Founder Spotlight of Respond.io CEO Gerardo Salandra

Respond.io Raises $7M Series A Funding Led by Headline Asia

Respond.io is on a mission to connect brands with customers across different messaging apps in order to tackle one of the largest business issues in Southeast Asia — making sure instant conversation is going on 24/7. Before Respond.io, there wasn’t a platform that was able to unify most of the popular messaging apps in Southeast Asia for over ten thousand companies that were looking for solutions.

We discovered Respond.io in our deal-sourcing software SearchLight. Seeing its high-speed growth led us to contact founder and CEO Gerardo Salandra (Jerry) immediately, and we decided to invest in the company without hesitation. Respond.io raised USD 7 million in Series A funding led by Headline Asia on 20th September 2022.

“We’re impressed with respond.io growth trajectory, achieved through product-led growth strategy and organic marketing, We see the huge potential behind the respond.io technology, and are proud to support the team on its way to transform enterprise client communication across the industries”, commented Headline Asia Partner Akio Tanaka and Principal Brian Yen.

Named Forbes’ 30 under 30, Jerry is a TEDx speaker and also the Chairman of the Artificial Intelligence Society of Hong Kong. We are glad to have the opportunity to chat with Jerry about his inspiring life journey.

Respond.io CEO Gerardo Salandra

Respond.io CEO Gerardo Salandra

1. You can speak four languages. Jerry, can you briefly share with us your background? How did multicultural experiences shape who you are?

I was born to an Italian family in El Salvador, a small country in Latin America. I speak four languages: Spanish (official language of El Salvador), Italian, German and English. My parents then sent me to a German school where I learned German, and of course, English is the world’s lingua franca.

I also had the opportunity to study in Germany on a scholarship. Although I studied International Business, my passion was always tech. I pursued a career in the tech industry with stints at IBM, Google, and a few other tech startups.

Throughout this experience, I had the privilege to work and live in places like Germany, Ireland, Austria, and ultimately Hong Kong where I started Respond.io. I also learned about how businesses in different regions operate, the tools that they use and the problems that they are facing. These problems were what inspired me to start Respond.io.

2. What is the problem that Respond.io wants to solve, and how?

Respond.io allows businesses to market, sell and provide support via messaging apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and also other regional messaging apps like LINE, WeChat, Viber, and so on.

From my previous experience, I learned how tools like Salesforce and Hubspot became multi-billion dollar companies by solving the challenges of selling, marketing, and providing support over email. And those were legitimately hard problems for businesses to solve.

And here in Southeast Asia, instant messaging is the primary method of communication. The average number of messaging apps per consumer is higher here than in any other part of the world. Businesses that are not active on messaging apps are missing out on tremendous opportunities. However, there are all these other challenges that come with this trend, making this landscape complicated and hard to navigate. And that’s where we come in.

We help businesses with this by providing them with the right tools to market, sell and provide support over messaging apps. What makes us stand out is, unlike other platforms, we didn’t start with email and adapt our solutions to messaging apps. Rather, we were born out of messaging apps. We were molded by it and that separates us from all the big players in the market.

“What makes us stand out is, unlike other platforms, we didn’t start with email and adapt our solutions to messaging apps. Rather, we were born out of messaging apps. We were molded by it and that separates us from all the big players in the market.” said Respond.io CEO Gerardo Salandra

Respond.io allows businesses to manage their conversations with clients from different apps on one platform.

Respond.io allows businesses to manage their conversations with clients from different apps on one platform.

3. What makes Respond.io stand out from other messaging management platforms, especially in Asia?

What’s unique about us are the two ways we have gone to market: Through product-led growth and content leadership.

This means that unlike our competitors, who are more sales-driven, customers find us organically online while searching for very specific problems to solve. We rank highly in search results because we fully understand customers’ problems and we write great content around that.

And once they sign up, they realize the advantages of using Respond.io over other platforms. We didn’t build our product by following existing solutions in the market or making assumptions about what customers wanted. We built it by using real feedback from customers.

We’re not talking about ten companies, we’re talking thousands. And being in Southeast Asia, in Malaysia especially, we’ve seen how complex and competitive this regional landscape can be, where every consumer has an average of 2.5 messaging apps.

So, in a world where customers are on WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, LINE, and more simultaneously, how are businesses supposed to know which channels to be on and how to approach each of them?

By being born here and shaped by both the region and the instant messaging era, we managed to build a product that is far more sophisticated and flexible than our competitors.

4. What is the biggest thing you learned from your previous successful experience? As a second-time entrepreneur, how has your previous experience helped you in starting Respond.io?

Every startup is different and every startup solves a specific problem. I’m still learning a lot of things throughout Respond.io’s journey. I’ve been part of successful startups, like Runtastic, which we sold to Adidas in 2015 for 250 million. That was basically a very fast-growing company, but it was in a B2C market. So obviously, I had to adapt and learn a lot of things about B2B here.

I also had a startup before in Hong Kong, which we successfully managed to exit, but it was nowhere near the scale of Respond.io. I’ve never been part of such a fast-growing company like this with its unique dynamics, so I’m still on a learning curve.

The biggest thing I’ve learned so far is to focus on the customer and the problem they’re trying to solve. Never lose sight of that. There will be plenty of distractions along the way, but as long as you go back to the customer, you’ll find success.

Before starting Respond.io, I tried every single software in the market. I don’t think there is any software I’ve not used. Salesforce, Hubspot, Active Campaign, and so on…You name it, I’ve tried it. I know the strengths and weaknesses of these products, so when it was time to build Respond.io, I knew very well what was in the market and what wasn’t there.

The one thing I constantly try to do is to build a product differently and reinvent the industry. We try to innovate as much as possible. Unlike other players that would just copy what’s out there, we want to disrupt the industry.

5. What are the strengths of your team and what are your core values?

We have a very agile, creative, and goofy team!

Like any team, we have a lot of strengths and weaknesses. I’d say we’re strongest at fully understanding the customers’ needs and the problems we’re trying to solve. At the heart of Respond.io, our core value has always been a commitment to customer success. That allows us to do two things: Create outstanding content and build a great product.

People around the world are searching for solutions to their problems and we position ourselves as content thought leaders. As for the product, we work very closely with customers across a multitude of industries and countries to build something user-friendly, yet also incredibly flexible and sophisticated, which fulfills some of the most complex user cases.

Team Respond.io celebrates the Series A fundraising on a cruise.

Team Respond.io celebrates the Series A fundraising on a cruise.

6. What motivates you as an entrepreneur?

I grew up seeing how my dad built his company out of nothing. He was the first entrepreneur I was exposed to. Even though it was in a traditional industry, I saw him struggle and grind all the way to putting my six siblings and I through college. He pushed us to succeed while going through the stages of youth to become who we are today.

One of the most challenging things about starting a business is growing it. It’s been something I’ve always wanted to try. This feels like the culmination of the last 10 years of my life spent running businesses, coupled with my long standing passion for technology. I wake up every morning excited about where I’m going to do and what I’m going to do.

“I wake up every morning excited about where I’m going to do and what I’m going to do.” said CEO Respond.io CEO Gerardo Salandra

7. Tell us more about your story about AI and technology. How and why did you co-found the Artificial Intelligence Society of Hong Kong?

I actually founded the AI society by accident. I was genuinely amazed when it started to grow — we now have 6,000 members! Frankly, when I started, I was just trying to educate the market on what I’d learned in my previous experiences. I’ve always been passionate about sharing what I know.

When I went to Hong Kong, I realized there was a strong lack of understanding about artificial intelligence. Gradually, people started reaching out to me for seminaries and meetings. Industry leaders started joining me, and that’s how we ended up with the AI Society and grew it to what it is today. So more than anything, this was born out of a passion for sharing what I’d learned with enthusiasts.

8. Can you share how you met Headline and what your experience has been working with us?

It was actually a pretty interesting experience. Over the past year, tons of VCs had reached out to us, this is strongly due to our marketing success and the success of our customers, but Headline really stood out.

When I first heard from Headline, the email I received was very different. Everyone else was just saying they have the money and they would like to invest, but Headline’s email came with a screenshot of a chart from an internal analytics tool that showed this unique set of data about Respond.io’s growth.

As a data-driven guy, I was intrigued. That made me curious about the VC and the company. I then jumped into a call with Headline Asia Brian Yen, Kate Liu, and Ian Su, who ultimately convinced us that Headline is an extraordinary VC. During the call, I had the opportunity to see the in-house analytics platform, which showed how Respond.io is growing faster than its competitors.

Unlike other VCs who just focus on a company’s superficial metrics, Headline had proprietary data which no other VCs were considering. So when I saw that, I felt that we were an excellent match.

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