Even though workplace collaboration apps and services are becoming more prevalent than ever — with Slack the unicorn and others leading the way — many people in Northeast Asia are still sticking to C2C platforms like KakaoTalk, LINE and WeChat when it comes to chatting with colleagues. About work.
When I meet founders in South Korea, I would often see and hear them talk about how work chats are taking place on the aforementioned consumer apps.
Employees like to banter, they say. Lots of emojis are being exchanged. Even though they’re usually mute spectators on the thread, they still check it from time to time, just to make sure they didn’t miss anything. One minute employees are talking about baseball and celebrities, the other they might just be asking about some press release or whether Wednesday is a holiday.
Meet Jandi, a tech startup with entities in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. Led by CEO Daniel Chan, the one-year-old company wants to give employees and employers a better alternative than consumer apps that were never made for workplace consumption. Like many other workplace collaboration platforms, it supports both web and mobile, allowing workers to be in touch while on the move.
e27 sits down with Chan to find out more about the company, not speaking Korean in South Korea, and where Jandi is headed in the next six months.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Can you tell me more about Jandi?
Toss Lab, which is the parent entity, created Jandi, a collaboration software for companies across Asia. It is a group messaging platform with a suite of collaboration features wrapped around it. It’s often compared to Slack in the US, but we play in two very different markets. Because of that, we are actually quite different. By breaking down into three things:
1) Target audience
2) Product itself
3) Distribution model
Because Slack is mostly focussed on the IT community in the US, and we’re focussed on a more mainstream audience in Asia, namely tech-enabled services and creative industries, everything — from our audience to our distribution — is very different. Target audience-wise, again, for Slack, it’s very clear who they’re targetting, which is IT-focussed startups and developers in the US or at least similar to the US markets.
For us, it would be e-commerce, creative agencies or marketing and design firms. Very different focus. That also dovetails with our product features, right? Because we focus on Asia, we have localised UI/UX.
So there’s no accident that Jandi probably looks and feels like Kakao or LINE or WeChat, versus Slack which is much more tech-oriented.
Same thing with the product feature set. In the US, SaaS penetration is actually very high, and the key problem they are facing is that there are too many applications they use at the same time. That’s why Slack integrates with a hundred applications. For them, it makes a lot of sense, because everybody is using five, 10, 20 tools at the same time. All they needed to do is become an aggregator.
But for us, that’s not the case.
If you look at user surveys, people are actually using a mix of different software tools like Kakao, or LINE, email and maybe Dropbox — three or four tools. So the problem isn’t fragmentation but it’s actually weak tools. So we have an opportunity to create our own workflow management tools and put them in-house.
Unlike Slack, which only does integration and becomes an aggregator, for us, we’re more of a provider, even though we also do integrations — just not to the same extent of Slack, and we never will.
You’ll never do that?
We do integrations for the most prevalent services, for example, Google Docs, Dropbox, Trello — services that Asian users are using, but we’re not going to integrate to that extent.
Can you share how and when the company was founded?
Yeah, the company was incorporated in June last year. It was started by three co-founders at that time: our CTO Justin Choi, our COO YB Lee and our Chairman now Daniel Shin from Ticket Monster.
Choi and Lee have always been involved in the day-to-day working of this business, and Dan Shin spends one or two days with us.
The COO and CTO joined a programme called Fast Track Asia, started by Shin. Both of them have been working at larger companies — Lee was at Samsung, Choi was at Initech — and both of them were looking to do something more entrepreneurial so they joined Fast Track Asia. That’s where they met Shin and started to build a new product.
The original idea was not what we ended up doing — so it’s not Jandi, but it was named Toss.
There was a service here called Naver Band. It’s a group-oriented C2C tool. What they wanted to do is take this model and import it into the US, so they started down that road. But what they ended up finding was that the highest use case for Band was actually in the workplace. The question they started asking was why people were using Band for work when it’s a C2C tool.
As we dug in more, we realised that over 90 per cent of users were actually adopting tools like Band, Kakao, LINE, messaging services effectively meant for the consumer, using it at the workplace because they don’t have a better alternative. What they are forced to use by the employer is just not good enough any more, so they have turned to some ad-hoc tool not really meant for work, but now being adopted for it.
So that’s when we decided to make the switch. Instead of taking Band to the US, we said, well, let’s just do a B2B application that’s centred around instant messaging here. That’s the origin of the product.
We were working on it for a couple of months with Choi and Lee at the helm along with three to five developers. After about two months or so, it became clear that we needed to take this business to the next level. That’s when Shin gave me a call. He and I went to college together, same class. We always talked about doing a startup together but never had the chance to do so. He ended up connecting me to the team here.
Long story short, I fell in love with the team and what they have been able to achieve in such a short period of time.
I joined them in August. Originally, I was working with them remotely from Los Angeles, and at that time, there was no headquarters per se, it just so happened everybody ended up here in Korea.
Because the team started to expand from five to 10 very rapidly, it made more and more sense for me to move. So I moved out here and since then, we have gone from 10 to 50 people across Korea, Taiwan and Japan. I joined them in August, working remotely. In October, I moved here to Korea.
How much external funding have you received, and from whom?
In our angel round, we have raised just under US$2 million in the form of a convertible bond that was anchored by Softbank Ventures as well as Cherubic Ventures. Those were two institutions. We also have a number of entrepreneurs within that pool.
Since then, we have won the Qualcomm QPrize which has added another US$500,000 of external funding from Qualcomm Ventures. By the end of the year, we are going to be raising our Series A.
How does Jandi differentiate itself from other Asian workplace collaboration apps?
The reality is, there are a lot of enterprise collaboration apps broadly defined, but many of them are not the same. I know we’re always compared to these applications, but it’s just really not right.
It wasn’t until recently that tools like ours, which are very group-oriented, real-time messaging based, came about. That was through Slack or Jandi or say, Hipchat. There are three categories that people tend to compare us to — which is understandable but it’s also a little bit not right, in a way:
1) Groupware: Often people will say, you can also do chatting on Google, or you can also share documents on Google. Why is that any different? So, groupware is very good at providing vertical, single-function tools but they’re all completely disconnected and they’re not really made for group workflow.
That’s why, if you think, for example, about starting a project or initiating a project, you have to create a file on Microsoft Word or Google Docs, then you store it on Google Drive or Dropbox. Then you share that link on e-mail and you assign a task on e-mail, and send a Google Calendar invite to talk about that. Finally, you actually have that conversation on different channels whether it’s voice or video or a meeting or whatever — completely disconnected. If you have to go back to it, you have to search different channels as well. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and it’s very inefficient.
That’s why people use a tool like ours to complement what those vertical applications do to create organised project management communication and have everything in one space.
2) Micro-blogging style tools: Usually, when we get compared to software that already exists in say, Japan, it’s actually not quite real-time messaging. It’s more akin to micro-blogging. The clearest analogy of that is Facebook versus WhatsApp, LINE, Kakao.
There are key strengths to that where you have ready messaging effectively, so you can reply or quote to specific messages in the history, but it’s not free-flowing chat like we’re used to. And not like Jandi.
It’s good for passive knowledge-sharing but it’s very bad at real-time communication collaboration. What ends up happening is with one of those tools you actually create a different or separate space without replacing any of the medium of communication that you are already using.
3) Other communication applications: Similar to groupware, they provide a single function and do it very well but it’s completely disconnected from all the other channels. Almost all of them lack what I’ll call essential workflow features like file-sharing and commenting or task management. Because many of them are C2C tools that are never meant for the workplace.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face running Jandi?
I’ll split it into personal and operational challenges. I’ll start with the latter because it’s more relevant for most folks.
When it comes to the environment, operating in Asia versus operating in Silicon Valley, the first is the talent pool.
There is a significant level of risk aversion especially for regions we operate in, so, Japan, Korea, Taiwan where it’s very difficult to hire people you want. The social pressure is against you. Here, for example, everybody wants to work in LG or Samsung. That’s where your parents, wives and girlfriends are telling you to go. And if you say or start thinking about going into a startup, again, pressure is against you. Talent is trapped in larger companies.
Same thing with capital. Capital usually flows to the largest and proven companies.
In Silicon Valley, any startup is able to raise the capital based on a good idea and an experienced team. It’s much more difficult to do that here.
Finally, for us specifically, enterprise SaaS is brand new to this market. There are no enterprise SaaS companies that are homegrown in Asia. We’re used to apps that come from the US like Google and the like, we also have enterprise companies that are more focussed on systems integration, but in terms of true enterprise SaaS, it’s not something that has been seen.
It dovetails with what I was saying about the talent and capital. It is very difficult to convince people that this is going to work and how. It’s also difficult to convince users that this is the right thing for them.
We’re kind of in this chicken and egg issue. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because if capital and talent doesn’t flow to the startups that are focussed on being lean, then there will be no good products coming out of startups focussed on being lean.
Lovely for us, we have been able to raise capital, we have been able to build a team, and of anybody, we are in a business position that changes the dynamics — a lot of the expectations are on us to figure it out.
Personally, I think it’s been a huge culture shock for me. Starting with not speaking Korean. Of course, I knew it would be difficult but it is a big issue both on the work life as well as outside of work life.
It really narrows down what you can or can’t do, and also increases the amount of reliance on your team and your network.
Fortunately for me, I have one of the best teams in the Asian startup environment, but effectively, what I am doing is processing what other people are feeding me because I can’t go out and tangibly collect that evidence myself, so I have to rely on my team heavily to make a decision.
Separately from that, I think there’s a cultural difference. I think it’s related to the upbringing of Asian families — including my family even though we were born in the US — versus, say, a more American mentality which is ‘less forward’, I guess, less risk-oriented. It’s hard to come up with a word for it effectively. People who are going to take the ball and run with it.
Here, because of the hierarchical nature of the workplace and education, it’s not so much based on critical thinking and trying to solve it for yourself. Usually, when you make that effort, you’re not rewarded, you’re usually punished for it, whereas in the US, it’s all about taking that independent step where somebody gives you something and you run with it. I know it’s changing and it’s improving, but it means a very different style of management.
How do you cope with that?
I don’t think it’s so much coping, it’s more of adapting. Adapting is probably the key — making sure you understand as a leader that whatever worked before in the US or elsewhere doesn’t necessarily work everywhere else, and making sure that you meet them somewhere halfway.
You may know or think one way is better but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is actually better, because if it doesn’t work then it’s not. So we’re trying to find some balance by combining lessons from the US and lessons from Asia.
What can we look forward to in the next six months?
1) Tech-forward focussed features: A lot of people have been asking for integration into other applications they’re using like Asana, Trello, Google Calendar, stuff like that. There’s also something called the web book — being able to create your own feed if you have development teams doing it for you to feed certain information back into communication. It’s focussed on tech-oriented folks who already use those applications and want to make sure there is a central hub for it.
2) In-house workflow management features: To-do-lists, task management, calendaring — those are the things we’re putting into our tools in a structured way. We already have a very light form of this, but we’re going to be creating a much more foot long set because all our users are asking for it. Unlike the US, again, where they already have their own tools, here the top of the list feature request is that.
3) Funding: As mentioned, we’ll be raising our Series A in the next six months, probably in the next three.
4) Team and international expansion: The team in the core markets we’re in — Korea, Taiwan, Japan — will continue to be supplemented especially on the business side. We’ll expand into Southeast Asia as well.