Joshua K. Lau, CEO of YesAsia Holdings, vividly remembers the wisdom of his parents. His mother taught him to dream of castles in the sky – to use his imagination and set his sights high – while his father taught him that only 80 percent certainty is required when making a decision. This combination of ambition and pragmatism guided Lau as he founded and became the driving force behind leading Internet retailers YesAsia.com and YesStyle.com.
Lau’s company started from humble beginnings. Initially called AsiaCD.com before rebranding as YesAsia.com and later YesAsia Holdings, the business was established in 1998 by Lau and then-fiancée Priscilla Chu in a 100 square-foot basement of a downtown San Francisco building. “We started selling Hong Kong music CDs to students in the US,” recalled Lau. “Every day I walked up to Chinatown with my backpack, purchased the CDs from a local CD shop and carried them down to our basement office. I learned that my backpack could hold close to 100 CDs.”
“Priscilla wrote a simple mail-merge program and all the customer address labels were ready when I brought the CDs back. Then we would work together on the packing – along with my mother, who lent a hand in those days. I would then rush to the post office before it closed at 5pm.” Lau marvels at the company’s growth over the last 19 years. “How we grew from shipping a few orders every day from that basement office, to handling thousands of orders a day is, to us, amazing. It’s really a dream come true.”
Lau credits his partnership with Chu for much of his success. “When I first met my wife, she often joked that I had one small idea every 3 days and one big idea every 5 days. We’re both dreamers. We were always sharing business ideas, and thinking of how to make them reality. Most of my ideas were rejected, and the only one she agreed with was selling things on the Internet.” Before long, they discovered that more substantial capital was necessary to continue growing their business. After more than 40 pitches to many VCs, Lau successfully raised US$12 million from three major institutional investors on April 10, 2000 – a few days before the Nasdaq crash.
With the fresh capital, YesAsia.com rapidly expanded. Besides CDs, the company began to offer Chinese DVDs and VCDs, and also music and movies from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The company moved its headquarters from San Francisco to Hong Kong and opened offices in Tokyo and Seoul to strengthen its sourcing capabilities. Customers – both overseas Chinese and fans of Asian entertainment – from the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and more soon came to know YesAsia.com as the destination to purchase Asian entertainment products.
The journey was not without setbacks. Starting in 2004, a downturn in the Asian entertainment industry and the rise of Internet piracy severely impacted music and movie sales. Seeking a change, Lau and his team, now numbering over 150 across all offices, turned to Asian fashion and lifestyle products. Lau recalls initial skepticism to the idea. “Many people told us that selling clothing online was not feasible, since there aren’t any fitting rooms and customers can’t touch the clothes. But we were also seeing that more people were willing to buy clothing or even shoes online – including Priscilla. That gave me the confidence in 2006 to launch YesStyle.com.”
After 10 years of expansion, YesStyle.com is now the core and the growth engine of the company. Recently, the company strengthened its focus on the Asian beauty and cosmetics category, becoming an authorized retailed of over 50 Korean and Japanese beauty brands. As Asian beauty products have grown in popularity, YesStyle.com is well positioned to participate in this new global consumer wave. The company now boasts over 1 million customers in over 150 countries and regions worldwide. The YesStyle.com Facebook page has amassed 1.6 million likes and the company’s Instagram account tallies 240,000 followers.
Lau currently serves as the CEO of the company, securing financing and mapping the company direction, while also working hands-on with sourcing and marketing development. The company that began in a 100 square-foot basement has grown into an international operation with over 300 employees. Lau maintains that teamwork is a core value of YesAsia Holdings. “We encourage team members to bring forward their ideas, and we listen to their feedback and concerns,” he says. To this end, Lau employs a CEO Suggestion Box. Team members can ask questions or offer ideas – even anonymously – which Lau addresses publicly during quarterly staff meetings.
Lau also cites customer satisfaction as key. “We don’t aspire to become the largest company in the e-commerce industry, but our team strives for quality, and providing good services for our customers is a large part of that.” Similar to the CEO Suggestion Box, Lau employs an “Email our CEO” link on YesAsia.com and YesStyle.com for customers to send their comments and complaints directly to him. “Many of our company practices originate from customer ideas,” shares Lau. “We believe that if we do our work well, even in the smallest of tasks, and serve our customers well, our success will follow.”
“I am passionate in growing a business,” says Lau. “It’s like building a castle one block at a time, starting with a solid foundation. It may take persistent efforts over years or even decades to achieve our goals, but I enjoy my daily work, which makes the process easier.” When not working, Lau enjoys spending time with his family, especially his son Matthew, with whom he’s learning the game of Weiqi or Go. Recently, both father and son attained the amateur Go rank of 1 dan. Lau also enjoys spending time with his team members, joining them frequently for lunches or dinners. “I try not to talk about business all the time, but instead share the little things in everyday life and have some fun together.”
With his company nearing two decades in existence, Lau is bullish. “We believe in the future of e-commerce,” he says. “Online shopping will continue to grow and become an even bigger part of everyone’s daily life. I believe that our team has the talent and experience to become one of the leaders in this growing industry.” Lau is not complacent, however. “I’ve made my share of mistakes and try to learn from them. I am growing alongside my team members.”
Lau envisions staying at the helm of YesAsia Holdings for the foreseeable future. “I am committed to leading the company, and striving to become a better leader,” he says. Looking back on the company’s shift from Asian entertainment to Asian fashion and beauty, Lau has gained perspective and wisdom of his own, and now knows what it takes to steer a company through rough waters. He advises, “Do not give up easily. Difficulties are expected. If we can overcome, we are making a difference.” The success of YesAsia Holdings is the result of his persistence.