Travel is a passion for many people, but few have the courage to step out of their comfort zone and immerse themselves in new cultures as a local. From setting his foot on 16 countries in 6 months during his university student exchange to embarking on a 7-year long overseas working stint in Southeast Asia as a market researcher after graduation, Gerald is a true-blue nomad who treats the world like his oyster.
After landing a job in a leading market research company, he discovered his love for research. Determined to transform traditional research, he founded Milieu Insight, building it into one of the region’s fastest-growing online research community.
We had a video call with Gerald, to gain a deeper understanding of how he started his career in market research and the journey he took to transform traditional research with Milieu Insight.
A Nomad Who Found Love At Work and In Life
By the ripe old age of 16, Gerald had delved into business by reselling Nokia handphone covers at a high profit margin and becoming a power seller on eBay. Despite his entrepreneurial aspiration, he did not have a clear calling after graduating from college.
Through what he would describe as a series of fortunate events, he secured a job interview via a friend’s recommendation and landed a job in market research. This would spark his love of the industry and building out his career in it. However, the one thing that Gerald never left to chance was maximising his travel opportunities throughout his life.
A true-blue nomad, as Gerald calls himself, he travelled around 16 countries within a span of 6 months during his university exchange in Sweden. While that seemed like a satisfying record, it only fuelled his sense of adventure. As such, he sought travel opportunities in his career (much to the dismay of his boss, he confesses) and started flying extensively across the Asia Pacific for meetings which later transited into a 7-year long overseas working stint in Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
During our call, he reminisced those days as the best times of his life. The cultural immersion gifted him many defining moments and people that contributed to his entrepreneurial success – including tying the knot with his supportive other half in the Land of a Thousand Smiles.
“The overseas experiences taught me the importance of being humble, appreciating different cultures and thinking from diverse points of view. It also toughened me up since I was parachuted into unfamiliar countries and had to adapt to the life there. Above all, it made me realise the common thread underlying all cultures is love and respect, just manifested in different ways. This became the crux of what we do at Milieu. We bring people closer together across the region by showing that we are not so different regardless of our country, culture and religion.”
A Love-Hate Relationship with Market Research
After graduating in 2008, amid the Global Financial Crisis, Gerald was agnostic about his career options. Through a friend’s recommendation, he went for his first – and only – job interview and landed a role in a leading regional market research firm.
This was how his passion for market research ignited. He particularly enjoys the enlightening process of understanding how people behave and the gratification that comes from empowering clients to make smarter business decisions with consumer insights and information.
However, his love for market research did not spare him from the frustrations and burnouts attached to the traditional industry grounded on primitive methodologies and inefficient processes. He recalled the primitive research days of having to go from shop to shop in Thailand to interview storeowners and working till wee hours chasing tight project deadlines.
It was through such a gruelling work experience that tested his staying power in market research, and motivated him to build a tech-driven automated research solution that could run much more efficiently and intelligently.
“Market research should be here to make everybody’s life easier, not tougher.”
Building the Beta Version of Milieu Insight Single-Handedly
With a vision to help people make sense of the world better through opinion-based insights, Gerald decided to build his own research product. He started googling for information related to the socio-cultural environment and chanced upon the word Milieu, a French-originated, English-translated term that is used to refer to an environment of developing something. Combined with his intention to empower people through data, he came up with the name Milieu Insight.
Determined to develop the beta version of the product on his own, he threw himself into the deep end of UI/UX and signed up for a 3-month intensive coding boot camp. After cooping himself at home for a year while surviving on 4 hours of sleep a day, he managed to create a beta version of the Milieu app from scratch. The painful hands-on learning experience turned out to be the best decision he has ever made, though also the worst for his personal well-being, as it anchored the team to improve on it and arrive at a final product that could disrupt the research industry and solve real-world problems.
His Early Challenges In Building Milieu Insight
Like every business, the predecessor to success is a series of challenges. Gerald’s journey with building Milieu is no exception.
Starting off the business entirely bootstrapped, he raised a modest amount of $70,000 together with three other co-founders and channelled almost half of it into launching the first version of Milieu app and the rest on expanding their user base. Unfortunately, before getting the chance to celebrate their milestone of achieving 2,000 app users, the team encountered an app crash – due to a decision to expedite the launch of the new version without testing – and scrambled to pull through their first setback.
Acquiring clients was also not a bed of roses. The first customers are always the hardest to get. It was only after numerous rejections that Gerald finally opened his first door with the team at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), and continues to have a close working relationship with them till this day. Milieu Insight has been commissioned for several studies on Straits Times including recent COVID-19-related polls.
Raising over $9 Million To Expand Milieu Insight
As the co-founders ramped up development plans for Milieu including launching an in-app client dashboard, they decided to participate in the seed round and successfully raised $700,000. Within 4 months of launching the dashboard, they acquired about 40 clients who believed in their cause. After securing their foothold in Singapore and Thailand, the team went on to secure an additional funding of $2.4 million during Pre-Series A round for further expansion.
Today, Milieu is active in 6 regional markets with over 2 million registered app users across Southeast Asia. The team at Milieu has also grown from 17 to 64 employees in the last one and a half years during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In November 2021, Milieu Insight raised another $5 million to springboard its new expansion phase. This will be used to introduce new products and enhance its existing suite of products, as well as expand beyond Southeast Asia.
Maintaining An Ideal Company Culture In Difficult Times
In tandem with the company’s growth, Gerald dedicates time and effort into creating an ideal company culture by implementing appropriate measures to engage employees – a lesson he carried from his corporate days that were filled with unconstructive office politics. They have a culture committee in place to organise social gatherings, game competitions and L&D opportunities, as well as piloting special initiatives such as monthly donut sessions where two colleagues from different departments are brought together randomly to bond over a guided discussion.
“Someone once told me that culture eats strategy for lunch. No matter how good your strategy is, if you don’t have a good culture within your company, it’s never going to work out, you’ll never achieve your goals.”
If adapting to remote working arrangements is a challenging transition for many companies, managing a remote cross-border team like the case for Milieu is much more complicated.
It is especially during this difficult time – with extended remote working and limited social interaction – where he wants to see colleagues coming to work happy. Besides relying on the culture committee to organise virtual get-togethers for bonding outside of work, he instils a mantra of over-explaining within the team as a way to align everyone.
“Don’t describe the process, explain clearly and repeatedly why we need to do it, so that people get used to it. It drives adoption within a team and solves the problem of not working together physically.”
Putting User Experience At The Forefront
From Gerald’s perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many industries but it has only been an accelerator in driving the acceptance of online research.
Prior to the pandemic, the research landscape had already taken a paradigm shift with online research gaining more traction due to technological advancements and long-stemmed challenges surrounding traditional methodologies. The transactional nature of traditional research tends to attract the wrong type of respondents (and hence poor data quality) and deviates away from the bigger purpose of gathering genuine opinion on socio-political issues.
By putting user experience at the forefront, Milieu not only incentivises users with a variety of redemption options but also feedbacks valuable insights on hot button topics to them. Delivering a simple, seamless and delightful experience creates a virtuous cycle of encouraging more users to join the app and provide their genuine opinion in surveys – including less tech-savvy older users – which contributes to better data quality and a more representative panel.
Moving forward, the team at Milieu will continue to put emphasis on providing the best possible user experience for users and fostering an engaged opinion community. They will be rolling out a revamped version of both the app and the website, enhanced with more gamification and educational elements, over the next few months. Milieu app users can look forward to more exciting updates on their website and social media.
“Sometimes people have misconceptions about how others feel about different topics because they live within their echo chamber. With Milieu, we really want to enhance the experience beyond taking surveys and engage with a broader community. We strive to bring deeper insights on how different groups feel and show people data that’s truly representative of the entire community.”
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