Interview with Mike Tee of Elevyn

elevyn
Elevyn is a social entrepreneurship project started by Mike Tee and Devan Singaram in late 2007 and it is one of the Malaysian start up that you will be hearing a lot in the coming months.

Elevyn adopts the Etsy and eBay concept, but designed specifically to make it easy for marginalized/rural communities to set up ecommerce stores for their local crafts. By buying an item, you support not only the seller, but a portion of funds are also channeled to a local community project (Think “textbooks for rural schools”). The folks of Elevyn also do a lot of work on the ground (currently in the jungles of Borneo!) helping communities get set up.

[KengYew]
Mike, thanks for interviewing! :) Tell us about Elevyn.

[Mike]
Thanks for the opportunity!
Elevyn (pronounced as “eleven”) is an online platform to empower marginalized communities. We enable rural entrepreneurs and non-government organizations (NGOs) to set up online shops and sell their crafts to a global market. Our goal? To improve the economic standards and financial independence of marginalized communities.
[Here’s how Elevyn works]
elevynprocess

[KengYew]
Why the name Elevyn?
[Mike]
The whole thing started when my partner Devan and I took the challenge of applying for the MDeC Preseed grant. We found out about it a couple of days prior to the deadline; and after poring thru sleepless nights on the proposals, doing the presentations and eventually having everything come together – we wanted to call ourselves 11th Hour Solutions for all the last-minute craziness. Elevyn is sort of a word-play on that – although a lot of people seem to have trouble with the name so we may do something about it later down the line!

[KengYew]
Okay, I want to try and understand this more. Part of the problem you are solving is using the Internet to empower communities to be able to sell online. How would your platform be able to help them any more, than say something like eBay?
[Mike]
Haha we get grilled on that a lot – even during the MDeC presentation Q&A itself! A unique factor is that we introduce this thing called CAUSES, which are little community-based projects run in collaboration with the community and field partners / NGOs. For example, a Cause could be something simple like “Raise $100 to buy books for the local school”.

Now here’s where it differs from eBay and anything else out there – every time a product is sold, 5% is automatically channeled towards a Cause. From here, we see multiple benefits – sellers make an income, their community project gets funded, and the buyer leaves with a great feeling knowing that they have not only supported a seller, but also to its community.

[KengYew]
That’s a great concept. So how are you currently reaching out to your buyers and sellers?
[Mike]
Our pilot project is a crafts seller in Kota Kinabalu, who also works with a group of single / aged mothers and poor women at her village. We have a Field Coordinator in the team, Puah Sze Ning and she works directly on the ground with the sellers. Reaching out – for now will be mainly online. Get blogger support / write-ups, provide widgets, banner advertising, partnerships.

Eventually we want the sellers themselves to be responsible for marketing because it’s a huge part of what contributes to the success of a business, and they need to know that. Ultimately we’d like to see sellers from the world over setting up their own online shops directly thru the website.

[KengYew]
So until you reach that “critical mass” point, you’ll be replicating the field coordinator model. I think user education is a big challenge man.
[Mike]
Tremendous challenge; but at the same time, we’re also surprised at many things. Who knew that a village, accessible only via logging roads, hours deep in Sabah, actually has satellite-based Internet connections?!

We were pleasantly surprised with how knowledgeable some of the village folks were. There was this elderly village chief – the old-uncle type you’d expect to sit at coffee-shops talking politics – and Sze Ning had him discussing e-commerce! Plus the community officers that we aliased with – most of them young adults from similar villages nearby – all Internet-savvy and some had nicer phones than we do!

[KengYew]
Okay. I’m going to talk a bit about the initial stages of the project. How did you come up with the idea of helping these folks?
[Mike]
The interesting thing is… this idea didn’t come up at the snap of a finger. Devan and myself initially wanted to do a project very similar to this! We wanted to interview social entrepreneurs… folks who combine both profitability and social elements into their business.

We actually started development on the site, and the more we got into it, the more ideas came about. We wanted to incorporate videos and create this whole social entrepreneur online scene… and it’ll have collaboration tools to get actions going, we’ll have this, we’ll have that, and as a revenue generator, we’ll have a shop that sells only cause-based products produced by the social entrepreneurs.
Elevyn materialized out of these many ideas that were built on top of each other. So a word of advice to entrepreneurs – never stop brainstorming – you never know what might come out of it!

[KengYew]
Yeah man… I plan on doing 1 year anniversary interviews for all startups.
Just to see how their ideas have evolved because that is so critical for the startup stage.
So you started this with Devan? How did you guys meet? And how big is the team today?
[Mike]
Yup, Devan and myself spearhead the business development – but since Devan is already a hardcore PHP programmer, he also spends a lot of hours on programming. Wilson our designer was also involved very early in the project – he and Devan go back a long way. We recently engaged Shahrul as another designer, and Ms Leong who does our accounts on the sides. We have Sze Ning as our Field Coordinator, and she’s, well, mainly in the field. Even right now, she’s in Sabah for 3 weeks to get us ready for the launch and to work with another community, potentially coming onboard Elevyn in the future.

How did I meet Devan? It was actually a series of interesting coincidences. A few years back I met him thru a PHP developer forum… had wanted to outsource some jobs to him. But it didn’t pan out… many months later I bumped into him again while with my girlfriend (Sze Ning) who helps out at this stall selling indigenous handicrafts called Gerai OA. Turns out that Sze Ning and Devan both volunteer for the same thing!
After that I kept bumping into Devan at an Indian restaurant in Sri Hartamas – but the changing moment came during a lazy Sunday afternoon where I had lunch, saw Devan there and we started talking and discussing all the way until dinner! It was then, that the idea for collaboration was hatched.

[KengYew]
Okay let’s talk about funding. When did you apply for Preseed? How long did development take and when do you plan to launch?
[Mike]

We applied for Preseed towards the end of 2007 and actual development started in April 08. We plan to do a beta launch within this week itself (Aug 08). The public launch will be confirmed once we get feedback from the beta users.

We’ve got one shop ready for the beta launch; and users can already buy the crafts online. We bought a pencil holder ourselves last week – and surprise surprise, it arrived within 3 days! It was quite a shock as the item just popped in out of nowhere – no email notifications; nothing. We weren’t even expecting the seller to have checked her email for our order! So that’s one of those little things that we need to work one with the seller… to not surprise buyers! Haha…

[KengYew]
Payment is done using credit card?
[Mike]
Yeah, credit card and PayPal at the moment.

[KengYew]
Alright so what are your future plans for Elevyn? Do you hope to be sustainable after Preseed? Looking for investment?
[Mike]
Future plans – we want the impact of Elevyn to be felt globally. As influential as Kiva, if possible. Because with the internet – your market really is global. Preseed funding has been tremendously helpful, and we are thankful for that. It has allowed us to do so many things which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
We’re keeping our costs very low to ensure sustainability for as long as possible after Preseed. We’re also looking at grants from social entrepreneurship foundations. We recently made it to the final of the YSEI competition – but the results will only be known in September. So that’ll give us a small amount of money which will help – if we win, that is!

Examples of these social entrepreneurship foundations:
YSEI – http://www.ysei.org/
Skoll Foundation- http://www.skollfoundation.org/
Ashoka – http://www.ashoka.org/
Stockholm Challenge – http://www.stockholmchallenge.se/

[KengYew]
What have been your biggest obstacles so far, and what do you think will be your obstacles in the future?
[Mike]
We’re having too much fun! Hahaha… Seriously I’d say it has to be working with the communities. It’s a very steep learning curve – from learning of their infrastructure, to getting their interest to come online, and managing the various “people” issues that come along with it.

[KengYew]
Can you give me some examples of what you mean by “people” issues?
[Mike]
Issues that are beyond our control! :-)
Firstly, there’s the challenge of selling the idea of going online to the communities. This isn’t much of a problem – we’re incredibly lucky to have Sze Ning onboard. She’s built up a good reputation with her community work throughout the years so it helps a great deal. I’m not sure if we would have been able to even step foot in any of the villages without her around.

But the real issues start from there. Communities must first get organized as a team – who will produce the crafts, what to produce, pricing, fund management, etc. And somebody needs to lead the team. We can’t go into the village and start ordering people around. We can only advise – the people themselves must take the initiative. These are some of the many factors that we cannot control.

Another major issue was copyright. Some parties expressed serious concerns about local traditional motifs being open to plagiarism once published on the web. Again, these are human factors – fear of the uncertainty; because we can say the same of the products being sold in the offline market. Suggested solutions include drafting protection clauses and forming copyright taskforces – all of which were beyond our capacity!

[KengYew]
I think I will end on that note. Thanks for interviewing Mike!

This interview was writen by Tham Keng Yew and edited for Malaysia Entrepreneurs.

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