iPmart is one of the biggest local e-commerce companies in the country yet not many people (even those within the e-commerce industry) are aware of it, much less its back story. Perhaps the fact that it is from East Malaysia has something to do with it.
Its founder, Mart Tang (yes, that’s his name) hails from Miri and he tried out various businesses before finding success with e-commerce. His first business venture was as a distributor of laser discs. Being in the business, he set up something called “MTV” – it has nothing to do with the famous music channel but is a private movie viewing concept where people can rent a room to watch movies on a large screen TV.
Another venture, totally unrelated, was a gold shop. None of these businesses went very far. The turning point for Mart was when Jaring, the country’s first Internet service provider, began offering Malaysians Internet access in 1995. He quickly became “addicted” to Internet. Not only did he pick up website designing skills, he even learned some hacking techniques.
A techie at heart, Mart also developed a fascination with mobile phones. Around 1999, while searching online forums for information on repair mobile phones, he learned about “flashing”, a technique to overwrite firmware in electronic devices with new data.
“I remember spending about RM40, 000 travelling all the way to Hong Kong and buying a flashing device, so I could ‘rescue’ three mobile phones which worth around RM 4,000,” he says, with a smile. In time, he became something of an expert in mobile phone repair and he began to contribute to online forums, answering queries from posters from all the over world. He was so active that he was invited by the forum owners to become a moderator in 2001. In time posters started asking him if he sold spare parts. This prompted Mart to contact suppliers in China. At the time, e-mail communication was not yet common in China so he had to do everything via phone and fax.
“I created a website with price list. Customers could place orders by filling up a spreadsheet and paying me via WesternUnion,” recalls Mart on his first e-commerce experience. With this kind of simple set up he managed to collect around generate sales of about US$6,000 a month. It was a promising beginning. By 2003, Mart had started his own forum, which was branded the i-Phone forum (long before Steve Jobs though of that name). If you go to www.i-phone.org it will redirect you to the i-Pmart site!
A year later, in November 2004, Mart launched a proper online store. “We didn’t spend any advertising dollars, we just leveraged on our forum back then,” he recalls. “I still remember our very first online order. It was placed just 30 minutes after we went live. It was placed by someone from Denmark. He is still our customer today.” Not everything went smoothly though. Mart wasn’t able to trademark the i-Phone brand because of Apple’s claim over that name. “We had to change the name of our forum and online store. Our forum members and customers told us they were very unhappy because they knew we used the phrase i-Phone long before Apple did. But how do you go to battle against Apple?”
In 2005, he changed his business to i-Pmart. The name change did not dampen interest
in his store though, as online sales kept coming from all over the world, especially from South America and certain parts of Europe. For the international market, his strategy is to offer items that people need (what he terms “forced to buy” products) rather than what people desire.
“Generally speaking, the poorer the countries, the higher the demand because the technicians there need parts and tools to fix mobile phones. There, people don’t just buy new phones when they get damaged. They want to fix them,” he notes.
For a long time, i-Pmart has operated his international business out of Kuching. “Some of the customers or partners who have visited our offce find it unbelievable, as Kuching is not a city that is famed for Internet startups or business,” says Mart. He often visits Kuala Lumpur though, to seek new talent to join his growing company. Since 2012, with the launch of iPmart.com.my (different from his international site), he has been focusing on catering to the local market. “The main difference is our international site focuses on ‘forced-to-buy’ products (mainly spare parts) while our local site carries ‘desired’ consumer products like gadgets and accessories,” he says.
Mart finally moved his headquarter from Kuching to KL in 2013, although the operations team for his international business is still based in Kuching. One of the main challenges of doing online business is detecting fraud. Mart says it was quite a problem in the early days but today, with the implementation of 3D Secure, an additional security layer for online credit card transactions, where the bank sends a security code to your mobile phone to confirm the transaction, the e-commerce environment is a lot safer for both merchants and consumers.
Just as Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos prioritizes customer service and satisfaction, so does Mart who believes in the mantra: “The customer is always right.” There is no point having good website design or strong marketing campaign without good customer service. “The more difficult the customer, the longer he or she will stick with you if you solve his problem,” Mart says. He always reminds his team that it is the customers who pay them their salaries. He even does random checks on incoming inquiries to make sure service levels are up to the mark. And if the customer shows any signs of frustration, his team is instructed to deal with the customer by phone rather than e-mail. “Words via e-mail can be easily misinterpreted and lead to misunderstandings,” says Mart. “How difficult is it to pick up the phone and call the customer?”
His long-term mission is for i-Pmart to be the one- stop-shop for all things electronic. “I hope one day, Malaysians will think of i-Pmart whenever they want to buy gadgets or electronics, and we will be there to provide convenience for their online shopping experience”.