Tech’s Wonder WomanThe following is an excerpt from Fearless Filipinas: 12 Women Who Dared to be Different. The book features stories of Filipina women who broke barriers across a wide variety of fields, including sports, entertainment, academe, business, and more. Authored by Pancho Dizon, this chapter tells the story of what made Kim Lato a Fearless Filipina.
A child’s sweet dream
As a child, Kim Lato got her first taste of entrepreneurship by selling stickers to her classmates in elementary school. Though this was a simple idea, she gained profit in almost no time.
Kim knew she had an entrepreneurial streak and a knack for selling—this was obvious. After moving on from the elementary business of stickers, Kim entered high school with a side business selling Pokémon cards—which proved even more lucrative. She could be able to sell a complete series of Pokémon cards (with all the Fire, Water, Grass-type creatures) for PHP5,000.
At De La Salle University (DLSU) Manila in 2006, one of her classes for Marketing Management required all sophomore students to sell merchandise such as Avon makeup products or Nike sneakers. The principle behind this was that business students should learn by doing.
Kim quickly took her experience from her classes and applied it to the real world. Once, when she grew frustrated at not being able to purchase a certain camera lens because Amazon didn’t ship to the Philippines, Kim had a eureka moment: she could sell hard-to-find gadgets to other people who also struggled to find the right items. Because the business was based on her ability to source what the customer really wanted, she called the new business “Kimstore.”
Despite her being a hobbyist photographer, the business of selling gadgets was something completely new to Kim. After all, throughout her schooling she had never been heavily invested in the subjects related to technology. She was amazed at what she was getting into.
The idea of selling through a website came to her by watching Amazon start their Fulfillment by Amazon service, which handled inventory for third-party sellers on their own marketplace. Aside from the fact that she held no background in consumer tech, she also didn’t have a special way to stand out yet from all the other stores selling gadgets. It was an all-new challenge for her. There was also the additional hurdle that, at the time, a reliable internet connection was hard to come by in the Philippines, and the idea of selling online was shaky at best.
Kim admitted to herself that the task ahead was gargantuan, scary even.
In typical Kim fashion, however, she wouldn’t outright consider the task impossible, and the problem didn’t last long before she found a solution. It was Multiply, the early 2000s equivalent of Facebook. Multiply was a social networking service that allowed users to share videos, photos, and blog entries with their friends, family, or colleagues.
It wasn’t easy but after some rigorous research, Kim was able to find local suppliers whose prices were significantly cheaper than one would find in malls. Through Multiply, she first started selling cameras, lenses, and other photography accessories.
At first, Kim was unsure whether her strategy of selling through Multiply would prove fruitful. Visiting her store’s page every now and then, she still had doubts about the concept of e-commerce.
If I get just one sale out of this, selling online is the real deal, she thought. I just need one.
Yet Kim decided to persevere and soon found herself spending nights in front of her computer, creating listings, and studying ways to upgrade her page. Day after day, she waited with bated breath for the one sign that would tell her she was onto something. The wait was agonizing.
One day, it happened: a notification from her Multiply page, from someone wanting to finalize their order. The sale came almost a month after she started on Multiply, but it was all the confirmation she needed.
Building an e-commerce empireFrom that first sale, Kim double downed on the budding e-commerce scene. She built her profile, showcased the products she sold, and kept a record of all her past sales. It was her behind the screen, answering customer’s questions and receiving feedback. Even the deliveries were her responsibility.
She did everything but it wasn’t as if she had a choice—this was the era before any e-commerce infrastructure was really built up. There were no on-demand logistics providers that would quickly make the delivery for her after booking them through an app, no quick payment gateway to get money to her bank account, and no way to track a package once it was sent out.
In the beginning, she would only have to do five meetups a week. It wasn’t uncommon for her to meet up with customers at the McDonald’s beside her university, ordering a value meal just so the security guard wouldn’t be able to say she was loitering. Eventually, even this wasn’t enough, as she expanded her offerings to include laptops, smartphones, tablets, and electronic accessories and started to receive as many as five orders in a single day.
One of her classmates also noticed she was becoming busier than ever. “Kim, you’re still a student. How do you have time for all of this?” he asked.
With a smile, she explained her schedule. “I take all my classes in the morning now,” she said. “In the afternoon, that’s when I’ll meet my suppliers, and then go and make all my deliveries.”
As a girl born and bred in the Binondo district of Manila, her deliveries required her to make trips to areas of the city she’d never been to before.
To get to her customers based in places like Makati and Mandaluyong, she was forced to study the various lines of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system. The effort was exhausting but certainly worth it.
Coming home tired, sometimes her mother would ask what she was up to with a worried look on her face. “We don’t want you to overstretch yourself. Your studies are still important,” she reminded her.
“Don’t worry,” Kim said. “I promise I’ll finish school.” Although Kimstore’s success was important to her, she recognized the fact that it was her parent’s money putting her through school.
It was easier said than done. Despite the initial success during Kimstore’s early days, there were challenges that made her question just how much the venture was really worth and whether she was being more reckless rather than fearless.
While the majority of her customers were friendly and easy to work with, Kim encountered the occasional griper. These were the ones who would request cash on delivery, then change their mind when she got to them with the item despite her commuting all the way to get there. Some of them even demanded refunds and shipped the item back damaged. When dealing with these people, it was more about sitting down and understanding what they found unsatisfactory about the transaction. Perhaps they needed more information about the product before the purchase or a quick tutorial on how to use it.
Other times, there was no point trying to resolve the problem.
Once, a customer claimed they deposited PHP80,000 to Kim’s account despite her not receiving it. “Bayad na yun! (That’s been paid for)” the customer complained. “You’re not getting any more money out of me!”
Though this customer was cunning, Kim had a good eye for detail. She noticed that the account number on the bank deposit slip wasn’t hers. Suddenly, it hit her—the customer’s entire deposit slip was Photoshopped and he must’ve overlooked this one tweak. “That isn’t my bank account number,” she coolly explained. “The bank would’ve caught this before finishing the transaction. I don’t have your money.”
There were times Kim wasn’t so lucky. She met up once with a well-dressed, smooth-talking customer who elected to pay for their item with a check. She came away from the transaction satisfied with making another successful sale to the tune of a few thousand pesos.
Later that day, however, the check bounced. Kim never found that person and vowed to never let that happen to her again.
The upside of these early challenges was that when Kim fulfilled her promise to her parents and finally graduated from DLSU Manila, she was readier than ever to grow Kimstore full-time. She knew what the risks were and had the experience necessary to face them head-on.
With risk necessary for the new phase of Kimstore, Kim understood it was time to take the business from a one-woman show to hiring employees to work with her. She knew that as more orders came in, she would have to hire delivery drivers and customer service.
No longer was it enough to do everything on her own, she knew she would have to grow the business to include more people—or else face the possibility of expanding too fast, getting overwhelmed, and then failing as a business.
Tech Wonder Woman's secretGrowing the business proved arguably even harder as Kim realized the importance of training employees. Where it was once her handling everything, she now had to talk to her staff about the company mission and vision of enabling Filipinos to enjoy the latest in tech, the importance of customer service, and how she would do things when she was first starting out.
Employee training with Kim centered around the concept of customer-oriented innovation. This stood in contrast to big retailers that would only offer clunky customer service hotlines, where people were put on hold for long amounts of time. Throughout her years of experience growing the business, Kim realized that it wasn’t the gadgets themselves that made people flock to Kimstore. Instead, it was the fact that she was able to provide quality service every time—personally meeting up with them, replying swiftly to their messages on Multiply, and always being kind when dealing with them. The excellent customer service was what separated her business from the rest. Even as the business moved from Multiply to Facebook in 2013, the customers followed.
The idea of prioritizing the customer served Kimstore well. In many ways, it was a principle that was always evident even in her days of selling stickers and playing cards: She prioritized what people wanted and gave it to them.
At one point, a customer from Kim’s university days suddenly sent her a message. She remained his friend throughout the years, and it proved to be a mutually beneficial relationship. “My brother’s looking for a specific model of a phone,” the customer told her. “I know if there’s anyone out there who could get it, it’s you!”
True enough, Kim only had to refer to her long list of suppliers before eventually finding the specific phone this customer’s brother was looking for. Rendering personalized service like this always left her with a happy feeling.
Yet there were always reminders for Kim not to become complacent. In 2014, she started to notice the entry of giant e-commerce platform Lazada. With her eyes carefully poring over the offerings, she realized this marketplace could either kill her business or be an asset.
Through sites such as Lazada and later Shopee, Kimstore was able to reach a much wider audience with considerably less effort. Through monthly reviews with representatives of the two platforms, Kim also got a better handle on the latest trends in tech, what her customers were buying, and how satisfied they were.
Over time, Kim realized that it wasn’t just her business benefiting from the transition into a more streamlined e-commerce space. It was her customer’s lives who were improving from the fact that e-commerce platforms made it easier to browse and buy gadgets, an advantage that became especially pronounced in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For many, Kimstore’s presence on Shopee and Lazada meant having
a laptop for their online classes, a pocket WiFi device for remote work, or a smartphone to keep in touch with relatives scattered across the country. In a world that had become increasingly digitized, Kimstore was ready to lend a helping hand.
In order to improve accessibility to various gadgets, Kim also decided it was time to consult with banks over the possibility of adding an installment payments option on the company website in order to reach an audience that may have a need for financing.
At times, Kim would even get asked by business journalists what the secret to her success was.
“You seem so hands-on with everything and you were really there from the beginning,”the business reporter asked. “Is there some secret formula?”
Kim simply shook her head. “There isn’t a secret formula,” she said. “It’s all about passion. Are you willing to put in the hard work? Are you willing to not just accept the good days but also the bad? You have to keep curious and bounce back whatever happens.”
Though her words were simple answers to a question, they were representative of the principles that propelled Kim to where she is today. Through sheer will and hard work, Kim shook off any initial doubts and fears about Kimstore and grew it to the leading online electronics shop in the Philippines.
Beyond Kimstore, Kim has even set her sights on creating a movement for women entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the start-up scene, enabling other Filipinas to throw off any fears they have about building their own brand.
Every now and then, Kimstore would even sponsor workshops aimed at helping aspiring Filipina entrepreneurs. At these workshops, Kim would dive into how she was able to build Kimstore from the ground up despite the many challenges she faced and watch as the young women in her audience slowly gleaned inspiration from her tale.
With her heart leaping with joy, Kim couldn’t help but feel like she had finally found her purpose in life. These young women weren’t the first people whose life she would enrich, and they wouldn’t be the last either.
To get more insights from other Fearless Filipinas like Kim Lato, please check out the full book, available for purchase here.
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