At 32, fresh-faced Alex Zhou may not cast the image of a typical entrepreneurial powerhouse who is shaking up the retail world. Yet, Zhou's e-commerce site, Yamibuy, has grown to generate over $100 million a year in sales. This performance earned Zhou recognition as Ernst & Young's 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year in Los Angeles, as well as numerous other accolades.
Originally from China, Zhou chose to come to the United States to attend college at Kansas State University. While he quickly assimilated to life in the Midwest, he found one aspect unexpectedly frustrating: there were no traditional Asian snacks available anywhere nearby. He had to drive 200 miles to Kansas City to get traditional Chinese snacks or a Chinese meal that didn't leave him longing for home.
After commiserating with other Asian students and immigrants from the same background, Zhou realized how common his experience was. “Talking to others gave me an idea," he says. "I realized these people represented a substantial niche market for real Asian snacks in the U.S., [one] that not only existed but that not even Amazon was serving."
The Multi-Million Dollar Idea
After graduating, Zhou checked into where his potential market lived and discovered it was not in the Midwest, but in New York and Los Angeles. So he moved to L.A. and set up shop. With an investment from family members, he built his first version of Yamibuy, an e-commerce platform designed to offer popular Asian snack foods.
But Asian snack distributors didn't want to talk to anyone who wasn't ready to order in bulk. Nevertheless, Zhou persisted. After continually calling and urging suppliers to sell him quantities that fit his business plan, one finally gave in.
Then, it was time to build his infrastructure. He started with an unimpressive website and a 2,000-square-foot warehouse, stocking 200 products. And he did it all himself, stocking shelves, taking orders, packaging, shipping, and personally providing customer service.
The only problem was there weren't too many customers to service.
Still, Zhou didn't give up and, eventually, word spread via word-of-mouth, and his products began selling.
As growth began to accelerate, Zhou knew he needed assistance from a tax professional. Initially, he hired an accountant. But working with a by-the-hour professional proved "too expensive, time-consuming, and, at times, painful for my taste," he says. So Zhou looked for alternatives and stumbled upon LegalZoom.
'The first thing I had to do was make sure LegalZoom was legit," says Zhou. "I was just out of college and had no real-world experience." He decided to give it a try online, following LegalZoom's process for registering "Yamibuy" as a DBA. "It was like three or four simple steps, very smooth and easy. After a short wait, I got my DBA."
From then on, "I was able to focus completely on what I do best, growing the business," he says, "and let LegalZoom take all the paperwork off my shoulders."
As his customer base grew, sales data confirmed the insight that brought Zhou to L.A. in the first place. "A couple of months of online sales showed me I was right to leave the Midwest," he said. "The market was almost all New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles."
But the new information also forced him to rethink his original concept. After analyzing the data and talking to customers, Zhou realized that snacks were no more than the tip of the iceberg for most of them. They clamored for other uniquely Asian products that were hard or impossible to find in the U.S.
In response, Zhou expanded the range of Yamibuy products. Its offerings went from Asian snacks and treats to include a wide choice of non-snack foods and a selection of top beauty products, health supplements, kitchen tools, home appliances, electronics, and more.
That business move led to a massive market opportunity that didn't go unnoticed by the financial community. In 2017, Yamibuy received a $10 million investment, its first infusion of outside capital, by three leading early-stage international investment firms.
So less than five years after a modest beginning, Yamibuy grew to employ more than 500 people, offer more than 20,000 Asian products, occupy 450,000 square feet of warehouse space, and have over 800,000 registered customers.
And, according to Zhou, the future is filled with possibilities for growth.
“We plan to grow our market organically by increasing the number and range of products we offer, by expanding our suppliers geographically—from primarily China to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and more—and by serving more of America's growing Asian communities," he says.
But Zhou's next big play will be to sell his products to a mainstream American audience. "We want everyone in this country who's interested in Asian culture and products, whether or not they're Asian themselves, to come to Yamibuy," he says.