SINGAPORE - E-commerce has become a huge industry today, but a decade ago, it was a nascent field with only the boldest of pioneers venturing in.
One of these was Love, Bonito, whose co-founders spoke to Felicia Lee in the first of a four-part series about e-commerce firms that have found success in an ever- crowded space.
As an undergraduate, and with just $300 in her pocket, budding entrepreneur Viola Tan set off for Bangkok in 2006 in search of chic and affordable clothing.
Aged just 23 at the time, she and a friend were setting up their first business - an online fashion retailer called Bonito Chico.
That was a bold, risky step for a young person, but Ms Tan, now 31, and childhood friend Rachel Lim, have not looked back since.
Love, Bonito - the company they co-founded - is now, according to Ms Tan, the "largest online female fashion retailer in Singapore by customer base".
It all began when the pair decided to start what was then known as Bonito Chico on LiveJournal, a free online social networking platform then popular among young adults and teens.
Both of them wanted to do something different from their peers in university, who were mostly giving tuition lessons to earn extra pocket money.
So, they decided to start a fashion "blogshop" - an online retailer using a blogging platform - on LiveJournal, that would not only provide them with income, but also allow them to indulge in their favourite pastime of shopping.
Their parents objected at first, as credit card fraud was a huge concern at the time, and e-commerce security was not as robust as it is today.
Besides, "juggling between meeting suppliers, coming up with designs and completing school assignments was a struggle", said Ms Tan.
However, the pair felt sure many opportunities could be mined from this untapped market, and they were undeterred.
Said Ms Tan: "We knew there were risks, but we made sure we took ample precautions, such as ensuring that all payments had been transferred to our bank accounts before sending out items, to deter fraud."
Their diligence and persistence eventually won over their parents, too, she added.
As one of the first fashion blogshops in Singapore, their revenues surged rapidly, and they redeployed their profits to growing the business.
By 2009, the partners made the bold move of choosing business over studies.
"Business opportunities do not come by easily, but there is no age limit for studying," Ms Lim said.
By then, the blogshop had already amassed a regular customer base of about 50,000, mostly female shoppers, aged 15 to 35.
It was time, they felt, to move on from LiveJournal and acquire a domain name of their own.
However, bonitochico.com was already taken and the person who owned it demanded an exorbitant sum for its sale.
This was a minor obstacle - Ms Tan and Ms Lim simply renamed their company Love, Bonito and moved on.
But more challenges awaited them.
At around the same time, other fashion blogshops started appearing on the scene, as would-be entrepreneurs saw how successful Love, Bonito had become and how easy it was to start an online shop, with its low overheads and minimal risk.
And many of these newcomers were offering similar clothes to Love, Bonito but at lower prices.
It was time for a strategic rethink of the company. Instead of joining the price war, Love, Bonito took a different tack, rebranding itself as an upscale brand offering clothes of higher quality than most other blogshops.
The partners stopped bargain hunting for cheap, fast fashion in Asian markets and, instead, turned their attention to designing original pieces.
Without any background in fashion design, the pair had to do their fair share of homework by "reading a lot and studying trends", Ms Tan said.
"We already knew our customers' likings and their physiques, so we could translate that into modern styles that sold well," she said.
Still, they put their designs through several rounds of testing - fitting them on models and asking the models whether the clothes were comfortable and how they could be improved.
They also had their eyes on the smallest details, and ensured that "everything from zips to pockets were functional" and that every design and cut would fit the customer.
These painstaking efforts paid off when Love, Bonito enjoyed a 30 per cent jump in sales between 2010 and 2012.
Today, Love, Bonito has 40 employees, with annual revenue growing by about 25 per cent a year. Ms Tan declined to disclose dollar figures.
The company also has plans to expand overseas and will adopt different strategies for different markets, Ms Tan said.
For example, in Singapore, where rent is high, Love, Bonito will continue to conduct business online.
However, in Malaysia and Indonesia, where Love, Bonito is considered a new foreign brand, the company plans to build consumer awareness by setting up permanent physical stores some time this year, she added.
This article was first published on Feb 18, 2015.
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