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…