Jimmy upbeat as he presents his plans during a Spiralytics team meeting
“Sorry it’s a little crowded,” says Jimmy Cassells—CEO of international marketing firm Spiralytics—as he guides us through their Makati office.
Jimmy is a veteran in the startup scene. Aside from his personal ventures, he had a hand in shaping Asia’s online marketplace. “When Zalora was one month ahead of starting their site, they hadn’t built their marketing team yet… Paulo Campos of Zalora asked me to help him build their marketing team,” Jimmy recalls. After a one-year stint as Zalora’s Digital Marketing CIO, he’s shifted his focus to his own passion project—Spiralytics.
Spiralytics is one the pioneers of data-driven marketing in Asia. As they approach their 4th year, Jimmy—along with his 68 devoted marketing engineers and creatives—continually redefine business through analytics. “We help businesses implement online marketing profitably. We help them understand whether it’s going to work and help them with the math behind it,” he explains as we tour the office.
With a bevy of startups behind him, Jimmy certainly knows a thing or two about UX. “As a digital professional, Security Bank’s investments in user experience and usability, and friendliness in user touchpoints really stand out.” He adds: “I like that Security Bank is investing in those areas and optimizing… just like us.”
Despite just opening their third office in the US, Spiralytics is just getting started. “It’s a battle,” Jimmy exclaims. “There’s a lot of headache and trauma along the way. On some days you go home and you’re walking on the clouds and then on other days it can get quite gloomy and dismal.” This isn’t his first try at being CEO either.
In late 2011, Jimmy closed the curtain on his first startup—a financial comparison site called Raining Pesos–due to financial concerns. “It got to the point where I couldn’t pay for my credit cards anymore” the 41-year old recounts. “I couldn’t ask anyone else to invest…I was out of money, I needed to get a job…
With the failures of his first startup guiding him, Jimmy is convinced that the best is yet to come. “Well, this is my 2nd time being CEO. I probably let Raining Pesos go too long. And in startup land, to quickly test whether a product will work is very important. Back then I didn’t know how to do that.” He smiles as he looks over the jam-packed office. “It’s really amazing to see something this good come out of just making sure that I can make ends meet.”
At the core, I’m an athlete. I played sports my entire life. I did my undergrad at Rutgers and didn’t know what to study so I played division 1 volleyball…
And then I got a degree in Physics and Mathematics but still didn’t know what to do. And so I went into grad school and took up industrial engineering at Stanford.
The longest place I’ve been anywhere is here in Manila. It’s been 11 plus years. But I can’t really say I’m Filipino [laughs].
Well…I’ve been [in the Philippines] since 2005 when I was sent out by a Silicon Valley company called Cypress Semiconductor to Cavite. I worked with them on an automation project to make the factory run more smoothly. And then after 4 years of that, they were going to send me back to California. But then I met someone who wanted to start an internet company called Raining Pesos—it was a financial comparison site. So I quit my job and became Raining Pesos’ CEO.
Raining Pesos was a chance for me to do something different. I’ve done many years of the same thing and my learning was slowing down. Originally, it wasn’t my plan to get into marketing. It was my plan to build a successful company and to be the founder and CEO of that company. But then the company ultimately…I guess, failed.
We discontinued it. We could pay the salaries but we couldn’t turn enough profit to make it worthwhile continuing.
Before I quit my job, I was on a much stronger corporate expat-type contract—they really took care of me. Everything was taken care of—where you lived, how to drive [around], and even the driver. You don’t have to think; you just worked with them and get your weekends to yourself. But once you stop the salary and it’s your own money ticking away, then every minute counts.
Raining Pesos was partially funded by me and my savings. It got to the point where I couldn’t pay for my credit cards anymore.
I was running out of options…I was even thinking of moving back to California. Facebook flew me back home to interview and Google Asia was also interviewing me. But I decided that working for those companies would be like going backwards. It wouldn’t have been doing what I wanted to do…
Around that time I met the Zalora founders. When they were one month ahead of starting their site, they hadn’t built their marketing team yet. So Paulo Campos of Zalora asked me to help him build their marketing team. After one year, they took all of their marketing back into Singapore but I couldn’t go because of projects here. And that’s when I started Spiralytics.
After the Raining Pesos and Zalora experience, I had such a breadth of knowledge that people started asking me for help. And we realized that there weren’t enough people offering the full breadth of services, tied together with strong analytics expertise.
We’re quite different from the branding type agencies where they’ll come up with a big idea, a TV commercial, all the print media, and really go after the right feeling for the brand.
We help businesses implement online marketing profitably. Most people and so many businesses out there don’t fully understand online marketing. They’ll upload and run one Facebook ad, run the same ad for a month, and wonder why nothing happened, and then they say “Oh Facebook doesn’t work.” [laughs]
We basically operate in 6 main areas: online advertising, search engines, content marketing, social media, email marketing and online PR. We use data to make the best decisions for what will work for certain platforms.
You can almost call it marketing engineering, in a way. We’re quite different from the branding type agencies where they’ll come up with a big idea, a TV commercial, all the print media, and really go after the right feeling for the brand. We’re results-driven, with the result being an increase in the amount of quality leads from your company website, or a decrease in acquisition cost on your eCommerce site.
So it was me and two guys from Zalora. But we only had 4 clients…and then we’d add a client, add a person, add a client and so on. We did this mostly organically. One of the things about entrepreneurship is that you hear the war stories and the someone always say “Oh, what are we going to do to make payroll,” … now I know what that means, and yes we really sweated it a few times [laughs].
Receivables were always a problem. Some clients tend to take longer than others to pay. Which you know as an entrepreneur…you just landed this massive new client, you get all excited, but then you have to work for four months before you see the money [laughs].
In the beginning, one person did everything on paid advertising, the other person was SEO but also did analytics, and then me. My fourth hire was a really great content marketer, Rhiza. We had the same skillsets back then that we did now. It’s just that because we were small, we could touch all of the same projects. It becomes quite a different challenge as the company grows.
It’s not a platform like WhatsApp or Slack when all of a sudden their acquisition just became viral and their biggest problem is server/cloud infrastructure, we’re more of a steady grind and slow build type of business. However, that doesn’t mean we won’t get into the platform side.
Our main problem now is consistent operational delivery. We are investing in training and performance measurement platforms to ensure consistent delivery whether the managers are involved in the projects or not. It’s quite a different discipline, but it will pay off in the long run.
So last September we opened an office in the UK. The first year in UK will match the first year in the Philippines—it might be even bigger. And then this year is quite exciting for us because we are partnering with a really great company in the US to open Spiralytics USA. But to be able to handle that volume, our operations have to be incredibly sound. When you’re small you can kind of touch and mentor, and people can look over your shoulder. At this size, if the systems aren’t in place then it’s just gonna crumble.
This has been a very intense and pivotal year for us. I can see a lot of cracks on the edges but we know where our shortcomings are and we’re fixing it.
Both—I was lucky to meet the foreigners when I did. We are an international company after all—we have clients in 12 to 14 countries by now so being diverse helps. It wasn’t always a strategy but we just found good people at the right time. I think 6 or 7 countries are represented.
Because what we do is not really taught in school—we’re self-taught. Being diverse adds a really interesting element to the office; it makes us a stronger team and gives us different perspectives. Each time a new client starts, a new group of people work together. And so I want it to always be this way, it’s a fun place to work in.
Well, this is my 2nd time being CEO [laughs]. I probably let Raining Pesos go too long. And in startup land, to quickly test whether a product is gonna work is very important. Back then I didn’t know how to do that. With the skillset I have now, I can quickly test anything I’d like and learn quickly with minimal waste.
Well it was the brand itself. The rebranding campaign was everywhere. You did a great job in communication and the message was simple, so it was noticeable even though I was with another bank before.
I needed a credit card. And the ease of application as well as the options were so much better [with Security Bank]. The credit limit was bigger and it was gonna become used like our company card. We had ad spend on it, and to me it just made a lot of sense.
I like that [Security Bank] is investing in those areas and optimizing… just like us.
So far, it’s been amazing—easy to talk to, easy to do business with. As a digital professional, your investments in user experience and usability, and friendliness in user touchpoints really stand out.
Some of the other banks have been slow with their customer service. When you make mistakes like that, customers wonder if the rest of the processes of the company are broken as well. You can see that when you go to their branches.
I like that [Security Bank] is investing in those areas and optimizing… just like us.
No, my head’s down on this one. We took a round of funding this year from several investors. A lot of companies like ours maybe grow another 50 percent but they tend to not grow any bigger because the operations break down. So I’m on a path to grow this… It’s the right place, the right time, an interesting skill set applied—it’s like industrial engineering applied to marketing. It’s perfect for me.
See if you can test your ideas fast, talk to mentors, and don’t be afraid that someone’s gonna run off with your ideas—99% of it is execution. “Oh great idea!” but a lot of people fail. Those are some of the mistakes I made. But Nix [Nolledo] is a great mentor and the investors we have around have really a ton of experience.
Don’t be afraid to try—but make sure that you don’t go bankrupt in the process. Have a buffer in there, especially if you have a family. If you think you have an idea that’s not out there yet, find people who have done something similar and get advice.
Absolutely. In our team outing earlier this month, I could see 60 people that are helping the company achieve its goals and all getting along, and are already starting to mingle. They’re already a cohesive unit. It’s really amazing to see something big come out of me just making sure that I can make ends meet.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Photography by Kenneth Aballa