. The key advantage of Israel in this regard is its vast experience in developing smart solutions for under-developed markets, which is rooted in the authentic need for smart and non-expensive innovations that were required in Israel’s early stages.

Nimrod Cohen, Co-founder and CEO, OnlinePianist

Having said that, I am one of those entrepreneurs that believes that healthy markets can absorb several good solutions for the same problem. Not every space must have one big leader and I believe that this bad  ”norm” will change in the future.

Tell us about your mobile strategy? Your app started out in the web, but you have ventured into mobile through the iPad.  Should startups focus on a mobile-first approach, or is this not necessarily the case?
OnlinePianist’s mobile strategy is quite similar to the original strategy we had when we launched the website back in 2010. We try to focus as much as possible on delivering a good product that our users will love. As to acquiring new users, we are very much into guerrilla marketing, meaning that we try to get the best understanding to where our most targeted audience is located, and then to come up with creative (meaning, not expensive) way to put our product in front of him/her.  Although web and mobile marketing methodologies are different, the basis is the same.

With regard to the best starting point — web vs. mobile — it is highly depends on the type of the product. For example, the majority of entertainment products must have mobile presence. However, I can only say that the fact we had a sustainable website before we launched our iPad application was a huge advantage to get downloads to the app.

I highly recommend creating a website for mobile apps: it can become a great source for new users if used properly.

How important is the social element in online or mobile apps, in terms of growing the user base or retaining loyalty?
The social element is crucial. I have encountered several entrepreneurs who have thought that if their product is not social in its core, they can’t get a meaningful social presence. That’s wrong. Although the question of delivering traffic is indeed debatable, app store reviews, Twitter and Facebook are highly important, not only for marketing, but also for communication with your users, finding bugs and developing new features for the product.

How would you describe your user base? Any particular demographic, age group or geographic location?
We address any piano or keyboard player who is looking to play his favorite song on the piano. A significant amount of our users are those piano players who took piano lessons in a younger age but quit after two to three years. At a later point, these users realised that they do want to play the piano, but not necessarily want to know how to read a sheet music or to learn piano theory in a professional way. OnlinePianist is the best solution for these people.

Having said that, we do have users that play for the first time using our application. The internet has created a fantastic phenomenon wherein people can learn anything and anytime, without serious financial or timely constrains.

From the perspective of a startup in Asia offering entertainment and educational solutions, do you feel that the folks in Silicon Valley have an advantage, in terms of licensing deals and contracts?
Unfortunately the answer is yes, although these gaps are getting smaller.

It took OnlinePianist three years to receive certain licenses and to get noticed by important players in the industry. I believe that being based in a better location or serious funding can overcome this.

In conclusion, Cohen states that while developers outside of  global startup hubs like Silicon Valley can sometimes face problems, they also have an advantage, in terms of their local expertise and familairity with local context. “Startups in Asia have geographic and cultural advantages that play to their benefit,” he notes.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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