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Management graduate Angus Au Hiu-fung was engaged in sales when he first entered the workforce. Seeing firsthand the rise of the trend of e-commerce as he worked for an online group buying company, Angus decided to develop his career in this direction. ‘Over 10,000 orders were rushing in every week then, and it was foreseeable that the era of e-commerce was coming to Hong Kong,’ he elucidated. In 2020, Angus and his friends formed a start-up company to turn the ‘drinkable salad’ idea popped up from a joke into their ‘Future Salad’ business. The ‘new normal’ of life under the pandemic has created opportunities for the company to flourish. He explained, ‘The pandemic has made the public pay more attention to health, which has driven up the sales of health products and accelerated the development of online shopping.’ In business for around two years only, the start-up’s performance has been brilliant. Its market has extended from the Greater China region to Southeast Asia and the UK. Recently, it has received support from a well-known venture capital company. ‘It’s the result of a combination of factors,’ Angus said matter-of-factly.

From wage earner to business start-up

Angus, whose sales work had been progressing smoothly, said frankly, ‘After ten years of being a wage earner, my enthusiasm began to peter out. My friends and I happened to have similar ideas about the health industry and starting a business. Despite the risks involved, we were willing to give it a try!’ The company’s flagship product Future Salad is made from a high-tech process that turns fresh fruits and vegetables into powder extracts for beverages, which contain the nutrients of the corresponding amount of salad. As for the origin of the product idea, he said that it had come from a joke made by friends at a meal gathering. ‘Bowls of salad were left behind and the guy who lost in the finger-guessing game had to finish it. He quipped that if the salad could be juiced and made drinkable, it would definitely be easier to put into the mouth!’ That was the start of it all.

Each member of the team has a role to play. As Chief Marketing Officer, Angus is responsible for market promotion and brand image development, putting his e-commerce experience to good use. ‘E-commerce operates quickly and can break through time and geographical boundaries. At the same time, follow-up data, such as customer consumption behaviour, shopping intention and whether there is repeated order, can be obtained, providing good reference material for formulating marketing strategies.’

Taking advantage of influencer marketing

Their business is marketed mainly through the Internet. Unlike most online sales companies, Angus’ publicity strategy is to invite a large number of Key Opinion Consumers (KOCs) and micro-influencers to try the products and share their thoughts in write-ups. This tech-plus-human approach to increase exposure and promote business will not make the company’s image cold and distant and has been quite effective. ‘We use a “taste strategy” with a human touch to promote our food products, with recommendation by experts and real customers,’ he explicated. ‘Social commerce is powerful. I’ve been eagerly developing this promotion channel, and a special team has been set up to handle the work. We’ve already collaborated with over 10,000 social media influencers.’ In order to encourage more participation from KOCs, he has devised various plans, such as giving them relatively high dividends and providing their followers with shopping discounts. Despite the large number of collaborators, Angus’ requirements are very strict: ‘Each influencer must match our image as a food-tech start-up, projecting a sense of dynamism, innovation and adventure.’

The brand image has also been developed after a process of trial and error. ‘We initially tried to present a literary, artistic image, but it did not work well. After in-depth research, our revamped image now combines features such as style, fashion, e-generation and high-tech, allowing customers to re-imagine salads and giving them a new experience.’ The company reorganized its product line this summer, added new flavours and launched items such as festive cookies and mooncakes, all of which are salad-based ‘future’ vegetarian food. At the same time, it opened physical stores in different districts to enter the offline market.

In search of funding and opportunities

The team has grown from less than ten employees in the early days to about 30 now. With branches in mainland China, Taiwan, Thailand and the UK, they also plan to expand to markets in Japan, South Korea, Europe and the US. In order to strengthen the company’s capital base, they are working assiduously to raise funds. Recently, they have successfully obtained financial support from the well-known venture capital firm Gobi Partners, as the uniqueness of their products and the effectiveness of their online promotion were applauded. All this did not come easily. ‘Before meeting investors, our team worked all-night to compile various reports so as to showcase the best of our company,’ he recalled.

Moreover, they joined the Hong Kong Trade Development Council’s Start-up Express entrepreneurship programme and became one of the ten winning teams. Angus recalled being responsible for doing the presentation alone. ‘It was a nerve-racking experience! Many elites in the industry were present. I had to introduce our company in English within just three minutes, and then answer questions. Preparation beforehand was really work hard and it took me two months to do so.’ While such challenges brought enormous pressure, he had benefitted from them personally. ‘Lobbying investors or joining a competition gave me the opportunity to review what I’ve done and learnt over the past two years. Before then, I just pushed my way forward and never looked back. There was no room to contemplate and make improvements.’

Key to breakthrough

While studying full-time at HKMU, Angus loved extra-curricular activities and he was the chair of the Taekwondo Society. Such experiences were beneficial for his personal growth, and he especially cherishes the network of friends established during that time, which he has maintained to this day. With one more course to finish before graduation then, he chose to join the workforce first to gain experience and completed the programme through part-time studies afterwards. ‘So good that the University could provide such flexibility!’ While he is convinced that running a business requires learning from practical experience, he also sees the significance of university studies. ‘What I learnt at university has helped me construct a framework of knowledge, which must be adjusted from time to time. We must keep learning and use what we’ve learnt creatively.’

The sales market is changing rapidly all the time. ‘The industry needs talent who are observant, quick to respond to market changes, daring and willing to work hard. The new generation of young people certainly has advantages, especially because they are familiar with digital technology.’ For young people who are interested in starting a business, he offered two pieces of advice. ‘It’s very important to find uniqueness for a start-up and stand out in the market; execution is equally important. It’s futile to have an idea if we can’t make it work,’ he stressed. His start-up experience serves as an excellent example. ‘In the beginning, I worked for 15 or 16 hours every day. I went to sleep in a hotel nearby after work and didn’t have time to go home at all. I told myself that I had to succeed.’ Angus is currently studying nutrition, earnestly equipping himself for work in product development.