Wed. Sep 23rd, 2020

Hitting the waves of Southeast Asia’s audio content with Waves co-founders Kevin Gao and Ben Le11 min read

“The power of audio, the way the ecosystem works is that it’s much more open.” — Kevin Gao

About our guests

Kevin Gao

Kevin is a serial entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, having been part of the founding team of three companies including shopping rewards company Shopkick and self-publishing platform Hyperink. He brings product management expertise and operator experience to Southeast Asia with Waves8. He began his career at Google with TechOps and McKinsey as a business analyst. He received his Bachelors in Economics from Stanford University.

Ben Le

Ben is a serial entrepreneur with a wide range of experience, having co-founded Btaskee, an online marketplace for on-demand cleaning and maid services, and coordinated the growth of financial services blockchain company, WeTrust Platform in the APAC region. He graduated from the University of California Berkeley with a degree in Business Administration.


00:44 Kevin and Ben Introduction

01:51 What excites them about audio-first content in Southeast Asia today

03:26 How Kevin and Ben came together and started Waves

05:30 Bay Area/Silicon Valley vs Vietnam

07:19 Lessons from working with creators

09:04 Pain point of creators they are targeting

10:36 How audio amplifies the abilities of creators

12:03 Lessons from previous ventures

14:13 What users should be excited about when it comes to audio

15:21 Favorite podcasts

Yinglan: I would love to get a quick sound bite of yourself and also what excites you about audio-first content in Southeast Asia today. 

Kevin: I grew up in America, and spent most of my time starting companies, largely with the focus on media and content. Last company was an ebook publisher, and before that there were a couple of businesses also related to content. When I moved to Southeast Asia, what I noticed first and foremost, was the energy, change, and excitement in the region. 

Particularly in Vietnam, you just really notice not only this incredible pool of technical talent, but just this real desire among people, especially among young people, to want to improve their lives, to want to better themselves, and they’re very avid content consumers. 

It’s from that angle, given our background with publishing and with content, as well as being a very avid and dedicated podcast listener, we just felt the market is young. It’s early, there’s an opportunity to build a really special brand, working with creators to build really really good online radio, online audio content.  

Yinglan: Our listeners would love to hear about how you and the founding team came together. What experiences inspired or motivated you to start an audio platform in Southeast Asia? In particular, what was the thought process behind starting in Vietnam? 

Ben: So I actually met Kevin, seven or eight months ago through a mutual friend, Charles, the founder of CoderSchool. He introduced us at the time, we were just bouncing off ideas about different things we wanted to do with content, and I always remember Kevin saying if we want to do something we should do it today. I remember our very first experience, we launched a website for different types of text content, found that audio content was a lot more interesting. We got some microphones and started recording some podcasts, things took off after that. We had some really great first hand experience making our own podcast, and it’s come to the point, where we’re focusing less on creating our own content and really partnering and focusing on the content creators, how do we build them up, how do we bring this into a platform kind of model. 

Kevin: In that context, for all the entrepreneurs out there, looking to start a company or maybe have an idea, my experience having come from America to Vietnam, is that the community is incredibly welcoming, it’s relatively small although it’s growing. Everyone sort of knows each other and if you show interest and come to events, it’s really easy to meet a lot of other people, and  the sense of energy here is palpable. That’s what really drove us and what helped us hire our early team and go from there.

Yinglan: How does the energy compare and contrast in the Bay Area vs Vietnam?

Kevin: It’s been both incredible as well as had its challenges and its frustrations at times. On the incredible side, you just have this sense that there’s so many different opportunities, as well as a willingness among people to listen to you and to really want to build on those opportunities in whatever market you can think of, B2B B2C, offline, online. That’s been incredible. There’s an incredible pool of talent, there are all people here who are quite young, who work hard, who are enthusiastic. Some of them are very skilled. That’s always been great. In terms of where the challenges are, the biggest challenge I’ve noticed is that some of the mindset that entrepreneurs and investor shave in the Bay Area haven’t necessarily come out here, as well as Vietnam and Southeast Asia they have a different business culture, different ways to operate, and different thinking styles, and so being able to take the best of what I’ve learned in the Bay Area dn Silicon Valley and trying to find the appropriate context here, that can be a challenge at times and requires good help patience and that’s a learning process. 

Yinglan: You’ve been focused on working closely with content creators, and in your recent press release they mentioned benefiting a lot from your help. On the other hand, what have you learned from working with them? 

Kevin: Three months ago our focus has been very much on creating our own shows, creating our own audio. What we’ve done in the last couple months and we’re excited by it’s been doing very well, it’s just working with top Youtubers to KOLs to celebrities to MCs. What we’ve really enjoyed about that process is that no one knows their audience better than creators. They’ve been doing video content or Instagram photos for months and for years. They really understand what their audience is like and they’re always looking for ways to grow their audience. Audio is this really exciting new channel, it’s relatively easy to get started, and it’s a great way to be on Spotify, be on Waves, be on iTunes, and be on all these platforms, and we can help with that. What we’ve learned is almost any market has creators that really want to build a lifestyle around sharing their life and sharing their skills, creating content online. Audio is just a new way, a very powerful way to reach their audience. In particular it’s a very powerful depth medium. What I mean by that is the relationship that these creators have in audio, whether it’s in the US like Joe Rogan, or it’s in China with some of the professors who are teaching courses. You just get a much deeper relationship with someone when they listen to you for different reasons. 

Yinglan: What is the pain point that you are targeting? 

Ben: I think one of the good examples of one of the KOLs was Lieu Ha Trinh. She’s known for being a very famous MC, a talk host of many different shows, and a lot of people when I mention the name to people in Vietnam, they might not specifically know her name, but when they hear her voice, they definitely recognize the voice because she’s been an MC of so many different shows. 

In a lot of these shows it’s not her particular content, it’s usually content that she’s helping to host and that she creates with a lot of different people. Given the opportunity with podcasting and doing this audio platform she’s actually able to share a lot more of her personal ideas and personal stories. She’s been great in the sense that she brings in a lot of guests, and she’s got the opportunity to work really closely with these guests and dig deeper into her own personal views and build a really strong brand around herself.

Yinglan: From a technology/product perspective, how can an audio platform strengthen the ability /power of these creators?

Kevin: The one that immediately comes to mind for me is that audio is a channel, it’s an audience that the creators own. For example with some of the Youtubers that we work with, whether it’s Mr. Lê Thiện Đào Duy, or Chan Chuoi, when Youtube decides to block their content or to demonetize their content, these creators have nowhere else to go. We’ve seen some of their policies in the past that have been pretty unpredictable and hard to manage, and once you lose that audience and lose that money you sort of have to start all over again. The power of audio, the way the ecosystem works is that it’s much more open. If you create a podcast and you publish it on Waves, it’s on iTunes, it’s on these podcast apps, even if one of the apps chooses not to have you, you still own the relationship with your audience, you still own all the content. That’s been probably the most powerful reason to go into audio. 

Yinglan: Prior to Waves you’ve had experience founding startups and running cross-border operations. What takeaways from those experiences are you finding useful in running Waves? 

Ben: Prior to this I was doing a home cleaning startup, one of the mistakes we had made in the past, when we launched our app in Hanoi, we had just thought this is going to be another city, we cracked HCM, and Hanoi will be very similar to HCM. We had very strongly underestimated the cultural differences, even the dialect difference in Vietnamese between the two cities. My big takeaway when expanding to a new region or new country, having the right local people on the ground who really understand the culture and the language, and how the day-to-day works, is really crucial and very important. =

Kevin: My last startup was an ebook publishing platform. When I look at that compared to what we’re doing now at Waves, one of the lessons I’ve learned is that with the last startup HyperInk, we were trying to make all our creators happy, and trying to democratize and spread the opportunity to as many different people as possible. I think we still carry that into Waves so that what we’ve realized is that these industries follow power law principles, so you have a very small group of creators who are doing extremely well, and you don’t want to under-support them, because they’re the ones whose lives can really be changed by this new opportunity, and you want to make sure that you have a way to work with them, and just make them as special as you can. We’ve seen that on Twitch, we’ve seen that on Youtube, and we’ve seen that on multiple different platforms.

Yinglan: From a user perspective, what should they be excited about when it comes to audio platforms?

There’s probably a couple of reasons and it depends on what their background is, but I’d say for the average content creator, let’s say they’re a video creator, they’re on Youtube, and they’re on Vimeo, they’re getting the ability to own their audio audience, they’re getting the ability to go into all these exciting new channels, Spotify, iTunes, Waves, and they’re also getting the opportunity to deepen relationships with existing subscribers. In particular we’ve been focused on Vietnam, and very soon we’re also launching in Indonesia I’d say the benefits of working with a platform like ours is that we really try to understand the local market and go deep into each different country as opposed to being a broad a thin platform like a Soundcloud would be. I’d say that’s probably another big difference.

Yinglan: What is your favorite podcast / audio content these days? 

Ben: One of the favorites, especially with our group of listeners, it’s Chan Chuoi’s show. It’s a little bit different from a lot of the content that exists in Vietnam, that’s why it’s so popular. It talks about relationships, sex, health, topics that in Vietnam not many people want to discuss so openly. Her show has been really incredible for us, not only in terms of understanding the content creators’ perspective, but also just the cultural aspect of Vietnam, and the engagement and passion of her fanbase. 

Kevin: Personally I love a16z’s podcast. I think they set a standard there for what a really good VC podcast is and the good content and media network they’ve created, and have just learned so much over the years to them meeting and interviewing different founders and different investors, that’s been one of my favorites. 

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