Fiona Lau – Transcript
Today we sit down with startup founder, Fiona Lau. Fiona is one of the co-founders of Shopline. Shopline is a company that helps small and medium sized businesses build an e-commerce platform. So she currently has 70,000 merchants using her service between Hong Kong and Taipei. You could call them the Shopify of Asia, if you will, the difference being that they provide localized language support in Chinese, which is something that Shopify does not do.
So Fiona used to be a banker working at Goldman, and then she worked at Disney for awhile. And she shares a very interesting story about how she jumped into entrepreneurship after only a couple of years in the corporate world. And she also talks about how her company recently secured funding from Ali Baba, which is quite a big deal. Only three companies in Hong Kong have successfully done so. So I think you’re going to enjoy today’s episode.
Jay: Fiona, thank you for joining the show, we’re excited to have you on the show today. Why don’t we just get started and you can tell our audience who you are and what do you do.
Fiona: Great. Thanks Jay. So great to be here on this show. So my name is Fiona. I’m the co-founder and CEO of Shopline. We help small to medium sized merchants who want to get started in branded e-commerce, an e-commerce platform for them to start with. A lot of them are small to medium sized teams, so they don’t have their own technology to get started and build their own web shop And this is where Shopline comes in. Right now we’re in Hong Kong and Taipei and we have over 70,000 merchants already on our platform.
Jay: 70,000 between Hong Kong and Taipei. Wow. That’s a lot.
Fiona: We’re also in some Southeast Asian markets but our primary presence right now is in Hong Kong and Taipei.
Jay: Got it. Okay. And so how do you guys differ from say a Shopify.
Fiona: So e-commerce is something that’s super localized, in terms of payment, language, logistics, you name it. So Shopify is a great product and great solution for more English-speaking merchants. So our merchants are all in Asia and so they’re looking for something different that can cater to their localized needs.
Jay: Mmm. Okay so it provides more language support and that sort of thing than say a Shopify does.
Fiona: Yeah, for example, cash and delivery, something that’s big on Asia. Credit card penetration may not be as high, so a lot of people, a lot of consumers, they need to pick up their goods and pay for the goods at the same time. So you just have a credit card solution for them, it’s not going to cut it for a lot of consumers.
Jay: Right, right. Okay. Cool. So let’s take a step back before we move forward with the Shopline story. And I want to ask you about your entrepreneurial journey leading up to Shopline. Was this your first startup, and if it was your first startup, tell us what you did beforehand that lead you down this path.
Fiona: Right. So this is actually my first startup. We started Shopline, my co-founder and I started in 2013. But before that I was actually doing business development for Disney. And before Disney, I was doing equity research in the retail segment for Goldman Sachs. So for myself, I always had a passion in everything that’s retail related or consumer and commerce facing. So Shopline made a lot of sense and it was something that I really wanted to do.
Back in 2013, a lot of merchants in Asia were getting to understand mobile, e-commerce and it was a really good time to get into this market. And transitioning from a corporate background to doing a startup. A lot of people would thing that it’s a big transition. But I was also lucky to meet my co-founder Tony. He has a very strong technical background. So me and him together, one is more business savvy, one is very technology savvy, we were able to accomplish a lot, even with a very small team.
Jay: Interesting. Okay and then talk to us a little bit about your decision to leave. Okay. You’re in finance, which there’s a lot of people in finance in Hong Kong, right. And I think there’s a lot of people in finance that want to get out of finance, right. You’re story will resonate with a lot of our listeners. Was there a particular pain point that you had at your time at Goldman Sachs were you were like, you know what, enough is enough. I don’t want to work for someone else. Was it not as dramatic as that.
Fiona: It’s not as dramatic. It’s not as dramatic. It’s not like I woke up one day and be like, okay I’m going to quit my job and do my own thing. So I always knew that I really wanted to get my hands onto technology because I think technology’s going to really transform the world and it transforms everyone’s daily lives. So I already knew that I really wanted to get involved in technology. But how do you get there. I think for a lot of people that’s very difficult, especially if you’ve been in finance so long. You know how it works, you know what your path is going to be. So how I transitioned out with that, I already had this thought, right. But I can’t just say, quit my job.
So I went to actually a lot of different events. I talked to a lot of different people to understand what it’s like, what does it really mean to do a startup. Because if you just read news articles, maybe it’s all so rosy, this company [inaudible 00:06:29] this company raises how much money. But that’s just very, very on surface level. So I actually spent around, I think, a half a year to nine months to explore. Explore what I really wanted to do and whether I was suitable, or capable of really giving up everything and doing my own startup.
Jay: Right, so you did your due diligence.
Fiona: Yes, I did.
Jay: Yeah. I think one of the key things is, when people ask me, oh what should I do? I usually tell them, don’t quite your job. Whatever you do, do not quit your job. Do your research, figure out what you want to do first. Or maybe even start working on it on the side, right.
Fiona: Actually what Tony and I did, because this is Tony’s, my co-founder’s, second startup, so it’s not his first. He has a bit more experience than I do. But what we did was that, at that time I was still with Disney, he was still at his other startup. And what we did was that every night after six or seven, our full-time job ends, we would work together until midnight or 1 a.m. We did that for I think six months. We did that for six months, including weekends too. So weekends, we would work full-time. That’s what we did before we decided, let’s just go all into this and quit our jobs.
Jay: That’s pretty smart too. So how did you meet Tony again.
Fiona: So it was one of the events that I went to. It was Startup Weekend in Hong Kong. It was one of the earlier versions. And I actually went there to get to know people, because it’s very, very hard to meet engineers and technology people when your whole social circle is [inaudible 00:08:07] people, right. So you have to go out of your comfort zone and go to these different places to meet people. I didn’t know anyone there when I went. But a lot of people who go to these events are to get to know other people, right. So it was a very good venue to meet people that are not like you. And that’s where I’d meet Tony.
Jay: That’s awesome. Yeah, I think, these events, networking is an interesting, necessary evil, so to speak. Some people are really good at it. Some people aren’t. I’m not very good at it.
Fiona: I’m not very good at it either but I usually go for the objective. I rarely really go just to go. Because I’m more an introvert than an extrovert, when people ask me. But I knew I had to pitch myself, right, so if I really need to know engineers, I can’t just stay at home all day. So that’s what I did.
Jay: That’s awesome. To our audience, these events, while they may seem tedious to go to, it’s very important that you get yourself out there and actually just meet people. And the way that I see it is if I can meet one person at an event and connect with them, then that’s sort of my goal. That’s my objective.
Fiona: That’s your little goal too.
Jay: You don’t try to be a hero and try to meet everyone. If you can actually connect with one person and have a meaningful after-relationship then I think it’s worth it. Okay so that’s awesome. So you networked. You met Tony, and then you guys were side-hustling for awhile, building out the product. So at what point did you basically realize okay, you know what, this is going to be something more than just a little project on the side. I’m ready to quit my job.
Fiona: Again it wasn’t like one day we just decided. But I think it was our point where … so back in 2013, Shopline product is very, very different from today. A lot has changed and we’ve pivoted a little bit. But I think what was the turning point was that we actually had customers. Not a lot. It was like a handful, but people were actually actively using our product. They were engaging, they were asking us questions. It was a recognition, from something that you built, I think. That was when we decided that okay, if we really want to make this a success, we really need to dedicate ourselves to it, or else it’s not going to go anywhere. I think that was the point.
Jay: Right, so you basically had … you had pushed out your minimum viable product and you actually got validated by having actual customers using the product. And then you were like, this is it. This is time to go.
Fiona: It’s still risky, right. Even at a very early stage you have some customers but you need to go all in. We think that you need to go all in. I think that’s also something that a lot of friends from banking or finance have asked me. So can I really continue to do this part-time. My answer is always no. So you don’t quit your job the first day but eventually, if you really want to take this to the next level, you really need to go all in.
Jay: Yeah, yeah. I agree with that too. So how did you fund it initially?
Fiona: So initially it was our own savings to kickstart. But to get the first customers we didn’t actually spend any money. So what I did was that, a lot of, in the startup world, a lot of people call growth hacks, right. So what I did was that Tony built a really simple landing page that helps Instagram sellers convert their Instagram profiles into websites and online shops. He did it. You just fill in your Instagram profile name and click enter and it just populates it. So he did this little tool, right. So I went to spam Instagram sellers by using hashtags, because the top, actually the top hashtag in Hong Kong is hkigsellers, so a lot of people actually sell on Instagram. So I just kept pasting that link until Instagram docked my accounts. And so I would start a new account and then keep spamming.
So basically, that’s what we did in the beginning. And it was a lot of manual work. But let’s say we sent out a hundred, we got at least five or six people actually using it, and filling in their names and getting their own websites up. So that’s how we hacked our way through in the very beginning.
Jay: Right, and so that was probably the first little product that was just free.
Fiona: Yeah, yeah, so in the beginning a lot of stuff was free.
Jay: Right, right, so you just wanted to get users, user acquisition.
Fiona: Yes, user acquisition.
Jay: So I want to talk about, quickly, as an aside, when you were basically like okay we have customers, we have demand, we’ve validated our product. It’s time to do this full-time, let’s quit our jobs. Did you get any push-back from say, your parents, or your social circle, in saying you’re crazy, what are you doing?
Fiona: Yeah, I think that’s normal. My parents they were kind of on the sidelines because they didn’t really understand … they understand technology is going to be a big thing, right. But they don’t really understand, because you see it in news, you have the companies like Google, there are a lot of companies, right. But they’re like what are you trying to do. What do you mean by you quitting your job full-time, can you do it part-time? And then my friends were like you’re making very decent money in the corporate world. You know that this is going to be completely, just diving into the deep end of the pool. But I expected it. So it wasn’t like their opinions were something that was a shock to me. So I already knew I was very, very determined. So I was just like, ignore everyone else, I know what I’m doing.
Jay: Good for you. Yeah, I mean I think that it’s … being Asian, it’s culturally, it’s kind of not encouraged.
Fiona: It’s not, it’s not. And you just have to accept that. It’s like that. But I really want to … building Shopline is not just about building a great company, that’s one thing. Building a great culture for my employees, that’s also super important to us. But other younger people, seeing us doing this and wanting to join us, I think that is going to make a long-lasting impact to the culture in Asia.
Jay: So now, you’re talking about creating a good culture for your employees. How many employees do you have at Shopline?
Fiona: Right now we have 48.
Jay: Wow, 48. And how many in Hong Kong and how many in Taiwan.
Fiona: So it’s like half-half. So around twenty-something in Hong Kong, twenty-something in Taipei.
Jay: Got it. And is Tony based with you there, or in Hong Kong?
Fiona: So Tony splits his time 50-50.
Jay: I see.
Fiona: I spend 30-70. So we both travel back and forth. But it’s close enough for the travel.
Jay: Right, right, okay. So that’s awesome. So, okay I want to dive in a little bit more on Shopline. Let’s say I am a … well let’s say that I’m side-hustling, I’m working at Goldman Sachs and I’d like to make T-shirts on the side. So how can the Shopline directly help me to quickly build an e-commerce website so I can eventually quit my job.
Fiona: Yeah, so actually a lot of … this is actually a hypothetical scenario but it’s actually a real-life scenario. So we do have cases like that, of people who already have a full-time job and they are trying to start side-hustling and start e-commerce shops. So a lot of times they already know what product they want to make or they already have some sort of samples or have a production in place.
But they need to distribute, right. And retail, if you do off-line retail, they don’t have the money to, lets say open a shop. It doesn’t make any sense, right. So they would have to go online, and they would find us and just start right away. So they can start within three minutes, they can upload their products really, really easily and choose designs. So if they don’t have a designer, then the website design, we already have some templates for them to choose from. And we also support a lot of marketing and analytics tools. So Facebook ads, a lot of people can learn how to do. We support integrations with Google Analytics and a lot of other additional tools, that we already thought about it for the merchants. Payment and logistics we partner with all the local providers, we’re sampling Hong Kong, if you want. A big one is SS Express, they could just use that, and then [inaudible 00:16:42] turn it on. All the operations or the backend stuff for someone who is a one-man team, that’s all thought of. So they don’t have to worry about it.
Jay: That’s brilliant, so it’s literally a one …
Fiona: It’s a one-stop shop.
Jay: Yeah, that’s amazing. So and how long would it take me to get my T-shirt site up. How long do you think it would take?
Fiona: So I would think if you are side hustling, maybe it would take you, fast, maybe three days. And if you’re, you know, just doing it, you don’t have some stuff ready, maximum maybe two weeks.
Jay: And then the time, is because you basically have to just upload to the …
Fiona: Yeah, you just upload stuff. You upload stuff, you know you get things set up, make sure the design, and you want to add additional pages to your website. Everything, full launch.
Jay: And is the website a shopline.com url?
Fiona: We help merchants with their custom domains. So they can get their own domains. So lets say jaytshirts.com. We can do that for you easily, you don’t have to talk to any domain provider, we do that on the backend.
Jay: Wow, okay.
Fiona: This is actually something very different in Asia. A lot of Asian merchants are not familiar with GoDaddy or these big names. There’s no such player here, so they just go though us and we do all the handling for them.
Jay: That’s brilliant. And then you said logistics of payment, which is actually the key, because as a one-man band, you wouldn’t even know how to do that, setting up a payment processing system or anything like that. And then the logistics side would be like me going to the post office and packing up a package, right? So you guys take care of all of that too.
Fiona: We help them. Usually merchants come to us, they’re like, what should I use. They always come to us first. And then we’d be like, if you really want to use credit card, you can use Stripe or you can use PayPal, so there are two options and what the difference. So in the Admin panel we do have semi-live track system, with … we call them, I have a big team of customer success associates. So they would help the merchant with basically any questions they have, and we would recommend logistics providers. For example, in Taiwan, most people buy things with pickup to convenience stores. So we already have all the application process of that sorted out for them. And all the merchant needs to do is that, if an order comes in, they go to the Admin panel, click a button, and then the delivery slip comes out. And prints it out and just takes the product and goes downstairs to his closest convenience store, and then the whole thing gets shipped and tracked.
Jay: Wow, that’s amazing. Okay, wow that’s really streamlined.
Fiona: It’s very streamlined, yeah.
Jay: Yeah, yeah. That’s really, really very smart. And so it’s a subscription-based model?
Fiona: Subscription-based model. It’s a subscription-based model. So we cater for different tiers of customers, of course. As low as $15 up to $70 US.
Jay: Right, okay, well wow that sounds, it sounds like it’s literally everything that you need. And I think its a great sort of thing to have, particularly here in Asia. So congratulations on the funding round from Ali Baba, that made the news, so it was a big deal. Looking forward, 2017, where are you looking to expand, what are your goals for Shopline for 2017?
Fiona: For 2017, a big year for us. We’re trying to do a lot more in our core markets. So Hong Kong and Taiwan are actually still our core markets, but the penetration, we think that the whole market is going to grow a lot, so we want to make sure that we are number one provider in both of these markets. That’s something.
And then we’re also looking for expansion, right. So right now we actually have merchants also in Southeast Asian markets, for example, Philippines, Malaysia. So we’re actually doing a lot of studying on what’s working for us in Southeast Asia, what the challenge is, do we need to do anything different. At the same time we’re actually also assessing North Asian markets, for example Japan and Korea.
So expansion is on our mind. And at the same time because we are an e-commerce product for merchants we have a lot of great, great features and side products that we’re going to add on to help merchants grow with us. In Shopline we always say, Shopline is only as successful as long as our merchants are successful. So we do everything that we can to help our merchants succeed.
Jay: That’s amazing. And you said there’s 70,000 merchants on your platform.
Fiona: Yeah, there’s a lot on inbound interest for a product like this.
Jay: That is unbelievable. It’s such a good problem to have because it seems like the demand is so strong.
Fiona: Yeah, yeah. So we do a lot of online and offline events in Asia. That’s something also very different from the Western world. Because we face a lot of businesses and they’re like, sometimes they’re like, they are willing to try cloud-based products but they might be like, oh I haven’t seen you in person. Is this real? It’s a very genuine question. So I think that for startups or entrepreneurs that are very used to the technology cloud-based way. Everything is done online purely. I think in Asia, there are some nuances that are different, and this is one of them.
Jay: Right. Okay, and what do you think about China. Like you didn’t mention expansion into China at this point. What were your thoughts. I mean you were very, very, you’re very targeted, Hong Kong, and intentionally, Hong Kong and Taiwan. What do you think about China.
Fiona: So China, I think that it’s a big market, everyone knows that it’s a big market. But it depends on what type of product that you’re doing. So right, now, all of the online sales in China, 90% are on the biggest platforms [inaudible 00:22:49] and all those, right. The consumer is not as familiar with shopping with let’s say a branded website. But what we see, the opportunity is that there’s actually a lot of different merchants in China. And a lot of them actually want to expand beyond China. And our foothold is strong in all these other markets. So we are actually also exploring, is there a potential way for us to help China merchants to go abroad.
Jay: Right. And that’s a big story because as China opens up, you see a lot of that outbound stuff.
Fiona: Yes, there’s a lot of outbound. Yeah.
Fiona: And it’s very competitive within China, so they’re also always looking for new opportunities.
Jay: Right. And so as soon as they come offshore, there’s Shopline waiting for them.
Fiona: Yeah, so we have to make sure we’re strong in all the other markets too.
Jay: Exciting, exciting. All right. Well Fiona, thanks for your time, we’re going to look to wrap up here. I have two questions left for you. The first is, based on your experience, your entrepreneurial journey and your success at Shopline, if you had one piece of advice, actionable advice for a young, aspiring entrepreneur here that’s listening to this episode, what would it be?
Fiona: I think one word I would put it in is perseverance. You have to be very persistent whether they’re ups and downs. This is my big advice because a lot of times where you see interviews in news. You think that it’s easy but there’s actually a lot of times that’s very, very, very difficult. Don’t focus on … be very optimistic and remember what you are trying to accomplish and what your mission is, and you will come out a lot stronger. So I think, over these three years Tony and I have grown … we’re very persistent people to begin with. And we’re optimistic people to begin with, but I think that, just move forward and don’t be afraid. There are going to be difficult days but you know, there are also going to be a lot of good days.
Jay: Right, right. Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. You hit the nail on the head. I mean, being a startup, startups got glamorized after the social network and this, that and the other. And everyone thinks it’s so easy.
Fiona: Yeah, it’s not.
Jay: Yeah, it’s really not. And it’s really, really, really not. You know what I mean. There’s a saying that entrepreneurs work 80 hours a week so they don’t have to work 40, you know. And I think that’s so true.
And so the last question is, where can we find you? Where’s the best place to follow you, social media or your website.
Fiona: You can find me on my website, LinkedIn, both work.
Jay: Okay, LinkedIn and Shopline, and that’s in Hong Kong and Taiwan at the moment, right.
Jay: Awesome. Well, thanks so much for your time, Fiona. I really appreciate it. And congratulations and we wish you the best of luck at Shopline.
Fiona: Thank you.
Jay: All right. Take care.
Fiona: Thank you.
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