How a random entrepreneur discovered America’s love for Asian food

Alex Zhou says he understands what his customers want and because he’s one of them, their needs resonate with him.

And now the Chinese boss of America’s largest Asian online marketplace is at the helm of a company that aims to bring Asian food, culture and lifestyle to all of America.

Zhou is the perhaps unlikely founder and CEO of Asian marketplace Yami. Not an Ivy League graduate with a global scale-up dream and multimillion-dollar funding, just a young man who moved to the US from China to attend Kansas State University and his favorite foods from too couldn’t find from home.

In fact, he recalls driving for hours to find Asian groceries, and realizing he couldn’t be alone inspired him to found online Asian marketplace Yami.

So how does one go from nostalgia for Asian snacks to an appetite to take on mainstream America’s e-commerce giants?

Zhou emphasizes that he never coined the term “start-up” to describe what he started, instead Yami was just a company he founded after graduation.

Zhou had relocated to Los Angeles and admitted that in starting an e-commerce business to help American-based Asian consumers find well-known products, the fact that LA had a significant Asian population and was the gateway for most of the products arriving from China, Japan and Korea had not occurred to him.

“It’s also about timing,” says Zhou. “Not only was I in the right place, but when I started the business in 2013, the number of people from Asia coming to the US to study skyrocketed. And of course, like me, they missed the familiar food of home.”

Zhou starts with Asian snacks

Zhou founded Yami – then known as Yamibuy – and was the sole employee of the company for the first three months before hiring his first employee. Today, the e-commerce retailer has over two million customers, with an estimated one in ten Asian Americans using the platform, Yami estimates.

Starting with Asian snacks, the site now features over 300,000 SKUs, including groceries, beauty and health products, home appliances, books, and a growing list “as our customers grow and need new things for their homes and for their new families.”

The company’s early years were focused on catering to this traditional customer base, but Yami has expanded beyond serving Asian consumers in recent years and has had to rethink its strategy in the process.

“We first realized that our products would appeal to a broader base when we noticed a lot of non-Asian names on the order forms, so we thought we’d better do some research,” he says.

“But our Asian customers know what they’re looking for and mostly look for specific brand names. When you look at Asian websites, they tend to be packed with information and very busy. For a broader Western customer, the search is likely to be much more vague, like ‘Chinese tea’ or ‘spicy noodles’, so the search and the journey are completely different,” he says.

Zhou adds that new customers tend to come from one of three backgrounds: people with a passion for Asian cuisine, those who have lived in Asia and returned to the US, or those drawn to it’s increasing appeal and influence influenced by Asian pop and food culture.

To that end, Yami is collaborating with Asian chefs and restaurants to attract Asian food lovers, but is beginning to go beyond the competition with other Asian marketplaces and take on rivals like Amazon
and goal
the company also had to begin to meet the very high expectations that these companies had for the delivery.

Yami expands sales

Yami recently opened a warehouse on the east coast that will enable shipping times to rival Amazon Prime in the US — averaging just 2.6 days, Zhou says. In some areas they can deliver same day or next day.

“That’s why we first opened our West Coast warehouse and now our East Coast warehouse, and that’s why we have to work with technology to provide the customer service and personalization that we did ourselves when we were a small business.”

In fact, around 95% of Yami’s products are imported from Asia, so data and AI have become a cornerstone of its strategy, allowing it to use technology to forecast demand and personalize marketing to customers.

Zhou recalls “bootstrapping” the first four years of business leading up to the first investment round in 2017, and admits he never thought he’d be leading a company that now has ambitions to grow beyond the US , but also looks to Canada .

Yami is also expanding product categories, although he has yet to crack fresh produce. Zhou says he’d like to find a way to work with Asian supermarkets to deliver fresh groceries without Yami having to carry inventory – but that’s currently on the “to-do list”.

But he sees potential in apparel, believes the US penchant for Japanese products could be further exploited, and believes Korean toys are another category Yami could soon test.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *