Asian Unicorns: the rise of the billion dollar startup – and what we can learn from them

'Asian Unicorns’ have changed the lives and livelihoods of millions of people through the power of technology. Here, the faces behind Meesho and Tokopedia, two of Asia's fastest growing companies, share their insights on how these billion dollar startups were built and the underlying personal stories behind them in a conversation moderated by Campaign’s global editor-in-chief Gideon Spanier and Facebook’s Tawana Murphy.

Multiple tech trends, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, have led to a big shake-up in consumer behaviour and expedited the growth of e‑commerce across Asia. While a number of online players have capitalised on this huge and fast‑growing market, only a very few have achieved a billion-dollar valuation. 

That said, companies like India’s social commerce platform Meesho and Indonesia’s largest online marketplace Tokopedia are at the forefront of this revolution.

To understand what gets you from $0 to $1 billion and what legacy companies can learn from innovation cycles and disruptive thinking, here are some highlights from Pioneers | Conversations on our Industry's Future — Asian Unicorns, featuring Tokopedia’s VP marketplace Inna Chandika and Meesho’s co-founder and CEO Vidit Aatrey, moderated by Gideon Spanier, Campaign’s global editor-in-chief, and Singapore-based Tawana Murphy, Facebook’s director, global client & categories.

Having a laser focus on market needs
In a country where 120 million Indonesians live outside urban areas across the 17,000 island archipelago, Tokopedia was launched in 2009 with the mission to democratise commerce through technology, notes Chandika. The company now reaches 99 percent of districts in Indonesia and provides 500,000 payment points, while its 11 million merchants offer in excess of 550 million products. “This super e-commerce ecosystem makes it easier for people from all walks of life to access quality products and services, anytime and anywhere,” says Chandika, adding that even her mother, who’s in her 60s, opened a thriving store on Tokopedia.

Going big & doing good
In just over five years, Vidit Aatrey, co-founder and CEO of India’s largest social commerce company, Meesho, has gone from zero to hero. The Bangalore-based company became one of ten companies from India to join the unicorn club this year, after reaching a valuation of $2.1 billion following an investment of $300 million led by SoftBank. But Meesho doesn’t just impress with numbers-the company is also praised for empowering female entrepreneurs. “One of the early keys to the company’s success,” says Aatrey, “was the discovery that 85-90 percent of women drop out of the workforce after marriage but want to start their own business. Our goal is to give each and every one of them the power to open their own online store.”

Scaling growth
One of the keys to scaling growth is collaboration. “Our vision is to build bridges not walls,” as Chandika says. “In addition to our ever-growing relations with vendors, we have also partnered with local government and community organisations. People can pay their utility bills or taxes on Tokopedia, making us a one-stop shop for every Indonesian.” Tokopedia’s biggest partnership, however, is its US$18 billion merger with ride-hailing and payments giant Gojek to create the GoTo Group, which represents an ecosystem accounting for two percent of Indonesia’s GDP. The merger, along with the company’s plan to go public later this year, is certain to boost the company’s ambition to expand overseas and compete with tech ‘super-unicorns’ such as Alibaba and Amazon. “The merger has a lot of synergy and will allow our company — and Indonesia’s digital economy — to go to the next level, says Chandika. “We aim to be the ‘go to’ system for daily life, for e-commerce, logistics, payments, delivery — everything you need.”

Pioneers | Conversations on our Industry’s Future is a thought leadership series, brought to you by Campaign and Facebook, exploring emerging trends and cutting edge insights on the changes that will shape the future of the marketing and advertising industry for years to come.  

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Catch the previous Pioneers conversation with Benedict evans here.