Disclaimer: In Real Life is a platform for everyday people to share their experiences and voices. All articles are personal stories and do not necessarily echo In Real Life’s sentiments.
A pilot, a fashion designer, and an engineer walk into a b—
No, not a bar — a kopitiam.
It was early June 2020, and Roy, Mei See, and Julee were looking for new business ideas. Like many who had lost large chunks of their livelihood, the three friends were not spared.
Roy was a pilot on a pay cut. Julee had trained as an engineer, now a homemaker. Mei See’s fashion job suffered too. All were forced to take no-pay leave.
Chatting while waiting for their favourite kaya toast and kopi-O, they realised that the new normal meant a tectonic shift in public spending habits. As people stayed at home, retail businesses closed down overnight.
And that’s when it hit them: Why not start a breakfast food business with e-commerce? It was the marrying of their passion for kopitiam snacks and the new shopping trend.
Within moments, The Morning Factory was born.
The Morning Factory is an online store that sells breakfast food.
“I hear about people who make boatloads of cash from selling cheap items online. How did you achieve such success?” I asked them over the phone (due to social distancing).
“Even before we started, we knew we wanted to support local manufacturers,” shared Julee. “We vowed that all our products would be locally sourced and produced.”
“Well, first, we had to set up a seller account on an e-commerce platform,” Mei See began.
With little starting knowledge, they watched webinars online which taught them the basics of how to manage their shop, list their products, gain exposure, provide customer service, and handle returns & refunds.
Roy was in charge of the stock, which meant handpicking ingredients and dealing with suppliers. Meanwhile, Julee dealt with advertising and customer service, whereas Mei See was the photographer and designer.
As potential customers cannot touch and feel the product, pictures are what makes or breaks the sale. With her experience in design and photography, Mei See crafted the necessary aesthetics.
Mei See taking pictures of their products in a portable mini-photo studio.
They worked fast. In early July, The Morning Factory launched their first product, Chocomunch, a cereal dipped in rich 40% cocoa chocolate.
Then they just sit back and wait for the money to roll in, right? Not yet.
With the products listed on the e-commerce sites, it was time for Roy, Mei See, and Julee to spend some money.
“Next, we need to bring traffic to our store and gain exposure,” shared Julee, who was the marketing executive and personal relations officer.
Julee used shop ads and gave out promos and discount vouchers to potential customers.
“This part of doing business can be tough and discouraging. We see money going out, but little coming in,” Julee shared.
“We have a lot of competition, so we can’t afford to make our products too expensive. We have to sacrifice profits to attract customers.”
Nevertheless, Julee affirms that this is necessary.
“Starting a business can be a little of a chicken and eggs situation. Customers don’t trust stores with no sales, whereas sellers can’t get any sales if the customers don’t trust them.”
Thus, the best way to beat this catch-22 is with promotions and vouchers.
Your mistakes can be broadcasted to everybody on the internet
“Running an e-commerce business is not a walk in the park,” confided Mei See.
“Tell me more,” I replied, curious.
“E-commerce is a good place to make money for sellers, but it also means that mistakes are broadcasted to everybody on the internet,” she continued.
When prospective customers consider buying from an e-commerce store, they always look at the shop’s ratings and reviews.
Therefore, ratings are everything. And these—good and bad—are permanently plastered on the site. As such, it is crucial that every e-commerce seller prioritises customer satisfaction to gain public confidence.
“First things first, it is essential that the product reaches the customer in good condition,” said Roy.
To ensure this, Roy tells me he is very generous with bubble wrapping and uses a solid box when packing the spreads.
Equally important is customer service, especially the after sales service.
Julee ensures that she replies to all customer enquiries, because, as cheesy as it sounds, she told me, “It is our goal to service our buyers to the best of our abilities.”
Having said that, there will always be a couple of, um, eccentric buyers.
“There was once a customer who wanted to test the product. We obliged her request and sent her a free sample,” shared Mei See.
“After tasting the food, she paid for the item. Then, she gave us a 5 star rating… and asked for a refund,” she said.
“BUT — and here’s the kicker — she refused to return the item,” Mei See said, laughing.
The customer didn’t understand that returning the item is part of the procedure when a customer requests a refund. It seems like they wanted something for nothing.
Sometimes, these are the difficult customers that might end up giving them a bad rating, which would then affect the rating of the store.
There Are Other Challenges to Selling Dry Snacks
On top of the highly competitive market, selling dry snacks has its own challenges.
For example, factories often have a MOQ (minimum order quantity). Ordering a smaller amount is more costly in the long-run due to logistics and overheads, and hence, you get a smaller profit margin.
However, ordering too much can mean that their food could spoil before it gets sold. As such, it’s non-stop action for them. They are always brainstorming for ways to increase sales.
After 3 months, the sales from Chocomunch were soaring. So with the extra profit, they reinvested it into creating more spreads for the store: Peanut butter, chocolate, and kaya.
They also started selling an assortment of finger foods, like curry nuts, peanuts and fritos nuts, and muruku.
Despite the challenges, The Morning Factory managed to achieve the status of “Preferred Seller” on an e-commerce platform in less than 3 months.
To become a preferred seller, a store must have 30 unique buyers and 72 net orders in 30 days. They must also have less than 2 penalty points, and a shop rating of 4.59 and above.
Mei See said: “We were able to achieve this rating by sucking up the bad experiences and having genuine interactions with each and every customer.”
For many huge organizations, their online platform is merely a supplement to their already thriving brick-and-mortar shop.
So I asked Mei See: “Is depending purely on e-commerce enough to sustain a business?”
Mei See replied candidly, “Yes, actually! E-commerce platforms have grown rapidly over the past few years, and there is still much bandwidth for more growth.”
Roy agreed. “Besides, running an online business is a great way to learn the workings of commerce, and good training for if we decide to open a physical store one day.”
“Of course, there will be road bumps along the way. It’s challenging yet fun. And you know what they say? Love what you do, and do what you love.”
Julee added, “Doing business can be like having a never-ending headache. But just keep rolling.”
“It’ll be worth it in the end.”
For more stories like this, read: Fathima and Anis Started an Online Boutique Hello Daisy with Only Rm300. Now They Sell to 10 Different Countries and Why Two Students Quit Uni to Start a Business for Secondhand Clothes.
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