In RISE in Hong Kong Stephen Cummins interviews Winnie Lee, COO and Co-founder of Appier – an AI driven platform that helps enterprise scale B2B entities make better marketing decisions.
HQ’d in the city of Taipei, Appier also has offices in japan and Singapore. In the interview Stephen predicts it’s on the cusp of another round and that it’s likely to be a near-future unicorn. And sure enough, it has raised another 80M USD since this interview and the Taiwan News has stated that Appier is worth north of 1 billion USD. The company also acquired Tokyo-based behavioural data provider Emotion Intelligence (better known as Emin). Appier is heavily focused on Asia, where the market is less competitive for marketing technology than, for example, the US or UK. This is a great example of where building a presence in geographical location can help you grow and develop without being fully exposed to competition from some of the other big players in a given domain – in the case those competitors would include huge marketing intelligence and AI players like Salesforce (in the form of Datorama) and IBM’s Watson. Appier has about 1,000 customers.
Appier’s core product is a cross-platform advertising engine, CrossX, which covers retargeting and app installations, but also provides deep learning to help publishers and brands discover new audiences for their products. It’s built a suite of other services around that too – all focused on smarter use of customer data.
” Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: [00:00:00] In the enterprise world, most of the companies are actually very rational and logical, comparing to, you know, like, let’s say, going into a consumer world … where some of the decisions making is not very rational. So that’s where we found, you know, like our strength in this industry. So that’s how we started building a very B2B focused AI solution company.
Stephen Cummins: [00:00:30] I’m Stephen Cummins and this is episode 81 of 14 months of SaaS. We’ve moved from the Dublin Tech Summit to RISE in Hong Kong, where I met and interviewed Wendy Li, COO and Co-founder of Appier, an AI driven platform that helps enterprise scale B2B entities make better marketing decisions. It’s core product is a cross platform advertising agent called crossX, which covers retargeting and app installations, but also provides deep learning to help publishers and brands discover new audiences for their products. HQ’d in the city of Taipei, Appier also has offices in Japan and Singapore and has raised more than 80 million USD since this interview. The newspaper Taiwan News recently claimed that Appier is a new unicorn. Appier is heavily focused on Asia, where the market is less competitive for marketing technology. And this is a great example of where building a presence in a geographical location can help you grow and develop without being fully exposed to competition from some of the other big players in a given Domain
Stephen Cummins: [00:01:40] Welcome to 14 minutes of SaaS, the show where you can listen to the stories and opinions of founders of the world’s most remarkable SaaS scale.
Stephen Cummins: [00:01:54] So today on the show, on 14 Minutes of SaaS, we have Lee Wan-Ling or Winnie Lee, COO and Co-founder of Appier, which she co-founded in 2012. And Appier is an AI driven platform that helps businesses make better marketing decisions. How are you doing Winnie?
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: Very good today. How about you?
Stephen Cummins: Doing grand thank you! Are you enjoying RISE, Hong Kong?
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: [00:02:17] Yes, very much. Actually, a very productive day so far. And, you know, like more to come, I believe.
Stephen Cummins: [00:02:22] Tell me a little bit about your life.
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: [00:02:26] So I was born and raised in Taiwan, Taipei, and grew up there. Did my undergrad there as well you know. I haven’t really been away from home for too a long period of time … till my college days. And then after that, you know, I took a very bold decision. I went to the U.S. for my graduate studies, and that’s where I was trained for 10 years. Being an immunologist. And during that period of time, of course, you know, I mean … yeah, I saw your face! You seemed very surprised that I’m in this business! But at the time, really, when I was, you know, going to the graduate school in immunology, I really thought I was going to be working with DNA for a really long … maybe like for the rest of my life. That’s what I thought at the time. But, you know, life is interesting. You meet people that you never thought you would. That’s where actually in the US, that’s where I met our co-founder and CEO, Chih-Han [Yu], as well as another co-founder, CTO Joe [Chia Yung Su]. They were room-mates. And they decided to start a company based on AI because they were very …. I would say that Chih-Han is actually a very visionary person. He believed in the potential of AI so early on … when I was really not a hot topic at the time. And he decided to pursue a career in that.
And that was before he met Joe. So our story goes from that point to now. So these 2 started this idea of forming a tech company in their dormitory. And then, of course, you know, they both are technical and they keep trying to convince me to join. Yeah, after a little while, I did agree. You know, like working with two very talented young talents with very different specialties could be an interesting thing for me.
I do love immunology. Don’t take me wrong. I still love immunology, but I also love the part, you know, about learning new things and solving unknown problems all the time. And these areas are very similar in this way.
Stephen Cummins: [00:04:44] So it’s not too surprising for me because I’ve had about five job changes over the years and I was purifying immunoglobulins in a biotechnology company twenty seven years ago. So I’m also a biologist by training – and I also eventually ended up in software. So there you go. It’s a small world. Yeah, I was going to make sure that you did actually work for a year, though. You went to work in the Boston Children’s Hospital.
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: …yes…
Stephen Cummins: …as an immunologist after your PhD. I’m just interested to know … your two colleagues … they obviously saw something in you … a lot in you … to be to peppering you like that.
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: [00:05:22] There’s actually a clear reason that they recruited me rather than other people. So I think, you know, that our founding team is a pure engineers’ and scientists’ team. And I am also a scientist. But because I am in biomedical science – I think you’re probably also familiar with people within this field – so comparing to companies like this I would say biomedical scientists are a little better at communication in general. And that’s a big part of the reason why they decided to recruit me because, you know, in the early days when they were trying to build products, you also need people who can actually communicate the ideas and share with a general audience in layman’s terms – that people can really understand fully. So that’s where my contribution can come into play.
Stephen Cummins: [00:06:12] How did Appier go about getting product-market fit? Who were the first buyers?
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: [00:06:20] So from day one, we actually believed A.I. is going to be a very important technology in the future and we firmly believed that we can utilise A.I. to make people’s life easier and happier. By that point, we didn’t really have a clear idea or a good market sense to be honest, at a time, to know which sector or application domain that we should go after it. So we kind of started by trial and error a lot. And so in the end, we figured in the enterprise world, most of the companies are actually very rational and logical, comparing to, you know, like, let’s say, going into a consumer world … where some of the decisions made are not as rational. So that’s where we found, you know, like our strength in this industry. So that’s how we started building a very B2B focused AI solution company.
Stephen Cummins: [00:07:22] Plus the data would be more structured usually.
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: As well. Exactly.
Stephen Cummins: And within that the data set would be more confined – the parameters would be easier to set.
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: [00:07:32] Exactly. And there’s like very clear problems that most of the companies are solving or going after. So that actually can help to have AI perform better to start with.
Stephen Cummins: [00:07:43] And what sets you apart from the competition? What is it that makes Appier special?
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: [00:07:48] We have really a world class team at Appier … this is something that we’re very proud of! We put a lot of effort into building the A-team. And after that, you know, after you have the right team and the right product, the technology, Then the next question is, are you really addressing the right questions? Are you really making it an impact for end-users within the industry? Initially, when we started our business, we actually didn’t know, you know, what kind of questions we should go after. So …we actually, you know … the first few ones, were really a mess. But we learned, you know, in this journey … So we figured there are a certain types of questions that we can answer well. And, you know, this journey and those trial-and-error experiments … kind of shaped our tune right now into a very market driven … innovation type of team. So this is very different from I think most of the ‘Tech Stars‘ where the founders came from very solid tech backgrounds, because normally, you know, people will keep on very solid tech background … they always want to build core technology. It’s all about core technology. Don’t take me wrong … we have a very solid tech team, so we still want to build core tech. But we realised really early-on in those pivots … we realised if this core technology cannot address some very important questions for end users or an industry, then you know like this core tech not really make a good impact. So therefore, that’s the reason why nowadays the approach we take is very market driven
Stephen Cummins: From what industries?
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: Finance is one, you know, like e-commerce companies, gaming companies, or a lot of consumer facing companies where they have customer data at scale.
Stephen Cummins: [00:09:47] Perfect. Now Appier is six years and eight months old and you’ve raised 82 million USD. Your last raise was twenty three months ago. So that sounds like the company is ready. Am I sitting talking to the founder of a unicorn by any chance … founder of the next unicorn from Taiwan?
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: [00:10:08] I can’t comment on that. The only thing I can assure you (of) is that we are trying our very best to grow into a valuable company in a lot of ways. Hopefully, you know, we will provide value to our customers, to the end users, this industry as well as, you know, our investors.
Stephen Cummins: [00:10:30] Ok. So about you again Winnie. Name one person who’s been influential in your life … that could be to be your Mum, your Dad, or Steve Jobs or Marie Curie.
Wan-Ling Winnie Lee: [00:10:40] If I pick just one, I think the top one will be my grandfather. So he’s an entrepreneur himself. And the reason why he has been my role model for a very long time is because of his mind-set. So, you know, like people in your grandparents’ generation … you don’t expect them to be very open minded when they grow older. But he is a very unique person. He’s stayed on top of, you know, like all the new current wave of technology or new developments in the world globally … really not just, you know, like focusing on the local news. No. He really loves learning new ideas or technologies globally and also continues to have open minded discussions or conversations. I really hope, you know, this is some someone that I will grow into when I get older. I hope I am on the right track. Aleast so far I do feel like I enjoy learning new things all the time. And hopefully this is the great influence that gets passed on to me.
Stephen Cummins: [00:11:58] Next week, Winnie, a self-confessed workaholic, tells us why she’s happy to work 72 hours a week. She also explains why she believes Taiwan is a great choice of country in which to start up a software company.
Stephen Cummins: [00:12:19] You’ve been listening to 14 minutes of SaaS. Thanks to Mike Quill for his creativity and problem solving skills, and to Ketsu for the music. This episode was brought to by me Stephen Cummins. If you enjoy the podcast, please don’t forget to share it with your network, subscribe to the series, and give the show a rating.
Stephen Cummins: [00:12:44] This podcast is a labour of love, and I travel all over the world to interview the founders of amazing SaaS start-ups. I ask for nothing in return from them other than their valuable time. And I never played dirty tricks, such as if you get five of your employees to write the podcast with five stars and send me screenshots we’ll publish a month earlier. These episodes are so much work to produce and very expensive without the backing of a big tech company. Do your good deed for today by taking a minute now to review us on Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or any of the major podcast platforms … wherever you’re listening to us! Thank you.”
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