When I met Mark & Ara, we talked for 2+ hours non-stop.
About how they became a 7-figure distributor for Paper Shoot Camera, a Taiwanese digital camera brand. While working full-time jobs. 🤯
Today in 10 minutes or less, you’ll learn:
- 🚀 How Mark & Ara went from techies to part-time business buyers
- 📸 Their secret to becoming distributors for Paper Shoot SG, MY & TH
- 🤔 Who is a good fit for buying vs starting a business
- Mistakes and advice for buying businesses
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🛒 Becoming a 7-figure distributor | Mark Soh & Ara Kyi
Mark Soh is a co-founder of Paper Shoot Singapore & Malaysia. He also currently serves as an operations manager at an AI tech company. He has experience in corporate business development, product in a state-owned company, and starting an education business in Myanmar. In his leisure time, Mark enjoys playing golf.
Ara Kyi co-founded Paper Shoot Thailand. She also currently leads growth products in the decentralized finance and web3 space at OKX. She has led product teams at companies from small VC-backed startups to large companies across Southeast Asia, China and the US. She is an active angel investor in consumer and web3 startups. In her free time, she plays golf.
🚀 Tell us about your career journeys from working in tech to buying and building small businesses.
Mark - I've always known deep down that I wanted to be a business owner. After graduating, I flew to Yangon to start a learning center from scratch. The goal was to provide quality education to average families in Yangon. It was an incredible journey of about three months. I painted walls, sourced furniture and books, and collaborated with my partners to design the curriculum.
Additionally, I dedicated considerable time to hiring talented teachers. The center had a promising start, with 40 students joining within the first two weeks of opening. Unfortunately, our progress was cut short when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, followed by an unexpected coup.
These unfortunate events compelled me to return to Singapore, where I joined foodpanda. Later on, I transitioned to a traditional state-owned enterprise. These experiences have ultimately led me to where I am today – working full-time as an Operations Manager for a dynamic tech startup.
While working full-time, I found a strong passion for acquiring and building small businesses on the side. This led me to become the exclusive distributor of Paper Shoot for Singapore and Malaysia, as well as acquire a kids' football academy with my business partners. Within the first few months, we made 6 figures in revenue.
Ara - I met Mark in high school, and we got along very well as we were both interested in creating businesses. Our entire chat history is us analyzing different industries, trying to find those that we both resonated with.
Before Paper Shoot, I started a few ventures: I worked on my own AI startup during university and also started some nonprofit chapters. For example, during Covid, which was shortly after I graduated, I co-founded the Boston chapter of codebar which aims to promote diversity in technology through free regular workshops for minorities in the tech sector.
When I came back to Singapore after Covid, I realized that I value creativity, and I wanted to start something on my own that was focused on making people more creative, joyful and present. I wanted to start something that met the more spiritual and existential needs of people, beyond food and shelter. Starting Paper Shoot Camera in Thailand on the side while working my full-time role was a way for me to do that.
📸 You two became distributors for Paper Shoot in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, while you have also started businesses from scratch. What are the differences between becoming a distributor, buying a business, and starting from scratch? Who is a good fit for each of these paths?
- Becoming a distributor. It’s like buying the business for a local market. I (Mark) found that the entire system was already in place, and my task was to adapt it to our home country's context based on purchasing patterns. Initially, I made the mistake of simply ordering designs that were popular in the US, which didn't go well. It took a few attempts to understand the preferences of Singaporean consumers.
- Buying a business. I faced the challenge of enhancing an existing system that is already functional. Taking over a business means inheriting its current customers and workforce, who are accustomed to the previous management. For me, this was the number one challenge.
- Starting a business from scratch. Demands tremendous effort and time. It’s like YOUR baby, uniquely yours.
Who is a good fit for becoming a distributor/buying a business:
- People who want to own a business or side hustle without the capacity to focus on it 24/7. But remember, only pursue these opportunities if you truly believe in the product or service, rather than viewing it as a quick way to make money.
- Have experience running similar businesses and adding a new product line into their current portfolio.
Who is a good fit for starting a business:
- Folks who have the largest risk appetite, as opposed to buying businesses, where parts of it might be taken care of (such as branding) and others need to be optimised (such as social media execution).
🇸🇬 Mark, how did you initially find out about Paper Shoot? How did you convince the founder of Paper Shoot to let you distribute in Singapore and Malaysia?
My partner discovered Paper Shoot Camera on TikTok, where it had gone viral in the US. She wanted to purchase it as a gift but found out that it wasn't available in Singapore. The shipping fee to get it delivered to Singapore was quite expensive (56 SGD).
In a twist of events, rather than paying the hefty shipping fee, we ended up paying for the distributor rights instead.
We reached out to the founder to inquire about the distributor rights. That is where we discovered that we shared many aligned values:
- Both of us strongly believe in sustainability and giving back to the community
- It was heartening to learn that the founder had a similar vision of empowering children in even the most remote areas without electricity by making cameras accessible to them.
- Every sale of Paper Shoot contributes to donating a camera to a child in need, which is why the cameras use batteries instead of built-in chargers.
When assessing the deal, we also evaluated profit margins, which looked healthy. The typical e-commerce profit margin for consumer goods is 20-30%.
Given the proximity between Malaysia and Singapore, obtaining the distributor rights for Malaysia felt like a natural next step. With just one bridge separating the two countries, expanding our reach and impact became a compelling opportunity.
🇹🇭 Ara, how did you get involved with Paper Shoot and become a distributor for Thailand?
I heard about Paper Shoot from Mark, and loved its mission to encourage folks to unplug from their digital lives and become more present in the real world. I learned about Mark’s experiences setting up Paper Shoot Singapore and Malaysia from 0-to-1 and enjoyed ideating with him.
The next day, I got on a call with the Paper Shoot founder for exclusive distribution rights in Thailand, which were the same cost as the ones for Singapore and Malaysia. He was careful about choosing the right distributor for the Thai market as it was uncharted territory. It was an intense process because for Thailand specifically, he was looking for specific values and goals for the business, which we found alignment on.
What mistakes have you seen others (and yourself) make in starting a small business in Asia Pacific? What would you have done differently?
- Assuming identical consumer patterns across countries. It is not safe to assume that what sells well in one country will automatically be successful in another. I would have taken a more localized approach and studied the specific buying patterns and preferences of each target market.
- Example. According to our research, Western markets have a preference for cute designs featuring cartoonish patterns. However, in Singapore (SG) and Malaysia (MY), there is a preference for plain and vintage-looking cameras.
- Lack of local expertise. I would have sought out the support of a local agent or reseller who possesses in-depth knowledge of the target country's buying patterns and target audience. Their insights would have been valuable in tailoring my business strategies accordingly.
- How to find local agents. Try Trade Shows and networking events. Shopify does a fantastic job at supporting their merchants, frequently holding networking events that we attend. For Paper Shoot, I found my reseller in Malaysia through my own connections. She owns a corporate gifting company and has been amazing.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a distributor, buy a business, or start from scratch?
Just start! Many of us get stuck at the starting line due to fear of failure. Embrace the process. Once you take that first step, you'll gain momentum and uncover new possibilities along the way.
Becoming a distributor:
If you're interested in becoming a distributor, attend trade shows to find existing brands. For instance, Taiwan Excellence trade shows showcase Taiwanese products and offer opportunities for potential distributors.
Buying a business:
- Look on online marketplaces (eg BusinessForSale.SG). However, be prepared to spend time sifting through countless listings to find a business that genuinely resonates with you. Reach out to sellers once you’re ready: contact options vary (phone/email) and you’ll also encounter agents who assist with transactions. It can be a bit of a rabbit hole, but trust me, it's an exciting and enjoyable journey!
- Define your budget. This will help filter out businesses that are beyond your capacity.
- Do thorough research on the business. If it’s a restaurant, visit it during both slow and busy periods. Talk to the customers for feedback. Speak with current employees to understand the company culture.
- Understand why the business is being sold. Look for clear, transparent explanations from the sellers. This will provide insights into the potential risks, opportunities, and overall viability of the business.
🏡 Where can we go to learn more about you?
Paper Shoot is organizing charity workshops for children in Singapore and beyond. If you’re a company interested in partnering, reach out here.
🌐 Beyond your borders
🇨🇳 Institutional investors have been net sellers of $148B+ Chinese bonds since early 2022 (Atlantic)
🇨🇦 13 new countries are now eligible to visit Canada without a temp residency visa (CityNews)
🇯🇵 Japan’s Nikkei benchmark hits its highest levels in more than 30 years. Foreign investors flood in after Warren Buffet invests and new reforms (CNBC)
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