Q&A with Wildfire: Singapore VC Association’s Most Innovative Company 2011
October 17, 2011 by Gwendolyn Regina T
Wildfire Pte Ltd, a Singapore Word-of-Mouth Marketing company with operations in China, received the Most Innovative Company Award 2011 in the Interactive Digital Media category from the Singapore Venture Capital Association (SVCA) at the annual Gala Dinner event two weeks ago.
A few days ago at the TechVenture 2011 Gala Dinner, I happened to sit next to one of the founders, Christoph Zrenner. We got talking and here we catch up on their progress.
What is the biggest thing that has happened to Wildfire in the past 12 months since we last wrote about you?
A lot of things have happened! When Benjamin Duvall and I started this together with a Chinese partner, Liu Kai, in 2008, we were the proverbial crazy guys with a crazy dream but things have really accelerated since we received VC funding a year ago. We’ve had two industry and China veterans join the team, Marc Rivoira formerly GM at Saatchi and Saatchi X in China, and Claire Pribula, previously VP Sales Asia at a listed consumer analytics company, Acxiom.
When you get those kind of people on board, it really takes the company to the next level. We’ve also taken another strategic investment a few months back from a private investor who is very well networked locally after having founded a number of highly successful businesses in China and SEA.
So things have just been coming together in many meaningful ways for Wildfire, in terms of repeat business from clients, developments on the technology, real strong talent on the team, a great group of investors. Looking back, there was a lot of luck involved, too.
How does it feel to receive the SVCA award?
Doing any start-up is really hard. Doing it in China, let’s just say there are very few examples of successful foreigners who hack it in China. And then, on top of that, trying to establish a new and innovative business model in a market that is growing so fast on all the proven ways of doing things, that’s actually a little crazy. So when SVCA recognized us for what we are doing on the innovation front with this award, it really meant something to all of Wildfire’s team, a recognition of the hard work we’ve all been putting in.
Christoph receiving the Most Innovative Company SVCA 2011 award for Wildfire.
In the beginning, you do a lot of the things you do on faith, because you believe in something, and a little external recognition actually goes a really far way!
What is the biggest thing you’ve learnt in the past year and how are you changing the company to deal with it?
If you look at the marketing industry, you see tremendous amounts of money being spent to bombard consumers with brand messages. Nobody gets fired for spending tens of millions of dollars on a TV campaign. Why? Because TV actually still works pretty well in China. So we’ve had to ask ourselves, what role is there for the sophisticated influencer word-of-mouth media that we provide. Our original motivation was to “fix a broken industry”, to change the way that brands relate to consumers in China where the kind of consumer cynicism you see in the West hasn’t set in yet. Ben’s work with BzzAgent during their early years in the US and Dave Balter’s books on Word-of-Mouth marketing, that is really what inspired us to build a media channel consisting of 100,000s advocate consumers who spread the brand’s message but authentically and in their own words.
Social Media is shifting the power balance from brands to consumers but for a brand to trust their advocates to do the talking, that takes guts. The decision makers on the brand side who took the time to understand the details of our process, how we find, educate, incentivize and measure the performance of brand influencers, they are real marketing heroes: Wildfire’s early adopters from Kraft Foods, The Campbell Soup Company, Bailey’s, Rexona, and others. What we’ve had to learn on our side is that influencer Word-of-Mouth is just one piece of the media mix puzzle and we’ve had to develop the tools to measure and prove how this component amplifies everything else the brand does, whether it’s digital, in stores, TV etc.
In fact, with the real-time tracking technology we developed over the past year, what we can do now goes way beyond word-of-mouth as a media channel: imagine you have access to 100,000 advocates, you know what they really and authentically believe, and you have the tools to deploy them to change ongoing conversations on-line and in the real-world.
Let’s talk a bit more about your technology: are you an ad agency, a media channel or a technology company?
Good question! What we are actually doing is a combination of two things, influencer seeding and social CRM: Influencer seeding means that we have a growing network of 100,000+ influencers (we call them Sparks) and the tools to identify, educate and incentivize the right consumers to spread the brands message (importantly, this is all authentic, they are unpaid volunteers!). Social CRM means that we have the tools to identify relevant conversations as they happen on the online space and in the real-world in Asia Pacific and China.
Based on these capabilities – a private network of people and a proprietary set of technologies – we offer three different products covering the whole product lifecycle. The first is “InfluencerMedia”, that’s using advocate consumers for reaching and impacting targeted consumers. The second is “InfluencerInsight”, which is using the conversations we capture for forward-looking real-world research (as opposed to focus groups and surveys), for example to answer the question of whether a product will succeed or fail in the market. The third is “InfluencerForce” which is the Social CRM product, but we need to keep the details about how this works confidential until the launch in November.
Do you have any general advice for startup founders with an eye on China?
China is hard and you really, really have to want it to succeed. If you can suffer (“eat glass” as one of the judges at Techventure put it today) and are prepared to put at least 3-4 years into an adventure with an uncertain outcome, China is the right place for you at the right time and there are plenty of opportunities to adapt investable business models from the USA to a Chinese context. (Another of the speakers at Techventure described opportunities as buses: don’t run after one you just missed, the next one will come and then you might even get a seat). All the usual advice applies: Build something that people want. Listen to your customer. Don’t run out of money. You can start alone, but don’t run the business alone, you need to have a partner you can rely on.
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About The Author
Gwendolyn Regina T - Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief
Gwen is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of SGE. Previously, she was a partner of early stage technology investment firm, Thymos Capital and she has had two exits, one of which is iHipo. She is also an investor in Padlet, a Y-Combinator startup. Gwen also sits on the Board of Advisors for the Singapore Innovation & Productivity Institute, Steering Commmittee for the Singapore Infocomm Technology Federation Awards 2013, and Board of Advisors for Social Media Week 2013. A frequent public speaker, mentor and judge at various startup bootcamps, events and competitions, Gwen loves meeting founders, developers, designers and scientists across all ages. An alumnus of the National University of Singapore and its University Scholars Programme, Gwen also spent some time in Silicon Valley and is a graduate of the NUS-Stanford University overseas college programme. She is also a mentor at Polish tech startup incubator Gamma Rebels, the Singapore curator for US-headquartered StartupDigest and the Singapore Ambassador for the Sandbox Network - the leading global network of innovators under 30. Gwen has also been a Worldwide Judge for Imagine Cup - the premier student technology competition helmed by Microsoft. She has also spoken in Hong Kong at one of its largest youth conferences, MaD Asia, and was recently in Austria to help envision the future of the country's economy in 2032 on invitation from an Austrian governmental organization. Gwen speaks 3.25 languages, loves physics, travelling, dance and adventure sports. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.Read other posts by Gwendolyn Regina T