Driven by Data: Jamie Liu, CEO and Co-Founder of Inncee

Inncee is an e-commerce merchandising intelligence platform – providing analytics solutions to retailer to increase conversions. Some of Inncee clients include Naiise and Iminxx. 

LadyBoss spoke to Jamie Liu, CEO and Co-Founder of Inncee on her corporate experience at Microsoft and a mum-preneur. As a mother of two, she balances her time between running her business and raising her children.

Q: Tell us about Inncee? How long you’ve been doing it, and who your customers are? 

A:  Inncee is an e-commerce merchandising intelligence platform, an analytics solution that aims to help retailers determine how to best present and place products in their store with the purpose of increasing conversions.

I came up with the idea for it around the end of 2014 and shared it with my brother and my husband. My brother, Mark Lau, is an applications developer and he was excited to begin work on developing an analysis engine from scratch. So he agreed to come on board as my CTO. My husband, Desmond Tan, was in the retail industry and we have launched a few e-commerce businesses together in the past. So he saw the immediate benefit for a system like this and came on board as our domain expert and business development guy.

We spent the better part of the year planning, researching and designing the system, launching the first version of Inncee in May 2016 as part of a closed pilot program. We invited and onboarded 9 customers during the pilot, and worked with them to refine and tweak the analytics service. And just earlier this week, we had finally launched Inncee 2.0, which we made available to the general public.

Some of our current clients include Naiise.com, Lara-j and Iminxx.com

Q: What sparked your interest in Tech?

A: I had graduated from NUS with Bachelors’ Degree in Computing in 2004 with a specialty in information systems. During my time in NUS, I had developed an interest in building web applications and organizing information that was useful and made sense to end users. But I really became passionate about what I was doing when I started specializing in data analytics during my time in Microsoft. Have never looked back since.

Inncee can measure and track all the various products, categories and brands in the store and identify problem products or categories as well as promising ones with recommendations as to what to do with them. It pushes important information to its users instead of waiting on the users to pull it.

Q: Describe to us how Inncee works? (great if you can provide us with an example) 

A: We wanted to create an analytics solution that can help to simplify and automate the online merchandising process for all e-commerce retailers, big and small. Inncee would be able to pull data from all the different sources and generate visual reports that the retailer needs in order to assess the performance of his store’s many products.

Inncee can measure and track all the various products, categories and brands in the store and identify problem products or categories as well as promising ones with recommendations as to what to do with them. It pushes important information to its users instead of waiting on the users to pull it. This helps retailers to reduce the amount of time required to manually search and analyze the data to find actionable information themselves.

For example, Inncee could help comb through and monitor the performance of all products and pick out promising products that have high conversions but are under-exposed and notify you about them, with recommendations to begin featuring them more prominently. Or it could inform you when it finds products with an inventory risk where you have high numbers of stock but little to no sales in over 2 months, and recommend strategies to pull these products or move stock at a discount.

Q: What were you doing before entrepreneurship? Tell us about your background and how it helps you with what you are doing now? 

A: Before I started working on Inncee, I was leading a business intelligence team in Microsoft’s services unit. I had worked there for almost 5 years and in that time I was in charge of leading the team in maintaining the data warehouse and reporting system as well as building and designing dashboards and reports for the operations people.

I loved my work there. And it was my time in Microsoft that I upgraded my technical skills in architecting and maintaining a data warehouse, honed my business sense and skills with some amazing work mentors and got the courage to make begin work on my new startup.

I left Microsoft at the beginning of 2015 and went to work at Red Hat first for about 6 months, because I needed more time to plan and test my business idea. Then I began to switch to a part time role with Red Hat for another 6 months before eventually jumping into Inncee full time.

Q: With the booming tech scene, what makes Inncee different from another merchandising tech startup? 

A: When I was researching about online merchandising and analytics, I found that there were very few competitors offering this merchandising analytics service in the market. In fact, there was no clear market leader in this space. I had interviewed a few large e-commerce retailers that have been around for some time and run big teams and I learnt that they were all still doing a lot of their analysis work on merchandising on manual tools like Excel. It was very strange but it gave us a clear opportunity. So what we’re doing now is trying to move into this space fast and dominate it as quickly as possible.

Inncee is also offering a newer type of analytics called “prescriptive analytics”, where we condense large amounts of data into smaller more useful pieces of information, summarizing what happened. It is the kind of analytics that people expect now from tools as we become more used to the idea of big data and AI and as analytics tools become more in demand by non-technical users themselves.

I have at least 50 versions of my pitch deck since I first started this business. When I compare the messaging in the very first deck I did to the messaging in my last pitch deck, the difference is worlds apart. It sounds almost like an entirely different person wrote it.

Q: Tell us more about the different competitions that Inncee took part in and how was the experience? 

A: The first competition we took part in was the Ignite Startup competition in Brunei in 2015. A friend of ours had told us about its international category and we decided to give it a try. We went through 2 rounds of pitching to panels, each one more detailed than the first until finally it was down to the last 2 startups. We flew up to Brunei and presented our final pitch to a panel of judges and a closed audience who then later awarded us with the win. It was a very exciting moment, cos it was the first time we won anything with regards to our idea and gave us a huge sense of validation that our business was going somewhere. Plus, the prize money was our first real injection of funds into the business.

Next, we participated in DBS Hotspot’s Pre-accelerator program. After we submitted a written application, we got shortlisted for a face to face interview with the DBS Hotspot team running the selections. After that, they announced that we were 1 of the 29 startups picked for the first phase of the program, out of the 250 over applications they received. We went through their bootcamp program of classes aim to help startups refine and evaluate their business ideas before finally making it to Pitch Day, where we would pitch to a panel of judges who would then select the final 9 to progress to phase 2 of the acceleration program and receive $25,000 in seed funding. It was the most nerve wracking for me because it was the first time I pitched to such a large crowd and so many important people. Then when they announced that we made it in, I really couldn’t believe we made it. The 2nd public validation we received from so many important people, just spurred me on harder.

I’m glad we got a chance to pitch our idea in all these competitions to so many people, because the biggest benefit I got out of it was all the practice. I have at least 50 versions of my pitch deck since I first started this business. When I compare the messaging in the very first deck I did to the messaging in my last pitch deck, the difference is worlds apart. It sounds almost like an entirely different person wrote it.

I am a very technical person. And the hardest part for me when I had to present my ideas to others was learning how to not be so technical. Constantly pitching and getting feedback not only helped me pitch better but helped refine our business idea and product as well.

Q: In terms of sales & marketing, how do you reach your customers, and what works? 

A: As you know, I tend to take a rather data centric approach to my business and I do the same with my sales effort. We developed a profile of the type of customers that would most likely want to purchase our service, like what e-commerce platform they’re using, how many products they have, an estimate of their earnings and what sorts of analytics software they are using or used.

We use that profile to filter out most likely converts and then we reach out to them via networking or emails. It’s worked for us back when we launched 1.0 and we’re using the same technique now. All this is in addition to our content marketing and social media marketing efforts too.

Q: Where do you see the future of Inncee? Any plans in the near future? 

A: Our product has gathered some interest from the offline retail community. They saw what our service could do for the online retailers and was interested to see if we could provide the same for them as well. We plan to run a few pilots for offline retailers later on this year.

Q: Tell us about your Number 1 business challenge? 

A: Hiring.

First, is that we can’t afford to hire a large team because we’re still bootstrapping. But because we’re a SaaS business running a platform, we have to ensure that we have enough manpower to help service our customers and maintain and upgrade our systems. So striking a balance for that can be a real tough challenge.

Second of all, we’re an analytics business. We actually need to hire talented data professionals if we want to pull ahead of the competition. But problem is, data pros are usually very highly sought after and highly paid. They seldom want to leave their cushy jobs and work for low paying startups. Unless they’re mad.. like me..

They sacrifice time, all their money, sleep, blood and sweat into the business and suffer through it until it bears fruit. In fact, when I started my first business, a shopping web portal, I was like that. I gave everything.

Q: As a mom-preneur, how do you allocate your time and financial resources to raise both a family and a startup? And what motivates you personally? 

A: To be very honest, I don’t think I’m a very good entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs generally invest their everything into the startup. They sacrifice time, all their money, sleep, blood and sweat into the business and suffer through it until it bears fruit. In fact, when I started my first business, a shopping web portal, I was like that. I gave everything.

But so many years later, after becoming a mom to 2 kids, I couldn’t do that anymore. Truth is, as much as Inncee is my baby, my actual babies come first and I refused to sacrifice their needs for the company. Luckily for me, when I was working in Microsoft, I had learnt how to balance a very demanding job with time with my family. In my old role, I started at 8am in the morning, worked through the day, had dinner and family time with my kids in the evening and then after they went to bed, continued working till 2am. I did this Monday till Thursday, then on Friday I ended work at 6pm, giving the rest of my evening and my weekends to my family. It was a framework that worked well for me back then (although it nearly killed me with so little sleep) but more or less keep to the same schedule now.

As for finances, all non-essential spending is gone now. Most of my credit card transactions are usually for meals, kids’ essentials and home essentials. I think working all the time and just hanging out with the kids has helped curb the urges to shop, but once in a while, my shopaholic side does rear its head and I do treat myself to something here and there.

I’m willing to do all this and put up with all this is because I REALLY want to see Inncee through. When I first thought of the idea of this, I believed that it could work and I had a plan on making it work. Executing this now is proving to myself that I was right. I truly am very passionate about data and analytics and I love having had the chance to build this platform. It is my entire vision come to life. So testing it out it the world and see it succeed is something that I really want.

Plus, all the bragging rights.

Q: What would be your advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs keen in starting a business?

A: This might sound very negative, but I would say don’t do this unless you have a good support system in place. Starting up a business is very hard, hard in the sense that it would stress every single part of your life. It stresses your finances, your health, your relationships with your friends and family and your own wellbeing. Here’s what I currently have in my support system.

  • I have a super supportive husband, who works in his job while helping me in my business. If I can’t be there for my kids, he picks up the slack. So I never have to worry. He never complained about the reduced income we have to live on and in fact helps encourage me whenever I feel bad that we can’t spend on what we use to anymore. So he helps me to relieve the stresses I face on finances and family
  • I have amazingly supportive parents. They believe in me totally and help with my kids and never ever questioned my decision to leave a stable job to do this. Stress relief on family
  • I have supportive friends who are also self-employed. Friends whom I can share my troubles and hardships with. And who sometimes convince me to go exercise with them because I have to try and at least lead a healthier life. Stress relief on relationships and a bit on health
  • I have experienced mentors who advises me on my business. Plus, I also have had some experience doing a startup before. I knew what I was getting myself into and I had already learned how to manage my time with work and family. Plus, the additional guidance into unchartered waters from mentors and the fact that I can go to them whenever I’m feeling depressed about the work makes a big world of a difference. Stress relief on wellbeing.

I would say that any person, not just women, who wants to begin such a difficult journey needs to make sure that they are ready for such a journey. The business itself is hard enough and all these non-business related areas can overwhelm you before your business even takes off the ground. So good preparation is key. If you have all this in place, then I would say TAKE THE PLUNGE. Celebrate every success, no matter how tiny and learn to take loss and rejection in stride. And enjoy the ride as much as you can!

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