Interview with Julian Low and the team behind ZopIM
June 25, 2008 by Bernard Leong
Zopim is a company incubating under Garag3 from NUS that helps improve your visitors’ experience on your website. Their product enables your visitors and clients to stay in touch with you through your website, using the most convenient form of communication, instant messages. Of course, they have a larger than life story on how they got started. So, we managed to lock Julian Low and his fellow team mates in the Zopim team (Wenxiang, Royston Tay, Yang Bin) for an interview to tell us about ZopIM.
BL: Hi Julian, thank you for the interview. Tell us about your background.
Julian:Hi Bernard, for the interview, with your permission I would like to include the rest of my core team in this interview as ZopIM is our baby and I feel they too deserved the recognition for all their efforts.
A very brief background of the team is as follows:
Wenxiang is ZopIM’s server side developer & residential punk who despite having a rebellious streak, labors day and night, tweaking away to ensure that everything runs smoothly at ZopIM. Graduating from the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Computer Engineering, WX’s thesis involves advanced customer profiling solutions which is integrated into ZopIM as a very useful tool for ZopIM users to track and understand their visitors’ web path and behavior.
Royston previously honed his engineering skills as a QA/software engineer at FaceTime Communications Inc, a leading company in Enterprise IM security. He helped developed internal stress and monitoring tools, and was involved in some technical marketing as well.
At ZopIM, he is now heavily involved in developing the web-based interface for ZopIM’s corporate customers and also chips in for Business Dev as the official Business Dude
As for me, I am just your average Joe who plain lucked out by having the wonderful opportunity to work with these extremely talented individuals, who not only share my passion for ZopIM but are crazy enough to go on this rollercoaster-ride adventure with me.
Majoring in Life Sciences, I was previously employed as an intern at Alpha Innotech Corporation based in San Leandro, California. I worked my way to Junior Product Manager and was handling multiple product lines before I left them last summer.
During my stint in Silicon Valley, I was given the opportunity to be part of a 2-man startup company called NandoDrop Array Technologies. ND-array Technologies was a company that was aiming to commercialize a small molecular drug discovery platform that was developed in NUS by my co-founder and which provides a 96% cost reduction in screening for potential drug targets.
Despite early successes in raising funding from local sources, I was unable to garner serious industry interest in the U.S to realize its full potential, largely due to undercapitalization. Eventual undercapitalization forced us to shut the company down and it was a painful lesson but I would still do it again as I gained many invaluable lessons through it. Many of which had benefited me as I venture forth with ZopIM.com which is also aiming to challenge and optimize existing business practices.
BL: Tell us the story behind ZopIM! and how did the whole team get involved in the project?
Julian: ZopIM like many other startups was an idea borne out of idle conversations. I had roomed in with Wenxiang and was classmates with YangBin when we were in Silicon Valley and we had an idea which goes basically like this: “What if you could have a browser-base chat session that could persist across multiple web pages? What if every hyperlink becomes an opportunity for you to interact with a fellow human being in this extremely populated but still surprisingly quiet place we call the internet.”
This remained an idea until 18th April 2007. That fateful day, Tim Draper the Founder and a Managing Director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a venture capital firm had arrived in Singapore for an event and was having a dinner meet up session with local aspiring entrepreneurs. WX who was never invited, gate-crashed the event (with the help of Roy) and shamelessly pitched his idea to Tim. As luck would have it, Tim liked the idea and asked when he could see the prototype.
WX, thinking that Tim was kidding, said: “Two months?”
Tim: “Okay, I want to see the prototype exactly 2 months from now, 18th June in my office. I will arrange a meeting with you with my secretary.”
When WX went home that night and received an email confirmation from Tim’s personal assistant Karen, he practically fell off his chair. That was when all hell broke loose.
Realizing that this was a rare opportunity, WX needed more help and roped in Roy who was eager to get in the fray. Within 2 months, Roy+YB+ WX had ZopIM’s 1st prototype up and we presented it to him at his Sandhilll office in Silicon Valley.
Like most VCs, he did not reject us outright but basically told us that he thinks the idea is scalable and that we were to approach when we gain some traction. Despite this, Tim’s encouragement gave us the impetus to continue developing on the idea. Though we were still schooling, we had successfully applied and obtained funding from MDA’s iJam’s program and the rest as they say is history.
BL: As we understand that ZopIM is a next generation sales Instant Messaging platform, how is it different from the remote desktop types of messaging platforms which are available? Also, what are the features in ZopIM! that you deemed interesting for your users?
Julian: Live Chat for customer sales and support is not new. However the industry is filled with cloned solutions that just do not satisfy the needs of small online businesses. If you take a simple Google search and download the ready-made Live Chat solutions today, you’ll find that most are them are:
- a. Cumbersome to use and requiring software downloads.
- b. Have bad user interface design.
- c. Costly and not applicable for small online businesses
ZopIM differentiates itself from the rest of the market by focusing a lot of our developmental energies in solving the pains our customers as well as the end-customer (their customers). You can see this in the features that we offer like…
- a. Offline notifications/messaging and a browser-based Dashboard platform that help our customers talk to people on their websites even while they are on the not near a computer. We believe we are the first Live Chat service provider to offer this for now. (If you do find one, do let us know)
- b. Incorporating business features like customer ranking, canned messages and survey functions that help our customers to engage their web page visitors more efficiently and effectively.
At ZopIM, we place a lot of emphasis on interface design for good user experience. Unlike conventional live chat programs that have intrusive pop-out windows, our windows are in-screen and will persist chat sessions across the entire website. This allows the end-customer to have a smooth chatting experience with the website owner without having to switch from windows to windows.
Also Cost-wise, we are risk-free for most small businesses to use and deploy on their websites. This application is built and designed for the small guys and thus we want the rest of the world to enjoy using it without burning a hole in their pockets.
Currently, we are still working on the pricing model with our Beta Clients but one thing we can assure is that it would be a Freemium model where it would be free for most websites till they reach a certain high traffic stage.
BL: Who would be the customers of your product?
Julian: So far, our Beta customers base come in all shapes and sizes. On top of a few Web design & IT firms that deploy our platform, we have a Spa Treatment Website (www.spahaven.com.sg), a Gaming Console Webby (www.qisahn.com), a Bag aficionada cum sales blog (www.cassis-room.blogspot.com) and even a Political Webby (www.voterscentral.com).
However, the one thing that is common among them is that they rely heavily on their websites to reach out and engage their customers.
BL: How does ZopIM! create a sustainable revenue model given that the messaging platform is free and can be deployed on any platform?
Julian: Yes, its free for the majority of our customers. However we will be working on a Freemium model, we will charge our customers an affordable subscription fee when they reach a certain traffic or need more advanced features (e.g SMS notification, intelligent routing, etc).
That way, we can build a sustainable business while providing ZopIM for our beloved customers.
BL: What are the trends that you see in the instant messaging platform space in the web?
Julian: In the social IM space, we see more and more integration and aggregation activities going on. We also see that IM clients which were once mostly desktop-based migrating/merging with the browser. Popular clients like Meebo and Ebuddy are evidence of this. Once dataplans become cheaper and accessible for phones, it’s a no-brainer to postulate that the next Big IM War will happen on the phone.
Ok, what I postulated are boring conclusions that have been debated since the 90s. Personally, I would like to go out on a leg to predict that IM would one day become smarter tools than just a simple text-base medium you see today. I believe very strongly that Netizens one day will use embedded IM tools on the web (like ZopIM) to conduct other activities. (E.g. Book an appointment with your doctor/restaurant, request for information or automate a multitude of online tasks)
BL: What are the three important traits of a young entrepreneur that you think are important?
Julian: Most self-motivational books would tell you that the 3 important traits that an entrepreneurs should have are Courage, Passion and Honesty. However, I would like to propose to SGE’s readers a slightly more non-conventional lesson for young entrepreneurs that we have learnt so far.
Team ZopIM would not be where it is today if not for our Mentor and Friend , Charlie Giang who is a successful entrepreneur in his own right. Through our drinking sessions (where he sponsors our liquor and get us horribly dead drunk), we were able to glean from him a few pearls of wisdom.
Chief among his many advices is that a young entrepreneur MUST have the willingness to “po fu chen zhou“. “Po fu chen zhou” is a Chinese proverb that basically translates to destroying the cooking pots and sinking his boats. The proverb relates to orders an ancient Chinese General Xiang Yu assigned to his army when they landed on enemy shores. The result of the orders hardened his army’s resolve and they were able to defeat their enemy who were numerically bigger and better prepared.
Likewise, a young entrepreneur going into the marketplace should be desperate to succeed. When he/she makes the conscious decision to cut himself off from the comfort of a 9-5 job to fill a gap identified in the market, he has nothing to lose. He/she would naturally have the means to adapt accordingly and to develop other traits (E.g. People skills) as challenges come along.
Thus said, there are no fixed traits or winning formulas any successful entrepreneurs should have. If you wait to develop those traits before you decide to plunge in, it would be too late. When you are young, you have nothing much to lose. So make the plunge today and learn those traits as you go.
BL: Thanks for sharing with your story and thoughts. We wish you and the team from ZopIM the best of luck for your ventures ahead.
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About The Author
Bernard Leong - Co-Founder
Dr Bernard Leong is currently in Vistaprint as a technology manager, where he manages an engineering team and builds new products for emerging markets. His former entrepreneurial stints include CTO and co-founder of Chalkboard where he has architected the platform for location based advertising across web and mobile, and also an early stage investor in Thymos Capital with Lunch Actually, Padlet and iHipo. His accolades include the Young Professional of the Year Award for the Singapore Computer Society 2010 and Outstanding Young Alumni for National University of Singapore 2007. His expertise includes technology and social media. Currently, Bernard also serves as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence with INSEAD Business School and taught courses in entrepreneurship in NTU.Read other posts by Bernard Leong