Navigating a rented motorbike through the winding hills of Vietnam and swimming in secret lagoons in Thailand are just some of the things that Benjamin Yee does when he’s not typing furiously away at this laptop. A self-professed digital nomad and the founder of a software startup that provides order, purchase and inventory management, Benjamin has found an enviable match for his wanderlust with a business that allows him to work online, anywhere and anytime.
For a two-year-old startup with just under two dozen employees working around the world, Benjamin’s business punches well above its weight in the software industry. His software is used by over 1,000 users in 40 countries spread over 5 continents. And he’s not stopping there. Aggressive expansion plans will no doubt see Ben explore off-the-beaten-track towns in Europe and South America in the near future.
We speak to Benjamin about entrepreneurship and building a startup.
This is your third startup so far. What attracted you to entrepreneurship?
Where I live, entrepreneurship is not the norm. Most people finish their studies, get a job and then steadily climb the corporate ladder while building their resume along the way. It’s safe and conventional but that’s just not me. I don’t see myself doing that for 35 years of my productive life. I like to build things and create value. Instead of being a job seeker, I like to see myself as a job creator.
Having said that, just like my solo travels, I like the unpredictability of entrepreneurship and startups. I started with a custom t-shirt printing company, branched out into a creative agency and then spun out a software solution from my t-shirt business that you see today as EMERGE App. Not many people can afford to fail but I want to live my life knowing that I tried. The fear of failure is definitely in my mind all the time but at least I can minimise the fallout of failure on everyone around me while I’m still young.
What inspires you on a daily basis?
As you can guess, I keep irregular hours because of my travels and the time zones that my software cuts across. But when I do get up and face a new day, I like to see two things.
Firstly, the daily statistics of prospects who visit my website, sign up for a free trial or subscribe to my software. It’s like nurturing a living and breathing thing for me. These statistics inform us about what we’re doing right, what could be improved and what else we could add to drive the numbers.
Secondly, I get a flood of emails, chats and messages from customers and prospects every day. The positive feedback that I get really puts a spring in my step for the day, and I’m thrilled to share them with the rest of the team to motivate them. Thankfully, negative comments are far and few unless they’re from competitors!
What is the biggest risk to your business?
I’m not going to say “competitors” because that would be too simplistic and short-sighted. Rather than look in the rear-view mirror all the time and worry about what our competitors are doing, I like to look forward and move ahead. There’s really little opportunity to innovate if you’re constantly watching your back and not listening to your customers and the market.
So the biggest risk to me is missing the chance to reach out and educate business owners who might otherwise not hear about our software and try it. We’ve just scratched the surface with English-speaking small business owners in developed and mature nations. What about other fast developing nations whose language of business is not necessarily English? Chinese, Hindi, Tamil and Spanish speakers make up a huge untapped market that we’re targeting next.
Do you have any advice for others wanting to enter the software industry?
Yes, I have three things to share.
Firstly, look at the target market that you want to disrupt with your software, and then look again. Never take your eyes off the ball. The market is constantly changing due to technology, cultural and regulatory shifts. Keep asking yourself: “Will my software change the way things are done in this market? Is this market of a sufficient size to be worth my time?”
Secondly, if you can’t answer the first question consistently then you should quickly look for another market or opportunity. This means you need to be flexible and re-pivot your product or your business. Take it apart if necessary and spin-off bits of it. Or look for another revenue generating angle. I could be still selling custom t-shirts today but I chose to spin off my in-house online inventory software into EMERGE App.
Thirdly, eat humble pie and leave your ego at home. The market is your ultimate boss. You need to listen very carefully to what customers say instead of pushing your own vision of grandeur all the time. Your business rises or falls according to how you can address their specific needs or persistent pain points. Also, find a mentor who has done something similar and discovered an exit strategy for their business. It’ll be the best free advice that you can get.
Finally, if you weren’t building your startup, what would you be doing?
I’ll be running an eco-lodge in west Bali. This place receives so few tourists yet it’s full of hidden gems that are far from the usual well-trodden South Bali to Ubud route. And things are so much cheaper outside of the tourist belt. I’ll offer simple accommodation built by locals and employ villagers to prepare typical home-cooked dishes. I will also offer small group tours to the villages, markets and natural attractions in the area. The focus will be on the intense spiritual and experiential part of Bali, and dialling it back 40 years before it was discovered and commercialised.