The first thing tech entrepreneur Steve Sy, the founder and CEO of Great Deals E-Commerce Corp., will tell you is that he is not, in fact, a computer whiz or tech geek. In fact, he admits, he doesn’t even know how to write code, the programming language used for websites and computers. “It’s a millennial culture here, so I’m just feeling millennial, or feel-ennial,” he jokes. He leaves the heavy lifting, as in the graphic design and coding work, to the very young and energetic team (average age: 23) in his Quezon City office and warehouse in Bulacan.
A graduate of Business Management at De La Salle University, information technology or computer science was not even his first industry nor area of expertise. He worked in insurance for nine years before venturing into retail, selling and distributing power banks, cables, and mobile phone accessories back in 2012. A couple of years later, he put his wares on Lazada with the intent of disposing a chunk of his leftover stock online. But to his surprise, on Nov. 11, 2014, as in that year’s 11-11 Online Revolution, a historically strong day for e-commerce sales, his entire stock was depleted in a matter of hours. “I was shocked. What is this online thing?” he recalls with a laugh. “That was a light bulb moment for me. I had to take a look at this industry and learn. That was the start of something unique,” he shares.
In the early days of his online merchant career, Sy’s initial thrust was not product-centric, but category-centric. He looked at areas where he saw opportunities for growth, entered those markets, then carved out a niche to create a stronghold. At one point, he was dabbling in a range of genres that included pet care, baby products, and shoes. His in-house footwear brand, New York Sneakers, went on to win the title of Lazada’s Online Revolution King of Fashion for both 2016 and 2017. “Lazada was quite intrigued with our company because we were beating the likes of Bench, Penshoppe, and the SM Store during that time, in terms of revenue, in the fashion category. And it’s only available online; it’s not even available offline,” he points out. “I think that was our road to fame, because we were able to build this nonexistent brand into one of the number one fashion brands online.”
His prize was a trip to the Alibaba headquarters in China, and Sy took it as a chance to observe, network, and absorb as much knowledge as he could. “The training and the things they shared gave me a clearer picture of where to go and what to do. That trip inspired me to fast-track everything. They showed us the future.”
Another component to expanding his empire was replicating his formula for success with other brands who would entrust him with handling their online sales. His first ever distributorship began with a leap of faith in early 2015—the wellness brand GIGA, known for products like tea tree and virgin coconut oil, happened to occupy the stall right next to his at a bazaar.
“They were selling very well. I went up to the owner and I told him, ‘Can I franchise your business? But I’m not going to open any shop—I’m going to open an online shop. I’ll be your e-franchisee,’” he relates. “He said yes. He was my first ever customer. Up to now, they’re very special to me.”
Other brands began to follow suit. His first big “get,” in December 2016, was the multinational company Reckitt Benckiser, which carries several brands that are household names: Lysol, Durex, and Mead Johnson among them. Within months of signing over the e-commerce distribution rights to Great Deals, Lysol became the number one homecare brand in terms of online sales. This same effect he has been able to recreate—less than a year after outsourcing to Sy, shoe brand CLN rose to become the number two fashion brand in Lazada. Currently, he counts an impressive roster that includes Disney, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble among his client list. The most staggering statistic, by far, is that last Nov. 11, 2018, Great Deals processed a record total of 114,165 orders in one day.
So how, exactly, does he do it? Sy describes Great Deals as a digital agency that offers end-to-end service, handling everything from product inventory to web design to data analytics and chat support to logistics and delivery, all of which they employ with clockwork-like efficiency and real-time speed. Brands send him their products, and the Great Deals team stores them in their warehouse, organizes the photo shoot for the e-catalog, and activates it across the e-commerce platforms of Lazada, Zalora, and Shopee. Their competitive edge, of course, is that everything on the internet boils down to numbers and speed—his team can track, moment to moment, how a product is performing according to statistics and adjust accordingly. “Most of the big brands are built for offline. Their organizational set up is built for brick and mortar,” Sy explains. “Our company right now has more than 30 graphic artists, so when we run a campaign, we can easily change strategy in an hour, depending on the data we are receiving. If the click-through rate is not good, we’ll change the banners. It’s flexibility and speed.”
But if there is any other quality that Sy will proudly claim as his advantage, it is his willingness to take risks. “Anybody can Google how to set up an online shop,” he says with a shrug. “But we’re a very forward-thinking company. We always tell Lazada or Shopee, if there is anything you want to try, we want you to try it with us first. It’s more about adapting really fast so that you won’t be left behind. I’m a little bit of that kind of personality—willing to always try new things.”
He fondly recounts how Great Deals started with a lean team of eight, some of whom still work with him to this day. And he’s a huge believer in the earning potential of the digital economy. “E-commerce is a sunrise industry. This is just the beginning. It’s going to grow, grow, grow. Ten years ago, where would you buy tickets? Most likely at a travel agency, right? But now, where do you buy tickets? That is the change in consumer behavior,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s just a matter of time. As the internet in the Philippines gets better, more people will buy online. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”
That could be the very thing that encourages big brands and people alike to bet on Sy and Great Deals—his infectious optimism and enthusiasm for selling his vision of what e-commerce is and could be. Asked how he would convince a skeptic or newbie to start shopping online, and this is his pitch: “Last December 12, there was an Asus laptop being sold for just P12,” he says. (And yes, it really happened; only 12 pieces were available, so blink and the deal was gone.) It’s an irresistible proposition, enough to pique interest and before you know it, you’re hooked. Just the thing that could drive someone to pick up their phone, launch the app, and click on those three magic words: “Add to Cart.”