Start-up: Betting on localisation

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 8, 2018 - January 14, 2018.
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For years, Jesrina Arshad suffered from various food allergies that led to skin rashes and indigestion almost on a daily basis,  and she finally decided that enough was enough. She had tried conventional therapies with little or no result and decided it was time to find a solution among natural or alternative therapies.

She started scouring the internet for natural health and wellness guides to deal with her health challenges. There was one problem, however — most of the guides were targeted at Western audiences. With the tips oriented towards the Western diet and lifestyle, they were very difficult to implement in Malaysia, especially for the long term, she says.

But Jesrina, who was in the digital media industry then, was nothing if not resourceful. She modified and localised the suggestions and implemented them during a one-week experiment. To her delight, they worked. Suddenly, she felt better than she had in years. “That one week was a real eye-opener. The changes in my body were drastic. Sure, it was time-consuming and took a lot of effort, but the results were worth every minute,” Jesrina declares.

She figured that she could not be the only one with allergy problems and wondered how she could scale her solution for the masses.

Her logical turn of mind identified the key problem as a lack of awareness, guidance and support for Asians who want to overcome their health issues through natural remedies and embracing a holistic lifestyle.

So she came up with a user-friendly online platform, PurelyB. “I wanted to create a movement and change people’s perception of what being healthy is, in a more relatable way. Gradually, the platform would inspire them to stick to these little changes in the long term. And they would see how these efforts could drastically improve their health.

“It’s not just for those who are suffering from illnesses or allergies. People who are healthy may think that there’s nothing wrong with them, but what they are experiencing on a day-to-day basis — such as low energy levels, migraines and catching the flu regularly — are actually symptoms of their lifestyle choices,” says Jesrina.

When she told her colleague, Stephanie Looi, about the idea, the latter agreed right away to become her partner. Looi, a mother of two, says she needed something like PurelyB, as she had spent countless hours researching how to maintain a healthy lifestyle while juggling her roles as a mother and a full-time employee.

“I thought it was a fantastic idea because looking for advice [for working mothers] can be very time-consuming, and it was very hard to find credible sources. When Jesrina pitched the idea to me, I envisioned it to be a platform that people would be able to fully trust, a place where you go to get the experts’ thoughts and opinions,” says Looi, who is also the company’s COO.

To make it happen, the ladies asked prominent and local health and wellness experts such as Marissa Parry, Carina Lipold and Amanda Teh to become team members and contributors. The team clicked instantly and the all-women tech start-up was launched in May 2015.

As the intent was to educate and inspire, the platform started off by publishing free content. It covers many different pillars of health and wellness, including a fitness and nutrition guide. “Our philosophy is healing through natural remedies. We make sure that we only feature natural ingredients — no preservatives, no artificial sweeteners and no parabens.

“Trust is key, so PurelyB’s panel of experts will vet everything. We even look up information on the companies that produce the products because we do not want to compromise our values. Most importantly, we make sure that the content is easy to follow because our target demographic — people like ourselves — does not have too much time,” says CEO Jesrina.

 

Expanding a passion project

When she started it, Jesrina had no intention of monetising PurelyB. It was purely a passion project. So she and her team carried on with their nine-to-five jobs after launching the platform but they ensured that its content was constantly updated.

But thanks to the targeted exposure, pent-up demand and credibility it brought to the topic, PurelyB experienced exponential growth, gaining a massive traction of about 100,000 monthly active users hailing from six countries. It was even recognised as one of Red Herring’s Top 100 Startups in Asia when it was just four months old.

“We did not have money to really market the platform, yet we received overwhelming support in the first three months. We believe that this is because our content really resonated with the audience. We handpicked the topics ourselves — sitting down and discussing what we really wanted to know about natural remedies and, also, the kind of success stories that we wanted to learn from.

“For example, one of our co-founder’s children was able to overcome eczema using natural remedies within six months. Doctors had said the boy would have to live with the condition until he was five but at just one, he was already eczema-free,” says Jesrina.

After witnessing the platform’s success in getting an audience with hardly any effort, Jesrina and Looi decided to take a leap of faith and turn it into a business. Both quit their jobs on the same day to focus on the platform and turn it into a sustainable business.

“We served our three months’ notice and our bosses were very supportive of our new business venture. Coming from the digital media industry, we are very thankful that we had connections with the clients before starting something on our own because we realised that connections make a huge difference. They know how we work and they trust us to a certain degree,” says Looi.

After a brainstorming session, the co-founders decided to test out a form of handholding guidance on its user base. The prototype health programme was called “21 Days to a Healthier You”. For RM200, participants were given virtual guidance, e-books and videos aimed at helping them improve their lifestyles in less than a month.

“It was a simple programme, but we saw good take-up rates — about 500 people signed up although we did very little marketing. It showed us that there was demand, and people were willing to pay. It was a good testing ground for us to identify that it was a legitimate revenue steam, but at the time, we did not intend for it to be our main monetisation model. So we paused it and focused instead on building a marketplace,” says Jesrina.

At the time, both Jesrina and Looi had just graduated from the [email protected] programme organised by Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC). Having raised a seed investment of US$500,000 led by 500 Startups, PurelyB launched its online marketplace selling only curated, natural products.

Although the marketplace was providing the platform with steady revenue, after almost a year, the co-founders realised that it was not growing. They found that consumers saw PurelyB as more of a recommendation rather than an e-commerce site. There was no way for them to stop consumers from buying the products elsewhere.

“This was a major problem because we were not in a position to go into a price war, flashing deals like other e-commerce sites. We also thought about how this was not exactly in line with our values because we were only promoting the brands in our marketplace. What about the other merchants who were equally good but who did not retail their products on our site?

“We wanted to be neutral and work with all types of brands, as long as the products met our criteria. After discussing it, we decided to pull the plug on our e-commerce site and focus on what we do best, which is content,” says Looi.

The partners decided to revamp the platform. They introduced a completely new business strategy, reviving their health programmes and expanding to audiences outside Malaysia.

“We wanted to go back to our roots and focus on content. But this time, with a regional mindset. We wanted to work with experts around the region and localise our content for their markets.

“The thing that people always miss when creating a content-based platform is that they do not think about what people want and need. Whereas we work from feedback and we do a lot of surveys. In fact, in Malaysia, we even invite our user base to share their thoughts with us. We will also be doing that outside the country from now on,” says Looi.

On the new platform, subscribers have access to an extensive range of customised step-by-step health programmes designed by PurelyB’s panel of experts. These programmes include “30-Days to Healing and Nourishing Your Body with Clean Eating” and “Natural Home Pharmacy for Adults, Kids and Babies”.

“These programmes are upgraded versions of the health programmes that we offered back then. We will provide them with videos, podcasts, e-books, recipes, goal-tracking diaries, community group chat, online and offline community events and activities, and progress rewards,” says Jesrina.

Additionally, they are working on offering brand partnerships, health programme sponsorships and corporate wellness programmes in the future.

These plans required a fresh round of funding. Instead of using traditional means of raising funds, the co-founders decided to go for equity crowdfunding (ECF). Last September, the company managed to raise RM1,821,797 through Ata Plus, exceeding the minimum amount of RM300,000 by a whopping 607%.

“We came to this decision because our users were always asking us how they could join PurelyB. Through ECF, they could own a piece of PurelyB at a very reasonable price — only RM540 per share. If we issued a share at RM10,000, who will be able to afford it? We want our community — those who read our content, who gave us feedback, who kept us alive — to be able to afford it and be proud of their investment. Thankfully, we met our goal, and can now proceed with our expansion plans,” says Jesrina.

 

Learning from experience

Jesrina is looking forward to introducing more video content to guide PurelyB’s target market — busy, urban and affluent women between 30 and 44 years of age who are living in Asia and looking for a healthier lifestyle.

“For example, we recently uploaded a video of Stephanie giving tips to working moms on how to stay healthy while breastfeeding. She talks about milk preparation, the type of healthy snacks they can carry around and some of the things that they need to be mindful of when choosing products to consume.

“Additionally, we will create videos that will answer questions from our user base, and even talk shows discussing real-life success stories so that the audience can get inspired or learn from them,” says Jesrina.

Jesrina and Looi faced many challenges before reaching stable waters, especially since they were both first-time entrepreneurs.

“Both of us are marketers, not entrepreneurs; we did not have any background in finance. That was why we enrolled in the eStanford programme. We got advice from the professors saying that we should raise money as soon as possible because our momentum was good. If we did not raise it then, we would lose the momentum.

“Luckily for us, before we went to Stanford, we showcased our platform at a tech conference in Hong Kong, and connected with lots of investors although we were not looking to raise money at the time. We came back and we told them we were ready. We learnt how to pitch, tweaked the platform further, did a financial model and negotiated the deal. It was the most memorable part of running this business because we were learning as we went,” says Jesrina.

Being a first mover, there are also other challenges the team has had to face, such as competitors and investor scepticism. However, Jesrina is confident the company will be able to showcase its strength, become sustainable and scale up across the region. “We make sure we do not compromise on anything. Selling a story and executing it are two very different things. Many people sell the story well but execute poorly, so we need to make sure that we excel at both,” she says.