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EMERGING ENTERPRISE 2017

He got inspiration for startup from being girlfriend's courier

Buyer request platform Airfrov now has 45,000 active users.

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Mr Cai Li (left) and Mr Robi quit their jobs to focus on Airfrov. A competition judge invested in them in January 2015.

IT started with him being a courier for his girlfriend's goods. As Cai Li travelled frequently, his friends began to request him to help them purchase products exclusively found in those countries.

He was a regional business developer in a trading company then and travelled at least once a month.

The 31-year-old said: "My girlfriend gave me the inspiration for this business. Every time I travelled, she would give me a shopping list of what she wanted, where to find these items, down to the last detail based on her research."

This sparked off his idea for Airfrov, a C2C Singapore startup that allows buyers to post requests for items found in some countries, and travellers to these countries can then choose to take up the offer.

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Through pricing algorithm-based price data, buyers are encouraged to offer a monetary incentive to attract travellers to accept the order.

Most of the time, it is around 10 to 20 per cent of the item's cost price.

Airfrov also charges the buyer 7 per cent of the price agreed upon by buyer and traveller, and an additional S$2.

Mr Cai, co-founder of Airfrov, said: "That time, Airbnb and Uber were starting to take off. Asking friends to buy items for you when they travel is a very natural thing, so I felt there was market and demand for such a service."

Hardships

Since it started in March 2015, the platform has grown to 45,000 active users, and sees about 800 new requests daily.

But this journey was not without hardships.

When the idea was first incepted in late 2014, Mr Cai and co-founder Robi entered it for NTU Ideas Inc, for which they won the Most Innovative Start-up award.

Both Mr Cai and Mr Robi then quit their jobs to focus on developing Airfrov.

However, the investors that pledged their money to Airfrov ended up not investing in them. They ended up having to bootstrap in their first few months.

Mr Cai said: "It was scary, and of course disappointing. But we pressed on because it was something we believed in."

They approached seven or eight investors but to no avail, until one of the judges from the competition decided to invest in them in January 2015.

But then came the problem of matching the demand and supply on their platform.

There would be cases of too much demand for a particular product but no travellers to take up the offer, or vice versa.

Mr Cai said: "Because Airfrov relies a lot on this network effect, where more and more people come on board, we had to rely on word of mouth and try really hard to solve the problem."

The founders started posting on forums and social media platforms to spread the word, and going to the airport every weekend to entice air crew to become travellers.

They did this for three months before the platform began to take off.

When asked about competing with other platforms such as Taobao or Shopee, which also offer products with a reduced shipping cost, Mr Cai said that Airfrov serves a very specific type of audience.

"We're different from those platforms because of our content. Our buyers look for very specific products, most of which cannot be found in Singapore. Some of these are the latest products in other countries. And these products will take a while to gain popularity and be brought in to Singapore.

"By the time that happens, there will be another latest product in the market."

Some of the more interesting products requested included a gold-plated toilet pump, a bagel from New York, and a ceiling fan from Ikea in Taiwan. They also saw a request from buyers to catch Pokemon in Australia.

Once, there was a buyer who requested the traveller to find out the name of the hotel she stayed at because she lost its details. She posted a picture of the hotel.

Mr Cai said: "It's not just about these unique products that our users request, but it also allows other users to see these listings and discover new items. That is our strength."

They see about 6,000 to 7,000 of unique listings every month.

But people also use Airfrov to obtain their basic household necessities, sometimes because they've taken a liking to a foreign brand.

Travellers on Airfrov are verified after receiving five reviews, and they are required to submit their NRIC number to verify if it matches their bank account.

Unique

The platform also tracks how many successful deliveries the traveller has made.

While Mr Cai believes that the platform's unique content makes it stand out, the platform is also pairing up with merchants and courier services to improve user experience.

It is currently working with courier services so the product can be picked up from the traveller's home and delivered directly to the buyer's home.

Currently, the traveller can either drop off the product at Airfrov's office in Purvis Street, or meet up with the buyer.

For items that sell well on the platform, Airfrov is in talks with the merchants so they can increase the supply at a cheaper price to customers.

The top destinations on Airfrov are Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia and Thailand.

It also has an office in Indonesia, which it launched in August 2016.

When asked about expansion plans, Mr Cai said that countries in Asia are on Airfrov's radar, and it hopes to expand to a new country by end of next year.

"When we open a new office, we increase our network. If we have an office in Japan, then travellers from Japan to Singapore can serve the needs of buyers in Japan and Singapore.

"But right now, we just want to serve the markets we are in. I believe that business can grow 10 to 30 times more in Singapore," he said.

Note: H2MB is the registered name, but soon it is going to be changed to Airfrov, the name by which it is more commonly known.

 

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