From television show host to model and now entrepreneur, it certainly has been a transformative and exciting year for Stephanie Chai, who launched TheLuxeNomad.com only in July last year and in a short amount of time has caught the eye of luxury travelers with her unique members-only flash-sales business model.
The finance degree graduate from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, had founded the successful web portal WeddingGuideAsia.com prior to conceiving the idea for The Luxe Nomad and securing critical funding from Tigris Capital and SPRING Singapore. Her latest start-up was borne out of her love for luxurious getaways and now members of her website can find deals to do the same.
SENATUS managed to catch Stephanie in Singapore where she calls home now, in between her business trips in and out of the city, making introductions to and cutting deals with hoteliers in the region, from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur to Bali.
How did you go from advertising campaigns and fashion spreads as a model, hosting television shows, acting in a Hollywood movie to now starting TheLuxeNomad?
I think I have a short attention span but I have always wanted to do business. Even when I was 18 and modeling, I’ve always said in my interviews that I wanted to start my own business. Perhaps it is in my blood as my father is a businessman…
It is my passion to create something new.
There are many different types of entrepreneurs - for some it's about passion and for others it's about making money. Personally, I think you should always have passion as your first goal and the monetary aspect second. Because it really is a lot of hard work, commitment and stress at times! If you don't love what you do and you're just there to make a quick buck - it's never going to work.
How is managing TheLuxeNomad different from WeddingGuideAsia?
It is quite different. WeddingGuideAsia is an online wedding magazine and it was my first experience running a business. It was something small and manageable, which was good given the fact that I had no corporate background whatsoever at the time. We were a small team of just three and I was still able to juggle my work in the entertainment industry.
TheLuxeNomad on the other hand is pure e-commerce and is a business model that appeals across borders. It is much faster to scale and grow than a content site and it was imperative that we expand quickly to gain a first mover advantage.
Did your prior experience at WeddingGuideAsia help?
Yes, definitely. You know I have friends who are MIT grads, ex-bankers, lawyers who started their own business and realized very quickly that running your own company is not very easy. When you're running a business, the things one might assume are easy can often be the trickiest. Wedding Guide Asia helped me with my ability to hire and manage a team.
I've also learned to trust my gut instinct - the people you think aren't going to be good, usually turn out as you suspected!
Our team consists of real luxe nomads - I often joke my editor travels better than I do!
The Luxe Nomad website seen on the HP Spectre XT Ultrabook
Was it difficult securing travel deals and negotiating with the hotels?
The challenge with being a new company is that it can be a case of "who came first - the chicken or the egg?" How do you bring in hotel partners when technically from day one you have no customers? At the same time, you need all these partners in order to attract the customers.
What I felt no one had done in travel before was to use the celebrity angle. Luckily I'm generally quite a nice person so I called up some celebrity friends I had made from my TV days and asked if they would like to come onboard. In Singapore, we have Allan Wu (The Amazing Race Asia) and Henry Golding (Hot Guys Who Cook). Rather than just sending a writer to review our hotel partners, we have celebrities visit and stay. It has worked out really well because hoteliers love the idea as it's something novel and different.
We also have a great team and we're an all-girls start-up (with the exception of the developers!). I think ultimately if you believe in what you are selling then people will say yes.
You mentioned technology changing the way the luxury business wins new customers. How has technology influenced the way you run your business?
I think it's amazing how the Internet has changed the world - how could we ever go back? We live in a world now which is increasingly mobile, connected and most importantly, informed.
For us, we have to always be changing with the times - which means looking for ways to be innovative technically and smart with our online marketing. I'm a fan of the book The Outliers, which posits that success is a mix of hard work, timing and perhaps a bit of luck. Whilst the early 90s in Asia was all about development and production, we are now in the digital age where being online is the business of the future. Look at Australia for example, two of its biggest retailers - David Jones and Myers - are suffering from consumers purchasing over the internet instead of going to their stores.
The key to business? Always follow your consumer. And right now the majority of them are online.
It's not about whether you want to be online or not, nowadays everyone needs an online presence.
Consumers now search for travel deals online, from plane tickets to accommodations. With TheLuxeNomad, we will continue to revise the site and make it better, and hopefully be as innovative as we can to tap on this market.
To that end, we’re looking to launch a new mobile application in the near future.
We noticed you have a sizeable fan base on Facebook. How do you harness social media to reach out to your customers?
We are really lucky. We started in July with only about 2,000 fans on Facebook but now we are over 10,000 fans. I've only spent very minimally on advertising, so a lot of it is down to organic growth.
What was the key source of this organic growth?
I think our personalities come through in our writings. Our recommendations and reviews are authentic and that helps.
I am a big fan of Facebook and it is a great way to constantly reach out to the audience because people may not go to your site on a daily basis but they would definitely access their Facebook.
What are your target markets?
Right now our focus is on Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia but we are going into Australia soon.
I am also very bullish on the Indonesian market. Indonesia is doing very well because of their economy. Out of the 20 million middle class population, 2 million of them are perfect as our audience.
As for Australia, with such a strong currency, it is actually much easier now for them to fly to Thailand and Bali, versus settling for a holiday domestically. This is especially so for people living in Perth when Bali is only 5 hours away.
You spent a considerable amount of your career in Hong Kong. Why did you start The Luxe Nomad in Singapore instead?
E-commerce in Singapore is great and Singaporeans are definitely leading Asia in terms of online consumption. When you compare Singapore to Hong Kong, it gets quite interesting.
Hong Kong is a island built on property and finance. The office rates there are very high, so you don’t have that many start-ups in Hong Kong. A lot of my friends who live in Hong Kong still continue to use travel agencies. We thought of growing the company from South-East Asia but we will definitely reach the Hong Kong market where the people travel like there's no tomorrow.
What are the new challenges you have experienced so far?
I think sometimes you encounter politics, which I am not used to. Even though I have been in modeling and television, I've always been a very straightforward person.
It's has got nothing to do with whether you or the other party is a bad person, it's just that different people have very different styles and ways of working. So that's something I had to learn to overcome.
Another challenge I faced is getting investors. In the beginning, I had no idea how I should go about doing it so I called on my banking and entrepreneur friends for advice, even those based in America to Australia. It was a huge learning curve for me and I knew nothing about the travel industry then.
Stephanie Chai of TheLuxeNomad seen with the HP Spectre XT Ultrabook
And the most rewarding experience?
Honestly speaking, it was when we formally got to launch the site in July 2012. I started it with just myself and two other women. To be able to secure funding was one thing but it was incredibly difficult on the technical aspect to develop the site and getting it to go live.
So when it finally happened, it felt very surreal for all of us - after all, we were really just small fishes who at the end of the day had gotten some big hotelier names onboard and media coverage around the region. We were like "Wow! If we can pull this off... it's true, anything is possible if you try hard enough!"
What are your plans for 2013?
I hope that we can really grow and be Number 1 in Asia and dominate the market here. The response has been good and I think we have a competitive advantage.