By TEH SHI NING
WITH all the gloom and doom these days, some good news is welcome. And better still, good news that does not come at someone else's expense and may prove helpful.
The economic downturn has been a 'blessing in disguise' for PurpleClick Media, says managing director and founder Leonard Tan.
'When the sub-prime problems started, we were worried and trimmed costs to prepare for the worst,' he says. 'But since then, enquiries actually increased.'
Mr Tan says that although customers have tightened their belts and slashed marketing budgets, they now track each advertising dollar spent to get the best value.
The search engine marketing (SEM) solutions that PurpleClick offers seem to be a perfect fit for SMEs, who particularly need to stay lean in this climate, says Mr Tan.
'It's low-risk. The ads appear for free so not a cent is paid for exposure, and you pay only for each confirmed click to your site,' he says.
He thinks that the value in SEM beats flyers, with some clients spending just $200 a month, depending on their budget and how aggressively they intended to use SEM.
Additional cause for cheer is the increase in volumes of search queries.
Although Mr Tan concedes that deeper broadband penetration may have contributed to the jump in searches, he thinks that it is also due to consumers being more cautious about spending and researching for the best value before buying anything.
'This means they're in purchasing mode already when they go online, so we tell our customers they've got to reach them or they'll go to the competitor,' he says.
PurpleClick also collates data for clients on the traffic streaming to their sites via search engines, and trouble-shooting services based on that data analysis.
If there is someone who understands the challenge of getting a business going and keeping the engine revved on the up slope, it is the founder of an SME.
Mr Tan left his job at Yahoo SEA in February 2006 to start PurpleClick. He constantly reiterates, during his interview with BT, how 'very fortunate' or 'very blessed' the company has been to have taken off rapidly - in less than three years. But this success seems to be as much the result of sheer grit and hard work as the stars lining up PurpleClick's way.
While at Yahoo, Mr Tan found himself helping clients with queries on other search engines, for free and on the sidelines of his job. The sheer volume of work he was doing voluntarily opened up a window of business opportunity.
Hence, with the blessing of his bosses, Mr Tan started up his own enterprise in a non-ventilated backroom of a Chinatown shophouse, which had little else besides the benefit of proximity to Yahoo's office and low rent.
The business took off steadily, and PurpleClick soon moved to a unit in People's Park Complex, expanding soon after to take another unit on the same floor.
Mr Tan and his young team - the average age of his 15-strong staff is 26 - moved again earlier this year, to their current location near Outram Park MRT.
At the intersection of the East-West and North-East lines, the new location is 'most convenient for our employees', whom Mr Tan praises for their hard work and loyalty.
He was grateful too, to find supportive mentors in his ex-bosses, who helped him fine-tune his business plan when he first ventured out. The 'Purple' in PurpleClick is a hat-tip to Yahoo's official colour.
'But now the SMEs, our clients, those are our bosses,' says Mr Tan. PurpleClick is the only ad re-seller in South-east Asia which is accredited by Yahoo and Google. Some 80 per cent of the company's several hundred clients are SMEs, he says. 'We can serve the SME market very well.'
The product sells itself because search engine marketing suits SMEs well, says Mr Tan. Much of PurpleClick's own marketing is by word of mouth. 'SME bosses generally have friends who are also SME bosses so we've been growing a lot via referrals, there's a powerful viral marketing effect.' he says.
SMEs are an important customer base for PurpleClick, he notes. 'We really want to focus on the SME space. It's a tough space to crack but we believe we can build our strength there.'
To that end, he regularly runs seminars and workshops for SMEs on the potential of SEM, with organisations such as the Singapore Business Federation, IE Singapore and the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
PurpleClick's clients range from recognisable names such as Far East Flora, Job Central, Avis and Parkway Healthcare to niche businesses such as speech therapists and swimming instructors.
It has cast its nets further afield too, and set up an one-person office in Kuala Lumpur nine months ago. 'The market there is interested but not buying yet - like Singapore was four or five years ago,' Mr Tan says. 'But we want to be there and establish a foothold so that when the market matures and the companies are ready to purchase, they'll know who to turn to.'
Mr Tan was recently named a candidate for BusinessWeek's Young Entrepreneur of The Year.
He shies away from speaking of his nomination, and ever the SME champion, hastens to add that it was the first time that three Singapore entrepreneurs have been nominated.
'If any of us win, it would be a great encouragement to entrepreneurship in Singapore I think,' he says.
This article was first published in The Business Times on November 18, 2008.