Female Founders, Startups vs. Corporates and the Power of Networking – Meet Marielle Reussink, founder of the Singapore-based marketing company “The EMMS”.

“I believe in the power of the individual and it is my mission to make people realize they have power. I think many of us feel completely disenfranchised, believing that the world’s problems are simply too big and that we as individuals are just too small to make an impact or that our goals are out of reach and that we will never be able to achieve them. However, I believe we all have the power to create our own destiny and that we can make a difference. For me this applies to everything – from business to recycling. I’m sure this sounds very idealistic and makes cynics smile, but I genuinely believe that if one puts one’s mind to something, one can achieve it – and this is what I live by.” Marielle Reussink

SINGAPORE – Every day we read about the global challenges in the news – global warming, human rights, extremist groups on the rise etc. Sometimes these problems just seem too big for us to solve as individuals. However, I had the pleasure of meeting Marielle Reussink – an inspiring founder who convinced me that all of us can get involved to drive the change we want to see in the world and that everybody counts. During our interview, we talked about our experiences as female founders, working in various countries (Marielle is originally from Namibia/South Africa and has moved across continents) and the power of networking.

Marielle, what is your background and why did you found your own Marketing company?

I always wanted to start my own business, but after graduating I felt it would be better to first gain some experience from working at big companies. So, I joined the corporate world. During my time in corporate, I had the opportunity to work in challenging roles on interesting projects.

My last job before becoming a founder was to build up the digital marketing capabilities of an international branding company in APAC. I had a lot of autonomy in my role. It was a bit like setting up my own business whilst being part of an established company.

From this experience, I really felt I was ready to start my own thing and there were a lot things that just weren’t quite working out for me being in corporate. For instance, as an employee, I always felt that somebody else was constantly telling me what I’m “worth” with my salary and at some point, that really stopped adding up. I wanted to see if I could make it on my own, pursuing my own mission and vision.

It was the best decision. It just felt right from the get-go. I remember writing my letter of resignation when I was flying back from my wedding last year. When it was done, I felt so relieved and excited to finally do my own thing. I left my previous company on good terms though.

Do you see a difference in how marketing is done in Asia compared to Europe or North America?

Marketing in Asia is a bit different. Often clients still feel very reluctant of trying digital or they just want to jump on the band wagon without really knowing what role digital channels can play in the marketing mix. As a marketing consultant, I have to do a lot of education to fix misperceptions.

We often read about very young entrepreneurs starting their business right out of university. This is a very different path from your own. Where do you see the advantages and disadvantages of having gained corporate experience prior to becoming a founder?

Gaining corporate experience before founding your own business has certain advantages. For me at least, it allowed me to build up my personal network, which I could immediately tap into when I started my own business. Furthermore, having corporate experience made me more conscious of the “game” and this benefits me daily in identifying genuine leads and opportunities.

In corporate, I also learned a lot about business strategy, as well as different sales tactics and I was able to develop a realistic revenue-cost perspective. In addition, as I worked for international companies in various countries, I also learned how to work with different cultures, how business works in different countries and how important it is to understand legislative frameworks in these countries.

If you start your business right out of university and feel confident, go for it. I think you might be able to get to the same stage, but the journey might be much tougher, because you have so much more to learn. On the other hand, perhaps these entrepreneurs solve problems in a different way (because they do not know the rules) and thus might be even more successful. I mean, it also depends a lot on the individual.

You just mentioned that your network was a crucial foundation for your business. Can you share with us your networking approach?

I think networking is really important for entrepreneurs because it helps you to constantly get better in how you position yourself and how you tell your story. Also, it is a great way of getting feedback on your concept.

I am not really the person who goes to events to pitch and quickly exchange name cards though. I believe in developing longer term relationships. Thus, I joined a working community and apart from serving as my permanent office, it proved to be a great base to connect with people.

Another great way of networking, I discovered recently, is joining Facebook groups. I join certain groups because of a personal interest and connect with people because of that shared interest. In the long-run, some turn into customers. I’m surprised this works!

On another note, what I do find sad though is that a lot of accomplished women are still reluctant to promote other women. This is definitely the case in corporate. It is a bit different in the startup scene but I do have the feeling that a lot of women in Singapore are reluctant to connect. I don’t know why. It’s a pity because we should stick together and help each other.  I always think we would be stronger together.

You focus on SMEs and startups in terms of your clients. What is the difference in working with them compared to big international companies.

The interaction is different depending on the customer profile: startups are usually more direct and personally invested. The way they approach marketing is very results-oriented because the industry is moving very fast and they invested their own time, money and risk.

I still also work with well-established companies and typically they need more data and time to make decisions. Their environment is much more complex, so that does play a role. But also, I think it has to do with projects just being another KPI to meet, rather than pursuing one’s passion and personal goals, as is the case with many entrepreneurs.

How would you advise a startup to do their marketing?

Planning your marketing is key. A lot of young companies think after the product development, the big tasks are done. But then they realize that marketing the product is as challenging. It is important to start planning early – and to make sure that you have the budget for it. I see it so often: great product, but zero strategy and budget to promote it. This is not the road to success. Products don’t promote themselves and people won’t just find your website or app.

While digital marketing is probably the most effective channel category, considering the cost-reach ratio, it’s important to understand all the available channels well and to comprehend which of these best suit your needs. Also never put all your eggs in one basket. Always use multiple channels in an integrated way.

Once your brand is a bit more established, also think about how offline, such as events, could play a role in either bringing your customers closer to you or in finding new customers. Also in this regard, a seamless integration between online and offline will be crucial to see results.

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But first, build up a digital following. The advantage of digital marketing is that you have a direct feedback loop to see where your money is going and what’s working. This will help you be so much more effective.

What do you do to overcome a “down phase”?

It depends on the “down”. Most of the time, I take a time out and try to take a break from the situation – like watching a movie, meeting a friend, going for a walk.  Working at a coworking space also helps me a lot to overcome more difficult phases because I am surrounded by people with similar challenges and there’s always someone to discuss it with to get a different perspective.

On the flip side, I had a phase when I felt extremely down and none of the things I just mentioned helped. I had to try something new and made a list of all the things that were getting me down. I was doubtful this would work at first, but I just had to do something and it actually did enable me to identify the problem. It was totally unrelated to work.

Would you recommend other women to start their own businesses?

Yes, I would absolutely recommend women – and men (smiles) – to become entrepreneurs. But it is a very personal thing. If you can deal with ambiguity, founding your own business is great because by nature, it brings a lot of uncertainty.

But not everyone is meant to be or wants to be an entrepreneur. I think that a lot of people are made to feel guilty about not being entrepreneurs and that they are not “cool” enough.  But if you are happy at your 9-5 job, that is perfectly fine as well.

Also, the current trend of people focusing on a “cool” idea discourages a lot of potential founders. In my opinion you can of course found a company if your product might not be the newest or most innovative idea but if it is something that you are passionate about and that you can do better. Look at Alan Sugar – he built his fortune on the basis of setting up a general importer/exporter.

I like using him as an example because it shows that you can be successful outside of the tech world as well and that there is A LOT of opportunity out there to do your own thing. I’m always surprised what people make money with and the diverse business propositions I encounter. It’s really a fascinating time to be part of the scene.

Also, I think in the long-run the whole ecosystem should move away from considering only tech companies as “startups”. We all need to collaborate – no matter if you run a software business or a marketing company. We can grow as an ecosystem. The pie is big enough.

Thank you for the interview!

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