For International Women's Day 2019, we’re featuring women entrepreneurs in the ventureLAB community. Each day this week, we’ll feature a woman entrepreneur who inspires and leads her team to success, and makes an impact on her community. Read more interviews in the series here. Karen Wong is the Co-founder and CEO of TAKU Retail and ACE POS. Read on to find out about how she steers businesses to greater success, and what keeps her going.
Corporate success? If the path forward is getting easier. That means ever more happy staff and happy customers. Personal success? When I was younger it was two silly measures – being financially stable enough to not look at the meter when taking a cab, and being able to afford fancy socks. In retrospect, these were silly and self-centred. Now? It would be disingenuous to say that financial independence isn’t a part of it - but that’s certainly not enough now. Success is being able to take care of my family and health. Both are things I didn’t do enough of in the past.
We know how difficult it is to run a business and what it means to have a tool that really helps you grow your business. TAKU Retail is not going to be simply a system to record retail & wholesale transactions - it is going to be a platform that gives merchants the ability to make actionable insights to sell more and optimize operations.
The retail industry has undergone major upheaval over the last several years. The dramatic growth of e-commerce coupled with over-expansion of brick & mortar stores by traditional retailers led to a slew of high profile bankruptcies including household names such as Toys ‘R’ Us. Since then, the market has re-balanced and the stronger retailers that survived are in a better position than ever. It’s an ideal time to enter the market as retailers are now actively looking for retail technology that increase their sales, optimize their operations and improve their competitiveness. At the same time, it’s simply the right time for all of the co-founders in our careers. Honestly speaking, we would not have been able to build TAKU Retail when we were younger. Retail management systems are incredibly interdisciplinary. At this time point in my career, I’ve run wholesale, manufacturing, and retail businesses. Similarly, my co-founders have extensive experience with point-of-sale, inventory management and ERP. TAKU Retail is the fusion of all of that experience.
When I started using Salesforce in 2005, it was a lightbulb moment for me. I’ve been a true believer in the power of cloud since then but aside from back-office tools, established merchants who needed mission critical software have continued to be hesitant to move to the cloud as speed and performance haven’t been comparable. At the same time, Amazon has shown how valuable and actionable the data is in a cloud computing model. We’ve developed TAKU Retail with all of this in mind, right here in Canada. We are 100% based in Ontario and make it a priority to integrate with Canadian partners to be able to deliver solutions that are unique to the needs of our country.
Co-partnering with key integration partners is the way forward for companies in our space. This includes accounting, marketing, payment and e-commerce integration partners such as Sage, QuickBooks, Chase, Global, Moneris, TD Bank, Google, Shopify, etc. POS and ERP systems are sticky B2B solutions, and I find it’s best to co-market and collaborate with complementary partners with real credibility to merchants. It’s truly a win-win situation as we can both enhance each other’s offerings without cannibalizing one another.
Can I just say: I love ventureLAB. I’m serious. If I had been involved earlier I would have made far fewer mistakes. You have given me so much insight in just 3-4 months to move faster, scale faster - to do what I should have done properly to begin with. ventureLAB being inside IBM is tremendous, because IBM is a major player in the retail market. Your team has been really fabulous with us, and given us insight on what it takes to build a proper Enterprise application to scale. It’s amazing to be in a space when I can pop out the door and ask for advice. I’m a go-getter; I try to be pretty proactive about a lot of stuff. I always knew I wanted to build something. When I was young, I thought I knew everything. That’s one of the mistakes you make when you’re young: you don’t ask because you think you can figure it out on your own. You’re smarter than everybody, and you’re smart enough to figure things out. Work ethic can get you through a lot, and that’s been a big motto of my life, but as I get older I have truly realized how little I know, and part of that means I need advisors and need advice. All of the co-founders of TAKU are at the right age: we’ve all been screwed once or twice already. We know enough to say when we don’t know something.
It’s interesting growing up in Canada. I was fortunate to have a happy-go-lucky experience at school but I would come home to my mom’s Chinese values. There’s a Chinese saying she’s always instilled in us about the value and, more importantly, the necessity for sacrifice to succeed. In life, you get two cups of tea. One sweet. One bitter. It’s your choice which one you drink first. It’s the foundation of my work ethic to this day.
I’ve worked for myself for a long time now, but when I worked for others I was lucky to have great managers in Canada. In particular, I worked with Ken Breuer, who was one of the partners at Commix, a boutique promotions agency. It was inspiring working with him as I not only saw how he built and ran a business, but also learned valuable lessons about how solid partnerships work.
When we first moved back to Canada we didn’t think we’d run our own business. We came back from Asia and were like let’s just get jobs - it was very hectic living in Asia, and we were living almost burnt out - so we came back and said let’s just get regular jobs. That didn’t last. Two weeks later we were like- let’s just do something while we’re looking for jobs. Next thing you know we were like - we don’t want to get jobs. We want to make jobs. The core of our business has to have Canadian values and be driven from that. I came back to Canada because this is where I feel most comfortable, and I believe in those values. I’d love to share that with the world.
Yeah, and that’s an unusual thing too, working with your spouse. When I was younger, I thought I’d do everything myself, but as I get older I realize you don’t do things on your own. If anything, you’re lucky if you put out 20-30% of the output. We have a great team now, and everything we do here contributed to that.
Be willing to make mistakes. Understand mistakes are part of the process. Make sure your mistakes are affordable mistakes. I’ve hit so many walls and doors along the way, and I’m going to keep doing that - but I didn’t know that was part of the process when I was younger. I was devastated every time something went wrong, or wasn’t perfect. You learn that that’s part of the process, and that you can recover from it. Do it when you’re young: dabble in entrepreneurship. Get a taste of it. Make mistakes earlier.