John Fearon: The South African start-up Entreprenuer making waves in Asia
John Fearon, you create the service yourself.
Fearon started a website back up service called Dropmysite after his business website had a hosting problem that took it out of commission. His latest offering, e-mail backup service Dropmyemail is proving even more popular, so much so that it’s seen 210 000 sign-ups since launching a month ago.
Originally from Cape Town, 33-year-old Fearon is based in Singapore, having made his way there a year-and-a-half ago with the company he was working for at the time. Last August, he launched Dropmysite after his outdoor advertising company’s site went down and he couldn’t find a backup service that ticked enough of the boxes he wanted.
Since then, Dropmysite has had 32 000 sign-ups, but that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the exponential growth of spin-off service Dropmyemail. Although it was launched at the beginning of March, Dropmyemail is rapidly approaching a quarter of a million sign-ups and has quickly become Fearon’s primary focus.
Fearon says conversion rates from the free Dropmyemail service — which offers users 512MB of backup space — to the paid offerings is low, but growing. “Our numbers are similar to those of Dropbox or Evernote in their early days,” he says. “Once the service is more established and people have been using the free offering for longer, I expect to see the conversion rate pick up.”
A further boon for Dropmyemail is that a number of telecommunications companies in Asia will soon be reselling it to their own clients. “Customers signing up for a leased line, for example, will now get a back-up account with their e-mail.”
Dropmyemail supports POP and IMAP e-mail protocols and Fearon says the service can integrate nearly effortlessly with most major mail clients. There’s also no limit to how many different accounts a user can back up, although anything over the free 500MB and they’ll need one of the subscription offers of either 5GB for US$9,99/year or 10GB at $19,99/year.
The service is powered by Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud service and, because of the phenomenal growth in sign-ups and the burden this placed on the servers, Dropmyemail has become a poster child for Amazon in the region.
Fearon says he anticipates doubling his 10-strong team in the next month and there are plans to open offices in San Francisco, Mumbai, Beirut and Buenos Aires.
During the hunt for a first round of funding, in which Fearon eventually raised $300 000, he appeared on a Singaporean television show called Angel’s Gate, which resulted in the first round being oversubscribed.
“For the next round, we want to raise $10m,” Fearon says. “It may sound like a lot, but the growth has been phenomenal. Also, Amazon is getting us a lot of publicity because we’re the breakout success in Asia they’ve been waiting for.”
A competing service, Backupify, has been operating for about four years, but Fearon says that at the current growth rate his offering could have more users than Backupify within two months.
About 20% of Dropmymail’s users come from India, with the US being the next biggest market. Fearon says this could change over time.
Though the service only makes money from users that choose paid-for services, Fearon says he is launching another new service in coming months that will allow for revenue from advertising, too.
Asked what it’s like as a South African doing business in Asia, Fearon says Singapore is “very proactive about start-ups”.
“There are lots of grants and other support, but don’t come here thinking you can get the government to give you money — they only support their own. But it’s a nice environment. It’s safe and organised and being in an English-speaking country in Asia is great”.
He says there are also a large number of regional conferences. “It’s a bit like Chile in that way,” Fearon says. “Tax is low and there are good incentives for new companies. But I wouldn’t come here to raise money. If you want to do that go to Chile.”
At just 33, Fearon is the youngest executive on his team. “We’ve got a guy who started Google in Singapore, another who was the head of sales for Yahoo South East Asia, and a number of old school finance guys. Our chief technology officer has 25 years of experience.”
Fearon says one could be forgiven for thinking he’s given the bulk of his equity away to build a team of that caliber, but he says he’s tried to retain as much control as possible. “You have to give away some [equity], but I’ve still got a controlling stake.”
Fearon attributes much of his success in finding bright minds for his team to his time in Asia and the contacts he has made. “You need to know people and get to know people, and you have to build up the company and the idea before you approach these sorts of people. They’re not going to jump ship until they know it’s a sure thing. They want to know it’s going to be a billion-dollar company before putting their reputations at stake.”
Fearon studied commerce at the University of Cape Town where he befriended Vinny Lingham, the former CEO of website-builder service Yola. “I was best man at Vinny’s wedding. He ended up going to the US and I came to Asia. Now the race is on to see who can be more successful,” Fearon says with a laugh.
According to Fearon, there’s no room for half-baked efforts in the world of entrepreneurship. “You need to change the world,” he says. “There’s a very innovative culture in SA. There should be more companies from SA going global. But I know it’s hard. It’s difficult to have a business address with Africa at the end of it. It’s just the reality of it.
“People don’t know what it’s like in SA; they’re ignorant. Having a Singapore address isn’t quite as good as a US one, but it does help when it comes to funding”. —Post by Craig Wilson