I am in need of some inspirations. So I looked up some of the best emails I have written that opened doors for me, and reminded myself that doors can be opened, if you want it bad enough.
1) Joining as Venture Partner in a VC/Incubator
Fresh out of my 3-year stint in Vietnam, I was back home and looking for a new challenge in 2013. I wrote to the MD of a new VC/Incubator in Malaysia to be a venture partner. The company ran multiple startups, and it looked like something right up my alley.
I landed a meeting with him, and was offered an opportunity. But I turned it down because I didn't like how things were run there.
I am Yin How. 3 years ago, after graduating from university, I bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam to pursue my start-up dream. In the process, I've built and launched 3 Internet businesses, raised fund for 2, and exited once.
I've recently returned home to Malaysia in search for my next challenge, and I am very interested in what M (VC name) is doing. Let's cut to the chase:What can I offer/how I might be a perfect fit:
- Experienced Internet entrepreneur in fast-growing SEA market.
- I know how to bootstrap and run lean. I know how to produce results with limited funding.
- Passionate in starting things from scratch, building disruptive products, leading teams, and growing companies.
- Expertise: product management (both product development and product marketing), business development, fund raising, and the general nuts and bolts of an early-stage start-up
- Able to strive under uncertainty and ambiguity - hey, I survived 3 years in the wildness called Vietnam!
- Local-born, regional work experience, international background (understand local consumer and work culture, yet have the expertise and connection to help M's products scale and expand regionally and globally when needed)
- There's still plenty I need to learn about Malaysian market, but I am a quick learner. I don't expect hand-holding, and I am the type of person who is ready to hit the ground running and start working 24/7 on something I'm passionate in.
- I want to win, and I want to learn and grow with winners.
- I have failed before, and it makes me even more hungry to win. And I know that I can't win just by myself, so I'm looking to join a group of like-minded entrepreneurs where we can learn and grow together.
- I've reached out and talked to people who've been in M before. From what I've heard, M seems like the perfect environment for me: smart and motivated people working 24/7 on exciting projects.
I would like to meet in person soon to discuss more about M and see if we are a good fit for each other. We can even grab a drink and talk more if you prefer a more casual interaction.More Information:
You can find out more about me here: linkedin link
My last interview with Tech in Asia: article link
My resume is attached.
I look forward to discuss more with you, A. Even if this doesn't work out, it will still be interesting for us to meet and discuss more about startups.
2) Joining a Startup
Also during my post-Vietnam period, I wrote to the founder of a startup doing ecommerce marketplace. I shared my thoughts on his startup in a long email includes ideas, product positioning, bugs, UX improvement, go-to-market strategies.
After I sent it, I knew it was an email he couldn't say "no" to. He gave me an offer to join them the next day.
I spent 3 months there, and was eventually offered a position as COO. But I left for Singapore instead.
Here are some of my thoughts on S (company name). Look forward to discuss and learn more on them with you, since I'm sure that you and your team have given a lot thoughts to these.My initial impressions:
The product is more complete than I imagined for a beta version. Overall user experience is solid for a MVP, the user flow is straightforward and intuitive.
The operation seems very well planned out - FAQ is very detailed, the general site information architecture is solid. All the info I need as a customer are well explained and organized. And the video is very well made and professional!
logistics (custom tax, shipping rate, exchange rate, sales tax): these details vary a lot by country, so I'm wondering what is our approach to this - are we focusing on a few markets first and start opening up to more countries later once we have sufficient grasp of these details?
economics: what's the average markup through shopping via S? any breakdown by product category (since custom tax and weight is different)? any example of what's the markup compared to shopping locally (if it's available locally)
risk: some of them are answered in FAQ, but i'd still like to know what are our plans for these situations: items spoiled during international shipping; Confiscation or lost while going through custom; Dispute between buyer and seller; "Illegal" items (e.g. I'm not sure if sex toys are allowed to be shipped in to M'sia)
how does the purchase process work in term of cash flow? after a shopper paid the first invoice, does the company hold the money first and pay boxer after fulfillment is confirmed, or does the money go to Boxer so he/she doesn't have to front the cost of purchase?
target market: we can research a lot on what are some very specific target to market to: e.g. young parents in Malaysia who want overseas baby products; young fashionista in Taiwan/Singapore who want in-season Korean fashion; Chinese tech-lovers who want the newest iphone/ipad before it's released to China; Asian-american looking to buy cosmetics from Japan, etc
how to prevent shoppers and boxers from bringing the transaction out of the marketplace (just want to hear your thoughts on this, i'm sure you know that other marketplace businesses such as ebay, taobao, airbnb have solved that; but one potential difference is that, the shopper-boxer relationship might be more recurring (e.g. you might use the same boxer to buy a handbag every season) so there's more incentive for them to take it out in private, compared to purely transactional and generally one-off relationship between buyer and merchant on ebay or airbnb)
going forward and scaling up, what will be S's relationship with Boxers? will they be employees? or individual agents that we trained and vouched for. If it's the latter, the verified marketplace approach similar to Uber and AirBnB, do we need to be legally established in the countries where our Boxers operate?
rating system/testimonial for Boxers as we scale up
social shopping feature: there are various ways to spin this, one possible way is group shopping/shipping - at check-out page, remind them that if they invite 2 more friends to shop and ship together, not only do they save on shipping, but they also get discount on service fee.
I think the team has done a fantastic job defining the specific pain points that S are solving:
- "No more painful and time-consuming experiences of keying in your credit card and personal details multiple times, only to be told that your item cannot be shipped to your country or that your non-local credit card is not accepted." ----> Access
- Help you get on newest trend before it's available to your country ----> Early-Access
- Cheaper than getting it locally ----> Price
- "S prides itself on being a social site so our Boxers are also assigned to you based on both your shopping interests and they can guide you on where to best get a particular item you're looking for." ----> Exclusive insight/Personalization
My fashion e-commerce company has partnered with a Taiwan-based Korean fashion trader before. It's similar to what we are doing, but in a more specific sector: Taiwanese customers order Korean fashion goods on their TW website (data scraping from Korean website), and they ship over daily from Korea to Taiwan. The reason why their business is striving is because they provide access to the latest Korean fashion (straight from KR website), which is 1-2 seasons ahead of those available in TW market wholesaled from Korea.
Personal instances of shopping overseas that I know of (shipping directly, or travelling abroad and buy, or asking friends to bring back)
- cancer medicine produced only in Cuba
- nutrition products from Australia
- milk powder/baby products from Japan (Taiwan especially now has a milk powder crisis; Mainland Chinese has huge distrust on domestic milk powder or baby products)
- ginseng and facials from Korea
- Cosmetics from Japan
- High-fashion in Europe
- Fast fashion in U.S. (I've been asked to buy back some jeans a few times)
- Coach handbags
- U.S. outlet mall products
- high-end men's watches in US/Europe are a lot cheaper than in China/Hong Kong/Taiwan
I have done a quick survey with a few shopaholic friends to get some insights on overseas shopping. Here's a quick survey result of 3 friends: survey-link
High fashion that doesn't ship overseas, that requires in-store purchase in U.S./Europe --> most of my Asia-based female friends have this problem
One concern I have is custom tax/import tax/GST:
- what is the custom tax practice like in our target markets? this will affect the economics of the purchasing decision greatly.
- in Japan, tax for shoes is 30%, apparel 10%
- Thailand is around 30%, depending on items
- VN has 20%-80% custom tax, especially for electronics and fashion (even shipping as a gift will be taxed)
- What is our target market? Do we start from selected countries first before opening up more?
- Have we defined our user profiles and their different use cases? What are their interested items?
- What are our go-to-market plans?
- One of the things I did for my fashion EC before we launch was conduct an online survey, which served a few purposes:
- Help understand our potential customer's needs better
- Reach our targeted segment of customer (people who likes to buy from overseas)
- Get our first batch of customers: as a reward for doing the survey, they can get 50% discount on service fee when using S. this will give them extra incentive to try out the service.
- Partner with electronic/fashion discovery site - they can showcase cool/hot stuff you can't buy locally, and then offer S as a service for their userbase to buy it
- Partner with price comparison site
- On our site or our social media site, we can promote cool/hot items from sellers that don't do international shipping (Gilt? Fab.com, Kickstarter, wearable computing such as Jawbone Up, Pebble Watch)
- Promote on forums such as /r/Malefashionadvice on reddit, or other female fashion forums. When there is discussion on specific items that are geography-specific, we can provide suggestion of S's service to help them.
marketplace e-commerce is great model: no inventory risk, just community management; it has natural built-in defensible barrier when you scaled up (just as any marketplace)
- scale/critical mass (similar to any marketplace: need a good ratio of sellers and buyers)
- community management (how to maintain customer experience standard after scaling up, especially when we have less control over boxers)
- competitive advantage
- alternative/substitute: international shipping/ebay international
- big EC platforms such as Amazon, Rakuten are expanding globally with plans to integrate the different markets of buyers and sellers. This might take a while to happen, but it might still be a concern to potential investor
business model optionality/versatility (one thing I've learned from successful Internet entrepreneurs is that they know how to exit/pivot even if the intended business model fails.) these are a few things I can think of for S:
- marketplace personal shopper/curator --> e.g. "i want a gift for my girlfriend at this budget"; "i want a special French souvenir for my anniversary"
- users and wish lists --> in aggregate, will be useful data to sell to retail/e-commerce companies
for countries/product types with heavy custom tax, in the future, we can add an extra option for people who are traveling into the country to help you hand-carry? I remember there are a few websites that claim to be "AirBnB for luggage space", that allow people to rent out extra space in their luggage. Still quite a novel concept, but it's something interesting we can look at.
other EC with different models that we can learn from them how they acquire users and grow: website-link (customer put Amazon link of product, the site will give customer a better deal than that)
is 10%-14% service fee too high/low? what's the feedback so far?
- Maybe we can consider automatically extract (and suggest) image and price when you put the product url in? As a customer, I was lazy having to input the different fields.
- Customer cannot cancel order after placing order? (My internet lagged a bit and i double clicked on the Order button, ended up having duplicate orders which i couldn't remove)
- Is there a tally of estimated total price (inclusive of all charges and fee) during the order/check-out page? Shopper will be interested to get a sense of whether buying a particular good makes economic sense. Maybe shipping calculator can also be put at the check-out page?
- link not working: some link
- Testimonials/Specific examples:
If I were a customer, I would be the most concerned how S is gonna benefit me in specific examples. So it would be helpful if there are examples or testimonials of how S helps a customer to get a Coach bag that is not available locally, or examples of how much % saving I get buying Levi jeans through S compared to M'sia. Or how Johnny got the first iphone 5S in Malaysia through S by paying only XXX amount extra.
I would also be a little clueless initially on what I might want - so having testimonials would help: It would be great to have some real or made-up testimonials from customers, not just for trust, but to showcase some use case, or inspire some demand.
Currently showing the boxes on the homepage do serve similar purpose of inspiring demand, but I think the feature can be more neat and exciting - e.g. right now the images of 4 boxes of Nexus 5 and 4 boxes of coffee powder on home makes it look dull.Closing thoughts
In my all 3 past products, my biggest mistake and lesson learned is product-market fit. If I were an investor, I would be the most curious about the demand for our product and the estimate of the market sizing - to see whether it's a niche or huge potential market. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.
As of now, from a customer's point of view, my biggest question would be if the economics of my purchase makes sense (especially after custom tax, which can be substantial). My understanding on this is limited, so would like to learn more from the team.
Lastly, I am very excited to start working on our strategies and our go-to-market and growth plan.
I would be interested to know our fund-raising plan as well. I have worked with quite a few investors and VCs, so I can help with our business planning and pitch material. I have a few contacts of Asia-based VCs that I can refer as well.
3) Reaching out to idol
When a startup by Joel Neol - a famous entrepreneur in Malaysia - was acquired, I wrote a simple cold email to him that opened up conversation where we both shared our startup experience.
Congratulation, Joel. Groupsmore has been very well-run, and the quality of the team is no less the most important factor. I wasn't surprised at all that you guys stood out to Groupon US when they decided to come to Malaysia.
I am a Malaysian who recently moved to Hanoi, Vietnam to start my own venture here. If you guys have any plan here in Vietnam, I'd be glad to lend a hand.
Over the years, reaching out to people has opened plenty of doors for me.
In this Covid time in a strange new land, I need to remind myself to keep putting myself out there and increase the surface area for sparks to be ignited.