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Wai Hong Fong: The online retail entrepreneur

James Shackell

Thu Jan 12 2012

Wai Hong Fong, young entrepreneur and founder of OzHut,

FORMER international student and online retail success Wai Hong Fong talks about online retail’s advantage over the department stores, and making it big in the business league with a media degree.

WAI Hong Fong doesn’t worry too much about the future. This might seem strange for a successful entrepreneur, but for this former international student, business is less about the dream, more about the drive.

“I’ve never dreamt of building a big business or achieving success in the business world, I just set out to do it,” Wai Hong tells Meld.

“I didn’t really think too much about the ‘path’. I heard [influential US pastor] Bill Hybels speak once about the concept of ‘what’s in your hands?’ He meant identifying the skills, experiences and assets you’ve been given at any point in time and using them to help you decide what the very next step is.”

After graduating with a BA (Media and Communications) from Melbourne University, Wai Hong decided to skip looking for a job and took the unexpected next step of launching OZhut, a niche online retailer selling a variety of specialty goods, from breathalysers to bubble wrap.

Since its creation in 2008, OZhut has carved out its own space in the burgeoning online retail sector, generating $2.6 million in sales last financial year.

But Wai Hong remembers the early days, when the company was run from his uncle’s shed and the biggest challenge was simply finding products to sell. The big break came, eventually, through telescopes.

“We got into telescopes only because one of the few suppliers that was willing to give us something to sell was a telescopes supplier,” Wai Hong says.

“We sold pretty much anything we could get our hands on. We went as cheap as we could wherever we could and learnt everything by ourselves.

“I was the coder, customer service rep, packer, cleaner and managing director all at the same time for at least 18 months.”

But selling specialty products gave Wai Hong a unique advantage over other established retail chains.

“We didn’t start out with a very large budget or investment backing,” he says.

“The idea was to carve out a small enough niche that we could dominate given our limited resources, and apply a divide and conquer strategy over time towards other, bigger markets.”

“People are looking to buy from experts, and those who are also passionate about and interested in the product they are selling. I think this gave us a clear advantage over department stores like Myer and David Jones, where there is usually no connection between the sales reps and the products.”

It could easily be argued that the strategy worked, as OZhut quickly expanded into more mainstream categories like kitchenware at OZkitchenware and jewellery at Edelrose.

Five years on, Wai Hong has impressed both consumers and the industry and won a stack of business kudos. OZhut was a finalist in the Emerging Star category of the Online Retailer Industry Awards in 2009 and in the SmartCompany Web Awards’ Best eCommerce Website category in 2010.

Wai Hong recently made The Age‘s Melbourne Magazine‘s list of the Top 100 Most Influential, Inspirational, Provocative and Creative People for 2011. Not that he hasn’t been celebrated for his entrepreneurial skills before – in 2010 he was named one of SmartCompany‘s Hot 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs.

He also shares his expertise in search engine optimisation in a regular column in the online magazine for new-businesses, StartupSmart.

Despite such accolades, he remains humble, putting the company’s success down to a mixture of “hard work, opportunity and grace”.

“I’m not really a ‘reach for the stars, big dreams’ kind of person. I’m more of a ‘next-step, faithful with what you’ve got’ guy.”