Lua Jes Min was an investment consultant in Acumen Fund in Kenya in 2013, and was primarily responsible for agriculture investments. She learnt two things – that even an ordinary man with a small business can really transform the lives of hundreds of people in his village, that there is no bound in how much impact one person can have if they only try.
RecomN is Jes Min’s first entrepreneurial venture which started in mid-2014. She has stated that it has been a completely crazy and exhilarating ride, and in this time she has realised how much more a team of committed individuals can achieve compared to the efforts of just one person.
Now, Jes Min is 4 weeks into motherhood, and life is completely crazy now (it could be the sleep-deprived haze). She has realised that she wants her little girl to grow up in a world better than the one that she grew up in, and this has given new meaning to her journey today.
In your own words what is RecomN?
RecomN is South East Asia’s premier platform that connects people to service professionals (like renovation contractors, caterers and photographers) that are trusted and recommended by the community. Customers give us their requirements, and in a matter of hours will be sent 4 recommendations of Pros accompanied by portfolio, reviews and contact details. Pros get notified of jobs within their expertise and geographical areas, and can choose to provide a quote to customers that are right for them.
How did you come up with the idea of RecomN?
A few years ago when my husband and I were planning our wedding, we wanted to hire a videographer that would capture our special day but didn’t have much time so we Googled and hired someone whose online portfolio looked good. A few days after the wedding, I woke up to an SMS that said he had lost all our wedding videos and he didn’t keep a backup, as every professional should. I walked all over Cheras where he lost the videos, and stuck “Reward RM10,000 for finding videos” posters on every tree, bus stop, sign-board in the area. It was a frustrating and pointless day but through that experience I learnt that there are 2 things you need to know before hiring a service professional – what he says he can do, and what previous customers say he actually does. What he says he can do can be found in all his marketing collaterals and brochures. What RecomN.com does is provide a platform for previous customers to leave their reviews and ratings so that others in the community can always find the best professionals.
Could you walk us through the process of starting up RecomN?
It started out when I mentioned to Alex my frustration about the lost wedding videos, and Alex shared about getting scammed by a water heater installer that left him $200 dollars poorer, very cold and feeling rather silly. We then thought “There must be a better way to do this” and starting sketching ideas and business models on pieces of paper on my dining table.
We needed to see whether we had a real market, so we took these preliminary sketches and tested our hypotheses with dozens of customers and service professionals. It’s amazing how willing people are to help you when they know you are sincere in wanting to make a difference. I’ve lost count of the number of times we received feedback, changed the idea and product, and went out to test the new ideas again. The product you see today is nothing like the original ideas we had but it’s one that suits the market so much better, as proven by great traction on both Customer and Service Professional side with a very limited marketing budget.
In parallel we also gathered a database of hundreds of the best professionals in Kuala Lumpur, all personally recommended by family, friends and friends of friends. It’s amazing how much collective knowledge reside in the heads of people, you just need to ask!
After many months of growing, changing and getting better at what we do, we are now ready to scale up our operations throughout Malaysia and South East Asia. We are expanding the team by 10 times, so if you know any rock stars out there who want to transform the inefficient and unstructured service industry in South East Asia, you know my number!
Did you encounter any particular difficulties during startup?
I think each stage of a start-up has different difficulties. At the beginning, the difficulty is mostly around SEEKING, how to come up with the first draft of an idea, product or business model, how to accurately define the assumptions / hypothesis that underpins it and how to test them with very little budget. Then as your business model stabilises it becomes more about SELLING, how to convince other people of the big dream, so that they would jump on board as a customer, professional or team member. As you grow throughout the country or regionally, the difficulty then becomes around scaling on how to ensure that elements of your business model is replicable to solve similar problems within a different context or culture or country.
How have you been developing RecomN since startup?
RecomN.com is and has always been about helping people find recommended service professionals at the big moments in their lives – a wedding, a major house renovation, an important birthday celebration. Our focus has always been about how to ensure that we match the right service professionals to each and every customer, not just by availability and price, but the 4 criteria of quality, service, timeliness and value.
We are also focused on helping good service professionals grow their business on the basis of good reputation and feedback from customers. Hence the types of service professionals that come and stick with us are those who want to grow big in the long term, so they are encouraged to consistently give their best service to our customers.
What kind of feedback did you get for RecomN so far?
I’ll let our customers and service professionals speak on our behalf – these are actual reviews written for us:
“A great platform to find recommendations. Most of the time I rely on word of mouth for services and RecomN brings this all to my convenience.” – Mark Leo
“Needed a roofing contractor… in hours I received 3 different recommendations and quotes! Most excellent service and I shall be using RecomN again!” – Daniel Yap
“Photographer quotes and contacts came very quickly, each were fantastic. Finally, I decided on one and couldn’t have been happier; professional and excellent!” – Praveen Gill
“Awesome platform… I got more than RM500,000 worth of jobs in just 3 months” Vincent from DEzeno Interior (Interior Designer and Renovation Contractor)
“I’ve delivered over 15 jobs with 8 more in the pipeline… RecomN is the one that brought me this far” Sheryl from Eats & Treats (Custom Cake Baker)
What is your strategy against your competition?
It’s quite a competitive market! We were the first to market within the service industry and subsequently a few others came in, I’m sure you see many ads in Facebook and Google!
Our strategy when it comes to growing customers is very simple – maintain a focus on matching customers with the best selection of service professionals. We achieve a consistent 4.8 out of 5 star rating for our service professionals and I believe that is uncontested in a country like Malaysia where people are always complaining about the service.
Our strategy when it comes to growing service professionals is very simple too – ensure that they get to meet and develop relationships with customers who value quality and service instead of just finding the cheapest price. We don’t actively target price-seeking customers and low-price service professionals because unlike e-commerce (where products can be clearly defined and you know what you’re going to get), services have parameters which are difficult to define up-front and in the end, the trust between the customer and the service professional is what makes a win-win relationship.
What can you tell us about the industry?
The service industry in Asia is at a very interesting point in its development. It is the sector that for many countries comprises 70-90% of GDP, and one that they are pushing for and pouring investment into in a bid to move towards ‘developed’ status. There are 600,000 SMEs in Malaysia alone and more than 10 million SMEs in Asia. At the same time, it is a fragmented industry with high levels of information asymmetry between customers and service professionals – customers want far more information when they purchase and is less tolerant towards bad service, and professionals want to differentiate themselves through good reputation and they are willing to invest in their brand. That is why we feel that it’s the absolute right time for RecomN.com to grow, as a platform that leverages on the power of reputation and reviews to help small service professionals to grow their business.
What is the future of the industry?
In our view, the number of small service professionals will only increase in the future because of a few factors – most of all the desire for Gen Ys to forge their own unique paths. There will be many new entrants to the market as well and things will only be more competitive for us.
We plan to stay relevant by staying focused – by ensuring that customers always get recommendations for the best service professionals, pros that their friends and family would personally vouch for. We will always ensure that our service professionals get the best, most efficient way to grow their business by leveraging on our platform to meet the type of customers that they serve best, so that they don’t have to waste time and resources meeting unsuitable customers all around town.
What do you think about being an entrepreneur in Asia?
I think there’s not a better time to be an entrepreneur in Asia. Asia has many sectors that are growing and developing faster than everywhere else in the world, with stable banking systems and currencies that are weak enough to ensure there is always flow of work into Asia and flow of services and products out of it. The large population and growing middle class in countries like China and Indonesia boosts domestic consumption and provides opportunities for all kinds of new value-add. Technology adoption is growing in leaps and bounds and creating more millionaires, billionaires and flattening the playing field for new entrants into the market. Our tax rates are still fairly low and with just a little innovation, entrepreneurs can differentiate themselves and find a niche to serve. What better conditions are there for growth?
What is your opinion on Asian entrepreneurship vs Western entrepreneurship?
I think there are many differences between Asian and Western entrepreneurship – and this book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell captures it really succinctly. He likens Asian entrepreneurship to ‘rice economies’ and westerns to ‘wheat economies’, and because in ‘rice economies’ there is a strong correlation between effort and reward, Asians are much more willing to work hard, put in the hours and sacrifice work-life balance. This work culture is clear all over the world where Asians have landed and underpins some of the foundations of how company culture is built. Of course this will change as we move towards a developed economy but I think this resilience, this willingness to do whatever it takes to be successful will always serve us well especially when we’re building a company.
What is your definition of success?
I think success is achieving what you think / feel is the purpose of your life. Or at least knowing what it is and working towards it. Many people go through life not quite knowing what they are doing or meant to be doing here on this earth, and it’s such a shame because they are always wondering “So is this is? Is there more?”
And if you don’t know what your purpose it – find it first. It’s hard to recognise success if you don’t know what you are working towards in the first place.
Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I didn’t decide to be an entrepreneur. I don’t think anyone really gets up one morning and says “I want to become an entrepreneur”. It’s something that creeps on you slowly – when you encounter a problem or annoyance and you think “Surely there is a better way to do this”. Or when you finish an 8-hour meeting at work that achieved nothing meaningful and you think “I don’t want to do this ever again”. Or when your boss is a monster and you think “I can run this organisation better than you”. You know, little things that slowly push you towards taking that crazy step.
And whatever you choose to try or do, it does change you, whether you like it or not. Forging a path on your own makes you realise this key thing – success in entrepreneurship (more than any other job out there) is less dependent on your personal awesomeness and more much attributed to your relationships, timing, and sometimes sheer luck. And that is a truly humbling thing.
In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?
I really like this question because it’s asking for “keys” instead of “what is the key to entrepreneurial success”. Most people think there is just one “key”, but in reality there are many, many keys that you just need to keep trying until one works.
I don’t think I’ve achieved entrepreneurial success (I’m still grasping around desperately for the keys) yet so I’ll draw on the experience of my personal role models, which is Jack Ma. He said that “Giving up is the greatest failure.” And this is so real, because there are so many examples of successful people who initially failed so many times but just never gave up. In his early auditions, Elvis was told to go back to being a truck driver. Jack’s Alipay was initially called “stupid” by banks. Adidas turned Michael Jordan down for being too short to play basketball. Walt Disney was fired by his editor who said, he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Imagine if they thought “These people are right, the world is right, I should give up” – they would never have achieved what they did. They just never gave up on their dream and worked on it until something started to work.
Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there from your personal experience?
“Leap – and the net will appear” – John Burroughs
I’ve always the quote above fascinating from two angles. The first is that you can never experience much while standing on top of the cliff, because you’re busy checking the ground trying not to fall off. Once you’re off the cliff, you’re in the wind anyway so you may as well try to get somewhere interesting. The second is that entrepreneurship requires some sort of faith that you will be ok, and that whatever failure you experience along the way will hardly kill you in which that a net will appear at some point.
My parting word of wisdom for you is that – if you’ve been wondering whether to take that entrepreneurial leap, do it. Life is too short to wonder “what if I took that leap”. Have faith that you will be alright, and your life will be more interesting because you took that leap.