You have probably heard about Babydash’s success as the first online Malaysian store focusing on selling baby necessities like formula milk and diapers. You may have read that it also broke equity crowdfunding records last year by successfully raising RM1.57 million, thanks to enthusiastic investors. Babydash founders Lavinie Thiruchelvam and Tay Shan Li tell makchic’s Laych Koh about their journey with the start-up that grew into a RM2.5 million revenue company, and their plans for a new ‘baby’ – Babysiri.
Makchic: How did you two end up in business together, and how did you come up with Babydash?
Shan: We went to the same secondary school – we have known each other since we were 13. After school we went on our separate ways, had our own jobs, but we always kept in touch and always wanted to do something together. Then one day this idea came from a friend – who lives in New Zealand – she said everybody in New Zealand buys their diapers and milk online. And at that time in Malaysia, nobody was selling this kind of baby necessities online, and we thought hey, maybe this could work. So that’s how it kind of all started – we just did a lot of research, and looked at whether this business model could succeed. We came across a company in America called diapers.com – it was founded in 2005 by two dads – and it sold in 2010 to Amazon for US$550 million. So very quickly we said, ‘Oh okay!’ Clearly the model works, it’s a matter of adapting to Malaysian culture and customers, and seeing what kind of products could work here. That was in 2010, the dinosaur age in e-commerce.
Lavi: In Malaysia, this was before Lazada started, way before any E-shop. Lazada started in 2012. We started talking about this in 2010, and in the mid of 2011 we launched Babydash.
Shan: But we did it with very little investment and our own money. In the beginning we couldn’t even afford a warehouse, so we stocked all this stuff in our houses.
A SITE FOR MUMS BY MUMS
M: You always said you wanted to start something together, were you guys mums already?
Shan: I guess when the idea came about it was especially relevant because we were both mums. In 2010 my daughter was two, and (to Lavi) your kids were about 5 and 7.
Lavi: And I had another child in 2013, so while we were doing this I became pregnant. I thought – Oh dear, how were we going to manage? But it was fine. So it was certainly very relevant. The business has evolved, even mums and products in the market have evolved. When I had my first two children, organic was not a big deal yet. People were still using Johnson & Johnson and Pureen. When we started Babydash, we first contacted Johnson’s and we also contacted Buds Baby, a well-known organic Malaysian homegrown brand. We found that Buds took off but Johnson’s didn’t. You could see the paradigm shift – what people in the early 2000s used, and fast forward to 2010 – people weren’t opting for Johnson’s anymore.
M: Why was that, you reckon?
Lavi: Just awareness. All the articles coming out and about, I remember the scares to do with the powder. Mums were saying ‘No, we want to go more natural and organic.’ It took us so long to sell those Johnson’s products off, I remember.
M: It just shows that parents really read up and they are much more particular about products right now.
Shan: They would put chemicals on themselves, but they wouldn’t put it on their kids.
THE EARLY BEGINNINGS
M: It’s not easy to set up a business, when you have young kids, and you had full time jobs at the time! Tell us a little bit about that.
Shan: It was Lavi who basically started and ran the company, because I was working at a bank. She was running her own business, she had more flexibility. So I was actually a silent partner for the first 2 or 3 years.
Lavi: It obviously wasn’t easy. I had a dance school. You have to immerse yourself in it and then see if this thing takes off. If you do it on the side, then it isn’t going to work because you are not giving it a chance to reach its full potential.
M: Were there already similar baby websites at the time?
Lavi: There were many, actually, but doing things like car seats, strollers, and toys. Nobody was doing diapers and milk. So for us, it was about going out there and talking to these companies that were really sceptical. They would say ‘But we already sell Mamypoko in Tesco, why would we want to put it online?’ That conversation was difficult because we were trying to convince them that this was the way forward, and already happening in the West. The terms and margins given to us was another challenge altogether. We had no prior knowledge, we just had to go out there and do it.
M: So Shan, at what point did you say Okay, I’m ready to quit my job and do this.
Shan: I started working full-time for Babydash in 2014. Quite far down the line, but by then we already had a proper warehouse and a small team. It was a case of us needing an extra pair of hands and head to come and grow the business from where it was. At the time, e-commerce was already picking up. People were already familiar buying online and were not so scared. In a way, the Lazadas of the world really helped to educate the general public about buying online. By then we could see that this was definitely a business that could grow – the potential is huge, there are so many parents out there and they are willing to spend.
THE GOOD DAYS AND THE BAD
M: Share some experiences with us. Tell us about a very good day, a special day for Babydash.
Shan: For me, it was from the very beginning. The minute we put stuff online and it sold, we were like ‘Eh, it can sell!’ (Laughs)
Lavi: Our first sell was even before we launched! Our site was up, but we didn’t do any launch, we were still testing things out. Our boxes hadn’t even come in – I panicked! I said Shan, we just had a sale! But we have no boxes – how? It was May, and we were planning to launch in June or July, so we had no boxes.
Shan: I remember that! We went and bought a box!
Lavi: It was diapers. We already had stock, and I had already ordered the boxes in various sizes. But even then, that was a guess in the dark. Everything we did was basically a study on Diapers.com – in their early days they had 14 different boxes. We started off with about three variants. But then this order just came in, and we didn’t know how we were going to fit these diapers. The fact that this happened before we even launched, that shows the power of Google. Obviously, someone searched something, and found our website. We had to launch earlier than anticipated.
M: What about a really horrible day for Babydash?
Lavi: Oh, we had a lot of those days. Difficult situations.
Shan: I remember situations where the customers didn’t get their stuff. We would say to each other ‘What do we do, do we just put it in our cars and drive to their house now? What do we do?!’
Lavi: And that was not our fault, it was already sent out – it was just the courier guys. Typically, at the end of the year, (courier companies) seem to lose a lot of their drivers. Basically, what we need to do is be really close with our courier company and all the various people working there. We have to say, ‘This is really important’, or ‘That’s not going out’. It’s nothing that cannot be solved – it’s just that you have to put in the extra hour and get it figured out.
FEMALE ENTREPRENEURS IN MALAYSIA
M: Two dynamic women running your own company, what it is like – any nuggets of knowledge to share?
Shan: I think a lot of women forget there is a lot of support out there for women entrepreneurs and women in business. We have the National Association of Women Entrepreneurs, we have the Women Entrepreneur Network Association, Girls in Tech, and so many organisations set up for women in business. So there is actually plenty of support, don’t forget that it’s available. Lavi and I are very active in Cradle and Lean In, and we support all these different initiatives.
Lavi: It might be a bit bold to say, but I think it may be easier to be an employee than a business owner – because when you are an employee, you generally have fixed hours. When you start a business, you are very much consumed, and you are doing so much within it that it is pretty much non-stop. You don’t think in terms of 9-6, or whether it is a public holiday. You don’t even know when the public holidays are! It’s non-stop because it is up to you to drive the business and to make it happen. So you are trying to put in as much energy as you can, and that takes up a lot of your hours.
M: On top of that, you have to juggle being a mum.
Lavi: Yes, which is hard. For me, it is a difficult balance and you have to decide. At least with my older kids, I have tried to train them to do chores and certain things. So that takes the burden off me, but it’s still not easy, right?
Shan: Something’s got to give. You can’t have a perfectly clean house and perfectly laundered clothes. Everything can’t be perfect because I think it’s impossible to do everything, unless you have somebody to support you in all those different things.
ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS ASK
M: Any tips out there for women who are thinking of starting a business, an idea, and hold back because of doubts or fear?
Lavi: I think that’s it – the fear. A lot of women maybe don’t have the confidence that they can do it, so my view on that is that if you really want to do something, go do it. Try, and don’t let anything hold you back. Even if it doesn’t work, never mind. You’ve tried it and you’ve put in your all. But if you haven’t, then you’ll have this nagging feeling and keep thinking about it year after year. So just go and do it.
M: Just bite the bullet.
Shan: Yes, but make sure you have thought through your support network. If you’re going to do something and take time away from your family, make sure you are okay with that. If you have enough people to support you – look after your child while you spend time at work, then you are okay. Make sure all that is sorted out. Then make sure you are surrounded by people who can support you from a mentor perspective as well.
We have a lot of people we can call upon and seek advice from, about any aspect of the business. I think that’s really important if you are going to start. Especially people like us – we had zero technology background. But right now we have shareholders from the equity crowdfunding exercise, as well as advisors who can help us and are willing to help us. Surround yourself with mentors and people who want to help. And a lot of people out there will help – all you have to do is just ask.
M: What is next for Babydash? What is the dream?
Lavi: We are thinking of new ways to get customers from new states, get more of those mummies on board. What we really need to do is to go out there and get the Babydash branding out. Another thing is that e-commerce is still a tiny percentage of overall trade – just one to two percent of people shop online. How we convert those still buying from shops, that’s another difficult task.
Shan: The dream is for people to think of Babydash when they think of buying anything online for their babies.
SHARING EXPERIENCES ON BABYSIRI
M: And so why have you thought of Babysiri, when you are still very much concentrating on your plans for Babydash?
Lavi: A lot of people ask us – what is so different about Babydash? ‘Why are you guys different?’ We always tell them we aren’t just a faceless commerce store that just sells you stuff. We are a community of parents. Babydash makes phone calls every day, we get phone calls every day, we are on Facebook, Instagram, talking to hundreds of parents, and sharing experiences about products and all sorts. We have 100,000 followers on Babydash alone, but not all get to hear what we say or share online or in messages to parents. So this idea came within the team – to create another site to share these experiences. We don’t want to sell them products, we don’t want to make any money out of this, we just want to share.
Shan: Recently someone on Babysiri recently shared that they went to a confinement centre and she had a horrible experience. I’m glad she shared it, because either the centre bucks up and does something about it, or at least other parents know now not to spend RM30,000 – RM40,000 on that kind of service.
Shan: This sharing of experiences is what we want to put onto a proper site. Right now, even on our own private groups, there are people asking these questions, and then it gets pushed to the bottom. Two weeks later someone will ask again – ‘What’s a good toddler swimming class?’, for example. So why not have a place that has it all?
M: Kind of like a TripAdvisor?
Shan: Exactly like a TripAdvisor! For baby-related services. For baby-friendly restaurants, baby-friendly gyms, anything.
M: What would you say to parents who are maybe debating on whether to use Babysiri or add their review?
Shan: I guess the question is ‘Why not?’ If you do research or use TripAdvisor, why not check out Babysiri? I would encourage people who like sharing their experiences to share on Babysiri because anything you share will help someone else. And we are not treating this as something we want to monetise. We truly, honestly believe that this is going to help the community of parents in Malaysia, so please share.
Parents who write 12 listings or reviews for BabySiri can collect ‘Dashpoints’ which can be used against purchases on Babydash. Once they have completed the 12, they can write in to [email protected] and get rewarded with 5000 Dashpoints, with each 100 Dashpoints redeemable for RM1.