Sherlyn Tan graduated with a first class honours degree in finance from Multimedia University, and started her career working in Groupon. At the time, it was still very much a startup, and she created three new departments in the company, including expanding to Penang, where Sherlyn hit her first month’s target in only 10 days. Sherlyn worked her way up to becoming the Business Development Director in only a year and a half. She realized she enjoyed creating business processes, and registered the name Twenty3 at the age of 23 to remind herself of her ambition of creating her own company, even without knowing what sort of business it would be. Sherlyn just wanted something that could financially support her dream of being a performing artist. She had sold pre-loved clothing through her old blog and had a good eye for what Malaysian girls liked, so she decided to turn Twenty3 into a fashion ecommerce store.
In the early days, Sherlyn work on Twenty3 in the day, and sing at bars at night just to support herself. Three years later, Twenty3 has grown into one of the biggest fashion brands in the country, with total revenue of RM10 million so far. They have nearly 20 people in the team, 2 retail stores, and our online store has shipped to nearly 40,000 customers from over 20 countries.
In your own words what is Twenty3?
Twenty3 is a platform for young, emerging designers to learn the business of fashion. We aim to merge their creativity with the efficiency of fast fashion, without forgoing the quality and exclusivity for which we have become known.
Could you walk us through the process of starting up Twenty3?
I started the company with only RM15,000 in my bank account. I spent RM10,000 on various web developers before I found one who could create my website to my specifications. With the remaining RM5000, I flew to Bangkok to purchase clothing to resell to the Malaysian market. I knew I had to earn at least RM10,000 in my first month to continue, which luckily, I did.
Did you encounter any particular difficulties during startup?
Cash flow was the biggest problem. Money was so tight that some days I lived on only bread. It forced me to learn to re-strategize quickly to adapt to what the market demanded.
How have you been developing Twenty3 since startup?
Midway through the first year, I quickly realized that I needed to manufacture my own designs in order to stand out. Demand picked up so rapidly, I had to shift my production to China early in our second year. Chinese factories require a high minimum order quantity, so I needed to ramp up my marketing to create enough demand to meet my supply. In the third year, I decided to move towards more unique designs – the fashion ecommerce space was getting too crowded with copycats, and newcomers were beginning to copy my model. I hired professional designers, and showcased a collection at KL Fashion Week, which established us as a proper designer clothing brand, rather than just a fast-fashion factory, or a reseller.
What kind of feedback did you get for Twenty3 so far?
I’m proud that major fashion magazines have begun reporting favorably on our brand, because it’s so difficult to transition from a blog shop to a fashion label, particularly in customer perceptions. Our business model and growth have also been recognized by business leaders, when we won the Alliance Bank SME Innovation Challenge 2015. As for our customers, I’m most proud of the fact that they recognize us for our quality of product and service. These days, I see at least one person walking around in a Twenty3 outfit when I’m out, and I’m still thrilled every time!
Do you face a lot of competition in this industry?
The clothing industry is intense, whether it’s ecommerce or offline retail. The only way to stand out is to create a lasting brand and brand philosophy – everything else can be replicated.
What can you tell us about the industry?
Social media is absolutely vital in marketing strategy for a female fashion brand, but it’s also a minefield. Missteps will be amplified, so tread carefully!
What is the future of the industry and how do you plan to stay relevant in this industry?
The fashion industry will move more towards sustainability, so that’s something that we will explore in the near future. As for relevancy, it ties back to how we build the brand. There is no loyalty in fashion and nothing is proprietary, customer retention depends on how they perceive and feel about the brand.
Were there anything that disappointed you initially?
I’m disappointed that in this industry, who you know still matters a great deal, even though you’ve built up a good brand and have shown good growth numbers. And that at this stage, even though you can work double-time, success hinges on people and factors beyond your control. In the end, it’s all about perseverance. I have faith that hard work will always be recognized in the end.
What do you think about being an entrepreneur in Asia?
I don’t have a point of comparison, but there is often much more red tape and bureaucracy in Asia, which is a big impediment for businesses that want explosive growth. In Malaysia, the culture is more laidback and lackadaisical, so things move at a slower pace even though you’re running.
What is your definition of success?
That’s a hard one, because for an entrepreneur, identifying “success” means creating a self-limiting goal. In truth, once you hit a milestone of “success,” you start worrying about the next one. It’s a never-ending journey!
In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?
Stubbornness and perseverance.
Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there from your personal experience?
It’s not going to be perfect when you start something, so don’t take your sweet time planning the perfect business. You’ll be stuck in analysis paralysis. Don’t overthink it, just take the first step and jump, and learn to build the plane on your way down. Push yourself, challenge yourself, just do it now and think about it later – that’s the best and quickest way to learn about your business. Ideas are easy to come by, it’s the execution that makes or breaks businesses.