E-commerce will play a big part in any digital economy. But what does it take to run an e-commerce business, asks Oon Yeoh

IT wasn’t too long ago when e-commerce was something alien to Malaysians. We were wary of using credit cards online. A lot of nascent e-commerce activities were conducted via blogshops where payment was done through bank deposits or cash-on-delivery rather than via credit cards.

But times have changed and now many Malaysians are happy to shop online using credits cards. It’s a booming business as can be seen by the success of e-commerce sites like Lazada.

Michelle Chuah, a model-turned-Internet entrepreneur, is taking full advantage of the e-commerce trend and selling something she knows well — beauty products. As a model, she had to use plenty of beauty products and a chance situation that could have easily bankrupted her led to the creation of a new business which she’s now fully entrenched in.

Chuah talks to Savvy about her career switch from modelling to online retailing.

Q HOW DID YOU GET INTO MODELLING?

Some models start really young but I worked in a few different corporate jobs — in logistics, IT, pharmaceutical and advertising — before I switched to modelling, and that was only because of the strain those jobs had on my left eye. I’m effectively blind in my right eye due to an infection contracted when I was young. My corporate jobs all involved a lot of computer work and that was too stressful for my left eye.

In my fourth year in the corporate world, my eye doctor told me, for the sake of my remaining good eye, to quit my job and marry a rich man instead. That wasn’t exactly my career plan though! I was browsing on Facebook one day and saw a posting about a modelling job and decided to give it a go.

WHAT WAS MODELLING LIKE?

Modelling was fun. I enjoyed learning to pose for different ads and learning how to do the catwalk. However, there’s also a lot of peer pressure. For instance, many models go for plastic surgery, which was something I was against. But what got me out of the modelling business was something that happened by chance.

I was assigned to do a photoshoot for a Wacoal calendar when I realised I’d lost some beauty products that I needed for the shoot. I went back to the store I’d bought it from but they had no more stock and I couldn’t find it anywhere else.

I managed to find a Chinese supplier on Alibaba but the minimum order was for 1,000 units. I was taken aback by this but I really needed the product so I bit the bullet and put in the order. The shoot was a success but I was stuck with 999 units of the product. I decided to sell these through a simple blogshop. In two weeks, I made back all the money I had spent on the order. I realised there and then that selling online had great potential.

HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT STARTING THE BUSINESS?

I did everything on my own as I didn’t have a business partner to rely on. I wish I had had a partner as the journey was very tough and lonely at times. I had to learn everything from scratch, using Google to search up things. I even learnt how to code in HTML to build my first proper website.

WHAT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON YOU LEARNT?

Market research is important. When I first started out, I’d buy things based on my own preferences, the things I liked to use. Most of the time this worked out well and people bought the items. But there was this one time when I bought 3,000 units of a product that I liked without doing any kind of market research. That product sold poorly and we lost money on it. After that incident I never again buy huge quantities without market research.

HOW MANY STAFF DO YOU HAVE AND WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU LOOK FOR IN THEM?

Currently we have nine staff, 10 if you include me. The qualities I look for most is attitude, not academic qualifications or even impressive resumes. I believe if they have the right attitude, skills can be learnt. I really believe in the notion of hiring for attitude and training for skillsets.

WHAT KIND OF MARKETING DO YOU DO FOR YOUR BUSINESS?

A lot of online marketing primarily through social media such as Facebook and Instagram. I also use Google Adwords and I am Adwords-certified. We also work with local celebrities and social media influencers to get more exposure and branding. Recently, I was asked to do a fair bit of public speaking about e-commerce, which I’m very happy to do as I like to share our experience.

HOW DO YOU COMPETE AGAINST BIG PLAYERS LIKE LAZADA WHICH SELLS EVERYTHING?

You don’t fight them but join them! I’m on Lazada too. It’s important to not put all your eggs in one basket — in this case, our online store — but instead to sell through multiple channels. Our website is the main store but we also sell through social media and through online marketplaces like Lazada, eBay and Amazon.com. That way, we spread out the risk. If sales are bad from one channel, we balance that out with sales from other channels.

DO YOU HAVE TIME FOR HOBBIES OR A SOCIAL LIFE?

I don’t have time for hobbies now. I used to love pole dancing as a sport but I don’t get to do that these days. I’m pretty much married to Supermodels Secrets, literally working seven days a week and often well into the night. But I do take some time off too. Last year, I went on three overseas vacations, to Japan, Indonesia and Singapore. I also took my team to South Korea on a company trip.

WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?

I hope to grow Supermodels Secrets by expanding internationally. Since our ringgit is not strong, it’s time to earn more in US dollars. And with e-commerce it’s

possible to sell abroad without having to invest too much capital. We’re also expanding by empowering individuals as well as SME businesses to become resellers of our own branded products.

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