In this series, Singapore Entrepreneurs Abroad, we explore the experiences of Singaporean business leaders who have ventured abroad and the ways in which they have navigated cultural differences to achieve success.
We hear from prominent homegrown C-suite executives and entrepreneurs who have expanded their businesses across Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Get insights on how they have adapted their leadership styles and business strategies to fit local cultural norms and how they have leveraged their Singaporean heritage to build relationships and foster trust with international partners.
We started Pawjourr as an agency in 2019. It was then called the Woof Agency, offering pet influencer marketing services — including social media management for our clients. After three years of managing Woof, all three founders felt like there was something bigger we could do with what we had than just being an agency in the pet space.
It’s a growing trend, and we were convinced there were opportunities for disruption. We asked ourselves, ‘What if we were to productise this agency and let people run their own campaigns at a much cheaper fee so that anyone and any business of any size can hop onto the platform and do their own projects?”
That’s how the Woof Agency evolved into Pawjourr, a marketplace that connects companies and agencies with pet owners in order to promote products, services, or brands, ultimately making money for these influencers.
To fulfill our vision of being the go-to place when it comes to finding campaigns for your pets, uprooting to the US was logical because the US is our main and target market. It is huge: Pet spending in the US has already exceeded US$100 billion (S$1.35 billion) — 1/3 of the projected global pet spending for 2023 — and is where all the major brand owners like MARS Petcare, Diamond Pet Foods, and Purina, are found.
A new life in the US
In April 2022, after raising US$600,000 from angels and family offices, the three of us — (Tay) Sijun, our finance head, Navaneeth (Sreekandan), our chief technology officer (CTO) and I, the chief executive officer — and Oolong, my Alaskan Malamute, arrived in the US and called The Big Apple home.
But much as we respected and enjoyed the infectious energy of New York, Sijun, who is also my husband, and I decided to move to Las Vegas, Nevada, a year later, in mid-May 2023. As a small company and an early start-up, we wanted to avoid spending ‘stupid’ money. If we were to continue to be based in New York, we would have to pay three levels of taxes — federal, state, and Long Island City — where we were living.
Rental in New York was expensive, too. We were paying about US$3,700 to US$3,800 for a studio apartment. In Nevada, there’s no state tax which pushes down our costs significantly. Rental is also much, much cheaper.
Having lived in New York for a year, we feel that our kind of business, the creator economy, is better suited for the West Coast than the East Coast. The West Coast is more inclined towards entertainment-media-creator set-ups, while we associate New York (the East Coast) with Wall Street and real estate.
Still, we’re not 100 per cent sure that the West Coast is the place for us. Our goal is to decide which city would be best for the company and for us as individuals.
Insights gleaned over a year
Having taken part in this breathless migration, we noticed some things that are more pertinent in Asia than in the US.
In Asia, a company’s portfolio is extremely important; people there are more convinced or comforted knowing that you’ve worked with many other brands before. It makes it difficult for a new start-up with an exciting idea like us to bloom; we had to work harder just to get one foot in the door.
In sharp contrast, in the US, people are more willing to give companies with new technology and new products a shot.
Americans are also transactional. In Asia Pacific (APAC), building a relationship moves things along faster or more effortlessly. You don’t need that in the US — you don’t have to paw (Hokkien for flatter). If you’re good, they’ll work with you. It makes it easier for small companies or start-ups to get a foothold in America.
Americans also understand the need to pay for good service. I’ve had clients apologise to me for their small budgets, saying ‘We know there’s nothing much that you can do’. It was very surprising to me because you’d never hear that from an APAC client.
Something else I’ve learned is that Asians will be pai seh (Hokkien for embarrassed) about emailing clients persistently, but there’s no such thing here. Americans value tenacity. They see it as hustling and not as a negative trait.
So, be relentless, keep following up, and show them that you understand their business. It could be recommendations that are personalised to their businesses, offering free tips, or adding value. Find ways to make them feel that you are serious about their account and their campaign.
I’ve also shifted my approach to how I describe our business. Initially, we tended to downplay our achievements in Asia, depicting our company as being fine or okay. In the US, humility is not advantageous to any startup. I’ve learned that I must not be afraid to say that my company is fantastic or amazing, otherwise, it’d be perceived as doing badly. You have to be proud of what you’ve accomplished.
Professional wins and personal challenges
From a revenue perspective, we’ve not experienced crazy growth. We’re still trying to establish a certain level of awareness, but there has definitely been a substantial increase just by being based in the US.
More than 50 per cent of Pawjourr’s revenue comes from brands already here, such as Anker, the charging technology specialist, and Nature, the award-winning signature Public Broadcasting Service series. We also have clients from China, Mexico, and the UK who choose to work with us when targeting the American market. When we were in Singapore, about 30 per cent of our revenue was from the US.
And while we can see good payoffs from our business strategy, I’d be lying if I said there aren’t occasional dark moments. I don’t feel that we have the perfect product market fit yet.
And even though Pawjourr is at that stage of experimenting with different strategies, product offerings, and new marketing thrusts, when they don’t work out the way we envision, it really gets me and the team down. I always wonder: Why is it that other people are able to grow so quickly? What do they have that I don’t?
Unconsciously, you start to compare yourself with others. When you’re alone, those are times you start doubting your suitability to run a company.
Unglamourising the start-up stereotype
As a founder, I want to normalise talking about the hard things faced when starting a company because I feel the media glamourises the entire start-up journey: buying Good Class bungalows, earning a lot of money, and travelling frequently. You get the impression that starting a company is super easy, but it’s not. There’s a lot of crap that comes with it as well.
So, do I have any regrets about creating Pawjourr or moving to the competitive US? No.
The rewards of the past year — including revenue growth and a 20,000 strong creator network, of which 50 per cent hail from the US — have not only validated our hunch that our business can work, but that opportunities abound beyond Singapore.
However, underestimating the cost of living here has crippled us and affected our business strategies. We had great plans: investing in intensive marketing, doing pop-up events, and even building a US team. Hopefully, the narrative will be different over the next 18 months.
Still, despite all the doors that have opened for us since leaving Singapore for the US, the fact remains that relocating to a new country with no one you know can be very lonely at times, especially during festive seasons like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Living here has also highlighted how we take personal safety for granted — but that’s another story for another column. Singapore is my safe space in all ways, and it will always be home.