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School of Hard Knocks: How this Asian Entrepreneur Found His True Calling

Jordan Liu strayed from a predetermined path

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BY Adelle Chua - 15 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

At first it appeared Jordan Liu had his life all planned out. Born and raised in China, Liu was educated in Beijing as his parents expected him to be a successful corporate employee after graduation.

"I majored in electronic engineering – not something that would entail a lot of risk, really," he says. He spent a year at a research academy. He planned to get his masters in the same field and then work at a multi-national corporation.

At around this time he became conscious that he had a gift – his people skills. "I knew I was quite outgoing." He liked meeting people, talking to them, finding out what they needed and wanted. All of a sudden, the prospect of confining himself to an office cubicle as he went about his engineering work was no longer as appealing as it used to be.

Parallel paths

In 2004, Liu and a friend from high school decided they wanted to establish a business teaching English to university students in China. At that time, the demand was high. The business flourished. However, in growing, Liu discovered there were problems that were not there before.

"It was difficult to scale, we had to get a license from the government to open a language school, we needed to produce many documents," he says. "We were too young, and we were too impatient. We decided to close shop and move on."

For the next few years he stayed in safer territory, doing credit risk management, business development, account management and sales for MNCs. More and more, though, Liu used his flair for dealing with people rather than his engineering expertise. He did so well that his company moved him, first to Hong Kong, and then to Singapore.

He tried a second start-up in 2009, building a food delivery network in the central business district, where the menus of about 100 nearby restaurants were available and food can be ordered by dialing a single customer service number.

Liu realized later – much too late, actually, that the business they had chosen was tough; service quality suffered with the increase in volume. "We were surprised because the response from our customers was higher than expected," he says, noting that they operated only within a two-mile radius. As a result, they were overwhelmed with the orders, they could not keep up with deliveries, missed their deadlines and made some of their customers unhappy.

 The business lasted five months, but this taught Liu some of the most important lessons he would learn in business.

 A problem to solve, firsthand

Living in Singapore as an expat, Liu soon experienced practical problems that would end up shaping the next few years of his life.

Laundry, for instance, is a problem for a busy worker who hardly knows where to go and how to squeeze in this chore. 

Shortly after the business began, two angel investors poured in a modest sum, which they then used to boost their IT operations and customer service. After a year, the company took a chief technology officer from Alibaba Southeast Asia, rewriting the back-end and front-end systems.

The IT boost seemed to work, and Liu, learning from experience with his previous start-ups, was careful that service quality remained consistent even with the higher volume. Or especially given it.

What started out as a purely laundry business, KnocKnock has now expanded to several others, serving over 30,000 families and households in Singapore. Now customers can have their homes, upholstery, air-conditioning units cleaned. They can subscribe to flower delivery services if they want flowers in their homes.

Applications, applications

Liu does not hesitate whatsoever to talk about how he veered from the usual path in order to take the one he is treading now.

  1. Timing is everything

"You can get into the right business but if you do so on bad timing, you would just be wasting your time and money," Liu says, recalling his experience with O2O – online-to-offline business – at a time when it was just beginning.

  1. Confidence spells the difference

If there is anything that his setbacks as a businessman have taught him, it is to be confident in the fact that he can still build businesses in the future. "I have done it already, surely I can do it again," he says. "I have acquired certain skills. I know the importance of quality control. I have ambition."

  1. Each business has a unique core principle

Every venture in any industry has a unique characteristic – what sets it apart from everything else.

For the food delivery business, for instance, logistics concerns make up 80 percent of the operation. "It's not at all about fancy advertising," Liu says, adding you have to know what the most important thing in the business is.

  1. People always, always come first

"Every business, no matter the industry, is about people," says Liu. Whatever the product or service you offer, the first thing you should understand is who your customers are – what they need, what they want…From there you can build a long-term relationship. Business is not about one-time deals," he says.

  1. Growth should be gradual

The past two and half years have been characterized by a lot of hard work, says Liu, but also marked progress.

"We invested in an ERP system for our suppliers so that we can track the quality of what they provide us," he says. Through this they can benchmark their own service quality.

Expansion plans are there, of course, but growth must be gradual because it is more important to build a solid foundation first to ensure excellence in quality.

  1. Family support is priceless

Liu's parents envisioned him doing something else as an engineer employed in a large corporation. Certainly they did not dream for their son to take a roller-coaster ride, alternating between failures and victories, risking a lot and losing even more, going back to a secure environment only to venture out again.

"Sure, my parents are worried," Liu says, "especially since they know I have to pay the salaries of 34 people.  But I think they are happy that I know where my passion is. They have seen what I have sacrificed. My family is very supportive."