Renowned shoe designer, Jonathan Wong, joins the Asian Entrepreneur for a sit down conversation on his experiences in starting up and running Z’NG, the premier fashion footwear label he founded in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Tell us a bit about yourself Jonathan.
I’d like to call myself young and fearless but clearly I’m not that young anymore. Generally, I’m a fashion entrepreneur with academic background in geographic information science and professional background in fashion & beauty retail. Strongwilled, adventurous and striving to break the business stereotype.
It is well known that Z’NG is involved within the dynamic fashion industry focusing on footwear but could you elaborate on your work and if you venture into other items of fashion?
Building a brand is unlike building a general retail store. A retailer would store up different array of goods from multiple brands to secure itself as a multi-label retailer to attract wider genre of clients while a brand heavily needs to secure itself with a strong category of product then to move on into developing other product categories. Likewise, Z’NG is now mainly introducing ourselves as a footwear label but we are planning towards rolling out accessories, bags, men’s shoes and apparel when the time is right. For now we will do what we are good at and strive to continually improve on the quality of the existing product category.
Are you guys working on anything exciting at the moment?
Like I mentioned earlier, I am always one who is trying to push boundaries. Next up, we will be having a shoe design competition with Raffles College of Higher Education Kuala Lumpur and the participants will be judged by 2 celebrities & me. The twist in this competition is that it would not just give the winner a recognition but an experience in creating an entire collection for Z’NG with their names imprinted on every pair of the shoes and this is something brands are very much reluctant to do because they are unwilling to take the risk of producing something that they don’t have the confidence in selling. Other than that, I am constantly looking for different opportunities to collaborate with icons of different industries and find ways to also empower the community. I trust that business do exist for higher & nobler purpose rather than just profiting.
So what is the story behind the founding of Z’NG?
It was really something that my mentor said which sparked me off to this entrepreneurship journey. I’ve always wanted to do my own thing but never thought it would be this soon. When I left my previous job in Singapore and was consulting my mentor on what career path to take on, she suggested “Come work for me and make me more money”. This obviously rang the Great Bell of Dhammazedi in me and I remember thinking to myself “What if I work for myself and make myself more money?” The rest is history. It’s been close to a year now since the formation of the company and I will be honest, there were ups and downs but I will persevere.
Did anything hinder your startup experience?
The problem with starting up is always the fiscal side, something which I was not very familiar with but I knew I needed to have a sum of money to sustain both the business and myself. I’ve always been told not to expect any profits or breakeven during the first two years of the business and I’ve prepared myself mentally for that. Having said, since financial planning is not my strength, although doesn’t appear as a weakness either. I do get worried about the cashflow, which is the health indicator of any business. I am constantly staring at Excel sheets on a daily basis just to make sure the monthly sales could cover all the operational & marketing expenses and admittedly it does hold you back from executing a strategy you feel would gain you brand visibility but affects your bottom line.
Fashion is a very competitive industry. And when you already have so much on your plate, the operational and finance side that sucks up most of your brain juice, there is only so much left to be creative for the design & production part. It makes it a necessity to constantly be reading on different topics to stay ahead when it comes to producing products that would suit the Asian consumers and how to successfully work towards setting up a fashion conglomerate in this part of the world.
How did you resolve these difficulties?
As for me, I enjoy running the show though I may not have an MBA or a degree in business, I do still take pride in how the business is operating at the moment. At the moment, I read a lot interview articles with successful corporate CEOs, consumer research journals, to name a few. With so many available resources like Wall Street Journals, Financial Times and Business Insiders, there are no excuses for me to say there’s nothing to read. It’s interesting to know what the rest are doing and how I could integrate these strategies into my business as well. The business is still at a scale where it is considerably manageable, but when it expands into unfamiliar territories, I may consider stepping down as CEO and just handle the creative end. For now, Z’NG is open to interested investors who would like to put their money into a fashion-lifestyletechnology business, which we are confident it would definitely profit and to also consult on all sides of the business.
And how has it been like working on Z’NG since startup?
Working? There’s no longer such a word in my dictionary ever since I set up the business. Before I bounce out of bed, I am already scrolling through my email inbox on my phone and I’d be managing the business the entire day and throughout the weekend. It would be a good feeling to have if someone were to pop up at my doorstep and pass me a return flight ticket to somewhere in the world with a beach to die for where I can just unwind & relax for a week. Just a week, that’s all I need for now.
What was your approach to the business development aspect? We know you’ve also started a joint charity, is that right?
Only 6 months from launching, we have already collaborated with some of the biggest names in Malaysia for a joint charity. Z’NG is fortunate to have taken notice from these celebrities because our brand direction has always been to stir away from looking like a typical blogshop since we too operate on the online sphere. To be crude, if my branding sucks, these celebrities wouldn’t even bother to agree!
I’ve always had a heart for the generation after me and how we could contribute back into their lives by empowering them in ways that could develop their talents and make them realize who they really are. So it was in this spirit that I approached Fugee School with an interesting idea whereby I would design a special collection together with a few celebrities and profits from the sale would go to the school. I am thrilled to know that the funds raised would go to buying books for the refugee kids at the school, covering their tuition fees and to also send them for dance lessons. These are platforms and opportunities that could make them believe that they too can achieve something in life.
From your experience, what can you tell us about the fashion industry in Malaysia at the macro level.
What I can say is that the fashion scene in Malaysia is really picking up steam. I noticed there is a wave of retailers, either online or offline, in the country who will be stocking up pieces from young fashion designers who showcased their collection at the New Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week RTW2013 just a fortnight ago. It’s really about time! There are so many talented designers in Malaysia and if everyone is expected to expand their labels in Paris or New York, it would be tragic. The fashion industry in Malaysia is so minute, almost everybody knows each other, and yet we don’t create opportunities for one another to boost the industry. I absolutely loathe when established fashion designers try to put down the younger ones in a snobbish manner and creates a sphere of exclusivity limited only to those at their level.
Share with us some insights you’ve learnt starting up your own business.
One that is most apparent to me is to build friendships with everybody and to be favourable. Z’NG operates with B2B2C model and while pleasing everyone would be impossible, we strive towards having the best client servicing. An influencer’s words, whether true or otherwise, can make or break a business and I stir clear from offending anybody. Be kind, be genuine and be helpful even if it requires you take another step.
In your opinion, what makes an entrepreneur successful?
Gone were the days where you just need to be good at something and you would be ahead of the rest. Today, you need to be good at everything to stand out. I don’t give in to the quote “jack of all trades, master of none”. I am a firm believer of putting my hands into every aspect of the business at the initial period of the start-up. A good CEO knows the in’s and outs of the entire company and not one thing will pass him by without him knowing.
So what drives you as person? Nobody gets to your level of success without a good set of principles.
I believe this tie in with the emotional side of me. I was brought up in a family whereby my mother is the sole breadwinner of the family and ever since I was 15, I was determined to work towards my personal goal of having my mother live a more comfortable life. My core values are also built on faith since young so there are many heinous acts in business that I know of which I don’t practice and will not practice.
What is your future plan for Z’NG?
Z’NG will continue to expand in the online sphere and to target all major cities across Asia in the next few years. To me, community empowerment is just as important as profiting. I will continue to have different projects where Z’NG can contribute one way or another to various charitable parties.
Would you ever see yourself in another venture?
Basically, Z’NG is sapping all the energy out of me and there is nothing left to work on anything else. Starting up is really hard work! But in time to come, I would love to go into education and be a part-time lecturer or write a book. Who knows!
Obviously, you’ve come really far, do you see yourself as successful?
I will know that I am successful when I am able to pay for a BMW 7 series in cash by the age of 30. I now have 4 more years to work towards that personal KPI of financial security. In a broader spectrum, as long as I feel wholesome, that would be true success.
Any last words of wisdom for our readers out there?
Honour your creativity.
Connect with Jonathan Wong and Z’NG today:
Email: [email protected].com