If you think influencers are the only ones thriving in the digital era, you have to think twice. Not only did the internet open a stage for talent to dazzle, but it also granted visionary entrepreneurs the power to revolutionize ideas and change industry landscapes.
Through the years, we’ve seen the bold endeavors of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other famous businessmen who rewrote the rules of success and harnessed power in the digital realm. In this exhilarating arena of innovation, a new question looms on the horizon: can Generation Z rise to the occasion and flourish on their own?
In this feature, we take a closer look at how a new breed of trailblazers conducts themselves in the digital realm. Here, the co-founders of the multimillion-dollar air and water purifier brand Sterra—Chris Lim and Strife Lim—reveal how they broke the code to become Singapore’s most successful e-commerce store.
Sterra—Journey to Becoming a Global Brand
As a digital native, Chris immediately saw the power of e-commerce when he interned at Lazada in 2014. Though clueless about what was in store for him—that’s why he became a banker after graduation—he was certain of the power of e-commerce in shaping the future of retail. Hence the leap of faith to leave his job and start an e-commerce business with his classmate and long-time friend, Strife Lim.
From toilet stools to T-shirts that raked in six figures in revenue, the two were focused on establishing themselves as a global brand despite the many failures that came along the way. Drawing upon the knowledge gained from their previous entrepreneurial ventures, the duo noticed a void in the Singaporean home appliance market for premium, well-designed products available at affordable prices. As a result, Sterra was born.
Navigating Through the Ups and Downs of Business as Young Entrepreneurs
Under the visionary leadership of Chris and Strife, Sterra accomplished an astounding feat within a mere two years. Emerging as Singapore’s unrivaled leader in the realm of air and water purifiers, the brand skyrocketed to prominence, amassing a staggering eight-figure revenue.
While this achievement may appear astonishing, the arduous nine-year journey leading to such a triumph was far from smooth sailing. As Chris puts it: “Business, in general, is just up and down. And it will never end. We’re looking at every failure in a sense. There is a lesson that we are missing or skills that are missing for us to reach the next level. So, once you reach the next level, there’ll be times when we’ve got something. And that’s another new lesson.”
It’s easy to back down with all the failures that have come along the way, but instead of wallowing in frustration, the two were able to see through the silver lining—learning so much from the process, even though it prompted them to learn from failures.
“Nine years is a long time. But in all those periods, we did not lose. We learned a lot from the process.”
Thriving Amidst Fierce Competition
Here’s the thing when you decide to venture into business: you have to compete against longstanding, industry-dominating giants, some have existed long before your own. As a small business, you are also confronted with the reality that you have to deal with limited resources. Hence, the need to be critical in every move. “Are we focusing on the right things? Should we say ‘no’ to the rest?”
However, one notable quality that distinguishes the younger generation is their inherent creativity and willingness to take risks. They are always open to trying out new ideas and developing new ways to do things better. And with so many things happening in this digital era, operating in a tech environment is something that Gen Z is very comfortable with.
While many fear change, the younger generation stands out with their remarkable openness towards it. This mindset strongly resonated with Chris and Strife, who cracked the code to e-commerce: for your brand to stay on top, you must stay ahead of the tech curve. By understanding this principle, they gained a significant advantage and ensured their brand’s continued prominence in the industry.
“Creativity plays a big role, especially if you’re in e-commerce. When you’re operating in a tech environment, there’s a lot of stuff happening, like chatbots, ChatGPT. And that’s what’s exciting about it. E-commerce is an amazing technology; it always changes. And when things change, then there will always be new opportunities to look forward to.”
And indeed, fortune favors the bold. Those who know how to utilize the latest trend and get the value of what technology offers get a temporary lead. Others may be able to catch up, but there’s always something that makes things more exciting. “Remember when ChatGPT first made headlines? Then companies, like Google tried to get on board with Google Bard. It’s not on par right now, but it allows you to explore all the various options.”
Dominating the E-Commerce Industry
While technology can take you a certain distance, if you aspire to go far, it is essential to learn how to effectively harness its potential. To do this, one marketing strategy that Chris and Strife implemented was engaging with influencers. “To reach the mobile audience, we worked together with them to create content that is relevant to Gen Z. We look at data, sort everything, and explore data-driven insights. From there, we improvise and improve over time.”
The team also believes in embracing diversity across age groups. Hence, they hire people from different age brackets to foster a rich tapestry of ideas.
By doing so, they can look into one of the most important factors when starting a business: product market fit. Instead of spending all your energy on logo design, website creation, and all that, you have to find out whether people want your product or if it caters to their needs. “That’s why when you do marketing, you need to try to dig to get things flowing. Focus on the market demand. Focus on what others are doing—and see how you can move on to other stuff.”
In short, research is vital to business. Like creating content, you must know what drives engagement and traffic. You have to look into your insights to see what people are interested in, and what they value. Different from big and more experienced companies that can create demand and move ahead of the mass market, startups usually start small by understanding how the market works. As the adage goes: you have to understand the rules before you break them. Then comes innovation. “What else can we do? How can we change the industry? How can we make the company better? You have to master the topic first before you add creative value.”
The Future of Sterra
The business landscape is indeed filled with so many opportunities and mentors to learn from. Aside from actively learning from other people, Chris and Strife also believe that running a business is akin to maintaining a high-performance athlete: you must constantly check for their health, training program, and social interaction to be aware of the new things that are happening. “Balance is definitely important. It translates to the morale of the company. So, whenever you feel stressed out, it also translates to the rest of us.” Hence, the need to balance the mental health and work-life aspects.
True enough, this approach is very much aligned with their e-commerce business: providing wellness at home. Each product line—from air and water purifiers to mattresses and massage chairs—is strategically designed to cater to the needs of its consumers.
Sterra continues to improve its offerings through constructive feedback, enabling them to make informed choices.
In this age of digital competition and social media affirmation, young Singaporean entrepreneurs shed some light on the importance of staying humble and continuously learning in the pursuit of business success. Yes, it can be difficult to swallow negative comments, but shedding your ego and listening to feedback and insights is crucial for improvement and innovation. “We can’t just assume that we are the best. But having the data really drives the quickest growth.”