How do you become a serial entrepreneur in tech in Asia? Sophie Normand started her journey without “a magic idea” or deep pockets, and created -so far- 3 companies. Guess what? Starting is the first step!
Hi Sophie, what do you do and what brought you back to Asia ?
Hello French Tech! I am what you would call a “serial entrepreneur” since 2011. After a career as a telecom engineer in France, my family and I moved to Singapore in 2009 so I could attend the INSEAD MBA program. We loved the place and decided to stay.
After INSEAD, I created my first company, fewStones, a digital agency (video production, web services and digital marketing). I then met my business partner and, over time, we co-funded other companies: Veeroll, a SaaS platform to create video ads on YouTube and Facebook, and then Powata, a technology company providing mobile apps and image recognition for the physical retail operations.
I was already a mother of two when I started fewStones and now a mother of three. Being both a mom and an entrepreneur can have its challenges but if there is a place to do it, it’s definitely Singapore. My husband has a corporate job, which also brings some balance to the intense life of entrepreneurship.
My role in all our businesses is most of the time that of a COO, whereas my co-founder, Jean-Christophe Bouglé, is more on the business development side. Understanding business challenges, translating them into processes, workflows, and looking for the most suitable technology and architecture is my definition of the role.
You have launched many companies, why is that?
When you start with a service company like fewStones, you do not need the magic idea and the initial capital. You learn about entrepreneurship at your own pace and, eventually, you have enough cash and experience to start thinking about creating your own software.
As early as 2011, we knew that our core strength and therefore our objective was to be regarded as a credible technology partner to any entrepreneur who has the magic idea but lacks the confidence to build the underlying software platform and run the company operations. Veeroll started with an Australian influencer on YouTube who wanted to create a video ads platform. Similarly, for Powata, we teamed up with a retail expert.
Growing several businesses in parallel is like sawing many seeds, you hope that at least one will become a flower or even a tree. I also liked the idea of mentoring future leaders of those businesses and have the possibility to take a step back for self-development and technology watch.
To make a business successful, what are the most important criteria (money, idea, team, co-fonder…) according to your experience?
As Bill Gross says in his TED talk, the two biggest factors for success are timing and team. It is not always easy to assess if the timing is right for a business. Sometimes the window can be narrow.
For instance for Veeroll, we were one of the early players in the video ads market and we therefore had to educate our customers, an activity that can take a lot of energy. That being said the company did very well in the first two years thanks to standing out as a new offering, our first mover advantage.
For Powata in contrast, we were actually late in the market for our first product on logistics and pivoted after 6 months towards what Powata is today, a suite of mobile applications for physical retail.
Timing is one of the reasons why the quality of the team is critical: if you are not spot on with the timing, you will need some agility to pivot, and it comes down to people. You need people who have some expertise but also ready to learn new skills and fields very fast.
Finding and retaining the right people for our businesses is now a key focus. We are looking for people who have strengths rather than just a lack of weaknesses. A weakness can often be compensated by someone else in the team but a strength is what brings the most value and help elevate the team as a whole.
When you start small, you cannot afford to attract top talents and actually another critical skill that you need to hone (beyond hiring smartly) is your financial pragmatism and the way you pay attention to your cash flow; we unfortunately had to downsize a couple of times to be able to weather difficult times and grow again.
In your domain of expertise, how do you see tech enabling digitalisation of “traditional” / “non-sexy” industries?
Being immersed in tech for many years, we don’t realise what we take for granted in terms of workflows, processes and productivity tools is completely foreign to some other industries. When meeting with managers in the retail or manufacturing industry, we were surprised to see the lack of visibility on their day-to-day operations or team productivity. In the region, it’s easier for them to have a team of people compiling data sent by whatsapp, paper or phone into excel files. But the accuracy of the data is often questioned and reporting is a nightmare. In addition, as big data is a buzz word at the moment, a lot of companies want to use business intelligence tools to analyse their data. But having non-structured, non- accurate data make this task impossible.
With technology, availability of simple mobile applications, usage of text recognition, image analysis and machine learning, it’s now possible to provide “clean” and accurate data, track the employees activities and then implement meaningful dashboards for the managers to make decisions.
This is where my previous knowledge of online businesses acquired through fewStones and Veeroll became useful as a benchmark for comparing what could be done in physical retail to acquire data similar to what you get in the online world. Also we explored some IoT solutions and my past life as a hardware engineer was also useful. “Connecting the dots” to quote Steve Jobs.
Most of the start-ups or big software companies focus on trendy industries and many off-the-shelf solutions are available. This is the “red ocean”. But for specific industries such as industrial manufacturing, dredging and maritime construction, with very specific workflows, often off-the-shelf solutions are too expensive and over-dimensioned for their needs. This is the “blue ocean”: these companies are looking for partners to help them improve their efficiency and with the right analysis of their business it is simple to build a business case and show them the ROI. Indonesia is for Powata a fantastic market as the retail industry starts to understand the benefits of going paperless while not being ready to invest massively.
Being an engineer by training I am not worried about getting into more technical industries and helping them in their digitisation process.
Is video the next smart move in the digital marketing space?
The digital marketing space is very diverse. Google ads, Facebook ads or SEO are the most well-known techniques but when exposed to digital marketing gurus from the US, we have discovered other techniques that are not yet widespread.
YouTube video Ads, for instance, are very powerful for some industries and much cheaper than more traditional paid ads. At the moment, most of the video ads are “branding videos” with no call to action and not targeted the right way: you are watching a dog training video and you are presented an ad for a car. With a short video ad optimised for conversion, you can drive traffic to your website at a fraction of the regular ads price. In the case of the dog training course, you could advertise only on dog training videos and get very good results.
Videos ads are also a great way to do retargeting, for almost any industry. With video ads you can present short stories in a sequence and overcome buyers’ objections in a much better than with banner ads, to which most people are now largely blind.
The online marketing space is also very advanced compared to traditional B2B in terms of working through partnerships, referral and affiliate programs. It’s important to follow some prominent influencers as a source of inspiration.
Working with Veeroll subscribers, we were able to get leads for clients with video ads for 73 cents only. With our targeting tools and unique and tested templates, our clients can set up a video ads campaign in a 1 or 2 hours instead of having to coordinate with a digital marketing agency, a video editor. Your advertising budget is then spent solely on the ads themselves and less on implementation.
How dare you be a women in digitalisation?
I have always studied (hardware engineer!) or worked in environments where women are a minority. I have learnt that people will respect you (whether you are a woman or a man) if you respect them, are reliable and provide valuable inputs. More effort may be required in some countries in the region because of cultural differences but I feel that when you act naturally and don’t give credits to some behaviours, respect comes pretty easily.
I had one coach when I started fewStones in 2011 but, regularly, I need to take a moment out of the routine and get re-energized: it could be by attending an inspirational assembly with Tony Robbins or exchanging in a small group on a specific topic (e.g time management).
How do you bring more diversity?
From my personal and cultural background spanning over 2 continents, 3 religions, I “am” kind of diverse by myself. Being a mom of teenagers help as well being challenged and up-to-date of latest social trends.
I bring diversity in the sales process when I talk to the prospect and build the technical confidence people seek. I bring diversity in the daily operations by being poised, resourceful and positive when everyone else would start giving up.
Business-wise, I am facts and data-driven, people-wise I follow my intuitions.