In November 2014, Anna Gong took on the challenge of turning around a young Singaporean tech startup called Perx.
The Chinese executive, who moved to Singapore from the United States in 2009 to help build the Asia operations of a tech giant, CA Technologies, had successfully turned around both startups and businesses inside CA. This experience, she believed, positioned her well to make a success of Perx, which offers a customer-loyalty platform.
Perx was under strain because its market was shifting quickly — and it needed both new ideas and new money to “pivot” in response. We met up with Gong to hear how she remade Perx’s business model, fought for venture capital and made a name for herself as a “turnaround girl” in a male-dominated industry.
This interview was originally published on Prabha Dublish’s blog featuring international women entrepreneurs. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
Tell us a little more about Perx?
Perx was started in 2011 by two Americans who pioneered a mobile lifestyle loyalty and rewards app to replace the physical stamp card and manual loyalty process, mainly due to high smartphone penetration in this region. The B2C [business-to-consumer] app was novel, and it made sense and brought value to many merchants and consumers.
Over the course of the next few years, the product-market fit took a turn. Consumers were getting more and more fickle and spoiled for choice. At the time, numerous companies in this space were shutting down or winding down.
I was brought in by the board in November 2014 to help grow and turn the company around. Six months into Perx, I saw a much bigger opportunity with large enterprise clients that was untapped by any solution provider. I pivoted the company and raised a round of funding to focus on R&D with the objective of rebuilding the company and a world-class platform that’s enterprise-grade.
So now we’ve built a platform that allows corporations to interact with consumers through a more engaged, real-time, location-based and gamified approach. It’s all A.I. [artificial intelligence] driven and mobile-led. At the end of the day, data used the right way and in a more contextual, personalized and experiential manner improves conversion rates and increases consumer activity and thereby spend. Traditional loyalty is dead, and we need to redefine how we engage consumers today through intelligent data engagement.
You started off in the corporate world. What was the transition to startup like?
My corporate career in the beginning was short-lived. Despite how enticing it was working for a tier 1 management consulting firm, I soon realized that designing and coding large scale SAP ERP applications 15 hours a day wasn’t for me. Since this was also during the hot dot-com bubble, many friends and I were looking into startups, especially because they made it so darn attractive and hip. The fact is everyone was doing it. “Why not make the jump?” was what we all thought, and the rest is history.
I worked with four startups prior to Perx. Some very early stage, where I was the fourth, eighth, or 20th employee. And one other where I came in at a growth stage. All were very memorable, and I learned a great deal. The failed ones were just as great experiences as the more successful ones, like Wily Technology, where we exited to CA Technologies at nearly $400 million in early 2006.
Post acquisition of Wily, I ended up staying on with CA for 7 more years and moved to Singapore and then to Japan for various sales leadership roles.
How did the pivot happen at Perx?
One of the two co-founders left before I joined, and the second co-founder left a few months after I started. I re-founded and re-established the company and rebranded it as Perx Technologies.
Perx pioneered Asia’s loyalty app business, so it has a really strong brand. When we demo to large companies, we can show them that we are testing on real-life consumers and merchants. Perx is the only enterprise vendor with a live revenue-generating app. It’s a good validation that we’re drinking our own champagne.
What challenges did you face with when you joined?
The culture and values were set by the original founders. Pivoting a business from one model to another is hard, but transforming a culture, vision and mission from new leadership is equally hard, if not harder. Once the second founder also left, I restructured the team, business model and R&D and came up with a new set of core values. And it took me a few more weeks thereafter to really get the vision and Perx’s mission right. It was critical to have the fundamentals stabilized and have the team marching in the same tune in order for smoother and quicker execution.
What were some of the challenges in growing Perx?
Wow, so many. I made plenty of mistakes in the beginning, such as hiring too quickly, letting go non-performers too slowly, changing tools too frequently and not knowing where to look for answers and afraid of asking questions. I’ve since learned to hire slow and fire fast, especially with under-performers. It only takes one bad apple to ruin the pot in such a small team.
What kept you going through the challenges?
Running a startup can feel like a roller coaster ride. There’s a tremendous amount of stress, uncertainty and highs. To keep myself sane, I have my regimen of working out regularly, daily meditation, and giving back to the community and doing nonprofit work.
I also reach out to my fellow entrepreneur and founders’ community for advice or even just to share and unload. It’s important to also seek mentorship. I have a couple of mentors that I go to as sounding boards or to share some of my ideas, challenges and progress. They do not necessary give me solutions to my problems or tell me what to do, but they often give me insights and ideas to further my own problem solving.
Has it been hard raising money as a woman? Have you felt any biases running a startup?
Raising money is a difficult and tedious task for any entrepreneur. Gender is not a big factor anymore, I feel. Perhaps 5-plus years back there was some difference, but I don’t feel it as much now. There is a tremendous amount of money and investor and government support in this region for anyone with a great business model and product-market fit.
The biggest challenge for me wasn’t the fact I am female, but rather I took a B2C app company and turned it into a B2B SaaS [business-to-business software-as-a-service] company that competes with global software players. It took a while for us to erase the B2C app-only business legacy, but we have moved forward and the enterprise SaaS solution is our primary focus.
Do you plan to expand Perx to other countries?
Our headquarters is here, but we are not tied to the region. We’re a SaaS solution provider, so our clients can subscribe to our service anywhere. We believe there’s tremendous opportunity and growth in Asia and the large enterprise markets are underserved with little MarTech [marketing-tech] competition here.
Do you have any advice for college students who want to run companies or become entrepreneurs?
Find mentors. If there is a field you are passionate about, find people who were either successful or failed in that industry, and reach out to them. Mentorship is so important but often not exercised enough. A mentor can even be your peer who gives you meaningful advice.
Persevere. There are a lot of naysayers who want to squash your dreams. There will be more naysayers than people who believe in you. You know, those people who will say you will never make it. I’ve had a lot of people who think I should go back to corporate. I believe that it is easier to go corporate than to persevere and build something of your own.
These past 2 years were not a easy experience, but who said entrepreneurship is easy? When you have overcome the toughest part, then you can look back and see all that you have achieved and the journey is so worth it. I am actually enjoying every moment of it.
Prabha Dublish is an undergraduate business student at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and co-founder and president of Womentum, a nonprofit pay-it-forward crowdfunding platform that allows anyone in the world to donate to women entrepreneurs in developing countries.