Sega Cheng was pursuing an Engineering Degree at Stanford University 15 years ago when he watched how an Artificial Intelligence-powered, self-driving car roamed around his campus one day.

“That was wild to me back then because I thought if one could do something as complex as driving a car with just a machine, imagine what other things you could solve with the same application,” he recalled.

“And that set the tone for my entrepreneurial journey. I wanted to build something just like that,” he said about that defining moment. “That’s when I realised that AI can really help people in many ways.”

Just like any aspiring engineer would do to kickstart a career, Cheng joined Google Taiwan where he built Google Maps (specifically Google Transit in Taiwan) working with a dedicated software engineering team.

And then in 2012, he left the tech behemoth to build something that “I would imagine would be irreplaceable just like Google”.

And that led him to start iKala.

AI competence in enterprises

iKala’s mission is to enable AI competence in enterprises. The company seeks to boost customer acquisition capability as well as its lifetime value by providing AI-driven digital transformation solutions.

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The firm offers three solutions:

  • iKala Cloud: The cloud service enables enterprises to get access to cloud infrastructure through GCP, G Suite as productivity solution, iKala CDP as a customer data platform, Straas that provides AI-enabled video streaming, and Picaas for AI image optimisation.
  • KOL Radar: A performance-based influencers marketing service that helps businesses match with the right influencers. The service is currently available in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, with more than 50,000 influencers available to work with through social media channels such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and the latest one, TikTok.
  • Shoplus: A social selling platform that seeks to connect to businesses’ fan page and turn it into a webstore. It offers features such as AI live sell for FB live streaming buyers, that allows users to capture buying intent automatically from comments and messages and contact the buyers simultaneously while doing live sales. It also provides AI chatbot feature for FB post buyers and AI messenger plug-in for buyers who reach users through messenger inbox that help capture customer shipping information automatically from the chatting content and create orders and send the bill to the buyers directly while communicating with them in the messenger.

iKala also has a new division called iKala commerce, which consolidated KOL Radar and Shoplus to become a sales channel, where merchants and advertisers can expand their territory using its AI-powered tools.

Currently, iKala has operations in Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.’s pivot

iKala was originally started in 2012 as an online streaming video service. 

“We started as an online video karaoke platform. But that was costly because of the royalty fees needed to be paid to record companies,” Cheng recalled. 

“It did never have a business model that could cover what we had, even though we once had over three million active users. The business model was not correct and investors were questioning if it was a viable business because we were burning a lot of money,” he recalled.

So the iKala team took a step back to understand how it could be turned into something more scalable and still solving problems.

“The pivot didn’t happen instantly, we carefully assessed everything before focussing our products on what now would be KOL Radar and Shoplus,” he shared.

How COVID-19 affects AI

While the firm has a variety of products catering to different types of customers across seven countries, including those with physical stores, iKala is not immune to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a paradigm shift in the digital world and the physical world. Most businesses lose all of their sales channels, with stores closing with limited to no physical business at all. Sales channels are being shifted online, that’s for starters,” he said.

“What makes it hard for those who didn’t have AI tools in their disposal is that brands and advertisers are getting wiser and wiser in the allocation of their advertising budget since the pandemic. They’re not just throwing out money to test out which channels work best, but they now go for a performance-based marketing solution, which is measurable in each campaign with AI,” he continued.

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Cheng then pulled out an example of one of its customers in Thailand who is using Shoplus to sell gold. 

“This guy managed to boost his sales up to 61 per cent between March and April this year without any additional investment in his company,” Cheng boasted.

He claims it proves his point that AI is increasingly moving from a “nice to have” tech into a “must-have tech” after the pandemic. “Previously, not many people understood the AI world and how it can benefit their business, and now, the paradigm shift allows people to embrace AI and make it applicative in their day-to-day lives, with advertising adjusting fast pursuing this AI commerce,” Cheng said.

The learning

Being in the business of AI, it’s easy to get all technical and just stay focussed on tech improvements. AI allows limitless possibilities and innovation, and iKala is on board with that, he says.

“We initially took pride in being a product company, but along the way, we evolved to become more and more customer-centric, and now we call ourselves a customer company,” he smiled.

The reason is that iKala has found out that what matters is not whether the product is the best in the world, but if it can solve the customers’ problems. “If we can satisfy customers’ needs, then we’re successful. This is especially true for AI adoption because everyone is using AI in different domains to satisfy their needs.”

“We’ve come a long way to use the right technology and methodology. We should put humans at the centre of AI adoption. We put AI behind the scene as the application for the human. Human and machine should not overwhelm each other but should work in favour of each other,” he added.

AI is happening now

With its ongoing mission of putting human-centric AI for customer acquisition through conversational AI, Cheng shared that in Thailand alone, more than 200 billion valuable conversations are happening every day.

“These conversations happen in a big social market in Thailand, which is worth about US$10 million in a year. There are conversations on social platforms happening in Southeast Asia now, and there’s a real business value generated from this conversation,” said Cheng. “I believe moving forward, conversational AI is a way to go for Southeast Asia.”

Right now, the company is actively approaching investors from the Southeast Asia region, he said. “We’re prepared to expand to Indonesia and also Malaysia.

The company also recently hired former Google Managing Director Dr Lee-Feng Chien (known to be the prominent figure behind the establishment of Google and its data centres in Taiwan) to its board.

“We imagine a future where every business can do e-commerce or social commerce just by talking on the phone, which can help them start an e-commerce business with minimum spending. That’s the goal and that is a highly viable business,” Cheng said.

“We hope that iKala commerce can handle all channels, social platforms, stores, all kinds of e-commerce platforms you have in your hand. That’s the direction that we’re going,” Cheng signed off.

Picture Credit: iKala

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