This is part 2 of 3. In episode 87 of 14 Minutes of SaaS recorded at RISE in HK, Anna Gong, the CEO & Board Member of Perx in conversation with Stephen Cummins. Anna talks about escaping her lucrative corporate straight-jacket to a baptism of fire in 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 offloading investors that were distracting the business. She also shows the courage to open up about her mistakes. As a result Perx is now experience blitz-scaling, 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. She gives sales standards in Oracle, SAP and IBM a roasting – saying she couldn’t hire people of the right standard from these old-school software companies. Anna’s projections and targets for growth are incredibly aggressive. She’s also very transparent about issues with creating employee success in the early days of the company transition. Hiring is if course a part of that. Actually, before we started recording Anna looked me in the eye and asked ‘Why did you ask me?’ I’m pretty sure that question was connected with Glassdoor ratings, but we look at a lot of factors when choosing which entrepreneurs to interview. Every good company is on a journey of discovery – we look at performance trajectories rather than aggregate history and Anna was a great guest.
Anna Gong: [00:00:00] We tried higher hiring from some of the legacy or old school technology guys – you know from, IBM, SAP, and Oracle, and so forth. And no offense to any of these companies, but I think if you are so used to selling a commodity, or even traditionally to the IT [department], this this is very much about the business … C-level … you know … head of marketing, head of commercial, head of PnL … it’s a very different selling cycle, and also selling point. So it takes a different DNA.
I think we’re now primed for high growth and blitzscaling in a way … and not in the way that B2C companies actually think of blitzscaling. But in our B2B terms, you know. Two to three hundred percent.
Stephen Cummins: That’s massive.
Anna Gong: Any of these large companies would salivate over it. And so now we’re just not hiring fast enough, and we can’t find the right talents to cover .. we’re getting like … 60 percent of our leads are coming from inbound … we’re not even spending that much money on digital marketing. And so, you know, there’s a massive need in this market. And so when people ask me ‘Why are you not in the US?’ … Why do I need to go to the US when I’m drowning in pipeline right now. Right!
Stephen Cummins: [00:01:15] I’m Stephen Cummins, and this is part two of a three part interview with Anna Gong, the CEO and a board member of Perx – it took place for 14 minutes of SaaS at RISE in Hong Kong. She talks about a baptism of fire when taking Perx over, and transforming it from B2C to B2B. She gives sales standards in Oracle, SAP, and IBM an absolute roasting, saying she couldn’t hired people of the right standard from these old school companies. Anna’s projections and targets for growth are incredibly aggressive. She’s also very transparent about issues with creating employee success in the early days of the company transition.
Stephen Cummins: [00:02:01] 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!
Anna Gong: [00:02:19] And I realized that I needed to move on after nine years, right? … Over nine years with company start to finish. It’s a long time. So you learn a lot … now to unlearn a lot going back to a startup after being in corporate for a dozen years. Going back to a start-up again. Wow! What a difference! I’m exercising so many uncomfortable muscles. You have no idea.
Stephen Cummins: [00:02:44] And … your stoty … those challenges pale in comparison to what you experienced when you first went to Perx Technologies. Tell us all about that.
Anna Gong: [00:02:57] Oh, yes. So I was brought in in a very unconventional way. Right. So I’m the growth CEO … supposedly to come in and help change the company. Scale it. But when I came in, it wasn’t a business that was scalable or sustainable. So then you have to present a really negative picture to the board. That is what you learned. This is what’s going to happen. We gotta do something drastic. So eventually, I think, you know, that the founders … the original founders of the Perx B2C business left. We made a decision to move forward without them. And then thereafter, 18 months on, I had to wind down the business, shut it down … and then completely re-founded the company to an Enterprise B2B SaaS platform. Now we focus on selling to tier one enterprises.
Stephen Cummins: [00:03:48] Amazing! So it couldn’t be any more different. The same base technology, but instead of a volume B2C play, an enterprise level, high touch B2B.
Anna Gong: [00:04:01] It’s high value. Low volume.
Stephen Cummins: [00:04:03] Absolutely. And so tell me, you know, since you essentially almost founded a new company within Perx Technologies, how have the last few years gone for you there?
Anna Gong: [00:04:16] We had to go through a slew of changes. Right. So we had to clean up the cap table, buy out some of the existing investors … the new investors coming in are very supportive and some of them are quite strategic. And so they’re empathising with you. Some of them are really savvy businessmen. And so, you know, you get the right partners and it makes a world of difference. And so before I felt like, you know, some immature investors that didn’t really understand tech asked specific questions that were very distracting. So I think sometimes when you’re growing a company, it’s really important to find the right investors. And so now we have the right investors, and a much cleaner cap table, and we can run faster. But it took me a long time to get here. And its been now four years.
Stephen Cummins: [00:05:05] And so, you know, have you experienced significant growth in the last year?
Anna Gong: [00:05:12] So we finished our first fiscal year last year. The real fiscal year. Right. The first year with product market fit, getting a couple of beta lighthouse customers. And then we sort of grew a little bit more into the Asia Pacific Rim … and then we found a product market fit. And now last year we grew 200 percent … and now we’re going to grow five times this year. If we can meet three times, fantastic. But my goal is to stretch goal it to five times.Stephen Cummins: In the next year?
Anna Gong: This year.
Stephen Cummins: [00:05:45] This year! That is fantastic. Wow. Exciting place to be right now … by the sounds of things. And a good sign … you were telling me you’re struggling to hire enough salespeople. So that’s a sign that you’re really seeking aggressive growth.
Anna Gong: [00:06:03] Yeah, I made a lot of mistakes. If you read Glassdoor, you can see the mistakes I made. You know, We tried higher hiring from some of the legacy or old school technology guys – you know from, IBM, SAP, and Oracle, and so forth. And no offense to any of these companies, but I think if you are so used to selling a commodity, or even traditionally to the IT [department], this this is very much about the business … C-level … you know … head of marketing, head of commercial, head of PnL … it’s a very different selling cycle, and also selling point. So it takes a different DNA.
Stephen Cummins: [00:06:47] For sure, like SAP or Oracle … it’s really old world. They won’t appreciate me saying it, but …
Anna Gong: And they’re also on prem. They talk a lot about on prem. We sell cloud … and then you have to really educate the customer … because they’ve been brainwashed, right?
Stephen Cummins: Absolutely.
Anna Gong: We can go live in a few weeks … or even within 24 hours. Yeah. And then, you know, these companies have to do it in three years … or two years.
Stephen Cummins: It’s just insane.
Anna Gong: So a digital transformation. You don’t have even three months to think about things.
Stephen Cummins: [00:07:12] Yeah, I can remember, you know … startup days in Salesforce. It was like … I mean Oracle was easy pickings, really. You know, and in those days, Microsoft was as well.
Anna Gong: Yeah … right …
Stephen Cummins: They transformed a little bit better than Oracle into the cloud. So you’re based in Singapore. Are all of the staff in Singapore at the moment?
Anna Gong: [00:07:35] Yeah …so this is what I’ve learned … to keep the core team intact while we’re growing together and align better. We’re sort of a deep tech company … so I believe in actually growing the team, you know, from within … from the core. And once we scale a little bit more, then we will actually expand out. We do have some employees in the Philippines and KL … Kuala Lumpur.
Stephen Cummins: [00:07:58] Ok. Yeah. Are they like on the developer side of things?
Anna Gong: [00:08:02] Yeah … actually no, field marketing and support.
Stephen Cummins: [00:08:06] Ok. And listeners … if you hear noises, we’re at a major event here in RISE. So there’s lots of events happening around us. So what’s your vision then?I can I can tell that your vision is for … probably like … a thousand percent growth over the next two or years. You know … just the numbers alone tell me at least that by the sounds of things. But what’s your vision as a company? You found product market fit … your new product market fit … quite recently in terms of your history. How do you see yourselves evolving over these next couple of years?
Anna Gong: [00:08:42] I think we’re now primed for high growth and blitzscaling in a way … not in the way that B2C companies actually think of blitzscaling. But in our B2B terms. You know, two, three hundred percent. Any of these large companies would salivate over … and they’re growing sub 5 percent in Asia. You see their annual reports, right!
Stephen Cummins: [00:09:04] Well blitzscaling in B2B is hard work.
Anna Gong: It’s hard. Yes.
Stephen Cummins: You don’t get your sales easily. And you don’t just hold on to your customers easily either … it’s a big deal, it’s a big relationship.
Anna Gong: Right. I’m proud to say we have a negative churn!
Stephen Cummins: Wow. That’s fantastic.
Anna Gong: Yeah. So that’s something that we’re proud of as well.
Stephen Cummins: Yeah, it’s really impressive actually.
Anna Gong: And so. What was the original question?
Stephen Cummins: [00:09:26] Oh I don’t know … that’s cool … we’re going in lots of directions. I was just about to say that negative churn for a company that’s recently … I don’t know … not recent, but maybe a year or two … really got the new product-market fit … means you got a really, really good product market fit. And you’ve got some really good people in there to help with developing relations to hold onto the customers … because that’s not an easy achievement.
Anna Gong: [00:09:49] Yeah. Because when we started marketing this three years ago, the market was not ready. There were only a few leaders in the space that would disrupt themselves or the ecosystem. And then once you start with a big brand, the followers start to take notice. And so Asia is a followers market, not a leaders market. The US is definitely … right! Australia is also leaders market … they love tinkering with new stuff all the time, right. And then, you know, we’re dealing with a lot of followers in the marketplace. So we needed to find those leaders that were willing to take risks on start-ups. And because I’ve only worked for start-ups for many years, we knew where to pick them.
Stephen Cummins: [00:10:33] Very good. You had those relationships and that knowledge. One of the challenges, I imagine, for you would be, you know, you’ve set very ambitious growth targets … yet your company is still young and it’s still innovating … So one of the challenges for you, I’d imagine, is balancing innovation with growth. And how do you do that? How do you keep that space to make those kind of innovative leaps? You know, not just kind of iteratively a/b testing stuff, but, you know, to really, you know, build out the product while going after that growth. How do you balance those two things?
Anna Gong: [00:11:11] Yeah. And I try to, you know, disrupt or challenge actually. I like to challenge my team to think further ahead, to also roadmap our own innovation cycle. But, you know, hiring the talent that you’re used to in the Bay Area out in Asia is very difficult. And so we made many mistakes hiring the wrong folks. Not that they were not capable, but it was literally the wrong fit. And so, I made many hiring mistakes, and I will continue to do so. But you’ve learned. So you’re a little wiser. And you tend to know how to interview better, to do back door referencing a little bit better to save yourself some time. I’ve learned to fire faster. Way faster.
Stephen Cummins: [00:11:58] Good. It’s better for both parties if its needed.
Anna Gong: [00:12:03] Exactly! And so now we’re just not hiring fast enough. We can’t find the right talent to cover. We’re drowning in pipeline and we don’t have enough coverage.
Stephen Cummins: [00:12:14] That’s a great problem to have though …
if you can solve it. I mean, I love your transparency because, you know … I kind of went ‘Oh …’ when you said it, but the truth is I always look at Glassdoor. Also at G2 … before I select people.
Anna Gong: Yeah.
Stephen Cummins: But then I looked at your background as well. The whole backstory … and I think it’s really cool that you’re so transparent about us, you know … that learning process that you went through in hiring. But now you know what you want. But there’s not enough of it out there. Which is the problem, right?
Anna Gong: [00:12:40] Exactly. Now the market is getting bit more mature … there’s a great need. We’re getting like … 60 percent of our leads are coming inbound. We’re not even spending that much money on digital marketing. And so, you know, there is a massive need in this market. So when people ask me ‘Why are you not in the US?’ … Why do I need to go to the US when I’m drowning in pipeline right now?
Stephen Cummins: [00:13:03] Yeah. The market’s here.
Anna Gong: It’s so rich here.
Stephen Cummins: [00:13:11] In the final part of this trilogy, Anna opens up about being bullied in school. Growing up as a Chinese immigrant in Florida. And she talks about how the perceived difficulty of entering into Southeast Asia actually represents a huge opportunity.
[00:13:30] 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.
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[00:13:57] 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.