motherPLUKKA
This jacket, despite its cutting-edge motorcycle silhouette, is hand-made by Miao weavers based in Guizhou China. One of the amazing designs by Angel Chang, who’s singlehandedly spreading and reviving the embroidery and textile traditions of the Miao and Dong people to Western consumers and beyond. 

This jacket, despite its cutting-edge motorcycle silhouette, is hand-made by Miao weavers based in Guizhou China. One of the amazing designs by Angel Chang, who’s singlehandedly spreading and reviving the embroidery and textile traditions of the Miao and Dong people to Western consumers and beyond. 

2013!

Sorry for dropping off the face but, once I raised money for Plukka, it became impossible to keep on blogging in tell-all mode, what with actual and would-be investors reading the blog. The fact that I’m writing after such a long hiatus means that there are other redeeming imperatives at play — namely, the importance of WRITING — and, indeed, of thinking, expression, creativity and sharing. Brace yourself for a sea change in perspective and theme: from here on in, I’m going to write about anything I damn well please. FULL STOP. Sadly (or, perhaps not), you won’t be treated to the daily gyrations of my start-up temper, replete with comical accounts of HR catastrophes, IP lawsuits and disappearing sections of the website. Instead, I reserve the right to riff about middle age, the difficulties of channeling the hormones of my 13-year old son, buying land in Sri Lanka, and class reunions. 

… 

To wit, here are SOME, if not all, of my new year’s resolutions. These resolutions are REAL, partially explaining why I’ve decided to memorialize them on the blog. In the sheer act of writing them down, I hope to imbue them with some measure of real-life moral force. [!!!!????] After all, some of you will remember — and taunt me with them — I hope — should I fail to live up to my self-promises. Far from the result of a theatrical and inebriated confabulation, trotted out for the entertainment of dinner guests, the list is eminently achievable — even if in a prosaic, middle class housewifey way —

1) I will read one novel a quarter. Hard to believe that someone so smitten with literature would set the bar SO low, I know…. 

2) I will learn how to swim WELL this year. 

3) I will do some form of cardio three times a week, at least. 

4) I will attend the world-class Hong Kong Arts Festival this year

5) I will resume study of Mandarin (once a week)

6) I will crawl out of my hole and host at least one dinner party a month

There are other ways in which I’m making peace with myself that are much more interesting and deep but I can’t very well divulge these philosophical meditations unless/until Plukka IPOs in five years [grin]… 

… 

Yesterday, I returned from a reunion in Bangkok with my father’s best friends, a couple whom I hadn’t seen for 30+ years! It led me to muse on the pleasure of reconnecting with very old friends and why I’ve made it such a point this year. These are the parents of the friend who pinged me after 30 years on Facebook this year, who has experienced untold travails helming his own tech company and was victimized by his co-founders in a massive fraud, investigated by the SEC and FBI. I blogged about his invaluable succor and fundraising guidance earlier this year — my Ace In The Hole, I called him. There’s nothing like being surrounded by the affection of people who have expectations no higher than hoping you haven’t been convicted of a felony since they last saw you at 14 years old. The same goes for reunions with classmates, who skipped lectures and drank Mad Dog with you as an unruly teenager growing up in an oppressive, white bread high school in Ohio. Who would have believed that you would actually make something out of your life?? That’s why these reunions are utterly poignant and comforting: what you’ve accomplished means NOTHING to a really old friend. REALLY. It’s enough that you’re kindred animal spirits — without the baggage of accomplishments, reputations, marriages, kids or middle-aged neuroses. 

A day well-spent (in Manhattan)

I haven’t been writing because in New York and running around like a chicken with its head cut off. YAY! 

Last night, I had the good fortune to be invited to a private dinner and viewing of Christian Marclay’s The Clock before it opened to the public at Lincoln Center today. Although a casual stand-up affair, it was like zeroing into the epicenter of Manhattan’s YOUNG art scene. Good to be surrounded by some thinking people who really believe in cultivating an art scene with integrity. I forgot what that’s like because I’ve been in the Chinese contemporary art world too long! Weirdly, spending more time in NYC could very well have the salubrious effect of re-keening my interest in the art world. It’s been a long time since I’ve considered art — without money being an integral part of the equation. In Hong Kong, art is money and money is art. Basta. Here, there’s more of a delicate dance between appreciation and exploitation - a dance metered by the compunction of a puritannical intellectualism which repudiates the overtly facile and commercial. For that matter, it was great to be in company which easily understood the meaning of the last sentence I penned.

Here’s a picture of me with Casey Kelbaugh, my date, the founder of Slideluck Potshow, one of THE most authentic, grassroots artist community events in the US. Capturing the mechanics and format of their events, the name, “Slideluck Potshow” is a spoonerism combining “potluck” and “slideshow” OBVIOUSLY. If you don’t know what a spoonerism is, then you probably don’t know that “Plukka” is the combination of two ESTABLISHED English words either! Casey is the ultimate anti-sales guy, explaining why I brought him to dinner to hang out with some of the world’s top art patrons plus Zaha Hadid and, believe it or not, Tyra Banks (who, by the way, is just unbelievably warm and lovely). (I have been yelled at at least 10 times by friends and publicists for mentioning too many things and causes and organizations and designers unrelated to Plukka at business meetings but, seriously, I cannot help but wave other flags when they deserve attention and exposure. Call it a fatal disease but I’ll always be an activist at heart — and in real life.)

Take a look at their website and, IF YOU’RE IN NYC THIS THURSDAY, attend their next event at Brooklyn Brewery! 

The artwork of this insane Muscovite, WHOM I LOVE, says it all - and explains why I’m no longer an art dealer. http://www.behance.net/gallery/Artworks-posters-2010-2012/4113053

If for some reason you can’t view any of his work, here are some great examples, which demonstrate his disdain and contempt for sacred cows and pat cultural icons: 

Before dinner, I reconnected with a really good, old friend, who’s a legend in the fashion industry (ex-CEO of Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan) and is now revamping Ralph Rucci, whose image as a couturier of choice for the blue-haired set needs serious rehab, if this front row photo from one of his fashion shows is to be trusted as genuine, instead of staged. (I mean, it IS that funny - in a horribly painful way) —

Luckily, the new Chado by Ralph Rucci (still priced stratospherically between $5-12k per garment) is styled to entice a younger customer. Here’s one of the pieces they showed me at the showroom, which blew my mind. Yes, I’m coveting that jacket. Believe it or not, when I’m not feeling like a curmudgeonly hermit, I do go out and I actually do need clothes like that [koff]. For the FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE, I actually said the unthinkable, I WILL WORK FOR CLOTHES. Honestly, everyone knows that I generally do NOT give a rat’s ass about STUFF, but this is a gigantic exception — even a LIFETIME exception —

I can feel the kudos in the pipeline for this one. 

…. 

On the tech side, I had two HUGE meetings (yesterday). One was with the senior management of a multi-billion dollar media company which, if they decide to go ahead with us to do a co-branded fine jewelry collection for the first time in their 20 year history, will be a gigantic coup for Plukka. I was introduced to them by the associate of one our investors, granting us direct access to their C/SVP-suite immediately. I’m now working non-stop to propose a capsule collection to them pronto. These guys do NOT mess around. We pretty much covered the width and girth of any potential project within the span of 45 minutes with the COO, head of publishing, ecommerce and biz dev, all seated around the conference table with me, as I explained how we could develop a gorgeous exclusive collection for them at rock-bottom prices and light speed … Hard to believe, but their head of ecommerce was a veteran of the fine jewelry industry for fifteen years, making it a cakewalk to convince her of our value proposition. Seriously, I was pinching myself after the meeting for at least an hour. If anything happens, this will unfold over MONTHS, so it’s not time to stop the presses - yet. 

….

I met with the newest, HOTTEST curated social commerce platform yesterday, too.  Without giving it away, this platform is now in full-blown competition with Pinterest because it’s a much better curated discovery machine. In contrast to home-made brownies which look like dog poo, this site presents artistic chocolates molded in the shape of skulls with “brains” of walnut halves, shot with the artistry of Raimond Meier. So, you get the idea … there’s no comparison. I’ve pretty much abandoned Pinterest wholesale at this point. On top of that, this site is adding functions and features at incredible speed. It HAS won already. The speed of consumer retail internet IS insane these days! (There are moments when I think, shit, why am I creating a REAL brand with REAL products?) During the course of the meeting, I told them that I’m ready to  commit to creating awesome editorial content in their style if they’re ready to support and promote our brand. By the end of the meeting, we’d gotten “married” so to speak, with the in-person meeting cementing the relationship. Hats off too, to my PR agency, without which this would have been unthinkable. For this one, we WILL see the results, I believe, within a few months. This dovetails with what I mentioned before: Plukka has to commit to being a serious early adopter on certain nascent platforms. My decision was validated when these guys told me that big brands have too many SOPs to roll with it and adapt and innovate from moment to moment. Stay tuned for more on this front. I’m incredibly psyched about our partnership and totally nuts for the platform personally. I’m no time-waster and I leave this site open on my browser the entire day and think about what next great post I can make, accounting, possibly, too, for my neglect of this all-important soul-searching platform :)

… 

TODAY AT 6 AM, EST, WE LAUNCHED THE “COLLECTIONS” SECTION OF OUR WEBSITE. Despite waking up after only 4 hours of sleep this morning to check on the status of the release, TODAY HAS BEEN THE PROUDEST DAY OF MY START-UP LIFE NEXT TO OUR LAUNCH DAY. I hope you’ll take a look at the site soon. It’s a quantum leap from where we began the catalogue on May 1st! I’m fried today but ecstatic! 

… 

By now, you may have noticed that my blog posts are like a ricocheting pinball … I forgot to mention that Vogue pulled a whole armload of jewels from us two days ago. As opposed to a lot of the stuff I mentioned today, I HAVE been holding my breath on that one. 

… 

The fact of my recounting this single day has made me realize that I need to ally my identity with Plukka’s more strongly because, believe it or not, my typical day IS like this one, if I’m in NY, Hong Kong or London — i.e., crammed with fascinating moments spent with opinion leaders, artists and aesthetes in all walks of life. The writing is on the wall: it may finally be the moment to man plukka.tumblr.com properly! 

… 

Not sure how I could have forgotten but last weekend, I rewrote the Kickstarter description for this multi-country initiative within JR’s global street art project, Inside Out. PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING, http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/iopbethechange/inside-out-project-be-the-change-a-global-action

One of the leaders of Be The Change is a friend and fellow art activist, Yvonne Senouf. She inspired me so much that I had to lend a helping hand! 

What comes around will definitely go around

Just two days ago, one of our investors was sent a malicious “spam” email. The sender of the email clearly intended to discredit our site and dissuade the recipient from investing in Plukka. Although the email seemed to be a mass spam email, we checked with several people on our usual mailing list and none of them had received it, allowing us to conclude that this was an isolated incident. Rather, the recipient was specifically targeted and received the email the same day he was organizing to remit money to us.  So, what we had originally believed to be a potential PR debacle to our email list of 18k turned out to be a personal vendetta against me.

The malicious email didn’t affect our relationship with our investor.

I have a good idea of who the perpetrator is. But, rather than confront him, I emailed my investors and supporters warning that, if they receive any weird, anonymous communications, they should ignore them. During the same 24 hour period, too, my credit card was stolen and used for several fraudulent online transactions. Without getting into detail, it’s hard to believe that the two episodes had nothing to do with each other …

Short of literal, physical violence, it’s always better to take the high road and IGNORE sociopaths and miscreants — especially since they’re destined to fall on their own sword, ultimately. You can only take “friends” and employees for gullible dupes so long. Trust can only be stretched so far before credulity becomes stupidity and snaps back like a defective slingshot in the face of the would-be attacker.  Lesson: Karma of ALL types has serious boomerang effects. In the case of bad karma, the boomerang can come back with a razor’s edge and cut your damn head off. Conversely, you make your own success by being decent and honest with people and possessing humility, rather than abusing their trust. When you do right by people, why should they turn against you? 

…. 

On a semi-ironic note, I’m now changing the topic to customer service …. The difference between responding speedily and not is the difference between a huge triumph and a looming PR catastrophe. Last night, 10 pm our time, a customer emailed to say that the leather cord on her Plukka necklace had snapped after only two wearings! It was the first I had heard of such a quality issue, but I personally emailed her back within 3 minutes, prostrated myself with mea culpas, and offered to process a full refund or send her a sterling chain as a replacement for the broken leather cord. I think she was so stunned that the CEO had bothered to respond within minutes that she typed back, within minutes, saying, “I do love the necklace, so please do send the chain”, effusive with surprise and gratitude at the alacrity of my response. Now, imagine if that complaint had been permitted to sit there on the server and fester for hours — or days, even …. 

In stark comparison, check out this virulent, resentful facebook post that I just deleted from our fan page (which, I add, is growing at a healthy pace) –

 

So, in contrast to what I was just saying just now, you canNOT please everyone, especially when you’re selling luxury jewelry in a highly polarized economic environment - even at 80% off! Even if I gave this woman a piece of jewelry, she might spit in my face.  Lesson: Never take it personally.  We can’t help it that online fine jewelry transactions are #1 in terms of absolute dollar amount and that our average ticket is $800. (On a more abstract level, this Facebook post is an indication of where the American economy and middle class are heading, perhaps….)

….

One of my jobs is to stay on top of every major new social commerce platform. In the case of certain platforms, Pinterest, Lyst, The Fancy, The Cools, I’ve already decided that we need to aggressively establish a presence on those sites. Those platforms are comparatively nascent, so, very few major fine jewelry brands have any presence, meaning that, if we act early enough, there’s still ample opportunity to create a major following on those sites. As a concomitant of my diligent explorations on those sites, I have found my interest in shopping reawakened for the first time in 10 years. Now, consumer information resources exist which can assist in ferreting out the most esoteric, pointu, iconoclastic products from off-the-beaten path retailers. HOORAY! The only problem now, though, is that, running a start-up, I have no money with which to buy anything from these sites. It looks like my sartorial regime may be limited to recycled outfits and Plukka jewelry for some years to come :)

Hunkering down (in the office? in a silo? in the involutions of my own brain?)

Today, I read an awesome follow-on from the Ross Douthat op-ed I posted this past week, by Anand Giridharadas about how the best online services and sites are “lightweight social utilities that affect the way you interact with the physical world”, rather than addictive, quicksand experiences which suck the humanity and aestheticism out of our daily lives. Dovetailing with Giridharadas’ piece was this wonderful op-ed by Diane Ackerman too — about how technology makes it very difficult to appreciate the beauty surrounding us every day. (There IS a reason you will usually find me weighed down with a tote of 15 old newspapers at any given time: I’m catching up on op-ed pieces from the past two weeks!) Finally, an increasing outcry that technology, without brakes, can be dangerously dehumanizing! (Ironically, this relatively recent criticism of tech hearkens back to my study of post-Marxist commentators who rued the commodification of human labor through the market economy. Anyone read Klaus Offe? Is the dehumanization brought on technological anomie (of the Facebook addiction variety) however of the same piece as the dehumanization resulting from the mechanization of labor driven by the profit motive? NO, paradoxically, our present-day plight is the result of addiction to sites which exploit our recreational time rather than treat us as wage slaves. Interesting questions therefore become, what is the relationship of work and play seen through the prism of technology? Does the “damage” from obsessive play time get undone by the enrichment of our work life enabled by technology or does one phenomenon remorselessly compound the other, making it more and more difficult to appreciate beauty, spontaneity and art? 

BY THE WAY, I SPEND A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT THESE THINGS, explaining, why, at the end of the day, I will be teaching and writing one day in a university. 

… 

One a more practical note, I wanted to share what we’ve been doing this week at Plukka. Now that fundraising is completed, we’re going to HUNKER DOWN and just focus on execution by optimizing our presence on each marketing platform. Traffic is building nicely. Whereas last month we were at 600-800 visitors per day, we’re now at 1200-1500 per day. I expect conversion to even out when traffic is at 3000-4000 per day, which means we have to just sit tight and work hard for the next few months, doing good PR, adding products at a steady clip, increasing our email list and continuously improving the UX. The latter is a total bitch as I’ve recounted in MANY blog posts. I won’t bore you with that rollercoaster but I’m happy to report that I THINK we’ve found a very solid medium-term solution. The only thing that’s bugging the bejesus out of me currently is our lack of quick check-out. The new UI is a hundred times nicer. But the checkout process continues to be a gated wall requiring the creation of a new account. Sometimes I look at the Funnel Visualization on Google Analytics -and it kills me — but, as you know, even if it’s on top of the dev queue, there’s only so fast one can go. Welcome to the home truth of startups! 

For a while, we felt like we were chickens running around an asylum with our heads cut off - because there was just too much stuff to do and there was no point in focusing. Not so, now. NOW we’re focused on getting our presence right on every single best of breed platform. Since I’m very much a believer in helping other start-ups, I don’t mind sharing my marketing checklist on this blog. I’ve redacted the bits which reveal too much but this list is pretty complete and what the team actually refers to when we discuss marketing —

Now, you understand why startups never sleep. This list is LONG. But we ARE on every single item in it. And already planning for CHRISTMAS, when fully 80% of all fine jewelry sales occur. If that isn’t pressure, I don’t know what is. But for those of you who know me, I LOVE that! 

I’m back (for real this time!)

Re-emerging once again, after a very draining two months of fundraising now that the lion’s share of money hit our bank account on Friday. HALLEF@!#$%^LEUIAH! I’ve been congratulated far and wide for a very very fast fund-raising process — but, god, it kicked the stuffing out of me and siphoned off loads of energy better spent on nurturing the core business. My lieutenants say, nah, you were still paying attention, but, trust me, I was NOT multi-tasking for the first time in maybe 5 years during that two-month period. 

Since we’re still closing, I’m not at liberty to say much now — or, indeed, probably, EVER, but suffice it to say that: 

We raised much more than we originally set out to; 

Demand was so good that we ended up significantly increasing our valuation from the beginning to the end of the two-month period; 

I came away with a much stronger understanding of our business model and how the finance world regards our business. This crystallizing epiphany had eluded me until the moment when my lead angel unpacked his vision of the company to a prospective investor, in front of me, for the first time. It was in the hearing of why he invested in Plukka that I finally understood the value we are building. Better than late than never, yeah? 

This fantastic op-ed by Ross Douthat eloquently and succinctly explains that value. I’m counting on you to read it so that I can now skip a fumbling explanation. In brief, though, we are a hybrid company combining tech with good old-fashioned goods and services, harnessing technology to increase productivity and efficiency rather than deriving 98% of our value from technology alone. The editorial tears the emperor’s new clothes, i.e.,  tech-only value creation, to shreds in short order. It is a MUST-READ if you want to understand why smart investors are beginning to question value propositions based on the recycling of our least productive activity - recreation. 

….

In light of our fundraising success, the timing couldn’t be better: Last night, we relaunched the website with an all-white interface. HOORAY! It’s painful to admit but I was wrong to resist the Tried & True. Anyway, the most awful part of running a start-up is admitting that you’re wrong - at least 1/3 of the time, if not more. By now, I’ve turned it into a veritable art form, with elaborate prostrations before the altar of Analytics …. If I can embrace error headlong without a peep of extenuation, anyone can — even the most monstrously egotistical. 

The Future of Retail Value & Traditional Brands

For those of you who didn’t have the misfortune to see my TEDx talk in October 2010, I happened to be involved in an interesting email exchange this morning. I have directly copied and pasted the contents of what I wrote in three emails on my blackberry this morning, here. Yes, that’s how and what I write on the fly — and that’s why, without a smartphone, I may as well be dead —

FRIEND: 

CAA [is] launching CrowdFunding - basically allowing consumer to buy in early on a new product line for a designer - they wouldn’t get equity in the company, but merely pledge their $ towards a product not yet in existence - like Eddie Borgo doing a bag line. Thus, they create/test the market and margins on product before even going in to production - and nobody has to give up equity to expand their brand if it’s hot.

Genius.

ME: 

Sure. Kickstarter for brands. That’s what I’ve basically been talking about for 3 years! This is essentially Group Buying x Mfg!

The future of retail value shall be determined by the following:

  1. Democratization (design and content)
  2. Customization
  3. Falling prices achieved through a) advance of technology; b) Disintermediation (i.e., elimination of middle men)

These phenomena will manifest themselves thru the application or rise of the following business models:

  1. Crowd sourcing
  2. Group buying x product creation, from mfg to design
  3. Reverse auction style pricing

As technology begins to increasingly bridge gaps in communication, speed and distance, voting (threadless.com, made.com) gives way to explicit group buying where minimum opening order quantities are strictly observed (plukka.com).

Plukka is the paradigmatic example — of course! It is still early days but it has been obvious to me for a long time that this dynamic is inexorable ….

All the value afforded the consumer thru these quantum increases in value, HOWEVER, will be nullified unless there are value-added editorial filters, i.e., curation.

Without editorial filtering, you have sites like cafe press and zazzle.com. And who wants that?

Moreover, there is no reason customization and reverse auction pricing could not be combined and bolted on to the model below (the one described by The Friend). Brands and their products don’t get made unless enough people want them. Then, when people do want them, prices go down the more people buy and, for that matter, there’s no reason brands won’t coopt their audiences into the design process — or at least invite them to participate in some restricted way — and permit their community to vote on those designs — and so it goes on.

NOW, here’s the catch, you need a close rship to mfg and brandbuilding knowhow in order to execute those biz models rapidly and with quality.

Traditional brands, as we have known them, will fall by the wayside as consumers’ needs get met more accurately, effectively and at reasonable cost without the interposition of The Brand (an ensemble of functional and emotional attributes which more or less meets a consumer’s functional requirements and psychological desires). Brands who don’t understand this will become extinct over time — like the dinosaurs.

This will take 5-10 years to unfold —- so save and print this email thread and frame it now, so that, when it is obvious I was right, you will remember this exchange :)

——-

It’s only just begun now…. the hourglass was just upended and is now ticking - for real

A LOT has happened since my last blog entry. Most importantly, and explaining my absence in recent days, we’ve nailed down commitments for ¾ of this round’s fundraising for a valuation higher than what we’d hoped for. The main investor is now just waiting for our closing documents, which I’ve asked our US lawyer to prepare post-haste. (I can’t reveal much about this investor except to say that they are one of the top business families in Hong Kong.) God, can I tell you what a difference it makes to hire an experienced VC lawyer in the US?! Not only do I now have loads of specimen dox on hand whenever I need them, I can pepper him with questions, both embarrassingly stupid AND arcane. It goes without saying that I only go to Brad (our lawyer) after I’ve done my homework and talked to my friend AITH (Ace In The Hole), he to whom I have turned repeatedly for advice, comfort, humour – and many cold buckets of water. Despite not having seen AITH since we were small children, I called him FIRST once I knew this deal was cemented. This has undoubtedly been one of the fastest fund raisings of all time. (AITH: “It’s got to be a record!”) And thank god, because it was sucking the very lifeblood out of me and taking up every single jot of brain power and concentration I had. I pride myself on doing at least three things simultaneously at all times, but, honestly, the anxiety from fund raising was like the anxiety of a first crush – it pushed every other thought out of my head – making it impossible to focus on marketing, sales or our website. For the first time in years, I failed to respond to email because I couldn’t marshall my concentration for anything besides fund raising.
As many startup blogs say, the CEO’s first job is to make sure the company doesn’t run out of money. Well, that message had become the drumbeat of my every waking hour during the past month.

On top of that, we launched the catalogue on May 1st – at LAST! So, I should be singing and dancing in the street, right?

I’m now posting this blog entry from New York, where I just landed. While tempted to cancel the trip, because I had quite a few excellent irons in the fire in Asia, I decided that it would be dumb to cancel appointments with credible, interested potential investors. On the other hand, I’ve decided to skip SFO entirely because The Process is simply too daunting and institutionalized. We have room for only two more major investors at this point (after increasing the total round’s size to give us more runway, a decision taken recently after reflecting on how awful it will be if I need to fund raise again before gaining serious traction). I’m holding a slice for a very good China fund who SMSed me, “save some for us”, before I split. That means we have room for ONE US angel only, really.

You’d think I’d permit myself to relax a wee bit, but NO. I’m now triply stressed out about the website itself – since, as I’ve written before – there are now NO MORE EXCUSES. Knowing that and NOT having a permanent development solution in my pocket is like watching myself bleed to death. It’s made all the worse with the crushing realization that the UI MUST be revamped asap; “collections” must be added; xml feeds created in order to join shopping engines; gift certificate functionality programmed, etc, etc. I look at Gemvara.com, a site I can’t stand, but whose tech is impeccable and want to tear out all my hair because I know WHERE to connect the dots but am, for now, flat-footed. When confronted with skepticism or criticism, I’m accustomed to acting, not making excuses.

OBVIOUSLY, I shouldn’t complain, we now have the money to GO FOR IT. But tech recruitment is a hideous, well-known bitch. On the bright side, friends and associates have recently raised their hand to help and have even offered up their own dev resources as a stop-gap! That’s a huge first and points the way towards solutions. On the plus side, conversion is definitely growing on the site, but launching the catalogue without optimizing it is still like trying to sprint with a broken ankle.

I suppose it’s just another day in the asylum J

Are we there yet?

Wasn’t sure what to entitle this post. The other alternative was, what God giveth, he taketh away with the other hand. 

Ten days ago, a hideous personal family catastrophe befell our lead developer in India — he, whose employment visa we were obtaining from Hong Kong immigration — such that, he will have to drop EVERYTHING and move to the countryside, where there’s no internet connectivity at all, and take care of the family business. This couldn’t have happened at a worst time since we were in the middle of our most important release yet - our catalogue. Things have been made even more FUBAR by the fact that he’s been unable to work normal business hours and has to leave for 5-7 hours in the middle of the business day. Not that he’s been less conscientious. But since he makes up all the lost time during the evening and wee hours of India time, we’ve had to stay up with him a lot of nights to test his fixes. My experience trying to recruit devs in Hong Kong — and even India — is well documented. It generally SUCKS, with 90% of candidates failing or begging off our written test before the interview even begins. It’s back to Square One on the recruitment front. The worst part is that our current guy is incredibly reliable, conscientious, smart and has been utterly committed to us, a wonderful, exceptional guy. [HUGE SIGH]

My fundraising meetings are continuing apace, with 80% of them going well. I know some prospective investors are actually reading this blog, so I won’t say much except that I dislike the mating rituals that accompany this process. Since I’m in the market, I obviously want the money. On the other hand, I have to be careful not to appear over-eager. The reaction of prospective investors has made it obvious that we have a lot going for us: huge margins, no competition, a revolutionary concept and a great management team with sterling track records. What’s there NOT to like? At the same time, playing a poker game - possibly, a protracted one — is a huge strain for someone as unvarnished and impatient as I am. One of my prospective investors asked me when I wanted to close. When I responded June 30th, they said, is that because it’s Ooi speed or you actually have to close by then? 

Fundraising itself hasn’t been unpleasant, in fact. Rather, the meetings I’m having in Asia are leading me to conclude that I should probably cancel my trip to the US, even though I have some good, juicy meetings scheduled.

My current sentiments are related to a meeting with an insane person I had yesterday. I call this person “insane” because he’s even more NOW NOW NOW than I am. This person, whom I shall term “Z”, was introduced to me by a senior TMT banker at a top American investment bank (for some reason, I customarily forget all my amazing contacts until some weird gestalt causes their name to reappear in my mind). This banker totally got what I was doing and immediately sent out my email to a bunch of prospects, one of whom was close friend, Z. Z wrote back immediately wanting to meet up. It turns out Z made zillions of dollars (mostly for others, but a lot for himself too) in the 90s at the dawn of the internet doing things like investing in China.com and partnering with Oz’s big #2 sites to bring them to Asia (e.g., Excite) and such like opportunistic things. He’s done and profited from MANY IPOs and made his investors billions, literally. If it weren’t for the obvious conservatism and white shoe-ness of the TMT banker and the fact that we have SOME mutual, legit friends, Z would have appeared to be a guy straight out of a James Bond movie. But he’s not. As Z himself said, I’m a hustler — in a good, educated, way. Recently, he’s invested in mining in places like Australia and Ghana. Basically, he’s shrewd as f@#$%^ and knows how to package things so that the financial markets read their value, justifiably or not, in a certain way. Anyway, we spent 2.5 hours together and he’s ready to introduce Plukka to major Hong Kong investors — individuals — and invest himself. “Look, we can close this THIS WEEK if you want. Talk to your partner and get back to me.” So, good things keep on POPPING out of the woodwork!

Fundraising is NOT why last week was the most stressful of MY LIFE. It was the combination of fundraising and the importance of this upcoming release combined with the FUBAR dev situation. (IMPORTANTLY, I have halted advertising for the past two weeks in anticipation of this release because I know conversion will increase dramatically when we expand our product offering. Predictably, traffic and sales have been impacted.) We DO need to get this release out in order to stick to our business plan. Sticking to the businessplan obviously impacts fundraising. But, most important, we have to SELL STUFF. Full stop. It all boils down to that. Last week, I asked the team to pull an all-nighter at 11 pm on Thursday because the move from the preliminary staging server to the penultimate (staging) server had to be redone entirely. The first attempt was half-baked because, due to his screwy schedule, our lead dev had had to leave work after moving the code, without fully updating all config files on the server. We tested this version nonetheless, with awful — indeed, seemingly catastrophic — results. To give you an idea of HOW serious this was, we were unable to even create a new account in that half-baked version of the site. Now, if you’ve been reading this blog, you can imagine HOW I FELT — teeth gnashing combined with thoughts of hara kiri. It explains why, at 11 pm that night, I said, look, WE GOTTA REWIND AND REDO THE WHOLE MOVE from scratch. Not only did we then redo the move between staging servers but test it all during the night because of our dev’s screwy schedule. As I mentioned, he has to go out every PM for 5-7 hours, leaving us hanging — sometimes in mid-implementation. So, that night, we had to test and give him feedback before 6 am our time so that he could make the fixes before 11 am IST! God, my recounting of this episode is convoluted, but, trust me, our attempt to manage this release has been like the movie, INCEPTION! 

Here’s the good news and, indeed, what I’ve been doing the whole weekend (besides moving house. god knows how I could have forgotten to mention that!?): THE CATALOGUE has been tested on the staging server and WE’RE ABOUT TO MOVE IT TO PRODUCTION TOMORROW — FINALLY! I’m not going to say it OUT LOUD yet, but HALLEFUCKINGLEUIAH! 

Best VC “interview” ever

The person who interviewed me is one of the most respected ecommerce experts in the industry who, himself, has been part of 3 companies which all ended up with valuations over $250M. Not that I was daunted of course :) 

The objective of the interview was to determine if I possess the insane, even pathological, commitment to Plukka to make it succeed —

……

Question: “How come no one has tried to do what you’re doing now? Surely, someone must have tried this before….”

Answer: “The people best situated to do this, i.e., manufacturers, are still stuck in the past with their hidebound notions of what jewelry consumers actually want to buy (zales, ice.com, macys.com) and possess very scant branding know-how whereas high-end jewelry brands, who do know how to build world-class brands, can’t very well scrap their existing model and cut out all the intermediaries AND their brick and mortar stores. Basically, they’re both stuck in their Old World business models with lots to lose through innovation and risk-taking. On top of that, you have to be HERE, near manufacturing, to make this model viable AND a brand-builder, a combination which is incredibly rare in this part of the world.”

Question: “What made you do this?”

Answer: “I wanted to restore creativity to entrepreneurship and consumer society, since I’ve seen that world become increasingly homogeneous, uninspired and mediocre over the past 15 years. The market economy combined with the Googleization of the creative class’ design inspiration and inputs has led to a sad, boring flatness in the past two decades.”

Question: “Are you only going to concentrate on fine jewelry these two years? What’s the future?” 

Answer: “We stumbled on to jewelry by chance. Thank god, we did! But, yes, for at least two years, we need to focus and concentrate on this category exclusively. 

I hope Plukka can germinate a new sort of ecommerce startup scene in the Pearl River Delta, one that’s based on Hong Kong’s mastery of manufacturing and world-beating supply chain logistics. The future of retail value will be defined by democratization, customization and falling costs, all of which can be better achieved by being located here. It’s obvious that Threadless.com only does t-shirts, decals and flat, easily printable objects because there aren’t that many things they can print in Chicago EASILY. The MAIN reason that model hasn’t been applied to every manufacturable, design-driven consumer product is because the company and brand are geographically distant from manufacturing. 

As for myself, I’m going to become a professor after all this.”

Question: “What was it like growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio?”

Answer: “I was a rebel and truant. But Cincinnati was the crucible of my personality and resulted in my ethos: always take the high road of hard-won authenticity. [That statement prefaced a much longer description of my childhood and formation in Cincinnati, Ohio, which I’m now cutting….] Now, I feel the same way about Hong Kong. Despite being an obviously important international city, Hong Kong has not proven itself an unbeatable leader in certain crucial respects — branding, creativity, dynamism. Hong Kong, by right, should be able to assume pole position in this new paradigm which combines the three phenomena I just described (customization, democratization, falling cost).”