Interview with John S. Kim
Co-founder & CEO @ SendBird

SendBird, a richly featured chat and messaging solution for your mobile, web, and consumer apps, is on a mission to improve how people interact digitally. With $16 million Series A funding in December 2017 behind it, it is well-placed to make it happen. We spoke to SendBird’s CEO John S. Kim—a SaaS industry expert and ex-gaming champion in S. Korea—to find out how digitizing human interactions will change the world.
Congrats on the Series A funding you earned a few months back! How do you intend to spend the money?
First of all we are really grateful to be given this opportunity to accelerate our growth and hopefully we can make a big impact to the rest of the world. One of the good ways to help us to grow even faster is by investing in headquarters' business and bringing very talented people form all over the world to make our product even better. Besides, there are also a lot of potential customers out there that don’t even know we exist, so we also want to spend and invest into getting our message out, building our brand and engaging with more customers through sales and marketing release. From the product prospective, I think directionally there’s a lot of really interesting opportunities out there beyond just sending text messages. There’s a lot of opportunities working with AIs and chatbots, and I think SendBird will play a crucial role in helping businesses harness the power of AI as part of the messaging experience. We’ll also be providing more value to our enterprise customers, by providing more insights and more tools for their employees and agents to use. There are some really interesting values that we can quickly build on top of our core API business. Those are some of the areas where we will be investing in the upcoming years.
You have extensive experience as a startup leader. Do you think the criteria for a startup to be successful have changed over the years? Has the competition got tougher?
I think that the startups landscape is always evolving in a very fast pace, but I think that the essence of all businesses all around the world is solving a customer’s problem and clearly understanding what the customer wants and needs and building enough value that the customer is willing to pay for. That has to be the fundamental for all businesses (…). What’s changing is how we access to the customers: before it could be offline flyers, now it’s social media, professional networks like Linkedin, there are all kind of channels where we can distribute and spread out voice. That also introduced a lot more competition because now everyone around the world has the same instantaneous access to everyone in the world. You actually have to learn a lot faster and it is harder to build monopolies around businesses. It creates more competition, which is pretty good for the customers because they get better offerings out of a more competitive price. So I think that this whole globalization plus the internet becoming more accessible around the world is healthy for the evolution of all startups but it also becomes a lot more difficult for startups to cut through the noise and build a lasting business on the market.
Customers might be using SendBird chat with several different apps – but because those apps use your clients’ branding, the customer wouldn’t realise it. Has this constraint on your public visibility affected the way you promote yourselves?
It is partly yes and partly no. The reason customers are choosing us over other potential vendors or existing chat applications is the is the ability to give a customized unique experience as part of the offering, totally, widely and seamlessly integrated in their applications. Because of that customers are more willing to try our product and spend their time integrating us deeply into their applications: that is our value proposition. On the other hand, it is hard to promote ourselves very visibly especially on the larger applications because of those value offerings. On the flip side, from a business perspective, we try to form more a marketing partnership with those clients, by doing a marketing event, whether that be a case study, a review or even a video interview testimonial. By getting their voices throughout other channels, whether be their own blog or website or other events, we can sort of capture those partnerships and use that as an opportunity to promote ourselves. There are other companies that have done similar things in the past that give the customer to get additional benefits by promoting the brand as part of their UI, by showing our logo for instance. I guess in the future maybe we could provide additional features and in case of of free customers, they would have to expose our logo. These are some of the ideas that we are thinking about, but right now we are just truly focusing on building the best product possible making sure we deliver our promises and I think other marketing ideas will follow afterwards.
One of SendBird’s blog articles states “our mission is to digitize human interactions for businesses”. In your opinion, are face-to-face interactions and digital interactions growing more similar, or vice versa?
I think people can relate to interactions we’ve already experienced, like having a phone call or having a face-to-face meeting over a cup of coffee. I think that has a lot of important qualitative aspects that current forms of digital communication lack. For instance, when you do a conference call it’s still somewhat 2D : you don’t really feel the presence of the other person. But as the technology evolves, I think a lot of the richness will get better with digitization. For instance, if you’re using AR or VR you can potentially feel the physical presence of a person in the meeting room with you, so it is not just text, it could be voice, video or 3D form. On top of that what are the interesting technologies we can utilize to make that experience even richer? For instance, let’s say you are doing an AR or VR and you have a digital interaction, you can send people to other locations to experience a photograph or even a landscape with you in a 3D world. That is not at all possible in the offline world. Another example could be: if I am on a business trip and I want to do a phone call with my family: in the old days I would have to send a postcard with a photo attached to it, but these days I can FaceTime which already enhances a lot these experiences that were missing before. I think as the technology involved evolves and as SendBird evolves our product, a lot of those experiences that are still missing from the offline world will get richer and richer to fulfill or even match up to the level that we have today. Leveraging these interesting technologies will enable a new form of interaction that was not at all possible before in an analogue world. I think the goal is not just to digitize and make things more efficient ,  but how do you make it more real, and how do you make it even better and more creative than what was possible before. Ultimately, technology's goal is to enable and help human beings to extend more than was was possible before, rather than be a limitation.
Lots of apps get deleted soon after they’re installed. Would you say getting customers to retain an app on their phone is an important part of what SendBird offers?
One of the core benefits of having a real time messaging in apps is that it is generally helpful with engagement and retention. People tend to interact or they get more excited when they get notifications or interactions from other human beings, rather than marketing push-notifications. We are trying to help all businesses around the world to increase the overall engagement and retention. But, by nature of all businesses, not all companies are going to succeed and we’ve already seen a vast amount of data showing that a lot of startups tend to fail. We definitely want to help any startup or any big company around the world to get that value of having a real time messaging. We don’t sell only to startups, we also sell to enterprises that already have a well established business and user base and we are helping them to grow their business further, especially because with a target like millennials, now everyone expects real-time messaging to be part of the user experience. So, it is not just that the new apps get deleted, but we are also working with some apps that have already shown a really long life cycle on users’ phones. All in all, it is just nature of business that some apps will get deleted, and we work with small and big companies to help them to have a even more lasting and sustainable business.
How is SendBird going to change the way businesses interact with their customers?
We believe in a future where most of the interaction between businesses and customers will get digitized over time. A good example would be when you walk into a telecommunications store to get a new SIM card - we believe that by downloading certain applications or visiting the digital store online, you will be able to get those SIM cards in your hands within a matter of minutes. All those conversations you have with a sales representative will also happen through a digital conversation, mostly through a combination of text messaging ,  it could be audio, or video ,  but the commerce experience will also get digitized through a real-time messaging experience. That is the future we believe in, and the SendBird mission is to help digitize all of human interactions for businesses around the world.