Henson Tsai, founder and CEO of SleekFlow, talks about finding success after failure in a fast-growing industry

Henson Tsai SleekFlow

Failure teaches hard lessons, but Tsai believes that those lessons had to be learnt before he found success

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Henson Tsai isn’t one to wait around for his big break. “There’s a saying that goes, ‘there is no right time to start your business’,” he quotes.

Clearly a man of his words, Tsai, an alumnus of Imperial College London, had created and sold an idea for a smart home device for a five-figure sum before he even graduated. By the age of 25, he had quitted the cushy banking job he had gotten fresh out of school, started a food takeaway platform and rapidly expanded to eight employees.

Just four months later, however, he retrenched six of them, shut down the app, and lost the entirety of his six-figure capital.

“It was very tough, realising that the reality was worse than I had thought, realising that I had not done enough market research,” he recalls. The platform, which allowed CBD workers to order takeaway meals at half the price, was well received, he said, but Hong Kong’s market was too small and competitive, which meant that the profit margins for such apps were very low.

In just two and a half years, however, Tsai has transformed that failure into a runaway success. His latest venture, SleekFlow, recently raised US$8 million (S$11.3 million) in a series A funding round led by investment firm Tiger Global in June this year. Prior to this, the firm had already raised a seven-figure sum in Hong Kong dollars in a pre-series A round backed by Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund in May 2021.

Henson Tsai SleekFlow
Tsai and the SleekFlow team

SleekFlow is a software as a service (SaaS) startup that helps online retailers handle customer communication and engagement. It has become common for e-commerce customers today to ask questions or even place orders on social media channels, such as Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp and Tik Tok – “One in five e-commerce transactions in Southeast Asia today happens over socials,” Tsai shares. SleekFlow provides a single omni channel platform that streamlines communication from multiple social media accounts for easy management.

Although initially a social commerce platform, SleekFlow has expanded its offerings to include payment processing. According to Tsai, the ability to offer adjacent services is one reason why SleekFlow stands out among its competitors. “Fundamentally, we are a sales accelerator. We help companies generate more revenue and convert more customers.”

From a three-person team, which included only himself and the two employees who survived the retrenchment, SleekFlow is now 80-strong, with presence in seven countries including Singapore, Malaysia, and England.

It’s easier said than done, but when I look back, I think the failure was just part of the journey. The ups and downs are what makes success and knowledge.

If I could tell my past self anything, it would be that choosing a good market to start with is very important. As long as your product is in a growing market, you’d be more likely to succeed. So do your market research, find the right market, and push your cart to that market.

Always devote your time and effort to hiring people. Fundamentally, the world is a people-oriented place. Hiring the best people to work with you will eventually convert to success in the long term. This is something I’ve learnt from my failed venture and one thing that I have done really well at SleekFlow. Many people have strengths in areas I don’t, so to have them with us is a big plus for the company.

An important quality to have is adaptability. Oftentimes, we can’t really foresee what will happen in the future. Always move fast and explain your thoughts to your team mates so that they can understand the situation and align with you. Be ready to adapt to different situations, and demolish what you had believed yesterday.

I have always enjoyed building things. It’s so much fun, especially if you are doing it with people who motivate and support you along the way. Knowing that we are building something bigger than ourselves is what made me want to start a company. At the same time, I really enjoy seeing not just the company grow, but also team members grow, because that’s essentially witnessing people finding their path and growing in a community that I have built.

I can’t live without a purpose, and my purpose is to pursue improvement and growth. Many people may say that they are chasing happiness, but happiness is very hard to define. For myself, I simply want to see improvement day after day.

A book I’ve recently read is Atomic Habits. The essential idea it proposes is that forming one small habit can make a large impact on the world. If everyone tries to form good habits, those habits could be impactful not just to the person, but also to the community. I think it’s a very inspirational read.