In my mind, I call Liping the Reigning Yogurt Queen - she doesn't know this of course (well, now she does), but her story goes to show that even something as simple as frozen yogurt can go a long way when you know what your customers want. And Liping really knows what they want. With a demographic that is on average, 10 years younger than her, she stays connected and plugged in by keeping her feet firmly planted on the ground (or in this case, occasionally behind the counter), and her ear plugged into all kinds of social media sites. She sits down to talk to me about the Sogurt journey, and how one business model spawned two product lines (with the new Sofries).
So I heard a rumor that you took the business plan you created for your senior year project and turned it into a full on business. Is it true?
To be honest, Sogurt didn’t start with a business plan in my senior year entrepreneurship class – the obsession began my freshman year at USC where you'd find me outside a Pink Berry every day after dinner. I wanted so badly to bring something like Pink Berry back to Singapore, but I was only a freshman, and had to wait my turn while I watched Frolick and Yoguru set up shop in Singapore.
My senior year, a new concept came up in LA called Yogurtland, it was self-serve soft serve. It was different, and in my mind, better than the regular full serve options as it gave people a chance to customize their yogurt – they could either heap on the toppings or go for more of the base, either way it appealed a lot more to me. I’m a toppings person, and I suspected a lot of other people were too.
I did my research, I found my supplier, I was all ready to roll the business out in Singapore, there was just one problem – I still had a semester left in school. I really just wanted to get out of there and get started, but my parents put their foot down and struck a deal with me – finish off your last semester and we’ll back your first outlet.
It wasn’t a bad deal.
So back to school I went for my final semester. It was then that I took an entrepreneurship class, and for the business case portion, I wrote out everything I already knew about Sogurt. I didn’t realize it at the time, but having a plan really helped give my business structure and a way forward when I started with my first outlet. Looking back, I’d tell anyone who wants to start their own thing to please write it all out. It helps. If it’s a model that works, you can leverage it for every subsequent outlet. I even used it for Sofries because it made complete sense for that product as well.
I know for a fact that you’re a huge user of facebook, how has it impacted the business landscape?
It’s had a tremendous impact on the business landscape, especially for the target demographic of Sogurt and Sofries. Our customers are mostly pre-teens to people in their early twenties, most of them are students, they’re constantly plugged into some kind of device that’s feeding them information. That’s why all of our promotion and marketing happens on social media platforms.
I’m fortunate in that I’ve got a young team on board, many of whom would be customers as well, or were customers before they became Sogirls, and they tell me everything I need to know. If you want to know how to market to young people, and how to reach out and interact with them, you’ve got to talk to them. The team has a firm handle on what our customers want, and we try to engage them on the same platforms. I gave my marketing manager and my operations manager Android phones so that they can keep up to date with what our customers are looking at, sharing online, tagging and tweeting. The team is really plugged in, and we craft our strategy based off of real-time information.
AT: You know what’s funny? Marissa Meyer (CEO, Yahoo) just gave every Yahoo employee a smart phone, and she canceled Yahoo’s Blackberry corporate account. The news was released today. Yahoo also announced that they will be covering every employee’s mobile and data plans because Marissa wants them to think like the customer. She wants the programmers, the marketers, the sales people, and the C-suite to use Yahoo on their phones the way the customer would. She says it’s the only way to build something that the people want. You’ve already done that. Kudos to you!
Thanks. People like the brands they support to be interactive, so at Sogurt and Sofries we give them that. We post pictures when they visit the store so they can tag themselves (and all their friends!) This is how we grow and get the word out organically.
I tell Liping that she would have such a promising career in social media marketing – she tells me it’s not her thing.
What’s the one thing (as a young business owner) you wish there was more of?
AT: Not funding?
No, not funding. If you’ve got a sustainable business model, the money will come. I get a lot of requests from friends these days to invest in my next outlet, but I don’t need the investment as the business is growing organically, I push the profits from the earlier Sogurt outlets into the new ones.
I’m often invited to give talks in schools about entrepreneurship and when we get to the funding part it gets tricky. It’s hard to answer them because I know I had it easy – I had the support of my parents, most people don’t have that.
But I tell them that it is possible, along with having a very solid business idea, you’ve also got to network and reach out to friends and family. $5k here, $3k there, it does add up. And there’s a lot of government grants that support entrepreneurship, though they are really a pain to apply for.
But it’s definitely possible to get funding from the private sector or individuals.
If you have a business that you’re really passionate about that you think can work, talk about it. Tell people about it. You’re excited about it, get other people excited about it. People will want to get involved.
You need to get plugged into the network. There’s a lot of (pardon me) bored bankers out there, with money and without any ideas. Tap that.
AT: So back to the question on the one thing you wish there was more of?
Yes, mentors. When you’re young and running a business for the first time, you really need people to bounce ideas off of, people to give you a little guidance, and some much needed feedback. I’m always on the look out for good mentors. In fact, your dad would be an incredible mentor. [pssst Dad I hope you’re reading this] There’s so much they can share from their own experiences, stuff that isn’t in textbooks.
AT: So, other than my dad, who do you look up to (business wise)?
If I could get Cynthia Chua of the Spa Esprit group to talk to me, I’d be so happy. She’s amazing, all her concepts are amazing. Did you know that she handles all her advertising and marketing collateral in-house? It’s been that way from the start. I admire her so much!
She was recently in the Straits Times talking about some of the new concepts she wants to start and I was just blown away. She’s already got Brow House, Strip, Skinny Pizza, Open Door Policy, 40 Hands all under her belt, and she’s not stopping there. She’s really building an empire, and I really want to meet her.
What’s the best and worst thing about being your own boss?
Flexibility. That’s the best thing for me, but it could be the worst thing for others – because flexibility comes with a degree of uncertainty. It really depends on the type of person you are. To be in business, you’ve got to be able to wake up in the morning and be okay with the fact that there’s a whole day of uncertainty ahead. You’ve got to thrive on solving problems as they come up. Some people prefer to know what they’re getting into before they start – you never have that kind of “heads up” when you’re running your own show.
If you can’t handle the uncertainty, the thrill of dealing with new challenges everyday, then stay in a desk job – it’s a controlled environment, and you will always have that paycheck at the end of the month.
For me, there’s no real downside, if there was one, I’d be in a desk job too! But I have to say, I do miss being able to procrastinate. I’m not allowed to procrastinate. Ever. Otherwise my marketing manager and my operations manager will be all over me.
What’s your one piece of advice for would-be entrepreneurs?
Don’t let naysayers get you down. People will always have something to say, and it is seldom positive. Don’t let that get to you. Just plough though. When I first started Sogurt, many of my peers laughed at me (not to my face, but word does get around), asked if I wanted to stand behind a counter and serve yogurt for the rest of my life… I didn’t (though I honestly don’t mind standing behind a counter some days), I had a vision for Sogurt, I just needed time to get there.
We’ve grown to six outlets now and there are more in the pipeline. I’m proud of that. But what really keeps me going is knowing that I love what I do, and every single day I wake up knowing that I want to do this. I’d say I’m in a better place compared to people who are bound to desk jobs that they hate.
If you’re passionate about something, and there’s a purpose, and it creates value for yourself and the people around you, do it.
Credit where it's due: Images courtesy of Liping and her lovely marketing manager, Natalie.