Interview: Raymond Yip (Co-founder and CEO of Shopline)

Raymond Yip, was born in Hong Kong but spent a considerable amount of his life living, studying and working in New York City. When he eventually moved back to Hong Kong to continue his career in banking, his work hours still revolved around New York time. With spare mornings to tinker, Raymond used this valuable time to test and improve on the ecommerce ideas he saw in the West. This eventually became Shopline, a cloud based startup that he co-founded with Tony Wong and Fiona Lau. Shopline provides a quick and easy way for merchants to set up and manage their own online shop. I recently had a chance to chat with Raymond over a bowl of Pho in Hong Kong’s Central district.

Hi Raymond, Shopline’s been a great story for Hong Kong’s incredibly fast startup industry growth. Can you tell us a bit about what the startup environment was like in Hong Kong, maybe even just three or four years ago?

As early as three years ago, there were almost no coworking spaces. There was probably only The Hive and Cocoon (where Raymond set up his startup) and these spaces only featured a handful of events. The interesting thing was that the events were always packed, so I thought, “there’s definitely some interest in Hong Kong.” Cocoon hosted most of the larger events. I sometimes saw Silicon Valley investors like Dave McClure in attendance. Even then, there were a few people trying to turn Hong Kong into a place for startups.

There weren’t many prominent startups then, rather a bunch of entrepreneurs trying their best to make it. I had heard of 9Gag, but I never assumed they were from Hong Kong. I believe SnapTee was also around then. There was a “bring your own device” company called “Divide” that was later bought out by Google. Casetagram (now Casetify) was here at the time too, and now they’re quite successful.

Let’s chat Shopline. Your ambition is to eventually expand through APAC region. You’ve launched in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines. How do you plan to expand to other markets?

Our key differentiator is a localization features set that others cannot provide out-of-the box, without the need for external apps, plugins, language mods, or messing around with any payment systems.

Shopline has proven it can build strong partnerships in many regions with payment gateways and logistic companies to drive real value for merchants at great rates. This creates additional competitive advantages. An example of this is our integration with AllPay which allows merchants to accept credit cards and Alipay.

Another good example can be found with Shopline in Taiwan. There’s a 7-Eleven on every corner of every street in Taiwan. We’ve partnered with 7-Eleven to provide its own payment solution that works directly with their logistics network of convenience stores. Shoppers can pick up their packages and actually pay for it at 7-Eleven stores. We’ve integrated this and AllPay for Taiwanese merchants as those are the major ways merchants can conduct e-commerce transactions. Even with $100 million dollar competitors, we’re unique because our competitors haven’t been able to do this yet. It’s about understanding and being able to build and foster important, local relationships.

The Shopline founders

Our focus for the future is to provide the same type of integrated service for merchants all over Southeast Asia, in places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and other top markets in the region. We’ll continue to leverage our strong technical capabilities and partnerships to make this happen.

What do you think is happening in Hong Kong for ecommerce? For example, in San Francisco I can buy and get almost anything shipped on the same day…

Hong Kong is so advanced in so many regards, yet some things are much slower to develop. A lot of it is probably related to its history and culture. Hong Kong’s retail spaces are so valuable that many companies resist change. Also, as a footprint, Hong Kong is quite small, so why would I order online when I can get something right downstairs or across the street? I think a part of that is culture and tradition. Technology is easy to introduce, but tradition is very difficult to break.

I don’t know how long it’ll take us to catch up, however Hong Kong does have its own unique trends; merchants see the value of online and are leveraging other platforms. They might sell on Instagram, Facebook, WeChat or forums and are meeting people or delivering their products personally. People in Hong Kong probably feel it’s a safer alternative for the moment.

How are you helping build the brand of Shopline among your clients or merchants?

There is some collaboration among merchants, but we are not a market place. We help drive our presence through events, workshops and seminars that we host to teach people about ecommerce and Shopline’s capabilities. At these events, we’re not looking to hard sell. People usually find out about our initiatives by word of mouth and we help teach people how to for example, market their products. We do offer paid workshops and people are coming to those as well, because they see the value in it.  In Asia, well, I guess in general, people also appreciate that. You have to reach out and touch them a bit.

You’ve been East and West for fundraising, what are your thoughts on how funding is happening in Asia compared to the West?

There is definitely capital here. With the growth of startups, capital has to grow in parallel as well. Indonesia, Japan and Singapore are great examples of cities with funding opportunities. China is its own different ball game.

In terms of Hong Kong, there is some education required before Hong Kong reaches its investment potential. There are some private equity funds here, private offices here, second generation families here… there’s definitely stuff around.

How has the retail sector in Hong Kong reacted to Shopline? Would they ever try and invest with you?

A large Korean cosmetics company called Tony Moly is currently using us for their online business in Hong Kong. Little Room, which is a subsidiary of the prominent clothing company, Bauhaus, has also elected to use Shopline to set up their e-commerce business. These are some examples of larger brands using our platform, but smaller sellers are also leveraging Shopline to create their own presence online. If only for brand building capabilities, Shopline is still a great platform for many merchants. As for investors, one of our early backers includes the owners of a popular jewelry brand in Hong Kong. While ecommerce isn’t as mature in Hong Kong as it is in some other countries in the region, Hong Kong is moving in the right direction and people are certainly taking notice.

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