Observations from APAC: lessons from scaling Stripe engineering in Singapore

I recently relocated to Singapore on limited assignment to lead APAC and kickstart Stripe’s newest engineering hub. While I’ve met engineers and founders from all over the region, so far I’ve spent the most time with people in India and Southeast Asia. It’s been an eye-opening experience already and I’m excited to share what I learn along the way.

APAC is an expansive region that includes the world’s fastest growing online markets. Digital wallets proliferate and fight for market share, but over 75% of online purchases are still paid for with cash on delivery. Hiring engineers requires hiring across borders, and scaling engineering is completely different if you change your fundamental inputs .

I’ll touch on these topics in a series of posts & hope to keep sharing as I learn more.

So what is “APAC” exactly?

APAC (“Asia Pacific”) is a huge, fractured region that covers 55% of the world’s population (49% of all Internet users) while spanning 20+ countries, 7 timezones and 6,000+ miles from Mumbai to Sydney. This makes it very difficult to work as a centralized, corporate region for a US company — APAC<>US time-zones invert day and night, and even within APAC you have a narrow shared workday.

Timezone ranges for Stripe’s 4 APAC offices, ignoring daylight savings. We have a 5 hour “APAC-wide workday” and US overlaps before 10a and well after 10p.

It’s also non-trivial to navigate as a business region. English is far from the lingua franca in Asia: insufficient if you need to build local relationships and a rarity as a chosen corporate language outside the native English-speaking markets of Malaysia, Singapore, India, and the Philippines. I once met a founder of a successful German startup who chose to switch all of their work from German to English to accommodate a growing number of employees from across Europe; this can’t be easily done in Asia, even (and especially) in the most sophisticated markets like Japan and China.

Local economies are also interestingly intertwined, with big giants focused heavily on domestic commerce while using smaller countries as test beds or expansion markets.

APAC might be better described as 5 subregions

  • China: The well-funded, walled-off, technically sophisticated giant with a distinctive development culture, Tencent/Alibaba funding wars, and ambitious global plans.
  • India: Unlike China, India has high penetration of international products like WhatsApp and Amazon but also its share of unicorns looking to expand.
  • Northeast Asia(e.g. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan): An e-commerce powerhouse, with both Japan and South Korea in the world’s top ten markets. Local payment methods like Konbini (convenience store payments) have high penetration; Taiwan is a close expansion market from China.
  • Southeast Asia(e.g. Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand): Indonesia has its share of high-growth unicorns including GO-JEK and Tokopedia, driven by a large domestic market and rapid product adoption. Singapore carries disproportionate weight for its size with startups like Grab. Companies need to expand across the region for growth, and there are tight clusters in expansion order. Singapore and Malaysia are easy neighbors, you need to enter Indonesia for real volume but must face a difficult regulatory environment, and Vietnam/Thailand/Philippines typically follow.
  • Australia/New Zealand: The home of a few household software names (e.g. Xero, Atlassian), companies most naturally expand to fellow English-speaking markets like US, UK and CA. It is also an expansion market itself, with China’s DiDi and India’s Ola Cabs both expanding to Australia in their first international growth waves.

Hong Kong and Singapore play interesting roles as transition or bridge markets — neither have large domestic markets but are simpler to incorporate in and easy to test products for, making them growing startup hubs. At the same time, they’re a natural home for the APAC regional offices for larger international companies.

Fun fact: Hong Kong also serves as a digital port of call — Chinese companies can route traffic through to gain access to international services/API products not launched or available within the Great Firewall.

What else?

For those of you who’ve been living here much longer than I have, does this resonate with you? For everyone, I’d love to hear your requests for topics to write about, recommendations for people to meet, or observations of your own.

Thanks to Gloria Lin, Dian Rosanti, Edward Chiang, Michael Manapat and Sara Tillim Adler for their help with this series of posts.

Next up: I’ll share some notes on engineering development and culture in the region.