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An Interview with Ben Yee, Founder of EMERGE APP

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Yee, a serial entrepreneur and founder of EMERGE App, a cloud-based inventory management software used in over 40 countries around the world.

As a digital nomad, Ben gets to explore off-beat places around the world while making a meaningful contribution to the lives of his customers.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Thanks for having me here, too. It’s a funny thing that you asked me that because how I got here was totally unscripted and improvised. I’ve always been a bit of a restless and wanderlust type since high school. So I started a custom t-shirt printing business.

I was just itching to make money so that I could travel and have fun. Well, it turned out that sales of corporate t-shirts really took off. But I was struggling with my inventory that was stocked with every possible size, colour and material. It became clear that I had to invest in software as spreadsheets didn’t scale with my business.

Nothing in the market at that time suited my small business, so I wrote my own inventory management software. I then saw that other SMBs like me were having issues managing their stock with affordable software. So after a year or so in development, I launched my in-house software as the solution you see today.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

That would have to be the setting up of my software development office in Saigon. Vietnam is an awesome country with lots of young, talented adults that are hungry for success and lifelong learning. As with any new office, there was a lot of activity with new furniture and new faces, all while managing the software development lifecycle.

As you might expect, my days were incredibly long and fuelled by coffee. So I took to bringing a sleeping bag to the office to catch up with sleep. I don’t do it anymore but my staff joke that, as part of an initiation rite, new hires should bring a sleeping bag and spend their first week staying at the company’s office.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I’d like to think that we’ve helped a lot of SMBs around the world achieve personal and business success using our software. We’ve helped a diverse customer pool of jewellers, herbalists, chocolatiers and medical suppliers with their inventory issues so that they can truly focus on their trade and craft.

But the one story that stands out is a seed research company from South America. This is probably the most novel use of our software to date! They’re using our software as a central data repository for the importation and distribution of seeds. They also do a fair bit of work with plant genetics as well. So I’m proud to have a part in helping to advance research in the biotechnology space.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

I like to put my business software into the hands of people who use them. So, after the English language, the next most spoken languages are Chinese, Spanish and Hindi. Together these four languages embrace a major part of the world’s population. So I’m working on translating my software, training my support staff, and publishing more articles in these languages.

While internationalisation of my business is one issue, getting your end-users to adopt and embrace technology is another. Remember, these are traditional business owners who use pen-and-paper and a mobile phone to conduct their daily business. They also need to be sold the benefits of using a laptop together with keeping their data in the cloud. We’re working to overcome this initial resistance with grass-roots efforts.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Firstly, to help your staff grow in their personal and career space, you need to be humble. That’s hard if you’re used to pounding your fists on the table and demanding action. Your staff aren’t going to approach you if you’re like that. And this attitude will instantly earn you no respect in many countries.

Secondly, I treat my employees as friends. When I recruit new staff, I like to ask them about the things that will make them happy. And it’s not just about getting the biggest paycheck possible. One said she wanted to earn enough money to buy a house in her hometown. Another said that he wanted to migrate to another country but keep his technology job (he did).

Finally, like a growing number of technology companies, we have an unlimited leave policy. You can take as much leave as you want to rest, get things done, learn and recharge. There’s a big risk for me in running a mission-critical business application if you have staff that are distracted, disinterested or just tired. I’m glad to say there’s no abuse of this policy yet!

None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There’s a mentor and investor that I was grateful to have in the very early days of starting my software company. She found considerable success herself by co-founding a web support platform that was subsequently sold to a larger player. She told me plainly that finding success with your business means looking for your “ah ha” moment.

This isn’t the Norwegian pop group from the 1980s. She meant finding enlightenment or a light-bulb moment that will distinguish you in the market from your competitors. Her “ah ha” moment was putting a simple prompt in the window of her chat support software: “How can we help you today?”. Customers from both sides loved it! This prompt, in one way or another, is now commonly found in all chat support windows.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

For a start, we’re not just helping SMBs around the world grow. Our software is free for all NGOs and other non-profit groups. These are people who are working on the ground, helping those in dire need and changing their lives for the better. If we can solve their inventory and workflow management issues, then we’re making their jobs easier.

Also, we recruit talent from all over the world. Some prospects and interns come from countries experiencing social unrest and war. They have told us it is dangerous for them to go out and work. This saddens me as we take our daily, safe commute to the office or school for granted. We’re a software company so we offer people a chance to work remotely, learn cutting-edge technology and earn a living so long as they have a reliable Internet connection.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Sometimes life hands you a new opportunity on a plate when you least expect it.

I didn’t set out from the start to build a software technology company. This was far from my mind when I was battling workflow issues with my t-shirt printing company. But somehow that problem became an opportunity and I seized it.

2. Look far and wide for talent and funding.

Don’t just limit yourself to finding investors and talent in your local market. If you’re spending too much time selling the idea of your company to uncertain investors or unsure employees, then quickly move on and find those that truly get it.

3. Don’t hire new talent immediately.

As you know, interviews in person or online can go really well. But it’s another matter when they start working for you and interacting with the rest of their team. For me, it’s not the CV that matters but what can you contribute to the team and the company? I now put new hires through a paid probation period before hiring them officially. It makes it much easier when you have to ask people to leave.

4. Always ask customers for a commitment upfront before you build something for them.

The customer is certainly king (or queen) but make sure that you’re not holding the short end of the stick. I built custom features for keen users in the early days. I didn’t ask for any commitment upfront but when it came to demonstrating their custom features and asking for a paid subscription in return, they simply disappeared!

5. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn.

I admit that we’ve been flying under the radar for far too long. We have over 1,000 users from 40 countries spread over 5 continents. That’s a pretty far reach for a small software company that most people haven’t heard of. I guess I was so focused on building a better product with each software release that I lost sight of PR and marketing work. So when you have a solid, proven product, don’t be afraid to show it off.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to put the opportunity to code in the pocket of every person on Earth. Working with my multinational team, I realised that computer code can cross the boundaries of languages and culture. It doesn’t matter whether your programmer is from Boston or Botswana. If he or she can read and write code, then we’ve got a portable language and a means of communication.

Also, in this app-centric economy, there’s an app for just about anything. And smartphones are fast becoming the norm in developing countries. What’s next is bringing this ability to create your own personal apps for your needs.

We’ve seen this with some apps that tailor news and topics that you’re interested in. But how about empowering a rice farmer to quickly create an app that mashes up weather reports with prices from the local rice exchange so that he can gauge the best time to harvest his rice?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

You can probably guess it by now from my personality, but my life lesson quote is basically my philosophy to living life as a productive human being: “Be Humble, Do Good and the Rest will Follow”.

When I started my software business, I promised my first few paying customers that they would enjoy the same price as long as they were my customers. So despite a couple of price hikes, and the urging of my colleagues to re-price their subscriptions, I held my ground and refused to change what I had promised them.

These pioneer customers provided me with invaluable feedback to improve my software product. And the interactions with them prepared me for greater issues when my software was launched. They also became my ambassadors, vouching for my product with their reviews and recommendations.

So, you see, I honoured my word and did the right thing instead of grabbing a few more dollars with a higher subscription price. Whatever dollars that I had forgone with their old price plans, was recouped from their goodwill when they helped to attract even more paying customers.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

There is one person that I would very much like to meet but he’s no longer with us now. I’ve always admired the late Steve Jobs. His relationship with the company that he founded had a rocky history but what he did in the last few decades of his life really inspired me in my youth.

You might remember the “Think Different” campaign that Apple launched in the late 1990s. It’s no longer used today but it featured notable names from the 20th century. The slogan is just as relevant today: our products empower you to Think Different from the rest.

I’d like to say that’s what we’re trying to do with EMERGE App. We’re empowering SMBs around the world to think differently about how they’re managing their inventory, thus not only saving money and increasing productivity but also making more time in your life for the things that truly matter.

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