Serene Ho is the Head, APAC Marketing at Mixpanel – a leading product analytics software company. In this interview, we talk about her experiences helping brands enter the APAC market and the marketing playbook that she developed along the way. We also talk about her role leading marketing for Mixpanel in APAC and the changes that she’s seen in the region over the years.
The career path that led to her role at Mixpanel
I fell into my current career path a bit accidentally. After graduating, I initially wanted to go into journalism but the media landscape in Singapore was quite restricted. Someone who knew that I was looking for a job introduced me to a major technology distributor here called Tech Pacific. I ended up joining them in a marketing role. The firm was acquired by Ingram Micro where I continued working, executing campaigns for the 50-100 brands that I was handling.
Working for a distributor was a great place to learn for someone like me who was early in their career because it exposed me to a wide range of products. After a while, I wanted to be more involved in marketing strategy so I made the switch from working for a distributor to a vendor. I joined Artemis International which was selling software for project management and that became my first regional marketing role.
With the roles that followed, I started developing an expertise in helping brands expand to Asia-Pacific by becoming their first marketing hire and building out the entire function. My first taste of it was at a company called NComputing. After having one such experience, organisations start seeking you because they want people who have experience doing it before. That’s how I ended up on this career path and continued building my expertise, helping brands like Qlik, Datameer, Hortonworks, and now Mixpanel, to establish their marketing operations here.
The ‘playbook’ for helping brands enter APAC
The number one priority is to just get things going. For example, if nothing has been set yet, you might want to start running events. You don’t need to think about the number of events at this point. Instead, it’s about getting that part of the marketing engine running. After you’ve done this, you can then start looking at other parts such as partnerships, PR or digital marketing activities. Once the engine is running and you have more bandwidth, you can get more specific and start targeting certain markets and personas. Some people might do it the other way around. They’ll start by being very specific and then build on small wins. But the basic philosophy in both of these approaches is the same.
I think a quick and obvious part of the engine to get started with is digital as it’s fast to set up and to start seeing results with. There are a lot of markets in APAC like Singapore that you can address fairly well with just English materials. In other markets, the response might be lower but it’ll still work. However, there are some markets such as Japan where using English materials would bring minimal results. You should take the lowest common denominator, launch something and get it out there. Start with the quick things that can get you some level of air cover. That’s the kind of approach to have especially if you are the only person on the ground.
In the early days, you have to expect that you won’t be optimised and the idea is to launch things, get things going, then learn from it and refine later. If you choose to be super targeted, you have to be very confident of your capacity to target a very small piece of the market that is of high value and get enough of a response from this segment. My preferred approach is to instead get the general awareness up first so that I can start seeing an uptick in the number of inbounds after a period of time because people got to know us. That approach has worked better for me because it also helps to solve the broader brand awareness problem, which usually takes a long time to fix. I’d rather start on it right away than to come back to it later.
Another important aspect of the playbook is the ‘make it happen attitude’. When leading marketing in a new region, no one is going to tell you what the plan is. You are the person on the ground and you have to figure things out yourself. You need to think strategically but also be ready to roll up your sleeves. Whether you’re working in a startup or at a larger company that is setting up shop in the region, it’s almost always like starting from scratch. You’ll need the resourcefulness to get things done. As an anecdote, I’ve seen people in top roles pay electricity bills or fill up the pantry at the local office because there was no one else to do it!
This role is not for everyone as you have to work very hard. You have to enjoy it and you have to be driven. People do it because they are invested in the company and like having agency over what they are doing. Not everyone is wired that way so it’s important to recognise if this is the kind of environment that energises you before taking the plunge to take up such a role.
The ‘playbook’ in action — a case study
I joined Mixpanel as their first marketing hire in Asia-Pacific. I drive everything that falls under the APAC region such as branding, demand generation, sponsorships, PR, etc. I am responsible for building the strategy in the region as well as managing the team to execute on that strategy. It’s similar to the experiences that I’ve had in my previous roles.
When I joined, we already had a team in global headquarters handling things at the global level so that meant that I had some campaign materials to work with and even some event content and format I could repurpose. We did the sporadic conference sponsorship and event now and then but it was pretty much a blank slate for me to work with for APAC.
So if we look at this playbook in action, I started off at Mixpanel by quickly turning on digital campaigns for APAC, which then gave me air cover as I got ready and set up to start running our own events locally, before expanding into other activities like working with our technology partners on joint activities, local case studies, event and community sponsorships, and PR etc. I focused on systematically getting each marketing channel/tactic running before moving on to the next. This was the primary focus and by staying focused on getting things running, we got to a state where marketing in APAC was running the full range of activities within the first 12 months. We could then move to the next step, which was scaling the operations and optimising what we do.
How the buyers in APAC are different
Buyers within the region vary from country to country. When comparing regions at a high level, buyers in Asia tend to require a greater level of service. They often want the solution to be neatly customised according to their specific needs and require a high level of assistance if something needs to be fixed. That is especially true for larger enterprises or in markets like Japan. I’ve noticed that US and Europe buyers tend to be a bit more self-serve.
I think that this difference is due to the fact that historically, there have been many system integrators/service providers that provided a full-package service tailored to each organisation’s needs and they were only a call away when things needed to be fixed. I think that this has created a level of expectation from buyers here that is higher than in other regions and which affects how they evaluate and buy software. At Mixpanel, we deal with a lot of tech startups from the region and they tend to be more like their American and European counterparts. They are learning how to operate from their global peers. They want to try a solution for themselves first before they buy. They don’t always want to talk to a salesperson and are happy to just buy online. That’s what has supported the emergence of the product-led growth model.
Something that is very important for buyers in the region is to have local references. In a market like Australia for example, it’s very important from a sales and marketing perspective to have a local customer. That’s because most buyers aren’t early adopters. They want to see companies that they recognise having used the product. They want to know that a product’s benefits are validated. They might not recognise the big foreign brands that we assume are known worldwide or even elsewhere in Asia-Pacific. It might be a challenge if you are just entering the market and don’t have customers that you can reference yet. For them, having local customers also implies that you are able to support them locally. It might take a while to get your first local customer reference but it is something that you’d want to make sure you secure as soon as possible.
Changes and trends in the APAC region
I noticed that companies are expanding into Asia sooner than before. The usual playbook used to be that US companies would start in their domestic market and then expand to EMEA. It was a bigger market than Asia and shared more similarities with the US market. It was rare for companies to come to Asia first. However, in recent years, I’ve seen almost simultaneous expansions in EMEA and APAC. I think that it is partly due to the fact that so many unicorns are coming out from this part of the world and adding excitement and visibility for the region. Whether it’s Grab in Southeast Asia or the many unicorns in India, these companies have changed people’s perception of business opportunities that can be found in Asia.
I also noticed that companies are investing more in their local teams than they were in the early days when I had just started. Back then, a common model was to have just one salesperson catering for the entire APAC region with maybe one solutions engineer to support him/her. It would have stayed like that for a year or more. Now, I feel that companies are building bigger teams right from the start. They are not huge teams but it shows their willingness to invest in the region and be deliberate in their expansion. They are here to grow in the market as opposed to entering just because they started getting some leads in the region and they need someone locally to manage it.
The talent landscape has changed as well. The talent pool has expanded. People who have been part of the journey of local success stories such as Gojek and Shopee are well-suited to help multinationals enter the APAC market. They may lack some skills such as having to coordinate with headquarters in the US or Europe, dealing with vastly different time zones, or localising while at the same time maintaining global standards. However, they know how to drive growth in Asia and how to do localisation across markets in the region. They have the experience of doing it in fast-paced environments. They are resourceful and have a deep understanding of the various local markets. Ten years ago, companies wouldn’t have found this type of profile when expanding to Asia because it didn’t really exist.