Monk’s Hill Ventures and Glints on how Southeast Asian startups can cope with the region’s talent crunch

A lot has changed since Monk’s Hill Ventures released its first report on tech compensation in Southeast Asia five years ago, with base salaries and competition for top talent jumping dramatically. But one thing has remained the same since 2016: startup compensation data, including information about base pay, bonuses and stock options, is still hard to find. To get more data for its latest Southeast Asia Tech Talent Compensation report, which covers startup hiring in Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam, Monk’s Hill Ventures teamed up with Glints, one of its portfolio companies.

Glints is a recruitment platform that claims 4 million users each month and is used by 30,000 organizations. The report analyzed more than 1,000 data points from Glints’ proprietary database, including job advertisements and placements made through 2020, and surveyed 175 employees in both technical and non-technical roles. It also includes interviews with more than 20 founders, including from Bot MD, Carousell, Horangi, the Asianparent and Ninja Van. The full report can be downloaded here.

The report focused on Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam because they are three of the fastest-growing markets in Southeast Asia. It found that startups are dealing with several major shifts at the same time. There are more Southeast Asian startups maturing into late stage, but at the same time, large American and Chinese tech companies are setting up regional operations, including TikTok, Tencent, Alibaba and Zoom. This means compensation packages are being driven up and startups face a talent crunch, especially in Singapore. Most of the founders interviewed by Monk’s Hill Ventures and Glints said that base salaries have at least doubled since 2016.

Going remote even before the pandemic

But the range of salaries and talent pool varies widely between Southeast Asian countries, and as a result, tech startups can build strong teams with a regionally distributed strategy. For example, this can look like an engineering team in Vietnam, data science team in Singapore and product management team in Indonesia. Vietnam had the highest salary differences between senior and junior roles, for both tech and non-tech talent, compared to Singapore and Indonesia, which the report said means there is “strong potential for upward salary growth within the Vietnamese tech sector.”

Oswald Yeo, co-founder and chief executive officer of Glints, told TechCrunch that many startups were building regionally distributed engineering hubs before COVID-19 because there was simply not enough talent in Singapore. Now even more founders have become open to remote teams because of the pandemic. But having teams in different countries doesn’t just address the talent crunch. It also lays the groundwork for regional expansion.

“Commercially in Southeast Asia, you can’t stay in a single market unless it’s maybe Indonesia,” said Yeo. “If you stay only in Singapore, Malaysia or even Vietnam, you will not be a large enough business and make the impact you want to make. A lot of startups have to venture out, so they end up having commercial teams in each market anyway and then it’s very normal for them to build product and tech teams in those markets.”

Competing for specialized skills

The report found that tech roles, including product, data science and engineering, earn 54% more than non-technical roles, like marketing, operations or finance. But the base salary between product and data science roles over non-technical roles was one to two times higher than for engineering, suggesting that “while engineering skills are becoming more common across the region, specialized product and data science skills remain hard to come by.”

Founders said that vice presidents of engineering in particular are seen as one of a startup’s most critical hires. Singapore-based startups at Series B and upward paid base monthly salaries ranging from $7,500 to $10,000, with equity compensation from 0.3% to 1.2%. In Indonesia, base salaries for engineering VPs ranged from $2,800 to $7,100 depending on the stage of company, and in Vietnam, early stage companies paid on average $1,000 to $5,000. That amount increased to $5,000 to $6,000 after raising Series A funding, and $8,000 to $10,000 for companies at Series B stage and above.

The competition for top tech talent is also reflected in C-level compensation. The report found that chief executive officers tend to hold more equity in their startups, but chief technology officers consistently have higher median base salaries, “suggesting that CEOs are often willing to take a pay cut in favor of their technical counterparts, who are typically highly valued and considered scarce assets to the company.”

Based on combined data from Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia, CEO’s median salary increased from $2,600 a month at the $0 to $10 million funding stage, to $6,000 a month at $5 million to $10 million in funding. In comparison, at the same funding stages, CTO’s median salary increased from $3,300 to $7,550 respectively. CEO at startups with funding up to $5 million owned between 15% to 100% of their company’s equity, while the average ownership of CTOs at that stage is 19%.

Cash versus equity

Another noteworthy finding is that less than 32% of tech talent surveyed by Monk’s Hill Ventures and Glints are being compensated in equity. Founders said employees, especially junior-to-mid level hires, still prefer cash. But this is changing as founders spend more time educating their teams about the benefits of equity, and some startups are now also offering annual wage supplements, bonuses, restricted stock units or employee stock ownership plans.

Some founders reported that executives who have worked in the American or Singaporean startup ecosystems are keener on equity options, but in general, there needs to be more startup exits in Southeast Asia for candidates to become open to equity.

Before co-founding Monk’s Hill Ventures, Peng Ong was a venture partner at GSR Ventures in China. “In 2010, in that time frame, there were the same issues there. People wanted cash. Fast forward to three years later, when the IPOs started to happen, all that changed. People wanted options,” Ong told TechCrunch. He said that the same shift is gradually starting to happen in Southeast Asia, thanks to Sea Group and Razer’s IPOs.

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