#StartupOfTheWeek – Muslim Pro by Bitsmedia

This week we sat down with Erwan Macé, Founder of Bitsmedia. You might not have heard of the company but they are the publisher of the first mobile application for Muslims, Muslim Pro. Great discussion where we talk passion, entrepreneurship and, well, Islam.

What is your story, Erwan?

I arrived in Singapore 31 years ago with my parents, and I have since been sharing my time between France and Singapore.

I studied at the Lycée Français, then came to France for some time and came to Indonesia for my National Service. After that I came back to Paris in 1999 to join Spray, a startup that made a lot of noise for a year and then sold during the Internet bubble. It was fun and incredible, the giraffe was one of the symbol of the company and I remember parties with Giraffes in the nightclub!

Anyway, I then came back to Singapore to join Soundbuzz as their CTO. The company had been founded by friends of mine. They eventually sold it to Motorola, and then guess what? I came back to France!

I first worked for Akamai and joined Vivendi Mobile Entertainment in 2007. I was their CTO for about 2 years and helped the build a platform to distribute games, music and video content on mobile. My wife then had an opportunity in Singapore so we came back here again. This is where I created Bitsmedia, originally to do a bit of consulting and be able to continue working for Vivendi. I created their first iPhone app, and many others.

So originally you had no plans to develop Muslim Pro?

Not at all. While I was working for Vivendi I also developed lots of apps for personal projects…apps nobody ever heard of 😉!

Then I launched Muslim Pro as a pilot / test project for Indonesia which was home to the  largest Muslim population and which I felt was about to become a huge opportunity for mobile internet services.

Now is the interesting part: it was a total failure because people had no smartphones in Indonesia back in 2010. But it was a very big hit in the US, France and in the UK.

Then in 2011 I joined Google. We’ve had discussions for 2 years, and they made me a proposal. I had a dream job: I was teaching the Google best practices to the developers in the region.

When I joined them they asked me to close all of my apps. All but one: Muslim Pro, because there was no conflict of interest.

Obviously all the best practices I was teaching I also applied them to Muslim Pro, and in July 2012 I made the decision to leave Google and focus solely on Muslim Pro which had reached its first million user.

Tough choice! And where is Muslim Pro today?

We have 70 millions unique downloads. In low season (outside Ramadan) we have more than 3 million daily active users and 15 million monthly active users. As a comparison, Carousell does in 1 month what we do in one day.

The model is simple. We have a freemium version with ads and a premium version without ads. 85% of our revenue comes from ads and 15% from Premium subscriptions.

My first 25 million users were acquired organically. I never raised funds, and my first dollar of advertising was spent in 2015.

During Ramadan we are simply the first app, before Whatsapp, Facebook and the likes!

Was it hard to built this without being a Muslim?

We worked hard to understand the community and its needs. We are the biggest app to address all needs. I think not being Muslim may have helped us become even more successful, let me explain. There are other apps, but they are usually developed by people who are Muslims from a specific country. But Islam is very diverse so these apps may be too specific to a certain vision of Islam (their own) and won’t always be helpful to other Muslims in other countries. In the early days, the other existing apps were also not developed by professional developers and were of a rather low quality. This has changed since.

Let me give you one example. For the prayers schedule, there are 15 different methods to calculate them, varying from 1 to 10mn. France is the worst by the way because there is no official religious authority. We were the very first app to support all these methods, precisely because we didn’t start from a specific country or school of thought.

What do you think makes an Entrepreneur?

I think there are 3 qualities you need.

  • Passion. I love technology, I love coding. I started coding at the age of 8. And then I was lucky that IT became mainstream.
  • Stay down to earth. I am very focused on what I have to do, on the product. I am not a big fan of startups who try to raise funds before they actually have a product.
  • Finally, knowing how to seize opportunities. It’s all about intuition, choice and a bit of luck. When I left Google, that was a hard choice! And focusing on Muslim Pro was risky, but I knew the opportunity was huge.

Today if you asked me if it was hard to get to where I am, I’d say not at all! It was hard work but it wasn’t hard.

What’s the culture at Bitsmedia?

Today we have 25 people. Half of them are in Singapore, the rest is in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. The development team is based with me in Singapore because I am a big believer that the quality of our product is of utmost importance. I still code with the team here!

I am very proud to say that in 10 years we have only had one resignation. It’s incredible to me. We have a strong culture: for instance I can’t work with someone if I don’t feel like I want to have lunch with them.

Our team is young and we offer things very few companies can offer. We have tens of millions of users so they have a lot of impact, and we are profitable. I am also very involved with the team, which they like as well.

I have just retired as CEO. In July 2017 I sold 90% of my shares to two Private Equity funds, and I have just stepped down to become the non executive Chairman.

Louis-Bernard Carcouet, our former COO, is taking over as our new Managing Director. Louis joined 4,5 years ago, and he was working with me at Vivendi so we have a long history together.

He came to Singapore after a trip here, and he joined PropertyGuru in 2011 to launch their app.

Being based here in Singapore means combining the best of both worlds. Technologically we live in a very advanced place, but we are just 4 hours flight away from 2 billion people who don’t have the same life conditions at all. For instance in India the uninstallation rate is huge, simply because people have low-end smartphones with small storage capacity.

Both Louis and myself are very data-driven. We do a lot of A/B testing to see what people are using in the app. We also engage the community a lot to understand them better. Another example where our neutrality is actually an advantage, we are not biased.

What does the future look like for Bitsmedia?

Well Islam is the religion of emerging countries, so we have a natural growth that follows the population growth and the smartphone penetration growth.

Now our markets are very different. They are saturated in Europe and the US. Singapore is our best conversion rate. So we need to do a lot of testing to better know the differences between our markets.

Today Google is very interested in Muslims as an audience, but they don’t really know how to go about it. Some things are competing directly, for instance Google has made an app that gives the direction to Mecca.

Even China invests in this industry. They put in a lot of money in one of our competitors. They burnt all their cash and grew quickly but it didn’t work out. They disappeared as fast as they appeared.

So the market potential is huge, we’ll see how it develops but we are in a very good position anyway.

And what are you going to do now?

I like building products more than building companies and I feel the need to start something from scratch again. Cybersecurity is where I’m heading…

#StartupOfTheWeek – XSpon

Today we spend time with Adrien Pierson, from XSpon. Great conversation about wine, golf, and well…entrepreneurship! Let’s get started, shall we?

Adrien, tell us more about yourself

I arrived in Singapore in 2012. I was working in an small company back in France and I wanted to develop the business here. They were the leader for corporate events in wine and gastronomy.

One of the Founder’s mentor was Guy Savoye, the famous chef. He owned a restaurant at Marina Bay Sands so we used it to hold the first “Singapour fête le champagne” and “Singapour fête le Bordeaux” events.

These events still exist today, the concept is simple. It is a large wine tasting session with the owner of a domain or the cellar manager, followed by a dinner in small groups to encourage networking.

Unfortunately it didn’t work out as planned. First, we didn’t realize that wine distributors here in Asia and Singapore are extremely strong -and we simply couldn’t compete on the margins. Second, it’s not in the culture here to sit and have dinner for hours with 6 or 7 courses.

So not tech at all at that time?

No, not yet. After 2 years we threw the towel and in 2014 I went on to work for a wine distributor. They wanted to leverage digital technologies and I consulted for them for about a year. This was a transition for me, really. I was among very wealthy people and a lot of them played golf, which is a sport I love. This is how i decided to start a company in this area.

It was a web platform serving as a high-end concierge service for golf players in Singapore to organize sessions in the region. We just made it super easy to play golf in Southeast Asia, rent a villa nearby, and have dinners and parties in the evenings. I started this by myself using Shopify, with the help of a great developer from Australia.

It was just the 2 of us and we worked for almost 3 years on the project and we had a lot of fun. In the end it didn’t work, for 2 reasons.

  • First we faced a huge competition: there’s very few, very powerful companies that trust everything in this sport and we were too small.
  • Also our whole idea was to use technology, but in the end it really was a concierge service. We would have calls at midnight because a group of customers in Bali wanted to change the nightclub originally planned, for instance. It was a nightmare!

So I decided to do an executive MBA at INSEAD on change management. It is very focused on psychology, group dynamics, how to manage conflicts, etc. I am currently doing my thesis on the relationship between business angels and entrepreneurs in seed and pre-seed stages.

In parallel to that I have started a new venture. It’s a company called XSpon, an online sponsoring platform for startups and SMBs.

What is XSPON exactly?

Basically XSpon is a brand activation platform that put startups and SMBs in touch with events organizers.

I have a deep events background and I really believe they are critical for any business today. We are not in the product era anymore, neither the service era: today it’s all about the experience, and events are a great way to provide a great experience.

Xspon relies on two ideas.

  • First, sponsoring events today is mostly for large companies. Big events sponsored by big multinational corporations. But if you are a smaller events organizer, or a smaller company, you just don’t have access to the traditional sponsoring schemes. If you want to either find a small event to sponsor it becomes an extremely painful, long, boring and manual process no one wants to do.
  • The second problem we see is that many startups focus on digital -which is great. But while they have put in a lot of effort on their product, they sometimes overlook the sales and go-to-market aspects. They focus only on a pure digital relationship with their customers, which is a huge mistake. You have to get in front of your audience physically, this is the only way to know them in and out.

Sponsoring the right events, at the right price, is a really valuable way to put your brand in front of your customers and interact with them directly.

So for startups XSpon makes sponsoring easy, accessible and affordable. We build a bridge to help start secure their product/market fit.

Very interesting to put events almost as an acquisition channel

Exactly. Events are the best way to know your audience. Today with Facebook Manager can run an ad campaign targeting the Singaporean women living in the North, who are in their mid 30s and who have a dog. But that doesn’t mean you know them at all! An event for the same audience will be the easiest way to go and meet them.

We are using analytics to ensure we match the need of a startup in term of audience with the right events. We have 50 customers and 100 events for now, all in Singapore. We will open new cities in the future obviously.

Today we’re doing the soft launch of our platform, so please join! Don’t wait, it is free for now  but it won’t last.

We have also planned to help events organizer better use technology. On most large events you can use wireless tech to queue, buy food, checkin, pay your drinks etc. But many events don’t use tech at all, and we want to help them do that.

The benefits for them is that they can improve the quality of the experience at the event, but this will enable us to gather precious data and analytics during the event to better understand and qualify the audience for startups.

Can you tell us more about your thesis?

Sure. The relationship between entrepreneurs and investors in very early stage is really fascinating.

On the one hand the entrepreneur is fully focused on his idea, his product. Day and night he thinks about it, every neuron so constantly working on his project that there’s even a mental load that is hard to deal with.

But on the other hand, what early stage investors are focused on is not at all the idea or the product. It’s only the founding team, the entrepreneurs themselves. And usually they fund an early stage startup precisely because they believe the founder could work on any problem, not just this one.

This creates a very unique dynamics, and this is what my thesis is diving into.

There is so much work to do the team aspects in early stage startups! A founder is really like Hannibal in the A-Team TV series. His strength is simply to federate and gather the right people, but he can help anybody whatever their issues!

Thanks Adrien, we can’t wait to read it, let us know when it’s out!

#StartupOfTheWeek 💎- IWD

Hi Gabriel, so who is IWD?

Nicolas Martin and I founded IWD in 2000. Originally we were a web agency but we specialized in functional websites. At the time it was not common so it made us different: think Intranet, web tools or useful sites in general.

Our first clients were for instance travel agencies offering online booking sites, or retailers who wanted to build their packaging databases.

In 2002 Shiseido approached us to build their planograms. For those who don’t know 🙄, these are visual representations of a store’s products on display. The timing was perfect because at that time we wanted to become a software vendor, not just an agency. So we offered to build it for free and they would buy licences instead.

They agreed and this is how we got started in our current positioning. It took us 2 years before the business really took off, when we signed Estee Lauder. One of the reason we have been successful is that our competitors sold their software on CD -we’ve always been a Saas company- and our UX was just simple and modern.

Where are you today?

IWD’s strength really is that we combine an expertise in retail and in software. Our mission is to help customers deploy their brand and their image in the point of sale and be more efficient.

We have more than 300 brands in our portfolio, for instance Timberland, The North Face, Uniqlo, Chanel, Dior, Havaianas, etc.

We are about 80 people, with the biggest presence in Paris where most of our developers are. We also have offices in Los Angeles, New-York and recently in Singapore. In terms of business, it is very important for us to be present in these locations because all of our clients are big international brands.

In each office we have one developer, and mainly account managers and business developers. 80% of our work is software edition and the remaining 20% support on our products.

Why Singapore?

We decided to set-up a new office here in Singapore about 3 years ago to accompany our customers. Actually Charles & Keith told us they would like us to be based in Singapore. We took a chance and it proved successful!

I came here personally to kick it off. My job was simply to deliver on the first projects, recruit the right team and grow our pipeline to have sufficient runway to operate smoothly.

Our market is very dynamic, we’re on a great trajectory and we’re hiring. I will go back in France in July and we’ve hired Ghislain Moret, the former Country Manager of Devialet, to oversee our APAC operations. He’s a great fit because has a unique combination of luxury, retail, tech and innovation.

What’s different in the Asian market?

This market is fascinating. I learned a lot in my time here. You can’t really understand what’s going on in Asia without being based here.

First, the cost of manpower is a critical factor. Since it is cheap, software vendors have a hard time because many companies prefer to hire 5 people to do something instead of buying a software to automate it. For us it means we must focus on selling them the parts that they really can’t do internally.

You also need to think differently about the Asian customers themselves vs. the customers travelling in Asia. For example, Korea is a very interesting market. The Travel Retail industry is growing rapidly and the Seoul airport is the biggest in the world. About $22Mds are being spent there every year. This is huge: the 2nd biggest is the Emirates one but it’s only about $12Mds. But the thing is that a very large part of these $22Mds are actually Chinese people buying in Korea and reselling elsewhere. So you need to understand the dynamics!

Lastly, Asia is very, very diverse. We focus on high-end markets in Asia, like Japan, Korea, Hong-Kong or Australia. But these countries are as different as continents. So yes, the business opportunity in Asia is real but it is really complicated.

What’s the next step for IWD?

We raised funds recently, for the first time. Originally we grew up slowly but nicely. We only raised love money in the beginning and last year we raised funds with Ardian. We have known them for 5 or 6 years and they never pushed us -which we liked! We have a great relationship with them.

Our goal is to scale-up and we needed to have the means of our ambitions. So far it’s looking great. Having such an investor forces us as entrepreneurs to really go above and beyond expectations, to be very focused and rigorous. They provide a very strong support and we can now envision things we never thought of, like growing with acquisitions.

For more info: www.iwd.io

#StartupOfTheWeek – Jumpster

Southeast Asia can be a wealth of opportunities for Startups -but it’s no easy market. This week we sat down with Sebastien de Peretti, Founder of Jumpster, a company that helps French Startups expand there.

Hi Sebastien, how did you arrive in Singapore?

We arrived in Asia by choice, my wife and I simply decided to move here. We spent some time looking at different places but Singapore just looked like the best compromise between professional opportunities and quality of life. We didn’t really have any particular connections there but it seemed like the perfect choice.

Back in France I held various general management positions in small MNCs, and I started working in a similar role in Singapore. But I was really trying to find my sweet spot, where I could bring most value. This is how I realized I could help startups expand here in Singapore and in the Region and this is how I decided to found Jumpster.

What is Jumpster?

It’s very simple. We basically work with startups who want to expand in Southeast Asia. There’s two ways we do this:

  • As a first step we do business development for them.
  • Ultimately we want to invest with them. We build joint ventures with them to help them accelerate

We differentiate on two things:

  • We build long-term relationships with our Customers. Many companies here say they help with business development but they basically work on a couple of weeks assignments. We think 3 to 6 month, because that’s what it really takes to do it.
  • Second, we focus on B2B tech startups in several areas: Internet Of Things, Big data and Artificial Intelligence and Cybersecurity.

We see good commercial traction since our beginning so it shows we deliver value.

How did you create it?

We are three associates: Sylvain Lejeune, Jean-Luc Bernard and myself. Sylvain is VP Sales of WatchGuard and he has been in Asia for 20 years. He has an extensive network in cybersecurity. Jean-Luc is an entrepreneur in the tech industry for more than 30 years, he has seen the evolution in the past decades and brings a huge knowledge as well.

When I decided to create Jumpster I started by speaking to a lot of people. I deeply believe that an idea can only be good if you share it. Sometimes founders are reluctant to do it to protect their ideas, but it’s just not how I work. So I talked to many people and it helped me structure my thoughts, strengthen the value proposition and more generally I got extremely valuable feedback. Most importantly this is how I met my co-founders.

We share strong values and this is what enabled us to find employees, partners, customers and extended resources. These resources are critical for every startup. They are people who believe in our idea and business and want to help us in the early stages.

Singapore is a great place to start a business. When I moved here I had no idea I was going to do this. By talking to a lot of people i realized I could bring value, and the market here is very fast and fluid. This is how I started.

I believe Singapore will become an important technology hub. It is still very small compared to Europe or the US , but it is reaching the critical mass that’s required to grow.

Why do you focus on a few verticals?

Well first we all come from this background so it is our expertise.

But most importantly these industries are a huge opportunity in the region because they aren’t so much the focus here. There are a lot of B2C startups that focus on retail, on consumer trends, on marketing or advertising technologies. This is an opportunity for us to differentiate and bring our expertise in an underserved market like Financial Services, Mission-critical infrastructure (energy, water and telecoms), transportation and logistics and manufacturing.

We focus on really high-tech B2B startups, between A and B series, who want to expand in Southeast Asia.

What is the next step for Jumpster?

We are still at the beginning. We started beginning of this year and we’re already working with several clients. This is great, and it’s the first phase of our development.

Obviously we’re full speed looking for new customers and this will keep us busy for the coming months.

The next phase for us, probably end of this year or beginning of next, will be co-investment. We’re not in a hurry because we really want to have mutual trust between us and our Customers before we create a Joint Venture. We want to ensure we both believe we’re the best partners, that we agree on the go-to-market and sales strategy and most importantly that we can execute on this strategy.

We have a very collaborative approach, meaning that the more successful startups we have in Southeast Asia the more opportunity we will have. So we are very inclusive and try to help startups even if they don’t work with us in the end. The success of some will bring success for others!

To know more you can visit www.jumpster.sg or contact us at contact@jumpster.sg

#WomenInTech – Antonia Christou

One of the reasons we started this series of interviews of Women in the tech industry is that it is still largely a men’s world. Combine it with manufacturing, it gets even trickier. This week we talked to Antonia Christou, the perfect example that Women also belong in this sector!

Hi Antonia! What do you do and what brought you to Asia?

I work for WeAre, a manufacturer of aerospace, medical and automotive components.

I spent 5 years in the aerospace industry and almost 2 at WeAre France. I wanted to find a more challenging role with international exposure.

When I heard about the launch of “WeAre Innovation Hub” end of last year, I jumped on the opportunity without hesitation!

Today I am in charge of our Innovation Hub and Startup Accelerator in Singapore. We source startups, define and run co-development projects, and we develop strategic partnerships.

Another corporate incubator, how do you differentiate from others?

There are 3 main reasons why our offer is better than most of current corporate incubators and accelerators:

1.   Win-win relationship

There is a real business interest between WeAre and Startups through co-development.

We integrate every projects in our factories and business model. We help them scale-up by giving them access to our market, our regulations knowledge and client base.

2.    Real industrial use cases

We have integrated our accelerator in our factories. This means the startups work directly in the workshop with the machines. They can test their products in real life use-cases and best adapt them to industrial applications.

3.    Dedicated fund for innovation

Together with our partner Leonie Hill Capital, we have created a dedicated innovation fund. We invest in Startups to develop Industry 4.0 flagship technologies. By the way I have some exciting news, we made our first investment. Our first startup has a unique solution for advanced manufacturing. We will announce it officially very soon!

In a nutshell, we want to help startups thrive, and use our co-development program as a building block to be ahead of the game!

How do you source your startups?

We source them through different channels.

  • We launch partnerships with the Singaporean Universities to be at the heart of innovation.
  • We collaborate with other accelerators, to offer real industrial use cases.
  • Finally we take part in emerging technologies and deep tech events, conferences and startup awards. We’re also launching an open challenge very soon to identify the best startup ideas!

We have many ongoing projects.

For instance we have advanced discussions with 4 startups to develop industrial PoC in our factories on IoT, Data Analytics and Robotics projects.

We are also in discussions with key players of the Singaporean innovation ecosystem for partnerships.

And I can share our latest breaking news: WeAre is a corporate partner and Gold sponsor of Slingshot startup competition!

Why Singapore and not the US or China?

Our strategy is to combine our Innovation Hubs with our major factories – in France, Japan and Singapore.

Singapore is one of the best places in the world to be an entrepreneur. There are several reasons to that. For instance its strategic geographical position in South East Asia, or  he presence of key players in our industries. It makes Singapore the perfect place to start our Innovation Hub. You may not know it, Singapore has quite some manufacturing facilities too!

We will very soon announce new plant projects combined with Innovation Hubs in China and India. Stay tuned!

Handling tech issues in manufacturing environment, how dare you do it?

Our CEO Philippe once told me: « Women see innovation in a different way than men ». So he chose to put women in key positions in our Innovation Hubs around the world. And to be honest we are rocking it up 😉!

In less than six months time, we have achieved a lot. We have launched big partnerships and we are working on several proof of concepts in Singapore. We also confirmed several events in Tokyo, and we already made one investment in France!

But it’s true that the combination of Manufacturing and Tech industries can be pretty challenging for gender parity.

We must give to women opportunities to prove themselves.

To achieve that I am committed to raise people’s awareness, help train women and give them the skills and confidence to launch themselves.

How do you bring more diversity?

I am also part of “Female French Tech”. We are a community of women and we want to raise awareness on diversity among local communities in APAC. To do this we organise women-centric workshops, events, and partnerships with associations.

We now want to partner with universities and identify young female talents. We will then help them to develop their abilities.

So if you are a female (aspiring) entrepreneur, join us to bring more diversity! Let’s change the  tech sectors so that they’re no « men’s world » any more!

Last, I would love to find out more about you and your projects so reach out to me if you want to chat!