Cat Purvis, on Being a Female Tech Entrepreneur in China

Cat Purvis is the Founder of Exicon, an App LifeCycle management company that simplifies the creation, deployment and management of mobile applications for some of the world's biggest companies allowing them to accelerate their success in mobile.

During her career, Cat has built companies, teams and divisions all over the world, in the UK, US as well as in China where she was based for 5 years. Previous roles include COO at Icon Medialab and GM at a start up in Beijing which was later sold to a global player. She set up Exicon in 2001 and specialises in in Developer Programs and Communities.

Born and raised in China, Cat is truly an international woman. Fluent in English, French, Mandarin and German she has lived, worked and studied in many places. A firm believer in the power of education, she studied Management and Statistics at St Andrews University and also a Diploma in Marketing and qualifications in Process Re-engineering.

We spoke to Cat about her life in China, the presence of women in the technology sector, and what is behind her success in business!

TNW: In simple terms what is App Lifecycle Management?

CP: App Lifecycle Management is the management of the creation, deployment and performance of mobile applications.

Exicon has a Cloud, SaaS platform that gives you a simple, centralized dashboard to start new app projects, while controlling and managing all of the associated assets e.g. images, text, licenses, developer contacts and APIs etc.

Our typical customer is the marketing or digital department of a large enterprise looking to find ways to meet business objectives through mobile when this has typically been the domain of the IT department.

Our clients are often stuck focusing on the features within an app – what they want it to do – rather than what they need their entire mobile initiative to do to meet their business objectives.

We therefore help clients address the entire App Lifecycle through our platform or strategic services.

Define – Benchmarking, mobility strategy, brief creation and trends

Build – Matching you with the best developers and tracking your projects

Engage – Appstores, social media, in-app and mobile promotion

Measure – App, Appstore and API analytics to review your performance

Our clients include Standard Chartered bank, Estee Lauder, Thistle Hotels, Blackberry, Guoman Hotels, Intel and HP.

TNW: What are the particular challenges and benefits of running a business in China?

CP: I may sound like a “toffee nosed English bird,” but I am actually born and bred in Asia. I spent most of my childhood in Hong Kong, studied in Europe, worked in Europe and the U.S. before moving to the mainland for 5 years.I, therefore, may have a slightly unusual perspective in that Asia is home and I speak Chinese.

Having said that, one of the main things that I learned in my 5 years in China was that I would never be Chinese. Sounds pretty obvious right? But it really came as a shock to someone who had gone to school where fellow students in my year comprised 40+ nationalities and country borders mean little.

Having said that, I loved living in Beijing. The people were fantastic and welcomed foreigners with a general fascination.

Initially it was annoying having people remove items from my shopping cart to see what I was buying before putting them back without a comment; or to have men on the street remove the map I was clearly puzzling over, have a quick look to work out what it was and where we were, before handing it back and walking on, but there were occasions where I felt like a rock star.

I went to do a “once-over of a huge wholesale food market 4 hours from the capital in 1994, wearing a camel-coloured coat and boots, standing 6 foot, with short blond hair and blue-eyes. Having been told I looked like Lady Di to the locals it wasn’t a huge surprise to be stared at but it began to make us giggle as farmers crawled out from under the little tractors they had driven to market, bleary eyed from having just woken, to stand stock still with their mouths wide open with shock upon seeing me.

We ended up with a huge crowd following us, asking if I could see – surely, with eyes like that she must be blind.

So before I get back to the actual question, the key thing to note was that I was different. That was the biggest benefit AND the biggest challenge.

Being different meant that the Government took a very close interest in everything that we were doing, locally acceptable levels of compliance were not acceptable from foreigners.

Step out of line and get noticed and you are in for a tough time.

However, being different in China means that you can try anything (legal). I had teams that would literally roll their eyes, clearly thinking “Humour her” but they’d laugh and just fall in behind me. If I was willing to take the fall they’d join me. It gave me enormous freedom to try things that I wouldn’t normally be able to do as I wasn’t subject to the social “norms.”

The other great thing about working in China was that, while people had done what I had done overseas, and other people had worked in China, nobody had tried what I was doing in China. It gave me a totally blank slate to give things a go. If I failed, ah well, at least I had done so quickly and hopefully learned from it.

TNW: How do you make sure your company stays up to date with technological advancements in the mobile industry?

CP: Love the saying – and I have to admit to stealing from Mahatma Gandhi and Mark Twain to create a version I loved – “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow. Learn as if you’ll live forever. Dance as if nobody’s watching”.

I firmly believe that I need to be learning every day. Any day that I haven’t learned something is a frustration.

I like to learn in two ways, the first is from other people. It’s a trick I learned from my old boss, one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. He’s in his late 50’s, has 6 kids, is an Ironman and was recently #2 in a huge global bank. Any time he finishes a competition he goes up to the winner (if it wasn’t him) and asks him for his training regime. He incorporates what works for him and ditches what doesn’t.

The second way is by reading. I have a pile of books next to my bed of books I am not necessarily massively inspired to read, I’m more of a fiction sort of person but I want to know what they know. So I have set myself a goal of 52 books this year and I am interspersing fiction with non-fiction so I can learn and distress together!

Books are shared among the team and we are always forwarding articles and stories to each other. Anything that grabs someone’s attention becomes fodder for our Wednesday “brown bag”, which is when we get in sandwiches and then one person presents on that topic. It can be a book, an article, their recent use of a particular technology, a project they have completed etc. I have learned a lot from my team.

But I don’t think that learning is limited to people from your industry. I learn from my 4 fabulous kids - new math, apps, books or swimming techniques;

from doctors – healthier ways to live: people in the coffee queue in front of me – their new handset, app they are using, book they are holding etc. Ask my kids, it drives them nuts, I’ll talk to anyone. Muuuummmmm!!

Our SEO guy was a web designer who was given lots of books and who presented the analytics on a daily basis with what he’d learned the day before. This enabled the marketing team to understand how they had to use keywords, calls to action, a conversion path through our site, etc.

And every month we can’t believe how stupid we were last month.

TNW: Do you see many women developers in your programs?

CP: The simple answer is No, I don’t. My overall team is 38% female, but my tech team is only 25% female. It drives me nuts. I am a regular speaker at various universities where I try to recruit young, hungry interns, but so many women are intimidated by technology that they don’t dare apply. I keep telling young women that being female is an asset and that you should work with what you have, not worry about what you don’t (so to speak).

What is great about being female in technology is that you get noticed. By being in the minority you are automatically more memorable than all those other guys who you are up against.

In my experience male technologists are also unfamiliar with working with pushy females so if you ask for what you want they find it difficult to say no.

Be warned though, you had better have done your homework. It’s no different from any other male dominated industry (I have also worked in the chemical industry and built 2 factories, a warehouse and 17 restaurants in 5 amusement parks in China so I know what I am talking about). You need to be better prepared than the guy next to you. You don’t have to be smarter and you can defer to experts but, as I said, read up or bring someone who can answer the questions you can’t. You do need to be ready. If you’re not, then all the advantages you had by being a woman just got flushed down the drain.

Another saying “You have to be twice as good as a man to be considered half as good.” Unfortunately I think its true but I actually enjoy continually trying to get four times as good as a result.

I am going to make a huge generalization here concerning women and their organizational abilities. In my experience, women are often good project managers. This is an extremely transferable skill, whether it is from running operations across 4 factories, managing a tech project, managing a family or managing a team. I think people underestimate the value that this brings from very early on in a new role and that is no different for technology. I am not suggesting a technical project management role, but there are a lot of organizations that need good project management where one can gain a deeper understanding of technology on the job. I’d like to see more women entering technology this way.

I was on a Bloomberg panel recently in which one of the other panelists was talking about how men are great at networking and asking for what they want, women tend not to be as good.

Using myself as an example, I couldn’t agree more. I have to remember to keep blowing my own trumpet and to state clearly what I want. As the panelist said, with regard to salary, for example, ask for what you think is expensive.… and then double it. Women are often paid less than their male colleagues. Get out there, get educated and ask for what you deserve.

TNW: You were previously GM of a start up in Beijing, which was sold to a global player. What lessons did you learn from this experience and then apply to founding and leading Exicon?

CP: There’s a great little snippet in Inc. which I love (I should also mention Pink here and obviously TheNextWomen is now going to have to be my favourite) about Richard Branson: Screw it, Just do it.

My mentor, Mike DeNoma, described above had a very similar attitude. He’s an amazing guy who taught me the same thing, without the catchy phrase, but it embodies what I learned and how I dream of leading:

  1. Just do it.

  2. Fail spectacularly – Tom Peters Project 50. Make sure you really strived for something better, you may crash and burn, but you’ll have learned a lot more than if you were going for a tiny improvement.

  3. Always be learning.

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