#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…

#WomenInTech – Celine Le Cotonnec

Celine arrived 16 years ago as a student in Sinology and is now Chief Data and Innovation Officer at AXA Insurance in Singapore. Read this amazing story!

Hi Celine, so what do you do and what brought you to Singapore?

I came to Asia 16 years ago as a sinology student in a Taiwanese university. Learning Chinese since I was 14 years old was the best choice I have ever made. After an International Business degree at Guangzhou University, I found a job at the French Consulate Trade Commission in Shanghai, supporting SMEs in heavy industries and new technologies to develop in China. This was my first experience in Tech, I will always remember that day in 2007, when I met a small Chinese company developing a third-party mobile and online payment platform. There were less than 100 employees at that time. It was nothing else than…Alipay!

With a business related background, starting by sinology, how come you ended up working in data and innovation?

In my previous role in PSA Peugeot Citroen China, I was leading the digital and media buying for our three brands: Peugeot, Citroen and DS:overseeing the performance of e-commerce strategy, analytics and social media campaign. Data Science was first used in Digital Media to improve retargeting, offer customized advertisement,increase traffic and improve conversion.

Later on, I took over the Innovation Department for PSA in China. We launched our first connected car and were looking at creating innovative services for improved driving experience based on car sensors’ data. The digital ecosystem in China is drastically different from Europe. Customers are younger and more connected. We had to develop a suite of services suitable for Chinese customers and find new business models with digital partners using car data to generate additional revenues. This was the only way to maintain expensive car connectivity and cyber-security infrastructures. It was also the beginning of Mobility-as-a-service. Everyone witnessed the emergence of platforms such as Uber in Europe, Grab in South East Asia or the Giant Didi in China. Similarly to what happened in the hospitality industry with the appearance of Airbnb, we saw business models switching from ownership to pay-per-use. Every car manufacturer was wondering how to ride on the wave of mobility services on top of the traditional car purchase offer. I was then asked to create a Business Unit on connected services and mobility to address those questions for the Chinese market.

So what does it mean to be a Chief Data Officer?

The role of a Chief Data officer is mainly to transform the organization to be more data-driven.Moving away from gut feelings to analytics enabled organizations to measure, track and monitor the performance of our processes, products, distributions and customer experience. Thanks to real-time visibility on our business, each employee of the organization can take fast and sound decisions, monitor the results, and apply corrective actions. Analyzing customer data helps understand their habits, market segment, life style, so it becomes possible to design customized insurance with the right coverage, sized risk, at the appropriate time.

I oversee a real diversity of data-related activities including data management, data quality and strategy for Singapore. The team is responsible for data analytics and business intelligence, which means creating valuable insights from data. We are also leading IT topics on data platforms related to business or customers. On the innovation side, our projects ranges from developing machine learning algorithms, implementing NLP or deep-learning technics to extract value from voice, images, pdf and web data.

What is your strategy in Singapore to transform an organization into becoming data-driven? What are the main things an organization needs to focus on when embarking on a data transformation journey?

Singapore in the leader in South East Asia when it comes to innovation and AI, thanks to the government –led Smart Nation initiative. To strengthen and accelerate data-driven transformation in any traditional organization, I would recommend to first focused on building four enabling pillars:

1. Platform and Tools:

Any data professional needs an environment to work: a Data Lake. Last year, we moved our various data infrastructure to public cloud in order to benefit from on-demand storage, computing and services. We have also moved to agile project management. While several teams were coding in different languages, the decision was taken to streamline every legacy analytical codes we had into Python programming language because of its simplicity, community support and numerous libraries. Finally, Tableau was widely deployed as visualization tool, speeding up decision making and KPI tracking. Anybody in the organization ranging from data scientist, analysts to actuaries, can now perform independent statistical analysis, advanced analytics, create and deploy machine learning models, at a minimum cost, with a competitive speed, and positively impact our customer experience.

2. People and Culture.

Changing an organization is not just about switching to new tools. It is first and foremost about changing the mindset of employees, their ways of working and raising awareness on what data-driven actually means. This year we set the ambitious target to train 20% of the organization in Python and Tableau. Data champions within a business unit, also called “Super Users” would  undergo an intensive four months training provided by the data team with a strong mentoring during the first months. Directors, and even Executive Committee Members would also undergo a 15 hours crash course in Python and data analytics. For the rest of the employees, there would be challenges on raising data awareness.

At a global level, we developed partnerships with e-learning platform such as LinkedIn learning and Coursera to encourage everyone to improve their  data and analytics capabilities.

Finally, we hold numerous events such as: lunch & learn with speakers from outside the insurance industry, panel discussions, evening meet-ups, sharing session with other data science teams from other companies. The main goal is to communicate on new business opportunities enabled by new tech and AI. We want to involve and empower the whole company to be part of this . Change Management efforts are key to achieve a true mindset switch.  

3. Data Governance

Using and storing data also imply compliance with data privacy and security regulations. Recent scandals such as Cambridge Analytica and the Singapore Data Breaches, remind us that large-scale data collection and usage could potentially raise significant privacy concerns. AXA is today the most forward thinking insurer globally when it comes to responsible AI and use of data. We are contributing to the public debate through collective actions such as IMPACT AI library In Europe or LiveWithAI think-tank in Singapore. A strong Governance framework is critical to balance between value and data privacy in the digital age.

4. Data management

It is nowadays a growing activities even in non-online businesses. Lot of people do not understand that 80% of a data science project is getting access, collecting, cleaning, and understanding the data. Predictive modelling that is supposed to be the most exciting part, is actually less than 20% of a data scientist daily job.

Value comes with quality and uniform data, as well as comprehensive guidelines for upstream users.

Once the basics are in place, it is a matter of weeks or even days to launch, test and industrialize a new AI. I’d like to quote here, Dr Deb Goswami, lead Data scientist at Traveloka, main online travel platform in Asia :” For a data science team, developing AI models is not the end game, but the value of the problem you are trying to solve”

According to you, how will AI disrupt the Insurance industry? And are the insurers afraid of Insurtech start-ups?

I wouldn’t consider AI as a disruption as it will only improve insurers’ efficiency as they become more customer-centric. The real disruption, in my opinion, will come from technologies such as Blockchain because it reduces middlemen such as agents/brokers, insurers, or even banks. In a trusted environment, people could pool risk among peers and get them directly reinsured without any.  

In the current value chain of insurance, it starts with the customer, of course, who buys an insurance from a broker or agent, the product is priced and underwritten by an insurer, who gets part of the risk reinsured by a reinsurer.

In today’s insurtech market, I would say that 80% of the start-ups are digitalizing the distribution experience, disrupting the intermediary but most likely supporting the digital sale of traditional insurance product.

The remaining 20% are working on solutions that would improve the efficiency of an insurer: AI in fraud detection, video-consultation to reduce healthcare cost and improve the customer experience, damage recognition from a car accident in order to speed up the process of surveyor and settle the claims faster with the counter-part insurer.

In the current context, insurtech start-ups are partners that can enable insurers to speed up their transformation and offer a better digital experience for our customers.

What do you find the most inspiring in the future you foresee?

The deployment of IoT and AI across all industries, made possible at affordable cost through the upcoming launch of 5G, cloud computing, and the emergence of blockchain will accelerate collaboration between platforms. While industries used to compete and work in silos, the new trend is to refocus on customer and collaborate to improved user experience through API integration. Technologies will also improve natural resources management and optimize existing assets.

Take the example of personal cars. In average they are  only in use 6% of their lifetime. Parking are expensive for both urban planning and users, and 30% of the traffic in big cities, such as Paris, are caused by people looking for a parking space. With the emergence of autonomous vehicle, the world will have to produce less cars and emit less greenhouse gas. In this period of fast change, every industry needs to transform and reinvent itself if it wishes to remain relevant in the connected AI-driven world of tomorrow.

How “dare you” be a women in data and how do you bring more diversity?

Diversity is not only about gender parity. Diversity is also about recruiting people from other industries, with different skill sets or culture. Diversity in ages and experience is also a great value inside and organization. Managing people with more skills or more experience should not be a threat.

I do support several initiatives promoting gender diversity in the data world. I am working with SheLovesData, girlswhocode and mentoring young female talents. In the book written by Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In, the issues of women in leadership are well described: putting others before themselves, lack of networking skills and being afraid of reaching out to their network or refusing a job because you’re not sure to have 100% of the skills required. I’m quite proud of the female ratio we have in our team or within the global data family. Our group lead data architect is actually a woman and there are several women CDO in the region I’m reporting to. Be bold, take risks, don’t be afraid and fight for your values are the advices I would always give to young mentees.  #daretobeafemaleintech

#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!

#WomenInTech – Aurelie Dhellemmes

Hi Aurelie, so what do you do and what brought you to Asia?

I have quite a diverse background between Tech, Finance and Start-Up creation.

From Certified IT Architect at IBM to top Investment Banks’ front office management roles, I also co-founded start-ups in Tech and Education. In investment banking roles, I have often spearheaded new teams, launched new products and pushed the bank’s digital transformation.

All of your career has been with banks, sometimes chairing their digital council: How do you see banks acting to survive the disruption from fintechs?

VC fintech investment went from $1.8 billion in 2011 to $31 billion in 2018. Deal size in Asia are almost twice as big as the global average. In China, regulation has been more accommodating allowing players like Ant Financial, valued at $150 billion, to reshape digital payments, loans, and wealth and asset management. In Europe (including the UK), 20% of the banking and payments institutions are new entrants and have captured nearly 7% of total banking revenue, one-third (33%) of all new revenue since 2005.

The margin compressions and customer churn, across products, means banks have 2 alternatives: either play the volume game or become more sophisticated. For the volume commoditization game, it means often getting into price wars and fighting to be the most cost efficient through digitalisation. For the sophistication play, it can be through structuring sophisticated products, or recurring revenue / sticky solutions, or most importantly, being client-centric increasing product density with each client, i.e. at least, cross sell the franchise vs “siloed product pushing”.

The 5 dimensions to look at in the Traditional Banks vs FinTechs battle:

  1.    Trust: The trust factor towards banks from retail and institutional clients is still very strong. That’s one of the reasons why robot advisors are still struggling to take off. Most clients are still comfortable today to keep their cash and securities in banks. Will it stay so?
  2.    Data: For example, PSD2 regulation is opening banking data: the smallest fintech provider can get access to elaborate transaction records and use that data in new and interesting ways, if customers provide their approval to do so.
  3.    Credit is a key angle to attract new clients (retail or institutional). Many new entrants, including Ant Financial, are looking to offer credit to clients.
  4.    Innovation: Banks are under increased regulatory scrutiny, which suppresses appetite to take innovative risks.
  5.    Customer experience: For example, Standard Chartered has aligned its cash management offering with WeChat’s online payment gateway, giving corporate merchant customers access to 800 million consumers in China

How can banks cement their relevance with customers and regain revenue growth?

There is no doubt for me that survival of banks comes through keeping and attracting clients through a solid trust factor / customer experience, becoming the gateway like a Apple who owns the relationship, and being able to leverage SaaS “pay-as-you-go” applications in a nimble way, freeing themselves from legacy infrastructures. This is the platform play many industries are going through. AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes says the future is being a digital travel company, a more open platform that potentially invites in the competition and sells ancillary products.

Tell us more about the platform play?

In the industrial area, it was all about process efficiencies, six-sigma, “waterfall” models, siloed departments. Today we “pay as we go”: a teenager can get you 1 million views on YouTube cheaper than an ad agency, you can get a room without going to a hotel, you can get a ride without being in a taxi.

We are moving from a siloed model to an ecosystem model where we are organised by purpose, from “beating the competition” to “being the competition”, from big idea to big data, from company-centric to client-centric, from ad agency driven to storytelling for customers, from disciplined to creative and innovative employees, from Pipeline to Platform. Banks are starting to organise multi-disciplinary innovative teams by purpose rather than skills.

Digital Transformation is more about people than digital. That’s why it takes time. Culture is the biggest barrier to Digital Transformation.

How do banks manage the culture shift?

Shifting traditional mindsets and operating models to deliver digital journeys at a start-up pace is no easy feat for a financial giant.

From a McKinsey study, the 3 main culture barriers are: 1. the presence of functional and departmental silos, 2. a fear of taking risks,  and 3. the difficulty of forming and acting on a single view of the consumer.

Two opposite forces are pulling banks: the constant and increased compliance scrutiny and the need to innovate. How do you let the crazy Doc from “back in the future” thrive in a top investment bank? How do you nurture and reward this innovative DNA? Organic culture shift will be too slow. How do you keep the pace of innovation and agility to change when you have a big ship to steer? Acquisition of start-ups? Sandbox experiments? Some banks are creating sandbox Neo-Banks. DBS created its digibank in India. Some banks may become the new Kodak, failing to move in the digital age. Engineer Steven Sasson was turned down by Kodak’s management when he showed them the digital camera, due to fears of cannibalization. Either you wait for competition to put you out of business or you become it.

Also, do you push a product or truly solve a pain point? Starbucks wants to be your third place after your home and office. You can get cheaper coffee elsewhere. What they are truly selling to you is space, i.e. going beyond siloed coffee product pushing, solving directly the pain point.

Again, Digital Transformation is more about people than digital. It requires a big cultural shake up. Let’s follow Einstein and his “Creativity is the intelligence having fun”.


Juggling between a finance career and start-ups is quite unusual!?

Social status today is conditioned mostly by your professional occupation, which is indicative of a whole range of identity markers: income bracket, level of training, belonging to a social “class” and all the supposed cultural habits that go with it. Slashing is challenging this view, i.e. focusing more on skills and eagerness to grow vs status. Slashing refers to the slash sign, as in “/”, and refers to people who combine more than one role or occupational identity, juggling with cultural codes as well as professional identities.

I enjoy the intensity and intellectual stimulation of working quadruple shifts and heavily action-driven (intense focus on one project at a time). I am extremely grateful to be surrounded by great teams on each project.

I feel passionate about creating, in start-ups as well as banks.

How many start-ups are you involved in?

I have been involved with 8 start-ups at different levels of involvement. I co-founded most. I never start a business on my own. My number one criteria: I invest my energy in people I believe in, mostly their appetite to get things done. We feed each other from our mutual energy and vision. I tend to prefer start-ups based on service (lower fixed costs), with a human and tech angle. For example:

      PixiumDigital: software development from app dev, website dev, IoT, data analytics, VR, to interactive display..

      KidsCampSingapore: founded 4 years ago, with thousands of kids coming, I am very proud that it has been voted best kidscamp in Singapore for the second year in a row by SassyMama. And, even for Kidscamp, we are undergoing a digital transformation of our back to front end.

      GoMasterCoach: For life coaches: 1/ a school to get their certification, 2/ online classes and 3/ a webapp: toolbox with all the tests/programs life coaches need.

What keeps you going is the satisfaction of creation, the intellectual stimulation as well as the collaboration with talented individuals.

How “Dare you” to be a serial woman entrepreneur in tech?

Good question. First time I ran a triathlon, one of my female friends asked me what was my time target for the triathlon. I answered “3 hours”. She very candidly replied  “how dare you think you will do as good as our guy friends!”. I value being a woman but it doesn’t define me or gives me any limit. You set your own limitations. Your beliefs define you.

Like for a triathlon, you have to dare believing in yourself, learn from your ability to adapt and make sure you have insane discipline to deliver.

How do you bring more diversity?

I was heading women networks in the different banks I was with. How do you break the “boys club”? How do you make sure women who “join the club” keep their diverse mindset and don’t mimic men? How do you prevent women from pursuing an individual strategy of advancement that centers on distancing themselves from other women?

Unfortunately, I am convinced the ‘Diversity & Inclusion’ initiatives have to be very top driven, such as the “Council for Board Diversity” in Singapore or the “30% Club”: campaigning for more women on boards, preparing them to be board-ready, giving scholarships, promoting cross-organisation mentoring or providing leadership courses.

At a more junior level, I always try to proactively go to women to suggest a role. I often get “I am not ready. I need extra experience.” Mentoring is more often on self-confidence than capability.

We are missing half the talents if they get demotivated by this closed club. Singapore listed companies had 7% women on their boards 5 years ago. The target is 20% by 2021.



#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