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The Future of Love, Bonito

Become – High Profiles
July 20, 2017

“Where do you want me?” Dione Song wonders aloud, ready to take direction for her close-up. Two years have passed since we first met, and some things don’t change. She is still quite awkward in front of the camera and looks like the Asian version of a long-lost HAIM sister. Although this side of Dione feels familiar to me, there is a new side to her that is breaking ground. After being at ZALORA for close to 4 years, she left to join Sephora, a French chain of cosmetic stores owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH, and is now taking her knowledge and expertise to help Love, Bonito—Singapore’s largest fashion online retailer for women—scale internationally.

  “At the end of the day, I want to take my skills and experience and go back to a home-grown brand,” she explains, “because I want to help a Singapore company succeed at going global.” Sitting in front of Dione today, she is full of moxie, and I get a sense that this move isn’t about a better pay cheque or a swankier title as Chief Commercial Officer; it’s about the desire to be part of something bigger, and the opportunity to mould the future of Love, Bonito.

Being greeted by 4,600 sq ft of vast empty space can be liberating, especially in Orchard Road, where space comes at a premium. The brick walls are still bare, softened by the natural light that slips in from the double glazed windows. We are at level 2 of 313@somerset, and come October, the unoccupied unit will be transformed into Love, Bonito’s flagship store. While many think that retail is dead, evident by the overwhelming number of major retailers closing their shops, Rachel Lim, co-founder of Love, Bonito isn’t quite a believer yet—highlighting how their offline and online strategies have proven to be complementary so far. “Our retail stores are not just about generating revenue per square foot because we are more interested in converting our customers into brand advocates. To us, it is about experience per square foot—and we believe that once they experience our brand, customers will return to shop again via our e-commerce site.”

  Bright-eyed, petite and coiled with energy, she speaks with an air of conviction and excitement about their upcoming flagship opening. “We have been planning for this since day one until the right opportunity and space came along. After dabbling in pop-ups for six years, we have refined and gotten better every year through trial and error. Now, we are finally ready to make a bigger commitment.”

Commitment is something that runs deep for Rachel and her other co-founder, Viola Tan. Starting out as friends, the pair went into business together in 2006, and have weathered many storms to turn Love, Bonito into a recognisable brand that helps women discover their confidence through style. “We have made a conscious effort to put our ego aside,” Viola says in a humble, revealing tone, “and make decisions that align with our vision and purpose.”

Despite being the least outspoken one among the three, Viola exudes strength through her body language. Graceful and measured, she has undertaken the important task of raising funds from investors in order to propel their overall vision of becoming a community for women. “We care about bringing women together through our styling workshops, VIP private shopping sessions, events and constant interaction with our customers on social media. Ultimately, we want to build tribes for women in different countries.”

As the afternoon sun starts to set, it is clear that this trio is an indomitable force—and together, Love, Bonito might become a global brand soon.

Conversations with Dione Song, Rachel Lim & Viola Tan

Text by Wy-Lene Yap
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

WY-LENE YAP: I remember interviewing you 2 years ago while you were still at ZALORA. Quite a lot has changed since then. In close to 4 years at ZALORA as the Managing Director of Singapore, what were your key takeaways from that experience?

DIONE SONG: Execution is key to everything and that’s something ZALORA does pretty well. The quality and pace at which you execute matter too, because at the end of the day, ideas are cheap right? You can have great visions and plans, but the questions remain: When and how are you going to do it? And do you have the right people and platforms for it? Those factors can determine your success.

WY-LENE: Did you have any pain points?

DIONE: I think ZALORA lacked brand identity and a very clear streamlined vision then. Having a room full of smart consultants and investment bankers can only take you to a certain level. As a company, you need a bit more heart and soul because consumers can see that, and they want to be able to relate to a brand.

WY-LENE: Thereafter, you were headhunted by Sephora?

DIONE: Yeah.

WY-LENE: Was the offer too difficult to refuse or did you know that it was time to progress into something different?

DIONE: It was a good offer, and by Rocket Internet standards, 4 years was a pretty lengthy period. It was time for something new and fresh. I don't like being at a place where I can't give my fullest. Even if I'm functioning at 90%—I do not like it. I need to be at 100%. Another reason why I left was because I was looking for mentorship, and felt that Sephora would be a good opportunity to learn from practitioners in the retail industry, who were much older and more experienced than me.

WY-LENE: How long did you take to acclimate into your new role as head of Australia & New Zealand for the digital arm of South East Asia? And was it hard initially?

DIONE: Of course—getting used to any new environment takes some time, but I had a good team. The hardest thing was getting used to having a bit more structure as well as reporting lines. It was very different from the way we operated at ZALORA.

WY-LENE: Did you face a lot of red tape?

DIONE: More so than at ZALORA.

WY-LENE: How much autonomy did you have to make decisions?

DIONE: I was given enough... but wouldn’t have complained if I had more. [laughs]

WY-LENE: What were the biggest challenges working for such a huge organisation like Sephora?

DIONE: Any huge organisation with a strong legacy comes with more restrictions, but also best practices and past learnings. And because there are so many various teams involved from country to regional to HQ, there are many moving parts and dependencies, so you don't always have full visibility of how and why certain decisions are made. But I guess that is only natural when you’re dealing with such a behemoth of an organisation.

WY-LENE: So you wanted more transparency?

DIONE: Personally, as a manager, transparency is key for any organisation because it enables employees across all levels to better understand why things happen, even if they may not see eye to eye on certain issues. At least they understand the rationale behind the decision-making process.

WY-LENE: Within eight months, you got promoted to regional director of marketing. I’m noticing a pattern here—you tend to rise up very quickly. What do you think you do differently from the rest of your peers?

DIONE: It’s a bit of luck and timing as well. I’m someone who is not afraid to speak my mind—for example, if I disagree with senior management or have an idea that I want to push for, I will speak up, even if it means stepping on other people’s toes at times. I may not be the easiest person to manage, but ultimately I want what’s best for the business.

Love-Bonito-Dione-art

WY-LENE: Would you consider yourself lucky?

DIONE: Yes, but I am more aggressive than the average person in terms of fighting for what I believe in.

WY-LENE: In your LinkedIn profile, you said that you excel at hyper-growth, business development, brand strategy and digital marketing. Can you give me some examples of the significant contributions you made to the company?

DIONE: Driving the initial Australian and New Zealand e-commerce business with a small core team of 3, myself included, we were essentially responsible for more than half of the entire digital business. With the lean resources that we had, it was really about prioritising and striking the most strategic partnerships and creating effective campaigns, and not discount-centric ones, that were able to give us the most value with the least amount of effort—working really smart essentially. The other part of it involved reviewing the way we approached digital marketing and maximising performance by arbitraging between e-commerce and offline retail. We were the first country to approach paid advertising from an omni-channel perspective and this has since been replicated across the region, and also expanded on by the team today to measure how retail activity can be attributed to all digital channels.

WY-LENE: What do you think is your greatest strength?

DIONE: I’m an analytical person who has a creative side that loves coming up with new ideas and concepts. I’m also balanced in terms of being able to see the big picture while remaining very detail-oriented.

WY-LENE: I’m sure age has helped too.

DIONE: Yeah, I’ve definitely grown as a person since our first interview.

WY-LENE: I like Dione 2.0. Is there something you are trying to get better at?

DIONE: I’m trying to be more patient as I can get a little impatient if people don’t perform or meet their targets. I’m also working on having more empathy when dealing with people and situations.

WY-LENE: How do you deal with incompetence?

DIONE: That’s a tough one because I can’t tolerate incompetence. But I will try to understand the root of the problem: Is it their attitude? Or are there external factors involved? People have lives outside of work, so perhaps it could be something personal that's bothering them. I do make it a point to think about their struggles that they may be facing internally or externally.

I enjoy problem-solving and fixing things. I like it when there's a bit of chaos.

WY-LENE: What keeps you motivated?

DIONE: I enjoy problem-solving and fixing things. I like it when there's a bit of chaos. Apart from that, having the ability to drive and affect change keeps me motivated.

WY-LENE: What's one problem that you can't seem to solve?

DIONE: When the organisation is the problem—that’s one thing you can't solve.

WY-LENE: Isn’t that a leadership and management issue?

DIONE: Yeah, because no matter what you do, there is always going to be a misalignment. Even if you have the best people or the most passionate people, they can’t solve something that is inherent unless there is a change in management and new structures and processes are in place.

WY-LENE: Joining Love, Bonito is a huge departure and major decision on your part. How did you meet the founders Rachel Lim and Viola Tan?

DIONE: I met them at your event.

WY-LENE: Ah, yes. Last August.

DIONE: Without your Women of Worth dinner, I wouldn't have met Rachel and Viola.

WY-LENE: What were your first impressions of them?

DIONE: They are yin and yang. Viola is always calm, composed and soft-spoken, while Rachel’s the Energizer Bunny; she’s friendly, always warm, and a huge hugger which I wasn't used to at first… I’m still trying to…

RACHEL: You’re making me sound like a bear.

DIONE: [laughs] It’s funny and cute!

WY-LENE: Rachel’s love language is touch.

DIONE: She’s very touchy-feely.

WY-LENE: [laughs] So, why Love, Bonito?

DIONE: There are a few factors. First, the company is at an exciting stage where I can use my expertise to help them reach the next level of growth and achieve real impact. I can also set the right SOPs and best practices for the company to build a great company culture. Second, after getting to know Rachel and Viola on a deeper level, I respect their integrity to the brand and how much they care for their customers. I can tell that they are really passionate about what they do, and it’s admirable how they have grown the company over the years without losing its core identity. Third, at the end of the day, I want to take my skills and experience and go back to a home-grown brand, because I want to help a Singapore company succeed at going global. Being part of the ecosystem means also giving back to the ecosystem, so it’s important to help local companies grow and scale. We have wonderful talent here and I would love to attract the right people and create an environment for them to flourish. 

Love-Bonito-Dione-art2

WY-LENE: Do you think joining Love, Bonito is a big risk?

DIONE: Not at all. If you compare Love, Bonito to joining a start-up, they've been around for 11 years and have accomplished so much.

WY-LENE: How persuasive were they to get you on board?

DIONE: Rachel was very persuasive. I guess after six gin and tonics, I said yes.

WY-LENE: Ha ha…

DIONE: Okay, maybe ten or twelve.

WY-LENE: How did the ‘courtship’ start?

RACHEL: After the Women of Worth dinner, Dione dropped me a text to thank me for recommending a book to her. Subsequently, I went on my honeymoon and when I returned, I texted her: Hey Dione, I'm back. Do you wanna catch up? And she ignored me for a while…

DIONE: I'm a bad texter.

RACHEL: It was probably around Christmas when we reconnected again and that was when we started to meet up more often. To be very honest, when I first asked Dione out, I wanted to get some advice and pick her brain. As we spoke more, I realised that she was extremely perceptive and kept adding value to our conversations—and that’s when I thought she would be such a great asset to the company. Furthermore, I saw her as a very good balance between me and Viola. Slowly, I started to seed some ideas into her head, but she would brush them away. [laughs]

WY-LENE: Tell me more about your new role as Chief Commercial Officer.

DIONE: I'm here to refine, scale and expand on the vision that Rachel and Viola have. I’ll essentially be also driving the strategy for expansion and execution. Function-wise, I’ll be overseeing the marketing, branding & creative, merchandising, operations and business development teams.

WY-LENE: How do you see yourself value-adding to the company?

DIONE: Ensuring that we are creating the right processes and tech stack too. We need to execute in the most automated, seamless and scalable way possible. I would also like us to be more data-centric in our decision-making instead of relying on our gut. In this industry, we have to be more aggressive and do things faster and better.

WY-LENE: Do you plan to take the company in the direction of higher prices or volumes, or lower costs?

DIONE: I would move toward stabilising costs and prices, without compromising quality. So it’s about diversification and managing the supply chain better. I think the high price category is quite a noisy space right now, and there are a lot of other brands in that space. We’re at a really sweet price point—our main target audience is still the masses and they’re quite price-sensitive at the end of the day. We might have a premium line in the future, but it has to make sense for us. We want to keep our price point intact even as we scale, to ensure that consumers still reap the same benefits.

WY-LENE: What's the first thing you're going to change or implement?

DIONE: Having the right foundation, incentives and a very clear transparent structure. Next, I’ll be looking at our existing talent and identify those who are at-risk and those who are high-potential, so that we can carve out a future for them. I will also be looking at gaps that require the right talent and hire accordingly. It’s important to be a lean organisation; we can't afford to have a huge team with overlapping tasks and roles.

I see us becoming a huge international brand that gradually evolves into a one-stop lifestyle portal for women. 

WY-LENE: Where do you see the future of Love, Bonito to be?

DIONE: I see us becoming a huge international brand that gradually evolves into a one-stop lifestyle portal for women. 

WY-LENE: Do you think it's achievable in the next three to five years?

DIONE: Yes, I think so.

Love-Bonito-Art

WY-LENE: With Dione as CCO, what are your roles in the company?

RACHEL: Anything customer-centric like talking to our customers, building relationships with them and engaging the Love, Bonito community through initiatives such as styling workshops and events. Internally, I make a continuous effort to share with our ‘pixies’ (employees) the company’s vision and why we make certain decisions, so that they have a better understanding of our strategies. I will also be working closely with Dione to explore new ideas to drive the brand further. In a nutshell, I oversee the brand, community building, as well as the product and technical design.

VIOLA: I play a supporting role in fuelling our growth because we have big dreams. It’s not just about top-line revenue. At this stage of our business, we need more funding, so I’m in charge of fundraising and meeting potential investors.

WY-LENE: Did you create that position for Dione? I’m aware that you were looking for a CEO at a period of time.

RACHEL: Yeah, CEO is just a title. We spoke to many candidates, but no matter how impressive they looked on paper, we wanted someone who understood how much Love, Bonito meant to us and the essence of keeping our brand integrity. We also did not want to compromise our core values that we’ve built over the years. Some promised us that they could help us reach a certain level by a certain date… and while it is important to reach our target, how we get there is equally important to us. So we were very picky and particular about who we wanted on board, and over time, we realised that it came down to whether the person has the heart and drive for the brand—and Dione ticked all the boxes.

WY-LENE: How do your leadership styles differ from one another?

RACHEL: I’m a relational person and lead through building relationships with people. I also like to understand them on a deeper level and find out more about their motivations, passions and goals.

VIOLA: Building meaningful relationships are important to me too, but I’m a bit more introverted so it takes a while for me to open up, which might come across as cold. I do better in a one-to-one setting… I’m not the inspirational kind of…

RACHEL: If I may add, Viola is the type of leader who always has our back, and she is such a steady rock. Whenever I encounter problems at work, I would confide in her and I know that she will always be there for me.

WY-LENE: How do you complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses?

RACHEL: Oh, that’s easy! I’m the loud one at meetings. [laughs] I’m more expressive and extroverted.

VIOLA: I always tell Rachel it is not that I don’t feel for things or that I’m not excited—I express myself in a very different way.

RACHEL: Viola shows it through her actions and support. Sometimes I have crazy ideas in my head and at any one time, I want to execute all ten ideas. Viola makes me rethink and prioritise what’s important based on our resources. She gives me a reality check and reminds me not to get too carried away, so that each project has purpose and meaning.  

VIOLA: Rachel reminds me not to overthink. There are times when I might sit on things for a little too long, and in this fast-paced industry, some decisions need to be made quickly.  

WY-LENE: Many start-ups fail due to co-founder conflicts. How do you resolve conflicts when they arise?

RACHEL: Conflicts do happen all the time, but Viola and I have been working together since 2006, and we grew exponentially in the last 4 years—it came to a point where we had to learn how to understand one another because it was just the two of us left to spearhead the company. In our early days, we would get personally offended when disagreements arose, but we have learnt to separate our emotions and see each other’s point of view. We approach this partnership like a marriage and it is a commitment. We are completely honest with each other about everything and go out once a week for coffee to iron out any issues. At the end of the day, it is for the good of the business.

VIOLA: Yeah, it is like a marriage. We started out as friends who went into business together, but after the honeymoon period, the shit got real. [laughs] We have made a conscious effort to put our ego aside, and make decisions that align with our vision and purpose.

WY-LENE: What do you struggle with most at work?

RACHEL: Having hard conversations with some of my staff. I tend to put it off for as long as I can, but I am learning now how to deal with it.

VIOLA: Finding the right business partners. There are a lot of players who can potentially assist us with our overseas expansion, but we want a strategic partner who is able to help us build a strong brand presence in a foreign country, without losing our core identity.

Love-Bonito-Rach-art

WY-LENE: What one word do you want to own in the minds of your customers, employees, and partners?

RACHEL: ‘Community’. Consumers today are more discerning than ever. They need to be able to identify with the brand values and believe in what the company stands for. Our customers feel emotionally connected to our brand because beyond clothing, what we want is to make an impact on women’s lives, and this is what differentiates us from the rest.

WY-LENE: What is your total staff strength now?

VIOLA: We are 80 strong.

WY-LENE: What is your estimated revenue for 2017?

VIOLA: I can’t reveal the figures, but we are expecting to grow by more than 50 per cent compared to last year.

WY-LENE: Which generates more revenue for the company at the moment: your e-commerce site or your 8 retail stores?

RACHEL: Our e-commerce site. Our retail stores are not just about generating revenue per square foot because we are more interested in converting our customers into brand advocates. To us, it is about experience per square foot—and we believe that once they experience our brand, customers will return to shop again via our e-commerce site. This has been proven true so far.

WY-LENE: You are well-known for being a pioneer in the online retail space and if I trace your origins, it started back in 2006 with Bonito Chico. When you decided to open brick-and-mortar stores, to me, it felt like you were taking a step backwards while everyone was jumping on the e-commerce bandwagon. What was your rationale behind that?

RACHEL: The very traditional definition of retail is not our approach. A lot of people say that retail is dead, but we don’t believe entirely in that notion—only mediocre, traditional, boring retail experiences are dead. Our brick-and-mortar stores serve as a complementary avenue to bring out the Love, Bonito experience to our target audience. And what we offer online is different from our retail stores.

VIOLA: Having brick-and-mortar stores have also given us more opportunities with potential investors and overseas partners because that is their first touchpoint with the brand and they have a better understanding of our ethos.

We care for each customer like an older sister would.

WY-LENE: What can customers expect at your new flagship store at 313@somerset?

RACHEL: We want to create an empowering atmosphere. There is going to be a lot of personalisation, styling assistance, a behind-the-scenes look at our design process, a corner for customer testimonials, and at every different part of the store, we are going to curate specific experiences for our customers. The market is shifting, along with consumer expectations. Ultimately, we want our customers to dress well and dress right, so we empower all our ‘stylists’ (brand ambassadors) to help women understand themselves better and recommend outfits according to their body type. We care for each customer like an older sister would, and so far, we have been very successful at helping women discover their confidence through style. At the end of the day, we pride ourselves on being honest. A customer once said to me, “The reason why I am emotionally attached to Love, Bonito is because you guys are honest with me.” We don’t push a product just for the sake of increasing sales. 

WY-LENE: Why now?

RACHEL: We have been planning for this since day one until the right opportunity and space came along. Singapore is our home ground and we want local and regional customers to experience the Love, Bonito brand.

WY-LENE: Don’t you have a store at B1 of 313@somerset?

RACHEL: That’s a pop-up, which will close once our flagship is ready on level 2. After dabbling in pop-ups for six years, we have refined and gotten better every year through trial and error. Now, we are finally ready to make a bigger commitment.

Love-Bonito-Viola-art

WY-LENE: Outside of Singapore, you have retail stores in Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia. What other countries are you looking to expand into?

VIOLA: We are looking at markets like Vietnam, Philippines, Hong Kong and even Brunei.

WY-LENE: Are you worried about Amazon?

RACHEL: In terms of sheer volume, we can’t beat Amazon. They have a huge offering, but we are not looking to compete with them. They are also a facilitator of brands and businesses, while we are a monobrand and not a marketplace. I’m not discounting the fact that there could even be synergies down the line.

People can copy our designs but they can’t replicate our Love, Bonito community, which we have built for women.

WY-LENE: What have you done to protect your business from competitive encroachment?

RACHEL: We remain very focused on who we are and what we stand for. At the end of the day, people can copy our designs but they can’t replicate our Love, Bonito community, which we have built for women.

VIOLA: To add, there are plenty of distractions out there. Online marketplaces have been aggressively asking us to come on board but we always ask ourselves: Do we have brand alignment? And are our core values similar? What we want to achieve is brand longevity, and not dilute ourselves for short-term gain.

WY-LENE: How will the future of retail look?

RACHEL: It’s probably going to be less transactional—retail doesn’t have to be four walls and a cashier counter. If you look at the US, everything is RFID tagged. People just walk out with whatever items they want and that makes a huge difference because the focus is not on making payment, but on the product itself. It makes shopping easier and seamless.

WY-LENE: Moving on to the topic of funding, I know that you raised a round previously. Are you raising now?

VIOLA: We are constantly talking to potential investors, but we want investors who believe in the brand and support our vision for the company. 

RACHEL: Yeah, and we don’t want to wait until the last minute as it may affect our decision-making process.

WY-LENE: In the past few weeks, the VC world has been shaken up with many female founders coming forth about being sexually harassed. What are your thoughts on that?

RACHEL: It’s unfortunate that such incidents have happened, but it’s also encouraging to hear more women speaking up now. I think there should be a way for women to report such cases, so that corrective behaviour can be taken against those who abuse their power. As female founders, we also need to be very careful not to give off the wrong impression whether it is through our body language or putting ourselves in certain situations. We need to protect ourselves and set boundaries.

WY-LENE: Have any such incidents ever happen to you before?

RACHEL: God, no! So far, our investors have been respectful and professional towards us.

WY-LENE: What is your eventual goal with Love, Bonito? Do you want to be acquired or IPO?

RACHEL: It’s hard to say right now if we want to go public. And if a good partnership comes along, which will propel the brand further, we wouldn’t mind being acquired. But currently, our focus is on building a long-term brand.

VIOLA: We did have acquisitions offers in the past and it’s very tempting, but Love, Bonito means so much more to us than just money.

WY-LENE: How would you like people to remember you and your company?

RACHEL: I want to be remembered as a brand that has helped women discover themselves and their true confidence. We have a customer who is a lawyer and she still wears her Love, Bonito blazer that she bought in 2014, because somehow it gives her confidence. Every time she has an important meeting, she will wear Love, Bonito. People see me as a relatable person and I hope to inspire women to believe in themselves and be better versions of who they are.

VIOLA: I hope that Love, Bonito is able to make a difference in women’s lives and be an uplifting source whenever they don’t feel so great about themselves. I see myself as a support system to many, and I would like to be remembered for that.