Benjamin Yee talks about breaking into a highly competitive market

Benjamin Yee talks about breaking into a highly competitive market
Benjamin Yee, CEO of EMERGE App. Photo: Supplied

Inventory management is a less than glamorous but ultimately crucial part of the day-to-day logistical operations of an organisation. Without sound inventory management principles, systems and training in place a warehouse can quickly fall into disarray.

Benjamin Yee, creator of EMERGE App, has had a robust history in establishing his own brand of inventory management software in a highly competitive marketplace. We asked him some questions about his business.

What inspired you to start EMERGE App?

Not too long ago I was making a tidy sum selling custom printed t-shirts to business customers. However, my workflow became a little messy as customers weren’t getting invoiced and I was getting overstocked on certain t-shirts. Managing my stock with spreadsheets just didn’t cut it anymore.

To fix my issues, I developed an in-house software solution with a small team of programmers. It was at this point where I had an epiphany: “I could either continue to sell t-shirts and polo shirts for the rest of my adult working life or jump into cloud applications and help small businesses like mine with their inventory problems.”

It helped that software-as-a-service was really taking off and businesses were getting comfortable entrusting their data to web applications and remote servers. So I spun off that in-house solution to the EMERGE App software that you see today.

What was you background prior to starting the company and how did it help you?

I’ve always been a straight-talking person with my feet firmly on the ground. I went to polytechnic for my computer studies. That suited me because I’m a very practical person and I don’t like to stay in one place for too long. I’m always curious, on the move and I wanted to earn money to travel solo.

To be sufficiently bootstrapped for EMERGE App, I took on systems integration and technology consulting work together with a small team of developers. While we were drawing a decent wage from IT work, we ploughed whatever time we had back into EMERGE App until we were ready to launch it.

Was it difficult for you to enter such a competitive market? How did you differentiate yourself from competitors early on?

You bet! Thankfully, the inventory management software market is well segmented. I can say that there is no one dominant player as the market is so varied. There are generalists that bolt on an inventory management module to their general administrative applications, there are expensive specialists that provide prices for their software upon application, and then there are those that play well in the e-commerce space.

For us, we’re firmly focused on small and medium-sized businesses around the world. While our user interface language is English for now, we’re being used in well over 40 countries across 5 continents. Our software is lightweight, runs in any web browser and is user-friendly enough for anyone to pick up and start using it. Plus, we have very reasonable price plans that are easy to understand and add users when you need to.

On your website you have a lot of great examples of how you’ve solved unique problems for your clients, which one is your favourite story?

I always tell people that my favourite success story is the one for a biotechnology seed research company in South America. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that my software would be used for agrotech research. Each seed is saved in the software with a photo, notes and documents attached to it. Multiply that by hundreds and thousands of seeds, and you have a very impressive inventory!

What was the process of developing your product? What challenges did you need to overcome?

It all started with a paper napkin, literally. I drew wireframe models and business process workflows on the back of napkins along with the chief technology officer that time. Ideas were just firing out of our heads and we all had to write it down. A proof-of-concept and MVP was on the cards next.

But my biggest challenge was finding the right technical people to join the team. Being a startup, I had to be fiscally responsible and we could not afford sky-high salaries, expensive office rent and nice chairs.

I had to find engineers who didn’t mind trading in salary for equity in the business. Recruiting locally didn’t work for me as the final wage bill would have been unsustainable. I eventually opened a software development office in Saigon, Vietnam. There’s no shortage of young, talented adults who are fluent in English. Their wages are competitive and they work very hard.

What are your plans for the future development of your product and company?

We continually improve EMERGE App by releasing bug fixes and new features every three weeks. However, internationalisation will play a part in the next major release of our product and new staff for the company.

As I mentioned earlier, our software is only available in the English language for now. Our goal for the next billion headcount market is to release it in native languages: Chinese, Spanish, German, French, Hindi, Tamil. Business people speaking these languages number well over a billion alone.

And adding languages means adding headcount who are fluent in these languages too. We take pride in our sales and support staff who speak at least two languages each. Culture and business etiquette are important as well. Things are done differently in micro-markets around the world.

How has feedback from your clients shaped your product over the years?

Aside from a general roadmap for EMERGE App, our customers play a big part in shaping our product. Ultimately business software needs to prove itself useful by solving issues and problems in a workflow. And to understand what those issues and problems are, we listen to our customers very carefully.

In the very beginning, we targeted e-commerce businesses. These are usually very sophisticated businesses with few staff and highly automated workflows, usually involving drop shipping and consignment sales. But over time the profile of our customers slowly changed to that of traditional wholesalers and distributors who import and export physical goods.

This made us add automated and smart features that were useful to them. For example, automatic landed cost calculation where CIF costs are allocated to products in proportion to the purchase order. Another would be CBM calculation for shipments that are generated from packing dimensions entered for a product.

What piece of advice would you give entrepreneurs looking at the same industry?

There’s always room for new entrants in any market. If you’re looking at inventory management software, for example, then you’ll need to offer a product that is faster, cheaper and better. That might be a tall order for a new startup with limited resources and bare MVP in an increasingly crowded market. So you need to be prepared to pivot and re-position your product and value proposition.