The Lifestyle Brand that is Bringing Affordable Luxury to Singaporeans

Quality should not be out of reach, says Jaslyn Chan, co-founder of IUIGA

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Jaslyn Chan wanted to furnish her house in Singapore but couldn't find anything suitable. What the high-end boutiques offered was too expensive and the affordable products at large retailers were ubiquitous in quality and design. All she wanted was high-quality home products that didn't prompt her to break the bank. So she decided to take matters into her own hands.

In 2016, along with Lai Xin, she started IUIGA, a lifestyle brand in Singapore. True to its name ("Iuiga" stands for quality in Samoan; so the name conveys the idea of "I love quality"), the brand is known for its well-designed, functional everyday essentials at a price everyone can afford, plugs Chan, who's the business strategy and development manager. "We wanted to answer a simple question: why pay so much for quality."

What comes first?

Over the years, IUIGA ("eye-you-gah") has earned a reputation for selling Muji-style minimalist products, from clothes to bean bags, tableware, and bathroom products, at a fraction of the exorbitant prices charged by the Japanese brand. The trick is IUIGA taps on the same factories that produce for brands like Muji, Samsonite and WMF, but does away with product labels so as to eliminate potential added value from branding. "These brand manufacturers were supplying to all the international brands that we grew up with and I was very surprised to know that most of these brands do not own the design and product rights to the products sold under their labels," says Chan.

In traditional retail, a product is marked up eight to 15 times by the time it reaches the customer. The product goes through a long process of at least 10-20 layers from manufacturers to distribution and finally to the end consumer. But IUIGA broke this cycle. "We decided to sell directly at absolutely transparent prices online. We show you what it costs us to make these products, and then our mark-ups," Chan says. By selling products through its website and app, the brand also eliminates brick-and-mortar expenses. At present, IUIGA works with over 200 manufacturers.

A path less travelled

The journey, however, has not been easy, admits Chan. "It took us more than 1.5 years to convince our first 57 manufacturers to work with us. It was difficult because looking for the manufacturers itself is a long process and it's a whole new ball game to convince them to work with us. Some of them not only rejected our proposal but rubbed salt in the wound to say that we will never succeed." Such a heavy operating model also meant risks in supply chain management and a high demand for cash flow. "Other long-term challenges also include building a more recognizable brand to increase bargaining power when we liaise with manufacturers," she says. But how does IUIGA decide which item to bring to market?

"We select products based on a combination of demand, cost of production and inventory risk. We choose products that we consider to be essentials with a broad appeal/large enough market (every household should have at least one of these, etc.), predicated by how much we can make them for," Chan says.

A hit show

Despite being a fairly new player, the startup has become a popular brand, especially among those who have a penchant for quality and conscious living. Being an e-commerce brand by nature, the founders capitalized on digital marketing channels through social media when they first launched. "Our transparent pricing was the perfect match for marketing strategies that incorporate consumer-generated content on social networks such as Instagram and Facebook," says Chan. It grossed half a million revenue within 100 days.

The brand has also gone offline, with two stores present in Singapore and eight more in the pipeline. It is also planning to expand to Malaysia, but that depends on funding. "IUIGA is completely self-funded currently. We are open to external funding to expand overseas. There have been many interested parties but the core competencies we are looking for in VCs (venture capitalists) are complementary know-how and expertise in the SEA (Southeast Asia) market," Chan says. She doesn't focus too much on the money, though. "I am not saying this because money is not important, it is [important]. We are very transparent about how much we earn from each product sold from the get-go but our main intention was to create something important, which is not money," she says.

She says a good many times entrepreneurs end up attracting the wrong kind of investors and employees to generate money quickly, which results in the company perishing prematurely. "What you do should preferably make sense and change or improve the lives of people it touches. If this happens, the money will follow. Stay true to your intentions, be persistent and keep working on your product or service to improve it."