In episode 86 of 14 Minutes of SaaS, Stephen Cummins is still at RISE in HK, where he meets with Anna Gong, the CEO and a Board Member of Perx – an enterprise B2B SaaS company that uses machine learning algorithms to augment customer loyalty. This is the first of a 3-part interview about her multinational life and career. The threads that run through the interview are consistently fuelling hyper-growth, a huge level of self-belief and confidence, and movement – including Guangzhou in China, to Florida to several iconic tech cities in Silicon Valley to Singapore to Japan. Perx focuses on leveraging your customer data to build interactive customer engagement – with the end goal of driving up revenues. Anna turned Perx upside down and practically refounded the company when she took over as CEO. Like recent guest Larry Gadea (Envoy CEO), the countries Anna was born in, grew up in, and now lives in are all different. She was born in China, grew up in the US and lives in Singapore – where Perx is HQ’d.
Anna Gong: They’ve moved me to Singapore … and six months into Singapore, they said, we need you more in Japan! And then so I moved to Japan. And then I stayed there for two years. Turned around the business, year-over-year 220 percent. You know, there were a lot of naysayers like ‘why would you send a Chinese female to Japan? It’s a death wish! But, you know, events
Stephen Cummins: Didn’t work out that way.
Anna Gong: [00:00:20] Success speaks for itself … right? Like ‘Ana San! You’re such a crazy, aggressive negotiator! But we like it!’
[00:00:29] So as long as you deliver what you promise. Yeah. I think a lot of times U.S. companies or western companies come in. Parachute an executive … you know … tell them everything they want to hear, go away, and then they never deliver. Or deliver very little. So over-promise, under-deliver.
Stephen Cummins: [00:00:51] 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-ups!
[00:01:13] In episode 86 of 14 Minutes of SaaS in Hong Kong, where I meet with Anna Gong, the CEO and a board member at Perx. This is the first of a three-part interview about her multinational life and career. The threads that run through the interview are consistently fueling hypergrowth, a huge level of self-belief and confidence, and movement – including Guangzhou in China to Florida, several iconic tech cities in Silicon Valley. To Singapore. To Japan.
[00:01:50] So today on 14 Minutes of SaaS, we have Anna Gong, CEO of Perx Technologies, a leading loyalty and customer engagement SaaS platform. And it’s an AI powered platform too. Great to have you on the show Anna.
Anna Gong: Thank you Stephen. Great to be here. How are we enjoying RISE?
Anna Gong: [00:02:08] It’s lovely actually. I haven’t been to the whole conference, but what I’ve seen so far is lovely.
Stephen Cummins: [00:02:14] Yeah, absolutely. And it was a pleasure to introduce you to the stage today. You did a brilliant job.
Anna Gong: [00:02:20] What a coincidence! I didn’t know you were interviewing me.
Stephen Cummins: I know. It’s insane! Literally two hours or something after introducing you to the stage … or maybe less. So we’ve been chatting and you’ve got a fascinating background. Would you tell us your story from childhood all the way up to before you entered the workforce?
Anna Gong: [00:02:41] Wow. OK. Going back …
[00:02:43] I won’t date myself too much. But I was born in China in Guangzhou. And when I was 8, my family uprooted to Florida in the US. And that’s where I grew up … until I graduated. I went to California for college. And after L.A., I moved to San Francisco. So I’ve been in tech all my life. My first job was in tech, implementing large-scale ERP systems. SAP actually … the worst programming language you could ever start with. But you know, we did it. And one of the worst projects that one could be put into as a twenty two year old … you know, Folsom, California. You know, at Intel, this is ehh .. you know Johnny Cash, right? My first orientation package from PwC was ‘go visit the penitentiary! It’s so exciting!’ I’m like ‘No’.
[00:03:42] So that project literally killed me inside because, you know, fifteen hours of programming, day in, day out. And then there’s no leisure in sight. And so, you know, we would drive up Mondays. And then drive back Friday to San Francisco. It was just a miserable time for me. Maybe that was a wrong project for me. But yeah, I realised that I think my personality belongs in the front line. And nonetheless, I started my career in programming.
Stephen Cummins: [00:04:10] So you were a bit like Johnny Cash then. You were playing to the prisoners there in SAP … only Johnny Cash seemed quite happy in the jail when he’s doing that concert.
Anna Gong: Well he was strumming on the guitar. Right!
Stephen Cummins: Yeah.
Anna Gong: I was strumming a keyboard! Very different.
Stephen Cummins: [00:04:28] Absolutely!
And like, you know, you worked for many companies before .. like you were talking many enterprise start-ups. Enterprise SaaS start-ups before you entered Wily. Tell us a bit about the formative ones that you worked with.
Anna Gong: [00:04:48] Well, after PwC, I left to a start-up. Twenty four, I think. You know, I didn’t know what was up or down, you know. No true business experience. And then I was employee number four with three Taiwanese engineers working out of a warehouse. Growing up, you know, growing a start-up. So I was working on all of the business functions. Operation, HR, marketing … anything that has nothing to do with programming, which was what I wanted to get my hands on. I learned a great deal. I learned fundraising. I learned how to open new offices.
Stephen Cummins: [00:05:26] Which company was this?
Anna Gong: This was the Octasoft. It was core banking software.
[00:05:31] And so we grew from four employees to one hundred and thirty plus in two years. And so it was a very good experience, early stage. So that was like the first startup that I got really in the deep end with. And then I ultimately moved on to three other start-ups after that. And all have been … I would say enterprise software related. And it was all deep tech. You know … none of it was B2C … we didn’t have the luxury to do B2C back then. It was the dot com days where even the web then … and the Pets.com failed … because they were too early.
Stephen Cummins: [00:06:07] Absolutely. Octosoft stuck out when I looked at your Linked-In .. because I saw this crazy growth, this crazy growth curve that you were on at such an early age. That must’ve been pretty, pretty amazing. Now, you went on to become a VP in two household names in CA technologies and Infor. And that was really where I suppose you became a really senior professional. Tell us a little bit about both of those experiences.
Anna Gong: [00:06:39] Yeah, I think, you know, I worked really hard for that promotion at CA. I was rejected multiple times for that role. I had actually inherited a new boss at that time … when I came back from Japan to Singapore. And the new boss and I had no relationship.
Stephen Cummins: [00:06:59] Take us back. I’ve gone too fast.
Anna Gong: Ok.Stephen Cummins: Tell me about when you went to Japan and your experience there and who you were with.
Anna Gong: [00:07:05] Yeah. So you know, CA acquired Wily, and I moved to Singapore in 2009 with CA to help them turn around and fix the Wily business. Because after the integration, every region was growing 100 percent year over year. But somehow Asia wasn’t growing the way that they wanted it to after we left it, right. They tripled the headcounts to what it was, and then we left it at, you know, a very slim team. But they tripled the headcount and pumped a lot of investment, killed the channel ecosystem, and then the revenue just dipped. Or it was not growing at the [right] pace. So they asked somebody that originally organically grew that business to come back.
Stephen Cummins: And how long were you with Wily before CA took over? Before that happened.
Anna Gong: I joined two and a half years, almost three years into it before we got acquired.
Stephen Cummins: Ok. And what did you do in that time.
Anna Gong: I was running global BD [business development]
And so they’ve moved me to Singapore … and six months into Singapore, they said, we need you more in Japan! And then so I moved to Japan for a couple of years. It started out with just visiting Japan to help them and see what the problems are. And then the country manager said ‘We need her here full time!’ And then I stayed there for two years. Turned around the business … you know … year-over-year 220 percent. You know, there were a lot of naysayers like ‘Why would you send a Chinese female to Japan? It’s a death wish!’ But, you know …Stephen Cummins: Didn’t work out that way.
Anna Gong: Success speaks for itself … right? And them I came back in 2011 to Singapore. And that’s where I you know, I fought for this promotion. I asked for it. I went for it, because I knew this position was open. There was no candidate that would be better suited than me. I felt that … you have to believe in yourself.
Stephen Cummins: Absolutely!
Anna Gong: So my new boss that came in had no relationships with me. And he had his entourage that he brought in as well. So I pitched myself to him twice … and I got rejected. Then I went back to a mentor of mine, or an adviser. And he taught me how to position the way that … ‘If you really want this, I think you might want to tweak your pitch a little bit.’ Right. ‘And sell yourself better.’
So I refined my value-add to him, and he gave me the offer the 3rd time.
Stephen Cummins: Fantastic.
Anna Gong: And so I think, you know, the learning is never give up!
Stephen Cummins: [00:09:49] Absolutely. Did you feel you had to compromise a little bit in the sense that. Did you feel like it was kind of … they were looking for very male qualities and not spotting your brilliance, because they had a kind of a blind eye to the sort of things that you brought to the table .. that were a little bit different. Because, I mean, software was a kind of a boys club back then. Right?
Anna Gong: [00:10:09] Very much so. CA! Come on! CA is a big boys club. You know, even the board is mostly men. I think also the fact that I’m American, I can go straight up to my seniors … I don’t need his permission to get up … I have a lot of relationships already back at headquarters. And so I think that maybe there’s a certain insecurity …
Stephen Cummins: They were a bit scared of you.
Anna Gong: Yeah. And I was a bit of a maverick also. Maybe from my startup mentality. I’m not afraid of speaking up, not afraid of challenging the status quo … which is not something that the Asian leaders enjoy.
Stephen Cummins: Sure.
Anna Gong: So … that was very different.
Stephen Cummins: [00:10:52] Did you not find barriers in Japan? It sounds like you … like it was contrary to what they were thinking. Sounds like they were almost more open in Japan to you moving up.
Anna Gong: [00:11:02] Well, they treated me like an American, right? So when I walked into every meeting … Like ‘Ana San! You’re such a crazy, aggressive negotiator! But we like it’. So as long as you deliver what you promise. Yeah. I think a lot of times U.S. companies or western companies come in. Parachute an executive … you know … tell them everything they want to hear, go away, and then they never deliver. Or deliver very little. So over-promise, under-deliver.
Stephen Cummins: [00:11:31] And I’ve lived and worked in Japan, and my experience is really positive there. Despite being told X, Y and Z … when I went there and just tried to really, I suppose, immerse myself and work well with people around me … I found it a very easy place to work in personally.
Anna Gong: [00:11:48] Exactly. I really enjoyed it. Yeah.
Stephen Cummins: [00:11:51] CA technologies. And after you got the VP role, you obviously excelled in it. Tell us from there on … So you got the job. The dream job.
Anna Gong: [00:12:01] Yeah, the dream job I hoped … it didn’t last too long, because I realised what I wanted … I have almost plateaued, right?
[00:12:11] And where else can I go? The same old, same old. I wasn’t really disrupting or impacting the way that I wanted to. [I wanted] More like a start-up culture, right? Move faster. Break things. Do something! And there’s so much bureaucracy. You’re almost like wearing a straight-jacket … or you’re … you know, you’re being pulled back. You take two steps forward, one step back all the time. And it’s just not really helping.
Stephen Cummins: [00:12:38] So you’re worrying about relationships … and silly stuff … and managing upwards … and all that stuff.
Anna Gong: [00:12:41] Oh, yeah. I don’t enjoy that. Although I can do it really well [if I need to].
Stephen Cummins: [00:12:46] Oh I’ve no doubt. To become a VP in a company like that, you have to be able to do it. But it’s not what you want to do, is it?
Anna Gong: No, no.
Stephen Cummins: [00:12:58] In the next episode, part 2 of 3, Anna talks about escaping her lucrative corporate straitjacket to a baptism of fire and Perx, where she quite literally turned the company upside down. Now the revenues indicate its also right side up. She converted the business from B2C to a deep tech enterprise B2B SaaS play, redefining the cap table and all offloading investors that were distracting to the business. She also shows the courage to open up about her mistakes as a result.
[00:13:27] Perx is now experiencing blitzscaling, experiencing negative churn and can’t hire fast enough – because it’s drowning in pipeline. She also talks about the challenge of operating in Asia – which she describes as a followers market.
[00:13:46] 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 you by me, Stephen Cummins. If you enjoyed the podcast, please don’t forget to share it with your network. Subscribe to the series, and give the show a rating.
[00:14:12] This podcast is a labour of love, and I travel all over the world to interview the founders of amazing start-ups. I ask for nothing in return from them, other than their valuable time. And I never play dirty tricks, such as if you get five of your employees to rate 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 on Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts or any of the major podcast platforms. Wherever you’re listening to us. Thank you.