Thomas Jestin, CEO of KRDS
1. Thomas, who are you?
I’m a French digital entrepreneur, I’ve been in Singapore since 2013. I am the CEO of one of the largest independent digital marketing agencies in Asia. We have a staff of near 100 and offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dubai and Chennai in India, beyond our HQ in Singapore. We work with brands such as BNP, Singapore Airlines, SAP, Ski Dubai, P&G, Yves Saint Laurent, the Singapore zoo and others. We design and develop social media content, websites, applications and chatbots as well as lately voice bots with our product Yelda I co-founded the company with friends back in 2008 right after a failed attempt at creating the French Facebook when finishing business school.
I’m passionate about Artificial Intelligence and the future of work. I’m on the board of these 2 think tanks Live with AI and NXU.
I run the weekly French newsletter Parlons Futur (Let’s Speak about the Future) where I share my interesting finds as well as at times my own opinion pieces, it's read by more than 5,000 people. I’ve written more than 50 articles over the past few years, published by news organizations such as The Huffington Post or the French media Les Echos and L’Express. You can find my work in French here and in English there.
I also co-produce CommitStrip, an online geeky cartoon about developers' lives. The dedicated website garners 500k+ visits every month, go check it out.
2. Why have you expanded in South East Asia ?
I first came to India with my backpack in 2009, I was looking at a way to get some of our tech work done for our clients back in France. We proceeded to open our own tech studio in Chennai, in the south of India, in the state of Tamil Nadu, 2 of my partners relocated there for 3 years. Then we realized that Asia was also a market where to sell our services, so we opened offices in different key cities across Asia. The experience we garnered in France was key to our success in this part of the world, the case studies we would show in the early years in Singapore were eye-openers to our prospects. We didn’t even benefit from previous relationships in these new markets, we simply had a very aggressive strategy of reaching out to leading advertisers to whom to showcase our expertise and past work.
3. What is your main advice for a company expanding in SouthEast Asia ?
Have one of the founders relocate to Asia for many years to show you're serious about it. We're entering the Asian Century , it requires a strong commitment from the top. Leverage the VIE program, if you're eligible, which lets you identify and hire talented young Europeans eager to move abroad. It depends on your line of work obviously, but favor the English-speaking cities/countries at first, where it's easier and safer to do business. Take hiring very seriously, it’s really hard to find and retain great talent. And it will sound self-serving, but make sure to digitize your offering and use digital ads to reach out to your target audience in a personalized way at scale, especially in these times of covid-19 when people have time to try out any app to make their lives simpler and while ads are cheap due to falling expenses by big companies.
Just for the anecdote, hiring has been hilarious at times as for me : we've had a candidate in Indonesia come with his father who was doing all the talking, and showed us the most obscure deck ever, everytime he would click to the next slide, there was the sound effect of a cash register. Another time in China, a candidate for a digital position came wearing a large sweater featuring the American flag, he said he was running a toy shop and wondered how we could do business. A last story, in Singapore, I asked a candidate what he thought of the job, he said he hadn't actually read the job desc, he just read the title and thought we would discuss the opportunity in the interview.
4. Could you explain the role of your lawyer(s) in this expansion?
Interestingly we haven’t had the need for a lawyer for many years. Luckily our business contracts with clients are not too complex nor long, we are using templates that are quite straightforward.
Only when the time came to grant shares to a partner did I feel the need to get some legal help to prepare the agreement. And lately for M&A discussions that need resurfaced. These are obviously critical matters, you don’t want to get them wrong!
5. What could be the consequences of Covid-19 on foreign investments in South East Asia ?
Many investors will get cold feet. Some sources will inescapably dry up. Reduced purchasing power, prolonged lock-downs as well as possible second waves of infections won't help either obviously. There will be less money available to be invested overall most likely.
But there will still be money, lots of money, for daring entrepreneurs with traction in key areas such as healthcare, e-commerce, delivery, edtech, fintech or martech.
For instance, French startup Alan, based in France just raised €50m in a round led by none other than...Temasek Holdings!
Startups, more than ever, should be as lean as possible, do things that don't scale <http://paulgraham.com/ds.html>, iterate and try new things, fail fast and try again. Think of a few startup/product/feature/service ideas, put up a landing page, buy some ads, and see what sticks, then only start building from there. Software startups, that is, all startups, should also look at making free or much cheaper for a while whatever they have whose marginal cost is zero, so as to leverage that crisis to gain consumers or get as many people as possible to try their products, that's the best way to prepare the recovery!
And if you can't raise money, consider becoming a cockroach startup for a while... In these hard times, I also invite entrepreneurs who haven't done it yet to watch all the episodes of the How to Start a Startup series by Y Combinator on Youtube, it's mind blowing.
6. You are as voracious a reader as I am. Some book ideas ?
- Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy (Kishore Mahbubani, April 2020)
- More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next (Andrew McAfee, October 2019)
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers (Ben Horowitz, 2014)