THEY say "clothes maketh the man", or woman - in this case. What started out as a platform to share their love of fashion has morphed into a fast fashion online retailer recognised locally and increasingly, overseas too for three passionate fashionistas. Incorporated in 2010 by childhood friends Rachel Lim, Viola Tan and Velda Tan, home-grown womenswear label Love, Bonito now sends out 5,000 to 7,000 parcels weekly, a big jump from the 300 to 500 parcels they used to send when they first started.
When Velda left the firm in 2013, Ms Lim handled branding and product design, while Ms Tan oversaw business development and financing. As Ms Lim explains: "We're thankful we're gifted in different things, because you don't need a partner exactly the same as you... besides, character-wise we're also different, so we really even each other out."
True to the brand's manifesto of "Empowering confidence through style", Ms Lim states that the most exciting part of their jobs is seeing how the brand has changed women's lives.
"We all know that when you're more confident, it translates to everything else; you speak up at a meeting, you take initiative, you stand taller, and these make all the difference... we're here to help women be more confident and we believe clothing plays a huge part in that," she says.
Coming from humble backgrounds, they took a risk by starting up Love, Bonito using their savings (see amendment note). Fortunately, the business quickly gained traction. Profits were then re-invested into the business, which has been enjoying an annual growth of 25 to 30 per cent since its inception.
However, entrepreneurship is no easy feat. Ms Lim recalls a period where her co-founder would get nightmares and notes that running a company can take a toll. Nonetheless, she says it's the commitment to the brand, their staff and their customers that has tide them over.
Besides focus groups Love, Bonito also holds styling workshops to engage consumers. While only 40 to 50 women are present at their workshops, Ms Tan adds that they utilise social media to reach a wider audience. This ensures business sustainability and creates an emotional connection with customers.
Having built a strong foundation in Singapore, the enterprising duo decided to expand the company overseas, first in Malaysia and Indonesia in 2015, then in Cambodia in 2016. While they initially thought the domestic market was big enough, they soon realised it was the smallest in the region.
To expedite their entry into foreign markets, Love, Bonito worked with government agencies such as Spring Singapore and International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, relying on schemes such as the Customer-Centre Initiative (CCI) to enhance service standards, and the Capability Development Grant (CDG) to boost digital capabilities.
Ms Tan says, "Technology is very expensive, but as an e-commerce company, we need to be at the forefront of technology. Spring has been supportive, so we get to take our technology to the next level, and yet not feel like we have to spend a quarter of a million just to innovate."
Similarly, the company embarked on the SME Go Digital Programme announced during this year's Budget, where up to 70 per cent of technology costs may be defrayed, capped at S$300,000 per small and medium-sized enterprise (SME).
Co-founder Ms Lim adds that such support has shortened the process for internationalisation. To illustrate, IE Singapore introduced the company to Indonesian designer Tex Saverio, who designed Jennifer Lawrence's character Katniss Everdeen's wedding gown in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. This partnership proved strategic, and paved the way for Love, Bonito to enter Indonesia.
Finding the right fit
Despite all the success Love, Bonito had garnered, there were also hurdles to overcome. According to its founders, a significant challenge was learning to delegate, and employing veterans who could take the company to greater heights.
Ms Lim says: "It took us awhile to decide that we're going to hire much smarter people than us... It's a huge step because as founders, sometimes we feel that we know more, and don't want to let go of certain aspects."
She states that bringing in experienced employees has not only helped them grow personally and professionally, but also done good for the business.
"We're not afraid if one day we decide that we need a CEO and it's not us," she adds.
As an e-commerce retailer, it also made sense for Love, Bonito to hire tech-savvy millennials. Ms Lim says that beyond remuneration, millennials need to know that they are making an impact, which is why both founders are open to receiving feedback.
Even so, being internationally renowned comes with its own set of problems - discerning suitable partners. Ms Tan explains that with potential partners hailing from different countries, it was tempting to allow companies to simply take the brand and run with it. Nonetheless, they decided to take the time to understand the ideals these partners stood for. "It's not easy and like dating all over again," Ms Lim quips.
Yet another challenge was to stay true to the brand's purpose in the face of competition. Ms Tan says that initially, it was distracting to think about partnerships or discounts they could offer. She also reveals that it was heartbreaking to reject certain collaborations that came their way, but didn't make sense either because of bad timing or the resources required.
Asked where they see Love, Bonito in the next few years, both founders echo that there's no stopping them. Come October this year, the brand will open its first flagship store in Singapore at 313@Somerset, taking over the second floor space where American retailer Forever 21 used to be.
In tandem with this launch, new hires include chief commercial officer Dione Song, who has prior experience at Zalora and Sephora, as well as head of product Eugene Liang, previously a user experience design (UX) lead at Grab.
While Mr Liang comes from a different industry, Ms Tan is confident that his technical expertise will create a seamless shopping experience for customers online, where the bulk of their revenue still comes from. With these changes in place, the company is projecting a growth rate of 50 per cent this year.
Ms Tan adds that the flagship store serves as a touchpoint not just for customers, but for potential partners to better understand the brand. The company is currently in talks with potential partners from the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam, and Ms Lim believes that ultimately, values need to be aligned for partnerships to work.
She concludes: "At the end of the day, if I don't hit the top-line because I want to protect my brand equity, they have to accept it. Success to us is not just in reaching S$10 million or S$100 million, but in the lives that we touch."
Amendment note: There was a miscommunication and the founders have since clarified that they used their savings as startup capital for the business. The article above has been amended to reflect this.