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From Our Correspondent: Dotcom Ups and Downs
For one Singaporean on the Internet wave, it has been a rough ride
By ALEJANDRO REYES

November 2, 2000
Web posted at 5:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 5:00 a.m. EDT


For inspiration on persevering in bad times, I often think of Paul Lim. I first met the Singaporean entrepreneur six years ago when I lived in the Lion City. After losing $300,000 in a media venture with a Chinese-American businessman, Lim reckoned his days in business were over. He freely admits that he considered jumping. "I was at a point where I thought I had two choices: to live or not."

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He chose not to give up. Heavy in debt, he went back to work, taking a job at Singapore logistics group YCH. In 1997, the entrepreneurial bug bit him again. This time, Lim wanted to get on the I.T. bandwagon. He spent nine months on the U.S. West Coast, soaking up the dotcom air and learning what he could about e-commerce. Back in Singapore, he managed to raise half a million dollars and borrowed more money to launch an online shopping mall. It clicked. And Lim, 36, was riding Asia's Internet wave.

Then in April this year, tech stocks crashed, sending Lim's investors into panic. Suddenly, the cashflow stopped and Lim could do nothing to calm his nervous backers. He quit. Out of a job and with a wife and baby daughter to support, he was back at the bottom. But by now, Lim was used to dealing with adversity and it wasn't long before he landed another job. His old boss at YCH, Robert Yap, made him chief operating officer of ConsumerSupplyChain.com, the group's new Internet-based supply-chain management company. Yap hired Lim because of his experience setting up an online fulfillment, payment, and inventory and distribution management system for the e-mall business.

That was about six months ago — practically a lifetime in the Internet age. Tech stocks have recently taken yet another dive so I was curious to see how Lim was doing. I was somewhat relieved last week to find that he is still at YCH and enjoying it. Investor disenchantment with dotcoms has certainly made his job harder, he admits. "If you try to talk up anything that is brand new and Internet-based, everybody will just bump you down. You can't go out and say you're a start-up and offer a purely Internet solution."

So how is Lim getting his foot in the door of potential customers? He is leveraging the experience of YCH in managing bricks-and-mortar supply chains and operating warehousing facilities across the region, including China. Because ConsumerSupplyChain.com can offer a clicks-and-mortar service and can use YCH's old-economy track record to back it up, Lim has been able to make headway in the competitive e-commerce "enabling" business.

For example, by leveraging YCH's experience in handling distribution and supply management for major pharmaceutical companies, Lim has set up a project with a major group in Thailand to develop an electronic marketplace linking the chain's hospitals with their suppliers. Initially, Lim had thought he would focus on building online supply chains for retailers, but changed his mind very quickly. "The consumer model is highly complicated, margins are low and it entails more work," he explains. "The guarantee of success is not there." Now he is focusing on the fast-growing B2B sector. With the e-exchange business, Lim reckons the opportunities are greater. "These are bigger projects and customers are more willing to pay for the cost of distribution management."

The key to setting up a digital marketplace is to link up with at least one major player who can then draw in the suppliers, he says. "Once you have the critical mass, you can support other buyers." The healthcare portal he is planning will be a neutral exchange catering for several buyers, in addition to the anchor hospital chain. The site is to be launched by the second quarter of next year. For an e-commerce enabler, Lim argues, having the bricks-and-mortar expertise is crucial. "When you sit down with potential customers, chances are you're not the first one to offer them a solution, so it's really difficult to convince them that you are the one who can do the job. But because we control physical supply chain management, we find that we have an advantage. Without it, nobody would look at us. We'd be just another software vendor."

For Lim, the Internet didn't turn out to be the express ticket out of his troubles that he thought it could be. But after riding the ups and downs of the online business world, he seems to be finally finding success — or at least some peace — somewhere in between the old economy and the New.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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