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  What I Believe : Buddha's Precious Blessing

The Express , Monday,
15th November 1999
interview by Lucy Miller

 
THE STORY of WOFS.com goes pretty much according to the dot.com startup template. A computer-savvy young person set up the website and maintained it from a personal computer in the bedroom. The site's popularity grew steadily and soon caught investors' attention. Now, it is a business worth millions of ringgit.

Yes, it so far sounds like a familiar Internet tale, but WOFS.com ( originally called worldoffengshui.com) is anything but a typical dot.com startup. For starters, neither of the two women running the show can be truly considered a techie. The company operating the website, primarily an online magazine about feng shui, is World of Feng Shui Sdn Bhd. At its helm are executive chairman Lillian Too and executive director Jennifer Too, Lillian's daughter.

Lillian is a celebrated author and feng shui expert. She has written over 40 books trabslated into 21 languages, most of them on feng shui. Three million copies of her books are out there. Before she ventured into writing, she had an equally interesting career in the corporate arena. Any of loyal readers can recite highlights from Lillian's biodata - a Harvard MBA, MD of Grindlay Daoheng Bank in Hong Kong and chairman of the Dragon Seed departmental store in Hong Kong.

It was 23-year-old Jennifer who started developing the website about 18 months ago. Back then, she had just graduated from Cambridge with an economics degree. But she preferred to deal with bits and bytes, and was already doing some IT work for others. She figured that since her mother was already a well-known writer, using a website to build on that was a good way to flex her web designing skills. 'It just grew. Everyone in the feng shui world supported us', she says.

The idea was to provide a service to Lillian's readers. The website was a way for them to learn more about feng shui. One popular feature of WOFS.com allows readers to ask questions about feng shui and draws hundreds of e-mails daily. 'People read the books and try to put into practice what they've picked up. But they need to know if they're doing it right,' explains Lillian. 'It just like any business; after sales service is important.'

The site registers 350,000 to 400,000 hits a month. And that, the Toos point out, is with minimal publicity. The immediate target is to reach 500,000 hits. With the official launch coming up in early August, an even loftier figure looks achievable. Another source of pride is WOFS.com's claim of being the world's most frequently visited feng shui site. That may not seem much to shout about until you are told that there are between 300 and 400 feng shui sites in cyberspace.

Lillian says WOFS.com has a strong following because it has a niche market and makes available an expertise which can enrich lives. 'We refuse to sell it (feng shui) as a religion,. Magic or anything spiritual. It's something practical. Who doesn't want more luck.

It certainly helps that much of the content is free and original, mostly contributed by Lillian's friends and associates. The more free content there is, the more people come back to buy stuff through us,' notes Jennifer. The stuff she refers too are mainly books, but the site will soon have an online 'megamall' through which WOFS.com ties up with other businesses to sell just about anything relating to feng shui.

Things are racing along at WOFS.com. When Malaysian Business first contacted Lillian about two months before the interview, there was no office. Now, World of Feng Shui operates from the impressive Menara Milenium in Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur, with 35 employees. Needless to say, the office is a showcase of feng shui at work. The pillars are clad in mirrors. There are potted plants at strategic points. An arowana swims in a large aquarium near the centre. You see dragons everywhere, including in the office layout itself.

The change of pace is attributed to Tan Sri Vincent Tan. His company, Dijaya Enterprise Bhd (later renamed MOL.com Bhd), is subscribing for a 60.8 per cent stake in World of Feng Shui for RM16.8 million. He got in touch with Lillian earlier this year and made her the offer. The call came out of the blue. The Toos had not been looking for a fund injection and had been contented to let the site grow gradually.

In fact, Jennifer had her heart set on studying for an MBA at the Harvard Business School. She was going to post the application the day Tan called. 'When the time is right, it happens,' she says. According to Lillian, the deal was closed in five minutes. Tan made the offer and the Toos accepted. Recalls Lillian, 'We didn't know what hit us. He was so nice.'

How did they arrive at the valuation? The figure RM16.8 million was chosen because it is auspicious. Apparently, in Cantonese it means prosperity all the way. Lillian says, 'It's a figure plucked from the air. There wasn't any kind of Harvard Business School computation. How do you value something like that? It's very hard to do.'

And banish the thought that Tan has made mother and daughter instant millionaires (although Lillian is already 'very comfortable', as she puts it, from her books and other income). The money will go towards new shares, not the Toos. Their focus is on fulfilling WOFS.com's promise. 'With such big shoulders supporting us, we feel encouraged. Now we have to think big. Vincent Tan is a visionary. We'll do our damndest not to let him down,' Lillian pledges.

So, she says now has to drag herself out of bed every morning to go the office. And she has less time to write. 'I'm just here to make sure nobody gets too far.' She quips. 'It's Jennifer's company. She's being nice to me by letting me be the executive chairman.

Jennifer responds, 'That's not really true… but, yeah.' Actually, Lillian sets strategies and aims, and ensures that the fulfillment part of the business runs smoothly. Jennifer handles the technical and design aspects. She, on the other hand, cannot wait to get to the office in the morning. 'I enjoy this a lot. I have a whole team helping me. We have a great team.'

And like any dot.com startup, an initial public offer is part of the plan. Money, says Lillian, is not the main motivation, but it would be nice to go for listing. The Toos hope to make the company and its employees rich. Says Lillian, 'Based on the fact that our partner is Tan Sri Vincent Tan, that I have corporate and investment banking experience and that there's tremendous potential for many sources of income for WOFS.com, it's possible that we can go for listing anywhere in the world. We'll go where we'll get the best valuation. But we'll take it one day at a time.'
 
     
   
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