That was the case for Alex Zhou, founder and CEO of online Asian marketplace Yami, who came to the U.S. from China to attend Kansas State University in the college town of Manhattan, Kansas in 2007.
“For almost five years, I didn’t have access to Asian food, restaurants or grocery stores,” Zhou tells Entrepreneur. “It was really inconvenient, and I noticed a lot of my classmates who came from Asian countries experienced the same problem.”
Post-graduation, Zhou moved to LA, where there’s a large Asian population. Surrounded by a bounty of Asian restaurants and brick-and-mortar stores like H Mart, the lightbulb went off: Maybe I can start an ecommerce company to carry Asian products and brands, Zhou thought.
Ecommerce certainly wasn’t a new concept at the time. In China, there was Alibaba; in the U.S., eBay and Amazon were long-established players. And with more and more Asian students and immigrants coming to the U.S., Zhou realized there was a real market for his idea.
Zhou established Yami, formerly known as Yamibuy, in 2013. Today, the ecommerce retailer boasts two million customers (one in 10 Asian Americans use the platform, Yami found by examining customer and census data) and more than 300,000 SKUs of Asian snacks, food, beauty and health products, home appliances, books and more.
Additionally, even though the majority of U.S. Asians live in California, New York, Texas, New Jersey and Washington, Yami’s seeing its most rapid growth not in those states, but in college towns like Raleigh, North Carolina and Tempe, Arizona — a testament to Zhou’s original mission.
“In the beginning, I was just trying to serve all the Chinese students studying in the United States.”
Back in 2013, as a fresh college graduate, Zhou had no idea how to run a business. So he started from scratch: researching everything from products and costs to website development.
Part of the process? Taking a stroll through the very Asian markets he’d noticed on arrival to study their customers and jot down brand names, some of which would become eventually become Zhou’s own suppliers.
Zhou’s strategy was a success, but as Yami grew, so did some of the challenges along with it. In the early days, when Zhou couldn’t afford to hire employees, he would work from 6 a.m. to midnight, driving around to pick up the inventory nobody wanted to deliver to his still-young company.
Then, around 2015, when Yami was really gaining momentum and could afford to hire, Zhou had to figure out how to convince people working at Google and Amazon to join his startup.
Through it all, the founder had to consider how to sustain Yami’s growth. “In the beginning, I was just trying to serve all the Chinese students studying in the United States because I understood their pain point,” he says. “I knew what they wanted.”
Leveraging word of mouth was key from the start. The right product can generate a lot of organic takeoffs, Zhou says, using the example of social media.
“Let’s say somebody bought instant noodles from Japan,” Zhou explains. “Then he or she posts on social media: ‘Oh my God, look at what I bought.’ Then their friend is going to ask [where they bought it from]. This is our classic customer acquisition channel — to this day.”
“The strategy changes a little bit [when] customers aren’t familiar with the product.”
In recent years, Yami has expanded beyond its Asian customer base, and doing so requires a shift in tactics, Zhou notes.
“When we step into this space, the strategy changes a little bit because these customers aren’t familiar with the product,” Zhou says, “but they’re influenced by the rising Asian pop and food culture.”
Especially in U.S. coastal cities, it’s not uncommon for people to incorporate Asian cuisines into their weekly meal rotations, Zhou explains, and part of Yami’s success with its non-Asian customer base relies on its ability to connect with those potential buyers.
To that end, Yami works with Asian chefs and restaurants to acquire Asian-food lovers. The company also partners with Asian content platforms to draw in people who are fans of Asian pop culture like K-pop, K-drama, anime and more.
Image credit: Courtesy of Yami
“Every single customer wants a world-class experience. Improving the customer shopping experience is on our mind every day.”
Another major growth milestone? Yami’s opening its East Coast warehouse, which will enable shipping times that rival Amazon Prime‘s across the U.S. — an average of just 2.6 days, Zhou says.
“Retail is retail,” Zhou explains. “Every single customer wants a world-class experience. Improving the customer shopping experience is on our minds every day. That’s why we [opened] our West Coast warehouse first, and now our East Coast warehouse — so we can ship the packages to our customers faster.”
Yami also has its own fleet of vehicles; in LA, orders placed in the morning can be delivered the same day, and those placed in the afternoon can be delivered the next day.
In dealing with so many cross-border products (95% are imported from Asia), Yami has to contend with a sometimes-complicated supply chain. That’s why it’s made data and AI a cornerstone of its strategy — using the technology to forecast demand and personalize marketing to customers.
“You never solve the problem if you just think about it.”
To other founders hoping to break into the ecommerce space as successfully as Yami has, Zhou suggests keeping two things in mind. First, you have to zero in on your niche.
“It’s too late [to start the next Amazon],” Zhou says. “Amazon already dominates the entire ecommerce space. But there are still new ecommerce companies coming up every day. If you look at all of these [new] companies, there’s always something distinct about them. For example, Yami — Amazon is big, but it’s not doing well with Asian supply chains. It’s not doing well with Asian products.”
But perhaps the most important piece of advice, according to Zhou? Just take that first step.
“Sometimes [potential founders] think too much — but they never put their thought into action,” Zhou explains. “You never solve the problem if you just think about it.”