Interview with Lee Tsui, founder of retouchpower.com, high-fashion glamour and luxury to USB Technology.
Interview with Lee Tsui, founder of retouchpower.com, high-fashion glamour and luxury to USB Technology. Based in the Gadget Capital of the world Hong Kong, they are a team made up of members from London, Sydney and New York, all coming from a diverse background in Fashion Design, marketing and product design.
Tell us about Retouch Power. What inspired you to start it ?
To explain this I really need to back to my original and main company Load Limited that most people that know me don't know even exists.
I basically noticed around 5 years ago that PowerBanks had just started to emerge into the market. As a secret tech-nerd extremist, I've always been one of the first people to adopt new technologies. I was the first kid to have a gameboy, the first to have a SNES and the first to have a Tamagotchi, let's just say it's in my blood..
As one of the first people with a big oversized smartphone I'd immediately noticed the need for these new portable chargers. I immediately knew they were going to be huge one day but at the time they were not.
I was modeling and singing in Hong Kong with no experience outside of secondary school of design etc (although I was a natural born designer and artist getting the highest grades at school in both). I think around 2010 I began to think about getting out of modeling and music because both were really going nowhere big and I was getting to the age where saying you were a model or singer without a label was getting embarrassing.
At some point in that year I got talking to a friend who had just started his own promotional gift based tech company making USB tech. To cut a long tragic story short. I joined up with his fledgling company with a view to change career, and after 6 months it was quite clear to me their business model was flawed, simply because they had egos that I thought would eventually kill their company.
To me, they had the arrogance of Steve Jobs, with very little to back it up (which is a major problem with many startups that believe Steve Jobs is the saviour of Entrepreneurialism and believe by being like him you get to be him or will be the new Jobs one day)
Anyway we had major differences in ideology and I took my integrity and little bit of experience and my 30,000 Hong Kong Dollars and somehow through sheer determination, without any real knowledge of how to do anything, started my first company and put all my little money into my first powerbank development.
Before we'd even started production of the Prototype PowerBank I'd been hammering phone calls worldwide to promotional gift companies who I knew would be coming to Hong Kong in a month and because I couldn't afford to exhibit, I arranged small meetings in the coffee shop beside the exhibition halls. Within the month of April 2012 I'd signed up two large exclusive contracts for two regions with minimum first orders that not only covered all the startup fees, but put me in thousands of US dollars of immediate profit. With this profit I booked my first exhibition in October, we got the worst booth in the farthest corner of the last show of October, but on the last day, probably in the last hour, one of the biggest promotional gift companies in Europe signed an exclusivity contract with us on our now 3 items that would help us to turn over over a million US dollars in 2013 alone. Load Limited has rapidly grown now since 2012 from a million dollar turnover company to now with its 25+ products is consistently turning over almost 5-6 million a year in sales.
The rest is history with Load Limited, but this story leads me to Retouch. (sorry I think I've filled up your interview already just with the backstory)
Now in regards to Retouch, I'd noticed for a while that all of these items I was developing, all were unisex, most customers only had a concept that USB had to be male orientated or Unisex because there wasn't really a market for female tech. Maybe back in the Nokia days this was true (bar phone cases) but I noticed even in 2013 that males and females were all picking up smartphones, it wasn't just a "male" thing but unisex. and once they realised they needed car chargers and powerbanks even women would need them too. I realised that male and female shopping habits outside of Hong Kong vary quite wildly, not only this, but I noticed not many women tend to browse Sham Shui Po or Mongkok (because I practically live there in my free time perving on gadgets and games) I realised that no one at the same apart from phone cases had created a USB tech company purely for the ladies.
Where was the Spice Girls company of USB?! (to put it bluntly)
I realised that no one at the time had cottoned on that if you make your car charger, powerbanks and bluetooth speakers and so on super chic, super cute, super luxury and super desirable in a feminine way and package them in a feminine way, girls would be drawn to your products, they'd want them just for the look, and then realise how much they actually need these types of product and buy them.
We geared Retouch to be the USB Tech company FOR THE LADIES and we commit to designing products that women find desirable and proudly get out to use anywhere.
I just want to add, for every visitor at our first exhibition that laughed at how stupid our concept was and sarcastically wished us good luck, if you gave me $1000. It wouldn't even come close to our first year of sales! IN YOUR FACE! :)
What is your personal background?
I am half Chinese and made in Hong Kong, but I was raised in a council estate with my mum in a relatively tough city called Leicester in England (everyone this year finally knows where I'm from!) I come from a very poor area called Highfields, from a typical broken working class family. My father and my mother separated when I was very little and didn't see him much, but enough of the negativity because I like to think the childhood I had was pretty awesome for some unusual reasons perhaps.
Being from broken humble roots with the right personality type really makes you a go getter, it makes you a problem solver because your life is a constant problem and you alone must fix those problems. You don't waste money but instead respect every penny that comes in and treasure it and the best part is, coming from humble tough roots gives you a massive appreciation for adult life, and I truly appreciate life in Hong Kong and how amazing it can be here.
Without giving my dad too much credit as to why I am here, just having a distant father in Hong Kong who I know was in fashion and trading probably did inspire me a little to run away at 24 to come to Hong Kong to try my luck at life here. I'd visited Hong Kong a few times as a child and loved it here so knowing that he was somewhat an entrepreneur made me also believe one day I maybe could do it too. I didn't find it out properly until 28, but now here I am.
How did you design and manufacture the product?
At the time I really had no idea how to manufacture products, so I just winged it at first. I went to Alibaba and searched for chargers, found a few factories, went to China to meet them, liked one the most most eager to work the way I needed to and then handed them my concept and my money to get working on my first products. We've been a partnership ever since, and now with our companies we must command around 90% of their manufacturing space. Meaning in 5 years I've literally taken over the factory and become the 2nd boss of it :)
After making 5 or so products I've got into the routine of knowing how to make things, each product is different with Retouch, and each product introduces new materials and processes, but I have a pretty resourceful brain. I find novel solutions for unsolvable problems and we always find a way to launch a product that seems impossible at the beginning to finish.
How are you promoting your business online & offline ?
Initially we mainly relied on trade shows for company growth. But I realised there was a win-win in bringing other companies that loved our products on board to help to grow the company. I decided that it was better to risk chances initially testing the market with the most eager company in their respective country and seeing if they could grow the company in their market. Anyone who showed the most potential growth got an exclusivity in their market, which in turn gave them the commitment to grow the company as it was a mutual win win. This model has been extremely effective for us. In terms of Online marketing, we actually do very little at the moment but we have many distributors now who setup instagram accounts etc to market in their regions. Some of these partners of ours have taken products viral in a big way and we watch sales continue to improve in their markets whilst we focus on designing newer, sexier products to keep the momentum going.
You are distributing in a number of countries. What are your biggest markets ?
We already have most major markets now covered. However Retouch is huge in Japan right now. Somehow we found the right distribution partner at the right time and the growth in Japan has been tremendous with us now in over 600 malls and stores and a big online presence in Japan. It's become so big there that we have focussed almost exclusively on growing more products to suit the Japanese market as a priority.
USA has also been a huge market for us in Promotion due to us starting up with a small promotional company just on the wave of it's growth. It's seen both our companies form strong bonds and grow together in a big way in the last few years. I hope this partnership in the States continues as not only are we good business partners in terms of how we work together. But we've also become really good friends and there's nothing better than making sales with people you enjoy hanging out with on the side too!
I'd like to see more growth in Europe and USA for Retouch, however the market there is still in it's tech infancy and growth is steady. I hope we will catch the tech wave that I believe will hit any time now.
What were some of your biggest challenges in launching this business?
Cash flow initially was a major major worry. I think one of the most stupid things to do with a startup is to register your name and then go rent and office, buy all the furniture and hire staff and create expenses. It seems like you need to do all of that to be taken seriously. But seriously all you do is set yourself up to drown in debt and throw your money away if you can't find sales with your product.
Up until 2015 even with a multi million dollar turnover, our monthly business operational expenses were at about $3000HKD . In the first 2 years of operation I would work in my living room, on the beach, or at the gym via my smartphone. All of these locations cost me $0 yet I got all my work done because it was necessary to keep spending down and cashflow up. Profits we made we instead geared to investments that generated more stable cashflow that could then be allocated to increasing growth of the business.
I think most startups fail because they overspend and waste their money on unnecessary stuff before proof of sustainable profit begins.
It's got to the point now where I can no longer manage it all alone, we need to hire more staff to take over management of various departments of the company and we are keen to grow with a new team of smart people wanting to be part of an exciting new company.
Tell us a memorable story from running your business
I remember how paranoid I used to be of launching new products, and I remember how many NDA I got people to sign over products that really didn't need them. The past 5 years has been such a blur of stress, sleepless nights, partying and travelling that to pull one story seems like it doesn't do just how painful, stressful yet satisfying it's been to run a successful business up until now. The worst thing with your own company is that it never ends because the race always needs to be ran if you want sustainable growth.
What do you think of Hong Kong’s Startup Scene?
Hong Kong has an awesome setup for launching your own company. The system is easy to make a LTD company for starters, you have access to a phelora rich bored bankers wanting to throw money at any stupid idea, and you have the manufacturing hub of the world at your doorstep.
You have literally everything geared to make a successful startup here. The scene itself is very fun, a lot of people coming up with novel ideas and I see a lot of innovation and creativity coming only from Hong Kong and not really from China. Hong Kong is still the place in Asia for creativity and innovation in design for me. I am truly inspired by many small tech companies that make cool stuff. Even if they aren't financially successful their products are often the coolest.
What’s the best startup advice that you got? For Hong Kongers here it is:
If you're rich, follow your dreams and make that see through toaster that you can check when your bread is the right toastyness. Throw all your money into your ideas, like minded people will love your ideas and you will feel cool. It's cool.
If you're poor, go hustle and find someone who will back you or save up enough money to make your product a reality. Don't quit your day job, you'll need that if the company fails or needs more funding. Find your market, double check it's real, triple check you aren't delusional and quadruple check that people want the product. Ask your friends not what they like about what you are doing, but what they don't like. Listen to your friends advice, go get lots of advice. Trust your judgement, but if 99% of people are telling you it's shit, it's probably shit. If you aren't rich, you tread carefully forward but if your market has a limited window you make sure you hit the wave.
Don't waste money on unnecessary crap. Do you need that iMac to get your job done? Do you need a nice office? Probably not, save your money and lastly, make sure you can find buyers for your products. You can't sell enough to make good money alone with a website unless you hit the lottery on viral trending etc.
What’s next for Retouch Power?
We grow, We've only published 2 product since launch, so now we are rapidly scrambling to launch another 8 items for this year. We're learning new tech by recently entering the bluetooth speaker market (headache) and we will be looking to create app enabled products later in the year.
What are 3 things you want consumers to remember about your company?
- We make the coolest USB gadgets
- We make them for ladies that we love, ladies who love style and glamour but also have a cheeky sense of humour.
- We put our hearts into each and every design and do not compromise.