By Tasha Abdul Mutalib (@tasha_abdm)
SG Stories is a new long-form series featuring homegrown startups with unique strengths and extraordinary journeys – exclusive to Girls in Tech Singapore.
We hope you’re inspired to learn from their stories, as we did in telling them! – Tasha, Editor in Chief.
Speak to a startup founder today, and what you might find is that every one of them relies on an app or website to communicate their vision. What they don’t tell you: they rarely build it on their own, it takes either a large engineering team or a very long time, and the effort can sink a business before it even launches. It’s common for pitches to “sell the dream” without an actual functioning product or platform to demo.
Suzanne and Travis Chia took a much more traditional route – their service went live in 2012 on a website built with just $1000 and a single idea. “Back when we first started, there weren’t many on-demand alcohol delivery services around and we thought we could do better,” Suzanne shared.
Alcohol Delivery Singapore promises chilled and ready to serve spirits within 1 hour of the order being made – even in a tiny cosmopolitan city like Singapore, this is a daunting task. The drive from Tuas in the west to Changi Airport in the east, for example, takes 45 minutes – not much time left over to find stock, assign a driver and locate the recipient.
Fast forward to the present and you can see how it continues to be a challenging yet viable business model – services such as Redmart and Thirsty do not deliver alcohol chilled at all, and on-demand food delivery such as UberEats and Deliveroo rarely produce food or drink like it was served fresh out of the kitchen or bar.
In the beginning Travis and Suzanne had to bootstrap the old-fashioned way: “The variety offered initially was extremely limited; we only had 1 bottle in stock for each item. We personally took the orders online or through the phone ourselves, with the assurance to consumers that we would deliver the chilled items within an hour,” Travis described.
But why run a business together, especially one as tricky and costly as on-demand delivery of imported alcohol?
The siblings attribute this entrepreneurial spirit to their parents; they grew up watching businesses being run and grown, and caught the bug themselves. “Since young, we were inspired by our parents – so naturally growing up, I have always wanted to do something of my own,” Suzanne said.
Travis commented: “They have been through the cycle; they are very supportive and gave us heaps of advice and encouragement to venture into Alcohol Delivery.”
The siblings needed the moral support to keep going; it has been a long five years since they decided to invest all their time and energy on the business. They finally hit a milestone of 500,000 bottles this year – a small number to some, but surely something to be proud of for this lean local startup.
Relationships don’t last – when it comes to business even small conflicts can turn ugly. Being family isn’t foolproof either – Bulleit whisky heiress Hollis Bulleit was recently fired by corporate owner Diageo, allegedly due to discrimination internally.
The Chia siblings had a different experience though, again thanks to their parents – as Suzanne puts it: “We have always been into entrepreneurship, and our parents always told us that we make really good business partners due to the complementing characteristics we possess. So when the opportunity came, we seized it and here we are today.”
The same goes for how they run their team, Travis saying: “We believe in keeping everyone close and having a sense of belonging, to be able to really deliver happiness to our customers. Our tasks are usually very intertwined and overlap with one another. We discuss and work together on almost everything – marketing strategies, company vision, operational improvements and the next steps forward.”
Suzanne shared that the family spirit goes deep in Alcohol Delivery: “Our company structure is pretty flat. We believe in treating everyone like family so we communicate with all our staff on a daily basis. I do a bit of everything – from HR to operations management as well as planning for the long term vision and strategy for the company. “
Travis brought some business acumen into the mix as well: “Before starting Alcohol Delivery, I dabbled in many other pet projects as well. Alcohol Delivery came about because we saw a gap in the market, and from a geographical standpoint kickstarting an on-demand service in Singapore seemed feasible – so we gave it a shot.”
Service as a business
The journey has not been without its trials – the siblings agree that growing their company has come with very real struggles faced by all on-demand delivery services.
“I would say hiring delivery riders can prove to be quite a challenge. This job has one of the highest turnover rates in the industry,” Suzanne said. “Sometimes, we have riders backing out at the last minute, leading to insufficient manpower – which is a very important problem to solve in order to sustain our one-hour deliveries. The erratic fluctuation of orders and demand also makes it hard to determine the right amount of manpower at times.”
Travis elaborated on why they need to think on their feet and innovate through customer experience: “We need to consistently be on par in terms of our pricing, and also improve our service standards to be able to remain in this competitive space. As the margins for the alcohol industry are very low, we have to think out of the box.
Service is also very important to us; it’s the key to why we have a large pool of recurring customers who have been purchasing from us for years. We constantly try to maintain a high level of customer service for them. As the saying goes, sales goes up and down but service stays forever.”
Innovation = customer experience X tech
Their humble website has also grown by leaps and bounds – the single-bottle inventories are long-gone, replaced by a catalogue with hundreds of products; you can buy anything from custom moulded ice to affordable all-in-one cocktail packages (inclusive of your choice of spirits) with a few clicks.
There is of course a price for expansion to accommodate growth – as Travis puts it: “Some difficulties are undoubtedly rising costs to keep business operations going, especially in Singapore. Delivery staff, fuel and owning vehicles are some costs that rise quickly. It in turn increases cost for consumers; the margin becomes smaller for delivery companies who are essentially third party agents.
Constant increase in competition is also forcing delivery companies to share a shrinking pie with a lot of other new players in the market.”
Suzanne also noted scarce manpower for their warehouse and delivery needs, in addition to salaries that continue to rise for the industry.
“In order to remain competitive, we have to reduce costs elsewhere as well as invest in technology to increase efficiency,” Suzanne commented. “As an e-commerce business, we are firm believers that tech is the way forward. In the next five years, we’re looking to automate as much of the business processes as possible – to increase overall productivity of Alcohol Delivery with consumers’ online purchasing patterns and customer experience in mind.”
The siblings are also enthusiastic about solutions they are currently developing, Suzanne saying: “We have very exciting tech in the pipeline – the first of its kind in Singapore, slated to launch early next year.”
Travis shared how they innovate, again with customer experience top of mind: “Suzanne and I definitely have the same vision for the company. However, as everyone is driving towards the same direction of technology, it requires constant innovation to compete. We want to remain agile, to retain and venture further into human factors that automation tends to neglect – like providing specialised and concierge services in the very near future.”
The immediate future is still something to get excited about though, with Suzanne announcing: “We are currently working to launch our mobile app so watch this space!”
“Other than launching our mobile app, we will also be investing resources into building our tech infrastructure – to automate our current processes, and optimize workflow and operations even more efficiently,” Travis added.
Success is a pitstop; knowledge a skill
Success may mean different things for this duo, but they’ve achieved their individual ideals through the same business model and vision.
“Meaningful milestone moments for us include moving to a much bigger warehouse (we have actually shifted twice!) and also having more manpower onboard to feed the growing demand of one-hour alcohol delivery,” Suzanne recounted. “We recently launched our new platform, which had been in the works for about a year.”
Travis was more reflective, saying: “We always set our sights on the horizon. Feeling successful and thinking that we made it will induce one of the most common nature of being human – complacency.
But once in a while recognising some success, and using it as a motivation to push forward, is fine.”
When asked for pointers on how to stay in the startup game, each sibling had their own take.
“Being an entrepreneur is life-changing in every aspect. It has definitely reshaped my perspective. If you have an idea, don’t just do it. Read up and absorb everything you need to know first. The F&B space is extremely competitive and keeping up-to-date on the latest technological developments is very important,” Suzanne shared.
Travis’ advice: “Speed is also crucial – you have to gain the first mover advantage and get market share even before your competitors join in the game. This might sound cliché but it is very true – starting a business is the easiest part of the process; keeping it sustainable and running it long-term is the toughest.”
The saying goes that blood is thicker than water; but the Chia siblings have taken this to the next level. Their vision and desire to succeed has positioned them head-on with big players in the on-demand delivery industry – and they have already passed the test of time.
Embracing tech and creating amazing experiences are sure to elevate Alcohol Delivery Singapore’s service – and customers are always ready to open their doors to that.
Next week on SG Stories – Mighty Bear Games CTO Fadzuli Said gives us an exclusive insight into gaming as a job, giving back to the local community, and learning through creating new worlds.