We’ve seen how ecommerce has taken over the region in the last few years, and now we have companies emerging in this space that are enabling a lot more brands and a lot more entrepreneurs to be able to dive in and take advantage of this whole ecommerce boom in the region and in […]

Rainforest business operations and strategy director Elita Subaja; co-founder and CEO J.J. Chai and brand manager Jerry Ng

S03E27: Building a Digital-First House of Consumer Brands in Asia, Supporting the Growth of Entrepreneurs with the Ecommerce Brand Explosion, and Hiring for Balance and Empathy with Rainforest CEO JJ Chai

We’ve seen how ecommerce has taken over the region in the last few years, and now we have companies emerging in this space that are enabling a lot more brands and a lot more entrepreneurs to be able to dive in and take advantage of this whole ecommerce boom in the region and in greater Asia. One of them is ecommerce brand aggregator Rainforest and in this episode, CEO and co-founder JJ Chai joins us on call to talk about why now is the best time for solo/micro-entrepreneurs to build their own ecommerce consumer brands, how Rainforest supports them towards successful business exits and beyond with the skill sets and empathy needed to engage with ecommerce entrepreneurs, and the company’s ultimate goal of building a digital-first house of consumer brands in Asia.

Highlights and Timestamps

  1. 00:13 Paulo introduces JJ Chai;
  2. 01:35 Biggest learning since launching Rainforest in May 2021; “So everything from kitchen products to home products…the ability for anyone to sort of go down the entrepreneurship path, the barriers are so low now that anyone can do it. I think that was one of the most amazing things that I’ve seen so far, just talking to all these entrepreneurs who are creating all these brands.”
  3. 03:02 The well-thought out process behind Rainforest’s founding; “Being deliberate about finding your co-founders is one of the most important things about founding a company, which [answers] who do you want to work with and what kind of skill sets do you have and who are the people that will help compliment the skill sets that you have for it?”
  4. 05:39 The fundamental denominator for brands the Rainforest acquires; “The very specific things that we look for are really around what are the areas that form the most important part of “0 to 1”, which is, do you [as a brand] have evidence that you have crossed product market fit?… Is this a product that really works and people love?”
  5. 07:34 Impact of supply chain diversification in Asia on ecommerce brand explosion; “Being close to manufacturing capabilities helps you iterate ideas faster…that’s one of the core things that distinguishes us from the European and US players.”
  6. 09:12 Rainforest’s end-to-end process working with brands and entrepreneurs and the importance of understanding motivation; “The goal is not to try to take someone’s brand. Our goal is actually to help them in the right way.”
  7. 11:43 JJ’s advice for ecommerce brands to get from 0 to 1; “No matter where you start from bottom up or top down in terms of the ideas, testing the idea and understanding what the consumer thinks about it with real choices…is the most important piece.”
  8. 15:02 Acquisition scenarios for Rainforest; “For us, I like to see us being a lot more helpful to the entrepreneurs way ahead of the acquisition itself…if nothing else, just to help the community and help them actually grow their brands.” 
  9. 16:20 Hiring leadership in Rainforest and building a team that understands ecommerce sellers; “One thing also particularly unique for us is also the idea of hiring people who understand the seller.”
  10. 18:38 Ecommerce aggregators impact on ecommerce growth in Southeast Asia; “Because it either goes really big or you’re stuck with it, but now there’s options in between, which is, you can grow to a somewhat sizable thing then there are players like us who can give you an exit.”
  11. 19:44 Ecommerce aggregators impact on consumers in Southeast Asia; “Aggregators across the board, what it does for the other side of things, which is the consumers, is to hopefully provide them more choice.”
  12. 20:58 Building a digital-first house of ecommerce brands in Asia; “Similarly for Rainforest, the consumer brands are there. They are part of their lives, but not necessarily the parent company. And we hope to play [in a] similarly meaningful way, but then in a digital first manner…”
  13. 22:15 Rapid Fire Round;…just getting started on something that is marginally better gets you some way already in the e-commerce world.”

About our guest

JJ Chai CEO and co-founder of Rainforest

JJ Chai is the co-founder and CEO of Rainforest, Asia’s leading ecommerce brand aggregator. Rainforest acquires consumer ecommerce brands, providing entrepreneurs a healthy exit, and invests into the acquired brands to grow them globally. 

Prior to founding Rainforest, JJ advised startups founders in the scale-up stage, as xto10x’s SE-Asia’s Chief Executive. He previously worked with the founders at Carousell to scale up from a pre-revenue startup to become SE-Asia’s largest online classifieds platform. At Carousell he led up various portfolios across international expansion, revenue, growth and strategy. 

Before joining Carousell, JJ was the SE-Asia Managing Director for Airbnb. JJ joined as the first Airbnb employee in Southeast Asia and helped chart Airbnb’s rapid growth in Asia. JJ was also a former junior partner at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.  

Transcript

Paulo: When talking about Rainforest, the company has been on a roll this past year since announcing its first round, launching back in May with its US$36 million debt and equity round, and then in a short span of a few months, acquiring six brands and then raising another 20 million to continue acquiring more brands as well. So it’s been quite a roller coaster ride. What has been your biggest learning so far since launching Rainforest and acquiring brands to grow them in Asia?

JJ: Well, I think the part that for me is pleasantly surprising is really the diversity and the sheer number of micro entrepreneurs out there, the number of people actually creating their own brands on very little capital. They don’t actually take venture capital. They just bootstrap themselves and create their own brands from scratch. So everything from kitchen products to home products, everything you can imagine, the ability for anyone to sort of go down the entrepreneurship path, the barriers are so low now that anyone can do it. I think that was one of the most amazing things that I’ve seen so far, just talking to all these entrepreneurs who are creating all these brands.

And obviously some of them are looking into doing an exit but the sheer number and when you talk to them about a story and how they got started and how easy it was to get started — not all of them of course ended up overly successful — but the barriers and the bar to doing this this is extremely low now.

So I think that’s amazing that anyone can be an entrepreneur in the ecommerce space simply because the supply chain has changed around the world, how you make products has changed around the world, and how you distribute products has changed globally.

“So everything from kitchen products to home products…the ability for anyone to sort of go down the entrepreneurship path, the barriers are so low now that anyone can do it. I think that was one of the most amazing things that I’ve seen so far, just talking to all these entrepreneurs who are creating all these brands.”

Paulo: So you mentioned about all these barriers to entry lowering significantly, making it much, much easier for anybody to, as you said, become an entrepreneur here in the ecommerce space. So I want to put that into the context of how you met up with your co-founders and decided to start Rainforest. Perhaps you can share that story with our audience. 

JJ: The way I describe it is the first is the why now and then why now for this business. And then after that it’s how do I think about the co-founder formation piece. [The] why now piece [goes] back to the original thesis, which is the costs and the ability to create your own brands as an entrepreneur has changed. Anyone can do it now. Obviously, not all of them become Love Bonito’s or venture capital-backed brands [like] Allbirds and so on, but a number of them become quite successful and do have this problem of having requirements to exit and finding liquidity. So that for me was the underlying thesis. And so far [that] has proven very much true. And if nothing else, for me, the number of people who actually are creating their own brands as a side gig or as a main thing is phenomenal across this part of the world and globally as well. So that was the genesis of it.

The other part of it is around, “Okay, now I have this rough idea. This aggregator play [of] taking something from “1 to 10” instead of “0 to 1” was compelling for me. Plus also the “why now’ was this explosion of brands that [goes] from the zero to one stage. And then the co-founder piece was really around from my experience, working with different startups in my career. 

I think being deliberate about finding your co-founders is one of the most important things about founding a company, which [answers] who do you want to work with and what kind of skill sets do you have and who are the people that will help compliment the skill sets that you have for it?

So I had everything around growth, around company building, putting systems in place and scaling up things in a more structured way. I needed [the] tech side of things. I needed someone who understood ecommerce selling and platforms, in our case specifically Amazon, and I needed someone who understood capital markets, and deal making better than me. So that’s where I had in mind three different areas to solve. I didn’t have tech, ecommerce selling, as well as capital formation or dealmaking. So those were the three areas and as part of that I deliberately went out to find people almost like a recruiting exercise. So it was just sort of talking to people, asking around,  and eventually coming along to find both Jason and Per-Ola, and of course, it is specifically for Jason which was actually thanks to the Insignia side of things who actually made the initial introduction as well. 

But the idea of being deliberate and not — it works in quite a number of things, but forming your startup with the people that just happened to be around you is probably not a good idea, right? Sometimes it works, but just because they were sitting next to you in class or just happened to be looking for something at the same time is probably not such a great idea.

“Being deliberate about finding your co-founders is one of the most important things about founding a company, which [answers] who do you want to work with and what kind of skill sets do you have and who are the people that will help compliment the skill sets that you have for it?”

Paulo: I love how deliberate and methodical you were in terms of bringing together a founding team and it certainly has proven to be beneficial to how Rainforest has grown so far. And [earlier] you talked about the explosion of brands, and obviously rainforest, as much as you guys have this huge mission to help out these brands, you can’t really help all of them at the same time. So I wanted to ask, what are the key considerations that you have when it comes to identifying which are the best brands to help out from Rainforest’s perspective?

JJ: Today, our business model is set up in a way that we can only help in a case where we actually provide them an exit. This is something [that] fundamentally will change over time, which is [to say] we are keen to figure out how to help the micro-entrepreneurs overtime. Even as simple as just providing them content about how to be a successful ecommerce entrepreneur, how to grow your business. [It has] nothing to do with exits or anything, just [about] how to grow an ecommerce brand. So I think that there is this explosion of people who want to create their own brands or products, design things, and I think society in general benefits if we help them along and we have better products, and better things for us to use and have impact on, right? You [will] see us doing more and more of that. 

[But] of course, at the early stages, we need to focus on the core business, which is around acquisitions, and in that space the very specific things that we look for are really around what are the areas that form the most important part of “0 to 1”, which is, do you [as a brand] have evidence that you have crossed product-market fit? Do you have a product that people are already buying, [they are] happy with the product, and they will continue buying it or recommend it [to] their friends if they had the chance to?

Fundamentally that’s the core question we ask ourselves when we look at these brands or products: have they crossed product-market fit? Is this a product that someone really enjoys? We then put on to our platform around our abilities to source better, run supply chains better, distribute better, run marketing better to then accelerate the growth of that brand and product.

Fundamentally, in there, we look at things like the reviews, the extra productivity. For every brand that we actually take their product [and] try it out — everything from eating the cereal, using the kettle, et cetera. So that’s a fundamental core thing. There’s a lot of other [factors], financial metrics and so on, but at the end of the day, is this a product that really works and people love? And starting from there is a starting point for us to scale.

“The very specific things that we look for are really around what are the areas that form the most important part of “0 to 1”, which is, do you [as a brand] have evidence that you have crossed product market fit?… Is this a product that really works and people love?”

Paulo: Speaking of these brands that do pass your criteria, or you do see would be businesses that you guys would be able to acquire and bring to a successful exit. Are there any trends in the market that are impacting the way you look at this pool of potential brands to help in that way? In [Rainforest’s] latest TechCrunch article, you talk about acquiring this Chinese brand that was looking to break into Southeast Asia. Are there any other similar trends in that regard? 

JJ: In general, one of the things that’s quite clear is the cost of getting started and setting up a brand is really low. Now with just $5,000, you can actually order a batch of products and get it made and brand it “Paulo’s Mugs”, and get it going. That has been going on for quite a while now. 

What I see happening is the capabilities of the manufacturer are popping up in a few more places around the world. You start seeing people sourcing from alternative sourcing outside China, so everything from Vietnam to Indonesia to India. [There’s also] a bit more [manufacturing capabilities] in there. Still in emerging markets, I would say overall, compared to developed markets, the ability to make goods and import products that are high-quality and distinctive are being a bit more spread out outside this core “China factory of the world” kind of perception that we all have.

Paulo: Definitely being in this part of the world where a lot of the manufacturing and supply chain originates certainly makes it even easier as well for entrepreneurs to set things up. 

JJ: Yeah, it’s useful for both, right? It’s useful for entrepreneurs to set things up because they can [walk] up to the factory and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea. I’m trying to produce a yoga top that looks like this, with this kind of [thread], can you do it?” Being close to manufacturing capabilities helps you iterate ideas faster. And similarly for us, as an aggregator ourselves, that’s one of the core things that distinguishes us from the European and US players in terms of brand operations and aggregation.

“Being close to manufacturing capabilities helps you iterate ideas faster…that’s one of the core things that distinguishes us from the European and US players.”

Paulo: So say for example, I decided to start my own brand, like you mentioned, Paulo’s mugs and say I found product-market fit and I found a lot of customers and a lot of interest in my product. And you guys see that it’s an interesting business to acquire. So can you describe the process, from that brand’s perspective and from the entrepreneur’s perspective of how Rainforest would work with them to help them get to successful business exit? 

JJ: We typically come to you or you come to us and we have a first conversation around actually, “Why are you exiting? What are you looking for?” [It’s about] trying to understand what’s the underlying thing, because there are other ways to solve the problems that you have, because there are some points in time where we actually talked to some entrepreneurs and we tell them, “Look I think you actually have a good thing here, and you should actually find alternative ways to fund your business and grow this bigger, right? Don’t exit now. This might not be the best thing for you to do, right? Especially [as] you got something good and the only core thing that’s stopping you is really capital. There are other sources and we’re happy to point you to different places to look out for this capital.” The goal is not to try to take someone’s brand. Our goal is actually to help them in the right way. 

In those that have fallen in the category of “Look, I’m tired of running this brand. I never realized how difficult it was to actually manage people and manage a team of people [where] they expect career progression and performance reviews.” [Scenarios] like a combination of capital plus “I have other interests. I started off selling mugs but you know what, I actually like guitars. Being the world’s best mug seller might not be my calling.” 

These kinds of more legitimate reasons [come in], then we engage. Then we talk about, “Does this product actually have something unique that gives us a starting point and so on?” But our starting conversations are really around, “Why are you selling? Why are you trying to sell?”, especially those that approach us directly, I think it’s also trying to understand, “Is this the right solution for them as well?” I think the core thing for us is trying to make sure it’s a win-win thing. This is not a single pie kind of game. Options that grow everything for everyone that make it win-win are critical for us.

So [as for] the end-to-end process itself — you’re keen, we explore the reasons, we determine whether the product has a core [group of] loyalists or people who are actually using the product. Then we discuss pricing and negotiation — negotiate a price and valuation. We also can do things where [as] part of it you get upfront and [burn out] the rest of it together with us. As we grow your brand, you also get a revenue share or profit share as part of that over the next X number of years. So we help grow your brand and you can sit back, run your next gig, [and] while we sell more mugs, you still benefit from it.

“The goal is not to try to take someone’s brand. Our goal is actually to help them in the right way.”

Paulo: One thing I found really interesting about what you just mentioned is that it also depends a lot on the disposition of the entrepreneur themselves, or not they see themselves as maintaining this business for the long run or they’re more like a serial entrepreneur who wants to try different products and sell different brands. And that certainly influences the way that you approach or engage with them.

Speaking of getting the brand [onboard], you talk about Rainforest [growing] a brand from “1 to 10”, but [when it comes to] bringing the brand from “0 to 1”, in that early part of the life of the brand before they even considered doing a business exit, what advice would you have for the solo or micro entrepreneurs to actually find product market fit and set themselves up — say they do decide to get acquired by Rainforest — what would be some of the best practices to end up in that position?

JJ: We see two models of entrepreneurs who succeed. There is [the] more deductive type of entrepreneur who looks from the bottom up, and looks at the data and says like, “Okay, this keyword seems to be trending. And then when I look at this keyword, the number of competitors are few, and they are typically not well done. Therefore I start from there and go in, find a supplier and find a better product in that keyword or category.” So it’s very bottom-up [and] deductive. 

There’s also [the] more intuitive approach to things where we see some entrepreneurs just solving their own problems type in a classic startup entrepreneur case, which is a bit more intuitive, and they say like, “Yeah, I actually wish I had something that did this, and then they look around, nothing’s there. They talk to the suppliers and try to come up with something and then go in and market it. 

So we see both approaches, and I think both work, but fundamentally at the end of the road wherever you start, at the end of the road itself you need to validate that the consumer actually wants it, which is in the Amazon world, ecommerce world, marketplaces or platforms, your fastest sign of that is initially conversion rates. Are they checking on your product or not? So those are the early signs and then the later sign is are they actually reviewing you with five stars. So both are good. 

The nice part about online ecommerce is that you can actually get signs of this without producing anything. So you can actually start doing AB testing with just the product concept alone. And you take that incumbent in that category. And then you put your product next to it and you ask people to choose and you get a sense around whether you have a winning chance against the incumbent product there, just based on online choice and that’s probably one of easiest, lightest ways to get started without actually making your first purchase order and getting goods ship and taking that risk. 

So I would say no matter where you start from bottom up or top down in terms of the ideas, testing the idea and understanding what the consumer thinks about it with real choices — not a survey, right. You try to get as much [of the] real thing as possible — is the most important piece. And then you de-risk it and then once you get some signs that “Yes, I think people will click this more than the other. [They are] more likely to buy it.” Then you go ahead and prove it out. Build your first batch, and then from there you get the next set of data, which is, “Did they review it well? Is it actually up to the expectations? And on hindsight there’s also the quite obvious thing around, “Is this a product that actually works and better than the next one?”

Paulo: Definitely the advice you gave in terms of having to test, and you can actually test without having to produce any tangible product yet, is something that I guess we are able to do much more with ecommerce because [for] traditional businesses they really have to set up a physical shopfront first or something like that, whereas in the ecommerce world, you can just literally make a listing or posting or set up a website or something like that. 

JJ: There are actual tools for this — online for different platforms. So [there are] Amazon tools where you can actually go up there and it should load in your product. And then [there are] actual Amazon buyers to test it and decide which one to buy. So it’s not just that you are getting information. You also get the information from the right segment, because what you don’t want to do is ask your friends and family, “Will you buy A or B?” because they are not shopping on Amazon today, so you also need to understand the specific platform’s shoppers as well, or the target audience itself, and get the highest, quality signal around, “Does this have a fighting chance to rank better as well as getting better conversions and clicks?”

“No matter where you start from bottom-up or top-down in terms of the ideas, testing the idea and understanding what the consumer thinks about it with real choices…is the most important piece.”

Paulo: Great point about finding the right signals reaching out to the right audience for your product. And we’ve been talking a lot about the process, growing brands and, say meeting you guys and engaging with you. So maybe you can share with our audience, maybe a case study or scenario of how Rainforest has engaged with a specific brand, before, during, and after the acquisition.

JJ: It varies quite a bit, right? [There are] some situations where the brands come to us, they’re in a mood to sell and say like, “Hey, give us a quote, give us a big valuation, and then let’s discuss.” If we meet it, we agree, then we go into a due diligence stage. We evaluate the brands for 30, 45 days to check that everything is as advertised. And then we sign the agreements and do a two week or so migration over to us. That’s one scenario of it. 

The other scenario is where the founders or the entrepreneur may not be in a mood to sell. So we know them, we’re really happy to be helpful to them along the way, and then we just have the relationship to understand what’s going on, and then somewhere along the way, they decide [that] “Okay, now it’s time, and we would like to sell.” And that’s where we come in to engage with them.

You see us engage much more early in the process with entrepreneurs. And for us, I like to see us being a lot more helpful to the entrepreneurs way ahead of the acquisition itself, when they want to exit, if nothing else, just to help the community and help them actually grow their brands. 

“For us, I like to see us being a lot more helpful to the entrepreneurs way ahead of the acquisition itself…if nothing else, just to help the community and help them actually grow their brands.” 

Paulo: And that goes back to what you mentioned earlier about you guys starting out with acquisitions and exits, but then eventually you really see Rainforest helping these entrepreneurs in more ways than that. And definitely having those relationships will help towards building that pipeline of services.  

I’d like to shift gears now and also talk about the leadership that you’ve brought in recently, which you announced [along with] Rainforest’s most recent round which is, you now have [your] Head of Acquisitions, Yev, and you have [your] Head of Brands Christine, who have extensive experience prior to joining Rainforest in terms of growing companies and working with FMCG brands as well. What was the approach in terms of bringing them into Rainforest and overall, what has been your approach to bringing in the right talent? That continues on from my earlier question about bringing together your founding team, right? 

JJ: Yeah, exactly right — being deliberate about understanding where the gaps are in the team and how we can uplevel that each time. So Yev [had] previous experience looking into lending for Amazon sellers, so Yev understands that Amazon seller really well, understands how to evaluate their business, understands the risk involved in business and creating deals there with his banking background. Christine [has] her experience really around building brands online, with brands like Away, with brands like Shopbop, and so understanding platforms and understanding how to go-to-market from an online perspective and building a brand over time, which is — today, it’s a luggage, but like over time how do you make it actually premium, and understanding you’re like, “Okay, if I buy an Away luggage, what does that actually mean?” 

For us, it’s really about getting the right talent in and upleveling from what we have before. One thing also particularly unique for us is also the idea of hiring people who understand the seller. Yev himself was an ecommerce seller himself, like he was selling since the Groupon days. He was selling products back then. So he understands as a seller what it means, and I think [that’s] critical for us because one of the key people whom we work with is the seller. So if we treat them as, say, like a supplier, like in the sense that you are supposed to supply your brand to me, I think that works out very differently from us understanding that actually, if you are a seller, what kind of concerns would you have handing over your brand? 

Having empathy there and being able to bridge that understanding with the seller, to understand the fears that they have, concerns that they have, and fundamentally, one thing that we remind ourselves every day is making sure that we are doing this [so that it] is a win-win for both the sellers and us, and also making sure that we’re doing deals in the areas where we can truly add value to the brand. Like in some cases [where we] cannot actually take on a brand and do it better than the last owners, we shouldn’t be doing those kinds of deals.

“One thing also particularly unique for us is also the idea of hiring people who understand the seller.”

Paulo: That goes back to this common theme throughout our whole conversation so far, which is that Rainforest is — obviously you guys are focused on acquisitions, but that’s not really the main point of how you engage with brands. It’s really more of asking the question, how you guys can be of best help to them? And if the answer is a successful business exit, then you do come in. 

Speaking of, we’ve been talking about. helping ecommerce brands from that brand perspective. But I also want to zoom out a little bit and talk about how ecommerce aggregators like Rainforest are impacting the ecommerce space in Southeast Asia and how you see that developing over the next two years?

JJ: I think it’s quite hard to tell. What I’d love to see is that with ecommerce [aggregation], we help encourage ecommerce sellers around this part of the world, which is, if anyone is listening to this podcast now and [thinking] like, “Hey, actually, why don’t I do a side gig now? Then in two years time I can sell it to Rainforest.” And you try. 

I think for me, with this emergence of ecommerce aggregators around the region, you better try a bit, because one of the things is that — If you start, and you’re not sure, you built this brand, [now] what do you have to do? What do you do with it? — Because it either goes really big or you’re stuck with it, but now there’s options in between, which is, you can grow to a somewhat sizable thing then there are players like us who can give you an exit. So give it a go, try to build something unique there, and hopefully we encourage a lot more ecommerce entrepreneurs and people to come up with creative, innovative products for the market. 

“Because it either goes really big or you’re stuck with it, but now there’s options in between, which is, you can grow to a somewhat sizable thing then there are players like us who can give you an exit.”

Paulo: For any entrepreneurs listening in who are thinking about starting their own ecommerce brands, if anything, hopefully this conversation has shown you guys just how easy it can be to actually get out there and get things started and even test out your ideas. But apart from the financial returns, obviously, with growing a successful business and successfully exiting it, how do you see the impact that ecommerce brands and ecommerce aggregators can create for Southeast Asian society with regards to employment, even poverty reduction and even talking about the environment as well. How is it impacting people’s lives across the region? 

JJ: Hard for me to tell. I think the core piece around providing them opportunities to exit, for me, already encourages one level of innovation where new, better thought-through products actually get to the market, which benefits consumers in general.

I think aggregators across the board, what it does for the other side of things, which is the consumers, is to hopefully provide them more choice. Without the platform in place, some of these brands we’ll never get to some consumers. It will never have enough stock or have never expanded [into] the right markets. Some brands, unfortunately get stuck into a certain stage, and without the help of aggregators to provide them a platform to grow, the products actually never get to consumers who actually might want it in certain parts of the world, and they wouldn’t have done it if there wasn’t enough scaling capacity behind it.

“Aggregators across the board, what it does for the other side of things, which is the consumers, is to hopefully provide them more choice.”

Paulo: And again, the point is that Rainforest really helps with generally smaller brands as well, beefing up that long tail ecommerce that we’re seeing here in the region [so that] they could become more competitive with respect to these larger brands as well.

So where do you see Rainforest in the next five years? And especially with respect to something that you mentioned earlier about not just keeping to the acquisition or exit aspect of helping these entrepreneurs?

JJ: Obviously the other part of the business is we need to go to the brands that we have and have a cohesive portfolio of brands. I think that the end goal or signs that we’re hitting success is that we have a growing portfolio of brands with cohesiveness around who’s the buyer behind it, and the categories that we’re in [are] such that there’s more similarities around the people who are buying it. And they start looking at us as a house of brands where we have products for you, right. So if you are of a certain demographic, you have a good chance of having one of our products in your home or in your life.

Like there’s this interesting company called Helen of Troy. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s not unusual. But they actually own brands like Oxo, Revlon, Braun, Hydroflask, Vicks, right? So a house of brands that most people have their products in their home, but no one has any idea [about] Helen of Troy. Similarly for Rainforest, the consumer brands are there. They are part of their lives, but not necessarily the parent company. And we hope to play [in a] similarly meaningful way, but then in a digital first manner, which is if you sort of rethink what a consumer goods company looks like, what do they look like? Will you need so many distributors? How big is the team? Do you need offices in every part of the world? I think we’ll rebuild it in a very different way.

“Similarly for Rainforest, the consumer brands are there. They are part of their lives, but not necessarily the parent company. And we hope to play [in a] similarly meaningful way, but then in a digital first manner…”

Rapid Fire Round

Top Three Skills of a CEO?

JJ: I’ll say it’s the vision, communicating it and being able to pull the right people to join the ship.

Top recommended resource (book, podcast, video series, etc.) for solo/micro-entrepreneurs? 

JJ: Well for inspiration, I think, first solo or micro-entrepreneurs, I think the more recent one is this book called Billion-Dollar Brand Club, the one I just recently read about Dollar Shave Club, and a whole bunch of DTC brands, which serves as good inspiration.

Biggest misconception about growing a successful ecommerce brand in Asia? 

JJ: Sometimes there’s a lot of misconception around the fact that you need to have a crazily distinctive, different product. I don’t think you actually need to reinvent the Dyson vacuum cleaner. You just need to be just slightly better. When I say slightly better I mean just in terms of quality, reliability, color, and that actually goes quite far and that’s a good place to start. So I think just getting started on something that is marginally better gets you some way already in the e-commerce world. That’s why it’s interesting. And I think that in the startup world, you always talk about this idea of a 10x product, right? This is not true in the physical goods world. There’s a lot of choices and you think about different segments [where] you can do something that makes sense for one specific thing.

Advice for first-time founders raising their first round of venture funding? 

JJ: I would definitely think hard about how much you need, why do you need the funds? And do you need to really raise it in the first place? I think there’s a bit of an overall narrative here around, “Hey, we need to start a company and we need to raise funds and so on,” but it is not true. Tons of people have created great companies without raising any external money, and the best place to start raising money is your customers. So if you can do that, start from that but like, obviously if you need any capital, then you find it from the right people.

Advice for aspiring angel investors? 

JJ: I think the core thing for investors [is] to understand what’s your underlying motivation. What are you trying to do here? Is this an asset-allocation game [where] you’re packing your funds in different places or is it financial outcomes that calls to you or is it something around keeping in touch with the scene, understanding what’s new or are you keen to come in and help build the next generation of entrepreneurs? So I think understanding what your core is, and then sticking to that when you make decisions, is the core piece. Because if you’re tied to those financial settings, then you have a different set of criteria, right?

For me, it’s this intersection between helping local founders here particularly around the less likely ones. For me I like the idea of finding the underdog, the not quite that obvious McKinsey, MBA, and Harvard guy getting funded. I know that guy will get funded and for me, it’s the idea of finding some entrepreneurs that’s not considered mainstream going to be successful and helping them, giving them a chance particularly to come in and solve the right ideas. So understand what your motivation is. For me, the core piece is around, “Can I also put in to help nudge some of these entrepreneurs that on average may not have gotten funded?”

Biggest learning you brought into Rainforest from your time in Carousell and Airbnb?

JJ: The theme continues from before, which is really finding the right people to join the team, right? And this is not about just getting A-star players. I think it’s finding the right team, because. not everyone comes in and [everyone is] playing a star role. For me, I think of it very much like a football team or a sports team. How do we start getting the right kind of mix that balances everyone’s capabilities and not necessarily great superstars in every area per se, but the right balance. So thinking deliberately about that is a core piece of it and how you design the organization is a big piece of it [as well]. 

If you were to develop your own product and brand, what would it be? 

JJ: Oh, wow. We’re just off the Facebook Mehta announcement. And so anything that has to do with products in the metaverse for me, it’s super cool. Maybe it’s not Facebook cracking it, but I do think that something along the lines of the computing platform in the future is [going to be] completely different from the phones that we use today. I think something in that space would be pretty cool.

What do you do to de-stress?

JJ: I like tinkering with new stuff, new technologies, new apps, new gadgets. That’s one of the things that I enjoy.

Anything you’d like to promote/share?

JJ: Like I mentioned earlier, if you are listening to this and you have some e-commerce idea be encouraged to try it. The cost of failure is low. The reward of success is high. It’s what you call an asymmetric back, typically, if you get it right where the upside is much, much better and any downside is not that costly. I think the time to build and create things is now. Obviously it doesn’t have to be in the e-commerce sector. I think if you are in this part of the world, starting a company and building something is extremely meaningful. I think we need much more of that here.

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