Melvin Chee of Malaysia-based RPG Commerce shares how a venture-building business model and data-driven mindset led his company to become one of the fastest-growing in Southeast Asia
At the onset of his career, Melvin Chee knew he did not want a typical 9-5 job. At 18, he did his first internship with a startup founded by his cousin, Fong Wai Hong, in Melbourne. He went on to also intern for Groupon Malaysia and the online learning platform Udemy in the US. In San Francisco, he got a taste of the startup life in Silicon Valley. He became captivated by the innovative culture and dreamed of bringing that experience back to Malaysia.
At age 23, Chee launched RPG Commerce, which quickly became one of the fastest-growing direct-to-consumer social e-commerce companies in the region, offering a wide range of products from clothing to health supplements.
RPG Commerce was founded as Rocket Paradise Group, a name inspired by Rocket Internet, the German venture builder known for launching, investing and taking a share in internet and technology startups worldwide.
For his business, Chee wanted to leverage the internet and supply chain innovations to solve problems. So with RPG Commerce, he used a venture-building model and launched ten brands in various product categories, including apparel, home, living and supplements. This process, he says, is extremely data-driven. His team takes the time to understand consumer trends and identify the right products that match market demand.
RPG Commerce has been growing ever since and has raised about US$34.5 million in total funding from investors.
Chee shares more about starting his business, scaling quickly and the lessons he’s picked up over the years.
RPG Commerce’s products are available online and offline, with the company looking to grow its retail presence across Malaysia’s Klang Valley (Photo: Chong Jinn Xiung)
When did you realize that you wanted to start your own company?
Melvin Chee (MC): I enjoy creating products and finding solutions for complex challenges on a global scale. The internet fascinates me with its vastness, transparency and endless possibilities.
My dad was an entrepreneur but he never pushed me to follow his path. He wanted me to get a good education and a professional job. I was supposed to be an engineer but dropped out of engineering school and switched to economics and finance.
In my first year in Melbourne, I interned for free at early-stage startups and companies. I got an internship at my cousin Wai Hong’s company there and he became my mentor. I shared my ideas with him and asked him if I should return to Malaysia or stay in Melbourne. He told me it was a great time to return in 2016 because of the strong currency exchange rate between the US dollar and the Ringgit. I was excited to start my venture. He also gave me some insights into the local scene and the rest is history.
Why do you think RPG Commerce was able to grow so rapidly?
MC: The Covid-19 pandemic was challenging for many of us, but it was a major factor in our success as an online consumer company. We were fully digital in 2020 and benefited from the increased online activity. You can say we rode the pandemic wave to success.
After raising our Series A and B fundings, we faced increased pressure. We used to be a lean company with lots of freedom, but with the funding success, we had more promises to deliver on. Our company is valued at around US$130 million [at the time of writing]. There are associated expectations, but we are determined to build what we set out to. We are still in the early stages of our journey.
What are your top markets and which do you operate mainly out of?
MC: We operate in more than 30 markets, and our top ones are the US, Canada and Australia. Southeast Asia ranks third or fourth among our brands in terms of revenue. Operationally, all of our manpower is located in Malaysia and Singapore. We have 132 employees in Kuala Lumpur and about 10 in Singapore. We also have six warehouses worldwide, including in the US, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Netherlands and Hong Kong. Each warehouse is responsible for different parts of the world and they are controlled centrally by our office in Kuala Lumpur.
Taking no action would be a disservice to their efforts. It’s up to us to embrace our potential and positively impact the world. – Melvin Chee
What’s your long-term goal for RPG Commerce?
MC: We have a clear vision: to build a digital powerhouse that offers novel products for contemporary consumers in different fields or segments. We want to emulate the success of global consumer product giants like P&G or Unilever, who have diversified their brands and markets. This way, we can manage our resources and costs more effectively and efficiently, like running different magazines with one team for different audiences. That’s our long-term strategy and goal.
How did you overcome the initial hurdles of launching your startup?
MC: We had to be smart and efficient with our resources, especially with little money. We followed a simple rule: every dollar we spent had to return more than a dollar in return. We focused on finding product-market fit, testing creative approaches and measuring the performance of our campaigns. We didn’t waste time on things that didn’t work. We experimented, learned and iterated fast. When we found something that worked, we scaled it up and kept growing. We trusted the data to guide us and inform our decisions. Data never lies, so we listened to what it said and acted accordingly.
What are your sources of inspiration and motivation?
MC: I take inspiration from my grandfather, who lived through the Second World War and sought to bring his family out of poverty by ensuring his children had access to education. Though they struggled to make ends meet, they never gave up on their dreams. Today, we have more opportunities and resources at our disposal. We are better educated and equipped to succeed. Taking no action would be a disservice to their efforts. It’s up to us to embrace our potential and positively impact the world.
The original article was published on Tatler Malaysia, 11 August 2023.