Before Lazada, there was Taobao.
But shopping on Taobao was cumbersome – until ezbuy, formerly 65daigou, came along and solved all of Singaporeans’ logistics issues.
Then Taobao turned around to accuse them of scalping, leaving ezbuy feeling wronged.
Now, the former “Taobao agent” has evolved to become a platform where Singaporeans can easily buy cheap clothes, electronics, and even furniture direct from China just like any other online shopping service.
Following news of their US$17.6 million Pre-Series C funding in May this year, Wendy Liu, co-founder and CEO of ezbuy, shares about her journey so far as an entrepreneur and a pioneer in e-commerce in Singapore.
Pushed To Stepped Out Of Comfort Zone
In an interview with Channel NewsAsia (CNA), she revealed that she came to Singapore when she was 17, and was actually “quite a little princess at home” because she was the only child, the result of China’s one-child policy.
The newly-inducted Singapore citizen said in a podcast that she is “everything” to her mum.
Wendy’s mother, who works in the government, also thought that “an overseas educational system was more advanced”, so she sent Wendy to Singapore so she could learn to be more independent and get exposed to “things outside of China”.
The businesswoman recalled coming here together with some classmates.
She graduated with First-class Honours in Electrical & Electronics Engineering with a minor in Business from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and also holds a Master’s degree in Industrial & Systems Engineering from the National University of Singapore (NUS).
“I caught the techno-preneur bug during my university days where I took additional business and e-commerce-related modules out of sheer curiosity,” she told me.
“This is when I understood the concept behind the convenience and savings consumers enjoyed from online shopping and I knew there was potential to revamp and enhance the e-commerce industry in so many ways.”
The accounting and finance modules she took in NTU taught her the basics of profit and loss, breakeven point, and the importance of cash flow.
“During the initial stages of building the business idea, I made it a point to calculate our gross margin and breakeven point in order to set our target revenue,” she recalled.
“In addition, my marketing modules taught me how to understand consumers’ needs and wants.”
“Although what we learned in school was traditional marketing, it was still applicable to e-commerce because it is not very different from traditional retail – we are also simply selling products but on a virtual space,” she added.
Wendy emphasised the importance of identifying and knowing your audience in order to introduce products that suit their needs.
Starting The Online Revolution
It was during a trip to China that kick-started her e-commerce venture.
She was impressed by the wide variety of product offerings on Chinese e-commerce platforms.
So, when her friend and fellow co-founder, He Jian, approached her with an idea to create the same level of convenience and efficiency for Southeast Asian consumers, she said, “I couldn’t say no!”
When 65daigou had just started in 2010, it was still difficult for consumers to make online purchases, she explained.
“One would need to figure out the local language, see if the shop can ship overseas, whether the shipping cost is worth it, and finally wait for your parcel to arrive,” she described.
“Our first challenge was to simplify this process, and we started working from He Jian’s apartment to introduce 65daigou (“Daigou” means buying on behalf in English), a buy-for-me platform which covers everything from pre-sale to after-sale.”
All customers had to do was to indicate the item(s) they want to buy and 65daigou would take care of everything, from purchasing, inspecting, payment, shipment, to after-sale services.
At the start, they manually ordered, packaged, and delivered all orders from He Jian’s apartment before business picked up and they increased manpower and upgraded office space.
“We had effectively conquered our first challenge and felt that if we wanted to continue to stay ahead of the curve, we couldn’t just stop there,” she told me.
In 2016, they rebranded from 65daigou to ezbuy, with a vision to provide consumers access to the global marketplace with fast and smooth shopping on top of their buy-for-me service platform.
Now, on ezbuy, customers can get millions of products from all over the world through their China, USA, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and local marketplaces.
This was a sign that they had achieved evolution in their business model, but they’re not about to rest on their laurels.
“In fact, based on consumers’ needs, we have been consistently adding new services such as Prime membership, ezNow, etc. to simplify the buy-sell process.”
She said in the podcast that she’s “grateful” to her mother for deciding to let her go on this path to independence, which she attributes to as the root of her success.
e-Commerce Then And Now
Wendy defined conventional e-commerce as “essentially selling a product or service online”. If a customer wants to buy a table, they would look it up online, choose a design and make the purchase.
“Over the years, this definition has evolved and it is no longer as simple anymore,” she stated.
She listed these other factors as part of the overall e-commerce discussion:
- Variety and quality of product offerings
- Engaging, informative, user-friendly, helpful, and responsive online presence of customer service
- Social media presence; the ability to engage and connect with loyal fans
- Logistics and delivery; the quickness and security of delivery arrangement
- Payment models; accessibility and security of payment transactions
Wendy explained that in 2008, the “e-commerce industry was only starting to boom but at a very slow rate” as people were unfamiliar, noting that it wasn’t easy to complete online transactions due to obscure payment gateways and high shipping costs.
She quoted a Forrester Research, saying that a total of $175 billion was spent on online retail sales alone globally in 2007; in 2008, it went up to about $204 billion.
“Fast forward to today, in 2017, it was reported that a total of $2,304 billion was spent on retail e-commerce worldwide,” she shared.
She also said that technology is one of the key factors in revolutionising retail and driving the growth of the e-commerce industry.
Businesses are able to streamline operations, increase efficiency, save costs, and make it convenient for consumers to shop.
Data collected such as purchase and browsing history, interests, and location help businesses “target product suggestions and promotional deals to specific users”.
65daigou started at a time where there “wasn’t even an online credit card payment system in Singapore” and they had only accepted bank transfers, she told CNA.
But now there are so many online payment options and the introduction of e-wallets, which she thinks businesses and consumers benefit greatly from.
She added, “We were quite lucky that when we started in Singapore in 2010. There was no other player in the market and that helped us to actually accumulate a group of customers who are really tech-savvy and have a huge influencing power.”
These tech-savvy customers then spread the word saying that ezbuy could help people buy goods from China.
“The e-commerce industry has certainly evolved from being a non-existent business model to being one that successfully meets the ever-changing needs of modern day consumers,” she told me.
“The industry is definitely very competitive and we think there is still a growing opportunity for e-commerce businesses like ourselves to evolve and create an enhanced experience for our customers.”
A Learning Journey
Wendy told me they had faced several business challenges because they built “everything from scratch”.
“In fact, each of us were learning new things everyday in order to overcome all kinds of difficulties.”
“For instance, when we were creating the first version of our website, we drew the UI interface ourselves using ‘Paint’, after which we sent it to a third party to have it developed,” she recalled.
On a personal level, she shared with me that when they had first started 65daigou, she had to juggle studying part-time for her master’s degree and working a full-time job for two years.
“I obviously ended up skipped countless lectures and tutorials but I disciplined myself to study on my own and catch up from time to time. Managing my time and taking the initiative to complete my tasks was one of the biggest challenges,” she said.
“I’ve always told myself that we are bound to face new challenges and unknowns, but none of them should be a barrier for me because I know I can overcome them with confidence, determination and perseverance.”
Perseverance is one thing she’s learnt about the Chinese market that she thinks local businesses can learn from.
“Businesses in China are aware of the stiff competition in the e-commerce industry which makes things even harder but their perseverance and dedication towards their business model kept them going,” she noted.
“Hence, I strongly believe that if you stick to your vision and provide customers with a value-added service coupled with an unwavering desire to overcome challenges, nothing is impossible.”
She thought about how ezbuy was an idea they had come with together with her co-founders.
“We literally started from nothing in He Jian’s apartment.”
“Eight years later, we have a total of more than three million loyal fans and 10,000 sellers across six marketplaces. We’re still seeing a year on year growth in all areas and we look forward to continuously take it a step further,” she said.
She stresses the importance of having trust, and to always keep in mind that as business partners, you are a team that shares a vision.
“Interestingly enough, I’ve realized that having different backgrounds, experiences and strengths helps greatly because it allows for a different point of view and enhances ones’ contributions,” she quipped.
On what we can look forward to with ezbuy, she teased, saying, “You’ll have to wait and see. It is definitely on the cards to not only expand our services to more places, but to bring new marketplaces and an enhanced consumer experience to our customers.”
“We appreciate all the support that has been given to us thus far and we can’t wait to show you what else we have in store. Meanwhile, please continue to use our platform and stay tuned.”
Featured Image Credit: ezbuy