Featured on October 12, 2011
Alvin Tan Jye Yee
"It's better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission."
Alvin Tan Jye Yee is the co-founder and CEO of Fezzl Pte Ltd, which offers Zuupy CrowdDeals, the easiest daily deal platform for anyone to start and grow a daily deal website. He is passionate about the social commerce space and ecommerce industry in general. Apart from maintaining a keen interest in the web technology space, he actively invests in small-cap stocks, having purchased his first shares when he was 19 years old.
- Title: CEO & Co-founder, Fezzl Pte Ltd
- Age: 23
- Location: Singapore
- Contact: @ZuupySocial
Tell me a bit about what you are working on now. Maybe you could start with how you got the name Zuupy.
I know the name is a bit weird. We didn't have a good name for it, but we wanted a unique name, so we started with one of the domain names we happened to have. It is also pretty rare now to have a 5-character domain name. We could have something descriptive like "Groupbuy", but when it comes to trademark and IP protection, we probably cannot trademark that since it's too generic. The tradeoff of using something unique is that people probably cannot remember it, or they won't know what it is about. Like "Zuupy", what exactly is that?
What we started out doing was actually e-commerce add-ons, helping people share the products of their online stores to social networks like Facebook and Twitter. That was what we did originally, but it did not take off. We pushed hard and had a bunch of beta users that semi-engaged, but ultimately, our users were not willing to pay for the service. We pivoted and eventually arrived at this idea of a group-buying platform. It's like Shopify, which is a place where people can go and set up their own online stores, but the difference is that we can run either group-buying deals or daily deals on our site. We also have a couple of other features, including the ability to allow customers to redeem their vouchers at a physical location.
What's your technology stack like?
You started out with a cofounder but ended up becoming a single founder. What happened?
I knew my cofounder from secondary school, around secondary three or four. He was hands-down the smartest guy I have ever met in my life, so I knew one day I would want to work with him if I were going to do something. When I decided to start a startup during my first year of university, I got him along, and told him about this idea about making an advertising feedback platform where advertisers can post their ads and consumers can chip in with their feedback. We went straight to the NUS Entrepreneurship Center, and tried to apply for $50k in funding. Obviously we were laughed out of the office.
The NEC people weren't really that encouraging, but we continued working together on the idea, although not so much with the vision to start a startup. It was more like "founder-dating". On hindsight, I think that is very important, although that was not our original intention. We started coding on our own and did other pretty nerdy stuff. We did a lot of pair programming, and in the process, learned about our respective levels, strengths, and weaknesses. It was very important also because we built rapport and chemistry by working together very closely. Finally, when we decided to do a full-fledged startup around May 2010, we managed secured an office space in an incubator in NUS.
That's a change from their first reaction when they laughed you off the office.
Oh yeah, by then we have a prototype product for a completely different idea. The product was not that good, but it did show that we can deliver something out of nothing. I think that's quite important for investors or incubators. When we got our own office space, we were really happy. We were thinking, "Oh wow, we are a bunch of kids but we have an office to ourselves right now. We can hang out here and code overnight. We could sleep on the couch, wake up in the morning, go have lunch, and stuff like that." Yeah, so it was pretty fun for a while. That was when we decided to incorporate the company as well.
My cofounder and I brainstormed on a couple of other ideas and arrived a new e-commerce add-on, but that did not take off either, so we were really demoralized. By the end of December, my cofounder was already pulling out. He wanted to pursue other things. Plus, he had a government bond to serve.
For me I am more of a let's take it slow, whatever we do let's not give up person, but my cofounder had very high expectations, so I would say the main reason we split up was because our startup was going through a bad phase, and that we had very different expectations of how things should be like.
What are some important lessons learned over the past two years of doing your start up?
I'm going to summarize three of them. First, learn how to code. You are paralyzed in the tech scene if you don't know how to code, and you can't be complacent when it comes to the technical skills needed. You know, they always say startups fail because of market reasons, that they couldn't find customers. But apart from knowing the market, you've got to know how to build a great product as well.
The second lesson is, as a first-time startup founder, you cannot neglect this question: Is there a market for my startup? Even when you have tons of users and tons of paying customers, you have to constantly ask, is there a market for my startup? Guy Kawasaki, one of the earliest Apple employees, said that a good startup idea has five competitors, a great startup idea has fifty competitors. That seems to make a lot of sense to me. If you arrive at a startup idea, where you have little to no competition, you ought to be very very worried about it.
I would say the third lesson is, you don't necessarily do better with more resources. I don't have a lot of experience dealing with money, but I'm referring more to time and people. I find that I'm at my peak productivity when I'm working alone. I feel that I can get three people's work done when I'm just working alone quietly with coffee, rather than when I have a cofounder.
When you have a cofounder it's fine. You have someone to bounce ideas against, you get another hand to do more work. But you tend to end up worrying if your cofounder is working as well. You also have to spend time doing things like motivating your cofounder, especially during the low moments. Startups have their low moments--for example, right now, a low moment for me is that I wake up one morning and I get seven customer service e-mails saying, "Hey, you know, there's a bug here, and there's a bug there. Nothing works on your site. I'm very frustrated." And I receive another three e-mails asking to cancel their subscriptions. That's a really down moment, but when you are a solo founder, you don't really have to worry about your cofounder's feelings.
When things go wrong, I think co-founders tend to play the blame game as well--"Hey, why aren't you working hard? You must work faster. I'm working so hard, yet you aren't putting in the hours."You tend to have all these arguments, which ends up being a huge time sink. You spend your time putting out the fires, and these are not product fires. These are simply issues between co-founders. You spend your time worrying about all these things and the product just comes to a halt. So, it's not necessarily the case that when you have two or three people things get done faster. I guess the lesson is also that you have to be very careful who you pick as your co-founder.