Terence Lee| Techinasia
Singapore is often described as a tiny red dot, a cosmopolitan oddity surrounded by much larger nations. With a tiny domestic market and a cultural affinity more tied to the United States than Indonesia or Thailand, the country can be a deathly fish bowl, trapping startups who struggle to expand beyond local shores.
But Pie, an enterprise software startup that wants to change the way people share media content at work, thinks differently. Its founders, Pieter Walraven and Thijs Jacobs, believe they can build a global SaaS company from Singapore, despite being located far from Silicon Valley.
Part of their confidence stems from the fact that many top decision makers from global companies are located in Singapore, and there’s much less competition from enterprise startups for their attention.
“In the United States, the CIO of Coca-Cola probably has six months of free meals waiting for him,” says Jacobs, “there’s a long line before it’s your turn.”
Pie does not believe having a direct line to top CIOs in the US is as important as, say, getting funding or growing their user base.
So far, the company has had no problems getting trickles of both. From the founders’ past work at Zag, a corporate incubator run by Publicis-owned creative agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the startup got access to test users who tried an early version of the app and loved it.
Since then, they’ve gotten about 500 companies on the platform, including Spotify, LinkedIn, Edelman, and Nestlé, with “thousands” of daily active users – not bad for an app that only officially launched this week.
Prominent local international angels have jumped on board too, with the startup raising a total of $800,000 for its seed round so far. Investors include former Singapore Airlines and SingTel chairman Koh Boon Hwee, Innovation Works partner Chris Evdemon, and Peng Tsin Ong, founder of Match.com and widely considered one of Singapore’s most successful tech enterpreneurs.
“Before we met Peng, we thought he was some serious business guy. But at our first meeting at Four Seasons Hotel, he turned up in crocs and shorts instead. We didn’t expect that. He’s quite hands-on as an investor, giving detailed product feedback and suggesting to us to change or tweak certain features,” says Walraven.
A dressed-down enterprise app
Essentially, Pie is a web app for sharing and discussing media content with colleagues. It’s a focal point for companies to consolidate their knowledge and generate ideas and inspiration – kind of like a Pinterest for enterprises. Marketing and advertising creatives have taken a liking to the app.
Several things stood out to me the first time I logged onto Pie. Unlike most enterprise apps, it has a cheery, less serious interface more befitting of a consumer service. It’s also really simple to use: the app is focused on doing one thing well – making sharing and discussing content a breeze.
Pie’s conceptual likeness to Pinterest, expressed in its appropriation of a ‘stream’ for displaying social activity and ‘boards’ for grouping content, is not accidental. Walraven explains:
Our first version, which we built in two weeks, looked a lot like Pinterest. We wanted to build an interface where you don’t have to explain too much. We exposed it to our clients, and they too wanted something like that.
The team of eight, consisting of a mix of development, product management, design, and customer support talent, is now obsessed with making sure users come back to the app again and again to share content.
From older data, the startup knows that if users post once on Pie, there’s a 70 percent chance that they’d post again, after which it’s 85 percent, 90 percent, and so on.
Pie currently has a Google Chrome plugin for users to share content from the browser. An iOS app is in the works, which will enable users to do market research, snap pictures for inspiration, and check notifications. For now, the web app is optimized only for tablets and laptops. Also, collaboration is restricted to within organizations, but the team plans to allow users to share links with external parties soon.
Walraven says that Pie’s simplicity contrasts with other apps like Evernote and Salesforce’s Chatter, which require users to give up a lot of their old habits to take up new ones. The adoption for these apps is often top-down, and frequently doesn’t stick.
“Often you’d need massive handholding to get organizations to implement new software, starting classes to teach employees on the software in batches. They’re going after too big of a behavioral change.”
On the other hand, Pie is designed to complement existing services, and it will stay that way. It hopes to become the main interface for users to converse about their data with colleagues.
Jacobs points out that he has come across departments in one country office of a large corporation which would complete a project and present it, only to realize later a department from another country has already worked on the same thing.
“Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote – they’re all silos. We want to build an interface to tie up all this stuff and bring out a company’s collective expertise,” he says, “Dropbox’s big problem is that they’re missing out on the conversations around their users’ content.”
Pie chasing explosive user growth, not revenue
Enterprise startups, rightly or wrongly, tend to fetishize earning revenue early. That thinking is not without merit, since securing a huge paying customer early looks good on the bottom line and pleases investors.
But Pie’s goal is different. It is seeking after rapid user growth from small and medium enterprises, believing that monetization is something that can be switched on once the product gains traction. It’s a strategy they learned from Yammer, a successful enterprise social network, which rapidly expanded its sales team only when they reached multiple venture rounds of funding.
“Once we reach a certain scale, it’s about knowing the conversion rate and knowing what percentages will at least get you to break-even point,” says Jacobs, adding that they plan to pursue a freemium business model in the future.
Their commitment to user growth has no doubt scared off potential investors who prefer that companies get revenue early or expand to neighboring countries from Singapore.
It’s a common attitude among Asian investors, which explains why online retail startups dominated investments in 2013. After all, e-commerce is predictable, and more comforting to investors from finance or brick-and-mortar backgrounds.
But Pie’s founders believe that approach is limiting as startups would end up iterating around paying clients instead of making improvements that would give the app broad appeal. They’d end up spending too much time on building a sales team instead of focusing on user engagement.
“Yes, these companies can become successful, but their growth can be limited. We want to first prove that people will stick around and they’ll become quite dependent on it. Monetization comes later. It’s about building a truly global enterprise product that is used everywhere.”