Interviews – Technology – Sonia Lo

 

Sonia Lo is the founder and chief executive of eZoka, the website providing business services to SMEs. Sonia graduated from university at 19, speaks seven languages and has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and has even given Lord Hollick a scare. She shares her wisdom on the future for ecommerce

What is eZoka?
We’re a group buying website that combines purchasing requirements for small to medium businesses (SMEs) and negotiates best terms with global suppliers. We’ve got a rebate system which includes all of the purchases across the community so even if you bought a recorder, you don’t get cash back just on the recorder, you’d get cash back on what everybody else paid across the community.

Where did the idea come from?
I first had this idea about ten years ago, when I realised that if you could tie small businesses together in a network they could really benefit from bulk purchasing. At the time, the internet didn’t exist and it would have been very expensive to try to do. Last year I was approached by a company called Easy Sell which had an amazing technology allowing real-time trading. We looked at the technology platform and found it was adaptable for B2B. So my business partner and I set up a company, raised a million dollars in two and a half weeks, came back, bought out the company and then integrated the technology team.

What background did you come to eZoka from?
I left being an investor in the City in February ’98. I then built a web system for Internet Exchange, the internet cafĂ© franchise, then I ran my first company. This is my second.

Where does its revenue come from?
We take a margin of the sale of our goods and services. Because we’ve negotiated such a steep discount with suppliers we can add a margin and still be well below high street.

What’s your role in the operation of the business?
Ninety per cent of what I do is making sure my staff stays happy. That is my job, because if they’re not happy, it doesn’t matter how much money I throw at the problem. I also try to anticipate where things are going to go wrong.

What’s the secret of Ezoka’s success?
We took on the nittiest, grittiest, least sexy bit of the supply chain. I think the reason why we have created value is because we did something that frankly nobody else wanted to do.

What were your first ambitions?
When I left university I hoped to be a mathematician. But in my first math class at Stanford there was a thirteen-year-old who could think circles around me. My father said to me, you can either be one of these charming young women who knows which fork to use and speaks a bunch of languages or you can actually learn an industry.

What fuelled your interest in technology?
It was utter serendipity. I took a two-year internship at a management consultancy and the first project that landed on my desk was Korea Telecom, for the sole reason that I spoke Korean. They handed me the Bell engineering handbook and said, “Read this, and become a telecoms expert,” in the way that only consulting firms can do. So I started in the telecoms group and I loved what networks could do.

What’s been your bravest moment?
I invested for Lord Hollick when I was in the City – he is an amazing mind, if a somewhat difficult individual. We had a screaming match within the first two weeks. I looked at him and said, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve clearly mistaken me for somebody else. When you’re prepared to be rational and have a dialogue again, come see me. But nobody speaks to me like that.’ So I slammed the door to his office and walked down to my desk, fully expecting the black bin-liner. Actually we got along brilliantly after that.

What’s the secret of raising capital?
Venture capitalists speak their own language which people who didn’t grow up in that framework don’t learn how to speak. You may have a great idea, but you’ve got to learn how to communicate it to them in a way that they understand.

What is the future for the new economy?
I think a lot of big companies are going to be created by the forced merger of small companies and it’s going to be the experienced management teams that are left standing. The market will only have confidence when people start acting like rational investors again. There are people now saying, “We don’t even invest in B2B anymore, we only invest in optical networks”. I’ve been in the telecoms industry since 1989 and I could barely define what an optical network does. These people were investing in pets.com six months ago! They certainly don’t know what an optical network does.

Do you think the end has come for business to consumer enterprise on the internet?
I think the lion’s share of value in the internet is going to come from B2B. Until PCs get as easy to use as television sets, it’s not going to happen. But it doesn’t mean that B2B isn’t going to survive, it’s just not necessarily going to survive in the kind of PC-based format that we think of it today.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?
I think you have to do what you’re passionate about. Don’t be an opportunistic entrepreneur. Think really hard about what it means to step away from your corporate salary, what it means to not be fashionable because you can’t afford to go shopping anymore. Don’t expect offices in Mayfair.

What characteristics do you need to work in dotcoms?
Be realistic and understand the true risks that you are taking on. The reality is pretty intense, long hours and low pay. Understand customer acquisition – if your customer is unglamorous, don’t show up wearing Versace.

Do you still experience sexism in the dotcom marketplace?
Yes, but it probably balances itself out. The visibility I get from being a woman is balanced out by the number of times people have treated me badly because I’m a woman. You always have the choice – if somebody’s a pig you walk away. One venture capitalist said to me, “Isn’t network marketing what bored housewives do to earn a little pin money?” I looked at him and said, “I wouldn’t know!” I just stopped the presentation right then and there and I didn’t shake his hand as I left. I didn’t need his money that badly.

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