United States-based Singaporean entrepreneur Ong Aihui is on a mission to get the world snacking smart while doing good.
The 41-year-old is the founder of product sampling service Love With Food, which sends subscribers a box full of healthy snacks - such as corn chips, wheat crackers, and dried fruits - every month for them to sample.
The service was launched internationally in more than 25 countries, including Singapore, in August. Chia Yan Min speaks to her about her start-up journey.
Q. How did Love With Food come about?
A. Prior to Love With Food, I was a financial software engineer. On weekends, I helped my friend sell food at a farmers' market.
That's when I realised all these passionate food makers have a distribution issue: They can't get shelf space in major grocery stores.
As someone who loves to eat, I felt this distribution issue limited my discovery choices. So, I was on a mission to build the largest trusted direct-to-consumer platform to connect food brands and health- conscious consumers globally.
I set up the company in January 2012, and it's now headquartered in Foster City, California.
Since I did not have a food background, I talked to many food companies and entrepreneurs to understand their pain points. I had a tech consulting background, so I was able to learn and translate their business processes and build technology that will solve the pain points for both brands and consumers.
I've always told myself when I start a business, it needed to have a social mission incorporated into the business model. That's why Love With Food's social mission is to help fight hunger around the world. So far, we've donated over one million meals to food banks.
Q. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in growing Love With Food?
A. Love With Food is my first start-up. I basically walked away from a very successful corporate career in the business-to-business space and dived into the business- to-consumer space that I knew nothing of.
The learning curve was really steep. I had to build a completely new network from scratch - investors, founders, food entrepreneurs.
I'm also a solo founder and the company's first engineer. So, when I'm fund raising, I can't code. When I'm coding, I can't work on social media. Being a one-woman show in the beginning was really hard and it took a lot of discipline when it came to time management.
However, it has paid off - last year, we made about US$4.5 million (S$6.2 million); this year we are projected to make US$7 million to US$8 million.
The company has a few main sources of revenue, including monthly subscriptions for snack boxes, an e-commerce store and data sold to food producers.
Q. What is it like being a Singaporean entrepreneur abroad, especially in a country like the United States, which has such a strong entrepreneurship culture?
A. There's a saying, "Fortune favours the bold". That's how it works in the US. I came to the US to work, I didn't go to school here so I don't have an alumni network to rely on.
However, my biggest strength is being bold and shameless, and I welcome rejections. Failures might be viewed as a bad thing in Singapore, but in the US it's a badge of honour.
I've raised US$4 million and have been rejected by more than 100 investors. I've learnt to embrace rejections and failures because there's always something to learn from it.
At the end of the day, it takes tenacity to run a start-up, it takes tenacity to convince investors to write a cheque.
Q. What made you decide to take Love With Food global?
A. One of the biggest reasons is because I grew up in Singapore. Singapore is such an international hub full of multinational corporations. It shaped how I build Love With Food, it pushed me to always be thinking how to make Love With Food a global brand.
Of course, there needs to be demand and we saw the demand. We had ten of thousands of international consumers who could not checkout on our site.
It was sounding proof that there was a demand for our brand and service. We've built a solid foundation serving the US consumers, and after four years we are ready to take the brand global.
Launching in over 25 countries is just the beginning of our international expansion plans. We plan to bring our "snacking smart and doing good" movement to more parts of the world.
The boxes are shipped from the US. Shipping to Singapore costs more than US$10 but we charge our customers only US$5.99. We do not want a high shipping fee to stop customers from experiencing our product.
Q. What sets Love With Food apart from other subscription box services?
A. We are not a subscription business, we are more than that. We are the only platform that collects sensory and behaviour information and we can use this data to help companies predict future trends.
Our subscribers are very engaged and love to provide feedback to the brands and help transform the future of foods. Our repository of data is ever changing and helps food companies stay abreast with the constant change in consumer taste preferences.