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Homegrown Internet innovators rise

JAKARTA/SINGAPORE -- Southeast Asia is seeing the rise of a new generation of homegrown entrepreneurs. 

     Last December, the 30-something CEO of a startup in Jakarta raised $100 million, a record for such a business in Indonesia. His name is William Tanuwijaya, and his e-commerce company is called Tokopedia.

William Tanuwijaya, right, CEO of Tokopedia, is seen at his company's office in Jakarta. (Photo by Sachiko Deshimaru)

     SoftBank is now Tokopedia's largest investor. Masayoshi Son, chairman and CEO of the Japanese telecom and Internet company, was the first major investor in Jack Ma Yun's Alibaba Group Holding. Son was also charmed by the young Indonesian, who said he hopes to become the next Jack Ma. The SoftBank CEO called Tanuwijaya to Tokyo and showed him a picture of Sakamoto Ryoma, the well-known samurai who helped Japan modernize. "You should take the opportunity to create a trend," Son told him.

     In contrast to his aspirations to help Indonesia become more wealthy, people close to Tanuwijaya say he is quiet and humble. He was brought up in a small village surrounded by tea plantations. He carved out his career despite the country's weighty emphasis on the importance of connections.

     It was a part-time job that led him to start his company in 2009. At that time, he worked in an Internet cafe to pay his college tuition and support his family. 

     After he started a small e-commerce business operating on commission, he found the sector in his country had major problems with distribution and reliability. Transportation of goods is difficult in Indonesia, as the country has some 13,000 islands. So, he visited logistics companies across the country, forming a distribution network for setting up his e-commerce site. Tokopedia acted as an intermediary for transactions. To prevent fraud, Tanuwijaya created a system allowing Tokopedia to pay sellers after customers have received their goods.

     "I was often told not to have dreams so big that I wouldn't be able to realize them. However, those negative words of advice intensified my motivation," said Tanuwijaya. He has developed Tokopedia into one of the largest e-commerce sites in Indonesia. Today, some 240,000 sellers participate in the online marketplace, and the company's staff has increased fourfold over the past year to 300.

Quick succession

The number of talented people starting multiple businesses in quick succession is rapidly rising.

Darius Cheung, CEO of, poses in a business incubation facility in Singapore. (Photo by Sachiko Deshimaru)

     One such entrepreneur is Darius Cheung. Last year in Singapore, he founded, a property information website. "I had the option of starting a business in Silicon Valley, but I remained at home because I wanted to enhance the value of Southeast Asia," he said.

     In 2005, Cheung set up a mobile security company with a friend from college. He developed a system to allow cellphone users to remotely lock their handsets when they lost them. "We got the idea when my co-founder lost his mobile phone when he was drunk," he said.

     Cheung said he was asked by several companies to sell his company along with the technology. He sold to McAfee, a major U.S. computer security software business, as he wanted the world to use the technology. Today, it is used globally as a McAfee product.

     The idea for setting up the property information site, his second startup, also came to him when he was faced with a specific problem. He was having trouble looking for a new home. "It was inconvenient to see the prevalence of false information," Cheung said. He devised the new site to enable people to easily verify information, by adding the date on which photographs were shot. The website caught on quickly: It ranked second among property information sites and accounted for 15% of the market six months after the service began.

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