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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.

Lavinie and Shan at the Babydash warehouse and office.

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.

Firm friends in 2008, way before founding Babydash.

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.

Lavi and Shan in 2010.

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.

Lavinie with a Babydash lucky winner at their first Mom & Baby Expo in 2012.

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.

Shan and Lavi organised their first Babydash Coffee Morning in 2016, and it was attended by loyal customers and mummy entrepreneurs.

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.

 

“Mummy, I want to do a toy review.”

“Ok. Go ahead.”

“But I need the camera, mummy.”

As my wife and I laughed, it occurred to us that this was the first time our son ever asked to do one. We just bought him a toy robot which he really liked and wanted to talk about.

For those in the dark (though I highly doubt it), there is a famous YouTube channel of a boy reviewing his toys with the help of his parents and sister. I can’t elaborate much as I’m not exactly his target audience but my son certainly is and he is a huge fan. I can safely say the same for millions of other kids around the world.

This new-found confidence my 5-year-old son exuded had me thinking of all the articles and videos stressing how detrimental gadgets can be for children.

But, just how detrimental can they be?

Now, this might be controversial, so I’ll whisper it – they might not be all that bad.

There are enough information out there to support the argument against it. Allow me to play devil’s advocate.

Computers as a learning aid

A research paper that studies the effect of computers on children as an audio-visual aid state that computers allow them to use a vast mine of information. A child’s learning rate differs from one to the other. It’s one of the many things that makes each of us unique. Having seen my son grow up during these past five years, I can see that he absorbs sounds and images at a rapid rate and makes them part of his daily lexicon. This gave him an edge when he started pre-school. I have also seen other children count, identify colours and shapes, and name body parts at the tender age of three, thanks to catchy rhymes and songs.

The same research paper also mentioned that computers as a learning aid help do away with people’s racial, ethnic and colour features. They also help develop communication without prejudices and build a common global culture. Personally, I can vouch for this as I cannot recall a single moment where my son asked why another person is of a different skin colour, or talks in a different language. Sure, he’ll have his opinion later in life but at this stage, I’m happy with the fact that he’s oblivious to race, colour or creed. With all that is happening in the world today, a tiny bit of ignorance is certainly bliss.

On the subject of language, one in particular is making headway among young children today. Although there are variants of it, it is more commonly known as ‘coding’. Essentially, they are lines of programming codes that are used to create applications and websites. They are now so widely used and simplified, that even nine year olds are capable of creating useful mobile applications. This breeds a new level of creativity and innovation, and has a large community of developers that interacts frequently.

Practicalities and Opportunities

The sheer number of devices in this world makes it almost impossible to avoid using one. In fact, a Statista survey made in March 2016 found that 21% of Malaysian respondents made use of two connected devices on a daily basis. That amounts to one in every five of the population. So, why not make the best out of a situation? If parents are not keen on giving their children access to the Internet too early but want to see how they react to these devices, fret no further. There are other offline alternatives out there that use cartridges containing various learning materials.

There is also the opportunity to teach manners and discipline with children when using these devices. A more fun way to limit the usage is by using a timetable where you can chuck in other tasks and chores. Also, promises have always been a weapon for parents. A trip to Legoland for good marks at school. An ice cream cone for cleaning a room. A new football for good behaviour. An hour of Minecraft on the tablet for completing their homework. It’s the same difference.

However, we simply cannot ignore the negatives – some are undeniably justified. Long-period usage of electronic devices can affect a child’s eyesight, especially if they view them too close for comfort or use them in the dark. Addiction can also be a problem. Even adults can be attached to devices with all the content the Internet provides us. So, one can only imagine what it can do to an innocent child. More worryingly, children may access unwanted and vulgar content. Unfortunately, there are people out there who think it is ‘funny’ to make videos of cartoon characters doing filthy acts to one another, knowing very well that children are bound to click on any links that have the names of their favourite superheroes. Those are just a few but harmful examples of using electronic devices unsupervised.

Technology and Parenting

That last word – unsupervised – is paramount to the arguments for and against. Under proper supervision and censorship, electronic devices mixed with a sprinkle of magic that is the Internet can be the ultimate teaching tool for our little ones. We can’t deny the fact that these devices are going nowhere and will forever be integrated in our daily lives.

That’s where our parenting skills come into play. It goes without saying that it will be us who will mould our children into the adults they become. One can even say that learning to balance or limit access to these devices is unprecedented, as parents of yesteryear did not have to deal with what we face today. However, that is no excuse. Parenting is something you learn as you go. As this article mentioned early on, each child is different. That includes how they deal with instructions. So, we can read all the do’s and dont’s when it comes to finding the perfect balance but ultimately, we, the parents will need to make the decision.

I have no doubt in my mind that we will make the right one.

By Kimi Jamalus

Mohd Hakimi Jauhari Jamalus juggles the responsibilities of being an IT consultant for a UK-based online media company with being a father to a son and daughter every day. He always find new things to learn when it comes to parenthood and is enjoying every second of it.

If one of your goals for the New Year is to cut down on your kids’ screen time, podcasts are a really great alternative with the same (arguably higher) level of educational entertainment and engagement. Podcasts have been a huge hit in our home since we first introduced them on long car rides. An avid listener myself, I was curious as to whether my then two and four-year-old would benefit from audio learning, and desperate to find something more enriching than radio. Research shows that the absence of visuals in podcasts allows kids to fill in the gaps and use their creativity. This prompts kids to ask richer questions and solve problems in more imaginative ways. I’d also read that aural learning gets kids to engage with ideas that are two to three grade-levels higher than their reading level, which sounded very impressive!

After just a few episodes of the very popular Ear Snacks and Story Pirates (where stories written by children are brought to life), it was clear that my kids were responding to what they had listened to, re-telling stories, using new words they had heard and asking lots of interesting questions related to the content. Our family now plays podcasts not only in the car, but when we are stuck waiting for something, getting ready or just having some down time at home. Being brand new to the world of podcasts for kids however, can be a little confusing, so here are some of my tips for getting your kids addicted to audio adventures.

 

Sample different kinds of podcasts

I was surprised to find an incredible number of high-quality kid-friendly podcasts covering everything from bedtime storytelling to science exploration, but my personal recommendations are Ear Snacks, Brains On!, Wow in the World, and Story Pirates.

Science podcasts like Tumble and The Show About Science (which is actually hosted by a six-year-old) feature interviews with real scientists and experts in the field, and can be used alongside school curriculum teaching for the subject. For older kids, the mystery series or theatre varieties such as The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel or Saturday Morning Theatre are also worth checking out. Try to listen to a few episodes of the programmes yourself, and see if the content fits with what your kids are already interested in, before choosing a few for them to try. Having two or three go-to podcasts helps kids get comfortable with the hosts and their style of sharing, which makes listening more enjoyable.

 

Create a varied playlist

My kids quickly discovered their (shared) favourite episodes, and would ask for them over and over again. I honestly didn’t mind this because some shows are so well produced and filled with fun facts that grown-ups can appreciate them too. The trick to getting out of repetitive-listening mode with your kids – and avoid the inevitable fights that happen with more than one child choosing what’s next – is to keep advertising new episodes to your kids. Rather easy to do with catchy titles such as “Wanted: Giant Rat for Cracking Coconuts” and “Animal farts: A mighty wind.” Learn everything from why no two snowflakes are the same, to how GPS knows where we are. (There are honestly some episodes of Wow in the World that make me feel like I’m back in school myself, and I feel like I’ve smartened up every time).

Use a podcast app like Overcast (instead of using Apple Podcasts), because you can set up playlists easily, save your favourite episodes, and select voice boost and to shorten silences for a custom listening speed, as well as the option to fast-forward through promotional ads. I also recommend getting a sturdy Bluetooth speaker kids can carry around at home, or even have with them at the table during snack time. The Philips SoundShooter has a great shock-proof silicon cover which can withstand being tossed by little hands.

 

Let your kids try recording

Encourage your kids to record their own audio stories or mini episodes – with a simple microphone and a programme like Clean Feed which is easy to use and saves everything directly to iTunes. Once your kids have been exposed to how sound effects, storytelling, hosting and production work through listening to podcasts, they’ll be more likely to try it out themselves! The recordings will also serve as really sweet keepsakes for when they are older, as they’ll be delighted to hear what their voices used to sound like and laugh at the types of stories they came up with.

 

By Michelle Chua

Michelle Chua is the author of ‘The Mindful Mum’ and Co-facilitator of the Art Discovery Tours for Kids at the ILHAM Gallery in KL.