Chance, an observation, and a dog turned Julia Lee into a full-time Santa Claus.
Like many startup founders, she got her start in the corporate world. For over a decade, she took up business development roles for companies like Martek Marine, Oil Spill Response, and NTUC Fairprice. With experience came her own insight. When a festive period would approach, the standard thing to do (“textbook process," Julia tells me) would be to send out gifts to clients - usually boxes of cupcakes or gift hampers. In return, her company would receive the same.
“I realized that my boss received a lot of hampers," she remembers. When all the gifts were stacked up next to each other, she couldn't tell which present had come from which client. “All looked the same."
Julia's supervisors would open up the gifts to everyone for consumption, but the meaning was lacking, even though the presents tended to be on the expensive side. “She [my boss] herself might not like it, and it's still being sent to her," Julia says.
Why isn't the gift something more personalized? If you have to buy someone something, why not make it something someone likes?
Julia's chihuahua Mallow is two years and eight months old. A perk of quitting her corporate job to start her own business was spending more time with him.
Personalized, tailored gifts take time to make and buy, so Julia figured that she could provide that service, given enough information about the recipient. So, about a year ago, she founded OkimochiBox, a surprise gift-giving service. Her premise is pretty simple: give the company enough information about the sending, and they'll happily curate together a gift box for your recipient, filling with things they'll actually like (and use).
Sent from the heart
At some point, we've probably all shopped for the perfect gift for someone, and many of us know the agony that comes with trying to figure out if the present is right or not, even if the person is someone we know well. (I for one know this struggle well; after years of gift #epicfail on my part, my mother just sends me one exact item that she wants for her birthday or Christmas, and we've found that this just works better for all of us involved.) So how do Julia and her slim team of three do it?
A quick glance at the OkimochiBox site offers you a few options - first, you pick an occasion, like a birthday, Mother's Day, “get well soon," or just “general." Then, depending on the occasion, different sizes may be available - small (S$70 with a minimum of three items), medium (S$100 with a minimum of four to five items), or large (S$200 with a minimum of five to ten items). Prices include the delivery and packaging costs.
A Star Wars-themed OkimochiBox.
Then, you provide a delivery address, date, and time; along with your recipient's name and phone number (they do deliver outside of Singapore, with additional shipping costs). Your recipient will receive their gift in 15 to 30 days, or in two to six working days if you choose the express option.
She loves zombies.
That just leaves one more field: in 1,000 characters, you have to tell OkimochiBox enough about your recipient so that they can put the gift box together for them.
Such an open-ended question allows for a lot of creativity, and Julia's curated plenty of unique boxes. “I once did one - the person [from the UK] wrote in - he wanted to send a surprise to a lady. The description was 'She loves zombies," and he [wanted] the theme to be a zombie theme," she details. Figuring out the perfect gift in this place didn't necessarily mean that Julia needed to reach for a far-flung supplier - though she works with several in Singapore and overseas. Rather, she went back to her secondary school roots in arts and crafts. “I painted an egg into a zombie face, and I put the gift inside."
Julia's crafty zombie box is one of her most memorable projects she's worked on at OkimochiBox - so far, anyway.
Through such descriptions, Julia says that a perk of her job is getting to see individuals through the eyes of their gift senders. She also makes it a point to do as many deliveries as she can in person so she can meet the person for herself.
If you find yourself racking your brain for your gift recipient and come up empty, no worries. Julia will give you a call and tease out some answers to help her shop. Because the startup is so young and personally-focused, individuals can place orders online or even over Julia's Whatsapp.
Gift helpers wanted
Julia's team consists of her, her co-founder Tricia Lim, and two other employees who help with delivery and design. The business is therefore completely female-led, and as a way of giving back, OkimochiBox is sponsoring AWARE's charity dinner this year. AWARE is a Singapore-based women's advocacy and research group.
Design is something that's particularly important to OkimochiBox, which is influenced by Japanese design. “The packaging is very simple wrapping paper with a band over it of white color," she says.
The wrapping is supposed to evoke a clean and minimalistic image, with the goal of being environmentally friendly. Julia strives to use recycled material in the packaging, which is more expensive for the bootstrapped business but remains true to her values.
There's plenty to do at OkimochiBox, which is why Julia's looking for another set of hands to help - particularly on the web development front, where keeping the startup's website updated and user-friendly is of the utmost importance. “They must really understand how a young business will work," she explains. “You really have to multitask. You can't just do one thing."
Also important is remembering the startup's mission. “A birthday only happens once a year," Julia points out. OkimochiBox remembers this and tries to make it as special as possible.
“Today I slept at 5am," Julia tells me. I check the clock: it's around 11am. When we speak, she has just returned from sourcing Christmas goods from overseas. While she doesn't normally sleep that late, she describes her job as a startup founder as a round-the-clock position. Throughout the day, she usually coordinates deliveries, box curation, research, website inquiries, and the business' relationship with suppliers.
“It's a very difficult process," Julia says about starting up. “People always think 'I want to be my own boss.' It's a very good idea. The feeling feels very good, but I'm working almost 24/7."
It's the customers' smiles that keep her going. A common misconception, she notes, is that the business of gift-giving is always happy, which is not always the case. “We do a lot of hospitals, ICU, NICU," she says. In those cases, a S$70 box may not seem like a lot, but she gets to see the effects that they have on their recipients. “This makes me want to continue what I'm doing because it's very meaningful."