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Bernard Leong, co-founder of Chalkboard in Singapore. (Florian Luthi for The Globe and Mail)
Bernard Leong, co-founder of Chalkboard in Singapore. (Florian Luthi for The Globe and Mail)

Taking mom 'n' pop's chalkboard online Add to ...

In Singapore, where the most coveted jobs are in government or multinational corporations, entrepreneurs don’t garner much admiration. Bernard Leong, co-founder and CTO of Chalkboard, a Singaporean startup specializing in hyper-local mobile and web advertising, knows this all too well.

“There are very few entrepreneurs in Singapore; it’s not a job description that everyone wants,” Mr. Leong says. “Most of the population tends to be very rules-focused and people want to work for big corporations.”

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And so the 37-year-old is trying to help other entrepreneurs who, like himself, have been daring enough to break out on their own. Mr. Leong, together with Canadian co-founder and CEO Saumil Nanavati, started Chalkboard in February, 2010. The location-based mobile ad network is designed to help small- and medium-sized businesses have a louder voice in a digital world that’s dominated by large brands.

“Big companies work with marketing budgets of more than $250,000,” Mr. Leong says. “But normal mom-and-pop shops don’t usually do much marketing. They have a hard time keeping up with social media and technology – many don’t even know how use Google ads.

“We tried to come up with a way that retailers can update specials as quickly and easily as possible.”

The company is modernizing a traditional business strategy: wooden chalkboards that are displayed in front of shops and restaurants to advertise daily specials.

Mr. Leong and Mr. Nanavati are taking that idea digital – while still aiming for the same goal of boosting walk-in traffic. Merchants submit a 160-character promotion either on yourchalkboard.com or by SMS for a flat fee that starts at 99 cents a day. If someone in Chalkboard’s audience comes within a mile of the business’s location, the ad immediately appears on various third-party apps or websites on the consumer’s phone.

In 20 months, Chalkboard has received investment from Joi Ito’s Singapore-based Neoteny Labs fund, partnered with more than 4,400 businesses, and expanded to Malaysia and the U.S. Staff has increased from two to 12 people. Growth has been speedy so far – but one of Chalkboard’s biggest challenges is whether it can stay true to its hyper-local business model as it makes its foray into global markets.

Mr. Leong wasn’t always a tech entrepreneur. The former academic and scientist worked at the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) from 2005 to 2008, where he developed a grid computing solution to search for genomic sequences responsible for stem cell regulation and cancer biology.

His time spent fiddling with programming prepared him for his entrepreneurial project: developing a system on how consumers assess information in a location, which may influence their purchasing decisions.

Chalkboard’s vision is to help small businesses conduct affordable pull marketing, rather than push advertising. “It’s more effective because we’re targeting consumers who are already in the area, and genuinely looking to discover something new about their location,” Mr. Leong says. “So maybe a consumer is at a certain bar and our service will suggest a daily special at a Thai restaurant nearby.”

He also sees Chalkboard as an educational tool that can help merchants better understand digital marketing. The service provides retailers with metrics information, including where their consumers are coming from and which promotions are popular.

The company’s strong focus on localization is what Mr. Leong sees as the main strength in Asian innovation, especially compared with Western counterparts.

As the region is home to a flurry of different national languages, consumer behaviours and regulations, Mr. Leong says the environment makes entrepreneurs more sensitive to market diversity. It is the very reason why Japan’s Mixi has made Facebook irrelevant in the country, while Baidu dominates over Google’s search engine in China, he adds.

“[Asian business leaders]understand the nuances of different markets and they try to overcome the challenges by working around them.”

Yet Singaporean companies’ biggest challenge is their limited home market of only five million. As such, Mr. Leong says entrepreneurs have to expand quickly. “The challenge is to go global from the first day. That means tech businesses have to build something that can be scaled out of Singapore,” says Mr. Leong, who also runs sgentrepreneurs.com, an internet portal focused on entrepreneurship in Singapore and the greater Southeast Asian region.

This potential bottleneck for growth is what drove Chalkboard to expand into Malaysia in April and then Silicon Valley in July. Mr. Leong expects the service will integrate into the U.S. market well, as he says about 70 per cent of American small- and medium-sized businesses already use Twitter and Facebook to communicate sales and promotions. By comparison, Mr. Leong says that figure is less than 5 per cent among Southeast Asian countries.

Still, for digital entrepreneurs in particular, Singapore is a ripe testing ground for gaining feedback from tech-savvy users and then working out kinks. According to a survey by Google and Ipsos of 30,000 individuals from March to July, four Asia Pacific markets have a higher smartphone penetration rate than the U.S. (31 per cent). They include Singapore (62 per cent), Australia (37 per cent), Hong Kong (35 per cent) and urban China (35 per cent).

Some of the feedback Chalkboard received, for example, helped make its features more user friendly. While the service’s first version was centred on a Google street view map – which Mr. Leong describes as a “cool innovation and a great piece of technology” – merchants didn’t like it. “What they really wanted was to tell consumers to go to a shop near them. So we added a feature that provided directions,” Mr. Leong says. “You can innovate, but you have to do so based on users’ feedback.”

As a business pioneer in a land where entrepreneurship is only just starting to gain ground, Mr. Leong’s philosophy is to pursue the ideas you believe in and make at least small changes – which can some day turn into a tipping point.

“I get satisfaction from what I do. Every day I wake up and think about how I can improve Chalkboard, how to build the business and deliver value to customers,” he said. “I believe that once you like what you do, everything else will come.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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EASTERN PROMISE

Singapore’s efforts to become a knowledge- and innovation-based economy can be seen in one-north – a world-class research and development facility for biomedical sciences, infocomm technology and media industries. Launched officially in 2001 by then deputy prime minister Tony Tan Keng Yam – who had hoped to create a “global talent hub” – the 200-hectare business park is located near institutes like the National University of Singapore, INSEAD and the Singapore Science Parks. One-north is comprised of three hubs:

Biopolis

Biopolis is the centrepiece of Singapore’s efforts to become a leading biotechnology centre in the world. Phase One, a 2.4 million square foot biomedical complex of seven buildings, opened in late 2003 and houses government agencies, publicly-funded research institutes and labs of pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Phase Two – completed in October 2006 and devoted to neuroscience and immunology research – increased the Biopolis R&D facility by another 400,000 square feet. Phase Three will support clinical and translational research and is slated for completion this year.

Fusionopolis

Designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, the cluster of buildings at Fusionopolis has become an iconic part of western Singapore’s skyline with its curvy roof trusses, glass buildings and iconic dome.

The 30-hectare area is located less than 2,000 feet away from Biopolis, and is designed to be a R&D hub for physical sciences, engineering, media and infocomm technology. Reza Behnam, founder and CEO of Adz, an online ad-trading platform, was previously headquartered at Fusionopolis’s F11 incubator space for 1.5 years until August, which housed a variety of start-ups. “We learned from each other by osmosis, as we would interact and share ideas with our neighbours sometimes,” Behnam said. “The space was subsidized and that helped us find our legs when we first started our company.”

Mediapolis

Mediapolis will be the third strategic industry cluster in one-north, after Biopolis and Fusionopolis. Set for completion in 2020, the 19-hectare area is designed to be a media hub comprised of soundstages with green screen capabilities; digital production and broadcast studios; digital media and R&D facilities; Computer-generated Imagery and visual effects; as well as post-production, games and animation. Similar to Biopolis and Fusionopolis, Mediapolis will also offer retail, recreational and accommodation facilities.

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