Winning over Melissa

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Terence Yow left his job at P&G after 14 years to launch his own online and physical shops for multi-brand bags and fashion accessories, before finding success with the hottest brand of shoes today.

Find out how he achieved this.

Stepping into the MDREAMS boutique at One Raffles Place, one immediately catches a whiff of a sweet fragrance emanating from the row of strikingly bold-coloured plastic shoes displayed on stark white shelves.

“Melissa shoes are infused with a bubble gum scent and this is something no one else in the market has done,” says Terence Yow, founder and CEO of Enviably Me, the exclusive distributor of Melissa shoes in Singapore and Malaysia.

The scent appeals to women, Yow says, and as such, both the MDREAMS boutiques at One Raffles Place and Wheelock Place have been designed to provide shoppers with a multi-sensory experience.

The boutiques look more like galleries displaying individual pieces of art than a shoe store.

“We took a lot of care and effort to plan and design the whole shopping experience, starting with the layout of the shop, the lighting, smell and audio [aspects],” he adds.

Indeed, this strategy bodes well for the brand.

During The Edge Singapore’s visit on a Tuesday afternoon, there was a decent-sized crowd at the store.

This emphasis on customers’ experience stems from Yow’s 14 years as associate director at fast-moving consumer goods company Procter & Gamble, where he was in charge of planning the marketing strategies for brands such as SK-II, Olay, Pampers, Whisper and Pringles.

In July 2009, he decided to leave P&G to start Enviably Me.

“Like many people, I’ve always wanted to start my own business.

So, even though I started out in a corporate job, I always thought that after five years, I would do my own thing,” Yow says.

“However, five years became 10 and finally, when I reached my 14th year at P&G, I was in my late 30s and I thought, ‘It’s now or never.’” All the rage among women today, the Melissa brand is part of Grendene, a Brazilian footwear group set up by two brothers in the 1970s that listed on São Paulo’s stock exchange in 2004.

Grendene started out by making plastic packaging for wine bottles but shifted to making footwear parts, such as plastic heels, when the shoe industry began to take off in the south of Brazil.

Founders Alexandre and Pedro Grendene came up with the idea of making a whole shoe in plastic after returning from holidays in France, where they saw fishermen using traditional jelly sandals.

Last year, the brand chalked up more than US$1 billion ($1.26 billion) in retail revenue.

It has sold more than 32 million pairs of shoes in the past decade.

The shoes are produced in Brazil and made from a material called Melflex, a form of PVC that provides improved elasticity, impermeability and resistance.

It is also hypoallergenic and 100% biodegradable.

The brand has collaborated with renowned designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood.

Online fallacy
In its early days, Enviably Me was an online multi-brand retailer of bags and fashion accessories recycled from items such as seat belts, fire hoses, soda can tops and bamboo.

These were sourced from the US, Europe and Brazil.

“I wanted to start a business that had a bit more meaning, and would allow me to make a difference to the community and environment,” Yow says.

“I was very idealistic.

I wanted to make money; at the same time, I wanted to bring in products that were unique and had a social conscience to them.” He decided to launch an online store instead of opening a brick-andmortar set-up because he figured it would be cheaper to operate that way.

“People think it’s cheaper to start a business online, but that’s a fallacy.

There are a lot of related and hidden costs in running an online site well that most people never consider.” Yow budgeted $20,000 for Enviably Me’s online store, but the final cost was about four times that figure.

He had to hire programmers to custom-build a website from scratch because he did not believe in using the e-commerce website templates available then.

He expected the site to be built within two months, but it took nine.

Following the launch of the online store, Yow decided to open echo, a retail outlet, on the second floor of Wheelock Place.

“The online market in Singapore is still much smaller than the retail market.

Singaporean shoppers love to touch and feel an item before they buy it.

For an online store to have decent business, you need a very strong market size and organic traffic from your home market,” he says.

In the online space, Yow also found himself competing with larger fashion and lifestyle businesses that could afford to spend millions on their websites and customer service.

“When you’re online, you’re just a tiny dot in an ocean of businesses from all over the world, many of which can afford to offer free shipping to anywhere.

The effort required to market and advertise Enviably Me’s site is disproportionate to opening a brick-and-mortar shop in a good location,” he says.

Test bed for brands
Yow says the bulk of Enviably Me’s business comes from its echo store at Wheelock Place.

The outlet also gives him the flexibility to test new products and brands in the market.

Among the latter was Melissa, a Brazilian shoe brand recommended by female friends.

“I’m probably the last person to know about a brand like Melissa, as I’m not a fashionista and not a lady,” he says.

“There are benefits to that.

If you look at things you don’t relate to, you won’t be swayed by your emotions and can make objective decisions.” Novo Shoes, a store chain managed by delisted Royal Sporting House, used to sell the Melissa brand in Singapore, but stopped doing so about five years ago.

Yow was drawn to Melissa because of its good design and the social consciousness of its manufacturer.

The brand’s story and vision are also in line with his.

Within a month, he managed to convince Grendene to award Enviably Me the exclusive rights to distribute Melissa in Singapore and Malaysia.

This is where his years as a principal for P&G brands came in useful, Yow says.

“I am very clear about what brands look for when they choose local distributors and I managed to convince them that Enviably Me has what it takes to build the Melissa brand and grow the business the way they would want it,” he says.

That was not the most difficult thing he had ever done in his entire career.

“At some point, P&G bought over tampon brand Tampax and I had to sell the product to buyers at Guardian.

Everyone tried to keep a straight face when I presented it to them, but after we became friends, they would tease me about it.

This is the training that has made me fearless.” Although Yow was convinced that Melissa would be a hit, his first order was for only 300 pairs.

“That was a big thing for us because we were still a small company.” He expected them to sell over five to six months, the span of a fashion season.

To his surprise, all 300 pairs flew off the shelves within two weeks.

He attributes this to echo’s good location and an existing pool of Melissa fans.

“We had shoppers passing by our shop who, when they saw the shoes, called their friends first before coming in and buying a few pairs.

Singapore is a small place and word of mouth helped to spread the [news] on Melissa.” It did not take long for the brand to outperform others that Yow had imported.

“Few brands have the level of all-roundedness of Melissa and as a small business, we had to make the difficult decision to concentrate on it,” he says.

In addition to running the MDREAMS boutiques, Enviably Me distributes Melissa shoes to department stores such as Tangs, Robinsons and Takashimaya, as well as independent retailers such as Rockstar and Zalora.

It also distributes its children’s range to Mothercare.

“Melissa has a range of cute baby shoes and mothers love them because they are plastic and practical, so we have a broad distribution,” Yow says.

Despite a flood of cheap Chinese imitations of Melissa shoes, the originals, which are priced between $100 and $200 a pair, are selling well, with Enviably Me recording growth of 20% y-o-y.

“In terms of price points, we are a bit more premium, but for the Singapore market, it is very affordable.

As fussy as the Singaporean shopper is, when it comes to fashion and beauty, as long as the look and quality are right, our price point is well within the reach of most,” he notes.

In Singapore, the most popular model is the Melissa Ultragirl + Jason Wu VI, designed by the Taiwanese designer.

It is priced at $175 per pair.

Yow says one factor that has enabled Melissa to stay ahead of the competition and copycats is that the brand is constantly introducing new designs.

“Imitation is something that plagues the fashion industry, but as long as a brand keeps coming up with new and innovative designs, the copy cats will always lag behind.

If you go to our stores, you will see something new every month.” He has also set up a dedicated e-commerce website for Melissa shoes using an existing e-commerce template, drawing from his experience of launching Enviably Me’s website.

“Even though less than 5% of our business comes from the e-commerce site, it is important for us to have a website presence.

But I don’t think sales from the site will overtake our brick-and-mortar business any time soon,” he says.

New ventures
Now that Melissa is on track, Yow wants to distance himself from the business to look for more brands to import that can replicate its success.

“We have about 30 staff members and once they don’t need me to be so involved any more, I would know I’ve succeeded in building the team,” says Yow, who does not rule out starting his own brand when he has more time.

Another of his priorities is to increase the group’s contribution to social causes.

Enviably Me has been contributing to reforestation projects in Indonesia and organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

On the local front, he wants to increase Enviably Me’s contribution to Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).

“We are still working on how we can make the most difference in the community, not just in terms of money but also commitment in time and effort.” Despite being passionate about social causes, Yow says there is no reason for the company to shout about it.

“You don’t want to guilt-trip customers into buying your products just because you care about the community.

You want them to buy because they are of good design and quality, and that’s where Melissa has done well as a brand.

It is environmentally conscious, but not many of our customers know that and they buy the shoes anyway,” he says.

While Enviably Me has come a long way since its beginnings in 2009, Yow says entrepreneurship is not for everybody and entrepreneurs should think carefully before taking the plunge.

“Even though I’m an entrepreneur, I tend to discourage most people from being one because I’ve seen so much failure and experienced so much failure myself.” Apart from Enviably Me, Yow had ventured into healthcare, wellness and slimming, children’s educational toys and technical hardware with different business partners.

Only one of those businesses made it into the second year, while the rest failed.

“Partnerships have their advantages and disadvantages.

You spread the risks, but you also increase the likelihood of conflict in decision-making.

A lot of good businesses fail because the partners have conflicts they cannot resolve,” he says.

Nevertheless, he believes that people who really want to be entrepreneurs will do whatever it takes to make it happen.

He also advocates quitting one’s day job to be fully committed to the venture.

“Once you are set and committed and are willing to face the odds and risk failure, you should do it,” he says.

“If you go into your venture with nothing to fall back on, you are more likely to take risks and gain the fearlessness you need to help you develop the business.” Yow says there are benefits to starting a business when a person is young because “you have little to lose and can live on bread for months”.

However, one should not jump into entrepreneurship too early, he cautions.

“The best advice I can give is get at least five good years in a company or an environment that will give you the skills you need to succeed in your business.”

This article appeared in the Enterprise section of Issue 643 (Sept 15) of The Edge Singapore.