MELPOMENE HUA: What are your roles as CMO?
SHANNON KALAYANAMITR: My key roles are branding and business development. People tend to assume that branding is just about slapping a name on things, but in reality, it’s much more challenging because branding has to touch on every aspect of the business in order to be authentic. And it’s so important to be authentic—if not, why would women buy my products? It’s also got to be in the people I hire. For example, an Orami buyer has to know what kinds of products a girl would like to see on our website, how she would like it to be presented, and what kind of product description appeals to her. The reason why I’ve a tough job is because I’m supposed to be a busybody—I have to poke my nose everywhere to make sure that we’re consistent. Sometimes people don’t see that, and they question why I’m spending money on something they deem pointless, when in fact, it fits into the bigger picture. For business development, I need to create comparative advantage by personalising the Orami experience, so that if and when our competitors decide to target women, our customers will choose to stay with us.
MELPOMENE: Walk me through the ideal path you’d like someone to take to go from normal consumer to loyal Orami customer.
SHANNON: The current pathway is through showing customers relevant products. For example, if you’re a mom who goes to the site because Orami pampers are affordable, you would also see something else that you need, like makeup or Tupperware. Beyond that, and more importantly, women everywhere go through similar issues—be it acne, birth control, or pregnancy—and I want to create a safe haven where people come to get inspiration and advice. Collectively, we’re helping each other “have it all”. It’s not just about sales, it’s also about building a community. This extra dimension and depth are what differentiates Orami from the mall and other e-commerce sites. Right now, we’re the online destination for shopping, but my ideal is for us to be the online destination that caters to all the needs of Southeast Asian women.
MELPOMENE: What is the strangest marketing experiment you’ve ever done?
SHANNON: [laughs] We produced a marketing video starring an attractive guy who spills coffee on his shirt in an elevator. The girl who is with him in the elevator presses the buttons for every single floor, so she would have time to get out and dress up before he sees her again. It went viral… the police came to our office the next day, claiming that our video violated some pornographic laws, and they wanted to arrest the marketing team. Everyone was freaking out. Some of the girls were close to tears and started calling their families. I told them I’ll take full responsibility and the police proceeded to handcuff me. As we were walking out, someone played “I Like to Move It” and the “officers” started stripping [laughs]. It was an April Fool’s joke!
Rebranding is a painful and expensive process, but it was necessary to bring our companies together, and for people to be aligned with a single vision.
MELPOMENE: Since you started Moxy in 2013, the company has rebranded twice. Do you find rebranding disruptive?
SHANNON: Every merger invariably comes with the challenge of synthesising different cultures. When we merged with WhatsNew Group, they had four brands underneath them, and in order to maximise our marketing dollar as well as avoid confusing consumers, it was important to collapse all our brands into one. At the end of a long rebranding period of 6 months, everything was good—then we merged with Bilna and started the whole process again. Bilna has always been family-oriented, catering to mother and babies; whereas Moxy had a single girl image, with a focus on lifestyle. I am attached to the Moxy brand because it embodies being fun, open, and real, and I wanted to carry these traits over to the new company. But Bilna was also very attached to their name, so it took some time before we eventually decided to relaunch as “Orami”. Rebranding is a painful and expensive process, but it was necessary to bring our companies together, and for people to be aligned with a single vision. It’s always a challenge to make sure that the culture trickles down to every aspect of the business, and it’s only been 6 months for us, but so far so good.
MELPOMENE: What does it mean to “have it all”?
SHANNON: The traditional portrayal of an ideal life for a woman is to be beautiful, have a great husband, a successful career, and adorable kids. But life will never reach a static point of perfection, because once we have something, we’ll start thinking about the next thing we want. There’s a Japanese word called “ikigai”, which represents the intersection between what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about, and what the world needs. To me, that is the path towards having it all. When I graduated with a finance degree in my early 20s, I got a banking job that paid well but I couldn’t see myself doing it in the long run. I went through a period of self-questioning and tried to focus instead on doing good in my late 20s, but I soon realised that wasn’t sustainable. Thereafter, I had an exploratory phase of about 5 years and now I finally feel like I’ve found my ikigai—I’m close to having it all. The process involves a lot of experimentation to find out what you want.
Forget this whole millennial new age thing about following your passion—focus on building skills and passion will come.
MELPOMENE: People often talk about chasing your dreams or passion, but it’s hard to figure out what you truly love doing.
SHANNON: I don’t believe in passion. I made conscious choices throughout my career to prioritise building skill sets. Integrating passion into my work comes at a later stage. The problem with placing passion first is that without the necessary skills, you don’t know where to go, and in the case of start-ups, how to scale. I started working in e-commerce to learn specific skills, and over time it became a platform for me to reach out to women. Forget this whole millennial new age thing about following your passion—focus on building skills and passion will come.
MELPOMENE: Is that something you learnt from your NGO work?
SHANNON: Definitely. I wanted to help because I felt that I was privileged, and had a duty to give back. When the 2004 tsunami happened I flew in to volunteer, and was given the task of identifying bodies. In the process, we found a village where half the population had died in the Tsunami, and I helped raise money for them. It was meaningful to be able to help, but it wasn’t sustainable because I didn’t get the business model right… Did you know that the UN takes about 20% of your donation? I just couldn’t bring myself to take any money which could be used to help someone, so I went broke myself. I decided then that business should come first.
MELPOMENE: You said that your mother had limited choices in life. Did that impact your perspective?
SHANNON: I grew up with a cheating dad. When my dad moved back to Thailand from the U.S., my mum was torn because she had a great job there as a registered nurse, but eventually gave that up and got a job in Thailand as an office manager, with a salary of $1000 a month. Sometimes we would walk in on her crying. I hated that my mum felt compelled to stay for financial stability, us (her children), and a lack of opportunities. Women in Asia feel that our role in life is to have a family, be a dutiful wife, and to fit into a mold. Being a dutiful wife is important, but we can also do other things. If you empower women with tools, ideas, and opportunities to make money, they can be independent and make their own choices. They don’t have to depend on anyone but themselves.
MELPOMENE: Did that affect your view on relationships?
SHANNON: Even after witnessing my parents’ relationship, I still always wanted to get married. I’ve seen many people who are unhappy but stay together because they’re married or have kids. I don’t want marriage to be the only reason I’m with my boyfriend. I want us to be completely free, and stay together by choice. When I was younger, I still felt some pressure to get married. When we got pregnant, I was worried that my kids would grow up being teased and feel insecure. But society has become a lot more progressive, and now I don’t feel the urge or need to get married anymore. When I tell people that I’m not married, some still assume I’m a single mother or something went wrong. But not getting married was our conscious decision, and I’m happy this way.
I hope that eventually women entrepreneurs will be so common, and the idea so widespread that people no longer feel a need to call attention to gender issues.
MELPOMENE: What is the most challenging aspect of being a woman in your industry?
SHANNON: Soft skills are not appreciated. I am aggressive but not loud and domineering because I prefer to take the soft approach. I believe that the ends justify the means, and thus the methods we adopt do not matter as long as the end goal is achieved. Everywhere I went, however, I am always questioned as to why I don’t do things the same way men do. There’s this notion that if you’re not doing it the same way, then you’re not doing it right. But I always remind myself that everyone has their own way of doing things. I can’t be Steve Jobs because our working styles are different, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get things done my way.
MELPOMENE: Can women leverage their strengths to succeed?
SHANNON: Women are nurturing by nature. You always want to take care of your friends and family, and when you’re building your business that becomes your family, too. Men are sometimes so focused on progression that they forget the bigger picture. It’s possible to make more holistic decisions without sacrificing growth.
MELPOMENE: It’s an underappreciated trait.
SHANNON. Yeah, it’s frequently misinterpreted as weakness, fuelling the notion that nurturing people shouldn’t be leaders of a company. Here in Asia, we’re still on the cusp of change for gender equality. There is still a fair bit of ground to cover, and I’m very supportive of efforts to facilitate that shift in mindset, like the Galboss Symposium. I hope that eventually women entrepreneurs will be so common, and the idea so widespread that people no longer feel a need to call attention to gender issues.
MELPOMENE: How has entrepreneurship turned you into a better person?
SHANNON: I’m more responsible and measured now. I used to be rash and risk-seeking, with a tendency to say yes quickly and overcommit. I’m more aware now of how our actions affect everything around us, and better able to see the big picture. For the first time in my life, I feel settled and not constantly thinking of what’s next.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap