What you can earn at a Southeast Asian start-up as competition from global tech giants heats up

Technical professionals in engineering, product management and data science roles can command some of Southeast Asia's top start-up salaries, according to a new report exploring pay packets inside the region's rising businesses.

Workers in such roles can expect to earn up to 54% more than their counterparts in non-technical roles, as both local start-ups and incoming U.S. and China tech giants seek to attract the region's top talent, the study found.

The first-of-its-kind "Southeast Asia tech talent compensation" report, released Tuesday, highlights the most sought-after skills — and corresponding salaries — across three of the region's key start-up hubs: Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Conducted by Southeast Asia-focused venture capital firm Monk's Hill Ventures and Asia-Pacific jobs sites Glints throughout 2020 and 2021, the study draws on compensation data from Glints' database, as well as surveys with senior recruiters and start-up founders across the region. It expands on an earlier 2016 report by Monk's Hill Ventures, since which time founders said base salaries have at least doubled.

Peng T. Ong, co-founder and managing director at Monk's Hill Ventures, told CNBC Make It the findings were "much needed" for both start-up employers and employees as the region's tech competitiveness heats up. Already, Chinese tech giants Tencent and TikTok owner ByteDance have announced plans to expand into Singapore, while Zoom plans to set up a research and development hub in the city-state.

In-demand start-up skills and their salaries

Among the most sought-after skills for start-up employees in Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia, engineering ranked as number one, the report found.

As such, engineering roles were also likely to garner the highest salaries.

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Across the spectrum of engineering jobs, full-stack developers had the widest pay range due to the multiple skills they require. A junior full-stack developer in Singapore, for instance, could expect to earn $2,700 to $7,100 a month, while their senior counterparts may earn up to $11,000.

Elsewhere, an oversupply of fresh graduate junior engineers in markets such as Indonesia and Vietnam pulled down starting salaries. However, staff in such fields can expect their pay to grow quickly with a few years of experience, the report said.

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The second most in-demand skill was product management, which relates to the development and growth of a start-up's products. Considered a "cross-disciplinary function," Monk's Hill Ventures' Ong said the role encompasses a multitude of skills such as leadership, engineering, psychology, and business sense.

Despite that, the lack of formal qualification currently available for such roles means salaries can skew toward the lower end. A junior product manager can expect to earn $500 to $1,200 per month in Indonesia, for example, or between $1,500 and $3,000 in Singapore.

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Data science was the third most in-demand skill across the region, with data analysts, data scientists and data engineers especially sought after. Currently, a junior data scientist in Singapore can expect to earn $2,500 to $5,000 per month, while workers at the same level in Vietnam and Indonesia are looking at $1,000 to $2,000. Their senior counterparts can expect $3,500 to $8,000 in Singapore, $2,000 to $5,000 in Vietnam, and $1,400 to $2,300 in Indonesia.

Elsewhere, demand for non-technical marketing and public relations professionals is also on the rise. Regionally, junior brand marketers can expect to earn $3,000 to $4,000 a month, while their senior counterparts may take home $6,000 to $8,000. Meantime, PR juniors can earn $2,200 to $3,400 while seniors can expect $4,500 to $11,000 monthly.

CEO and CTO start-up salaries

The report also broke down the median salaries of chief executive officers (CEOs) and chief technical officers (CTOs) across Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Unsurprisingly, CEO and CTO median base salaries increased in line with the amount of funding raised. For example, CEOs of start-ups at the $0-$5 million stage might expect to earn $1,000 per month in Vietnam, or $4,000 in Singapore. Meanwhile, CEOs of start-ups at the $5-$10 million stage could take home $6,000 a month in Vietnam or around $11,500 in Singapore.

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Interestingly, however, median CTO base salaries were consistently higher than those of CEOs.

That suggests CEOs are often willing to take a pay cut in favor of their technical counterparts, who are "typically highly valued and considered scare assets to the company," according to the report. But it also compensates for the fact that CTOs tend to own less equity — meaning less skin in the game and less potential upside — than CEOs.

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In a start-up's early days, the CEO can own up to 100% of the company's equity. That figure tends to dilute over time as the company raises money from external investors.

Competing with U.S. and China tech giants

The report comes as competition heats up between Southeast Asia's homegrown start-ups and overseas tech companies, which are increasingly entering the region to take advantage of its burgeoning consumer market and more affordable workforce.

"There's a talent crunch regionally — particularly in Singapore — for engineering and product manager roles. U.S. and China tech companies entering the region — including TikTok, Tencent, Alibaba and Zoom — are more likely to pay above-market rates for tech talent or, in some cases, write blank checks for high performers," the report said.

As such, local start-ups are looking for new ways to attract talent beyond offering competitive compensation. According to the report, the majority of founders said the key to beating the competition is showcasing their company's culture and leadership.

"If we try to position ourselves against a Facebook or Stripe, and we compete only on compensation, we'll never win," said Oswald Yeo, co-founder and CEO of Glints, which is also a start-up. "If we choose to compete on vision and mission, this is where we can stand out."

Meantime, Yeo said many local start-ups are ahead of the curve in terms of harnessing talent across the wider region. The coronavirus may have helped with that transition. As businesses globally have adapted to remote work, the report noted a shift among Southeast Asian start-ups to regionally distributed teams.

"A lot of companies are now coming to Singapore, but Southeast Asia is more than just Singapore," said Yeo, noting that many local start-ups are already beginning to outsource to countries. "This is how start-ups can flank the competition."

"There's a big opportunity here for remote work and remote hiring, and an increased openness for tech companies to run their teams remotely," he added.

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