Anan Saminathen: Startup Pivot, CRM Bootstrapping & Malaysia Ecosystem - E200

· Founder,Start-up,Malaysia,Southeast Asia,Podcast Episodes English

After building that successful business, I could have stopped. Maybe I should have stopped, so at least I wouldn't have used up a lot of my personal savings, a lot of my personal funds into fuelling, maintaining the business and paying out of our own pockets for at least a few years before companies started generating revenue and profits again. So that was a gamble and I'm happy that actually paid off.- Anan Saminathen

Anan is a digital transformation evangelist that loves to build platforms that would enrich people's lives and enhance corporate efficiency. He helped organizations large and small in several countries with their digital transformation. He received numerous awards most notably the prestigious 100 Most Influential Young Entrepreneur Award. Currently, the CEO of Nexible Solutions, a technology company based in Malaysia that helps companies automate their sales and marketing via a cloud leads management platform called Outperform.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi Anand, pleasure to have you on the show. Really great to have another entrepreneur from KL, Malaysia, so, happy to hear your story and Insights on the market. For those who don't know yet, could you introduce yourself?

Anan Saminathen: (00:41)
Hey, Jeremy, and thanks a lot for having me. My name is Anan Saminathen. I have been building enterprise tech platforms for about 20 years. My current venture is a platform called Outperform. It's a marketing automation platform helping enterprises in real estate, education and automotive with the list management using our LMS and our A.I. solution.

Jeremy Au: (01:07)
And so how did you get started to become an entrepreneur? Was this something that you were interested in when you're young or…how did I get started?

Anan Saminathen: (01:16)
I think it was an accident. I did my master's in the UK. After I finished my master's, I was actually working over there for a company and it was an interesting company. They were building a platform that allows you to learn about technical skills. At that time, Cisco certification, Microsoft's server certification was really, really big. Everybody wanted to do those things.
So, this company was building a way for them to use videos and screen recording to actually like place an instructor on the screen and walk about the screen and try to explain to people what they need to click and how they need to solve problems if they have certain challenges and things like that. And I was helping that team build that system and it was content.
It was more like building content. But because of certain technical challenges that we faced like 20 years ago, because at that time you didn't have YouTube, even video editing software was not really as powerful as it is now. So we had to use different technologies in order to make it happen. The circumstances were such that I had to leave, so I came back to Malaysia, but at the same time the company they sort of like contracted me to continue that work.
So they allowed me to go back to Malaysia and still continue doing that for about six months. Why not just like start a company and at least for the next six months? I'm all right and let's see what happens. After that contract was over and I was very interested in continuing that and found a way to sell that same sort of technology or platform to other Malaysian businesses and went on from there.

Jeremy Au: (02:52)
And what's interesting is that you have grown to over $1,000,000 annualised recurring revenue over the past six years. So slow and steady, and you've done that without any venture capital. So can you tell us more about what it’s like to bootstrap a company over time?

Anan Saminathen: (03:06)
Prior to our current platform, which is sort of like a lease management for enterprise B2C clients, we were running a very successful sort of online enterprise, online video platform and we had a lot of really, really big companies from very large sporting organisations to telcos and government. And that business was, it grew over the space of like about 10 to 15 years.
And at the end of that business we have already gained revenue of well over like eight figures. So we did have some backing, but it's just that at the end of that period of building that company, we realised that we were completely disrupted by YouTube, by Instagram videos and LinkedIn and all these guys, and it's not necessary for organisations to invest in their own enterprise online video platform anymore when they can just put it out for free.
But we still had some funds, we were very successful, so we used our own money to bootstrap and we kept our team. There were some layoffs and things like that, but over time we hired more and now we have a good sized team. That's how it went.

Jeremy Au: (04:19)
And when you think about that transition, how was that transition for you across the layoffs and the changes?

Anan Saminathen: (04:26)
It was tough. Really, really tough. Obviously. All these great people with us and as an entrepreneur. And at that time, if you need to tell your employees that it's over and we need to change and certain people had to go because they don't fit in that new model of doing business or the new things that we were doing.
It is certainly very, very tough, but it had to be done.

Jeremy Au: (04:54)
How did you personally feel about that experience?

Anan Saminathen: (04:57)
Very, very draining, of course. But at the same time, I know that we need to get going. We need to keep going. So at least like we were still able to retain some people and I was very passionate in what we were building at that time, even though it was still a gamble when we started our journey with a SAAS platform, so we started building a CRM.
This was back in like well, five years ago. What we did was we went online, we spoke to a few digital marketers and kind of like try to analyse what are the different searches that enterprises in Malaysia are doing. And obviously CRM was the fastest growing keyword. And then we realised that, okay, so this could be the platform that we should actually be building because I did have a team, a bunch of engineers who are really, really talented and we wanted to ensure that what we do next is really going to work out.
So we built that CRM, it was more of a B2B focussed CRM. We had a lot of customers, we did have a lot of interest, but slowly we realized…or quickly we realised that building a CRM is really, really tough, especially a B2B CRM because you're competing with people like Zoho, Pipedrive, Salesforce and all these other companies who are extremely established.
Even though it was a very new thing in Malaysia, we could have still gone on and gotten like a few hundred clients or maybe thousands of clients, we could have, but we realised it's not going to take us that far. So we pivoted to become more of a list management system. In Malaysia about five years ago, that's when people started or businesses started using, doing inbound marketing.
Okay, so for example, before that, prior to that, let's say if you're a property developer, the way for you to get leads would be to get your sales teams to cold call, property listing website was there, but they were not really that strong yet. It was really a hit and miss. So, billboards, TV was all traditional, so you have to hope that people are coming to your showroom.
That's when like things change and we have a bunch of great digital marketers who started up in Malaysia. They introduced these companies to inbound marketing. So instead of like trying to find the leads yourself, let the leads find you instead. So right now I would say, like especially in real estate, 90% of the sales out there occurs or is a direct result of a lead that was received from Facebook or Instagram and all these different top of the funnel platforms.
Since we know that that was the case and that was happening and digital marketing is going to become really, really big, we realised that the current crop of CRMs that were available were not really equipped to handle inbound leads. So which is why we pivoted our platform to become more of a list management that focuses on reducing your response time for inbound leads and also the leads that are coming from traditional channels as well.

Jeremy Au: (08:00)
What was it like trying to figure out this product market fit? Because you had already done it once and then now you had to do it all over again. Did it feel tiring or exhausting to be doing it all over again.

Anan Saminathen: (08:12)
No, it was fun. I felt that even though yes, it's true that we had to start from scratch. But maybe I'm more of an entrepreneur who likes that grinding phase of that entrepreneurship, so maybe I'm not really very suitable. I'm not a very good entrepreneur when it comes to like getting the business from being successful to uber successful.
So I love that part of the entrepreneurship where you start something from nothing and slowly grow that to become a big business. I liked it.

Jeremy Au: (08:43)
And what's interesting is that obviously you talk about how you brought a team forward as well. How do you maintain morale for the team that kept going?

Anan Saminathen: (08:51)
That is definitely difficult, but I think our people believed in what we were doing. We had to ensure that we informed them over our plans, informed them over what they are working towards and what's the objective. And if they really buy into your objective and obviously, they will be great team players for you.

Jeremy Au: (09:09)
And when you think about that, how are you managing your own personal energy levels? Was it tough for you. How did you deal with the stress, good or bad?

Anan Saminathen: (09:17)
I thought not bad, but obviously like having seen a lot of success at the very beginning to go back down and start from scratch and handling a lot of rejection and trying to figure out that product market fit…well, that took some time. So, it took at least about 1 to 2 years and we had to work with so many different clients and try to understand their problems and how to solve them, work with different partners and figure out what are the different other businesses that we need to integrate with and things like that in order for our platform to be more successful. Those were all really, really, really, really tough. But I did enjoy it. But yeah, it was draining as well at the same time.

Jeremy Au: (10:04)
And since then, you've been able to build the company over time, and this time it's like a second business, even though it's the same company. How did you approach this company build up process differently this time around?

Anan Saminathen: (10:15)
One of the main things is that we try to ensure that…one of the biggest mistakes that I made the first time around is having a product that could only be sold to very few companies. And when you have a lot of revenue coming from just a few companies, that's a recipe for disaster because the moment they churn or they go somewhere else or they don't want to use this product anymore, that's it, you don't have a business anymore.
From the start, we wanted to ensure that we were building something that can be used by many different businesses. Currently, we already have more than 100 companies. There are some small companies, but most of them are enterprise companies because our platform is more suitable for enterprise, which is amazing.
Well, obviously spurred by COVID as well, the pandemic definitely helped us like it did many different tech companies. So suddenly everyone realised that they really need to fast track their digital transformation and they sought out businesses such as ours.

Jeremy Au: (11:20)
So what's interesting is that there's a lot of concentration risk, right, between large companies versus smaller companies. What would you say is advice you would give on how to tackle those two very different segments? What would you say are the differences between large companies and small to medium sized companies?

Anan Saminathen: (11:37)
As a client? Okay. So if let's say if you're working with a small company, it is actually a lot easier to work with small companies rather than enterprise companies. Maybe like they may not have the kind of knowledge or the kind of funds that large companies have. But what they do have is the ability to make decisions quick.
So, for example, if you work with a smaller business, maybe, I don't know, 10 to 50 leads a day or something like that. What happens is we can have a meeting with them, introduce a platform, and our salespeople are able to close it within like a few weeks. So at the moment they can give them a trial, everything is connected, then they can see how it works and how it benefits them, then it's very easy to close.
With enterprises, it’s obviously a lot tougher. There are so many different stakeholders and you need to have meetings with so many different divisions and once you get the buy in from everybody, only then they can actually make that decision. That process takes about maybe six months to a year sometimes. So yeah, so those are the differences.

Jeremy Au: (12:45)
How should people think about it when they’re starting out? Should they go for a larger one? Should go for a smaller one. What advice would you give to founders nowadays.

Anan Saminathen: (12:53)
You have to go for the smaller ones because the large ones are not going to give you the time of day because they don't know you yet. They don't really trust you. Trust is a very big factor for large companies. Large companies work with businesses that have worked with other large companies. So it's like a chicken and egg kind of situation.
Obviously you need to go through a lot of smaller businesses and then hopefully one of the large enterprises will take a chance on you. Then the others will take notice. So certainly, you have to go with the smaller companies who's much easier to get them to get the buy in rather than the large enterprise. At the very beginning, at least.

Jeremy Au: (13:30)
Yeah. And what's interesting of course is that you're building this within Malaysia and especially we have a lot of Malaysia clients. So, what have you felt like, the differences or similarities that Malaysia has as an ecosystem for you.

Anan Saminathen: (13:43)
As compared to?

Jeremy Au: (13:44)
I think as compared to other markets. Because I think a lot people was curious about Malaysia like what’s it like the Start-Up ecosystem, what’s it like as a place for start-ups to do business? So, I'd love for you to share your thoughts about it.

Anan Saminathen: (13:57)
So perhaps I can touch a little bit on the processes that businesses over here they use when it comes to dealing with inbound marketing. Let's say in America, for example, with companies that brings in I don't know, 1000 to 10000 leads a month that is sent to the sales team. Before sending those leads to the sales team. There will always be a BDM to filter all these different leads and only send the qualified ones to the sales team because the sales team, they hate doing qualification work.
They want to work with clients or prospects that are ready to buy or at least have the interest. Whereas in Malaysia we haven't really learnt that yet. I think most you will have one sales team, 20, 30 people or whatever. They will have so much work to do every day that they just can't focus anymore and they will start ignoring these leads and that's when the entire thing breaks.
And, and all this leads costs a lot of money and this is where is different. So I think given a few years, obviously they are already figuring that out now and they're kind of trying to see what they can do to solve this problem. And that's where there's a huge disconnect between the marketing department and the sales department.
So the sales department will always blame the marketing department to say like your leads are not good. They don't have any quality and they shouldn't even be sent to us. But the marketing department will say, like, You know what, no, the leads are good. It's just that you didn't contact them fast enough or close them fast enough or give them the right answers.
So that's where we come in with our platform to bridge that gap. Given time, I think Malaysia would have also caught on as well with the BDM sort of process. But at the same time, I think even in America they are moving on from that BDM process because the job that the BDM does can easily be taken over by an AI instead of having an actual person to chase thousands of leads every month and multiple times to call them and try to qualify them and then after that only then send it to a sales team.
I think that's a mundane job that is perfect for an AI. Humans should never do that. That is what we are also doing as well.

Jeremy Au: (16:12)
It's interesting because you're flagging like differential adoption rate for Malaysia versus Southeast Asia versus the U.S. How do you think Malaysia also performs on other adoption or enterprise trends that you’ve seen.

Anan Saminathen: (16:26)
Enterprise space, we are quite slow to adapt to changes. So the usual suspects like you're trying out new platforms such as TikTok, that's happening. Even Malaysian businesses are already trying to advertise or try to generate leads on TikTok and all these different channels, videos and stuff like that. But when it comes to something more on a deeper level like content and trying to, for example, what we're doing right now, podcasts and stuff like that, that has been a bit slow.
These are things that are prevalent in the advanced markets. It has a slow take up in countries such as Malaysia.

Jeremy Au: (17:02)
Do you feel like is a function of the GDP per capita? Because when labour is cheap, wages are low, then let's just use people.

Anan Saminathen: (17:11)
Just throw a bunch of people at the problem.

Jeremy Au: (17:13)
And then when people start to get more expensive, when people have a higher cost of living, then we just go up. And therefore, AI/robots look cheaper as a result of software productivity. How do you think about that?

Anan Saminathen: (17:25)
I think that is spot on. But I would say like perhaps we are kind of democratising the AI…our competitors, for example, in other countries, the ones that do list qualification using AI. Yeah. If you do subscribe to those guys, then businesses over here will start thinking like, no, that's just way too expensive. I'd rather hire like two other people because they can do the same job as well.
Yeah, I suppose that's where entrepreneurs are important. So they need to come in and they need to understand the problems that are being faced in such a country and ensure that it's at a fair price point. You're right, it could be a function of that of the GDP per capita.

Jeremy Au: (18:02)
How then should enterprise start-ups be thinking about it? Should they just like wait for the market and grow slowly? Or should they say hey and let us use humans to? Or how should people accommodate that trend?

Anan Saminathen: (18:14)
Well, that depends. We work with a lot of different enterprises and there are some who are quite really forward thinking. There are some who's even thinking about like how to incorporate NFTs and blockchain and things like that into their day to day. And there are some who struggle with even like introducing a CRM. So, it varies. I think it's case to case.

Jeremy Au: (18:40)
What's interesting is that a lot of founders are obviously also think about expanding across Southeast Asia, to Malaysia versus Malaysian founders in Malaysia, expanding to other countries, are there any advice to give to founders who are entering Malaysia for the first time.

Anan Saminathen: (18:53)
You have to understand the local market. One of the key things, for example, over here, if that's how you come over here and you build a platform that is based off SMSs, for example, that's not going to work because nobody uses them. So it has to be localised properly for WhatsApp. So you need to be here, you need to understand the local culture, only then you'll be able to build products that makes sense for Malaysians.

Jeremy Au: (19:19)
So on that note, could you share with us about time that you have been Brave?

Anan Saminathen: (19:23)
It will tie back to what I said much, much earlier. I could, after building that successful business, I could have stopped. Maybe I should have stopped, so at least I wouldn't have like used up a lot of my personal savings, a lot of my personal funds into fuelling, maintaining the business and paying out of our own pockets for at least a few years before companies started generating revenue and profits again.
So that was a gamble and I'm happy that actually paid off. So I suppose that was the time when I was really, really brave and I'm happy that it paid off.

Jeremy Au: (19:58)
Did you realise it back then or did you feel like you've only realised that more recently?

Anan Saminathen: (20:04)
I think more recently because when you're in that mode of like trying to save your company and it's your baby. At that time, you won't really care. You will just throw whatever you can in order to save it. And it's a gamble. It really is a gamble. And I'm sure a lot of entrepreneurs, they do that. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it might not.
Lucky for us, it worked out.

Jeremy Au: (20:26)
Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. I really enjoyed the conversation. These are three big things that I got from the conversation.
The first is sharing about how you founded the company first and how you had to pivot, conduct layoffs and search for a new product market fit, which landed on the enterprise CRM space. Which was really interesting because I think not many founders honestly have the ability to conduct a pivot or be able to pivot successfully.
The second, of course, is your experience of bootstrapping and being thoughtful about the enterprise CRM space and in various aspects about the enterprise consumer that you discovered in Malaysia.
And thirdly, thanks so much for sharing about your own personal experience of being a founder in Malaysia. And I think that's a really rare story that we need to highlight more of.
So, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Anan Saminathen: (21:15)
Oh, thanks a lot, Jeremy. I'm a fan of your podcast. I think your podcast is absolutely great and it helps other entrepreneurs or other would be entrepreneurs who's watching this to learn a lot from yourself and your guests.

Jeremy Au: (21:30)
Very kind words. Thank you so much.

Anan Saminathen: (21:32)
All right. Thanks, Jeremy.