We had the pleasure of interviewing Benjamin Yee, CEO and founder of EMERGE App, a cloud-based inventory management system for small and medium-sized businesses around the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Thanks for having me here, too. It’s a funny thing that you asked me that because how I got here was totally unscripted and improvised. I’ve always been a bit of a restless and wanderlust type since high school. So I started a custom t-shirt printing business.
I was just itching to make money so that I could travel and have fun. Well, it turned out that sales of corporate t-shirts really took off. But I was struggling with my inventory that was stocked with every possible size, colour and material. It became clear that I had to invest in software as spreadsheets didn’t scale with my business.
Nothing in the market at that time suited my small business, so I wrote my own inventory management software. I then saw that other SMBs like me were having issues managing their stock with affordable software. So after a year or so in development, I launched my in-house software as the solution you see today.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
That would have to be the setting up of my software development office in Saigon. Vietnam is an awesome country with lots of young, talented adults that are hungry for success and lifelong learning. As with any new office, there was a lot of activity with new furniture and new faces, all while managing the software development lifecycle.
As you might expect, my days were incredibly long and fuelled by coffee. So I took to bringing a sleeping bag to the office to catch up with sleep. I don’t do it anymore but my staff joke that, as part of an initiation rite, new hires should bring a sleeping bag and spend their first week staying at the company’s office.
So what does your app do?
My app is a web-based application handles orders, purchases and inventory inside a typical small and medium-sized business. Think of it as inventory management software that goes well beyond managing your stock with spreadsheets. It has built-in smarts to automate many things that were once done manually by employees.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’d like to think that we’ve helped a lot of SMBs around the world achieve personal and business success using our software. We’ve helped a diverse customer pool of jewellers, herbalists, chocolatiers and medical suppliers with their inventory issues so that they can truly focus on their trade and craft.
But the one story that stands out is a seed research company from South America. This is probably the most novel use of our software to date! They’re using our software as a central data repository for the importation and distribution of seeds. They also do a fair bit of work with plant genetics as well. So I’m proud to have a part in helping to advance research in the biotechnology space.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I’m fortunate to fall into the hip category of a digital nomad. My software business means that I can work anywhere in the world with just a laptop and an Internet connection. This pretty much extends to each and every one of my employees too. Only time zones divide us as all communication is done by chat and video calls.
So I mix business and travel readily. With this job I’ve been to places that I would only dream about if I had a corporate desk job. Some cities and towns are so remote that you need days to reach them by various modes of transport, including motorbike, ferries and buses. This way I work hard and play hard at the same time.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There’s a mentor and investor that I was grateful to have in the very early days of starting my software company. She found considerable success herself by co-founding a web support platform that was subsequently sold to a larger player. She told me plainly that finding success with your business means looking for your “ah ha” moment.
This isn’t the Norwegian pop group from the 1980s. She meant finding enlightenment or a light-bulb moment that will distinguish you in the market from your competitors. Her “ah ha” moment was putting a simple prompt in the window of her chat support software: “How can we help you today?”. Customers from both sides loved it! This prompt, in one way or another, is now commonly found in all chat support windows.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each. ‘
- Sometimes life hands you a new opportunity on a plate when you least expect it.
I didn’t set out from the start to build a software technology company. This was far from my mind when I was battling workflow issues with my t-shirt printing company. But somehow that problem became an opportunity and I seized it.
- Look far and wide for talent and funding.
Don’t just limit yourself to finding investors and talent in your local market. If you’re spending too much time selling the idea of your company to uncertain investors or unsure employees, then quickly move on and find those that trly get it.
- Don’t hire new talent immediately.
As you know, interviews in person or online can go really well. But it’s another matter when they start working for you and interacting with the rest of their team. For me, it’s not the CV that matters but what can you contribute to the team and the company? I now put new hires through a paid probation period before hiring them officially. It makes it much easier when you have to ask people to leave.
- Always ask customers for a commitment upfront before you build something for them.
The customer is certainly king (or queen) but make sure that you’re not holding the short end of the stick. I built custom features for keen users in the early days. I didn’t ask for any commitment upfront but when it came to demonstrating their custom features and asking for a paid subscription in return, they simply disappeared!
- Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn.
I admit that we’ve been flying under the radar for far too long. We have over 1,000 users from 40 countries spread over 5 continents. That’s a pretty far reach for a small software company that most people haven’t heard of. I guess I was so focused on building a better product with each software release that I lost sight of PR and marketing work. So when you have a solid, proven product, don’t be afraid to show it off.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.
There is one person that I would very much like to meet but he’s no longer with us now. I’ve always admired the late Steve Jobs. His relationship with the company that he founded had a rocky history but what he did in the last few decades of his life really inspired me in my youth.
You might remember the “Think Different” campaign that Apple launched in the late 1990s. It’s no longer used today but it featured notable names from the 20th century. The slogan is just as relevant today: our products empower you to Think Different from the rest.
I’d like to say that’s what we’re trying to do with EMERGE App. We’re empowering SMBs around the world to think differently about how they’re managing their inventory, thus not only saving money and increasing productivity but also making more time in your life for the things that truly matter.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you, I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my life experiences so far with you.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow my LinkedIn profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/benjamin-yee-a0370b2a/