Interview with Dr. Willy Portier, Digital Nomad Entrepreneur
By Nil Larom & Yannick Podgorski
The French Tech Beijing team sat with Dr.Willy Portier, Digital Nomad Entrepreneur, owner of concerty.com to get his insights on tech startups, AI and the Digital Nomad lifestyle.
1. Can you introduce yourself ?
My name is Willy. I am 42, married and recently a father to a beautiful daughter. I am a specialist in SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and PhD in AI (Artificial Intelligence). At around13 years old, I got an Amiga 600 computer and I became passionate about computing. I discovered the internet in 1998 and quickly understood the revolution that led meto follow studies in Computer Sciences. I learned programming and became a website geek developer. As I learnt the technical side of the web, I moved to Paris in 2002 to attend an Internet Marketing and Commerce degree where I discovered SEO. My goal was to be a web expert combining technology, marketing and content, so I then attended a Webmaster Editorial Master’s degree (one of the first Internet Master’s degrees in France).
2. Why did you come and study in China ?
I decided to head to China for 3 reasons. First, I became passionate about SEO and applied to all the companies in this domain in Paris but my salary expectations were too high for the market. SEO and the internet were not as important as they are now and the internet still had a “free of charge” culture. Second, I read magazines such as “Capital” and “Management”, books, internet articles about business and two trends of articles came around a lot: “Internet” and “China” so going to China and working on SEO/Internet could provide me with a great resume and experience. Third, after I browsed the blog of a French girl in China (« Camille en Chine »), I knew that I had the opportunity to live a great personal adventure and to improve my English level, which is essential in the internet world. Surprisingly, living in China as a foreigner is a good way to improve your English level. At that time, I couldn’t find any real risks in this adventure, only rewards, and it reminds me of a quote from Nelson Mandela: “I never lose. I either win or learn.” So I enrolled in the France-China International Management Master that helps students and professionals to implement their expertise and knowledge in China.
3. How did you become an entrepreneur? Are successful entrepreneurs born or made?
During my studies, I had not yet discovered the entrepreneur in me as I never had in my childhood a desire to undertake such a path, nor did I have a role model in my close environment. When I worked for a startup in Paris, I discovered real entrepreneurship with the two bosses barely older than I who were hit hard by the 2000 internet crisis, ending up with one employee earning minimum wage and not being able to pay themselves a salary. This was the beginning of my interest in understanding how entrepreneurship works. I didn’t particularly want to be an entrepreneur, especially because it seemed out of reach for me. To validate my Master’s I had to find a 6 month internship so I applied to large companies in China, without success. I then thought out of the box: why not start my own company to be able to validate my studies. My way of making decisions is ”acceptable loss » (balance gain / loss) and quality of life. So I could test this and see; if it works, good, and I didn’t have much to lose, so in my case I would say I am a self-made entrepreneur.
4. What are the products/services/solutions that your company offers?
I decided to offer Digital Marketing/ SEO expertise and website creation services. I had no knowledge in business (launching a web agency), no money and no guanxi 关系 (network) so it was laborious at the beginning. As I needed a company to invoice for my work, I created one in Hong Kong. It was quite simple at that time as a non Chinese entrepreneur and my web agency was born. I was among the first adopters of WordPress (easiest and most powerful website builder in existence today) for professional websites, but also Prestashop (an immensely feature-rich, free, open source e-commerce solution) as I got more and more requests for e-commerce sites; I also built my own e-commerce website to better understand the requirements from my customers. As I like to say: “The best way to provide the best services and solutions is to experience what your customers are experiencing”. Then, during my PhD, I also got the opportunity to work and participate in the AI Lab, a special laboratory dedicated to Artificial Intelligence entrepreneurship in the heart of my university. With my best friend, we had a website idea for more than 15 years and the PhD was the catalyst to realise it. Our website concerty.com provides, for free, the list of the next concerts in your city and all over the world, as well as information on the artists and their events. It is the first website in the world to perform prediction of set-lists using AI, among other exclusive features. Our website has reached more than one million monthly visitors worldwide, in 20 languages, without having invested in any marketing; it was all organic traffic. It is mostly automated as it requires only a small amount of maintenance and the revenue is mainly generated through advertising and communication. Our objective is to be the best website for concerts in the world. We also want to find a way to develop it in China but we first need to build a strong music industry network. For more than a year the activity has suffered a lot from Covid, with all concerts cancelled throughout the world. Music industry is difficult and competitive, and it is hard to find investors or partners. However the concert sub-niche is quite lucrative as more and more people were going to concerts and will go to concerts as the pandemic made people realise the importance of enjoying life.
5. Why did you come and study in China ?
A digital nomad is usually a personable to travel with an online side job topay the bills (such as translator orblogger) but that cannot focus on making a real business. My goal was to develop a real business, working 50 hours a week as an entrepreneur but being able to enjoy the night and weekend in different places over the world. My interest was not necessarily only China but also Asia. I wanted to be free to travel and live in different countries. My online web agency allowed my wife and I to go almost wherever we wanted to. Nowadays, itseems like a privilege. For more than 10 years, we lived in different countries such as China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Dubai. It was an exciting and enjoyable life with a lot of travel (I visited more than 50 countries) while working at different offices, near the beach or swimming pool. If I had to choose a country where to live, my recommendation would be: “If you want to live in different world everyday, live in China. If you want a relaxing life, live in Vietnam.”
6. What challenges did you face when you launched your business?
As a SEO expert, I am also willing to help drive science forward, so I enrolled in a PhD for 4 years, in English and Chinese at the Beijing University of Technology. SEO is a very important part of the development of a website to attract as much traffic as possible and one of the techniques is to be listed in the first ranks of search engines like Google or Baidu. The holy grail of any SEO expert is to decrypt Google’s or Baidu’s algorithm, understand the important SEO criteria and predict which keywords could potentially be optimised to improve the ranking and traffic of any website. I had the excitement to work on these topics for the sake of the challenge using Artificial Intelligence Machine Learning (broadly defined as the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour). The keypoint of my thesis is to develop a software to predict on the basis of thousands of keywords, and which ones can be used to be ranked on the first page of Google for any given website. Concerty.com was launched as a case study and its success proves that my SEO methodology works. To attend a PhD in China, it can be quite challenging for foreign students. I had to publish 3 papers in top level computer science journals to be able to submit my thesis; in France a publication is often not even mandatory. Supervisors are overwhelmed by a large quantity ofPhD students, so the support is not oriented to their foreign students. It was not a real issue for me as I am independent by nature and I master my subject after 15 years of experience. The administration can be difficult and time consuming mainly because everything is in Chinese and the path to the solution is like a labyrinth. Out of 40 foreign doctoral students in 2017 (all courses combined), only a third obtained the diploma in the minimum time (about 40% in France). In addition to the knowledge I acquired, the PhD opened my mind and one of my projects is to help the young generation in Europe to come and settle in China by explaining what is real life in China and Asia.
7. What challenges did you face in your business?
I advise entrepreneurs :- to find a mentor to get feedback and advice according to experience and objectives, or at least the directions to avoid. I wasted too much time testing lots of ideas that were going nowhere,- to build a network, as “your net worth is your network”; for example, participate and connect with organisations like La French Tech,- to learn Chinese language as it is a strong asset and it will be more and more necessary given the strong competition,- to manage the risk. I cannot say that I took big risks, neither by leaving nor by launching a new startup. I’m always taking the minimum risks and thinking what is the maximum I can get for a minimum risk exposition in order to achieve my next short term goal. I am an “effectual entrepreneur” (the effectual entrepreneur is rooted in the belief that the future is neither found nor predicted, but rather made by them),- to not stop learning. It is an essential part of the expertise as technologies and techniques quickly evolve, it is important to do continuous technology intelligence, to pass different training or MOOC (MassiveOpen Online Courses).
Credits: Yannick Podgorski (text), Nil Larom (review), Caline Chong, Dragos Cacio, Hugo Menzer, Alexandre Goncalves digital-space.cn