The edge
Start-up: Durian on demand
2022-02-24 17:04:00

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 26, 2021 - August 01, 2021.

It was Teacher’s Day in 2007 and Acid Yong, along with a few of her colleagues, was on stage gearing up for the annual celebration assembly. Out of curiosity, Yong, who was only in her second year of teaching at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Bandar Baru Uda, turned to ask a veteran colleague how many times she had sung the Kami Guru Malaysia anthem, and her response got Yong thinking.

“At first, she was a bit taken aback and then she thought about it and told me that she had been singing the song for more than 30 years. All of a sudden, I had a vision of how monotonous my life would be if I continued to stay in the profession,” she recalls.

“Don’t get me wrong. I loved teaching and everything about it, but I couldn’t imagine myself doing the same thing year after year,” says the founder of Dooran Dooran — a local durian start-up that was conceptualised and launched in just 21 days.

However, she didn’t quit her job immediately to operate a fledgling start-up. On the contrary, Yong — who taught secondary school science and additional mathematics — only left the profession five years later.

“Being a teacher …. well, I was very comfortable. I wasn’t brave enough yet to quit and start a business of my own,” she says.

“Not many people know that female civil servants are given the benefit of taking a sabbatical of one to five years to raise their children. I decided to use up all five years soon after my second maternity leave to focus on my children and to see what else I could do. But at the end of my sabbatical, I knew it was time for me to resign and start something new.”

That was when the opportunity to head the e-commerce arm of Korea Wallpaper Sdn Bhd and to design its online purchase flow and warehouse operation procedures fell into her lap. While her ability to assimilate easily and her experience as an educator were a plus point when it came to designing solutions, it took her a while to comprehend and digest the nuances of corporate culture.

“I don’t remember ever having to send an official email while I was a teacher,” says Yong. “On my first day at Korea Wallpaper, I had to ask my colleagues to teach me how to draft a formal email, how to summarise content and more. I was that bad. But I worked with great people and they understood my shortcomings and helped me learn everything I needed to know about the online and offline wallpaper industry.

“A year later, I was promoted to head of operations. The following year, I was made chief operating officer.”

Eighteen months later, in 2018, she was appointed CEO of Korea Wallpaper, which commands a market share of 35% in Malaysia.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the ensuing movement restrictions put a dampener on the company’s operations. “Every time a Movement Control Order (MCO) is implemented, we have to either shut down operations entirely or operate with a limited number of staff as our business is not an essential service,” says Yong.

“Just before the MCO was imposed in June, I had drinks with a friend and told him that I dreamt of opening a café someday, an easy-going place where people could relax, have coffee and enjoy a durian dessert. He was really encouraging and he felt that we could make it work. We kept bouncing ideas off each other and all of a sudden, the café idea transformed into an idea to sell durians because we were in the midst of the peak durian season.

“And it was something we could do because a group of us own durian orchards in Pagoh (Johor), Titi (Negeri Sembilan), Asahan (Melaka) and Raub (Pahang) that are several decades old. We bought them last year and we thought we would go to the orchards, like a family getaway, to taste the durians fresh and first-hand. And if there were leftovers, we would sell them to dealers.”

Seeing that Korea Wallpaper’s business had hit a snag and its employees were furloughed, they figured that they could channel their existing resources into selling durians online.

Currently, there are only a few companies that sell durians under their own brand name online. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has seen an influx of orchard owners and fruit retailers turning to e-commerce platforms such as Lazada, Grab, Shopee and Foodpanda to market the seasonal produce.

In the last decade, durian has earned a staunch following abroad, particularly in Singapore and China, especially the Musang King variety despite its exorbitant prices.

In 2018, Malaysian companies started supplying frozen whole durians to China. Before that, only the pulp and paste could be exported to that country. The returns, as reports suggest, have been astronomical.

Confident that the orchards they owned would produce more than the group of friends could consume and that their products were good enough to compete with the rest, the duo settled on the name Dooran Dooran, which means clouds and blue skies in Mandarin.

Yong got the IT team and other employees of Korea Wallpaper together and shared her ideas. Eager to have something to do to cope with the MCO and subsequent stricter lockdown, the staff got to work immediately. In just a week, they had the designs for the marketing materials, logo and e-commerce platform sorted, factory and dispatch centres rented, more people hired and supply chain established.

But two weeks before their official launch in June, Yong — who wants Dooran Dooran to not just become a household name but an internationally well-known brand someday — abruptly stopped the work, insisting on a new packaging.

“I was thinking about my counterparts in South Korea; when they visit our headquarters, they always bring us gifts that represent their country. Be it skincare or speciality food such as ginseng, they are proud of their domestic products,” she says.

“I want that reputation for our durians as well. Whenever my Korean friends visit, I always end up treating them to durians, which they really like. It is very rare in their country.”

As Dooran Dooran would be selling the fruit fresh, seed-in-pulp, the unique identifying characteristic that is its thorny exterior would be discarded. So, the fastidious Yong insisted on redoing the design of the tag that would come with the package to represent the iconic shape of the durian. 

“Malaysians always associate durian with the variety, not so much the brand. When we are buying, we tend to look for the Musang King, D24 or Black Thorn varieties. But when we think of kiwi, we look for Zespri, or Sunkist when we buy oranges. Could Dooran Dooran be a household name for durian someday? I wanted the packaging material to reflect that from the get-go,” she says. 

Just when that was sorted out, Yong decided to scrap the company’s marketing strategy entirely, which was to offer low prices that would increase on a daily basis. “The IT department was very perturbed when I asked them to revamp the system in three days,” she says.

“It was a gamble but I felt that if we didn’t do it, Dooran Dooran wouldn’t be visible. Most people always want to get the cheapest price. But if I tell you that today is the cheapest and the price will increase tomorrow, you will buy today.”

Despite the eleventh-hour changes, the team met its deadline and the website went live on June 15.

Dooran Dooran guarantees that its durians are naturally grown and collected after they fall off the 30-year-old trees. Each order — which is packed in aesthetic round brown boxes and secured well — contains 850g to 900g of pulp collected from an estimated 4kg of durians. To date 79,584kg of Musang King and 18,726kg of D24 have been sold.

To keep up with the insatiable demand, they have had to seek out other old durian orchards to keep up a steady supply, at least until the peak season ends in August, says Yong. “Because of the MCO and Enhanced MCO, it is very hard to go out and buy durians. So, the demand has been really good and we have already started making a profit.

“So far, the complaint rate is 0.8%, but my aim is to reduce it to 0.3%. The complaints are mainly about delivery time, so we are rectifying that as best we can. Delivery is mostly hampered by the weather and sometimes the shortage of durians. 

“We promise fresh pulp, which means that once the fruit falls off the tree, we have to open, pack and deliver it within 12 hours. Occasionally, the quality doesn’t meet our standards, so that could also delay delivery.”

Currently, Dooran Dooran has two dispatch centres, in Puchong and Johor Baru.

Once the peak season ends, Yong intends to direct her resources towards developing the concept for her café. “Durians grow all year round, but we don’t need to depend entirely on fresh pulp. We can also use frozen ones to make desserts, which are just as good,” she says.

“As we will be returning to our regular jobs at Korea Wallpaper, we are putting together a proposal for the café and eventually, to get the certification to export our durians. That’s the long-term goal.”

Reference :

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