Powering a Creative Economy in the Internet age

Truffles by Brian from BRICK

My friend Terence from SGE recently wrote an interesting article on “The rise of platformed creativity in Asia and how it’s connecting creators to consumers” In a brief, he touched on the increasing availability of online platforms/marketplaces where creative goods and services can be exchanged. Many of the listed startups, including our own online store CuriousCatch.com, are fairly new channels that are reinventing (or replicating) what their overseas counterparts are doing. These overseas sites include Fab, Etsy and Kickstarter, which are more established and well-funded than most of us.

Since our announced launch in 31 July, this year, we’ve been getting a variety of feedback and suggestions from our customers and personally I’ve come to learn more about how the local market consumes creative goods and services as compared to a market like the U.S. or China. There’s also much to learn from studying brick & mortar set-ups in the same space, including multi-label boutiques and flea markets. Expanding on what Terence has shared, I hope to explore what are the pre-conditions necessary for the success of platformed creativity in Asia, particularly Singapore.

The Big Apple

A New Yorker consumes differently as compared to a Singaporean.

A friend of mine shared this fascinating story on how he’s able to build film sets cheaply as a film student from scavenging the more well-to-do parts of the city. He’s found fairly new furniture (e.g. sofas) that’s probably been used for 3 to 6 months dumped on the streets. These households consist of mainly working professionals with ready disposable income to spend. Used to the idea of online transactions and fast domestic shipping from dominant eCommerce players like Amazon.com.

Dot-com companies, Fab, Etsy and Kickstarter are all based in New York, a city which for the last few decades been a haven for artists like Andy Warhol, singers like Bob Dylan and the advertising Mad Men from Madison Avenue. Earlier this year, New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, initiated a campaign to push for growth in its budding technology scene. According to Mashable, it is currently the second-highest ranked city in the U.S. for attracting venture capital dollars after Silicon Valley.

Every year, thousands of eager students from all over the country and the world attend some of the very best arts schools in the nation: from the New York Academy of the Dramatic Arts (NYADA) to Parsons New School of Design. Some will find fame in Broadway and a few will line the honours of the prestigious Art Directors Club.

An equally eager and enthusiastic crowd of 2.5 million visitors will come to tour the aisles of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) every year, including shopping at the renowned MoMA Store, which supports local and international industrial designers (e.g. Japanese retailer, MUJI).

Herein, lies huge brick-and-mortar stores of retailer IKEA and Target situated right at the heart of one of the major fashion capitals of the world.

All in all, a great combination of creative talent backed by steady venture capital and a ready domestic market open to spending online. Despite all of that, there’s still a missing piece: a powerful media able to influence the entire nation (and the world).

From the widely read International Herald Tribune to fashion bible, VOGUE magazine. The city’s media conglomerates include, Time Warner, News Corporation and Viacom.

Perhaps New York can be best described as a hot bed of great ideas fuelled by media and led by generations of creative pioneers.

Whoever Controls the Media

In short, New York is what Singapore (or any Asian capital city) can hope to be in the next few decades in the creative disciplines + technology scene. The toughest challenge will be working on our culture and our media’s ability to disseminate ideas to the rest of Asia in English; the de facto language to do business.

With the shift of media consumption patterns, the Internet has allowed many internet-based media outlets to start from a clean slate to disrupt the incumbents. Here’s an opportunity for journalist and writers to create world-class content on the internet and we’re (Singapore) already later than our American counterparts.

I personally think the work local technology publications like Tech in Asia, e27 and SGE is important as their success would mean that future technology startups in Singapore can disseminate information at a regional level and gain a head start. I’m heartened that many are working on multi-lingual dissemination and local partnerships with regional markets to grow their readership base.

Media in the regional Internet space is now a mad land grab and those who have the lion’s share will influence the next generation of consumers. It would be silly for any venture capitalist to miss out on the opportunity to back a growing internet media outlet with such aspirations. So who’s backing the next Wall Street Journal and Monocle?

Culture & Consumption

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.
~John F. Kennedy

Singapore is hardly ever known as a creative city with tough censorship and media-related laws. Local artists have to struggle to find balance between freedom of expression and civil obedience. Historically, many local talents are either lured by more lucrative careers in service and finance industries or have took their talents elsewhere.

The scene is changing with internationally acclaimed institutions like Hyper Island and events like CreativeMornings/Singapore bringing together foreign talents and local creatives in one common space. Because art & creativity has the ability to transcend nationality and enrich culture, the Singapore government is also lending more financial support and creating the necessary infrastructure for a creative culture to thrive.

Unfortunately, a culture of consumption will not change overnight. Local startups find themselves in a small domestic market and fragmented regional market when they start their business in Singapore.

The challenge of a fragmented regional market means many Singapore startups will have to go hyper local to scale. Presently, we’re also faced with a less design savvy market as compared to our East Asian neighbours like Japan and South Korea. This means that many of these startups will have to be educating the market and waiting for a growing middle class with higher disposable incomes who may come to appreciate the value of design.

It’s baffling why consumers wouldn’t mind spending several months of their pay cheques on branded goods but insist on bargaining for handicrafts at flea markets. Or as a local doctor would have put it, consumers here are willing to spend their fortunes on cosmetic surgery but will complain about high clinical consultation fees for flu and fever.

Solutions for a Creative Economy

Make no mistake, the presence of platformed creativity in sheer numbers is not representative of a viable market ready to consume creative goods and services at scale. They are simply an indication that there are willing and passionate entrepreneurs ready to make a change in the creative and technology scene.

Those who are here for the long run and are ready to educate local and regional consumers will learn to build a sizeable (and perhaps loyal) following. With the availability of popular internet media channels available to local startups, our go-to-market cycles should be reduced and thus free talents from bad ideas so we can work on better ones.

The next 5 years will be an interesting for entrepreneurs blending creative disciplines + tech. Especially when we’re witnessing an influx of foreign talents assimilating to the local culture and participate in creative projects that will push the bar for all creative disciplines from fashion to film.

The media players here will have to think bigger and scale abroad too. America was the first to dominate as a soft power after the war. In the last two decades, our East Asian neighbours had a head-start with South Korean and Japanese culture assimilating in global music and film. Today, China is catching up fast. Their sheer number in talents creating exportable content will help solidify their position as a future soft power.

Consumer startups cannot afford to stay under the radar and that is why mainstream media will play a pivotal role in lifting all technology startups in South-East Asia. Look at the growth and incubation period of Etsy and Kickstarter below. For every of these success story we know of, there are plenty of unknowns we’ve yet to hear about from the news. Yet the media continues to propel the growth of Etsy and Kickstarter.

Parts of the puzzle are still missing for entrepreneurs hoping to grow and capture the hearts of regional consumers. Yet, exploring the unknown is what makes the work of a pioneer is exciting: we get to set the rules while disrupting and consolidating markets.

Welcome to Globalisation 2.0.

Disclaimer: The writer is the organiser of CreativeMornings/Singapore

Featured Artwork by Brian from BRICK

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