Startup O Stars is a series that captures stories of authentic tech entrepreneurs from Asia, to share their insights, learnings, tips & resources with the community. It aims to foster a deeper understanding of these journeys, direct from the trenches.

Barbara Ximenez
Co-founder – Shutta

Startup-O Stars in conversation with Barbara Ximenez, co-founder of Shutta, about the unique journey that took her from Europe to Vietnam and from restaurant kitchens to tech startup founder.

When you are a nomad by nature, you learn quickly to measure the vibe and energy of a place, and home in on what you are seeking when the need arises. This is exactly how Barbara Ximenez came to set up her technology startup, Shutta, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Between her co-founder James and herself, the pair have lived and worked in 8 different countries, in areas as diverse as coding, accounting, and food & beverage.

Vietnam’s population is young (half is under 30), and as many as 14 universities in Ho Chi Minh City are producing a talent pool with immense potential and motivation. The internet penetration rate is high at 60%, and almost a third of Vietnam’s population owns a smartphone. Government policies are pro-startup and highly supportive of innovation – with more than 3,000 technology startups as of 2018, Vietnam ranks as the 3rd largest technology startup ecosystem in Asia.

Barbara lights up when she speaks of her adopted headquarters, saying that entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm are palpable in the local ecosystem. Here, she shares some aspects of how Shutta came to evolve into the growth story it currently represents.


Building a startup… aka adventures in uncharted territory

Shutta’s story illustrates how an innovative but simple idea can evolve to something ground-breaking, given the right strategy.  “All entrepreneurs start out with an idea, and then reality starts hitting home,’ says Barbara, of the inevitability of pivots and adjustments in the life of a startup.

Shutta began life as an app that enables users to obtain still pictures from videos.  From there, they soon realised that the user generated content they had amassed provided a treasure trove of opportunities to build communities and create buzz.  The big retail brands soon took note of this, and provided briefs for specific user generated content via photo missions – and a new business model was born.

The initial campaigns yielded good results for online traffic, but clients in the Asian domain tend to maintain a greater focus on offline physical metrics.  This meant that the initiatives needed to yield an increased flow of traffic to outlets, that was attributable to specific campaigns.  Thus was born the concept of location missions and balloons, to take the guesswork out of what campaigns work best.  These seek to draw users to specific locations to generate content, that then rewards them with in-app perks.

With their ear to the ground, and the can-do spirit of the team – Shutta has evolved over its three-year life from a photo-in-video app to a unique, fully-fledged marketing tool.  Today, says Barbara, “if Pokémon Go and Instagram had a baby, it would be Shutta”

"Keep your eyes and ears open, get out of your own head and into the real world."


How to have the courage to work on things that nobody has done before

“Get out of your own head and into the real world,” says Barbara, of the need for startups to constantly adjust their approach to doing business. She believes that startup founders are generally encouraged to tell their stories, but the fundamental need is to know what the market wants – for which empathetic listening is key. “Keep your eyes and ears open, get out of your own head and into the real world”, says Barbara, of the need to keep a finger constantly on the pulse of the market.

Coming in as relative outsiders proved advantageous in this respect, as Barbara and James had a lot of misconceptions about marketing and advertising prior to launching Shutta. They were surprised to find that metrics to calculate return on marketing investment were relatively unscientific. Barbara’s prior experience was in business administration and her co-founder, James is a coder – so they saw in this an opportunity to develop something new and measurable.

Organisational culture is another important facet in promoting innovation. At Shutta, everyone is encouraged to share their opinion, because, as Barbara says, 15 people brainstorming a solution is far better than a single leader dictating their views. In this regard, she also believes it is important to maintain open communication with the team. “It is very easy to be open when everything is up, but likewise, it is important to communicate when things are down,” says Barbara. This fosters trust and shared purpose in the organisation and allows every member of the team to share their ideas freely.

Reaching out and forging connections with the ecosystem is another critical aspect of growth. Attending relevant conferences, connecting with the right mentors and advisers as well as people that had been there before, learning from their mistakes are great starting points. Thereafter, she advises fellow entrepreneurs to put their heads down and forge ahead, to avoid drifting from one idea to another.

"It is very easy to be open when everything is up, but it is important to communicate when things are down."


Recognizing the power of actionable feedback

Of the most valuable feedback she has received, Barbara is quick to credit the diagnostic report that she received from Shutta’s participation in Startup-O’s season 6. The diagnostic report, she says, was able to specifically pinpoint how they could improve their business. Specifically, the report and feedback highlighted to them that their execution strategy was lacking, and was insufficient to achieve the global growth they were targeting.

As an outcome of this feedback, Shutta completely overhauled their pricing structure. Previously, missions and campaigns were priced higher and were project-based, involving long lead times to convert. This was changed following the platform experts’ feedback, and clients who wish to run campaigns can do so for as little as $1 and up to thousands of dollars. This was a big change that made Shutta accessible to significantly more clients, from small retail establishments and freelancers to global companies.

“This strategy of being accessible to a range of clients, allowing them to run missions and campaigns, has now become one of the strongest aspects of Shutta’s business model,” says Barbara.

“Everyone has a seed of leadership, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit inside them."


What to do to keep your passion alive and thriving

Barbara’s passion to excel comes from her love of trying “the next new thing”, as evidenced by her diverse career path – one that has taken her from corporate offices to Michelin starred kitchens.  A hunger to try new things and evolve is an asset in the rapidly changing tech startup environment, as is her inherent creativity.  Creativity, in fact, is not just a desirable trait for an entrepreneur, it is essential.

“Everyone has a seed of leadership, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit inside them.  It is the right circumstances that allow these to be drawn out,” Barbara says, in the context of the personal traits that have helped her on this journey.

Of the interests that drive her to excel, Barbara points out that technology and coding are at the confluence of linguistic, mathematical and creative skills. This, she says, is the most fun aspect of working in this field.  It is inspirational work, to be working in a team that is literally creating and building something new from scratch.

Self-care is another important aspect of staying on top of one’s challenges.  Barbara is an ardent believer in the restorative powers of a good night’s sleep.  Switching off, she says, is just as important as switching on.  She notes how many creative ideas and breakthroughs come when least expected, when one is engaged in other tasks rather than “banging their head against a wall.”

“We need to go back to a revenue first perspective."


The only metric that matters is revenue

Barbara believes that the key metric to focus on is revenue, even though ecosystem players emphasise various other aspects.  “If I had to go back and change anything, I would probably tell a lot of VC’s who were demanding massive user growth, that I want to focus on revenue growth,” she says, of lessons learned along the journey.  Too much organic revenue growth is sacrificed in the name of fancier metrics like user growth, whereas an ability to generate revenue should be seen as oxygen for business across all stages of growth.

Revenue is the basic building block of any startup or business, she believes – and the “fun stuff” can grow organically out of this base.

No source of revenue, in her opinion, is the key red flag that would doom a startup to failure.  While she credits the ecosystem with supporting fledgling startups with series of funding rounds, there are currently too many startups that are surviving on the back of funding only.  “We need to go back to a revenue first perspective,” she says.

Barbara is well qualified to guide in this regard, having faced a similar struggle borne out of difficult circumstances.  In 2018, Shutta signed a multi-million dollar contract with a media reseller, to allow them to use Shutta’s IP and location missions product.  Several months later, they learned that the reseller had been selling their product outside of the contact, diverting precious revenues away from Shutta.  The immense cost to the bottom line threw up challenges of pushing growth without the financial upside they had factored in.  At this time, says Barbara, Shutta nearly went under – and credits the “stubborn persistence” of the team for their eventual recovery.

Forging ahead with local buzz on a global scale

Three years into Shutta’s journey, Barbara is proud to share that they are now financially self-sufficient with a revenue pipeline that is higher than ever.  Its unique journey has resulted in a clear business focus – to enable online to offline conversions globally, and provide a measurable tool to encourage physical traffic to retail establishments.  They now have 2.5 million users across 149 countries, and are looking forward to rolling out versions of location missions to these new locations.  A concept that originated in the vibrant startup world of Vietnam is set to take on the world with its unique, fun and insightful approach to user generated buzz.

Startup-O is South East Asia’s leading platform for startup assessments, investments, and venture building. It was created with ‘Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs’ ethos at the core of its design. The assessment platform coupled with venture funds helps with systematic discovery & investing in high traction tech startups. These promising growth startups are selected through a transparent process which is a blend of multi-stage online evaluations conducted by seasoned global experts & proprietary ranking algorithms on the platform.