Always choosing the less-travelled path is Alan Lim’s way
A desire to be different has always driven Alan Lim, founder and CEO of E-Services Group. Nowadays it is this desire that inspires him to stay ahead of his competitors in the fast-moving e-commerce industry.
Lim’s E-Services Group uses advanced technology to record consumer behaviour so that it can effectively match the right e-commerce products to the right customers. The company also has a highly efficient logistics network that serves clients from 70 countries, trades in 50 currencies and covers 14 languages.
Lim’s willingness to go against the flow emerged during his high school days. Born and raised in Singapore, he decided that he wanted to be different from his schoolmates and go to the UK to study his A-levels. He completed his two-year studies in half the time and rushed home to Singapore in the hope of enrolling early on his national service. Unfortunately the authorities prevented his early entry, so he interned at an investment bank for 18 months before starting his national service, where again the opportunity to do something different presented itself.
“Everyone was avoiding the combat unit, but I went for it because I wanted to make the most out of my two and a half years time in the force. It was extremely tough every day, but the experience has made me a strong person, both mentally and physically. My army days were extremely challenging but rewarding,” he says.
As a member of the combat unit, Lim had to go on jungle hikes lasting up to two weeks at a time while carrying heavy equipment. “I went until my body collapsed,” he says. “This experience taught me that I can overcome any challenge because I have already gone through the worst. If I want to get something done, I make sure I get it done.”
Life did not get much easier after leaving the army, when financing for his university studies became a problem. “I left for the University of London during the 1998 Asian financial crisis and my family was not able to support me fully,” he says. “I had to work as an intern for a management consultancy to subsidise my studies and living expenses. Then I got involved in eBay trading and this is how I got my business started.”
Lim was drawn to eBay because of his passion for electronic products. It was while following camera sales on the website that he started to notice a trend.
“On days with football games, cameras sold for lower prices, and on rainy days, they sold for higher,” he says. “This is because people spent more time bidding for products when stuck at home on rainy days, and less time when they went out to watch football. I began profiting from buying products on football days and reselling them on rainy days. The weather forecast and the football schedule were the two things that I relied on to make money and soon I was doing this 18 hours a day,” he says.
After graduating, Lim found that more and more people were doing the same thing, so again he chose to go a different route. With the money he made, he set up E-Services Group and started to approach major e-tailing operations with the offer of providing logistical assistance. He started working with Amazon and soon he was employing 50 people in a business that was growing bigger and bigger.
“My business was booming and many investors were showing interest in acquiring it, but I refused. I wanted to be different and not follow in the footsteps of others,” he says.
With the 2008 financial crisis hitting the UK hard, Lim decided to move to a new place of opportunity. “After Lehman Brothers collapsed, I saw the beginning of the end. I had always wanted to be in a place of opportunity, which is why I came to Britain in the first place. Now I needed a new place of opportunity and that was Asia,” he says.
He decided to move his business to Hong Kong the same year. “The e-commerce trade is very dynamic and staff in Hong Kong is able to provide me with staff who can execute things quickly. Europeans may be more creative, but Hongkongers get things done quickly,” he says.
One thing Lim noticed early on in Hong Kong was the hierarchical workplace. “When I first came here, I asked my staff out for a drink and they replied, ‘Why?’ I was surprised. I see myself asking friends to go out, but they see me as a boss,” he says.
Lim has excelled by having strong market sense and using cutting-edge technology to stay a step ahead of his competitors. “I keep my sight on emerging markets and stay away from the markets where the big boys are,” he says. “I spend most of my time talking to business leaders to look for markets with potential.”
Unlike many businesses, however, he has never had plans to go into the mainland. “The mainland e-commerce market operates in a very different way from what I have been doing. It is a market-share business. Companies do anything to gain market share and that includes selling at loss,” he says.
“Mainlanders also don’t pay with credit cards when they shop online. They will order from a number of stores and pay the first company that delivers the goods. I don’t think my company can excel in such a market,” he says.
The company might never have been able to excel if not for Lim’s love of electronic products. “My wife thinks I am crazy, but I get so excited when a new gadget is released,” he says. “Toys and beauty products are some of the other segments I have tested. When you want to be successful, you have to be passionate and focus on what you do.”
Lim focuses on partnering with liked-minded businesses. For instance, E-Services Group has a global merchant partnership with Skype and offers certified products on Skype.com to over 75 countries. It also recently started facilitating the sale of Skype gift cards – a first for Skype.
Lim has decided to make Hong Kong his long-term home for his wife and their two young boys, aged one and two. “I want to stay close to Asia, which I think is the next big thing in economic development. Hong Kong is a metropolitan city with an effective and open-minded work force, while it is also close to my home country,” he says.
He admits to being bored when he first arrived in the city, but he now has a group of good friends. “We play tennis and enjoy dinners. I prefer a quiet dinner with good food and wine – partying in Central is not my thing,” he says.
Lim is a cigar collector but, unlike the archetypal entrepreneur, he says, he’s not into golf. “I have no talent for golf, so I started smoking cigars instead. I love it.”
An officer and an entrepreneur
- Born in Singapore, went to UK at 16 for A-levels which he completed in a year.
- Served as a sergeant in the combat unit of the Singapore military.
- Started his e-commerce business when he was a University of London student.
- E-Services now in London, Singapore and HK, with HK$500m in 2012 revenue.