The Smart Axiata Digital Innovation Fund (SADIF) announced its first batch of investees for its programme earlier this month and as such, we at Geeks in Cambodia will be starting a SADIF Interview Series; so that you can gain more insights on these lucky business who clinched this amazing funding opportunity and know what they are really all about!
Kicking this series off, we got the opportunity to have a chat with Co-Founder and CEO of Aniwaa, Martin Lansard. He shared with us all about Aniwaa’s plans post-SADIF, as well as Aniwaa’s flourishing journey so far in the startup ecosystem.
For those of you who do not already know, Aniwaa is an informational media platform revolving around 3D ecosystem, so as to help users of the website pick the right 3D printer or scanner for their needs and budget. With an aim to share their vast expertise in the aforementioned sector, Aniwaa produces content such as machine comparisons and product reviews. To cater to any kind of 3D enthusiast, whether a working professional or just a plain fanatic, they cover a wide array of machines. This spans from cheap fifty-dollar ones for home use to entry-level machines to even advanced, industrial-grade behemoths that can cost over a million dollars; all of which they can read through the website’s detailed filtering system.
They especially focus particularly on the hardware aspect of 3D printers and scanners. This means that not only do they focus on the machines themselves, they also look at the consumables used in the 3D printers and scanners in-depth.
The following interview has been edited for clarity, length and flow.
What inspired you to come up with such an innovation in the first place?
Martin (M): I started this website with my best friend and both of us were really into technology in general. I was still working for Google at that time in the US and he was working for an engineering company back in France; and we were always constantly exchanging links on new types of cutting edge technology and emerging technologies. (Furthermore, my friend) has been working with 3D printers since 2011, which is relatively early, and he told me that I should look into 3D printing because he thought it was going to be big and I would love it.
After researching on the subject a little more, it is quite crazy, or even magical (as I would say)! You can build an object with just a simple machine, so it had this kind of magical touch that I really liked. This made us decide to dig a little deeper on the topic and understand better on how it works, what are the products available; but quickly we realised though all the information is available online, it is complicated, it is always in English and it is scattered all around the web. It is so fragmented and you have to go to many, many websites to piece all the information together. This really was not optimal and we knew that we needed something better, so we put ourselves in the shoes of the users and built this website that people could use a resource, since there was not an existing platform like it on the web.
It started as a small blog, or passion project that we did in the evening and on weekends. We quickly got good traction and traffic, a lot of enquiries; so this is when we realised that we could take things to the next step – That’s why I quit Google and started working full-time on Aniwaa and I came to Cambodia, roughly at the same time, to pursue this project and build the company here.
You have been in the startup scene for quite a while now. Can you share more about the challenges you’ve faced?
M: We’ve been active for around 4 years now already, which is quite long, and we have just announced our first round of investments. During the first 2 years, we were literally just learning a lot about the market, on 3D printing, on how to operate a startup, the financial aspect behind it. Since we were just learning, it made a lot of sense to just remain independent for this first chapter in our journey. Hence, for challenges we faced, we realised that though we were producing good content and have good traffic, how do we make money? How do we monetise this? This was because in the beginning, we didn’t even think this was going to be a viable business, so we never really thought about the business model.
We had to learn by looking around at what other websites did or what other options we had, like having advertising banners or other features that could gain profit, while still remaining respectful to our users. We had to test things out, while keeping in mind the business side of things. I think one of the challenges that all startups face initially is having limited resources and you still have to do all these things that’s equivalent to the work of a 10-person company; (but in reality), there’s only one or two people working on it. Sometimes it’s good, but that means you have to prioritise things all the time. If it is not essential to the website, then you can’t do it.
Also, when we launched, it was during peak period of 3D printing and revolution and this created a lot of unrealistic expectations. People realised that 3D printing is complicated and printers are expensive. You don’t simply plug it into your computer and press ‘Print’, it takes a lot of tinkering, fined tuning and a lot of failed prints; so it’s not something that’s for all consumers, but some companies marketed it otherwise. This led to a big crash and the market was in a crisis. Aniwaa had to survive in this environment, this industry that was being challenged a lot; but we told ourselves if we cannot get through this now, we won’t be able to make it when the brighter day comes.
How did you and your team overcome or work around the various challenges faced?
M: For example, finding our place in the ecosystem was a challenge as it took us sometime. However, we touched all the aspects of the business, from building the actual website, developing the business relationships, becoming an authority in the 3D ecosystem and engaging with existing communities. Initially, it was quite slow, but on the upside, we were able to attain organic and solid growth in the long run naturally and we did not have to buy advertising. We didn’t take any shortcuts basically. We learnt to be nimble and small-structured, as well as to pay attention on how we spend our money. This was all in the angle of being sustainable and self-sufficient.
Also, we made sure to produce the highest quality content possible all the time – If we wanted to do reviews, we had to come up with an accurate test protocol that would prove to be valuable to our readers. Whatever we publish is something we have to stand for afterwards. (With such structured practices,) this has led us to where we are today.
You talked about a big product release being in the pipelines since last year. Can you elaborate more on that and what has evolved thus far?
M: We were actually working on a big performance update for the website in August. Apart from changing the website’s design slightly, we rebuilt our entire database of products from scratch. The main result for the users is having a much faster and much more stable website. There weren’t much changes on the frontend, but on the backend, it was really a lot!
We did this because we were reaching the point where we had over 2,000 products on the website and the filtering engine can get really slow if you have so many products. So for example, if you are looking for printers under a thousand dollars, it can actually take up to 30 seconds to process and for websites, this isn’t very good for users – If they have to wait for more than 10 seconds, they will just go to other websites.
Secondly, we also worked on the user’s experience on the website. We have to follow the market trends; it has evolved a lot since we started, there have been ups and downs. In 2012 and 2013, all the media outlets were talking about how everyone would probably have a 3D printer in their home, but of course, that didn’t happen. There was a big crash in the trend and that’s when people realised that 3D printers did not really belong in a home setting, but more for professional applications like B2B. Hence, our website has to reflect the evolution of the market, so we are releasing new filters for our comparison engine. These new filters include build volume, which is something a lot of businesses look for when purchasing.
Recently, Aniwaa was also chosen as one of the three first batch of investees for Smart Axiata’s Digital Innovation Fund (SADIF). How did being chosen as the first few investees feel like?
M: We are extremely happy with this opportunity, for many reasons! Firstly, we are a startup, our product is live and already generating revenue and we want to accelerate this growth, so we need more resources. If manage to get people to believe in your mission and vision, it is a great validation and shows that the startup has potential. For us, this was the first time we really got this kind of external feedback and this is important for Aniwaa because beyond the capital, we also look for guidance.
We are lucky that Smart is a very innovative company with a lot of talented people working for them, so it is an avenue for us to gain skills and advice for Aniwaa. Furthermore, for Aniwaa, though we are based in Cambodia, we are a global media and something very interesting about SADIF is that they not only want to develop projects targeting Cambodian people, but they also want to create global leaders based in Cambodia. This is our ambition, we want to be a world class tech review website.
Following this investment, what are Aniwaa’s future plans?
M: We will continue to release small updates to the website every few months, according to the market trends. With our current methodology and everything we learnt so far on emerging technologies, we hope to expand to other product categories and go beyond 3D printing. We hope to adapt to new universes of products, like Virtual Reality, Drones or Augmented Reality, always with angle of hardware product reviews.
Actually, we are already fully focused on building the VR and AR section; we are preparing what filters for comparison to create and what content to produce, but it will definitely take some time.
Seeing your successes, what advice do you have for other aspiring startups out there right now?
M: From my experience, before thinking about raising funds, I think it is super important to get your idea validated by the market somehow. I have seen a lot of projects start out in a very opportunistic way, quickly wanting to raise funds, wanting to become tech millionaires and all that; but I think it becomes very challenging to receive good results by just being opportunistic. So, I think it is very important to have a team in place and a product that works. The more solid and the more tangible the project is, the better it will be to find good partners to help your business get to the next stage. I would say, don’t go on looking for partners too early, try as much as you can to develop something by yourself first because this is the best way to learn the ins-and-outs. When the time comes to accelerate, you will know exactly what you need to do and it will be much faster.
With that, we wish Aniwaa all the best as they further venture into different universes of tech products and especially with their newfound investment, we are sure that we will be seeing even greater things in time to come! For more information on Aniwaa, do visit their website here or head on over to their Facebook page here.
Also, don’t forget to stay tuned to this series on our website as we will be sharing more stories from the other two SADIF investees soon!