While startups in Asia are often told to look further and be ambitious, Silicon Valley-based photo-sharing startup Cooliris has heeded the advice extremely well. With partnerships with China’s Tencent and NTT DOCOMO, the startup now has 30 percent of its three million iOS users coming from within the region.
Founded in 2006, the company launched its core product Cooliris (for mobile) in 2012. Additionally, the application is available on the web, desktops, and the Android platform. Essentially, it is a one-stop solution for the shutter-happy. Users are able to store all their photos within one app, discover friends’ photos from social networks and share in private groups or public channels.
Just as its Asian counterparts seek to understand a foreign market they might not be familiar with, CEO and Co-founder Soujanya Bhumkar told e27 the three things the company learnt as a Silicon Valley company expanding into Asia.
1. Nothing is homogeneous
As Oliver Segovia pointed out in his article “Think before you drink the Southeast Asia startup Kool Aid“, entrepreneurs are better off and wiser to not go ahead with a regional strategy. Soujanya also shared that founders should not simply assume that something that works in the US would work in Asia. He then added,
“Even in Asia, you have very specific markets. What would work in Japan might not work in Singapore and not necessarily work in China. You got to look at every market as its own market and not a homogeneous mass.”
2. Asia is leading the way
Asia happens to make up at least 30 percent of Cooliris’ users. If we break it down further for the photo-sharing app, Japan has the biggest userbase but China happens to be the fastest-growing market, according to Soujanya.
He then added that a lot of the top messaging apps originate from Asia, namely LINE, KakaoTalk and WeChat. Whatsapp, of course, is a huge player with 300 million monthly active users but compared to the previously mentioned competitors, it seemed to be losing steam and growing at a slower pace.
In developing markets, like India and China, a smartphone is often the first screen consumers come across. According to a study conducted by Nielsen, urban India has 51 million smartphone users, a whopping 89 percent increase over the previous year.
The world’s most populous country, China, on the other hand, was reported to have 591 million Internet users, in which “464 million citizens access the net via smartphones or other wireless devices.” Compared to the US, which has a total of 143.3 million smartphone users (as of July 2013), these two countries show tremendous growth and massive traction in the mobile market.
What about the existing feature phone market? Is it of any concern to Cooliris? Apparently, not at all. Soujanya said, “We don’t even pay attention to that. Because it is on the decline, even in a country like India. The thing we do have to factor in is in terms of partnerships, in a certain market, how many are pre-paid and post-paid? [...] People are very conscious about data plans, so [...] you can’t just say one size fits all.”
Soujanya said that Asia is a perfect market for a company like Cooliris since it is well-suited for “mobile meets messaging meets media”. Did he predict or know this three years ago, when the firm decided to expand here? Clearly, it was not such a case. He shared that while they did have data from the desktop market, they had key insights on the local and regional market from Derek Tan, head of business development for Asia Pacific who is based in Singapore.
3. Partner the right companies
Last June, Cooliris received an undisclosed amount of investment from DOCOMO Capital, the venture capital arm of NTT DOCOMO, a Japanese telecommunications conglomerate.
Slightly over a year later, the company also partnered up with Tencent, a Chinese media company to integrate photo-sharing into Weibo, a fast-growing Chinese microblogging platform with more than 50 million daily active users.
Soujanya told us at e27 that companies in Asia “are very interested in partnering at the same velocity”. There seems to be an invisible inertia which slows big corporations down in the US or beyond Asia.
He added, “We find that the companies in the US don’t move at the same pace. They’re just too damn slow. [...] Startups, we got to move faster. The big companies in Asia – they understand that more so, which is awesome for us.”
Partnering the right companies obviously come off as a better choice, as compared to going solo in such a competitive market. However, what does a “right company” look like? Soujanya said that there is no answer to this. Derek added during the interview, “It’s really coming into the market and understanding the market.”