Ai Ching Goh of Piktochart

Founder Coffee episode 051

I’m Jeroen from Salesflare and this is Founder Coffee.

Every few weeks I have coffee with a different founder. We discuss life, passions, learnings, … in an intimate talk, getting to know the person behind the company.

For this fifty-first episode, I talked to Ai Ching Goh, Co-Founder of Piktochart, a software to build beautiful infographics and videos, with the goal of becoming a “business storytelling platform”.

After Ai Ching had a burn-out working at P&G, she decided to start her own company together with her husband, at the time a web design agency, with the purpose of eliminating her Monday blues. This is where her journey began to build a company where people come first.

One day, about 10 years ago, dreaming about the power of visual storytelling, she started working on Piktochart, software that allows you to easily create infographics. Today, she’s still working on Piktochart and Ai Ching and her team are in it for the long haul, building a sustainable company that constantly takes daring steps to improve the quality of life of everyone involved.

We talk about why and how Piktochart introduced a 4-day workweek, how it feels to be working fully remotely from a tropical island, what it means to build a people centric company, and the immense power of deep work.

Welcome to Founder Coffee.

get Salesflare

Prefer listening? You can find this episode on:


Jeroen:

Ai Ching, it’s great to have you on Founder Coffee.

Ai Ching:

Hey Jeroen. Thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here.

Jeroen:

You’re co-founder of Piktochart. For those who don’t know yet, what do you guys exactly do?

Ai Ching:

Sure. So Piktochart, we started out like 10 years ago as an infographic maker. And over time we kind of evolved and we became more of a business storytelling platform. So it just isn’t about infographics, but all kinds of materials that you have, an idea that you have that you’re trying to visualize. We’re trying to cover all of that. And also at the beginning of this year, we launched a new product – which is also in storytelling. More to do with videos. So it has the ability to just take a talking head video and then repurpose that and have that in much smaller rendered clips, which also helps in storytelling.

Ai Ching:

We were essentially looking for a new way for people to be able to convey their stories more effectively and we decided to also venture into videos.

Jeroen:

Cool. So it’s basically storytelling, visual storytelling, and now it’s not just static graphics, it’s also moving stuff?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. And also because videos really convey a lot more emotions. We have found out about that and it’s obviously booming thanks to the whole situation, the pandemic that we’re in. But we in general just see that the future of storytelling will also include videos.

Jeroen:

Yeah. It’s not a huge step I suppose from an infographic to a moving infographic. So who is Piktochart for exactly? Who uses it? And what sort of use cases do you see?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. So that’s an interesting question. I’ll be up front about this. Most free sign ups we have, and we have hundreds of thousands of them every single month. They’re primarily in education. So you have top universities, colleges, way down to kindergarten and schools, are using it quite a lot. But that isn’t how we’re making money. They’re just lots of free users.

Ai Ching:

On the professional side of things, and the people whom we’re seeing much better conversion rates from, they range all the way from HR departments who have tons of metrics that they need to visualize within the organization, learning and development that may be using us as part of presentations or reports and dashboards that they’re creating as well. And we have consultants which is another quite a big group. They range from smaller shops that are around 10 to 20 people, all the way up to the big fours of the world.

Ai Ching:

So consultancies are also quite a big market for us. And basically they’re people who deal with information that they don’t necessarily want to see it in a business intelligence format, but they kind of have to report that to the higher ups. Lots of people are in those types of roles – project managers et cetera, they’re using us in that particular fashion right now.

Jeroen:

What I’m a bit surprised about is that you mentioned HR professionals and consultants before marketing departments. Why is that? Are they bigger than marketing users and if so, why exactly?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. So that was our hypothesis years ago that marketing would be the biggest. In fact the reason why we started out with infographics was actually for marketing. The whole reason I talk about that, it’s all about inbound marketing and trying to use infographics as lead generation. But now, we kind of got to the point where, as the product stabilizes, finds its own product market fit, the biggest product market fit we’re having with, isn’t so much with marketing. There are still marketers obviously using us for the same reasons, like to try to present data, pitch or proposals internally as well as externally.

Ai Ching:

But then we’re just seeing that there is a lot more fit within the groups that I’ve mentioned. And these could also be project managers; their titles do not have to be consultants necessarily. In general the work that they do is that they deal with a lot of recommendations and they have to try to convince somebody with data or with diagrams, or with visuals about their idea or their proposal. That’s the type of people, the Jobs to be Done basically that we’re helping them with.

Jeroen:

Got it. Cool. Are you a Jobs to be Done fan? You just mentioned it briefly?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. We use multiple things to be honest as a company. So we’ve tried personas. We’ve tried bio profiles which are more demographic and more based on market orientation. We’ve also used Jobs to be Done. I kind of think that depending on the practical use, it’s quite helpful for different reasons. Like for the marketing team occasionally, Jobs to be Done does not help them, or the sales team, because then they don’t quite know who to go after.

Ai Ching:

But if we went with something that’s a bit more segmented, I kind of tell my team that there are like two sides of the same coin. And when we kind of match that demographic data together, the Jobs to be Done, we have a more complete picture. But in general, the team does know briefly that these are the separate groups that we have. But we’re not a die hard must use Jobs to be Done framework type of company.

Jeroen:

Yeah, I like what you said in the sense that when people present Jobs to be Done, it’s often as a replacement for buyer personas. But I also believe that it’s not necessarily a replacement. It’s like more of a complimentary thing. It’s not because you don’t understand the demographics in your target audience and have some personas of how they generally look, or ideally look, that you can’t also on the other end look at the standpoint of what it is actually in terms of progress that we’re helping people with. What progress they do want to make and forces to act on that and all that.

Ai Ching:

Yeah. Totally.

Jeroen:

You mentioned that Piktochart was initially built for marketing departments. How did that come about? Were you working in a marketing department yourself at that point, and did you see some kind of need that was unfulfilled? What was the spark?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. The start of it’s kind of like very unmemorable when I think back. But now it feels like a very big thing. I think most founders will resonate with that. So what happened was that my husband and I, who’s also my co-founder, had a web design consultancy. So essentially we built websites and e-commerce websites for our clients. And this is 10 years before Shopify became really famous and all that.

Ai Ching:

So then I was in charge of the business and marketing side, trying to look for more clients. And I was reading up a lot more about what HubSpot at that point coined the word, inbound marketing. And all I knew about my marketing background then was just push marketing. Everything was about advertising and your click through rates and all that. And reading about that really made me very interested. And together with the whole inbound marketing and how we all need to be doing more content that is useful and helpful and valuable, we felt that it was going to be a very big shift towards something more visual as well. And infographics were a great way to do that.

Ai Ching:

So I kind of started out looking into infographics, learning how to build one myself. I learned on the way and I failed quite miserably. It was taking me too long. So I just kind of pitched the idea to my co founder, and went like, “Do you think we should maybe just build our own infographic maker? There are probably people like us out there.” So that was the founding moment.

Ai Ching:

Like I said, it felt very unmemorable back then. But today it feels like a big moment.

Jeroen:

Yeah, it’s a small moment that brought about a lot of stuff. Like the quote, one small step for a man.

Ai Ching:

Yeah, that’s right. So back then, it was purely for marketing. We weren’t even thinking about all of the use cases that people are actually using us for. Today it’s morphed into something else. It’s more of a way to visualize ideas – almost. People use us and it’s not just infographics. Like they have timelines and tables and comparisons, all forms and shapes and sizes that will help tell a story or a concept visually.

Jeroen:

Yeah. Are you based in Singapore or Malaysia?

Ai Ching:

Malaysia.

Jeroen:

In KL or …

Ai Ching:

Oh, that’s the other interesting part. So we’re not based in KL either. So my team’s actually remote. But our original HQ before we went remote, we were all based in Penang. It’s an island up north. Close to Thailand.

Jeroen:

Oh cool. Yeah, I’ve been there. It’s a very nice place.

Ai Ching:

It is.

Jeroen:

And I also noticed your co-founder, your husband, is Italian. How did that exactly happen? Like where did you meet each other?

Ai Ching:

Yeah, we met each other in University. So I was studying in the UK. I went traveling a lot. One of my travel adventures I met him. So we were both extremely young back then. And then I basically came back to start my career, and he kind of followed. So my husband, apart from the business, he’s been in Malaysia for more than 10 years now. Sometimes I think back and I feel like it’s so unreal. But prior to the pandemic we used to go to Europe at least twice every year and spend summer there, Christmas there and all that, but we’re unable to do so now.

Jeroen:

You cannot go to Italy right now?

Ai Ching:

No. The travel restrictions in Malaysia are pretty dire. They’re still on lockdown. We have no interstate travel, nothing.

Jeroen:

Oh okay. Within Europe right now we are kind of traveling.

Ai Ching:

I know. We hear about that all the time. And I see with my parents-in-law and they’re having, not parties, like dinners and get-togethers and we’re like, “Oh my goodness, that’s so far away from our reality.” But yeah.

Jeroen:

Yeah. How is it actually running a company, as husband and wife? Is that an easy thing? Does it just go easily for you guys, or there’s sometimes struggles?

Ai Ching:

I think in the earlier stages there were struggles. Both internally and externally. I mean like being in a relationship is something that’s very different from being in a working relationship. And in a working relationship there is a former priority, there is performance and that kind of stuff. So the early years I felt like we both had to re-learn the boundaries of our relationship and all that kind of stuff. But that was like I said, many years ago. We’ve since then not just started a company, we’ve also started a family together. We have a daughter now together. And I would say that in the earlier stages that was a lot tougher. You just have to learn which buttons not to push.

Ai Ching:

And also, the earlier years, which we’ve decided since then, not to take any money, but when we were raising funds, I remember getting all kinds of snarky from investors. And they would be like, “It’s a husband and wife team, they can’t be serious about the business.” And I was like, “Why not?” And I don’t get it. Like why is it that if you co-founded the company together with your spouse, then you’re not actually serious about the business? Like that part got me quite a bit. I just remember hearing that and that wasn’t very nice to be honest.

Ai Ching:

But then it’s okay because we’ve since then decided that we are going to keep boot strapping it, doing what we love doing.

Jeroen:

Yeah. And you’re doing it successfully. That’s sad for the VCs I would say. I saw that you studied psychology. And then you actually got into private equity for a little and then into marketing, at a huge marketing firm like P&G. Did you ever feel the need to start a company at that moment? Or is that something that grew on you and your husband later on? How did that come about?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. That’s the other story. You asked me about how the whole idea of Piktochart came about. And it was very organic. It’s not like, since 12 I’ve always wanted to build infographics as a living. Although I have a fascination towards storytelling, and I’m very curious about the human mind, otherwise I wouldn’t study psychology. In fact I was actually on path and I picked a degree that would take me more and more towards clinical psychology and practice as a medical professional actually.

Ai Ching:

So what kind of happened was, while I was at University, I was somehow, I don’t know call it happenstance or call it coincidence, I was hanging out with a ton of, and you would know because you’re from Belgium, a lot of AIESEC folks.

Jeroen:

Yeah. My wife is big in AIESEC actually. She’s from Brazil and she led sales in a chapter in Brazil.

Ai Ching:

Yeah. So I was also a part of it and my friends were all into investment banking. They were all studying things like economics and all that. And actually at the same time in my first year, I grew this interest in psychology itself because I realized that everything was reduced to statistical significance and it felt ridiculous. You know the word psychology comes from the word psychic which means soul. And it’s like your soul was reduced to a mere statistical significance by two degrees and that left a very bad taste in my mouth the first year.

Ai Ching:

So I was getting more disinterested in my study because I felt that it just broke the entire illusion that I had about or the fantasy that I had about psychology basically. So then I was getting closer with all of my AIESEC friends, and a lot of them were going into banks and applying to really large organizations. In fact, a lot of them are still close friends of mine and they’re all at the World Bank et cetera, like nobody has a job lesser than that.

Ai Ching:

And what happened was then I joined a bank first because I was under their influence for a while. And afterwards, I was quickly like, “Okay, this is so not my thing.” As much as I loved businesses and all that kind of stuff, doing private equity and researching just pure numbers wasn’t my cup of tea. So then left the bank and joined P&G. I was very fortunate I got a place there because my background was just nowhere. I wasn’t good at this, neither that.

Ai Ching:

But then they took me in. And while I was there, well I kind of enjoyed what I was doing and I loved the exposure and experience and all that, but I suffered from a very massive burnout. And I was very young at this point. I actually went to the hospital for what I went through. And did a surgery where most people would have recovered in two weeks. It took three months and I was bedridden for three months. And I’m only in my early 20s at that time.

Ai Ching:

So what happened was when I came out from this entire episode, in fact when I was in bed, I kept looking for the meaning of life. But I searched for the meaning of life very early on in my life just because of what happened to me and I then decided that work was going to be a big part of my life, and I have to ensure that I’m going to be really happy there.

Ai Ching:

So we didn’t even consider looking for other companies because of the massive burnout that I was going through. So I said, “We’re going to start a company that was going to be more people centric,” back then I called it the No Monday Blues because that was the only thing I knew how to think about the whole concept. But, today, I know that these are just labeled as people centric organizations.

Ai Ching:

So we’ve been going down that road. I think if we failed in many other things, that’s the one thing I felt that we stayed true to. And my husband and I never swerved from that direction because of what happened to me very early on in my life.

Jeroen:

Yeah. Wow. So you actually started a company because you wanted to create your own company culture and create your own rules and make it all about people instead of results.

Ai Ching:

Yeah. And that’s also why, years later, like I said I wouldn’t have thought about all of these things earlier on. It just felt so natural for us that the company would be about storytelling. Infographics are just the means to convey your stories. But essentially what a lot of people, when it comes to Piktochart and they want to do it, they’re looking for a way to visualize their numbers or their concept, or to sell something in particular to their vendors or internally and we started realizing that it’s storytelling. And not many people have that innate ability to be able to visualize exactly what they want to say. And we started out to shift and re-position ourselves so that we can help people more and more with storytelling basically.

Jeroen:

Yeah. I identified a few steps there in your career. So initially you were studying psychology because you were interested in the human mind. Then you noticed that it’s more about statistics of the human mind or something. Which is not as interesting. Then you had the guys at AIESEC, which if I’m not mistaken is all about personal development, which probably appealed to you a lot. And then based on that you went into banking which was then not at all what you were looking to do.

Jeroen:

And then an interesting shift happens because basically with the background in psychology and a bit of finance perhaps, you went into marketing. Why did you do that, do you think?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. So I was looking into what I can do with the broad skills that I have? I love working with people. I still do. I still love understanding what makes people behave the way they behave. Marketing is basically the understanding of why do people buy? What makes them attracted to a particular product? What makes it sell, what makes it resonate? And I felt that P&G was probably one of the, at that time, and still are, the world’s leading FMCG and they were innovating a lot. And they had a lot of I thought, and I still did actually learn a lot from the way they did and conducted customer research.

Ai Ching:

As well as how they derive campaigns and how they manage to understand people. I was thinking, okay, if I don’t crack this and become an actual scientist or medical professional in psychology, what other choices do I have? And that was when I realized, well, I could either put it into organizational development, which was very specific and into HR, or I could try to find something else. And psychology and marketing actually have some overlaps.

Ai Ching:

So between the two, I went for marketing. Not knowing that actually that was a good one because one day if I became an entrepreneur, which I did, that actually that marketing would help me a ton. And the learnings, the connections that I’ve made while I was there still help me a lot until now.

Jeroen:

Yeah. You learn a lot there, then you put it into building your own marketing agency.

Ai Ching:

Yeah. It was a very simple web design consultancy. Not marketing so much, just building websites basically.

Jeroen:

Yeah. That’s actually how I think many entrepreneurs started. When I was young I was also building websites. I saw myself as an agency and that’s where a lot of dreams started for us when we were around the same age because that just started popping up and everybody needed websites and it was so cool to create stuff there. I see that in a lot of interviews with fellow entrepreneurs.

Ai Ching:

I know. And then if you talk about that and then fast forward to today, we have all these companies like Webflow and the rest of them.

Jeroen:

It’s true. It’s crazy. Actually the CTO of Webflow was also on the podcast.

Ai Ching:

I actually went through his podcast and I loved it. We love Webflow. We love how they innovated and built the product out.

Jeroen:

It’s really amazing. And actually we’re talking to an agency right now who uses Figma, they built stuff in there. Then there’s this connector, I forgot the name now for a moment. But it almost prepares the code ready for Webflow, you put it into Webflow and the website’s there.

Ai Ching:

Oh, wow. And Webflow, it’s incredible. Sorry, I’m fangirling a bit but it’s really amazing. We checked it out. Although we’re currently on WordPress as a CMS and we have our own custom designs, I think if it wasn’t so much for the fact that we need a proper CMS almost to manage all of our blog posts and everything, we would have probably gone for something like Webflow.

Jeroen:

Yeah. When thinking about other companies, are there any you look up to? Any that you mirror yourself to a little, or you think, well, they’re doing this and that really well, and that’s something you’d like to bring into Piktochart?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. So Jason Fried from Basecamp, the reason why we look up to them was more for their very unconventional product management and the way they built out their teams and think about building products. But there were many things that resonated with us. So we initially started off with Agile Scrum, et cetera and then after Shape Up came out, we considered it and the team reading and everything, started incorporating elements of it.

Ai Ching:

So now we’re like a hybrid of I don’t know what, but I think a lot of it came from that. And they kind of don’t really have product managers. They’re not very strict. They do lots of customer discovery. And then just built and shaped things and I think my co-founder husband also spoke with their QA team because they’re like 60 plus people with only one QA person. And we’re like, “How does that work?” So we got in touch. So from a product management and development perspective, we got a lot of inspiration out of the way they worked and were just so unconventional.

Ai Ching:

And I think for culture and everything, the other one that we kind of look up to and we love what they’re doing and I thought we were very similar at a wavelength level as well with Wildbit, you probably know as well, they’re founded by a husband and wife team, they’ve been around for 20 years, they’ve defended a very competitive niche. In fact we’re also one of their customers and everything and we love what they do because they just did the same thing. They were in it for the long haul. So the two companies that I’ve mentioned so far you would notice that the common similarity among them is that they’re in it for the long haul.

Ai Ching:

And therefore, the way the organization is built is extremely different from most common organizations. Like the way for Wildbit, it was all about people first. And for Basecamp, it’s just I think this intense focus on product simplification and just going against the grain if it doesn’t make sense. Even their blog itself says it, you try to discern what is signal versus noise. And I felt that their philosophy of building has just inspired us a lot especially because we’re bootstrapped and also in it for the long haul.

Jeroen:

Yeah. But what are some of the things that you think sets companies apart that are in it for the long haul versus companies that let’s say, go VC?

Ai Ching:

Yeah, well so this thing we’ve also kind of like put into our purpose more or less. And I realized that in the past I didn’t make this very clear to my own company and I owed them that explanation. And it was like how much does the company want to grow. So we now have three purpose pillars. Of course the product itself has to serve a purpose and fill in a gap that multiple people are maybe trying to solve for that one particular problem. But for us that would be to communicate impactful stories to the world.

Ai Ching:

And then we also ensured that we’re also people first so we do not want to grow at the rate that would kill people or their work life balance. And because of that last year we made a decision or we were testing it and then this year we made a decision to go on a four day work week. And yet, to do that while running a profitable company that’s growing sustainably. I think sustainable growth is probably the key. So if I reverse that and then let’s take a look at a venture-funded company, the purpose could still be there, I know of course every organization exists to solve a particular problem, but well for sure the profitable part is sometimes negligible to some of the VC funded companies and the people first part is pretty hard as well.

Ai Ching:

Like you would have other type of cultures that would exits out it maybe something a bit closer to Netflix, which I was reading a couple of their books and I felt that it’s not wrong at this rate that we’re growing at, they needed some form of assistance in order to make sure that they were only attracting and retaining the best people.

Ai Ching:

So I think these things differ quite a bit between a VC type of company that needs rocket fuel to keep growing compared to a company that may be bootstrapping in it for the long haul.

Jeroen:

Yeah. The four day work week thing is interesting. I saw that Wildbit is also doing that. What kind of challenges did that pose on you guys when you introduced the four-day work week?

Ai Ching:

If anything, I felt more internal resistance to the idea itself. Like people just being really scared of the concept and thinking, well, how am I going to finish my work in 80% of the time? I’m serious, people really brought up that concern and we were like, “Why don’t we just give it a try?” So what we’ve started doing was eliminating the meetings and I call it trimming the fat, like just taking off the things that don’t really contribute to anything. So we made a kind of a stance to not continue our performance management. We used to have that on every quarter, like a very lightweight performance management type of thing. That consumed a lot of our time.

Ai Ching:

So then we said just help people to keep giving feedback both ways. On the one-to-ones and scrap the whole formal process, and eliminate as many meetings as possible. The company used to have more product meetings, then you have functional meetings, then you have company meetings, and we just at every level did our best to cut them all out. To trim it to as lean as possible. And then also make sure that people had focused time and we protected their work time. And after we went on, I would say by the second quarter, the complaints were getting less and less and now people are fully enjoying it. And I know that they can’t imagine life without the four-day work week. Including myself.

Jeroen:

Yeah. I can imagine. So basically cutting meetings and becoming more productive, having more focused time, protecting that. That’s what you did.

Ai Ching:

Yeah. And reducing management overhead. Because the other part of it is the manager’s time, instead of spending it on writing or researching or actually doing strategic or deep work, you’re focusing it instead on managing people. So we also cut out all of those tasks from the leaders and managers as much as possible. Of course, leaving the minimum. So yeah, that works.

Jeroen:

So for managers, they don’t do what we’d say is normal work anymore. It’s really management now only?

Ai Ching:

Yeah, we have very little oversight. There are still one-on-ones. You still need to have some conversations, check in with the people, coach them and all that, but the frequency of that is reduced. For me, some of them are down to like once every two weeks, which is a lot better than what I used to have. And then we don’t have all the formal performance evaluations and all that kind of stuff. That’s what takes up time and we also do things like leave approvals. It’s self approved, so just be responsible human beings. Go and plan your leave, inform your team and that’s it.

Ai Ching:

Personal development, there’s no approval needed. So wherever we could we just removed all forms of approval so that the managers don’t have to do those things.

Jeroen:

Got it.

Ai Ching:

And that gave more trust I think to the company as well as autonomy and eliminated work for the managers which is great.

Jeroen:

Yeah. I like it. What is it that you are lately working on and that keeps you up at night a little perhaps?

Ai Ching:

Oh yeah. Well we’re working on a lot of things that are keeping me up at night. We’re about to make a change to our business model after seven years of not touching it. So that’s definitely keeping me up at night. But we felt that it was required. We needed to innovate, not just from a product but also that. And just this week we’ve actually from Piktochart, we’ve just released a better editor and you’ll see less and less of Piktochart saying and calling itself an infographic maker and we’ll be more and more moving towards storytelling. And that’s the first step of our near term road map.

Ai Ching:

And then for Piktostory as well. There’s just a lot going. We recently launched a deal and we’re getting lots of feedback and early adopters and that’s just a lot of things for us to work on. So I felt like my number one thing that’s keeping me up at night is, it’s really focused. Like trying to figure out what I can do and I’m only one person, but still trying to build two companies, but it’s a very exciting time. It’s just that we’ve not built new products in a while, and now we’re actually doing three quite big and crucial things all at the same time.

Jeroen:

Yeah. It sounds like it. Can you give us a little hint already about the business model or is it secret?

Ai Ching:

Oh, yeah, not so much. It’s coming out at the end of this week. So it will be out soon. But the idea is that we’ve just switched the model. We are still freemium and that won’t really change. What’s happened is that we’ve kind of shifted and we’ve given the free users every single feature that is available in the pro model including the ability to add on collaborators, including premium downloads, including I don’t know, the premium access to this or whatever that used to be locked in the editor. For one trade off, which actually has to do with downloads itself. Because we know that most people when they find out they could create as many visuals as they want, when they’re done with it, they would need to actually download that.

Ai Ching:

So we’re actually capping downloads so that we can as an organization continue to survive. And we felt like that’s going to be one very interesting change to just see what’s going to happen. I think from the whole freemium perspective. And that’s also backed based on the data and the usage that we were seeing. So that’s the little teaser of what’s coming up.

Jeroen:

Yeah. So you’re basically charging in a different way. Is that going to affect current revenue as well, or is it only new revenue?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. So it’s going to affect current revenue because we can’t grandfather such a thing. We can’t keep two in separate models at the same time. So there is no grandfathering. So just for the existing customers and subscribers they will have additional benefits and et cetera if they kept their subscription and all that. But that’s something, like I said, you asked me what keeps me awake, and that keeps me awake.

Jeroen:

Yeah. I can imagine. It sounds kind of scary. What are some of the next organizational changes you’re thinking of making? You mentioned a lot of things already, but cutting meetings and taking away approvals and protecting focused time. What are some of the things you’re thinking about, or maybe some recent stuff that was really successful at bringing productivity and happiness in the company?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. Well last year we did the bulk of the changes from going all remote. But our caveat is that we mainly still hire people from either Europe or Asia, just because we want some overlap time and these are the two main time zones that we’re working from. So that’s one. But I think the other change was the whole four day work week; because of that we needed to eliminate and trim the fat as much as possible, and that kind of made us, as a company, a lot more disciplined.

Ai Ching:

I don’t even know what’s next. It’s probably a form of asynchronous work. The company is getting better at becoming asynchronous but not totally 100% good at asynchronous. And I’ll just say this as one of my ultimate inspiration for the future of work itself. I read this article by Sahil Lavinia from Gumroad. And he talked about the future of how he’s already invented it where everybody’s on part time. They have zero meetings. I don’t mean elimination of meetings, but zero meetings and he kind of said he’s hired somebody and he hasn’t even spoken to them because everyone’s on like a part time payroll and there’s absolutely no meeting. They communicate asynchronously, they use a form of, I’m not sure, a project management tool in order for them to communicate project updates and all that.

Ai Ching:

And I thought that concept was super interesting, but I’m not saying it’s something we’re going to be doing because that’s crazy. That’s too big of a leap for us from where we’re at till then.

Jeroen:

So what it is basically about, is keeping information in a system so that everybody can find it there and work together without needing meetings to communicate things?

Ai Ching:

Yeah, no, not just that. I mean what he ended up doing was he turned everybody in the company into part time workers. You need to read this article because when it came out I was like, that’s life changing. It’s just that I don’t know how many more, but what it also essentially eliminates is when everyone you’re working with, it’s like you still shift stuff, and all that. You don’t necessarily need to think about, well my employee engagement or how it’s doing. Are they recommending the place to work or whatever. All of you are hired almost contract less to ensure the success of the project and a team.

Ai Ching:

So in a sense I don’t know if it’s completely people first, but I thought that the whole concept that he’s going with is definitely a revolution I think in the way people think about remote work that’s beyond asynchronous. He’s even eliminating full time work altogether.

Jeroen:

That’s interesting. What is it actually that in all of this gives you energy? What keeps you going and building Piktochart?

Ai Ching:

I think it’s all the three pillars all together. So there’s the purpose, wanting to see new products satisfy a market demand that previously wasn’t met. As well as people. The average tenure at Piktochart is very happy sometimes and I think about this because I do still have people who have been with us for 10 years since the beginning of the company. We have eight year anniversaries, we have six year anniversaries, we have four year anniversaries and tons of people have been in the company for a really long time. So after a while it doesn’t feel like I’m working with colleagues or employees, I feel like I’m working with friends because we’ve been doing this for so long. That gives me some energy.

Ai Ching:

Talking to customers always does that. And then also trying to help the company innovate and see the next space of growth. Not rocket type of growth, but that good pace, sustainable growth is always very exciting.

Jeroen:

Yeah. So it’s about people and it’s about building stuff and growing if I understand it well.

Ai Ching:

Yeah.

Jeroen:

A question perhaps moving a bit towards work life balance. If you work four days per week, what is the extra you take off? Or which days do you work?

Ai Ching:

The bulk of us take Fridays off. But the customer success and the salesperson, they kind of go on a schedule that works for them. In the customer support team, they do Mondays to Thursdays and others do Tuesdays to Fridays in order to make sure that we cover all five days.

Jeroen:

Yeah, that makes sense. And you all work from home now? Or do you also have some kind of office or hub?

Ai Ching:

No, we don’t have an office anymore. But we did tell the team this multiple times. We’re like, “Look, it’s a pandemic, it’s not normal.” Otherwise people usually fly into our HQ, and Penang’s a nice tropical island to be at twice a year. Or we meet somewhere else within Southeast Asia. And we haven’t been able to do that so we told them that they’re going to come back. Just that we have to ensure that it’s safe for everybody to travel again.

Ai Ching:

The other thing is just in terms of hubs, we do have co-working space allowances and people can choose to meet up at co-working spaces if they want to. And in the past when the restrictions weren’t quite as bad as currently, people did actually meet up. Some people actually meet up in co-working spaces.

Jeroen:

Yeah. Got it. And working hour wise, do you have any fixed working hours, or do people just choose when they work? I mean people are in different time zones so I suppose the working hours are already defined by where they are.

Ai Ching:

Yeah. So we ask for the product people especially. Well there’s no way that we can tell when a person is working or not, in general and that’s also what I told the team, inceptive team. Work is a lot more about outcome rather than output. So we don’t actually look at what times. But it is however important to ensure that they have some amount of overlap. So in the European time zones we usually ask like, if you choose to take up this role, then know that there may be some meetings that are 9:00 AM your time. So if you don’t like that, then probably not the correct working environment for you. And same thing with Asia. You’ve definitely got to cover at least 2:00 to 6:00 PM for if there are any discussions. Or asynchronous checks or whatever. But the idea is no fixed timeline, but we do try to hire from these two so at least people can still have some discussions and not feel totally alone if they’re brainstorming or working on something.

Jeroen:

Yeah. So meetings in Europe are from 9:00 AM in the morning and in Asia until 6:00 PM?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. UK sometimes 8:00 AM because they’re one hour behind. But everybody else usually starts at about 9:00 AM.

Jeroen:

Cool. And are there any things you do personally to stay mentally and physically fit? Any habits that you entertain there?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. I love taking walks. I particularly like taking walks. It’s my way of digesting information. When I’m out in nature and just walking. It’s also a really good time to talk and unwind basically with my husband and my daughter and whoever else within my family. I’ve not been able to do that very much because the restrictions here are pretty tight, but I do find my ways in order to sneak out and get some exercise time. The rest of it, if I’m not walking then I’m definitely at home doing some form of home exercise that helps. I also currently am re-learning the piano because I haven’t played that in a while. And that has been very nice to get back to. And apart from that just spending time with my family, that’s baking, cooking and the rest of it just helps me basically to stay mentally and physically sane in these trying times.

Jeroen:

Yeah. Actually perhaps about Penang, because I’ve been and you’re living there, but for the listeners who haven’t been, a bit of a travel promo because I don’t think it’s an extremely popular tourist location. Why should people visit Penang?

Ai Ching:

Oh, I don’t know where to begin. I was born here. I worked and lived outside for a while and I traveled quite a bit. I think Penang really has its own charms. Although I wouldn’t say for the same charms that the magazines and all that advertise it for. So Penang’s usually advertised for two things. One is the kind of architecture because we have some very interesting mix of cultures and it’s really seen in its architecture. So that’s like George Town.

Ai Ching:

And then where top is like one of the world’s most famous street food; what do you call it, hunts. So basically that’s where you get the best street foods. And I do agree. I do think that food is really good here, but I actually think what is underemphasized is just the fact that Penang really has some more to offer.

Ai Ching:

And I’ve been in Malaysia and I’ve traveled to quite a number of places, and I think we do have one of the best weathers in the world. It can get a bit hot, but for a person who likes summer all year round, it’s not a problem. We have the beach, we have the hills and we have the outdoors and we also have a bit of modernity. So it’s kind of a city that has a bit of everything for most people.

Ai Ching:

So that’s kind of what I like. And the other part about Penang is that it’s not ruined by an overly metropolitan feel at all. It feels very preserved and people here are extremely nice and friendly. Even for a Malaysian, I’ll say that I do think Penang’s one of the friendlier states in the country. So there you go.

Jeroen:

Yeah. I do remember that. But the weather, I remember when we were there, was a bit too warm for me. I was sort of walking shadow to shadow. But people were very friendly. We had a good time there. And maybe it was warm in the city. But if you exit the city, there’s still a big part of the islands where probably the asphalt has less of an effect on the temperature.

Ai Ching:

Yeah. That’s right. So I’m doing a lot to get as much vitamin D from the sun and just enjoy the fact that there’s so much sun here, compared to if we were in Europe or, not the States actually, in the States the sun’s quite hot in California. Yeah, I kind of feel like it has a balance of everything. But I’m glad you had a good time in Penang. If we knew each other earlier, I would have said, “I’ll take you around.”

Jeroen:

Thank you. Are you guys startup wise isolated there, or are there other cool startups there as well?

Ai Ching:

No. So Penang doesn’t really have a lot. Even in Malaysia itself we get asked this a lot, like why did you not move to KL? Or Singapore or somewhere else? But the reason was because I still felt that it wasn’t impossible to hire. We managed to get a couple of people to relocate from different countries in the world to be in Penang because it has its own charms. And for the right person, it may actually work out. So we hired a number of expats here in Penang. And we didn’t compete with the rest of Malaysia for talent, which was great.

Ai Ching:

But I didn’t really see a need. And now that we’re completely remote, it makes even less sense for us to be moving anywhere.

Jeroen:

It also made the remote switch a bit more logical I suppose.

Ai Ching:

Yeah. That’s right.

Jeroen:

Slowly wrapping up, towards some learnings. What is the latest good book you’ve read, and why did you choose to read it exactly?

Ai Ching:

It wasn’t the latest book that I read, but I felt like it left a very big impact on us because of the whole four-day work week. And while we were still doing it, someone recommended a book on the same, which was on Deep Work because I was facing so much internal resistance. Sorry, it’s by Cal Newport, he’s a researcher and he was talking about how human minds are like a gym. And again, because of all this psychology stuff, maybe I got into it a bit more. But he was saying a normal untrained mind can only do deep work for about an hour. It’s like a gym. You can only plank as a beginner, for about 30 seconds. And then you do more and then you can get up maybe to 10 minutes, but it’s going to take you a lot of training, right? So it’s the same thing with deep work and as a software company, a lot of the work is deep work. You don’t actually want your people to be doing meetings and shallow work and jumping one from another.

Ai Ching:

So he was saying it’s only one hour. And a trained person can do this sustainably for life, probably at about four hours. And he was quoting people like Adam Grant who was a fellow researcher of his and learning everything from him. And he quoted several other people and the whole research behind it. And I thought that really made sense. And it helped to actually make a very compelling case for us to work into a four-day work week because the thing was that internally people were struggling and they kept saying, “How am I going to fit in all of my work into 80%?”

Ai Ching:

And that was when we brought up all these talking points and said, “Well, actually out of your 40 hours, how much of it was actually producing outcome versus output? The things that you are doing in order to be seen working or like they’re just output. And could we have outsourced that? Could we have delegated that? Could we have done something in order to automate that process?” And when those questions came up, people started realizing that yeah, my actual deep work is only this much of hours in a week.

Ai Ching:

I cannot go beyond that because I would totally kind of go crazy. So I felt like this whole four-day work week was almost a productivity challenge for all of us. I also realized that now, I can get so much done, so much more done if you give me eight hours like an undisturbed day, and that’s amazing. I know that I’ve totally gotten more productive. I can’t say the same for everyone. But it all became a massive productivity experiment for the whole organization.

Jeroen:

Yeah. So this is Deep Work by Cal Newport, right?

Ai Ching:

That’s right.

Jeroen:

Nice. I’ve put it on my to-read list. It wasn’t there yet.

Ai Ching:

Yeah.

Jeroen:

You were sort of thrown into Piktochart in a way you could say. Is there anything you wish you would have known when you started out that maybe if you would start over now you would do differently?

Ai Ching:

Yeah. There are obviously a lot of things that I would have chosen to do differently. One, it sounds kind of cheesy, but I would have chosen to doubt myself a lot less. The reason why I say that is because we don’t have investors or people chasing us. Yes, I may have a couple of mentors helping me, but a lot that is transforming internally and sometimes I was like, “I have a really bad gut feeling about this thing,” but I just chose to, “oh well, the company’s kind of democratic, let’s go with it”. And I felt that that kind of killed us. It didn’t kill us, obviously we’re still around, but that slowed us down a lot because of the hesitation. I just wish I didn’t have as much self doubt and carried on.

Jeroen:

Got it. And in terms of advice, maybe any last words you have. Any best piece of advice you ever got that you could share with others?

Ai Ching:

Yeah, the best piece of advice that I got, it’s a pretty easy answer. It’s the best advice I got, which was when we were raising funds and this was back in 2014. We got term sheets and we were about to, I won’t say sign it, but we had options and we were almost there. And then it was in one of these events I met a guy who was an angel investor himself, and was kind of interested. And he kind of asked me, “How much money do you have in the bank?” I said, “This much.” And then he was like, “How much are you raising again?” And I said, “This much.” And then he was like, “So why aren’t you using the money in your bank, re-invest it into your company and when you need even more capital to grow, then come and raise at a better valuation, when you have actually exhausted what you have in the bank.” And I was like, “Why didn’t anybody tell me this?”

Ai Ching:

So we actually took his advice. We didn’t manage to use it up because I’m still quite prudent. But we did pump it a lot more into our marketing back then. And the company grew actually and it grew quite well as a result of that. And after we came out of that whole phase, I didn’t know what need we had anymore to keep raising it. It wasn’t our ambition from day one to become like a Goliath in the industry. So then we were like, “Actually this works,” and we then can maintain the whole people first, and build sustainably and build products when we like it, or whatever we like. And if we were backed by investors, that may not have always been the case.” So then I think that one piece of advice actually changed the trajectory of the company entirely, otherwise we would have definitely gone on the whole mouse wheel and raised more capital and more capital and more capital.

Jeroen:

Yeah. That definitely turned out to be great advice it seems. Thank you again Ching for being on Founder Coffee. It was really a pleasure to have you.

Ai Ching:

Yeah Jeroen, thank you so much for having me. Thanks for all of the thoughtful questions. And speak soon!


Enjoyed it? Read Founder Coffee interviews with other founders.

get Salesflare

We hope you liked this episode. If you did, review us on iTunes!

👉 You can follow @salesflare on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Avatar for Jeroen Corthout
Latest posts by Jeroen Corthout (see all)