User experience startup goes through three business iterations
Aiming for strategic partnership with US company in same space
HE started out as a lawyer, but Alvin Chai turned his attention to the Internet space, specifically web user testing, thanks to a part-time job while reading law in the United Kingdom.
“This was in 2009 and I got interested in e-commerce and saw its potential while working with an online translation company, PrimeLanguages, in London,” he recalls.
In particular, he realised that user experience was an important element for higher conversion rates. “Quite simply, if an e-commerce site is not user-friendly, people will not buy [from it],” he says.
This is where he recognised that usability testing is an important method to understand why users are having a poor experience, get confused and give up on a website or app.
On his return to Malaysia in 2010 he practised law, but with his heart not really in it. Chai launched Netizen Testing in April 2012 with two others, each founder chipping in RM25,000, with an angel investor also chipping in a small five-figure amount while Netizen Testing was still at the idea level.
Two and a half years and three business model iterations later, coupled with a RM500,000 (US$156,000) Cradle grant in January 2013, Netizen Testing is now positioning itself as the leading user testing, research and web user experience consultancy firm in Asia.
It started out just offering its crowdsourced web user platform to clients who then had to use it themselves.
“But after market validation and through customer feedback, we are now offering the product as a service, with the research as a value-add – which is what customers really want as they are not interested in handling user testing, which they find to be a headache, even with our tools which simplify the process,” says Chai.
Meanwhile, the re-positioning as an Asian web experience and research company speaks of the company’s intention to become the logical Asian partner to a similar company in the United States which wants an Asian presence.
Chai confirms this is the intention. Speaking to Digital News Asia (DNA) via Skype recently from San Francisco, where he had some meetings with potential clients and partners, he says: “We are hoping to partner with any company that is in a similar space as us, which wants to have an Asian presence.
“We are happy to have a revenue share agreement,” he adds.
Chai is also open to having a strategic investment made by such a company, firmly believing that the access to customers and boost to sales “is much better than an investment made by any venture firm.”
Focusing firmly on the enterprise market, Netizen Testing has between 20 and 30 clients and just rolled out a mobile version to existing customers. “We are hoping to perfect it with their feedback before offering it to the market,” he says.
The company also still uses crowdsourced content. This, plus its service which allows it to help companies move their e-commerce activities or their web presence to the next level, is pretty much in keeping with the Malaysian Government’s ‘Digital Malaysia’ initiative.
Digital Malaysia aims to transform the nation into a digital economy, with three main thrusts:
To move Malaysia from being supply- to demand-focused, or to reallocate resources to more demand-focused activities;
Shift behaviour from being consumption- to production-centric, or to change consumer mindset so prevalent in technology use so that Malaysian individuals and businesses produce as much as they consume from digital technologies; and
Evolve from low knowledge-add to high knowledge-add, or increasing the development of local talent in key industries to become innovators and knowledge workers.
Netizen Testing recruits and trains young people to become testers, thus not only helping Malaysians move up the scale to higher skills, but also to move into production-centric activities in the digital space.
Furthermore, its consultancy service would help ease the way for brick-and-mortar companies as they transition to the digital economy.
Describing his entrepreneurial journey as a “rollercoaster ride,” Chai says his recent trip to the United States counts as among the highlights of that ride so far.
He was among 12 tech entrepreneurs who were competitively selected by the Global Innovation through Science & Technology (GIST) Initiative for a two-week exposure tour to Washington DC and Chicago.
Calling the tour the ‘2014 GIST Entrepreneurship Journey,’ GIST selected those “with the most outstanding innovations and successful operating businesses.” GIST itself is an initiative funded by the US State Department and implemented by the non-profit CRDF Global.
Chai says he found the exposure eye-opening and kept himself busy meeting as many people as possible, besides extending his trip to meet people in Silicon Valley as well.
“But it was interesting to note a new trend in the United States of startups now moving to other cities to chase their dreams. Chicago and Washington DC are now positioning themselves as alternatives to Silicon Valley,” he says.
In the co-working space he was based in Chicago, Chai met someone working on a similar product as Netizen Testing and found the insight into how the US market works to be very useful.
“It was great to actually hear from people in the market about what the challenges and nuances of the marketplace are,” he says.
The exposure from the trip has left him confident about the positioning of Netizen Testing and the shared experiences have shown him that the journey is no less easy, even for those in the United States.
“They [startups] have the same challenges as us, and I was surprised as how many of them fall off the wayside,” he says.
In fact, such is the failure rate that co-working spaces now offer startups rolling monthly contracts as most will not know if they will still be around the next month!
But determined that the 10-person team of Netizen Testing will be around for a long time, Chai finds strength from “the feeling of building something from nothing.”
“There is a lot of hard work ahead of us but it is all very fulfilling,” he declares.
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