Everybody makes mistakes. This is a fact.
And these mistakes don’t have to define us; they simply prove that we are alive actively doing something about our place in this world. This is especially true for the entrepreneurial types who are setting out to pave their own way of doing things. As they say, “those who do not learn from their past are doomed to repeat it”.
And in that spirit, and for International Women’s Day, these female entrepreneurs have gotten together to share about the crucial mistakes that have happened in their past, and what they could have done differently.
Hui Mathews, ash be nimble
Hui is the founder of ash be nimble, a sportswear brand for all ages born and bred here on Malaysian soil. And all the items are priced under RM100. They began with only 2 sports bra designs and 2 running shorts, but have now grown into a respectable brand in their own merit.
For Hui, she prefaced her thoughts by exclaiming what a difficult year 2016 was for her (and for us all). If she could go back in time, she would tell herself not to take up more than she can chew, even as an entrepreneur who is trying to have it all.
“For me the biggest lesson I learnt was how to not get burnt out, and the importance of a team,” Hui said. “In August 2015 I joined a business competition (the Alliance Bank SME Innovation Challenge), 1.5 years into starting my online sportswear brand ash be nimble. I was heavily pregnant, and in the final week of having 7 pitches to prepare and present, it was also the week my baby was due.”
“I only had 2 part-time staff, and so majority of the operations, marketing and pitching fell to me. I made it to the top 7 final pitch, got shortlisted for additional 2 award categories, so I had 3 pitches to prepare for in 5 days! I finished the final pitch on a Friday, which was the same night as the awards dinner.”
“I checked into the hospital, got clearance to leave, then went to dinner with a hospital band on my wrist. That night we took home a RM100,000 Sustainability Award, in recognition for ‘making lives better’, and the next day I gave birth to my baby girl.”
“As you know, a baby and a brand you start from scratch don’t just go away. People’s lives, careers and aspirations are in your hand. It doesn’t get any easier, but I’ve learnt to be stronger, to manage stress better, to be more focused, and to love people better.”
Soh Yienyee, AVANA
Yienyee is the COO of AVANA, a social commerce platform that aims to transform social media from a promotional platform to a transaction platform by automating online business processes.
Her particular experience lies along her entrepreneur journey before she was in AVANA, at A Shopaholic’s Den.
“I used to host super fun and exciting shopping concept events such as the Clothes Buffet, where for RM50 only a shopper gets a ziplock bag and every thing that they could fit into it would be theirs to own.”
“I decided to [partner] with an event company during my fourth event with Clothes Buffet, thinking that they would add value to the shoppers by offering a better setup. Little did I know, this was the decision that f*cked me up.”
According to Yienyee, the event company produced unsatisfactory work, but after parting ways, she discovered that the event company had trademarked ‘Clothes Buffet’, which led her to a whirlwind battle for IP rights. This included her running the next Clothes Buffet during the proceedings (upon legal advice), but found that the event company too, launched their own. It was messy, and customers were confused.
“It was an expensive and long battle as they were armed with lawyers, where else I had to consult everyone I knew and educate myself on how I could protect this brand I introduced and built over the years.”
So her takeaway from all that? “Definitely to register my trademark (important for any business and the earlier you do it the better!) and ensure that the paper work for any joint venture is sorted out properly and stamped to be binding in the eyes of the law. Lesson learnt!”
Michelle Chuah, Supermodel Secrets
Supermodel’s Secrets is a beauty e-store is set on “offering beauty products that work, without burning a hole in your pocket”. They aim to bring in only stuff that works, and Michelle vets the safety of the products before they can go up the site.
Describing how she started Supermodel Secrets from scratch without much business knowledge 7 years ago, she said there were a lot of mistakes.
“A huge f*ck up event was pretty recent, in August last year, when our website got banned by the Malaysian government. Yes—it’s no joke—I woke up one day to news from my customers and staff telling me our website cannot be accessed. None of us had any idea then; even our web developer has never seen anything like that in their entire career.”
“Eventually we found out it was banned by the Malaysian Govenment, more aptly , the Ministry of Health on the grounds that the natural health supplements we sell do not have ‘iklan license’. I was very surprised. Before, we knew that that a supplement business like ours needs to apply for a Ministry of Health licence, and we did. When we asked, they said this license only allows us to sell on our shop but not our website which didn’t make sense to me.”
“So our website has the same blue banner like the likes of Sarawak Report or porn sites although we are just an innocent e-commerce store selling legitimate products.”
“Little did we know there was another rule which requires you to have another license just to place the item on the website, because it means it was an advertisement. So because we did not have the KKLIU iklan license they banned our website.”
6 years of effort went down the drain, with well-engineered SEO organic traffic. They had to start their site from scratch.
“What I wish I could have told myself was I should have been more careful and consulted someone more experienced in this prior to uploading them on our website. This happened back to back when my Facebook fan page of 80,000 followers got hacked too. I wish I could have told myself to have a mobile app much earlier to capture my own customers. When it comes to social media technically you don’t ‘own’ the customers; if something bad happens to one of them, poof, you lose your customer base there.”
After that debacle, they finally focused on their other channels but Michelle also wishes that she could’ve built them before her website went down.
Lavinie Thiruchelvam, Babydash
Babydash sells diapers and infant formula, launched after founders Lavinie and Shan Li realised that they couldn’t find these easily online. Now, they aim to make the experience as hassle-free as possible through the convenience of e-commerce.
With a laugh at the term ‘f*ck up’, Lavinie told us that for her, “I don’t think we ever had any major mistakes in the past. If I had to say, I would consider it more as a key lesson than a mistake.”
“We started in 2011, and only started hiring in 2013. We only started scaling last year, and before that it was very much a one-woman job.” This is because Lavinie was mostly running the business as Shan Li only joined her full time in the last quarter of 2014.
She described the missed opportunities that they could have joined in, or even events that they could have taken part in that they didn’t manage to due to the lack of people. When there’s a very lean team running a whole business, certain time-sensitive situations come up but there just isn’t enough manpower to take advantages of those opportunities.
“If we had started hiring faster, we would have been able to scale up faster,” she said.