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Finding opportunities for growth in a crisis

The Peak speaks to homeware e-commerce brand Houze Storage Inspirations, and telemedicine platform Ease to find out how they made the best of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are two sides to every coin, and the Covid-19 pandemic has been no exception. While some businesses have been ravaged, others have found opportunity in the massive lifestyle changes wrought by everything from the rapid shift to digital or an increased attention on wellness. We speak to businesses that have managed to turn the pandemic into an impetus for growth. 

Rio Hoe, Co-Founder, Ease Healthcare 

Ease Healthcare is a telehealth platform focused on improving women’s access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services. While the company was still in its planning phase at the start of the pandemic, 2020’s Circuit Breaker pushed Hoe and his partner, Guadalupe Lazaro, to launch Ease in order to cater to the women that were being turned away from clinics as sexual health services were not considered essential services.

Rio Hoe

What lessons did you guys pick up from starting out during CB? 

COVID-19 exacerbated the inequalities and struggles that women face in terms of the lack of access to sensitive health services and the stigma associated with this topic.

These were issues that existed before the pandemic, but were magnified during the Circuit Breaker when sexual and reproductive health was not considered “essential services” by many clinics, which meant many women were turned away from seeking help, while others were either unable to or were too afraid to visit clinics.

We realised that these challenges can be effectively addressed through telemedicine, which allows these sensitive healthcare services to be provided in an accessible, discreet, and stigma-free manner, thereby helping a lot of women throughout this difficult period. 

The lockdown was clearly an opportunity – but what pitfalls did you guys have to avoid at the same time? 

One of the big pitfalls was starting a business with everyone working from home. Collaboration and teamwork are super important, especially within small teams at the early stage of a startup. We therefore had to double up on team building, and maximize our use of productivity tools. 

 An opportunity is one thing – how do you take off with something quickly, but also have the proper considerations in place? 

How long did Ease take to get set up? Getting things right is a must when it comes to the provision of healthcare services.

The idea for Ease actually started earlier, but we only launched in May 2020 because we were consulting regulators, doctors and other healthcare professionals on the development of a proper telemedicine workflow and the deployment of medical best practices. So all-in-all, it took us roughly two months from preparation to launch. 

What are your plans for the next few weeks? 

We’ve been busy ramping up efforts to increase access even more during this period of heightened restrictions by increasing our capacity and reducing delivery times even further.

(Related: Leadership Lessons: In conversation with Shirley Crystal Chua)

Brien Chua, founder and CEO of Houze

From a small e-commerce brand to a homeware superstore with an annual revenue of almost S$6 million, Houze is one of the standout success stories in an e-commerce market filled with hundreds of players. But it’s also Chua’s rags-to-riches story, having been $200,000 in debt at one point in his life – building his way up with a mix of foresight, bootstrapping, and hunger. 

 

Given that Houze already established a strong online presence before 2019, were you guys in a strong position to tackle the challenges of the pandemic? 

We were optimised to run as a predominantly ecommerce based brand and operation model, but the increase in volume during the pandemic, compounded with the 50% limit in manpower at the workplace did cause a lot of inconveniences for the company during the first CB. 

With the uncertainty and ever changing restrictions, we had to steer choppy waters then. Having had sufficient experience and foothold in the industry, we were able to quickly navigate through the requirements, get the necessary work approvals and continue business as usual. We redeployed our manpower from our retail stores to work in the warehouse picking and packing roles. 

Overall we fared much better than most brands, as we had our ground work done, and our biggest challenge then was to fulfil the spike in orders, and manage our team’s fatigue. 

What are a few of the most important considerations when putting your product for sale online? 

  • Strong photographs and videos are the core online sales, and I strongly advocate that stock photos do not work well. Invest in having good photographs taken
  • Focus on the Unique Selling Points
  • Giving customers the correct data/information and have a disclaimer
  • Ensure how your inventory is allocated between platforms, and across your business as inventory management for ecommerce is very different and important

What advice would you give businesses that are looking to enter the e-commerce market? 

Invest in marketing, be it social media or google, or even with the platforms and marketplaces. The returns are worth it. This also means building a team dedicated to your online sales growth. Do not assume that your top (offline) sales team will be able to manage the task. Be it for 10 orders or a 1000 orders, you need a team catered to grow just the ecommerce portion of your business. 

Also, remember that the return on investments is not immediate, and you must be prepared to wait 3-6 months to build up the order size. 

What are your plans for the next few weeks (given the announcements) ? 

 As an ecommerce essential service, we do need to have our team closely connected and in office as frequently as possible due the the nature of their tasks, and will now need to seek clarity with the authorities on how our manpower planning should be done. 

We’re also speaking to our last mile partners to anticipate a 150 – 200% growth in orders due to the announcements. 

Lastly, we’re also ramping up our supply chain to ensure that crucial and essential products do not go out of stock.

(Related: 4 business and life lessons from restaurant operator Sofi Sui on surviving a pandemic)