The CEO of the Singapore-based CRM platform shares her stories building startups and the lessons learnt along the way
The tech world is a roaring unpredictable rapid that flows without a moment’s pause; a startup can project healthy growth in one month, yet go bust in the next. Sometimes startup Founders constantly have to be on the alert to adapt to changes, or risk going under.
Anna Gong, CEO of Singapore-based customer relationship management (CRM) platform Perx, and CTO Rob Roach took the reins of the five-year-old company more than 1.5 years ago. Previously, she worked with four different startups in the US — and witnessed the dotcom bust — over a span of more than 10 years, an eternity in the tech startup scene. She has weathered enough hardknocks to understand what it takes to navigate these treacherous waters and come out alive.
In an interview with e27, Gong shares candidly about her experience helping to run startups as well as valuable insights novice entrepreneurs can glean from.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Having helped run startups for quite a while, share with us some of the memorable war stories that you have collected
Perx is my first startup venture in Asia. Before this, I had worked with four startups in the Bay area. I began my startup journey with Octasoft, a core banking enterprise software startup. I was the fourth employee there and we started out of a garage-like space.
We were passionate, determined, persevered and grew to 130 employees in just two years. That was a period during the dotcom era and there was an aggressive growth trend like the bubble growth we are experiencing in some areas nowadays. Funding was everywhere but sadly, success was not.
During my stint with another startup, Netvein, we constantly competed against Loudcloud, the Ben Horowitz/Andreessen company. During those times, Cloud Managed Service models were ahead of their time and hence, could not survive in the dotcom period.
Eventually, Loudcloud had to pivot to a software company, renamed later as Opsware but that had its own share of hardships. However, the company managed to stay afloat somehow and was eventualy sold to HP.
On the other hand, Netvein, a subsidiary of Itochu Corp, due to lack of forward planning, couldn’t pivot in time and lost the game at the end.
What made you join Perx and what changes did you make?
Interest and belief in customer engagement and loyalty domain inclined me, and CTO Rob Roach, to take over Perx. I was brought in by the board to help grow and lead the company in a new direction, moving beyond directly consumer facing loyalty platforms. Since joining the company, I have made many changes especially in terms of resources.
I always believe in the mantra of “Form the right culture then apply and embrace it from the top-down”.
Hiring the right people can be quite crucial to a startup’s success. However, acquiring the right talent did not come to me so easily. I hired a few wrong people, quickly acknowledged it and moved on.
The overall process was a big learning step for me.
In the startup world, you have to hire slow because finding the right DNA to help the company grow is extremely important.
Although time was not on our side, we had to hire the right candidates and vet them through the right way. If my colleagues and I had any doubts, we would not make an offer. We had to ensure that the potential hires fit our culture and core values, as well as have the right mentality, resilience, and flexibility to endure the startup journey.
We have since hired a number of new employees and they are all important members of the Perx family now.
Sometimes, I feel it would probably have been easier for us to start a company from scratch then to turn around an existing venture.
However, we have had great success with the existing business, so it was a matter of how we restructured the organisation, and developed new products, methodologies and practices along the way.
We successfully closed a round of funding last year and that was crucial to help with enhanced R&D and new direction of the business.
What about Perx’s pivot from being a mere customer loyalty service to a complete customer engagement CRM platform? What was the rationale behind the decision?
We pivoted mainly because I wanted Perx, the company, to be able to solve critical business issues first before starting onto the enterprise level.
Thus me and my CTO brainstormed a few ideas and then we came up with this bold enterprise grade design and architecture. We put together a solid development and products team and managed the entire process for this new SaaS platform: an end-to-end customer engagement CRM platform.
Our focus is not just any enterprise, but the traditional businesses that have been around for decades or centuries and are quite relevant for other businesses and consumers, like banking, insurance, mobile/telco, government and various high tech services.
Most of these large enterprises have fought the war of customer acquisition for years while not paying much attention to the engagement & retention part. The businesses have deluge of data collected on their customers but lack the right technology to gain insights from this data to help them engage with their customers in real time.
With the verge of digital arena, mobile platforms are now serving as the single constant touch point for consumers these days. If consumers spend anywhere from 18-20 hours/day on their mobile, how will you engage, learn, influence, and reward your customers?
This is one of the strategic push for these enterprises to invest in and I truly believe we are right in the sweet spot and inflection point in helping these enterprises with their mobile customer engagement requirements.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs seeking to pivot?
Do not be afraid of pivoting! Startups commonly adjust their direction and it’s part of their journey. If you’re not pivoting then something is fishy as it helps you to identify the sweet spot that you’re addressing.
These include the product/market fit, revenue models, GTM models, etcetera…all tying back to the question whether this is a sustainable product, business, or model we are pushing to the market, and is it making a large enough impact to our daily lives or solving organization’s business problems?
Was there a difficult adjustment period when Perx’s original co-founders Andrew Roth and Jon Sugihara left ? How did you overcome it? What advice would you give entrepreneurs who face similar situations?
There is always some form of disruption to the business when founders leave, mostly morale and culture shifts. However, you have to move quickly with the new leadership and be as honest to the organization as possible about why the changes are being made.
Transparency is the key to maintaining stability or to prevent the least disruption possible. Hire and restructure the team quickly, rebuilding the core values and a new culture, and exercising and practicing them daily are keys to moving the company along in a new direction.
If there is any doubt that people are not able to be part of the new journey, then they do not belong in the company. It is a cultural fit requirement.
During the dotcom days, in San Francisco, we have often seen startup founders come and go, VCs and boards restructuring exec teams and founders getting moved to different roles or out of the company due to various reasons, etcetera.
At the end of the day, the board and shareholders are looking for results in R&D, execution, and growth in those initial first few critical years. The first thing they review is the leadership or founders. This is a common thing. Passion and ideas are always great but in the end it’s all about execution and how you build and lead a team to help grow the company. It is never personal, it is results based.
The company was founded in 2011 but only just raised funds last year. Why the long wait to raise funds?
The two co-founders did a fantastic job at raising funding from friends and family the first two to three years. It really contributed to the initial years of establishing Perx as the pioneer and leader in the mobile loyalty space in Singapore.
But friends and family funds were running out and we needed to rebuild and grow the company, thus we went out for strategic institution money. I am now currently raising another round of growth capital to expand our presence across Asia Pacific and also planning to hire a couple of key senior execs, more developers, products, sales and marketing talent to round out the team to meet our projections.
Looking back on your journey, is there anything you would have done differently?
Hindsight is 20/20. There are always so many things we look back on and say we should have or could have done but we must focus on the future and the best way to move forward. Whatever we have done so far has got us here today. The big question is how will we maintain and build on this journey and create a legacy for people to follow.
Image Credit: ladyboss.asia
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