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Starting a business is a risky endeavor for anyone. But when Rachel Lim set out to reinvent the retail industry, the stakes were especially high — her mom’s life savings were riding on it.
The then-21-year-old was facing a five-figure fee for quitting college early to pursue her dream. And with no money of her own, she turned to the only person she could.
“I was bonded to the government, so I had to pay off the bond to stop school to start the business,” the Singaporean entrepreneur told CNBC Make It. “I obviously didn’t have the money, so I had no choice but to go to my mom and ask for a loan.”
It could hardly have come at a worse time for the family: Lim’s mom was already working two jobs to support the family after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis upended her dad’s shipbroking business. However, Lim said it was the pressure she needed to ensure her business was a success.
“That’s one of the reasons why I knew I could not fail. I could not let her down,” she said.
Lim is the co-founder and CEO of Love, Bonito, a female fashion brand tailored specifically for Asian shoppers.
The 32-year-old’s multimillion-dollar customized clothing line today adorns women and wardrobes from Hong Kong and Australia to the United States. But when she started out with sisters Viola and Velda Tan, and their secondhand clothes blog in Singapore some 15 years ago, that vision looked a long way off.
“My friends and I, we were still in school and we were just thinking of ways to earn extra pocket money,” recalled Lim.
“We thought: ‘Okay, why don’t we sell online our pre-loved clothes?’ Clothes that we would wear once, or twice, or wouldn’t wear it anymore,” she said.
The friends didn’t know it then, but they were onto something.
In 2005, online retail was just starting out in Southeast Asia, but the appetite was growing fast as consumers gained rapid access to technology.
“People from, for example, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong would hear about us because they chanced upon the blog or the website. So that was when we realized that, hey, you can reach a lot of different people from all over the world … with just a click,” said Lim.
So, when the teens ran out of their own clothes to sell, they decided to up their game, pooling their $300 savings and traveling overseas to import more.
Reinventing the runway
That move got the ball rolling, taking the business, then called BonitoChico, from a pre-loved clothes blog to a fully-fledged fashion site.
But for Lim, something didn’t quite sit right.
“When we would import clothes to sell, there was always something that I wanted to change,” she said.
“A lot of international brands, they cater to European, American women that have very different body proportions, skin tone, preferences and even climate.”
That realization sparked a new purpose for the young founders: To create a new fashion line specifically tailored to Asian women, with smaller sizes and kinder cuts.
So they gave the business a fresh look, changing the name to Love, Bonito — evoking a love letter to their customers — and creating in-house designs to better suit proportions.
To make real progress, however, the young entrepreneurs knew they had to commit.
So, in 2009, with just eight months of her teaching degree remaining, Lim quit university to focus on the business full time. She was joined at the time by Viola, while Velda came on after completing her studies.
“I was juggling school and work, and I wasn’t excelling in both, and I realized that I had to focus on one,” said Lim, even if that meant leaning on her mom for support.
“She was really worried because online selling had barely just begun,” Lim said of her mom. “She was really worried that this wasn’t legal, or that the government would come after us.”
“But, at the end, she decided to take a leap of faith,” she said.
It was that gamble that marked the start of Love, Bonito as it stands today.
In the years that followed, Lim and her co-founders doubled down on their dream to create an affordable and accessible fashion line for the Asian market.
That included recruiting a team of designers to execute the full creative process, from research and fabric selection to development and final production.
In 2013, Velda stepped back from Love, Bonito, but Viola remains in place today as a member of the board.
Meanwhile, Lim has established herself as the face of the brand and one of Southeast Asia’s rising women entrepreneurs. In 2016, aged 28, she was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30s in Asia. And in January 2020, she met with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to discuss start-ups in the city-state.
Gail Wong, an investor and coach for female founders, told CNBC Make It that has been powerful in inspiring other women entrepreneurs.
“(Rachel) started it really young, she didn’t have an Ivy League education that certain types of people look for, and she had this obligation to make it work,” said Wong.
“It’s a really interesting trait I’ve seen in some female founders. There’s something bigger than their own ambition,” she added.
Despite being cash flow positive from early on due to the regular turnover of the retail business, that growing profile has also helped Love, Bonito win external funding.
To date, the business has raised over $10 million from investors, including Japanese online retailer Kakaku.com, to help fund its expansion into a host of physical stores.
But Lim said the real win has been proving to her mom that her gamble paid off.
“Incrementally, I paid her back whenever I had any money at all,” said Lim. “Priority for me was that she wouldn’t need to work three jobs or work so hard and such long hours and days.”
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