Here’s a fun fact: Eu Yan Sang, an established Singapore company selling traditional Chinese medicine, is older than Coca-Cola. The firm was founded in 1879 by Chinese immigrant Eu Kong, seven years before the famous soft drink was introduced in the United States.
Things weren’t always peachy for the company however. Threatened with extinction in 1989, Eu Kong’s great-grandson Richard Eu was compelled to take over the reins by buying out relatives and an opportunistic corporate raider.
The company, which had USD 4M in revenue then, embarked on rapid growth, reaching USD 230M in sales and possessing a network of 300 stores as well as distribution channels in Canada, United States, Australia, and South America. It then got listed on the Singapore stock exchange in 2000. Its stock price has been hovering around all-time highs.
Now, at its pinnacle, Eu Yan Sang has begun thinking about its next phase, and for good reason: While the older age group in Singapore and Malaysia are ready TCM customers, the younger set may not be as keen.
To remain relevant, it would need to diversify beyond TCM products into a wellness firm that specializes not just in therapy but also preventive healthcare.
While it had some false starts — its concept F&B and retail store Red White and Pure went south – the company has continued experimenting, this time with my Life Inc, a subsidiary that sells a wide range of wellness items like teas, supplements, and baby care products.
The new venture incorporates lessons from Red White and Pure. Instead of SGD 3.9M (USD 2.3M) in upfront costs, my Life Inc, started in April this year, is leaner with smaller seed funding and a modest marketing budget from its parent company.
Red White and Pure was also located in the wrong place. Vivocity, a mall which caters to the masses, may not have been an ideal starting point versus say Paragon, a luxury mall where the store’s customers are found.
My Life Inc, on the other hand, has the capability as an online business to reach specific customer segments through targeted marketing campaigns.
Working on the company is a team of six, including two TCM physicians. It is headed by Monica Li, who wears two hats as the co-founder of my Life Inc and senior manager of marketing strategy and e-commerce at Eu Yan Sang. She was formerly a director of global business development at Dealgecco, an e-commerce venture by Rebate Networks.
My Life Inc operates independently from Eu Yan Sang, making it a startup of sorts. It doesn’t even share the logististics infrastructure used by the parent company for its own e-commerce arm. It’s truly a pilot project.
Instead, it relies on Anchanto – a Singapore startup which possesses a technology, warehouse and logistics platform to bring brick-and-mortar retailers online — for its delivery needs.
The company has a youthful vibe, targeting the 28 to 38 year old crowd: people who are tech-savvy, early adopters, and go-getters. You’ll be hard-pressed to find the words “Eu Yan Sang” mentioned on its website.
The majority of its products are exclusive to my Life Inc in Singapore, and some are even developed in-house by the parent company. One such item is Teaism, a “tea wand” that promises a more fuss-free tea-drinking experience compared to tea bags.
Examples of products that it imports and sells exclusively are Drinkwel, a “hangover supplement” for party-goers, and Spoonk, an acupressure massage mat.
My Life Inc’s product selection is curated by its physicians and a PhD in Pathology, Cell and Molecular Biology. In a world where excessive and inaccurate information are the norm, the company strives to pick functional products that pass a smell test backed by healthcare knowledge.
However, market education is still an obstacle for my Life Inc. Locals, as a whole, are not quite as keen on wellness products as Monica would’ve liked.
“We’re finding a way to get young people to care about their health, and care enough to invest in it,” she said.
While the company does not keep track of much user data at the moment, Monica asserts that Singapore’s expat community has been the early adopters of my Life Inc’s products. It’s something I see echoed by many e-commerce startups, RedMart is a good example, since expats tend to be more open to new things.
The company has worked with the British, Australian and American Chambers of Commerce to reach out to potential customers. Events, giveaways, and goodie bags are part of its marketing mix. It is also partnering with corporate players, which it hopes will become a regular buyer of its Teaism line.
Translating the business into mainstream success will take time, and that is something my Life Inc may have going for it. Set-up and upfront costs for the company are low since it operates online and does not need to set up a logistics system from scratch.
“We are not temporary and we are not a test that may get shut down. We will always be an open channel for sourcing international and developing new products.”