Instant messenger (IM) apps are widely used across the world with clients of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and others numbering in the billions. These apps have become a new way for people to interact and the huge, global user bases are attractive targets for online marketing. The large number of potential customers poses a challenge for marketers as communication becomes difficult to handle.
Hong Kong start-up imBee provides tailor-made software-as-a-service (SaaS) products for different industries through its home-grown platform, and software services with cloud applications. Since starting its business last year, imBee has provided services for many international companies. The firm was one of the laureates at the Start-up Express 2020 entrepreneurship development programme run by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), and was subsequently linked with Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund.
"We help companies do business through IM. We work on a wide range of platforms including Line, WhatsApp and WeChat. We can display messages from different communication software on our platform so employees can field many customer queries simultaneously. Our platform also has other tools to streamline business for companies,” said ImBee Co-founder Ken Chu.
Hive of activity
The company name, imBee, represents the firm as a hive of hard-working bees, he said. The SaaS product platform provided by imBee can handle multiple customers or device logins at the same time and improve the efficiency of merchants doing business by adding chatbots.
Mr Chu obtained a bachelor’s degree in electronic and computer engineering from the University of Hong Kong in 2005, before completing a master’s course in computer science in 2007. After graduating, he decided to apply what he learned by becoming an entrepreneur.
"At that time, most of my classmates went to investment banks and other big firms. No one worked in the computer industry. The subject we studied was even withdrawn [at the university],” he recalled. “Then the internet boom re-emerged, and only then did students resume interest in computer studies. At the time, I felt it was better to start my own business with less constraints. This also allows you to realise self-worth."
Mr Chu's first venture won plaudits in Cyberport, a technology development centre in Hong Kong, and became the first incubatee there to raise funds in the United States. Mr Chu's experience inspired him to start imBee.
"At that time, many customers used WhatsApp to communicate with us and we discovered that we can actually start from WhatsApp and combine all the messages so colleagues across the company can reply together,” he said.
Focus on international markets
imBee was officially launched in 2019. Innovative products tailored to customer needs quickly drew attention and it took only a few months to lead international telecommunications system developer Telco to use the start-up’s services. Other well-known customers include SmarTone, Ping An Insurance and Prudential. In the same year, imBee completed seed financing of US$500,000. The new funds allowed the firm to recruit more talents and further improve the development of technology and marketing.
Mr Chu said start-ups in Hong Kong had to focus on the international market to succeed.
"Hong Kong has a small market," he said. "An American or Mainland Chinese company that succeeds on its home turf can expand to other parts of the economy but this is not possible in Hong Kong. If we only do the Hong Kong market, it will be difficult to go out. So the key is to choose the right products. I think start-ups must choose products with an international perspective to break through. Otherwise, it will be difficult to expand beyond the Hong Kong market and it will also weaken investor interest."
Having achieved positive market positioning and rolled out the service, the company needed to put together marketing strategies.
"When we have brought a significant number of customers on board, we will sell the brand to large companies and prove the feasibility of the product,” said Mr Chu .
“We will explain the development prospects of IM marketing to customers and how the service meets their needs, and let them know how our platform helps them carry out business.
“Direct, in-person networking is also very important. The proof of concept and direct personal contact comprise a two-pronged approach that wins the trust and orders of major customers," he analysed
To help customers appreciate the benefits of SaaS products, imBee participated in the pitching contest at Start-up Express 2020. Supported by strategic partner AMTD Group, imBee became one of the winning start-ups.
"I think all activities that can give the company exposure are a kind of brand promotion," Mr Chu said. "Of course, we must seize these opportunities to increase brand awareness and attract customers and investors. In the process, we have to take to the public stage and answer questions. The ability to successfully answer questions shows we are sufficiently prepared.”
The entrepreneur believed Start-up Express did more than enhance the strength of imBee; the programme also arranged exchange meetings with venture capitalists including Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund Operations Director Teddy Lui.
"These exchange meetings introduced me to entrepreneurs from different fields. We communicated with each other, learned more industry information, and brought new ideas to our business. Mr Lui from Alibaba, for example, gave us much business advice and helped us build contacts," Mr Chu said.
"This will help us to further expand our market, find partners and increase exposure.”
The HKTDC also helps winning companies conduct one-on-one brand promotion consulting services to improve the chances of obtaining more funds, added Mr Chu.
COVID drives SaaS demand
Start-ups are showing greater resilience than traditional companies amid current uncertainties such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Sino-US trade friction, observed Mr Chu. He added that the virus has even created development opportunities for his company. "Because more and more companies need to carry out business remotely, demand for our SaaS has increased."
imBee has distributors in Singapore and Malaysia and plans to raise more funds by the end of the year to further develop its business in those markets. "We will go to Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of Asia because we already have customers in the region," Mr Chu said.
"The bigger market is India with its huge population. Looking to Mainland China, since WeChat has matured, it is difficult for Hong Kong companies to compete head-to-head with the firms there for a while. Instead, our main priority is helping mainland [corporate] customers ‘go out’. When they want to develop markets in Southeast Asia, they need to use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Line."