First of all, from the bottom of my heart, I want to express my gratitude to you. Thank you for taking part in this mission with me.
So the story goes…
A year ago, I came back to my favorite island in Thailand - Koh Phangan. This time, I got the chance to join forces with the community that is helping to keep the island green and clean. I got to volunteer at the local recycling center with Alex and a group of people who share the same passion in giving, serving others, and protecting the island. We called ourselves the Phangan Island Protectors. Our job was to sort out different types of plastic for recycling. Learning about plastic recycling and working with this group of people was very rewarding and satisfying.
The island also has another group of people called the Trash Heroes. We would go to different beaches every two weeks and bust out the power of team work to transform a dirty beach back to a clean beautiful beach. Things like this are not easy to do by just one person. This is when I truly realize the power of people coming together to achieve a common goal.
Seeing beautiful places getting covered by trash and the huge amount of plastic bottles that came into the recycling center, I was inspired to do something about the situation. With my desire many years ago to have an online store, I thought to myself, why not start a store that could help people use less plastic and raise awareness of plastic pollution.
So it began…
A friend, Sebastian that I met at a café taught me about dropshipping. I thought that was a good way to start since it doesn’t require much startup cost. So I dived into it. I spent long days and long nights, usually working till the sun came out, reading about plastic, researching products, building my store, learning about dropshipping. I didn’t feel tired. I was hooked. It took me 2 months to get my store up. I started doing some marketing, sending friends my products to test. I managed to get a few sales but the feedback I got from my friends was not so good. Overall, I didn’t have control over how the products were packaged and shipped. It wasn’t aligned with my values or the values of the company. So I decided to change direction.
Valow in Spain
One month later, I ended up in the mountain side of Galicia, Spain. Staying in a small beautiful village with many lovely and inspiring people around me. Here, I started revamping the direction of the company. At the time, there was about 10 of us staying at the coliving space – Sende. We had people from Poland, Serbia, US, Spain, France, Australia all working in different fields. I was blessed to be here at this time. As I was starting this new version of the company, everybody helped out by giving me feedback, ideas, and the company name ‘Valow’ was born here. It was born on a night when we were chilling in the coworking room. There was a big storm going on outside. We sat around by the fire and brainstormed for my company name in front of a big white board. Ena from Serbia said “why not use your own name?” Then we played around with that idea, Valow came out. At first, I didn’t feel comfortable using my own name but everybody else liked it. The next day, they kept saying Valow Valow whenever they saw me. After a few days, it kind of grew on me. Then, I decided and bought the domain and everything.
The coworking room at Sende, where magic happens
At Sende, I spent time searching for suppliers online, researching their products, molding my vision, thinking about how to structure the company, what to sell… etc. I got the suppliers to send me samples. Receiving mail in the mountain is not as simple as in the city. I remember praying to God that my samples would arrive and got so happy every time it did. It felt like a celebration in the village when the mailman came with my samples. Little things like this, I will never forget.
What to do?
Now comes the decision time. So which ones should I sell? How many items should I sell? How much money should I invest in the inventory? All these decisions to make made me feel stuck. Decision making tends to paralyze my thinking (though I’ve gotten better and better at that now). I was standing still, not knowing how to move forward.
In the summer time, I went back to the States and got to spend time with my sister and cousin. One day, an inspiration hit. Why not focus on one product? And use that to start a conversation with my customers, then slowly build from there.
While in the US, there was a few times when my meals were served with plastic utensils at sit-down restaurants. That seemed ridiculous to me. Once, I was even rejected when I asked for normal metal utensils instead of plastic. That's when the idea of the product hit me.
Making the prototype
While I was back in Thailand, my friend Jesse knowing I was into eco-friendly products sent me the contact of a supplier who was making things like this. Before I left Thailand, I got to visit his workshop in Bangkok. This guy came back to my mind. I contacted him and told him about my idea of making a product – a travel pouch with bamboo utensils and straw. Sonny, the supplier used to be a clothing designer. Now he is making bamboo products. I had no idea how to work with a supplier, how to design a prototype. With his knowledge and experience, he helped me design the prototype. The whole process took a lot longer than I thought. I was antsy. I wanted things to move forward already. But every time a prototype was done and shown to me, I would go through my decision paralysis, struggling to know how to communicate and move forward.
This process went on for about 2-3 months. I got back to Koh Phangan, Thailand. My fire with this company and this product had gone down a bit. I was at standstill again. Until I met Anfernee and Cindy – an Australian couple traveling through Thailand. I showed them the prototype that I had. Cindy liked the product and encouraged me to keep going with it. Anfernee gave me an assignment – to go out there and sell 3 sets. I thought it was ridiculous at first because the prototype hasn’t been finalized. I don’t have the product yet. Who is going to buy?
First set sold!
That same night, I got to show the prototype to a friend Robert. He really liked the product and wanted to buy one, without me telling him about the challenge that Anfernee had given me. Just like that, I sold the first set! The next few days, every time Anfernee saw me, he would ask about my sale. I knew I wouldn’t just let this challenge go and I only need to sell 2 more sets. It should not be a problem to get 2 friends to buy from me. So I did a Facebook post showing the prototype. Beyond my expectation, the responses I got were amazing! I was so overwhelmed, didn’t know what to do with myself. I don’t have the product yet and people want to buy already?! Even people in Malaysia. It’s not a cheap product in Malaysian currency. I called my mom and told her about it. She encouraged me to keep going.
The cocktail of excitement and frustration
Just like that, there was no turning back…
With the support of my friends, about 50 sets were pre-ordered. I was floored and had so much gratitude to the support I was getting. I moved forward and placed the order with Sonny. We made a few more prototypes before finalizing the design. Then, the production began. And then, my patience was tested. Throughout this process, there was miscommunication, waiting, going back and forth with the tailor, getting material, waiting for the material, making changes… I promised I would ship out the pre-orders by the end of November. The deadline was approaching, I was getting antsy. Then the deadline passed, I got frustrated. I would wake up in the morning with texts from Sonny about production delay, get very stressed and not knowing what to do or how to react. At this time, it was December – my birthday month and Christmas time. With things not going the way I expected it to be and me being stressed out and couldn’t do anything to help, I decided to spend the month in Europe. A change of scenery and hopefully a change in my mindset as well.
Enjoy every step of the journey
At this point, I’d already make 4 or 5 versions of the website over the year. While I was in Netherlands, staying with my friend Daniel, I got to work on the new version of the website (the one you are looking at now!) while he was working on his. I also met many other inspiring digital nomads in Javea, Spain, reuniting with friends in London and France. With the experience I got over the year, I learned to take things one step at a time, be patient and enjoy every step along the way.
Till from Germany testing out the bamboo knife on his lunch
Fast forward a month later, after much anticipation, frustration, excitement, the production was finally complete. I went to Bangkok, picked up the first batch of the products, sold the first physical set to a friend Nico that I just met while traveling to Bangkok, brought the first batch back to Malaysia, figured out how to package it, mailed out my first batch of pre-orders to countries including China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. The second batch was sent to US a few weeks after.
My Plastic Journey
Throughout this journey, I’ve reduced the use of plastic in my life. Far from being perfect and plastic-free, I value progress over perfection. I don’t like to tell people what to do, I simply focus on doing my part. But I have people telling me that they have started doing the same too after watching me refusing plastic. My cousin and my sister are still making jokes about the time when we had to carry 2 cup noodles each in our hands because I refused to take a plastic bag at the supermarket.
This whole year sometimes seems long and slow. I wish I had a clearer vision and direction from the beginning. But sometimes Life takes us on a scenic detour so that the story is longer (thanks for reading it!) and the journey is sweeter. I don’t know if this story is worth sharing but I am going to share it anyway. I don’t know if I am good enough for this but I am going to do it anyway. I keep learning everyday about sustainability, about business, and about myself. I wish I was smarter but I am even more proud of my willingness to learn, grow, try and do.
My hope for the company is to raise awareness of the way we consume in our society. To care about the Earth, our home. To deliver products that bring joy to people. To spread and demonstrate the value of compassion for all the beings in the world. I want to express my deepest gratitude to those who have been supporting me, to my Teachers, and to all who share the same mission and passion.