From France to Singapore: One Man’s Story from Surfing Internet 1.0 in 2000 to Becoming Head of Digital Customer Experience in 2013 and Still More to Come…

“We think of success as only measured by your money. / But, money never lasts. / In fact, it’s only last / on the list of impactful things you can ask for / …So, with that – we need us a plan…” – Wale, The Perfect Plan

Welcome to The Many Faces of Success Interview Series: a reoccurring interview series focusing on success in many forms. From entrepreneurs to writers, to travellers who are just living the life they want to live…in this interview series I sit down with people who are living and defining their own success on their own terms, people who I find inspiring, and whose stories I find interesting enough to share here.

In today’s post I sit down with Pascal Ly: Head of Web Marketing for Salesforce.com Asia Pacific at the time I have done this interview with him, before he moved into his new role recently as Head of Digital Customer Experience for Schneider Electric. Pascal was promoted to this post at a fairly young age, after stints in consulting, IT, web development, business development, and an early start in entrepreneurship. He is originally from Lille, France, which is where he started his early career in 2000 before moving to Paris in 2006 to continue exploring new horizon before ending up in Singapore in 2010.

I originally met up with Pascal when I was living in Singapore last year and he invited me out to Salesforce’s offices for a chat and share his story with me. I enjoyed it and found it quite inspiring. So much so, that I caught up with him during a recent short trip to Singapore to hear him tell it again in order to write this blogpost. We caught up at a Starbucks on a Saturday, had a couple of coffees, and the following conversation took place:

Pascal-Ly

Pascal Ly

=============

Beginnings: An Entrepreneur by Age 19.

William: Let’s start with your story. I remember you telling me last time, when you were young you started a company?

Pascal: Yes, that’s correct.

The company I created with 2 other partners, it was in the year 2000, just before my 20 years old. It was a company that was offering professional stock charts tool to the general public. All was needed to use our service is a computer, a browser and an internet connection. The users would sign up to be able to create their online portfolios, and would also connect several times per day which was increasing the numbers of page viewed. That was basically our business model – create value to the business with customer data and also generate revenue with ads. I can tell you that business model was almost the single one at that time and the only one valued as every business income was generated by the ads at that time. It was the “everything is for free on Internet” era.

How did the development go?

Well, once that our platform was ready we went down showcasing our services in an exhibition that was focused on Online Trading for the general public interested in personal trading. To be honest, the exhibition was 3 days long and the very first impression I had was a mix of happiness and stress. Our booth was only 10 meter square in a corner of the exhibition campground and we were surrounded by those enormous booth held by those Online brokers which were subsidiaries of big banks. They had tons of resources: manpower, demo, goodies and… names. We were no one at the exhibition, and lucky for us those guys were not our competitors. I quickly realized that we could offer our services to them, having our solutions integrated into their platform and be useful to their customers.

At the end of those 3 days exhibition, we had attracted a lot of interest both from the public and the Online trader companies. I believe it is thanks to that exhibition that we had business angels getting interested in buying our company. So, the company got sold to those business angels, even though I didn’t want it as I wanted to continue making it grow, but my 2 other partners were keen to proceed, so it was sold. They didn’t want to keep the management at that time. They were saying “youngsters, let us do the business and we’ll figure out how to do it even better”. Now looking back into how things went, well it was a good decision because at the end of the day what happened is that the bubble came very quickly and then…

So y’all were able to sell the company right before the bubble?

Yeah, that’s right. And then the bubble came and it all crashed. Like wow, we didn’t see it coming. I remember not totally realizing what was happening at that time.

So sometimes it’s just luck?

Sometimes it’s just luck. I really believe that sometimes it’s just luck. That also means that you do need to provoke luck. Do nothing and nothing will happen, try something and see what results come out of it. Even though I do believe that a 360 degree view is needed to really understand where your business is standing and what could be the opportunities and threat to your business. Most of the time we only look into one single direction, and that is when you are putting a company in a dangerous situation.

So you quit your studies to start the company?

I was feeling deep inside the urge to create something now. The most difficult part for anybody is to start. I felt I had nothing to lose but a lot to win so I did it.

Act on it while you have the passion?

Act on it while you have the passion, as you never know what can happen tomorrow. So when an opportunity knoks at your door, you have to grab it. And if you fail, it’s okay, because you have to be able to accept that failure is part of the path to success.

This company was created and located in France, right?

Yeah, that was in France. In 2000. Just started at the beginning of 2000, and the end was in 2000 as well.

The Early Internet, Dial-Up Modems, and Big Car Phones

Ok. So what’d you do after you sold the company?

So, after that I moved… However I wanted to stay on the internet industry in a way or another. It was something very new and I could sense the opportunity. My first time I was on the internet I was 16 years old in1996. So I was already on the internet for 4 years before I was starting my company.

What do mean by “the first time you were on the internet”?

Meaning started to surf on the internet, to chat, and to send email. You know at that time we were using the 56K modems, so you know… tick, tick, tick… beeeepp… and then you’re getting connected. I was using internet with 2 other classmate, and actually it’s one of them who had initiated me into internet. No one I knew in my network was using it or even knowing what was internet. At that time, I was already wondering of how we could be able to transfer files without waiting weeks. I was a huge PC gamer at that time and our internet connection was billed per hour (sic) with no online gaming such as MMORPG.

Guess what, I’m still using nowadays my Hotmail email address that I created in 1999.

And you still use the same address?

Still using it. It’s my primary email address and not something I will change. Nowadays thanks to mailinator we can sign up for almost anything avoiding spam. I didn’t had that at that time and so I’m regularly using mailinator nowadays when I sign up for non-important stuff.

Actually, I like to detect early trends. Because, I remember at that time the internet was something, but mobile was also something coming up. My first mobile phone I had it in 1997.

Was it one of those big car phones? Or what was it?

It wasn’t that big. Even though it was like the size of a soft drink can, without the antenna and the keyboard clap deployed and with double the weight. So all deployed it was the size of 2 soft drink can. I discovered that mobile phone gives you freedom with totally new experience. Imagine yourself as a very young adult, if not a teenager still, being able to call your girlfriend in a quiet room without anyone hearing your conversation. So I bought one for my girlfriend and it the experience was amazing. I also remember starting using SMS at that time. It was totally free at that time as it was more used for technical usage, soon to be the cash cow for the telcos when they realized that there was an opportunity for them to create an offer. Remember what I said earlier about opportunities and 360 view? That’s a great example.

Progression into a Digital Agency

So, what’d you get into? You wanted to stay in internet?

Indeed, I stayed in the internet industry. I moved on joining one of France’s leading digital agency at that time – Internence.com. The agency had 150 employees with big names as our customers, and I was lucky to actively participate on the account of Nintendo. Sometime people ask me how come I got embarked into it. I believe it all comes to attitude mostly.

So I went on working with my bosses’ boss and meet with the Marketing Director and his team. The experience was really great, nothing is more worth than the experience compared to the theory – maybe that’s why I was wondering what I was doing at school instead of experiencing real life. Attending meetings, listening to conversations happening was fantastic, especially when the customer is asking me directly questions and encouraging to really voice out what I was thinking. You have to put back in context where internet was still relatively new to everyone, and they needed idea to be ahead in this new media. I learned at that time that any ideas can be good and can be coming from anyone in a room regardless of their position or experience. Review what you know in an unknown context to understand the new rules. This could be applicable for social media nowadays.

This fantastic journey in that agency lasted for about 2 years before it completely shut down. The company grew so fast that it had hired in consequence, and have not seen an important factor in the equation – when a website is done, it takes 3 to 5 years before revamping it. So when you have almost all the big companies having a website already then what do you do meanwhile? When realizing the situation, it was too late. The company had no choice but to completely close down. That was unexpected and sad, however, I’m really grateful to have been part of this company and have worked with people who have mentored me.

So, after that company shut down, then what’d you do?

So after that company shut down, I was still convinced that I wanted to stay in the internet industry. I was lucky to get in touch with Normedia, a traditional communication agency that wanted to operate a shift into digital. The connection between them and me went very well and so we started a new chapter for Normedia together. Then was born Ingeeny lab – the digital section of Normedia.

I had ambition, passion and I knew which direction I wanted to take.

They gave me all the keys so I could create that business unit. I come up with the new name, the new logo, build up the team from the ground. I was wearing different hats to cover all the different role needed from general management to project manager and also sales representative. Competing against others was really thought. To make our place in the market there was only one option: be providing more services than others would do. That would start with a simple mojo: listen to what our customers wants, what is the real issue and how can we help solve their problem. If you can give value to the customer and show them what’s in there for them, then you already have done the most difficult part of the job.

I stayed in the company for 4 years. Growing up from just myself and another guy to nine people when I left.

So this is still in France?

Indeed, still in France. After 3 years and having stabilized the business unit I decide to go back to school attending 1 year study at EDHEC Business School for the Advance Management Program. After graduating I realize that it was time to move on as I wanted to explore consulting and get experience in a multinational company.

Stints in Consulting and Working with Smart People

I left Ingeeny lab and joined a well renowed multinational: Capgemini. My consulting and multinational experience have started with them.

Kind like strategy consulting, but still in the IT or, something else?

It was mainly about IT and my focus was definitely into consulting, getting in touch with decision makers on another level than my previous experiences.

It was the biggest company you worked for so far?

Definitely, I also made my move to Paris to join Capgemini. Being working at La Defense which is the French business district with view on the Eiffel Tower was a blast. I have quickly been appointed as IT consultant assigned to a public function account – basically working for a government body that I will call the Agency. I was in charge of ensuring that all the architectures on the different projects that the Agency’s project managers wanted to implement was respecting the different principles of SOA architecture that we wanted them to apply.

I learned a lot. My colleagues were fantastic as they were always supporting me to acquire the right level of knowledge to cover what I was suppose to cover. I had trust from my management and my team members.

I was teaming up with two senior people. They were very senior: like more than ten year experiences in that field. I was very worried because, I was very junior, in that field. Instead the team was counting on me to help them solve problems. Basically I was conducting and participating in “questions” meeting which had helped them find solutions as we were looking problems in different angles.

This is really powerful. That’s also what I was saying earlier: ideas can come from anybody, because you can help others to generate other ideas, to find solutions when they are just talking with someone else.

One of the things that was fantastic from my colleagues is that they never at any moment questioned why I was in the team. I was part of the team. They were trusting me. There were things that I didn’t know how to do, but I was just pulling up my sleeves, getting into reading books, doing research, getting things done by understanding what those things are about.

So, at the end of the my assignment, which was the one year assignment, I was able to understand and explain to others what was an SOA architecture, how to implement it correctly, and what were the things that we should be doing. I continue on that assignment for an additional year.

So, the thing that made me moved from Capgemini is because it was too technical and still a bit far from the business. I wanted to be much closer to the business. So, I moved into this company, weave, that is a consulting in management and organization.

Okay, so you stayed in consulting?

Indeed, I stayed in consulting.

I joined weave, and was impressed by the number of very smart people I was working with. When you work with smart people you tend to become smarter yourself.

So, basically I joined and then I was assigned to a lot of different kinds of assignments. Finally doing the kind of consulting I wanted. The kind of consulting that is looking into a problem in 360 degree view.

So, this is strategy consulting?

The partners were coming from other big consulting companies with their tools and methodology. The mojo was constructive impertinence. Which I still adhere to nowadays.

I was more in charge of solving problems related to the Information System on first assignement. Even thought it was about IS and IT, we were always keeping in sight the business and the users. It was different from Capgemini where we were keeping in sight the technology.

The entire paradigm is changed and do make sense to me.

Okay and now it’s flipped, right?

It’s flipped. So it’s: “what’s the business requirement? what’s going on? what’s the problem? how can we help to get things working better for the business by implementing solutions that will be adapted to the business’ needs?”

Totally different and it just opens up. You can look into a problem from different angles. Depending on the angle that you take, you will have different effect.

I stayed there for 2 years. I enjoyed it a lot.

The mind set of the firm was very good. They wanted to grow, but not become humongous. You know, you want become taller and stronger, but not fat.

Next Stop: Singapore

Ah okay..

So, I moved out because I just wanted to come to Singapore. I did a transit in Singapore and I found that Singapore was a place that I wanted to be.

A great place for business, or for technology, or for..?

To live. It just felt like home.

I didn’t know Singapore. It was just a Southeast Asian Country I’ve heard about.

But, I was very surprised by the country: the dynamism, the infrastructure, and I was just wandering around the city and it just felt like home.

I just felt that I had to come. On the way back to France, on the plane, my decision was made.

You just decided that you needed to come back to Singapore?

Indeed, I went to see my boss and I told him about my new aspiration to take a new challenge in Singapore.

So, you resigned just to go to Singapore?

Yes, I resigned, moved out my stuff and then I came to Singapore.

I wanted to continue doing consulting but my English was an issue, at least in the consulting world where each word has got its weight and importance.

Okay. So, the jargon and slang..

Indeed, it was really hard to get the correct words and terms while I was doing my interviews. So instead of insisting taking a path that would most likely lead to certain failure, I prefered changing path. For anything I would engage myself into, I would ensure putting all assets on my side.

So, I wasn’t able to pursue anything in that field in Singapore and also wanted to find a way to get into the big ones: the BCGs, the McKinseys. So, I was thinking of going for a MBA. Taking a step back then, I thought about it and though that’s not necessarily what I want.

Again, it’s a question of what’s your objective at the end of the day. You might have zero plans or a very well-crafted one. In many cases plans might fail. One thing that will stay there is your objective. So you have to stick to it and just stay focused on the objective. The plans will come along the way to make you achieve that objective.

How long were you in Singapore looking before you found a job?

3 months. I took on a job that was senior project manager role. The role felt like what I was doing back in France, in previous experiences at Ingeeny lab and Capgemini.

I have had been assigned to work with Philips Lighting, it was exciting to work with another big company but I was wondering what would be in there for me. Well guess what, as soon as I started working with Philips, I realized that I was learning quite a lot. I was realizing that in any situation you can acquire new experiences. It is all about what you want to do about your job that will make it an awesome experience or not. I managed to turn this experience into a really great thing because I felt I could explore and experience a new environment, a different culture, different projects and a different industry.

So how long did you stay?

I just stayed 9 months as then the project was ending and no renewal was proposed, so in this situation I only could quit and start looking around.

So with that customer what markably are they at? Was it the Asian market?

Indeed, it was Asia.

Asia is a very interesting and exciting place to be. Coming to SIngapore and living it from inside as truly been an eye opener. There are wider opportunities and the entire APAC region is interesting, I was working with different people across the world, from Europe to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, also Australia. So it was really interesting.

And, Into salesforce.com

So I moved into salesforce.com taking care of a regional role for the APAC region. For the anecdote, the first role I had at salesforce.com was a position I applied before moving to Singapore, without success though. However the job stayed vacant for almost a year. Feels like the job was just waiting for me to join at the right time and the right moment.

So you moved from Phillips into saleforce.com?

Indeed.

For the first time after over 10 years of experience I’m moving into the end-customer side. All my prior experience have had been around providing services to end-customers. Now I’m an end-customer.

For sure my previous experience servicing end-customer is a strong asset, as I do have a very strong sense of service. I know what it is to serve your employees, your peers, your customers, your stakeholders. Actually, service is very strong in my DNA.

When my contract was ending with Philips, I could have started to worry to get into bad time for finding a job again. But the experience I had accumulated and lived with Philips had given me confidence that I could make it here in Singapore and that I could join salesforce.com for a position that seems just to be waiting for me.

So, I joined salesforce.com, and I’ve stayed there for 2.5 years. My first role was Web Production Manager for a year, then I get promoted to be the Head of Web Marketing just a year after. I have held this last position for 1.5 years.

To me, luck means being at the right place at the right moment. If you feel like there’s something to do, then you should be really trying to push for it and to do it. You never know if it will be success or failure at the end. One thing for sure, you won’t have regrets of having tried.

So, in the past, you did a lot of servicing clients, servicing customers and I guess a bit of business development too. Now in salesforce.com, do you think that plays into the business model or customer relationship management?

It’s like what the CEO of salesforce.com, Marc Benioff, is saying, “every role in salesforce.com is customer-facing”. It is so true. The website we are developing is most of the time the first point of contact with salesforce.com. With all respect we have to the customers, we need to ensure that everything is ready to welcome them on the website with a smooth experience.

People get in touch with you through the website? So, it’s mostly inbound marketing? or…?

It’s both.

Mainly for us, we are applying an inbound strategy to try to attract people to come to our websites. It’s also asking them to leave us contact details if they are interested so then we can get back to them and that’s how we are generating leads in our business.

Alright… Time up?

Yeah, time up. I really need to run.

Change is always happening

======= UPDATE: from Pascal ======

Since our last interview, I have moved into an amazing opportunity with Schneider Electric. I’m basically making the company get into this transformation journey, shifting the entire company into the digital era. My role is crucial here as I need to ensure all parts are moving along together. This is great to see all the accumulated experience getting a practical case. No more direct reports, but huge amount of people to work with in virtual teams.

It’s been over a month since I’m in this new business. Totally new, with people having huge amount of experience in the business. I’m impressed by the number of years people have been with this company and expect to learn a lot from them.

For sure this new role is a step further towards my objective. The plan changes along the way as opportunity appears, but one thing remains stable – the objective.

Probably will be able to share more in near future, I would be glad to look back into this blog post in few month or years and see how things are evolving.

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