How a simple solution made this Indonesian startup hundred of millions of dollars
Access Indonesia is a series by Teoh Minghao,
Tech in Asia’s business development head specializing in market access to Indonesia. He aims to help foreign companies learn more about Indonesia’s tech landscape and strategic partners who can accelerate your growth in the country. When I met Roby Tan, he looks like any other young aspiring entrepreneur. He’s casually dressed in jeans, a traditional Indonesian batik shirt, and a pair of sneakers. At 45, Tan is the founder of two listed companies in the Indonesian Stock Exchange. Mitra Komunikasi Nusantara Tbk PT (MKNT) has a market capitalization worth US$70 million and posted US$443 million in revenue last year. Kioson has US$138 million market cap and logged US$79 million in 2017 revenue.
MKNT’s core business is telecommunications, selling gadgets, phones, top-up vouchers, and networking devices. According to its 2017 annual report, the company has a total of 94 branch offices, 15,000 resellers, and 125,000 retailers. Kioson is a subsidiary of MKNT. It’s an online-to-offline startup, similar to Indonesian e-tailer Kudo. Kioson provides hardware (such as kiosks or tablets) and software products to enable more than 35,000 agents and small and medium-sized enterprises to transact online. These companies have long outgrown the startup status, but I want to highlight Tan’s zero-to-one journey to inspire other entrepreneurs.
Tan didn’t come from a rich family. His early life started in Makasa, a city in Eastern Sulawesi where his family ran a small store that sold coffee and cloves. His parents sent him to study in Jakarta at the Tarumanagara University, but he didn’t like it. Without their knowledge, he dropped out of school after a month and started his own business, selling computer parts and accessories. He continued to run his small profitable shop for 10 years before he sold it to his brother in 2002 and pursued a new opportunity in the telecommunications industry. Tan got into the telco business because he spotted an opportunity: the sheer market size of 200 million users who were putting up with inefficiencies around pulsa, or phone credits in Indonesia.
“Pulsa is a necessity, like rice. Every Indonesian needs it,” he says.
Tan admits that when started out in 2003, he was a newbie who didn’t have a clear idea of how he could contribute to the industry. As a result, he only sold phone credits in his startup’s first year while learning about the market and its challenges. In that same year, Indonesia had 13 telcos issuing their own phone credit vouchers. Phone credits were sold via printed scratch cards of various denominations: US$1, US$2, US$5, US$10, and so on. All vouchers were produced in Jakarta and shipped to more than 98 cities across Indonesia. To make sure they had enough stocks, distributors of phone credits need large capital to buy the various denominations from all 13 telcos. And even if they had the money, they often experienced supply shortages.
A simple solution
Tan and his partners came up with a simple solution. They spent US$1,300 to buy 100 vouchers of different denominations from all the country’s telcos, scratched all the cards, and put the phone credit redemption codes into a spreadsheet. Next, they built a server so that distributors can send a text message to it to request for credit. The server automatically sent the redemption code after it verified that the distributor had enough deposit with MKNT.
Using this system and their position as the first mover in the market, Tan’s team of 10 was able to recruit 4,000 sub-dealers across major cities in Indonesia. Within a year, they were managing more than 60,000 resellers. So how does this solution work? A reseller sells a US$1 phone credit at US$1.20 to end users, and this profit is shared among the resellers, sub-dealers, and MKNT. Tan also highlighted that he is happy that not only is MKNT doing well, but it also enables many poor owners of small shops and even car-park attendants to make significant income.
“I remember one of our sub-dealers was a rombong rokok (a one-man roadside pushcart vendor selling cigarette sticks) who barely earned US$1 per day. He came in as a sub-dealer very early on and recruited many resellers under him. Within a few years, he was able to buy a house and cars, and started his own happy family,” shares Tan.
I asked Tan if he had any advice for entrepreneurs.
He says, “The five people you hang out with will determine who you are, how you think, and eventually, what you will achieve. So make sure you find yourself a good circle of friends. Also, prayers and meditation help. They give you the right state of mind, making you prepared for daily challenges. Be positive every day.” If you’re keen to learn more about the tech business environment in Indonesia and expand there, go on a chat with Minghao here. If you’re from an Indonesian company that wants to support and partner with incoming foreign companies, please fill in the form here.