Thibault Couperie Eiffel: Cofounder Departure Taboos, Lazada & China Inspiration & Influencer Marketing - E199

· Purpose,China,Founder,Start-up,Podcast Episodes English

Be very open and transparent. What's made this process easy for us was over communication when it started, when we started feeling this way. This is the key is to never keep things for yourself, especially between co-founders. I mean, they're at the same time they're your best friends because you're spending every day with them, every single day you're struggling, but you're also excited and you're having fun every day with them. So feel free to share with them because, you know, they're the people you chose. They were never imposed to you and you chose them for a reason- Thibault Couperie Eiffel

Thibault is the CEO and cofounder of Capssion. Capssion is an all-in-one influencer marketing platform for e-commerce brands in Southeast Asia. With 60,000 influencers using our mobile app every month and over 1,000 brand campaigns launched, we want to drive the growth of the creator economy in the region. Leveraging 4 years of experience spent in the e-commerce industry at Lazada as Head of Operations to bridge social media and digital commerce across borders in Southeast Asia.

In his spare time, he takes black and white street photographs. A huge cinema addict, he also loves to binge movies on weekends. Having lived in 12 different countries, he also cannot imagine his life without travel.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi. I'm so excited to have you on the show. You are a founder, former operator, turns out that you've also been a fan of the show. So happy to have you on the show. Could you share a little bit by yourself?

Thibault Couperie: (00:40)
Hi, Jeremy. Thank you so much for having me. It's a real pleasure to be here. Yeah, of course. I found about the show on LinkedIn, on my morning news segment, basically, because every morning I go sit with my coffee in front of my computer and I check the news and I listen to your podcast in the morning to hear about founder journeys in the region and Southeast Asia.
So, you know, it's a real pleasure to be here.

Jeremy Au: (01:00)
Could share more about yourself personally and professionally.

Thibault Couperie: (01:03)
Of course. So, my name is Thibault. I'm from France. I am currently the co-founder and CEO of Caption. Caption is an all in one influencer marketing platform for eCommerce brands in Southeast Asia. We basically help hundreds of brands connect with influencers every day and we try to make it as easy as possible for them. That's basically what we do.

Jeremy Au: (01:23)
Awesome. How did you get into technology?

Thibault Couperie: (01:26)
I did a lot of things, since I graduated, I was into VC and finance. And at some point, I decided to join Lazada in its early days in Hong Kong. And I think this is where my career changed drastically. As a fresh grad, you always think traditional career paths – consulting…and the yeah, my career changed when I joined the ecommerce space in the region.
Obviously, Lazada was already in its early days and it was already a fast growing company with very promising prospects. And that was a massive career change for me. And it was being in this region and seeing the digital space grow as it did for four years, was massive. And after four years, me and my co-founder, it became so obvious for us that the place to be was social media in the region.
And we decided to found this company because the discussion in the ecommerce player industry was so much around social media and how to drive consumers from social media to e-commerce platforms, that it was very natural step for us to start this company.

Jeremy Au: (02:32)
So how did you decide to work for Lazada? Because, you know, it’s both a geographic shift as well as industry for you at that time. So how did you choose to do that?

Thibault Couperie: (02:43)
Several reasons. I actually, when I was younger, I spent eight years of my younger years in Asia, in Singapore and Hong Kong and then Korea and South Korea and Seoul. And I consider, I grew up in Southeast Asia and I've always had an itch to come back. And basically one of my best friends was working at the time for Lazada, he left to co-found his own company in shipping.
And he basically brought me in before he left, and this is how I got started in the region, basically. Obviously, I was not completely happy with my career choices before and I think changing completely, region and industry was for me also like a need, a personal need. And I wanted to work in the fast growing industry where everything happens extremely fast and where you are owner of what you do.
And this is exactly what I found at Lazada at the time - a company where there is no job description. You get given responsibilities if you want them and you basically become a project manager. Day one, they give you a computer. You sit down at a desk and you start speaking to people and the projects kind of fall on you when you want them.
And this is what I loved and this is what I try to bring on to Caption is I want to work with people who believe in the space and who, you know, are owners of the things that they do. And I think that passion was shared across so many people at Lazada and now here at Caption, I think is the common denominator is that conviction that we're working for something bigger and that's what I love about going to work every day in the last seven years of my life.

Jeremy Au: (04:25)
And what's interesting is that 2015 or 2018 was that huge surge of e-commerce across Southeast Asia. What aspects about that did you find interesting? Personally.

Thibault Couperie: (04:38)
There's a massive social media e-commerce penetration in the region. People are very keen to shop online. I think a lot of products were made available that were not before by e-commerce players in the region at very random locations. The metro areas were very well serviced for a while, but I think there's so many islands and remote locations in Southeast Asia that are hard to serve that, you know, I was working in operations and shipping products to far off islands and making sure that the level of assortment they have is nice, is sufficient and is qualitative, was one of our missions and we brought in millions of products from brands that they wanted to have,
and that was kind of like the tribe we had every day was making sure that that happened. But obviously what's fascinating is the mission was bring in millions of products and after four years we also realised, okay, now there are millions of products and they're shipped fast in the region. It took, you know, five, six, seven days for cross-border items to come to your doorstep, but only 1% of the assortment of the products that are on e-commerce websites are seen or even seen by customers.
And this is where, you know, it hit me that brands really want to have the tools to advertise and make sure their products are seen. And this is where social media kicks in, because today people truly discover products not on the e-commerce portal or the websites of the brands, but on social media. Because it's hard to browse an e-commerce website, you rarely go past page two or three of a of a category, right?
So there are hundreds of pages and products that are behind who are waiting to be seen and boosted from great sellers and from great brands and this is where social media is great destination for brands to spend money and to be seen.

Jeremy Au: (06:32)
So why did you decide to become a founder in influencer marketing and content creators versus being an operator and in versus, you know, joining someone else's thing?

Thibault Couperie: (06:44)
I think I've always had an itch. There are several things, but I've always had an itch, as a kid growing up, I was always the kid who looked at something and was like, Why is this not here? This should be here. Or You know, I travelled a lot in my life. I've lived in 12 different countries…I’m 33.
I've always felt that there are so many things that belong to a culture that other cultures would appreciate or best practises that are done in a country that should be shared more. And I think that was my itch was to launch my own thing and to be owner of what I do, set up a company identity, vision, a workplace that I like to go to every day, and that people that work with me like to go to as well.
I think that's one. For influencer marketing, more specifically, obviously it's the opportunity happened. But I think what triggered me was when Alibaba acquired Lazada. While I was working at Lazada, we were sent with a bunch of people from Lazada cross-border. We were sent to Hangzhou to their headquarter in China, where we spent six months on campus.
And that was a life changing experience as well for me because it opened my eyes on a lot of things. I mean, first of all, Chinese seller and brand ecosystem is extremely developed. They are very, very advanced on social media, livestreaming, e-commerce, social commerce tools. And a lot of the brands that were there and international brands that were using Tmall or, you know, Alibaba owned marketplaces.
They wanted to spend money first and foremost on social media because for them it was the obvious thing to do. And when we tried to bring in these brands into Southeast Asia as Lazada, we realised that the tools that were at our disposal as a company to offer a good service to the brands that wanted to do that were very limited.
And this is where it hit us. Somebody has to do this. And then obviously the fact that I was surrounded by the right people and, you know, my life at the time, my age where I was in my life, everything was aligned, made it that we started Caption. But yeah, that was definitely the trigger was that trip. I mean, that stay in Hangzhou was definitely a massive trigger.

Jeremy Au: (09:02)
What aspects about that stay was really important in triggering that change? Because you could go to France and have your life change, right? You could go to America, have your life change, you could go to Indonesia or Vietnam, have your life changed. So there's something about China and Hangzhou…I just want to kind of get what you're actually talking about, what aspects of it changed?

Thibault Couperie: (09:25)
Yeah, I think it's right next door. One of the first expansions that brands in Asia, they expand in the region first and seeing that there was no solution made available to a country that was right next door and that is obviously massive, made it that for us it was a natural step for us to do this because we were in Hangzhou a few kilometres away and we found it crazy that there was no tool at the disposal of brands that were already listed in Southeast Asia.
A lot of these brands were already trying to sell to Thailand and Indonesia and the Philippines that are massive social media and ecommerce countries. Without these tools, doing our research, we realised that there were lots of agencies and services and aggregators but no platform, nothing to make it as easy as possible for brands to do that. Yeah, I think the proximity, the geographic proximity was also the additional trigger and obviously the social media penetration in the region is so high that it was a no brainer for us to go into this space.

Jeremy Au: (10:29)
There's a lot of hope, obviously, with China's emergence on a global stage, and I think that's what you're talking about. And there's also a lot of fear. So could you talk a little bit more about that? I mean, because, you know, you're talking about China as a role model. So how do you think people should navigate that?
Like you're looking at China as inspiration or benchmark for technology? How do you think about that?

Thibault Couperie: (10:52)
So I think our staying in Hangzhou was a trigger to launching the company. I wouldn't say it's a role model. I think the Chinese model works really well in certain things, like on live shopping and streaming. It's ahead of its time and industry I think is a leader in that space. Influencer marketing is so much more than that commerce, it's PR, it's assets for brands to use on their website.
It's connections with people, it's feedback, it's engagement with your customers. It's finding new customers. Other markets might be better at that than China. Obviously, the trigger was that stay in China. But we are looking at obviously the U.S. and Europe as well that are very advanced in that space in terms of companies funding process. And, you know, the spend of brands in the space is also, for us a role model.
Obviously, China is again a huge market and is right next door, but there are so many other countries that are doing it very well, but differently. Now, in regards to, you know, how people view China, again, it's a sensitive topic. I lived in Hong Kong. I'm married to a Hong Kong woman. And obviously it's a sensitive topic.
We are obviously working with Chinese brands because they are exporting their products in the world. We are very open to working with any brand that wants to expand internationally using social media. But we don't operate in China right now for many reasons. I think the Chinese market deserves to be…if you want to enter China as a business, you need to be implemented in China.
And we don't operate in China right now. We have no influencers in China because again, I think they have their own best practises that's very specific to China. So we operate everywhere, but China, obviously, brands need to export and to promote their products abroad and this is where we help them.

Jeremy Au: (12:43)
Interesting here. So you’re really servicing as this bridge between kind of like east and west or east and rest of the world. Would you say the major differences between how the Chinese practise influencer marketing or creator brand sponsorships versus the rest of the world?

Thibault Couperie: (13:04)
I was telling you before, I think social media, influencer marketing in China is very transaction driven, which is not true of many other countries. I think it is ahead in that sense, in the commerce aspect of social, I think it is behind in terms of branding aspects of influencer marketing. Again, I think in Southeast Asia to speak about the market where we are operating the most, it is in between brands are discovering as well the space and they are doing multiple activities to promote their brands and their services or their products.
So I think, yeah, the difference, the main difference is every single brand in China is looking at return on investment, as with the key metric that is traffic and sales. And that is the number one concern on every brand and seller in China, in the region, you know, in Southeast Asia or in other markets. I think there are so many other factors that come in to…the KPIs are very different.
The success factors are very different depending who you're talking to in a company. You know, we are working with a lot of PR teams, for example, from brands who simply want their brand to be mentioned. Their KPI is brand mentions on social media, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok. They want to see their brands use the experience. We have branding teams who want their brand to be used well and they want the assets that come out of this collaboration should be pretty.
And the goal is I don't want to simplify, but the goal is almost prettiness because these are assets that will end up as hero image on an SKU or they will end up as a banner on their website and they know that it's cheaper to do that via an influencer than to hire a photographer and a model in the country.
So you localise the content very easily via a solution like ours. So many different success factors. It depends what your brand wants to do, and I think this is where it differs a bit is I guess the multiple layers that other markets offer that I really enjoy because I think it makes the industry very exciting to see so many different activities being done in that space.

Jeremy Au: (15:08)
When you look at Southeast Asia, how do you see that relationship between Southeast Asia and China playing out in terms of technology, you know, either from creator economy, whatever aspect they are comfortable talking about.

Thibault Couperie: (15:21)
Southeast Asia is an amazing region. It has countries that are very different from each other, so close to each other. I mean, it's a big region. It's a big region and population. And, you know, geographically, of course, it has influences from everywhere in the world. I always talk about the Philippines has quite a lot of American influences in the country.
People spend over 4 hours a day on social media in the Philippines, which is absolutely insane. When the rest of the world is around 2 hours a day, every country is different, and that's what makes it so unique. And this is why it's a market now. It's a region that brands are not ignoring anymore. And this is something I witnessed during Lazada.
It was left on the side a bit for a while, for example, to speak about China or Korea or Japan that have so many international brands that are exporting and have been successful in the fashion and space in the beauty industry. They were first going to Europe or the US or North America. Amazon obviously was the success of Amazon was also facilitated that.
But now there are teams that are whose only purpose is to develop the brands in the region. It's a region on its own. It's doesn't suffer from too many influences, I think created its own identity over the last few years in the e-commerce and social media space. It's richer from the influencers from China, but also from other markets I guess I want to say.

Jeremy Au: (16:43)
What's interesting is that you've been an operator and now a founder and CEO. What have you learnt since your journey of being a founder over the past three and a half years?

Thibault Couperie: (16:54)
Yeah, one thing that we always, you know, when you come into the entrepreneur journey, you're always filled with so much excitement and energy and obviously the beginnings are easy. What surprised me was the time it came…when the time came for us to reach out to investors and to advertise our brand with people that we had never spoken to before.
And, you know, when we get to go do your research and, you know, browse through hundreds of funds, I think I didn't expect this process to be as long as it did. And for any entrepreneurs who are out there listening, it is a process that requires…it's a full time job, fundraising is a full time job.
And, you know, as a co-founder and CEO, I was very involved in the operations of my business every day, you know, digging in and getting my hands dirty to make sure that we had the best traction possible. And I think the lesson here is, you know, make sure you are you're working with a team that will also take weight off your shoulders while you are doing this because it deserves your full attention.
You are creating relationships with funds. You need to speak with them. You need to sell yourself. And I think this is something that is time consuming and is energy draining. Yes. Surround yourself well and make sure that there is no other tasks that are around you that are taking your focus away from that. Because obviously your goal as well as a CEO is to make sure your company has money to develop itself.
And it's a priority always, of course. So yeah, I think this is why I didn't expect I thought I could do it all. I thought I could, you know, every day do the operations and fundraise. And I think I found out that this is something that needs 100% of your time to perform.

Jeremy Au: (18:39)
How do you balance between fundraising and operations?

Thibault Couperie: (18:43)
You have touch points. You make sure that the people who work with you are owners. This comes back to my point of having passionate people around you and I have so many, I mean my co-founder has the qualities that I have and he also has the ones that I don't.
Having somebody this is why, you know, I wanted to launch a company with somebody that I knew was also because I knew how they worked. I knew how professional they were. And when the time came, you know, it's about communication. He was amazing in understanding the priorities of the business and taking off more than he should have taken.
But this is what the entrepreneur journey is all about is a human experience. And that's fantastic because it's all about adjusting and learning. And I'm a first time founder and I mean our growth, my growth, my personal growth, but our growth as a team in the last three years has been absolutely phenomenal.

Jeremy Au: (19:37)
On that note, could you share with us a time that you have been Brave?

Thibault Couperie: (19:40)
Yeah, of course. There are so many things that I want to list here. I want to have a word, you know, for the people who are around us in our personal lives that are supportive of what we do, I think their energy and their support and the discussions that they have with us every day is so key.
But the subject I want to discuss here, because I think it will maybe speak to other entrepreneurs in the region, is when we started Caption. We were actually three co-founders initially, and I want to share that experience because we parted ways with one of them along the way and I think that has been a Brave moment for the company, for me personally, because it was somebody, you know, when you work every day with someone, it's hard to part ways.
We are in great terms today and we still speak. And he has gone on to launch another company that has just got funding. So I'm really happy for him. And we still grab a beer when he's in town, but the Brave moment is about also realising and facing the fact that it's better sometimes to part ways than to force a relationship where you don't 100% agree on a vision.
I think for businesses to thrive, you need to be 100% on the end destination. You can disagree on processes and how you get there and obviously you will always zig zag your way into reaching your goals. But the end vision, if there is not 100% alignment, it is complicated…and I think we had a really great conversation, a mature one, where we said, I think it's best if we don't fight about this, I think it's best if we agree to disagree.
But we need to do this how we set out to do it. The Brave moment is that is to fully understand what's happening and to then make sure that you are well in your boots and you face the reality and you go to your investors and you explain to them with full understanding what's happening, what the situation is.
And I think that's something that is hard to do and that entrepreneurs should not be afraid to do when it happens, because it's not a big deal. It can be a strength as well. I think investors and the people in the company see it as a conviction that you are sure of what you're doing instead of a weakness.
And if you can showcase that, your passion and your vision, and if you can explain it well, everything will then follow through.

Jeremy Au: (22:00)
How do you even have that conversation with your co-founder in the beginning where it's either business disagreement and then eventually becomes a departure, but something in between is so tough and rough to even acknowledge. So how is it like to have that awkward, difficult conversation?

Thibault Couperie: (22:19)
I think the conversation every day when it starts to affect the business, this is when I think the conversations happen because you spend time discussing vision is something that takes time and takes a lot of energy because you are doing this outside of the operations. It's something that obviously you don't necessarily share with your employees every day because, again, they need a destination to be fully committed to what they're doing.
And so having these side conversations is something that you always should do because they're so important for yourself as well. I think it's a test of your vision as well to constantly face it with counterarguments. I think it only makes it stronger when it becomes a problem for your everyday life too much. I think the discussions happen naturally because even the person that we used to work with mature and I say we all, again, had a very mature discussion and it was not one moment.
It was over several months where we realised that it was not it was not meant to be. It was easier for everybody to part ways. So again, yeah, I think it was not like there was no one trigger. I think it's over because we appreciate ourselves and I think we like working together. It was too hard to not agree again, 100%.
And I'll spare you the details on what. But yeah, I think over a few months you kind of go to the conclusion that it's best to not continue together.

Jeremy Au: (23:49)
How do you do that? Because sometimes it's scary, right? Especially if you had announced it to maybe some customers, some supporters, investors. So a lot of founders are like, okay, I don't want to do it because it looks bad. So how do you advise founders to process that or announce it or share it?

Thibault Couperie: (24:07)
We were very lucky because we were in and we are still in great terms with the person who left. And he was extremely mature and professional in the way we transitioned him out. Obviously doesn't always happen like this. So, you know, depending on your situation, it will be different. But my advice here is speak to each other about the reasons why it isn't working.
Be very open and transparent. Day one like I think what's made this process easy for us was over communication when it started, when we started feeling this way. I think this is the key is to never keep things for yourself, especially between co-founders. I mean, they're at the same time they're your best friends because you're spending every day with them, every single day you're struggling, but you're also excited and you're having fun every day with them.
So feel free to share with them because, you know, they're the people you chose. They were never imposed to you and you chose them for a reason. Remember why you partnered with them in the first place. Make sure they know how special they are to you and then tell them. Tell them why it's not working in a very simple way, you know.
And if they are the person that you partnered with, then they will understand and it will be extremely simple. Again, we were very lucky. I've heard other stories that didn't end up like this, but I wanted to address it because I didn't want it to be a taboo. And I think other co-founders should not let it be a taboo.
It can be easy. It can be easy. And I think for investors as well, they appreciate that honesty and they only reinforce the bond you have with them because it creates another story. It adds to your experience, and it shows resilience and how confident you are about your vision, also because you are willing to do the things that need to be done for your business to thrive.
So, this is what I took on from that experience is it made us stronger. I got so much closer as well to my other co-founder when that happens and we kind of also found each other from a trio to a duo, the dynamics are very different as well. And again, it was an exciting new start.
We never saw it as a negative.

Jeremy Au: (26:18)
Why is co-founder break ups or departures or transitions a taboo?

Thibault Couperie: (26:24)
There is this misconception from entrepreneurs, not from anybody else, from entrepreneurs, that it shows that you couldn't hold your own. It's a challenge to your vision or your management when somebody leaves. I think it's not. I think every company has departures. And I mean the turnover in companies, especially young ones, is extremely high because not everybody fits to the entrepreneur journey.
It takes a certain type of people as well to be in the Start-Up Journey. I think it requires a certain mentality, a lot of ownership, a lot of courage, I think, to face the uncertainty of a business that might not exist six months, a year from now when you start. That is the hard reality. And the people who join you are people who believe in what you tell them the journey will be.
You sell them the end goal, the end destination. So, I think it is taboo when somebody leaves, especially somebody so important at this level, somebody who's a co-founder. He was one of the pillars of this company. Obviously, he started this from day one with me. And again, the same way, you know, I told you that be honest with your co-founder.
The also very open with your employees, because they need to know as well before everybody else. They need to know before things go bad. They need to know what's happening and, again, communicating with them also made us a lot stronger. So again, yeah, I think it's taboo because there's a misconception of what it represents. I think it can be turned into a strength if managed properly, because it's very banal if you think about it, somebody who is not a fit for a market for a company, it happens every day in a lot of companies and then people move on to do other things. So just go with it. Go with it.

Jeremy Au: (28:11)
How would you recommend people structure that departure? The conversation. Should they talk to the co-founder first, settle it, then talk to the investor, then talk to employees. How would you go about that sequence?

Thibault Couperie: (28:27)
Yeah, I think obviously co-founder to co-founder is the is the heart of where it needs to happen. Letting anything through before you have that settled is, I think, in my opinion, a mistake because this is where things can go south. I think manage it out first then speak to investors because they are the ones who trusted you very early on, you know, on providing you the tools and the money for your business to grow.
And it kind of happens again very naturally and the sequence is quite organic and they happen really fast from very close to each other. Your employees obviously follow right after that. Everybody is kind of on the same boat, so there's no right sequence. But for sure, the speaking to your co-founder first is the key. And then, you know, you have parallel discussions, I guess, with everybody else once you have agreed on with your co-founder team.

Jeremy Au: (29:24)
Yeah. How do you manage your own emotions, I guess, during that process? So how do you as a founder who was having someone depart, do you like, I don't know, go through the seven stages of grief or what goes through emotionally and how do you handle it?

Thibault Couperie: (29:40)
It's hard. It's hard emotionally. I think this is actually the hardest because the impact on the business was everything was quite smooth. Life of a company is the life of a company to keep going. And, you know, when you have a business that, you know, has hundreds of brands come in and work every day, it kind of keeps you going where this is the drive is what's happening operationally and when the business is fast growing is the biggest drive right?
But emotionally, you lose a friend that you were speaking to every day. So obviously, you know, we still have, to date, a WhatsApp group where we exchange about soccer and what's happening in the tech world and industry and about in the news of our personal lives. And we have the same group and is still called Caption founders.
I think if you can manage to keep a relationship, personal relationship with the person who left, fantastic. That's amazing. I think the impact was more a friendship one, but it didn't disappear. It just it changed. It changed because we were not working together anymore. But again, the day to day catches up to you and you wake up every day with more business, and that's what gets you back in very, very fast.
There's no time to grief. So yeah, you keep going.

Jeremy Au: (30:49)
Awesome. You just keep going. I love that. On that note, I’ll love to wrap things up by paraphrasing the three big themes I got from this conversation.
The first, of course, is thank you for sharing about how Lazada as well as your experience in China, was really the inspiration for a lot of your career, both in terms of culture, in terms of e-commerce, in terms of Southeast Asia as well as the global trends. And so that was really interesting to hear you compare and contrast some of the different trends that were going on.
Secondly, thanks for sharing your insights around influencer marketing and the differences that you see across the region.
And lastly, thanks for your deep dive around co-founder departures and how it's actually very normal and very common and it's very professional and it can be very smooth versus I think the taboos around it and the fear and emotionality that's around there that can make it hard to process and make it hard to have a good outcome.
And so thank you so much for, I think being very frank and open about that whole process, about how to steer through that difficult, awkward and long conversation to get to where the business can keep going and everyone else can keep on going as well. So, thank you so much for sharing.

Thibault Couperie: (32:05)
You're welcome, Jeremy. It was great being here.