Reuben Lee talks ups and downs after nearly 5 years in e-comm
Serial e-commerce entrepreneur behind ShopAbout, Zakoola and Household.sg shares learnings — manage expectations and just keep goingBy Elaine Huang 14 May, 2014
Three weeks ago, Singaporean e-commerce marketplace ShopAbout, which helps offline merchants gain a foothold in the digital space, celebrated its first birthday.
The startup has previously raised “over half a million SGD” from a group of angel investors, and is working to secure another S$1.5 million (about US$1.2 million) to expand into Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bangkok, Thailand; Manila, the Philippines; and Jakarta, Indonesia.
It all started when Reuben Lee, Co-founder, ShopAbout, sprained his ankle. Unwittingly, the entrepreneur went to a sportswear shop at 9 AM in the morning and purchased a S$49 ankle guard. A few weeks later, he wandered into a local pharmacy and realised that there were better ankle guards on the shelves at only S$19.
“So, I thought to myself, ‘What’s the problem?’ The problem would have been solved if all these inventory was put online and made discoverable and searchable by people like me,” said Lee. “… It definitely didn’t take me a few months (to start ShopAbout) but it’s not an epiphany. … There’s a problem, and I faced it personally, and I’ve been in e-commerce my whole life so I thought that this is a pretty good idea.” (Sic)
In fact, ShopAbout is Lee’s third business. His first venture was an online bookstore – Zakoola.com, which was able to showcase more than a million titles without having to stock up on inventory locally.
“I worked with two of the largest book distributors in the US. I had a website. I collated orders from my customers and within five working days, the books would arrive in my bedroom,” recounted the 26-year-old, who was 17 when he first started.
Unfortunately, Lee had to close the shutters on Zakoola two years later, no thanks to time management issues after enlisting into the Army. His adventure with e-commerce, however, did not end there. He then went on to start Household.sg, a grocery delivery service before there was even a RedMart, as seen in our report three years back. He said, “True story, my first customer was Roger Egan (Co-founder and CEO, RedMart). We’ve been in touch ever since.”
“The margins were really horrible. I was losing money on every order I made. There was no problem with the demand. The problem with people not wanting to carry… that’s a real problem. I just couldn’t make the economics work out,” explained Lee, who added that capital is extremely important for a business like RedMart or Household.sg. In late 2012 – early 2013, he had to do the unthinkable: end the one-and-a-half-year-old business.
Throughout the interview, it was evident that Lee was not bitter about these businesses, or that he had to end them. “It’s a logical decision,” he said, “you know whether it’s going to work out or not.”
However, it isn’t always easy to tell if a business is going to work out. He said that it all came down to looking at the company’s finances and whether it will be able to raise funding before going bust.
“Close it down. Move on to the next one,” said Lee, whose fascination with the e-commerce scene is apparent, “In e-commerce, the website is probably the easiest thing to do. It’s really the back-end — how you handle the logistics, how you fulfil orders and customer service which is really the key of e-commerce.”
Still in the midst of his third venture, Lee shared that he has gleaned quite a few insights from years of entrepreneurship. Here are two tips:
1. Manage expectations
“Both my own expectations and all of my stakeholders’ expectations,” he said, “(Stakeholders include) employees, my investors, my customers and my merchants… it’s been quite a lesson.”
As an entrepreneur and head of the company, it is inevitable to have high expectations of how things are being run. Many startup founders are ambitious and idealistic, but Lee noted that he learnt not to be too hard on employees.
He told this author, “You cannot expect every single person to be working in a 14, 16-hour like you do… It’s definitely not healthy, but you need to do whatever you need to do.” (Sic)
2. Just keep going
“I’ve talked to so many (investors),” he noted. At this point, Lee has spoken to nearly 50 investors, of which some are just downright rude where they would fiddle with their smartphones while he was pitching.
But he reckoned that one should not be distracted, and should keep going. “I’ve always known why I’m raising funding. You need to grow the team right? So our kind of marketplace will only make sense at a certain kind of scale. Our number one objective is to make it to that kind of scale and we work backwards to see what resources we need,” he explained.
As a company, its revenue has tripled since it first launched in 2013. “(In the next one year,) we would easily surpass a seven-digit revenue figure,” he predicted. “We also expect to double our headcount by the end of this year,” concluded Lee.