To say that Kiren Tanna is a force to be reckoned with in the APAC region would be an understatement. In the last 10 years, he has built not one but three companies from zero to remarkable growth. These companies would eventually grow to become household names that dominate their respective industries to this day.
As the former CEO and co-founder of Foodpanda and ZEN Rooms, Kiren has demonstrated a talent for launching well-loved brands due to his unflinching approach to valuing the customer experience above all else.
He also attested his success to putting in the hard work needed to set his businesses apart from the rest一despite the challenges and complications that might lie ahead.
Onboard his latest venture at the revolutionary e-commerce aggregator Una Brands, Kiren is shaking up Southeast Asia’s e-commerce landscape by acquiring highly profitable brands and optimising them across the board from marketing to merchandising to fulfilment. The end goal is something Kiren does best: to help brands scale up and reach their fullest potential.
Despite its recent launch, Una Brands has made great strides. They’ve successfully minted up to 20 millionaires after buying out their e-commerce brands一the youngest being a 15 year old entrepreneur based in Australia.
Here we sat down with Kiren to find out how he knew he wanted to become a serial entrepreneur, his best advice for founders planning strategic exits for their businesses and why people think he’s crazy for starting new companies all the time.
I'm Kiren, I’m the co-founder and CEO of Una Brands which is my third company. I was born and brought up in Bombay, India where I did my studies as a software engineer before doing my MBA. I came to Singapore 15 years back and I’ve been based here ever since where I did two main things. Firstly, I was in McKinsey for 5 years advising CEOs and CXOs of companies in different sectors across Southeast Asia. Over a period of time, I visited different countries and worked with multiple companies across the region.
In 2012, I left McKinsey to start Foodpanda. At that time, we had no major delivery companies in the region so there was little competition for Foodpanda. I was the founder and CEO of the company where I grew it to 8 countries across Asia. Today, Foodpanda is one of the biggest food delivery companies in the region and hopefully, it has been keeping everyone fed during the pandemic. It was acquired by Delivery Hero and was listed on the German Stock Exchange. The company has done very well, having grown more than 100x since acquisition. That was the first business I built.
In 2015, I built my second business called ZEN Rooms which is a budget hotel chain that’s very popular in the Philippines, Indonesia as well as Singapore. We grew that company for about 4 years across the region before it was acquired by a Korean company called Yanolja as part of their international expansion strategy. I grew both companies from zero all the way to fairly large companies at more than 500 employees at their peak. It gave me a good start in terms of building businesses in the region, scaling them to a large size and eventually exiting both businesses to strategic investors.
That gave me the background and confidence to start Una Brands which is just under a year old but within that short period of time, we are acquiring profitable e-commerce companies based in the APAC region一at least $1 million all the way to $40 million in revenue. We evaluate whether they are a good fit for us, how the market will grow and if we like them, we will acquire 100% of the business and then start to manage both the day-to-day operations and help to grow the brand. We started this business model at the start of 2021 and so far we’ve raised $55 million of funding across seed and Series A. Most recently, we announced our Series A which raised $50 million in equity led by Whitestar Capital and Alpha JWC Ventures. Since then, we’ve grown about 6x so it’s safe to say that the business is growing at a very fast pace. Currently, we have more than 120 people across 7 countries and adding more as we speak everyday.
We are channel agnostic in terms of where the brand sells. We don’t really have a fixed focus on which channel the brand sells, which is to say that we buy brands that sell on Shopee, Shopify, Lazada, Rakuten, Tokopedia and Amazon. It has to be a digitally native brand that is selling online as it’s more scalable. This is different compared to more popular businesses in the west which typically only buy brands which are selling on Amazon. We are able to then take the brand and sell them on even more channels, thereby scaling the brand to its maximum potential.
We felt this was very necessary in this part of the world. Amazon has a very high market share in western markets. If you sell on Amazon, you actually cover 70% to 80% of the possible distribution you can achieve in the US. But in Southeast Asia, Amazon is just one of the many platforms a seller can use to sell their products. Even offline distribution through retailers or B2B channels can be important in this part of the world. If you want to build a meaningful business, you have to sell on all channels and that’s part of our thinking from Day One.
With the kind of operations and technology we have put in place, we can manage and operate brands in different channels. No matter where your brand is selling, you’ll get full work of that brand. Many times a seller is selling out of their own warehouse or garage or bedroom. We professionalized those operations by moving inventory from our seller’s warehouses to a 3PL partner. This improved the amount of warehouse space available to them, the accuracy in terms of picking, packing and storing as well as reduced the cost per unit fulfillment plus logistics cost.
That’s the unique capability we have that helps us acquire brands which are local to the APAC region and Southeast Asia as compared to only being able to work with Amazon which are Fulfilled By Amazon (FBA).
The pandemic has been very beneficial for e-commerce. As people have been held up in their homes, their options for e-commerce and trying it for the first time have gone up significantly, specifically certain categories like groceries. It has also attracted a new set of e-commerce entrepreneurs who have a bit of time on their hands and are making use of the many resources available to sell online for the first time.
It is fairly easy to start as the capital outlay is not huge and you can also get to $50k to $100k in annual revenue quickly by being on the right platforms and doing the right merchandising. Beyond that, it becomes challenging for many who are doing this as a side hustle to grow beyond that as scaling up causes some business complications such as continuing to grow the brand, how much should you invest in marketing, should you use a 3PL or fulfill it yourself, how should you do the finance and tax and figuring out cross-border logistics.
Due to the complications that they would encounter once they start to scale beyond a certain level, that’s where we would start to work with the brand to help them grow through this phase.
We have acquired brands from a 55 year old lady who started her brand after retirement. We also acquired a brand from a 15 year old Australian boy who started the company when he was 13 and grew it to close to $1 million revenue. That boy is now a millionaire after having sold his company to us. His reason for selling was because he wanted to focus on his exams and the business was taking too much of his time.
We also acquired brands from young Singaporean entrepreneurs who started a business after school and in a period of 4 to 5 years has grown the brand to a large size. Many of the brand owners sell to us and go on to start a new brand in a different category. These are individuals at different stages of life and varying professional experience who start their e-commerce brand after being inspired to become an entrepreneur.
Since we started Una Brands, we have minted at least 15 to 20 millionaires after acquiring their businesses.
Having built companies and seeing how they grow from zero to a large size, a few key learnings that I’ve tried to apply with Una Brands is never to be shy to do hard work.
For example, during the early days at Foodpanda we were always thinking, “Should we have our own delivery riders or would it be more scalable for restaurants to have their own riders?” But we decided that we should hire our own as the customer experience would be much better一even if it’s more complicated. That has been a key change in terms of the growth of that company as customers are getting their food much faster. Once we started our own delivery, we were able to do it in 30 minutes or less一motivating the customer to reorder. We then implemented that learning to ZEN Rooms. Initially, we could just be the brand and let the hotels manage the operations or we could be the brand and help the hotels run the business as well. That’s something we embraced quickly and that became more profitable.
The same goes for Una Brands. We thought we should acquire Amazon businesses as it’s much easier, FBA would take care of everything and the platform is easy to manage. Alternatively, acquiring businesses from multiple different platforms involves more hard work: operations, warehousing, fulfillment, logistics, marketing in 5 different places and developing our own technology. Again, we took the hard route as it would differentiate us in terms of our capabilities.
Secondly, a big lesson I’ve learned is to hire the right teams and have each individual foster an entrepreneurial or founder mindset themselves. Along with the right KPIs for them, this gives them the space to grow and behave like an individual CEO on their own. Once you manage a very large company, building that kind of culture can really help and that has proven true in all my businesses that I’ve done so far.
If you are thinking of exiting your business, especially if you are an e-commerce company, you would need to understand what you have built so far一what are the strengths of the brand, how has it grown and what are the reasons you want to exit. There has never been a better time to exit for many brands because they have scaled a lot during the pandemic and because of this, they experience marked change in terms of their value and profitability. But once the pandemic subsides, you would need to invest in more channels to continue the growth.
Then you’d want to ask yourself what you want to do after the exit? This is where you need to start thinking about partial or full acquisitions.
A partial acquisition model is where we buy less than 100% of the brand and the seller retains the stake and the remaining part of the business but we’ll help them grow. Once the brand grows 5x to 10x in the next few years, they get even more value for the remaining part of their stake. There’s also a full exit where we buy 100% of the company and we run all aspects of the business. Within a few months, the seller is able to do something else or still be involved in the company on an as-needed basis.
There are also a few things to keep in mind when evaluating a business, namely profitability of the company, brand health and product.
As sellers, this is something to optimise for to bring the brand to a healthy state that can be then taken over by someone like us to bring it even further.
It has been a continuous process over a long period of time. When I was working in McKinsey & Company, I used to closely observe a lot of companies coming up in India and Southeast Asia such as Flipkart. They have grown from zero to a larger size and become household names. I’ve always been in the loop for this kind of news.
In 2012, I decided to take the plunge to work with Rocket Internet SE Asia to become Founder & CEO of Foodpanda in the region. The idea made a lot of sense to me as people are already ordering online or on the phone, all we have to do is make them order once on an app or on the website. Food is also very universal一everyone loves food and they would want food delivered to them. This was a winning idea that took some time for us to build and grow the business to a large size.
It was a plunge for me to go from working a corporate job to entrepreneurship. But once I became an entrepreneur, it was hard to stop and I became a serial entrepreneur as Una Brands is now my third company. People think I’m crazy to want to start new companies all the time but that’s been the fun part一coming up with an idea, putting together a great team and seeing it grow from 0 to a large size has always been very fruitful and satisfying.
We are on a crazy growth track. After running two businesses, I’ve never seen such fast growth. We already acquired more than 20 brands and there’s a lot more in the pipeline that we’re looking at一businesses that are making $20 to $30 million in revenue. There’s more good news that will be coming from Una Brands in the next few weeks and months where we'll announce more acquisitions in the media and meet some of the founders and sellers who have built those businesses.
By the end of 2022, we aim to be one of the biggest e-commerce brand aggregators in this part of the world and we have set very steep targets for ourselves.
On top of that, I’m also proud that we’re able to build a high-performing team with more than 120 colleagues in the region that specialise in different areas of the business ranging from acquisitions to growth to marketing as well as technology and operations.The idea is to continue growing this team to support the brands we acquire.
One surprising thing about me is that I try to learn a lot of stuff online一I’m a big YouTube premium user as I don’t like to be bogged down by ads. I use it to learn new things, like swimming and playing the guitar. Before, I used to be afraid to leave the side of the pool but after a few weeks, I am able to swim a few metres just by watching and visualising video tutorials of people swimming.
First and most important tip is to just go for it一don’t overthink and launch. If you have the conviction in your idea or in the team you want to do this with, like with your group of friends, what I’ve seen is more often than not, even if the idea sounds crazy but if you believe in it, it works out in the end. I’ve even been an angel investor for some of these companies where just from the sheer will of the founder and the belief in what they want to do, things eventually fall into place. There is no better time to start your own company or launch your own e-commerce brand because the amount of capital, knowledge, resources and talent available today didn’t exist 10 years ago when I first started out.
Second tip I have is to give yourself 6 months once you decide to launch. Prove your idea and push as hard as you can. People either take too much time thinking about the product till it's perfect or they’ll set a deadline for themselves to launch and raise some capital which tends to work better. So give yourself a maximum of 6 months where the aim is to have something worthwhile on the product side that people would be happy to use and pay for as well as people who are willing to invest in your business.
Third tip is to find the right set of people to start this journey with because it will be filled with ups and downs. Your co-founding team should be people who you are comfortable with and trust in what they bring to the table. For example, my co-founders are far better than me in terms of e-commerce, investments and acquisitions, tech and strategy. Once it takes off after 6 months, it’s going to be a 3 to 10 year journey that you will be on.