‘Gifted’. ‘Ambitious’. ‘Exceptional’. These are some of the words we used to describe the Appier founders in an internal memo to the Sequoia India team a few days after meeting them in late 2013.
Chih-Han, Winnie, and Joe were clearly technically brilliant. Two of them had PhDs (the other had dropped out of a PhD program to start the company), and all three were academically accomplished, with numerous prestigious papers, projects, and prizes under their collective belts. They had come together when Chih-Han and Joe, college friends and then housemates while in the Computer Science PhD program at Harvard, decided to start a gaming studio, Plaxie, to apply their expertise in Artificial Intelligence to the rapidly exploding mobile gaming world. A few months before we met, they had changed direction to build an AI-led digital marketing platform that was showing promising results for early customers. At this point in time, Sequoia Capital India had yet to make its first investment in Southeast Asia, but the founders were clearly special and the market was inflecting. In March 2014, Sequoia Capital India agreed to partner with and lead the Series A in Appier.
Very early on, there was a loud, clear “sucking sound” in the market for the Appier platform. Customers across Asia were signing up rapidly, accounts started to scale, and efficacy (and margins) continued to trend up. These were the outputs in the business. The input, however, was a delicate balance between a deeply technical engineering team and a rapidly executing go-to-market machinery, carefully orchestrated by the founders. Chih-Han and his team quickly realised that while it’s easy to view sales as an art, the majority of it is really a science. Much like any complex algorithm, the sales cycle can be broken down into pieces, each of which can be solved with data and rigour, and put back together to create a beautiful, efficient machine. As a result, Appier’s most successful salespeople were always engineers – in the early days, Chih-Han himself, and later Magic Tu, an engineer by training who transitioned from running product at Appier into a sales leader.
There are few companies that are able to marry deep technical expertise with the customer and sales centricity needed to build a successful business. Google is one such example, and the culture at Appier was similar in many ways. Decision-making was deeply data driven, the quality of the engineering team, exceptional, and the company quickly emerged as one of the most attractive places to work at for any engineer in Taipei. When the company added the former Google MD for Taiwan to the board, he joked that he decided to work with Appier when he realised they were the only company in the country who could lure engineers away from his former employer.
Every company’s journey has several crucible moments, where critical decisions are made that have a dramatic impact on the culture and trajectory of the business. One such crucible moment for Appier was the decision to expand aggressively into Japan. While the team always knew the market was large and the product should be localised for it, Chih-Han decided that the only way to be successful there was to embrace the culture of the market. Appier hired senior leadership with strong Japanese ties, empowered local teams in Tokyo, and Chih-Han and Winnie spent significant time in Tokyo to learn the nuances of a large market that has traditionally been hard for international companies to break into. Their efforts were so successful that a local conglomerate made a generous offer to acquire the company very early in Appier’s time in Japan. Fortunately, as it turns out, Appier declined and instead doubled down on the market, which quickly became the largest contributor to sales globally.
Today is an important milestone for the company as it goes public on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. What started as an experiment in a dorm room at Harvard has grown into a company with several hundred employees and customers across the world. During this entire journey, the founders at Appier have stayed true to their technical roots, and built a culture that has bridged the divide between engineering and sales through a maniacal focus on customer centricity. From all of us at Sequoia India, a massive congratulations to the entire team at Appier. We are thrilled to have had a front row seat in this journey, and excited for where you will be taking the company next.