It’s Not a Talent War, It’s a Cost War

“We concentrate our development team in Southeast Asia, it’s more affordable,” a colleague from developed nation secretly whispered to business partners over coffee. Certainly, he won’t tell it to the team back in Yogyakarta or Bandung, because it will offend the team. When the colleague actually spoke to the team, he’d say, “We concentrate our development team in your beautiful place here because we believe in local talents and want to nurture you.”

I heard about this frequently, over my course of working for someone else as an employee, or as a freelancer.

While it’s true that operating costs are lower in this lovely backyard (read: Southeast Asia, except Singapore), can we move on from totally focusing on cost and sugarcoating it to the team members?

I don’t have absolute trust in investors who say they “believe in local talents”, nor they are here to “nurture young engineers”. They’re here just for the cost-saving. Nothing else. If they were really true to their words, they would care more about paying more, or at least providing a good environment and culture for them to thrive.

The hard truth is that, for Indonesian engineers & designers especially, local talents don’t have the best negotiation skills when it comes to working for foreign investors, although the numbers are improving. Foreign investors take advantage of this.

I also often see higher turnaround in local startup companies, because of this sole focus on “salary war”. It’s not exactly talent war, so to speak. If startups focus on building a lovable environment and culture, and consider paying them above-the-standard salaries, they would likely stay.

That said, with that good investment money, your best priority is to build a team and pay them well, financially and culturally. Build a nice office and provide the best tools. Your least-important priority is to splurge for your own (Hell, while I am here! Everything is so cheap!), living in luxury apartments, basking in the sun every weekend in Bali or Phuket, spending too much publicity money (trying to look good for your own, but not for your team), or focusing too much on your exit or retirement money.

Reflections on digital product design, travel, food and the in-betweens. Finding my compass.

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