Interviewing “Mr. Asia” on the plethora of French founders in Asia

Oct 7, 2013
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Benjamin Joffe aka « Mr Asia » is a leading expert on Asia’s startup ecosystems who has worked in this area over the past 13 years (China, Japan, Korea, South-East Asia). Founder of the digital strategy firm Plus Eight Star, he is also a Mentor at 500 Startups (US) and 5 other startup accelerators. He currently lives in Beijing, focusing on growth for the Cmune startup – the maker of UberStrike, a popular cross-platform first-person shooter game with over 10 million registered players – and he is also known for his activity as an Angel investor in 9 other startups, including Gengo (Japan). Keynote speaker, moderator and judge at over 150 startup events across 22 countries, he has 500,000 views of his presentations on SlideShare.

Matthieu David, from Daxue China Market Research (follow on Linkedin and Twitter), a market research firm focusing on China based in Beijing and Shanghai, has interviewed Benjamin on the 2d of October for Rude Baguette.

Q: Hello Benjamin, first thanks for accepting this interview. You have been on the entrepreneurial scene in Asia for some time now and named Mister Asia by magazines and you have been quoted regularly by media such as Forbes, The Economist, CNN, AdAge, VentureBeat or TechCrunch. Could you tell us more about your experience in Asia?

A: Sure! I have lived 13 years in Asia- mostly in China and Japan, but also South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. I also spent close to a year in Silicon Valley over the past 5 years.

Actually, I don’t like to use the word “Asia” because the countries, markets and cultures are so different: Japan, China, Indonesia, Singapore… it’s like talking about “Eurafrica” and putting France, Slovenia, Russia, Nigeria and Eritrea in the same bag.

Q: You have been witnessing a lot of start-up stories in Asia, where do you feel French start the more businesses? and within which specific industry (within the tech industry)? Do you feel it is more about apps, websites, others? What are do you think their competitive advantages (if they do have one)? And are they usually targeting the local market or still Europe and France from abroad?

I don’t think there is a clear pattern, and to be honest I have not met many French starting tech businesses in Asia. The most common are probably web agencies or e-commerce type of sites. Apps in East Asia are very hard to do if you’re not well tuned to the local tastes.

France is quite skilled at gaming and you can find quite a few French people in this sector, but generally in art/tech or management roles rather than founders.

Q: What would be your top 3 picks among French start-ups in Asia? Why?

A: For some companies it is hard to tell whether they have a nationality- founders might be a mix. If I look at startups who have at least one French founder, I would mention the following (more than 3, sorry!):

Capture d’écran 2013-10-04 à 13.31.31AppAnnie (Beijing – CEO: Bertrand Schmitt) Maybe the most successful “foreign” global tech startup in China. They are the world reference for mobile analytics. Just closed a $15m funding round with Sequoia Capital, the world’s most famous venture capital firm. It does both B2B and B2C (freemium).

Capture d’écran 2013-10-04 à 13.31.57Cmune (Beijing – CEO: Ludovic Bodin) Pioneer of shooter games and largest 3D game on Facebook with UberStrike, expanding now to mobile. The company is also based in China. It raised money from the founder of Skype and Silicon Valley investors. It is B2C with over 15 million registered players and 1.4 million Facebook fans.

Capture d’écran 2013-10-04 à 13.32.58VirtuosGames (Shanghai – Founder: Gilles Langourieux) – the largest game outsourcing company in China, probably a global leader too. Based in Shanghai. It is not a B2C startup so less well known.

HAXLR8R (Shenzhen – Founder: Cyril Ebersweiler). This is a staCapture d’écran 2013-10-04 à 13.33.45rtup accelerator focused on hardware products – they invest in startups and help them get to market. Shenzhen is the best place in the world for manufacturing of tech hardware and they already helped fund and manufacture “smart” products such as a high-end cooking device, a remote-controlled vibrator, lighting solutions and smart electric plugs.

Capture d’écran 2013-10-04 à 13.59.228Securities (Hong Kong) in the finance space. Raised $13m – not sure how well the service is doing, but combining finance and tech is notable as a startup.

Last, I’d like to mention another company founded by a Frenchman who worked at NASA Capture d’écran 2013-10-04 à 13.59.56for 8 years: Elysium Space (Founder: Thomas Civeit) offers space burials (sending a portion of the ashes of a loved one into Earth orbit).

While the company HQ is in San Francisco, it is notable as it launched in Japan just 2 months after the US. It was in newspapers and on TV this week in Tokyo (I helped with the launch). It shows that startups are not limited by geography, only by the ambition of their founders (more info).

For disclosure, I am an angel investor in both Cmune and Elysium Space.

I wish I had invested in AppAnnie but instead I gave them low marks at a startup competition where I was a judge, over 3 years ago. They had just launched, had no revenue, little traction… I did not see then how big the app gold rush would be, and that everyone would need shovels.

In Korea, Singapore and Malaysia, other key Asian markets, I have to admit I either don’t know of “French” startups or there is simply no large one.

Q: You have been a speaker in many world quality events, what are the key messages you are communicating on when you are on stage? 

A: I often talk about digital ecosystems, notably to show that “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” are not specific to Silicon Valley. Most founders lie on stage as they have a duty to always look good- I like to dispel myths and tell real stories.

Many of my talks are online.

Q: Could you share more with us about the concept of lean business and especially in Asia? 

A: Funnily, while “lean” is a very trendy word these days in the tech industry, it comes from manufacturing and was first made famous by Toyota.

For startups, it’s adding the concepts of:

– Customer development (a concept developed by Steve Blank who wrote the “Four Steps to the Epiphany”)

– Minimum Viable Product (as promoted by Eric Ries, author of the “Lean Startup” book)

– Data-driven iterations

– Concierge service (small scale sales before scaling up with systems)

Many founders think a good product is enough, which is rarely the case.

Those concepts are all interesting but I am yet to see a major company built entirely on those.

Q: What are the current businesses or areas you are currently helping or looking at? 

A: I am keen on startups who are either fun or meaningful, ideally both. I passed on a few deals with great teams and products because I did not feel I cared enough about the problem they solved.

Regarding business areas, I got interested in hardware startups after meeting several of them and visiting HAXLR8R in Shenzhen. I also like education and communities.

On my side, I spent the past year learning about analytics (notably cohort analysis), user acquisition and media strategies. I believe most startups die not because they can’t build a product, but in oblivion or because they don’t look at the right metrics.

Q: What would you say to the French (young or not that young any more as well) who would like to start a tech company in Asia?

A: Getting started and moving there is half the battle. Lots will clarify once on the ground.

It is not easier in “Asia”, just different, and you start with some handicaps by not knowing language, business practices, culture, etc. Enjoy the daily practice, because any business typically takes years to build.

Depending on where you go, the lifestyle, market and skills levels vary widely- in any case, the journey is the destination 🙂