E-commerce: The micro-entrepreneur’s story

  • Malaysian micro-entrepreneurs more aware of opportunities Internet brings
  • Under  high-tech veneer of social media, lies human element of making connections


(L to R) Renuka Sena, CEO Proficeo, Edwin Wang, founder, Signature Market, Ezmir Razali, founder, iCookAsia, Dickson Chew of Supply Bunny, Joachim Sebastian MD, Everpeaks Consulting, Nawarah (Wara) Abdullah, founder, TruWara Trading.


“MY HANDPHONE is in my hand twenty-four hours a day,” announced Nawarah (Wara) Abdullah, founder of TruWara Trading, and the new incarnation of the Malaysian micro-entrepreneur. She was acknowledging the importance of keeping social media constantly updated of her spicy sambal condiment business, in the hope that some her followers would be prompted to order another batch online.

“Makan dulu dengan mata (eat with their eyes first),” she reminded the crowd during a recent roundtable titled “Is E-commerce a Viable Channel for F&B Businesses?” organised by entrepreneur coaching company Proficeo Sdn Bhd, whose CEO, Renuka Sena moderated the panel.

The term micro-enterprise is officially defined as a company with fewer than five employees or annual sales turnover less than US$71,700 (RM300,000), and five years ago Wara certainly fit the bill. She could only rely on the occasional help of a friend to pack her wares, and would personally make monthly restocking trips to about 30 shops who had agreed to sell her sambal on consignment. Each shop would only carry a few jars at any one time. Unsurprisingly this inefficiency was eating into her profits.

Then she was invited to take part in MDEC’s eUsahawan Level Up programme, where she was assigned a coach to personally help her make the journey online. "Most of the time companies takut-takut nak buat (are afraid of doing it),” said Joachim Sebastian (pic), Everpeaks Counsulting managing director, and the coach assigned to help Nawa. So he took the initiative to sign her up for Lazada, and started the ball rolling.

Instead of starting by initially giving Wara the required IT training, Joachim decided to throw her into the deep end so she could see for herself how much potential there was in marketing online. Soon after signing up, Wara’s sambal was given a special promotion slot, which generated a lot of attention. In forty minutes she had received a hundred orders.

Wara’s message box was filled up. “I had arrived where I had hoped to get to (in my business),” she said, while fighting back tears of that memory.

Social media is a game-changer

The Level Up programme was driven in part by a recognition that entrepreneurs in Malaysia could immediately benefit from exploiting a market beyond conventional borders, like that created by the Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ). But success is a blend of learning to navigate the digital channels with good old-fashioned hard work.

"Most people think e-commerce is a golden goose," said Joachim. "(But) don't expect profits within six months". Instead, recognise the strengths of the Internet and put in the hard work to leverage on it.

"Social media (and) e-commerce are actually game changers,” agreed Edwin Wang, founder of Signature Market, an online retailer of organic products.

"Facebook is so amazing is because we can spend a small amount money like RM500 and know if a campaign works or not," he said. "We are a very, very small company with so little budget, but we can have big growth because of social media."

Another benefit is that the data it generates can then be analysed. For example, Wang said that at first they thought that pricey organic products would appeal to the wealthier segment, but eventually found out that the real demand was from the ambitious middle-income users who wanted to live healthier but were trying to find an affordable way of doing so.

Being able to tap this demand then comes from creating a feeling of connection with your customers. "At the end of the day we find out that human connection is very important to get your sales," said Wang.

"People are emotionally driven,” agreed Joachim. “Tell them a story about your product."

Facebook is saturated, micro-communities are where to go

However, as is always the case with technology, the landscape is continually changing.

"If you say that digital is creating a level playing field for the small players, that is not the case anymore,” said Ezmir Razali, founder of iCookAsia. “Big brands can (now) afford to throw a lot of money to advertise."

Ezmir explained that while before brands spent 70-80% on traditional media, it is now inverted with that much instead being spent on the major online sites like Facebook, YouTube and Shoppee.

“ROI on Facebook is now disproportionately low because it’s saturated,” agreed Joachim. "You've got no money to play that game."

Instead, Joachim advised smaller companies to move over to micro communities. "That's where the big brands are not because they can't concentrate on that level,” he clarified. “You're closer to the ground."

That need to share and connect is still what matters. Wara is acutely aware of the small piece of history she is making.  “You don’t have to write a book about your life for the next generation,” she said “We have the platform, the phone in our hands now... this is our book, a story of how we started our business, right up to where we are right now.”


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