Every success story has a plot that is littered with bruises from tripping and falling. Stories of sharp regret. That moment when you think with paralysing horror: “Whoops” on realizing that you messed up an opportunity, and wishing you could turn back time, and do it all over again.
However, here’s an unremarkable truth: we don’t need to turn back time in order to try again. We can move forward in time, and still try again.
This path of “moving on” seems to separate those who “make it” from those who are haunted with memories of how things went wrong: it is the spirit of refusing to be defined by what went wrong, and instead figuring out how to make things right.
Abel Neoh has an admirable spirit of learning quickly and marching forward, and this spirit has benefited the growth of his business. In this segment, we shall focus on a specific stumbling pit that forced Abel to swallow an illuminating insight: the importance of packaging, presentation, and branding.
He had an early opportunity to sell their gadgets at 7-11, but the contract was a flop.
7-11 was coming up with a section for electronics, earphones and these type of things, but the contract eventually did not go through because at that point of time we were still quite new, so we were not very experienced… the packaging wasn’t visible enough.
So it was quite a good lesson learned, I would say, although we didn’t get the contract, because there were still other companies we could approach once we improved.
In the early days, their packaging was bare-boned — taken directly from the wholesaler.
We sold it the way it is, you see. We made a mistake by overlooking that branding and presentation is very important. After all these lessons learnt, we are actually going into branding. So I mean, there are a lot of things we learnt along the way.
Singaporeans are all very, very, very what you call “brand conscious”. So we are trying to work toward that direction.
When you first start a business, branding can feel like a hocus-pocus distraction, plus it costs time and money.
We didn’t have the financial support because we started off with very little cash. Our cash flow has been built up slowly over the years.
When we first started, we ourselves didn’t have a lot of money in that sense, so we said: Let’s keep the packaging very simple so we can charge the customers less, but over the years we realized that the customers also want better packaging. They don’t realize that they would have to pay a bit more because of the better packaging– but it looks better that way and makes them happier. During our 5th year launch, we actually changed the packaging totally for some of our products.
Once you have a brand, you need to make people aware of it. How do you do that with limited capital? Abel explains their early approach:
We actually try to reach out to every single form of free advertising where we can because we do not want to spend advertising cost. Until it comes to a point when companies offer us free advertising instead of us actually having to approach them.
For example, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) invited them to be sponsors for their classifieds website to get it off the ground when it was launched.
So that means that, more or less, the direction is almost there. It takes a lot of patience.
Linking arms with established companies can benefit your reputation with their endorsement.
For an online business, customers will usually want to see the items the first few times before they buy. But if they know that you are partnering with big companies like SPH, Gmarket, and all, they’ll trust us more. They will be more confident in buying from us. So that’s something we have realized actually: that we need these big players to support us before we can go into our own branding.
Creating a physical presence in the city also provided customers with assurance:
They key challenge is how to maintain an online business. Because there’s no exposure. I would say, zero walk-in customers. So all the exposure is online. So how are you going to attract people? I mean there are so many things online, how do you attract them to your site? I mean, how to make them know that this is a trustworthy site.
They are all very afraid of buying online. So if you have retail outlets and retail shops and companies that have been there for a while, the trust is there you see. So customers will trust our company more. And then usually they will just buy from us online straight, instead of having to see the item first.
This network of established companies provides a sense of “social closure” to assure customers that they will be held accountable (instead of absconding). Having a network of reputable players also provides a sense of “social proof” i.e. public endorsement.
Part of the magic behind a brand is about creating a reputation for trust. How?
It is about who we meet and how we keep our promise to customers. How we present ourselves on Facebook and everything. How we advertise through word-of-mouth and all the different marketing strategies.
At the end of the day, branding is less about the logo and packaging. It’s about keeping promises.
Most of our corporate clients actually started as our online customers. From there we talked, because we offered them good services and all. So, from customers to friends. Then, slowly, we started talking about business and all. After all, we do not know each other for very long.
Over time, these connections build into meaningful relationships.
In business there must always be… both parties must always benefit, that’s what I feel. There’s no free lunch in this world. So I’m sure when we offer them something, they offer us something, and we offer them something in return.
Meaningful relationships are often strengthened through consistent give-and-take — enabling each side to demonstrate their trustworthiness, sincerity, and willingness to reciprocate and do good.
You can watch a short animation on the “6 Principles of Persuasion” culled neatly from the book Influence by Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing. He highlights the value of concepts such as “social proof” and “consistency” which are worth considering in building your business.
When you start a business, you will never have everything figured out from the get-go. You will make mistakes, stumble, and even get hurt. The best of the best will get up and keep going.
If you are curious to see how Abel’s electronics e-commerce business grew from nothing to something sustainable, you can trace the steps in this post. In the next post, we will present a short collection of reflections that Abel has distilled through his business journey. Thanks, Abel!
Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners with their trades around the world, sharing their views on business and life. You can catch all the posts on Facebook and Instagram @ShopkeeperStories. Enjoy!