Since my first contact with them in mid-2011, the Zhou sisters have very graciously agreed to host me during my fieldwork in South East Asia for a good part of 2013. I have been learning the ropes of the blogshop industry with their conscientious guidance, getting to participate in photography shoots, events for customers, and packing & delivery procedures. Feel free to read about my internship experience on the go. I update regularly :)Behind the popular local blogshop Ohvola.com are the powerhouse duo, sisters Lucinda Zhou and Jolene Zhou. What follows are snippets of my interviews with the ladies from December 2011 till date. I hope you enjoy hearing from them!
Crys: How did Ohvola begin?
Lu: It began when I was in my uni days… I was in SIM (Singapore Institute of Management) and they had this entrepreneur club so I thought, why not join it since I have nothing else in mind! I went to join them… they had this push cart idea… and I thought again, why not give it a try, so I went to try it… I decided to bring in dresses because it was my passion at that moment haha! After that, I realize I had to man the stall for long hours haha… and there were very few customers, which wasn’t effective enough… so I thought, why not bring it online, so I can manage my studies better and at the same time I don’t have to be there 24/7
Crys: I see
Lu: At that time, the (online) market wasn’t so saturated. We were quite lucky… by word of mouth from friends, we got more popular and we thought… okay this is not just a passion and interest anymore… we should put some serious work into it… now it’s our full time job!
Crys: How did the name ‘Ohvola’ come about?
Lu: Actually… it’s random! There’s no meaning, haha. We just thought that we want something catchy for people to remember, and anything word with a letter ‘v’ in it sounds really cool hahaha… I was 19 and Jolene was 17! We started forming different words with ‘v’, and we thought Ohvola sounded very catchy, and it’s something that I can remember…
Crys: So when was your company officially named and founded?
Lu: Officially July 2007!
Crys: You once mentioned that the market is really saturated?
Lu: Yah, initially it was not so saturated… when we started our business there were a few online blogshops, not many… but right now there are so many new ones coming up everyday.
Crys: Have you seen a change in the way customers react or respond to fashion?
Lu: Hmm… in the beginning it was just that as long as the item is nice, as long as it’s to their liking they will purchase it. But now with more blogshops coming up, they are particular with the material, the workmanship, whether it’s worth the money. They are willing to pay more but they want to have their money’s worth. In the past it was simply a matter of buying [online] as long as it’s cheap.
Crys: I also learnt that you used to import your goods?
Lu: Yah we started out with no manufactured items! Haha… because we have a minimum target to hit in order to manufacture something, and that time when we just started out we didn’t have that a huge customer base… so we slowly started out with one manufactured item in the collection to a couple more… and now it’s completely manufactured collection every time.
Crys: What was the thinking behind the decision?
Lu: It was intentional, because… through our experience in the past few years, we know that customers don’t really like the thin and sheer pieces, and those that are easily crumpled… we eliminate them from our list, so we try to use newer fabric and thicker ones… something like that.
Crys: Manufacturing will cost more for you as well right?
Lu: Yup it’s slightly more expensive but it’s worth it. Our customers will get to enjoy exclusive pieces.
Ploughing through social media
Crys: I realize that on your blog you post a lot of ‘Ohvola’ pictures. Is there a reason for this?
Lu: The reason I started the blog was because my customers requested for me to give personal comments about some items… they wanted to see me in the items to know how they look like outside the studio…
Crys: So they actually ask you for these photos?
Lu: It’s sort of like a request… I didn’t really like the idea of blogging initially, that’s why I didn’t start it earlier. But after trying it for a while, I thought it was quite fun!
Crys: When did you start blogging?
Lu: Recently! Haha. Right after we launched the dot com… probably in October or November 2010?
Crys: Previously was it only Jolene who was blogging?
Lu: Yah, Jolene likes to blog so it was her… um… she started it out first and then we had customers asking for my blog address, but I didn’t have one… then after that, Jolene encourage me! And Jolene helped me out with my blog.
Crys: Do you think your blog helps your business in any way?
Lu: Definitely! There’s this comment box where customers will offer me feedback. They would ask us to list down our picks for the collection, or the colours that we’re keeping for ourselves. I didn’t know they were interested in that previously, until I had a blog. With my comment box I could hear directly from my customers, how they feel, what they would like us to do for them…
Crys: Then, with your status as a blogger now, do you get identified by people on the streets often?
Lu: I don’t really notice, but I know Jolene gets noticed! Jolene’s the model for Ohvola, so I think she gets attention from girls our age.
Crys: I also notice that you’ve got Twitter accounts, and you’ve got a Facebook page? How have these aided your business or your blogs in any way?
Lu: I guess social media definitely plays a huge part… and it definitely makes a difference to the business. I’m sure my customers don’t go to my website all the time… but with Facebook and Twitter they get updated instantly, so whenever I launch or whenever I put up a preview of the collection, my customers get notified immediately, which is really good.
Crys: Is there a limit to this though? Have they stepped over the line and said things that they shouldn’t have said to you?
Lu: No. My customers are very sweet! Haha.
A family affair
Crys: How is it like working with family?
Lu: My sister and I… we are the main people running the business. So… we do most of the stuff. Our mom helps us out and we also have a few staff.
Crys: What’s the workload like? I understand that Jolene’s the model?
Lu: Yah we started out with Jolene being the model, and I’m the photographer, and actually we do just about everything else! Haha… we are slowly trying to lessen our workload. We have two other models, and we have staff helping us with packing and deliveries… and some other admin stuff.
Crys: I’m curious. How is it like working with a sibling?
Lu: Haha… uh… we definitely have our quarrels… but at the end of the day, because we are family, we don’t bear grudges… we have strengths in different areas. In terms of photography stuff, the appearance of the images, I will take charge. And then for other things like stocks, Jolene is the one who does the inventory. It’s very balanced.
Crys: What is your work-life balance like? Do you segregate them ‘home’ and the ‘office’?
Lu: Initially, the idea of having our own office was to separate our working life and our personal life… but because Ohvola is so much of my life, sometimes it’s very hard to segregate… when my job requires me, I’ll just tend to matters. I wouldn’t say that when I’m home I wouldn’t touch anything related to work.
Crys: Do people recognize you when you go out on the street?
Jol: Yah, they do!
Crys: So how do they usually react?
Jol: Usually they will look, and then… they will take a second look and then they will tell their friend, this one is the Ohvola model, yup… that kind of thing
Crys: Do you feel uncomfortable that people recognize you?
Jol: I’m more or less used to it already. Initially I would [wonder] why people keep looking and even talking about me… but after some time I knew that they recognized me. But it’s sort of a good thing… it means that more people know our shop!
Crys: Was it a conscious decision to start your online shop? Did you expect it to be such a huge business like it is today?
Lu: When we started out it was pure interest…
Crys: Like a hobby?
Lu: We were just trying it out… to see if it works… if it didn’t work then it’s okay… but slowly it progressed into something that we had to do full-time!
Crys: Are you enjoying your job? Do you foresee it as your life-long job?
Lu: Yah! For as long as this exists… or as long as it supports me! Haha.
PS: Thank you for the emails and tweets regarding posts on this humble research blog. Your comments and critique have been encouraging and constructive. I aim to correspond with each of you personally very soon. To readers outside of Singapore (PS: Hello, readers from Estonia?!), I’ll be sure to line up comprehensive blogposts introducing the foundation and structure of the commercial blog industry in Singapore and South East Asia :)