Kosuke Sogo is co-founder and CEO of AnyMind Group, a fast-growth tech startup in the entertainment, marketing, HR and direct-to-consumer (D2C) industries.
Starting out in April 2016, the company has seen immense horizontal and vertical growth. At present, the company has 17 offices across 13 markets around Asia and has over 750 employees, and features products and solutions across four industries.
In March 2020, AnyMind Group acquired POKKT Mobile Ads, a mobile advertising platform, following the acquisitions of Japan-based companies, GROVE and FourM, Hong Kong-based Acqua Media, and Thailand-based Moindy.
The company has also partnered up with Japanese PR agency group, SUNNY SIDE UP, to form AnyUp, and VGI in Thailand to form VGI AnyMind Technology.
We sit down with Kosuke Sogo, who prefers to be called just “Sogo”, as we pick his brain on his entrepreneurial journey so far, personal and company growth, business strategy, and his vision for the future.
Let’s start from the beginning. What has led to this version of Sogo we know today? From a young age, I was inspired by my grandparents, who were business owners, to pursue a career in business. Whenever we had family gatherings, they would share how their business was doing and some of the challenges they faced as business owners.
I was excited to hear all their stories. I always thought to myself: “When I grow up, I want to have my own business, and make an impact on society, like my grandparents.” They were “people” leaders and gave a lot of their time to their employees. Their door was always open, and I’ve adopted this approach throughout my career.
Since I was young, I was very goal-driven. When I think of doing something, I will do extensive research first and make sure I make the best decision. After that, I will pursue it with all my effort, and no obstacle can stand in my way. That is why I decided to start my career in the digital industry, which was and still is very fast-growing.
I immersed myself into the industry, and understand it from the inside. I knew I wanted to start my own company, but I made sure I did my research first. During this time, I gave myself the objective to become the top employee of the company within two years, and it is not unusual to see me making over 100 cold calls to prospective businesses a day.
I started from the bottom levels of that company and quickly worked my way up. After two years, I was given the chance to lead overseas expansion into Southeast Asia. This meant that I was starting from “zero” in Southeast Asia, but I wanted this challenge for myself.
I set up bases for six markets - Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore - by myself. This included establishing a local presence, recruiting personnel, and doing sales on my own. Even now, I am still a very hands-on CEO.
At that time, I also saw the start of today’s strong market momentum in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. I thought to myself that if I were to start my own business, it would be from Southeast Asia, as there was still so much untapped potential in this region.
That’s also why I decided to start the business in Singapore and had ambitions to bring the business to a global scale. There are many global companies with regional headquarters in Singapore, and it is good geographically. Although the market itself was not very big, setting up a business is easy and Singapore is also a strong base to expand into Asia.
When I was 29 years old, I founded AnyMind Group with Otohiko (Chief Commercial Officer and co-founder of AnyMind Group), who was 31 at that time. To me, age does not matter, and it is the same at AnyMind. We don’t consider a person’s age when looking at hiring or promotion - it’s all about how well a person does in the company.
Since starting the company just over four years ago, how has it grown, and what have you learned from it? Our business started in the marketing space (with AdAsia), and we expanded into influencer marketing (with CastingAsia) early on. This was followed by a move into the human resource industry with TalentMind, and now, the direct-to-consumer industry with AnyMind D2C.
Our most-scaled business line is, of course, marketing tech, as it was started first - now we’re across desktop, app and DOOH advertising, and on the other side, helping publishers monetize as well.
The next biggest is our entertainment tech business line, and I believe that there’s even more room for growth. We’re running two business models here, an influencer marketing platform business and an influencer management business. I believe that there is still a lot of untapped potential in Asia for influencers and content creators, and we’re strongly placed to tap on this potential.
For example, we recently launched AnyMind D2C, and it can leverage on our existing base of influencers and content creators. AnyMind D2C has even more potential to be a standalone pillar for us as well, and we will expand this business line into more fields in the future.
Having a cloud manufacturing platform, AnyFactory, for our D2C business line, means that we can get customers from anywhere in the world - both individuals and businesses. We’re looking to eliminate any barriers for individuals and businesses to easily create their own products through our technology and go direct to their customers. Even though we launched this in early 2020, we have signed up more than 200 factories across Asia, and we can match customer requirements to manufacturers depending on budget, product quality, and many other factors.
With all this growth, we condensed what would typically take 10 years for other companies into just four years, including all the challenges that come with scaling a business so rapidly.
One of the things I learned is that constant and honest communication is very important for business leaders. This has an impact on not just mindsets and ensuring everyone is aligned in the same direction, but also impacts motivation. During good times, communicating effectively ensures everyone is motivated and aligned to achieve together. During bad times, communicating effectively means that everyone knows about the situation, and can work together to get out of the bad times.
I approach business as a game of Reversi (or Othello), wherein you take hold of the four corners of the board, and from there, vertically integrate the business, develop products and make M&As for gaps.
What would you attribute your business success to? One of the things is timing - we entered each industry at a time when interest was starting to grow (for example, influencer marketing in 2016/2017). However, it’s not because I have a magic compass that can tell me when is the right time to make a business move.
I always keep myself updated on news and information not just in our markets, but also what’s happening globally. This is very important in knowing the right timing to make a specific move.
For example, D2C is gaining momentum in Japan and the US, where individuals create, sell and own their own brands, however, it is still in early stages in other parts of Asia. For us, we can deploy our AnyFactory platform and expertise into all our markets very quickly, and capture a strong market share. This is also one of the reasons why we have signed up over 200 factories across Asia, as we already have feet on the ground to jump on any opportunities.
Of course, success is also attributed to our people at AnyMind Group.
From the management team to junior staff, all of them have put in amazing work. If you look at our management team today, most of them are either founders from acquired companies or experts in their own field. For example, the CEO and co-founder of POKKT is now our Chief Operating Officer for AnyMind Group, and the COO and co-founder of POKKT is now our Managing Director for India and the Middle East.
Not many people know this, but I still do a lot of hands-on research into companies that we’re looking to acquire. I will make up a shortlist of hundreds of companies, and narrow down to maybe 10 or 20, and speak to each of the founders directly. If we have the same ambitions, mindsets and goals (apart from other factors), they will be put up for serious consideration, and that is why they are also brought into my management team - they have shown the necessary expertise in growing their own business, and they can help to grow AnyMind Group as well.
Bringing in the right leaders is crucial to how we have grown, as this will impact the rest of the company as well. At the same time, the leaders can’t do everything on their own, and that’s why I’m really grateful to everyone in the company, from junior members and managers to department heads and more.
Can you share what’s for the future? Let’s look at the near future first, where 5G will a big gamechanger. Once it is implemented, the borders between online and offline advertising will disappear. There will be even more devices connected to the internet, and most offline forms of advertising will be online. For example, billboard ads can now have digital capabilities and we can see even more connections formed across different devices in the future.
We will also look to begin an era where individuals can shine as bright as businesses. Starting from influencers, who will move past just “paid promotions”, to truly owning their brand. This is also where our D2C play comes in.
Right now, Southeast Asia still contains huge business opportunities and is quickly evolving. We’re seeing high annual economic growth rates by these countries as well, and although the current pandemic has put a block on the economy, I expect these markets to continue growing in the future. Competition is also still increasing for us in these markets, but I’m looking to grow the entire industry more in Southeast Asia.
India and the Middle East are also two markets that we’re expanding rapidly in, and together with POKKT, I am confident of growing more in these two markets.
Longer-term, I believe that AnyMind Group will be the catalyst for an era where doing business will have no borders. Not just geographically, but also no borders between individuals and businesses, online and offline, even industries and job functions.
I want to create a world where there are no borders for business.