Saturday, October 19, 2013

3 insider tips to zipping through immigration queues in Asia

One of the biggest annoyances in travel, particularly around Asia, is the snaking queues at immigration. While banks, airline check-in counters and immigration in the US and some places in Europe have moved on to the faster single-queue-multi-server model, the immigration queues in Asia are still stuck with multi-queue-multi-server models that result in longer average wait times. (See related NYT article: Longer line for a shorter wait at the supermarket )

The photo above shows the Changi Airport Terminal 2 queues, one of the most efficient immigration channels around. Even then, there's clearly a wide variation in queuing time depending on your passport and which queue you join.

There are a number of country-specific approaches to minimise queueing time at immigration. In Singapore: Singaporeans, PRs and employment pass holders can zip through the auto-gates. In Jakarta, you can apply for a Saphire card and get through their version of the auto-gate. Other airports like Bali have the meet-and-assist fast-track services that zip you through. Across most of Asia, there's also the APEC travel card that gives you access to the fast-moving APEC/diplomats counter.

Still, not everyone can pay for, or get access to, some of these more systematic solutions. Here's a set of queuing tactics that could help get you through immigration quickly, gleaned from many hours sucked into these time blackholes.

1. The twofer

1 queue, 2 officers = good
1 queue, 1 officer = not so good
This one pays off quite well if you find it. Quite simply, you find a queue that has two (or more) immigration officers serving the queue. Bangkok Suvarnabumi Airport is one of the airports where this happens quite frequently. Most travellers are oblivious to this and queue lengths are the same, but some queues would have two officers processing the queue, effectively more than halving the wait time versus an equivalent queue with just one officer. 

2. The high option-value queue

Counters 3 & 5 aren't manned but provide option-value to counter 4
The shifts for immigration officers in Asia are quite erratic and queues can close or open suddenly for various reasons (e.g. Muslim prayer breaks, snack break, etc.). This also means that unmanned counters provide good option value. That is, the chance that an unmanned counter suddenly opens up and you get to whiz to the front of the queue is quite significant. In a situation like above, queue 4 would have the best chance to the front of both queues 3 and 5 if they open up. 

3. One-plus queue

This is one variation of the high-option value queue: basically, you pick the queue next to the limited access counter, e.g. the 'Diplomat-only', or ' Airline-crew only' counter. When that queue is empty, the officer inevitably processes people in the next queue, which makes it marginally faster. The Manila NAIA Terminal 1 airport used to have this, but they've now changed to a single queue for all counters. It's still an option at the Ngurah Rai Bali airport though, the last time I was there. 

If none of these options are available, well, fire up your smartphone and start clearing emails or play your favourite casual game. Inevitably, as soon as you get into a good rhythm of email or into a critical part of your game, it'll be your turn in the queue! 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Rough ride ahead for Singapore telcos


In Singapore, the three major telco players have done pretty well in the past 5 years, all chalking up over 20% revenue growth from 2007 to 2012 (see chart). In comparison, mature single market telcos like AT&T have chalked up a mere 7% revenue growth in the same period, while others face declining top-line. 

Less people = less subscribers

However, if you take into account the population growth of Singapore over the same time period, it's clear that a significant part of their revenue growth has been supported by the population growth spurt in the past 5 years, at 15.8% growth for Singapore. For comparison, the same figure for the US is 4.2%.

However, this population growth 'bonus' is set to shrink dramatically. If we assume a 6.9Mn population by 2030, and assuming linear growth, the population will only grow 7.5% of the next 5 years. More likely though, the population will be controlled to a lower range - a 6.3Mn population by 2030 would mean just 4.9% growth over the next 5 years. 

Just further bad news

The likely absence of this population 'bonus' in the coming years is just more bad news for Singapore telcos, who have to face the already tough industry challenges. 

Like other mature market telcos, the only viable growth product is mobile data, which unfortunately cannibalises core revenues from voice and SMS. On the cost-side of the equation, there's significant outlay required to upgrade their networks to support the seemingly endless demand for more data. 

Worst for Singapore-only telcos

SingTel might face a slightly better outlook, given it's diversified operations regionally, in particular India/Africa through Airtel and Indonesia through Telkomsel. 

Singapore-only players like M1 and Starhub will likely suffer most. The market still values them as growth companies, with P/E ratios in the high teens - 18X for M1 and 20X for Starhub, on the back of their historical performance. The next 1-2 years will be critical for them to live up to this expectation and sustain their large market caps - SGD$2.7Bn for M1 and SGD$7.3Bn for Starhub. At this point though, I don't see any good options for them to pull this off.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Singapore's opportunity to lead in urban innovation

So I've finally read through the much maligned Singapore Population White Paper. Much of the commentary, not surprisingly, has been on the headline 6.9Mn population 2030 forecast number and the huge challenges: infrastructure sufficiency, greying population and the integration of immigrants.

My main takeaway from the paper and the subsequent discussions is more optimistic though. I think the circumstances make Singapore an ideal place to incubate innovative design and technology solutions for urban cities. Done right, this city could be the model for other burgeoning metropolises globally in time to come.

The white paper as it stands, has too much emphasis on linear solutions, of the "build more, build earlier" kind. To be fair the word 'innovative' appears 8 times. However, beyond stating "we will explore innovative solutions", it lacks the specifics on the potential set of innovations. I highlight here a few existing collaborative-consumption examples, but the possibilities go far beyond this category:

More car rides, without more cars 
Getaround allows anyone to rent out their vehicle by the hour to people nearby. Ever noticed the large number of cars parked around you while you're desperately trying to hail a taxi? There's also services like Uber for the times when you just need your own chauffeur, while Lyft lets anyone provide rides to others with their own car.

More personal help, without more helpers
Companies like TaskRabbit allow people to be "part-time-anything", and lets anyone get help with errands - anything from grocery shopping to technical help. Sounds like a good way avoid importing more foreign labour. Plus 'Taskrabbitter' sounds a lot better than 'cleaner', hence opening such 'jobs' to a broader pool of people that otherwise would not have done this type of work.

More education, without more classrooms
Skillshare lets you learn directly from experts on specific topics. And if you prefer more established professors, you can also learn from the best at Coursera, which offer the gamut from algorithms (by a Princeton professor) to physiology (by a Duke professor)

The list goes on, including Airbnb* (more tourism, without more tourism labour) and OpenDesks (more office space, without more offices). So there's a bunch of innovations already out there.

Now, why is Singapore great place to incubate them?

1. Infrastructure is already in place
Key technology enablers are already in place for a lot of these innovations. Singapore has one of the highest smartphone penetration globally, at 90% of population. Broadband penetration is at over 100% of households, and there are ready tools like online identification (SingPass) and mapping (

2. Minimal price distortion 
Singapore's economy has minimal distortions through government interventions, e.g. fuel subsidies. The economics for participants in such innovations (e.g. a person renting out his car), as well as the companies involved would likely be attractive. Put simply, high prices in Singapore make it worthwhile for people to consider sharing their car/room/time.

3. Burning platform
Most importantly, Singapore is a resource-constrained island, and its residents are feeling those constraints now more than ever before. The need to experiment and encourage such non-linear ideas should be stronger here than anywhere else.

Still, there are significant hurdles to overcome. First among many is whether there is recognition of point 3 above by the government and regulators. New startups with non-linear ideas are often disruptive and in many cases aren't welcome by industry incumbents. Case in point - Uber's regulatory challenges.

The government and regulators here can do one of three things: (i) get in the way by trying to over-regulate at early stages of these innovations, (ii) do nothing and slow innovation through regulatory ambiguity, or (iii) work towards a regulatory framework that supports such experimentation and innovation. There's only one answer here that puts Singapore in the best position to succeed.

*Disclosure: I work at Airbnb

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Monitor Group and consulting: Scale matters

Anyone that is remotely familiar with the consulting industry would have heard of Monitor Group filing bankruptcy by now.  I found it quite surprising that the firm had left things so late that it had to end up with bankruptcy (I'd have expected an earlier recognition of the need for some sort of merger). Still, some sort of shakeup has always been on the cards for the mid-sized management consulting firms. More than ever, service companies need to achieve scale at a global level. At 1,000+ employees and 27 offices, Monitor was sizable, but ultimately not nearly the scale required to become a sustainable business in the long term.

The idea of economies of scale (and scope) dates much earlier than Porter's five forces, and has it's roots more in manufacturing than in modern-day service industries. However, I think scale plays a much bigger role in today's businesses than most would imagine, and increasingly so in the business of management consulting. Some thoughts of why I believe so:

1. Business is international, even if revenues come from one specific country/region
5-10 years back, you could imagine large companies only needing to think about business and competitors within one country or region. Telecommunications is one example. Starhub, when launched in 2000, only needed to contend with two competitors SingTel and M1 in Singapore, and this was the case for years. StarHub today generates almost all it's revenues from Singapore, but it has to deal with business threats that are international: YouTube, Viber, Line to name a few. A management consulting firm now needs to be able to articulate the business environment of these competitors (in the US, Israel and Japan respectively) to comprehensively understand strategic options.

2. Blurring of lines across industries
Management consulting firms now also need expertise in multiple sectors as industries converge. It's challenging to be a telecommunications-specialised consulting outfit, if a telecommunication company's business, say Vodafone as an example, now spans everything from media to financial services to healthcare.

3. MBAs, experts and knowledge are easily accessible
The US churns out some 160k MBAs per year. At the same time, expert networks are flourishing, allowing anyone to get in touch with an expert in just about any topic. Further, startups like Quora are making it increasingly easier to find specific knowledge (Want a view of how long a fish would survive in orange juice? or for the more practical,  perspectives from real entrepreneurs on how to stay ahead of startup trends ).
The combination of these factors imply that the demands on management consulting firms are ever higher. They can't just deliver a typical b-school five-forces analysis, or just provide technical 'how-to' recommendations. They now need to deliver -both- in tandem: strategy, plus specific implications to the business, right down to 'how it will happen in practice'. A management consulting firm needs to be able to pick from a large pool of talent to assemble a team that can pull this off.

4. Recruiting and building "T-shaped" talent
The other consequence of the above point is that management consulting firms need to attract and recruit 'T-shape' talent. Folks who are specialized in one area, but also have the broad toolkit for business management. To attract and retain such talent, firms need to provide regular opportunities in the area of specialization and sufficient diversity to build general business skills (e.g. a stream of projects in emerging-market healthcare and also options for pharmaceutical or hospital business ). Only the largest of the management consulting firms can offer this.

5. Exogenous shocks more frequent
The Libya case clearly hit Monitor group hard. But plenty of these happen - unplanned, exogenous events that disrupt a significant part of a business. Everything from regime changes to regional financial crises can cripple a business that's heavily project-based and indexed to business growth. Global scale, and some level of business diversity helps cushion such blows.

So, implications? My guess is that there'll be much more consolidation in the management consulting industry, particularly among the mid-tier outfits. Both between firms, as well as acquisitions by larger multi-business professional firms.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Essential tech travel gadgets for Asia

I have amassed quite a few gadgets that I bring along on my travels in the region, some get quickly retired/replaced, while some make it to the "must-bring" section of my laptop bag. Beyond the regular laptop, smartphone and tablet, here are seven accessories that I recommend, particularly if you're travelling around Asia where roaming data is prohibitively expensive and power plugs can be scarce. 

1. FliteGear Travel adaptor 
I've had many travel power socket adaptors, but this was the only one I've found that has two USB ports, and juices them up to 2 amps, which means that they'll comfortably charge iPads. This is only available on SQ or Tiger Airways flights, but it is good value at SGD55.

2. Nokia Asha dual-SIM mobile phone
Yes, I still use a Nokia (!) The lower-end Asha series is great for use in emerging markets in Asia. It supports dual-SIM, with a hot-swappable second SIM. Great for countries where you need multiple SIMs to ensure you're always within network coverage. Also, has a ridiculously long standby time of up to 30 days or 7 hr talk time on one full battery charge.

3. Huawei 3G MiFi E560
A mifi hotspot device like this one lets you connect your primary smartphone, laptop and tablet to the internet with just one local SIM (see item 7 on prepaid SIM cards) instead of using roaming data.

4. Lifetrons portable 5600mAh charger
This portable charge stores 5,600mAh, enough for ~4 full charges of an iPhone. It also has dual USB ports, which makes it easier to charge two devices at one go. It provides 2 amps of current, so it can charge iPads as well. The kit comes with a full set of plugs to charge anything from Sony Ericsson, iPhones to Blackberries.

5. Multi-head USB plug
I found this while on vacation in Koh Samui. It's a USB cable with iPhone/iPad, mini-USB and micro-USB plugs all in one. I have never seen this elsewhere, but presumably you can buy this at a flea market in Bangkok.

6. Belkin USB in-car charger
This small car adaptor lets you charge your devices in case you're stuck in one of the many massive traffic jams in Asia cities (Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok come to mind). Overlaps with the function of the portable charger, but for it's size and weight, it is worth packing along as backup.

7. Prepaid SIMs
I have collected a bunch of prepaid SIMs from across different Asian countries. They're cheap (~$2-5) each, and typically let you purchase unlimited data in daily or hourly 'sachets'. Keep an eye out for SIM packs with longer expiry periods to prolong the credit value and use of each SIM.

I'm always looking out for new additions to this utility kit. Do you have other suggestions? =)