Jesrina Arshad: When Health is Wealth
Jesrina Arshad arrives for our meeting in a whirl of green and gold. She’s dressed in what I’ve come to think of as her signature green: a viridian teal that’s a bold pop of fresh, minty coolness, accentuating the gold in her olive skin and long, tousled locks. Most striking of all is her confidence—infectious and arresting all at once—a glittering force that you’d be hard-pressed to ignore. It’s mid-afternoon of what’s already been a long day for her (beginning with an early morning flight to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur where she’s based), but Jesrina’s upbeat demeanour and peppy speech betray no signs of fatigue. She makes smooth, assured introductions with the air of a seasoned pro (she’s also a frequent figure in Malaysia Tatler), before settling down with cheery exclamations over the menu’s healthy options. The lush foliage surrounding the café we’re in seems like the perfect backdrop for the co-founder and CEO of PurelyB, Asia’s first content-integrated, natural health and wellness marketplace. Started in April 2015 as a passion project with six other fellow health aficionados and gurus, PurelyB quickly developed into a full-time enterprise. Jesrina quit her job as the head of Digital Marketing for Astro and hasn’t looked back from her vision to build a platform that aims to be the convenient, one-stop solution for Asia’s health and wellness needs. For now, PurelyB is probably best known as the Malaysian startup that raised US$500,000 in seed funding from 500 Startups in December 2015—an early vote of confidence which hasn’t had Jesrina and her team resting on their laurels. PurelyB launched its online ‘Marketplace’ in June last year, focusing on offering local, Asian health and wellness brands to consumers, alongside a namesake line of lifestyle programmes. They’re targeted to expand into Singapore and Hong Kong this year, and are looking to reach the Australian and Indonesian markets soon. When I remark on the rapid pace of their growth, Jesrina tells me with clear-eyed conviction: “It’s all about execution. Doing something that you love and being able to build a career and empire from it is everyone’s dream. While it’s great to have all the ideas and aspirations to do this or that, if you don’t actually act on it, somebody else will.” For the first time, I notice the distinct shadows beneath her eyes and recall an article mentioning how she gets by on just two hours of sleep every day. It’s an eyebrow-raising fact that she’s quick to put to rest as part of a brief, early phase when she juggled two jobs. Nevertheless, she admits that spearheading PurelyB’s vision and growth is still no walk in the park, even with the average of five to six hours of sleep that she gets these days. “I feel like my life’s been a rollercoaster ever since I became an entrepreneur. Although we are reaching the two-year mark, we’re still in the early stages of growth where things are moving very fast and we need to be on top of it all. The toughest times yield the greatest results. That thought really keeps me going.”
TEO REN FENG: You’re an exponent of healthy, clean and “pure” living. Tell me a secret vice of yours.
JESRINA ARSHAD: [laughs] I’m a huge fan of French fries. A lot of people will say, “That’s not healthy!” But well… I’m allergic to gluten, dairy and eggs, and fries are gluten-free, egg-free and usually wheat-free, so it meets all the requirements. Everything in moderation. It’s important to indulge once in a while.
REN FENG: What sparked your interest in holistic wellness?
JESRINA: The lowest point in my life was when my mom passed away, about 7 or 8 years ago. She suffered from cancer, and it was a challenging period because we’re a close-knit family. My sister, who is a natural doctor, introduced homeopathy to help counter the effects of the chemotherapy. She’d been diagnosed at a very advanced stage where the doctors expected the worst, but the natural treatment helped her survive for a year and half longer, even clearing the cancer at one point before remission. From there, it sparked my interest in natural, healthy healing and living. Now I’m always the first to suggest homeopathic remedies. I had an eczema breakout triggered by stress awhile back, and used apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, burdock root tea and turmeric to treat it. My skin cleared up within 3 days, instead of the usual 2 to 3 weeks if you apply steroid cream.
REN FENG: PurelyB started as a passion project between you and your co-founders?
JESRINA: PurelyB actually started with just content: 40 articles which were carefully curated and created based on topics that my co-founders and I wanted to address, as consumers ourselves. So, we seeded those articles to relevant target audiences using social media. For example, we shared with the mommy groups a real-life story of how one of us helped their child overcome eczema with natural treatment. Everyone started reading and sharing that post, because eczema is the most common issue that moms experience with their children. I remember we had a thousand people come to our site on the fifth day after we set it up, which was unexpected. With no marketing, you’re more likely to get a thousand people in a month. Yet, within three and a half weeks we had ten thousand unique visits to our site, and the interesting fact was that it wasn’t just people from Malaysia, but also visitors from Australia, U.K. and the U.S.
REN FENG: It’s amazing to get such a response, just like that.
JESRINA: We really can’t explain how it happened, though my co-founders and I do have some ‘reach’ on social media. But seeing such positive responses, from experts and people who had gone through similar journeys and issues with health and wellness, gave us the motivation to quit our jobs and fully commit to PurelyB.
I didn’t start PurelyB with the intention of being an entrepreneur.
REN FENG: So, who are you going to put out of business with PurelyB?
JESRINA: [laughs] Many people think, “Oh, PurelyB is competing with e-commerce sites which are distributors for multiple health brands and so on…” But we’re an eco-system that is not just about commerce, but also content and community—the three ‘Cs’. Anything to do with health, wellness and encouraging holistic living, PurelyB lets you discover it. Many local, Asian brands and businesses are much more affordable, and these companies sell their products on our site because we’re able to help them create stories around their products to appeal to customers. We work to boost businesses and grow the industry collaboratively.
REN FENG: Who then do you see as your most direct competition in Asia?
JESRINA: iHerb, because of their large audience and customer base. If I had to compare us to something similar, it would be Thrive Market in the US, or Healthkart in India. They are online health and wellness sites focused on groceries, but they also have blogs with content to inspire their customers to buy their products.
REN FENG: What word would you like to own in the minds of your customers?
JESRINA: If it has to be a word, then “wellness”. But if we could expand on that, it would be something like, “the ease of healthy living”. I think what is important is that it has to be easy—healthy living can easily be part of your day-to-day lifestyle, and we can help you achieve it. I want PurelyB to be at the top of people’s minds if they simply want to get started. We don’t just want to make money—it’s about making a difference in people’s lives.
REN FENG: Would you keep or sell a successful business?
JESRINA: I didn’t start PurelyB with the intention of being an entrepreneur, and it’s not just about business. We know selling it is something that has to happen in the future, but it would have to be the right company—one that can take PurelyB to greater heights—towards achieving the vision that we have. And I would still definitely want to be involved with the business too.
It’s easy to get distracted by opportunities and what you want for the business instead of focusing on what’s truly important right now, for the future.
REN FENG: As an entrepreneur, what has been your greatest learning point thus far?
JESRINA: [pauses] You can’t do everything. When we first envisioned the business, we built a five-year model on what we wanted to create and do, because there was just so much we wanted as consumers. As we started building and getting advice from mentors, we ‘trimmed the fat’ so we could focus. It’s easy to get distracted by opportunities and what you want for the business instead of focusing on what’s truly important right now, for the future.
REN FENG: What’s PurelyB’s focus at this point?
JESRINA: Our focus in 2017 is on expanding regionally, as well as creating our own brand of products.
REN FENG: Has a PurelyB line of products always been on the cards?
JESRINA: It was something that came up around the tail-end of 2015. We had a lot of people writing in to us, who had been inspired by our content, but needed more help in getting started with healthy lifestyles. Our experts and nutritionists were overwhelmed as they simply couldn’t reply everyone who wrote in, so we thought: Why don’t we create a virtual programme that holistically covers diet, fitness, wellness and mindful living? So we actually launched a PurelyB health programme, and then experimented with having our own product. This was before we started a ‘Marketplace’, PurelyB’s e-commerce site.
REN FENG: I understand the programme comes with a meal delivery option?
JESRINA: Yes, and that was actually why we ended up pausing the programme’s run in February 2016, as we didn’t have a separate ‘Marketplace’ at the time. Having to coordinate every last detail with the food vendor, took a real toll on our team, which made us realise we had to focus on setting up a ‘Marketplace’ first, so we could process our health programme in a more automated and scalable way. We just relaunched the programme in March 2017 with food delivery in Malaysia.
REN FENG: You’ve been funded by 500 Startups. Do you have any tips on networking and getting noticed at entrepreneur conventions?
JESRINA: If you’re at conventions, try and exhibit. I remember our first ever convention: the 2015 Rise Conference in Hong Kong, when PurelyB was just four months old. That was the best decision we ever made, to put our brand out there. The position of our booth was fantastic, we had a large TV screen introducing PurelyB, and we were the only ones providing food. Anyone who came by our booth got a goodie bag, which contained a healthy snack and coupon for products that you could get online, plus a booklet introducing PurelyB. That helped us attract our first group of investors and meet so many potential partners—across India and other markets—looking to collaborate. So yes, take the time to exhibit, and if you do, make the most of it. Don’t just sit there and expect people to be interested.
REN FENG: Did the cost for the snacks come out from your own pocket?
JESRINA: We went out of our way to get a brand sponsor because we had just started and didn’t have much money. Another thing is, try and be heard at conventions. Speak up. When they ask if anyone has questions, raise your hand and ask something. I didn’t know any investors, and I was new to the whole tech startup industry, so if you can ask a question and somehow seed your business into it… I’ve seen that make a huge difference. People will remember and come up to you if they’re interested to partner, collaborate or invest. Just don’t pitch to the audience. I’ve been to conventions where people put their hands up for questions, but just end up only pitching their businesses—that’s a bit too much of a hard sell.
We don’t have millions of customers yet, and until we hit that sort of growth, we’re always going to have doubts about whether this is the right model.
REN FENG: Do you have moments of doubt?
JESRINA: Yes. We don’t have millions of customers yet, and until we hit that sort of growth, we’re always going to have doubts about whether this is the right model. We’re creating a lot of things from scratch, which is good as that makes us original, but there’s also a lot of trial and error, and experimenting involved. We are launching our crowdfunding campaign soon, as a thank you to our followers, giving everyone an opportunity to join us on our journey and be part of the positive change in people's lives.
REN FENG: Is there any popular entrepreneurial advice that you’ve heard and disagree with?
JESRINA: I guess it would be people telling you to look at where the audience is, where there’s mass appeal and a large volume as well. For us, it wasn’t necessarily a case of getting a large volume, but targeting a niche, small audience group with high spending power and who collectively have a higher propensity to spend. The potential is there. We had a lot of doubters, a lot of them are entrepreneurs themselves, who said, ‘No, it’s too small, it’s too niche, you’re going to have a tough time.’ But we’re addressing the problems of a group who are already looking for the solutions. It’s a low-hanging fruit, and we don’t have to convince our audience. The niche audience across Asia is a large enough pool.
REN FENG: What’s been essential to your entrepreneurial journey?
JESRINA: I’m so grateful to have the support of my co-founders. I don’t know how solo entrepreneurs do it. It is a lonely journey. You think about the team that you build… employees… they will come and go. Even if they’re loyal, some of them are fresh graduates and you can’t expect them to stay with you forever. In a few years they’re going to leave, so you need a few key and stable people who are in this with you for the long haul.
REN FENG: Has being an entrepreneur affected your relationship with your family and friends?
JESRINA: I’m very grateful to have family members who are very understanding, and a husband who ‘runs alongside’ me, in my journey. He’s very interested in the business even though he has a full-time job in finance. He eats, lives and breathes everything to do with PurelyB, and he’s my number 1 salesman. It’s rare, especially if your partner isn’t a co-founder. Plus, I’m not exactly housewife material [laughs], and I’m sure there’s a part of him that wishes I was a bit more domestic, but he loves and embraces me just the way I am.
REN FENG: What’s the difference between being alive and truly living for you?
JESRINA: I think truly living is having passion for what you’re going to be doing every single day. I know some people who have to drag themselves out of the bed, and find their day-to-day routine really mundane. If you feel excitement and passion everyday from working towards your goals and future—that is really living. You constantly have to consider what it is that you really want to do and achieve, and find something that keeps you going. Every day should be a step closer towards your goal.
REN FENG: To what degree have you controlled the course of your life?
JESRINA: It’s tough for me to pinpoint where exactly I am in the course of things, and the degree that I’ve shaped my life, because I’m still finding myself. But the past year and a half have really been the steepest learning curve that I’ve ever experienced. I’ve come some way from ground zero now, but there’s still so much more to learn, so much further to go.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap