Imagine growing up in a world where smartphones didn’t exist. A world where words such as “applications” and “digital payments” didn’t exist. Life would still go on as per normal – we would pay for our daily necessities with cash, and we would go on with doing manual work. But one fine day, we suddenly get thrown into a world full of technology and software. How would we feel?
For someone who grew up in a world when technology was already evolving, the above scenario would be hard to imagine. Yet this is a situation faced by many older workers and the non tech-savvy who knew of a world that had no smartphones. In an evolving workforce brought on by technological advancements, these communities are gradually being alienated and left behind, and this is the situation James Chia seeks to change.
“We really wanted to focus and uplift the underserved, which is the rank and file workforce. There had been research done by the Emergence Capital and the World Economic Forum (WEF), and it estimated 2.7 billion deskless workers. This constitutes almost 60% of the workforce globally.”
Even though contributions by the deskless workforce have been brought to the forefront, especially during COVID-19 times, there are still many things that we fail to notice. For example, the assumption that a laptop would be easily accessible for everyone, or the intuition to learn via technology. It was precisely for this reason that James co-founded ArcLab, a mobile-learning SaaS platform focused on upskilling the deskless workforce, in 2018.
“If you think about it, most tech firms and teams tend to be younger, so most of the apps are built in English with the assumption that it is easily understandable. However, this does not hold true for seniors and non-english speakers. For example, they might not be able to hail a private car using a ride-hailing app due to language barriers. Hence, it is very important that we don’t assume when we are building platforms as architects.”
Noting that simple actions such as downloading applications can be confusing and difficult for senior and non tech-savvy workers, James and his team built their platform to be accessible via web browser instead. Upon receiving a message with a URL link on their phones, workers can simply click in to access those modules, which are offered in multiple languages. There are even videos for illiterate workers.
Using the Avengers’ terminology, James laughingly elaborated, “ArcLab is like the Iron Man suit, but the real superheroes are really the Learning & Development (L&D) managers and trainers. The L&D team would use our platform and create bite-sized lessons that are suitable for their own staff. When they know that they have staff that are illiterate or are non-english speakers, they take it upon themselves to create videos that are suitable for them. On our end, we augment their work, and make sure that the platform interface is as user-friendly as possible.”
While they are a B2B software, James ensures that the team adopts a B2C mindset when it comes to building and adding features to the platform, as the ultimate users are the workers who otherwise might not be familiar with tech.
As with many early-stages startups, James mentioned how allocating resources to build and operate faster was one of their toughest challenges. He recalled, “There were times, especially during the pandemic when there was a surge in users, where we really had to double down to make sure our platform could serve all the new users that came onboard. We are continuing to see different usage patterns, so at times where we want to add new features to accommodate that, it would have been great to have more resources available.”
However, he also mentioned how being a small team also became their greatest strengths, for they were agile enough to be able to react quickly. “For larger companies, it would take a longer time to make a pivot, but we could decide very quickly. We are constantly communicating with our customers, and this has helped us to shape our technology development roadmap in a short period of time.”
For every society that aims to digitize the workforce, accessibility is always an issue. It would be presumptuous to assume that wifi connections or devices are easily available for everyone. James noted that this becomes more of an issue when tech teams build apps that are modern and more complex with each passing day, thus increasing the gap between the tech-savvy and those who aren’t.
He elaborated, “When we think of our underserved communities, the goal is to build the world’s simplest system. While there are many infrastructure issues that are not possible for us to solve, what we can do is to make sure that it goes down to the lowest denominator. For example, we work with F&B sectors, retailers, and SME businesses to allow these workers to have access to training, and that everyone is able to upskill in the simplest form through our platform.”
During the interview with James, I could really see his passion in wanting to bridge the gap in technology for these communities. Upon being asked about the highlights of his journey, he humbly mentioned that as an early-stage startup, every small milestone adds up to the entire experience of being an entrepreneur.
“When we first started out in 2018, there wasn’t actually even a company back then. All I did was just build a simple PowerPoint and showed it to 50 companies. From understanding their pain points that come from training staff, my intern and I built a platform for them to try for free. Surprisingly, there was some usage demand, and we even managed to bring onboard 3 advisors to help with strategy and marketing etc. That was also when I found our founding investor Tinkertanker, whose co-founder Steven came onboard as ArcLab’s CTO, and we launched our MVP in 4 months and the full commercial ArcLab platform 9 months after.”
Reflecting on their journey thus far, they have since managed to get more users onboard, especially during the pandemic period where sign-ups & usage went up by 450%. Just last year in 2020, they were also the youngest edtech startup to be selected by HolonIQ amongst the 50 top edtech companies in Southeast Asia. All of these had given them the validation that they were solving a core problem, and motivated them to head down further in the right direction.
“Moving forward, our goal is to grow and scale the growth and distribution in Southeast Asia and beyond. On the product front, there is still a lot to learn on our end so that we can continue to support our users and build out features and workflow automation. But with whatever we do, the core pillar of building the world’s simplest system will never change, because once we start to add complex things into the system without thinking why, it goes against our purpose.”
A decade ago, the smartphones that we held in our hands were not part of the norm, but it is a living proof that technology will only advance and not move backwards. There is no way in the future world that we will be able to avoid technology — all we can do is slow down the pace for others to catch up, and progress forward as a smart and inclusive society.