Interview with Benjamin Yee, CEO and Founder of EMERGE App

A serial entrepreneur and keen solo traveller, Benjamin Yee, talks to us about the challenges and advantages of steering a software startup based in Singapore. He shares what it’s like to run a business with a broad global footprint. Finally, he tells us why electronic payments are the next logical step of his business.

A lot of people have not heard of EMERGE App. Can you give us some background?

Sure, EMERGE App is the name of our order, purchase and inventory management software for small and medium-sized businesses around the world. We’re used by over 1,000 users in 40 countries spread across 5 continents. It’s available in English and Chinese language versions for now. Since it’s cloud-based there’s no software to download or buy. You simply pick a subscription that suits you and start using it inside any web browser.

Our customer base is immensely varied but it includes retailers, wholesalers and distributors of products ranging from artisanal soaps, custom jewellery and medical equipment to agricultural seeds. The bulk of our customers come from the United States, Australia & New Zealand, United Kingdom and China. We’re currently experiencing a 15% month-on-month user growth and it’s increasing.

So why start a business in Singapore? Why not another startup ecosystem elsewhere in the world?

Well, Singapore is my home for a start and it made sense to start looking in my backyard first. It would have been challenging but possible to relocate to Silicon Valley, New York, London, Tel Aviv, Beijing or Berlin to pitch my software startup idea there. However, I would not have the home ground advantage and I think I would simply be lost in the torrent of pitches a typical investor gets over there.

The Singapore startup ecosystem may be relatively small compared with the rest of the world but I have a decent network of mentors and investors here. We work on a first name basis and I can call them anytime I want. One mentor, in particular, was a co-founder of a successful Singapore startup that was acquired by a much larger competitor. Her journey from startup to acquisition was enlightening and her words of advice helped us shape our value proposition. She also happens to be an angel investor in EMERGE App.

What are some challenges founding a company in Singapore?

For me, the biggest challenge is moving your startup from seed funding to a Series A round. I think there’s no shortage of angel investors, wealthy individuals and family funds for seed capital. But moving along, the network of really big investors and tech funds that I know in Singapore can be counted in my head. And for venture capitalists that include B2B software startups in their portfolio, the number is even smaller.

So to move my startup to the next round I need to look abroad for investors who understand our business software market and want to invest in our product. Ideally, software startups are at home in Silicon Valley but I want to keep the epicentre of EMERGE App here in Singapore because China is the next market that we’re courting aggressively. It’s a dilemma that I’m currently working on right now.

How did you fund your recent batch of startups?

My very first startup, Drooling Apparel, was bootstrapped and self-funded. It sold custom printed t-shirts. I had a nice aunt help out with the printing and logistics in Malaysia and I shipped my finish products over to Singapore.

The second startup, Lange Macrea, was a creative agency dealing with advertising, branding and marketing. Since it was a knowledge-based, service business it needed relatively less funds to launch it. You could say that I ploughed some of my profits from the t-shirt business back into it.

But my third and most recent startup is the most challenging one yet. I actually spun it out from my in-house software solution at the t-shirt printing business. It managed my inventory well and I thought other small businesses would be interested in it.

I had to gather a small technical team to develop an MVP to show test users and investors. During that transition time we took on systems integration and consulting work that brought in under a million dollars to fund EMERGE App. The rest was contributed by angel investors and tech funds in Singapore.

Can you share with us some moonshot ideas coming out of EMERGE App?

Embedding electronic payments seem like the next possible step in inventory management software. After all, once you’ve mastered and added full features for order, purchase and inventory management, there’s very little left to innovate or add-on. Anything more will be incremental and not innovative.

I’ve seen forms of electronic payments available to small businesses available around the world: Amazon Payments, Apple Pay, WePay, Google Pay and PayPal comes to mind. The most logical step for EMERGE App is to start adding support for these payment platforms so that small businesses can invoice their customers and get paid electronically and instantly. After all, we enable customers to conveniently email invoices from within EMERGE App.

But the real moonshot idea would be to offer an electronic payment platform ourselves. It would be tailored specifically for brick-and-mortar businesses around the world. They tend to be rather conservative and they need much encouragement to go completely digital. You can’t ignore the fact that small and medium-sized businesses generate the bulk of commerce in both developed and developing nations. I might call it EMERGE Pay and it may very well eclipse my software business in the next 5 years!

You’re a serial entrepreneur. Will we see you dabbling in cryptocurrencies anytime in the future?

No, I honestly don’t understand cryptocurrencies and the way they are traded around the world scares me. Brick-and-mortar businesses, wholesale, distribution and software are my strengths and I will continue to play on them. Personally, I like to sleep well at night rather than dabble in something that I don’t have control over.

EMERGE App is my baby for now and I spend every waking hour on it. I know that I’m improving a tangible product, raising its value to investors and making the lives of small business owners better around the world.

However, if there’s anything that I can take away from the cryptocurrency space then I guess the idea of a distributed ledger for inventory is a plausible one and something that I can get my head around.