Insights On Starting, Building And Scaling An Empire From Scratch With FashionValet
From local ecosystem builders to global collaborators - What started off as a curated fashion marketplace hosting over 500 Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean brands, shifted to blazing a new trail as Southeast Asia’s leading and fastest growing D2C Modest Fashion Group today.
In this episode of our Thought Inspire Series, in collaboration with CGS-CIMB, Fadza and Vivy talk to financial journalist Khoo Hsu Chuang about their entrepreneurial journey from bootstrapping in their early days to fundraising and scaling their business across the globe. Here you will find insights on how the couple uses their social media platforms to effectively market their brand, how they are able to convince investors to believe in their mission and expansion, and how they are able to maintain their creative advantage in the fast-paced fashion environment.
Describe your early days, how did you overcome the challenges of building a business from scratch?
“Those early days were the best because we didn’t know better. Naivety was a blessing as a young entrepreneur excited to create something out of nothing.” Vivy talks about the couple’s exciting beginnings at FashionValet. Vivy, a recent Law graduate from LSE in 2010 had grown her online presence through her blog, Proudduck during her days in university. On returning to Malaysia from her studies in the UK, Vivy and Fadza had set out to build FashionValet, an e-commerce platform inspired by the couple’s experience with online shopping during their time in London. Vivy explains that they wanted to implement what they had seen in the UK market in Malaysia and combine it with Vivy’s influence online to build-up a business from scratch. Vivy remembers telling Fadza “Why don’t we marry the two together? ” and in doing so led to the birth of FashionValet.
Fadza, a graduate of Aeronauteical Engineering from Imperial College London began his work with Vivy at FashionValet as a full-time employee at Deloitte. Fadza expresses the highs of building the business in its early days and the struggle of balancing his time with both Deloitte and FashionValet. He would spend the early hours and late nights working on the business because he was incredibly committed to the business as he saw the opportunity that laid at their feet. “I really believed FashionValet was going to work because it worked so well in the UK. Not to mention, Malaysia was so far behind in terms of adopting e-commerce that the opportunity was a no brainer.” Fadza explains.
Adopting E-commerce In Malaysia
Fadza explains how the couple believed they had a golden opportunity to capitalize on with FashionValet’s business model to curate a product line on their very own website through a consignment model in which FashionValet would host multiple brands on a one-stop-shop platform. “As a couple of 21 year olds starting a business, we thought we were going to be millionaires. The company was doing well above expectations and within the first 15 months we already hit a million ringgit in revenue.” Fadza explains how they had hit a goldmine with FashionValet. However, it wasn’t too long till the couple had to face rising competition in the marketplace especially with the likes of Rocket Internet beginning to invest into the Malaysian market.
Big Boys Entering The Market
Like most successful businesses, Fadza & Vivy began to face trouble as more businesses rose to compete in the online retail market in Malaysia. “When we started the business, we had the first-mover advantage but very quickly there were so many companies that started popping up trying to do the same thing we did, and they would poach… approach the brands we were working with.” Vivy continues to express how the wake of Rocket Internet in Southeast Asia began to make the couple feel unsettled as she says “The big boys are coming and it was scary. They were pouring millions into the market and we were still only spending 10, maybe 20,000 ringgit on marketing. We were taking it too easy on our social media platforms and realized we were taking our opportunity for granted.” This became the first turning point for Fadza & Vivy’s business to start thinking more long-term and strategically about their business goals which also became the couple’s motivator to begin fundraising in order to compete against Rocket Internet and maintain their position in the marketplace.
How would you advise entrepreneurs and young business owners to spend more wisely in Marketing/Advertising?
Think Grander, Act Granular
Fadza addresses this question by briefly explaining how marketing today is vastly different from marketing 10 years ago. Businesses today are not only competing against their competitors but are also fighting against all the noise of user generated content and paid content that are being pushed to consumers on platforms such as Instagram and YouTube etc. He continues by saying, “Being very targeted in your digital marketing such as picking the right customers is important but you must also ensure that it’s part of a much bigger marketing strategy because digital marketing alone is not good enough to grow your business to the size you’re expecting.”
Segment Your Audience
Vivy adds by explaining that one of the mistakes they made early on was making a one-size fits all marketing campaign such as designing a single banner and posting it across all their touchpoints. “I learnt through my digital marketing team that there should be different contents for different segments. These can be separated into customer acquisition efforts, promotions, ads for moms, ads for students, ads for conversions and ads for brand awareness.” In short, Vivy explains that you must break down your audience into its segments and market to them accordingly instead of assuming a one-size fits all marketing strategy will work.
In regards to developing an e-commerce business such as fulfilling orders and deliveries as well as designing a website. How did you go about building the backend operations of the business?
Outsource What You Don’t Know
When Fadza & Vivy began the business they admit that they didn’t have the slightest clue in building a website back in 2010. This was their first challenge to setting up their online business and decided to outsource this task to a company which they found from a quick Google search. Vivy expresses “Literally, I Googled how to set up a website and only one company came up called Net Builder. I told them I wanted to set up a website and they did everything for us.”
Build Up What You Do Know
Once they had successfully built up their website, Fadza & Vivy took it upon themselves to build their e-commerce business from the ground up from picking, packing and delivering as Fadza reveals, “everything was done on excel and in-house”. Fadza describes the difficulties of bootstrapping in the early days of FashionValet when they would receive an abnormal amount of orders due to launch days, “As we began we would average about 10 orders a day but on the days where we would have spikes and get 200 orders we would call for help from home and our friends. We like to reminisce about the days when we had 20 of our friends in the office on the floor packing till 3am.” In doing so, the couple was building and continues building their own systems in-house specific to their business needs in order to fulfill 10x the orders in a matter of hours as Fadza expresses “We’ve managed to build a lot of our own proprietary technology over the years because we were building it as we were scaling.”
As someone who built a business leveraging your presence on social media. What kind of advice would you give entrepreneurs who need social media to navigate between self and work?
The use of social media has sparked a trend in building a business in which brands are able to use founders to front the brand by demonstrating the values and qualities of a brand through the founder. Whereas, there still exist successful brands that do not use their founders to front the brand. Ultimately, Vivy’s advice to entrepreneurs is to do what suits them.
Benefits: Authenticity In Driving Growth
Authenticity is the number one key in growing an audience on social media especially if you’re using your social media channels to connect with your customers. “If you’re a small business, using a founder definitely creates a personality and adds more depth to a business which also adds a lot more emotion between the customer and the business.” Fadza explains.
Obstacles: Separating The Two Entities In Order To Scale The Business
One of the most difficult aspects of growing a business by fronting the founder is separating the two to allow the brand to stand on its own merits. Fadza expresses, “As you grow larger, you need to figure out how do you start phasing out the qualities the founder put into the brand for the brand itself to stand-alone, and to allow the founder to eventually step back. As much as the founder is the brand, you can’t replicate the founder.” He emphasizes that the separation of the two is key in expanding a business especially into many different countries, “A, the founder may not be as appealing in other countries. B, the founder can’t physically be in so many different places at the same time.” Fadza explains.
In your case, the lifeblood of the founder is invested in the brand but you’re looking to separate the two. How do you go about making that transition? And what are the things you’re doing now to make that happen?
Separating The Brand and Its Founder
Vivy explains that the first step in separating the two is to not instill the founders name into the brand’s name. “The simplest thing is that the brand’s name can’t be the founder's name.” says Vivy. She further elaborates the implications of using the founders name in the brand title, “When you’re starting out and your name is attached, you will have to be at every event and you have to be at every product launch.”
Vivy expresses that like any other successful branding strategy, a business must ensure that its branding strategy must be unique to create distinctiveness, from packaging to banners and social media postings to effectively target a niche market. This reinforces the strengths and values of a brand’s image which allows the founders to take a step back and allow the brand to stand through its own uniqueness. “I think every brand needs a niche, strong branding, and that X factor to stand out from the rest of the competition and apart from its founder.” Vivy explains.
How do you navigate between being a husband and wife, and running a business?
“When you're a startup everybody does everything and everybody will naturally fall into where they are strongest.” says Fadza. However, as the business began to scale from 10 million to 100 million, employing 10 people to 100 people, they had to take it upon themselves to delegate their responsibilities between each other - which led to their first cultural implementation to maintain the balance of running the business as husband and wife.
Husband & Wife Offsite
In addition to company offsites, the couple had implemented a specific offsite for themselves in order to realign their objectives and vision of the future which includes personal goals, family goals, business and professional goals. As the business began to scale, it was crucial to the couple to have an open discussion about each other’s strengths in the business as well as giving feedback for their performance in a private space where they wouldn’t taint each others images,