Lau Chak Onn and Alvin Yu are crazy over Threadless T-shirts, and between them they own almost 100 Threadless T-shirts. Threadless prints and sells T-shirts to the public that are designed through contests, and two former high-school classmates figured that the same concept could apply for greeting cards and so Foldees.com was born.
“(The greeting card business) is a very traditional-type industry with very old players, so we reckoned it could use a good old kick -in-the-nuts,” says Lau Chak Onn, or Chak as he prefers to be called. “What we’ve always wanted to do is to bring the joy of greeting cards to the youth (ages 13-35). How we plan to do it is through a combination of great designs that relate to our generation, and giving them the means and reasons to send greeting cards.”
Like Threadless, Foldees.com solicits designs from the public through various competitions it runs with prizes up to US$2,500, which it then prints and sells. “We have a firm belief that with the right designs and the right functions on the site – such as full integration with Facebook to track birthdays and recommending cards based on their Facebook profiles – youngsters will rediscover the joy of sending real physical cards versus e-cards or stodgy Hallmark-type stuff.”
Since its launch in mid June last year, Foldees.com has grown to a modest 1,500 users, with about 700+ pageviews a day. Its primary source of traffic is through the contests it runs, with designers publicizing their designs on their blogs, and general community and media interest. That may seem like a small number, but Chak says the people in his community is extremely active. “Each card gets about 17 comments and rated up to 200 times each. If there are two consistent comments about our cards, it’s that the designs are bizarrely cool, and the quality of the cards is astonishing. This is part of the reason why our designers are fiercely loyal to our site.”
“If you are a designer, do join one of our contests! Even if you don’t win some of our fantastic prizes, you’ll still get royalties and loads of feedback about your designs.”
A Colorful Background
Foldees.com is currently a three-man operation based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All three members of the team are aged 29 and come from diverse backgrounds. Chak has a media and journalism background, and he handles the marketing and PR as well as the day-to-day stuff for Foldees.com. Alvin, an award-winning accountant, handles financial issues and investor relations and also looks after operations. The last member, whom Chak says prefers to remain anonymous, is (according to Chak) a genius programmer.
Last year, Foldees.com received a grant of RM150,000 from the MDEC Pre-seed fund (a grant given by the Malaysian government to budding technopreneurs) which was used to start the company. On top of that, the founders invested about RM100,000 from their own pockets. “We are currently in the process of looking for more money to expand our operations more quickly and to support our marketing efforts.”
Sales of the cards has been promising. “Since we started selling cards in September, we’ve sold about 1000-odd cards. That’s not enough to pay for our company swimming pool, but it’s encouraging nonetheless, given that our traffic isn’t quite up there just yet.” Chak believes this number will grow despite the challenging economic times. “Greeting cards are naturally viral since you do send them to other people. About the recession, I think for us it’s actually a good thing. The greeting card industry has a history of being relatively recession-proof, and in this climate, things like manpower and property will be cheaper, so it’s a great time for a small company like ours to grow.”
Chak says they are working on implementing social networking functions and are constantly refining usability. One of the key features they are currently working on is a system, @ddress, which ties a person’s mailing address to their email. “Most people don’t have each other’s mailing addresses. With @ddress, say if you send a card to me, you can key in firstname.lastname@example.org and it will display Chak, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, and ask you if this is the person you’d like to send the card to.” The system is targeted to be up by the end of the month. They are also looking at Facebook integration next, although Chak admits that this will depend on whether they get further backing from investors.
The Allure and Challenge of Entrepreneurship
Chak shares his experience with starting an online business. “The challenge of any web business is the same. While people are always saying that the Internet opens them up to the international pool of potential customers, it also opens them up to about 2 million competitors. The average consumer probably goes to about 15-20 sites a day, and 10 of those are probably regular ones that don’t change. Essentially, you’re fighting with the entire web to capture those 5 new sites a consumer visits, and hoping to make it into his regular top ten.”
“To truly succeed is basically a case of plugging away until you reach that magical tipping point where people look for you instead of the other way around.”
“One thing I’ve experienced is that you constantly swing from “we’re going to rock!” to “why am I doing this?!” all the time. And this happens even before you write your business plan. The most important part of creating a business is just that… creating it. Writing it down, committing it to paper and finding the right team. Once you’ve got that, you just grow together, which is the stage we’re at right now.”
“I think that the chances of succeeding an entrepreneur are slim. I’ll put that right out there. But, the main reason why most of them fail are due to limitations on the entrepreneurs themselves. Our motivations, skills, management abilities and passion are all tested – at the same time. And that’s why it’s quite scary and rewarding at the same time. It’s a test of your true mettle and when it succeeds, it’s immensely rewarding. But if it fails, you have no one to blame but yourself.”