DataCue, founded by power couple Phannipha (Ann) Pichestapong and Shahram Anver in 2017 during their honeymoon in Latin America (LATAM), is a start-up bringing high-end e-commerce personalization solutions to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), with clients across LATAM, the US and Asia. Find out more about their exciting journey in this exclusive interview with cofounder Ann.
Ann, could you share how you decided to establish DataCue in 2017 with your partner and cofounder, Shahram?
The whole idea actually started our honeymoon trip to Latin America (LATAM)! Shahram and I met while we were both working in IBM in Singapore but we left around 2015 and 2016, and I went into consulting. I was travelling out of Singapore almost every week so we really did not manage to spend much time together. Therefore, we decided to do something ‘crazy’ for our honeymoon! Shahram suggested a six-month backpacking trip, and we chose LATAM because it was basically the furthest we could travel from Singapore. We did not have kids then so life was still a bit more carefree and we wanted to make the most of it.
We were in Cuba when I met a fellow American backpacker who told me he was on the way to Chile to participate in a government-funded entrepreneur program. Shahram has always been very entrepreneurial, juggling multiple gigs and side hustles even while he was working full time, so we were very interested and we looked up the organization, which was Startup Chile, a government-funded start-up accelerator. One of their programs specifically targeted female entrepreneurs so we thought, since we were planning on going to Chile anyway, we might as well try our luck and apply to this program. If we were accepted, we could spend a little more time in Chile.
Well, we were accepted! That was when the fun really started because we did not really have a clear idea of what we wanted to work on, at that point. We explored different potential ideas. Shahram is a data scientist and I had my consulting background, and we both worked for large companies. We realized that while large companies had a lot of resources and money to hire consultants and pay for expensive software when it comes to the use of data and new technologies, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) did not. They are often run by one-man teams, which often lack the capacity to think about how to use data to support their business. We realized that this was a gap that was not being addressed in the market.
Furthermore, e-commerce was one of the fastest-growing sectors in LATAM, mirroring what we had already seen in Southeast Asia (SEA). But as someone who personally loves shopping, both in-store and online, the online shopping experience leaves a lot to be desired. I love shopping in store because there are always people available to answer my questions and tell me which products fit my needs. But when you shop online, this aspect is missing, especially when you browse websites with millions of products.
Therefore, we decided to combine our love of data with our passion to help SMEs in the e-commerce space, and DataCue was born.
Did you know anything about Latin America before the trip?
Not at all! My parents were actually really worried because there is a lot of bad press surrounding countries like Colombia and Mexico, but I was just really excited. We did a Spanish crash course in Singapore before our trip, and we thought we would just figure the rest out once we arrived. We certainly did not think about starting a business in Latin America!
After we arrived in LATAM, we realized that the region has many similarities with SEA! That was the most surprising thing. Sure, Latinos speak a different language but in terms of the climate, the food and the people, I generally found to be pretty similar to SEA as a whole. When it comes to doing business, most of the LATAM countries still rely a lot on relationships. Word-of-mouth is very powerful. Surrounding yourself with a good local network was essential to growing DataCue.
What were some of the challenges you faced during the time you spent building DataCue in Chile?
Even though we were just selling a software, our clients expected to get to know us as people. This is quite different from markets like the US, for instance, where potential clients visit our website and then decide to sign up for the product because it appeals to them. But in Chile, there was the expectation that we visit and meet our potential clients in person so they can put a face to the name.
This was challenging because our primary niche was SMEs and so our price points were lower than enterprise software targeting large companies but we still had to invest in these face-to-face meetings.
At the same time, in our experience, people in LATAM were very forgiving with us as a young start-up. They understood that we were a small company trying to make things work, so they would provide feedback on the product and help us improve it.
How beneficial was the Startup Chile program to your start-up journey?
It was incredibly helpful. When we first arrived in Chile, we did not know anyone. As an accelerator, Startup Chile helped us access markets, investors and clients. It gave us the connections we needed to acquire our first few customers.
On top of that, as a government program, they were also able to take care of administrative details like our visas and so on, which made it very easy for us to stay in Chile and work on DataCue. The administrative details can be quite painful for entrepreneurs and SMEs to deal with, again due to resource constraints, so that is a huge advantage.
In Chile generally, the government has made it very easy for anyone to start a business. Essentially, anyone can open a new business within a day. It is very business-friendly.
Why did you decide to leave Chile after two years?
At that point, we thought about exploring a new market, so we actually moved to Luxembourg to join another accelerator there. On the personal side, my daughter had also been born by that time, and we eventually wanted to move back to Singapore so we could be closer to the grandparents.
How has DataCue fared during the global pandemic?
We did take a bit of a hit initially when the pandemic hit. The initial response was that people started buying a lot more online but mostly from the big retailers like Amazon and Walmart. SMEs were quite affected, and therefore, we were as well. But the business is slowly starting to pick up again, which is very positive.
Most of our clients are still based in LATAM today, with some clients in the US and Australia. In SEA, our business model is not as good of a fit because most retailers sell on big marketplaces like Shopee instead of building their own websites.
After such a serendipitous and exciting journey over four years across three continents, what is next for DataCue?
What has always been clear for us is that we want to support SMEs. But I think we have to work harder to find the right product that truly resonates with them, a product that is a ‘must have’ instead of just a ‘nice to have’ – a painkiller, not just a vitamin, so to speak. At the end of the day, we want DataCue to be a viable and sustainable business so the key is finding the right problem to solve.
To wrap up, would you recommend that other Southeast Asians follow in your footsteps and start a business in South America?
Definitely! In general, I think that everyone should start their own business – if they know what problem they want to solve and what they want to build. I learnt so much from founding and growing DataCue, and while it has not been a breakout success, I think I learnt more from this start-up experience than during all my corporate years combined. We have made so many mistakes along the way and there were some really tough moments but they were valuable learning experiences.
LATAM has been a great place to visit and live in. I love Chile so much and it is such a business-friendly location that I do recommend people to visit and build their business there if they can.
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