Travelling with a baby in tow would probably not be the way most parents envisioned how they would see the world.
With Sean and Jesmine, the exposure to beautifully-packaged, organic baby products in local stores while they were on the road with their daughter created an initial awareness of the gap in the Malaysian market.
At that time, organic, sustainable products in Malaysia were confined to the fresh produce in supermarket aisles.
They realised that there was little information on the hazards of the alphabet soup of chemicals such as SLS, SLEs, BPAs, which are found in both in baby products and pest control chemicals with an alarmingly similar frequency.
Positive reinforcement—from friends and families who were more than interested to get their hands on unique and safe baby products for their own kids—led to the pair leaving cushy freelance jobs in property investment and interior design to dive headfirst into the world of e-commerce.
The couple founded Applecrumby & Fish (A&F), a baby essentials e-commerce company, committed to curating and delivering products that are safe, natural and organic (SNO).
A quick look at their website offers up the whole works, from skincare to diapers, food, toys and hardware. It certainly helped that they were backing up their work by offering eye-catching products that were not otherwise found on shelves.
When asked about the similarities between its brand name to the American retailer, Sean explains that it happened by chance.
“Jesmine blurted it out one night and everything fell into place. It was a nice play on Abercrombie & Fitch, was legit, was cutesy and (f)punny while preserving the upmarket feel.”
Sean and Jesmine are adamant that they only sell products that are true to A&F’s ethos.
All products found on A&F’s website undergo a stringent vetting process to meet the criteria of being SNO and responsibly manufactured, while fitting with the look and feel of A&F.
In the early days circa 2011 when the brand was first founded, the husband-and-wife team worked their way through local stores and distributors, essentially putting down their process to “a lot of sleuthing and manual work”, to filter out products that didn’t meet their standards.
They quickly learned that rejection went both ways.
“There was a lot of rejections as traditional suppliers saw e-commerce companies like mine as ‘onliners’ and couldn’t understand the growth trajectory it was on.”
When A&F first started, they ran into two problems.
Curating unique offerings had the effect of turning heads, but as an online business operating on searchable keywords, A&F struggled with a different alphabet soup altogether—SEO and SEM—which dictated their visibility online.
In addition, SNO products come with the hefty price tag carried by imported goods. For most people, Malaysian sensibility dictates that if two products do the same thing, one must go for the best price.
They certainly had their work cut out for them—particularly with A&F’s entire business model built on offering premium products with an upmarket look and feel, compounded with a low awareness on SNO offerings in baby products.
They began educating people on what A&F stood for—why SNO products were worth their time and money, and sussing out what really mattered to them.
“We take every product feedback very seriously and objectively as our products bear the name of our company.”
A&F’s initial customer base consisted of the well-travelled, well-educated, and mainly urban segment of their target market.
As they developed their relationship and understanding of their clients’ needs and wants, their product offerings expanded, allowing them to welcome a more diverse set of customers.
This afforded them stronger negotiation power with distributors, allowing them to sidestep the premium price tag.
Many of their products now are price-matched to a number of leading brands who do not have the same commitment to responsible sourcing.
“With nearly 5 years’ worth of data on call, we’re able to advise our partners on what product category works, allowing them to forecast and plan their inventory accordingly—his goes a long way in increasing our margins and ultimately the savings we pass on to our customers.”
Essentially, A&F presented a simple solution to every parent’s conundrum, “Do I get the brand that has chemicals in them? Or the brand that is safe and natural but is nearly twice the price?”
It goes without saying that an expanding client base checking out their A&F shopping baskets online has made visibility less of a problem than it used to be.
Sean and Jesmine’s approach to raising this particular baby is not dissimilar to raising their other (human) baby—slowly and steadily, with an eye on the prize.
All too familiar with the meteoric rise and fall of many platforms, Sean shared on the threat that many e-commerce brands face, “The elephants in the room like Alibaba and Amazon can easily flood the market with cheap China goods or overwhelm any local platform with superior supply chain management.”
This spurred them to invest their funding to develop in-house A&F brand products: baby diapers and baby wipes.
Sean explained that the strategy behind this move is to allow A&F to partner collaboratively with any platform, big or small, online of offline, who serve the same market. A&F wins out as these platforms would bring them to more homes without making enemies of these e-commerce giants.
This also means they can focus on getting it right with their two core A&F brand products, establishing a solid foundation for more to come.
A&F claims to have grown 20 times since their launch in 2012, and by mid-2018, they are estimating a revenue growth of 30–40%.
It has certainly gained quite a fair bit of ground compared to when they first launched.
In a previous interview in 2016, Jesmine revealed, “We had about 50 customers in our first month, and today have over 100,000.”
At the end of the day, it’s clear that Sean doesn’t regret leaving his previous work to focus on A&F now.
“There was definitely a lot less pressure and a whole lot more flexibility when we were investing and freelancing. We didn’t have to deal with as many people as we do now. We had to pick up new skills but starting anew was always something that excited us.”
“But of course, like any skill, it can only be built up over time and what we have today is the result of many, many iterations (and mistakes!) over the course of time.”
Feature Image Credit: Applecrumby & Fish