Royston Tay co-founded Zopim in Singapore in 2007 with Wenxiang Wu, Yang Bin Kwok, Qing Ru Lim, and Julian Low, who all met while studying abroad at Stanford University through the National University of Singapore Overseas College program. Having caught the entrepreneurial bug, they worked on several ideas before settling on their most promising one, Zopim, a Live Chat product for the many small businesses just coming online. After graduating, they lived a Spartan lifestyle for more than two years, subsisting on US$410 per month as they tried to develop the product. When the co-founders decided to switch to a freemium model, they were surprised by how many of their existing customers converted to the paid product. Within a few years, Zopim was used by 120,000 websites in over 100 countries. In April of 2014, Zendesk acquired Zopim for US$29.8 million, partially in cash and the rest in common stock. Tay was absorbed into Zendesk as general manager of Chat, and Zendesk had an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange just one month after the acquisition in May of 2014. Tay worked at Zendesk for more than three years before leaving in late 2017. Today, he’s an active angel investor and startup mentor in the Southeast Asia startup scene.
Gracy Fernandez: You happened to meet your co-founders during the NUS Overseas College Program. What formative experiences did you have together while abroad that would later inform your thinking around Zopim?
Royston Tay: The NUS Overseas Colleges [NOC] program has created a steady stream of entrepreneurs who went on to create household names, like Carousell, Shopback, 99.co, and MoneySmart. It’s no exaggeration to say this program changed all our life trajectories from ordinary undergraduates to passionate, determined entrepreneurs. It’s tiring, exhausting, and demoralizing to have ideas and prototypes ridiculed by others. But if you can’t stomach that, or somehow see the sadistic thrill of it, you won’t be able to embrace all the crazier challenges that comes after. Also Read: UangTeman raises first tranche of US$10M Series B led by Tim Draper’s fund; to acquire a P2P startup Zopim’s story is no different. Before NOC, I was en route to graduating with honors in engineering, before joining my friends in engineering or consulting jobs. In 2005, I was accepted into NOC and headed out to Silicon Valley for a year. It started off badly. I interned at a decent startup, but my job as QA engineer was dead boring. I did get really good at playing ping-pong. I signed up for extra classes at Stanford, which I was neither hard-working nor clever enough to excel in. But there was this other group of NOC students who barely talked about work or school. Every night, instead of heading home, they were out there attending events and meetups, and networking, organizing, pitching their startup ideas, and pretending to be startup founders. “That’s better than pretending to be a QA engineer,” I thought. I joined the group’s leadership team. Everyone got fancy titles. I was the VP of Mentorship. Armed with our fancy personas, we hosted events and meetups where established founders or early employees of red-hot startups like Facebook and YouTube shared their experiences with us wannabe entrepreneurs. It was intoxicating to finally feel part of the hallowed scene. NOC also gifted me my co-founders, who were already brilliant coders and hustlers. I was the least accomplished of the lot. Somehow we clicked and spent weekends dreaming up ideas and developing prototypes. We would pitch them and invariably get shot down. Upon returning to Singapore, it seemed natural that we would continue doing that together. Of all the mostly crappy ideas we had, only one didn’t get shot down as much. That was how Zopim started. On reflection, one lesson stood out—entrepreneurs aren’t made overnight. Unlike many other professions, there isn’t a career ladder leading there. Especially for young inexperienced founders, pretending to be an entrepreneur while finishing up a degree, or working a second job to keep the lights on is a necessary rite of passage. It’s tiring, exhausting, and demoralizing to have ideas and prototypes ridiculed by others. But if you can’t stomach that, or somehow see the sadistic thrill of it, you won’t be able to embrace all the crazier challenges that comes after. Fernandez: Can you share the experience of doing a literal “elevator pitch” to famed venture capitalist Tim Draper?
Tay: Tim happened to be in Singapore, and someone organized a closed-door pitching session for him. We weren’t cool enough to be invited, but we were shameless enough to show up. He was larger than life, living up to his reputation by breaking out into an impromptu rendition of a song he wrote for startups. Thankfully, he’s much better at his actual day job as a VC. Also Read: Online investment platform CapBridge raises US$2.9M from SGX, Tim Draper The pitch was in a speed-dating format, a handful of entrepreneurs had about five minutes to pitch their ideas to him before another group was rotated in. It was Tinder on steroids, if he liked the idea, we could follow up for the next date. There were two of us at that event—Wenxiang, one of my co-founders, and me. We had several ideas at that point, so to maximize our chances, he pitched Zopim, and I pitched something else. I don’t recall Tim listening much to the other pitches, but he really liked Zopim and wanted to see our prototype. We had written exactly zero lines of code at that point but confidently promised to show him something “soon.” A couple of emails later with his PA, our second date was set two months later.Fernandez: How did you and your co-founders manage to build a prototype in as little as two months? What did Zopim look like at this time? What features did it have, and which did it lack?
Tay: Right from day one, we wanted Zopim to be an easy way for anyone with a website to easily chat with customers on it. “Why would you not want to chat with every hot lead?” was the thinking. It wasn’t a new idea. “Live chat” had been around for a while, but it was very expensive and complicated to set up. Only Fortune 500 companies with large IT and support teams could afford to use it. Riding on the wave of emerging web technologies at that time, we believed two radical improvements would disrupt the industry, making “live chat” available to all. Firstly, we believed it was possible to build a chat widget that anyone with no coding knowledge could install on any website. Secondly, it was possible to build a fully web-based chat application, so businesses no longer had to download any software. They could chat with customers on any computer with a web browser. Today, these are industry standards, but back in 2007, these were big technical challenges. A good chunk of the two months went into deep research, showing up for end-of-semester exams and general procrastination. Also Read: Tim Draper took his first Go-Jek ride as Indonesia leapfrogs into innovationTwo weeks before, we finally holed ourselves in a dark dingy room to code day and night. Being engineers, our first eureka! moment was when we finally managed to send the first message from our experimental widget to our experimental web application, and back. We had cracked huge technical challenges under the hood, but other than that, Zopim had none of the features that eventually made it commercially successful. It was also ugly as hell. We spent our last few days frantically slapping lipstick on the proverbial pig, coding up till minutes before our second date with Tim. Junliang —another co-founder, who was still in Silicon Valley— was waiting outside Tim’s office when we finally released the demo to him. Needless to say, we bombed it. Tim politely spent fifteen minutes with us and said, “Come back when you have more traction.” — This story has been excerpted by courtesy of the publisher from Asian Founders at Work by Ezra Ferraz and Gracy Fernandez (Apress, 2020). To purchase the book, please visit Amazon. Image Credit: Thomas Drouault on Unsplash The article was first published on January 22, 2020. The post Book Excerpt: How I survived an elevator pitch session with Tim Draper appeared first on e27.