Ask a Tech Entrepreneur
Mai Ho (’12) is the CEO and co-founder of BigBalo, a San Francisco-based shopping and travel start-up. BigBalo just launched their online platform to connect shoppers who want to buy items from abroad with travelers who are interested in making money delivering items on their trip. She gave us a behind-the-scene look into what it's like to be a first-time entrepreneur launching a cross-border business, and how her years at Westminster College helped shape her career path.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I graduated from the Honors program in 2012, with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance. After graduation, I joined Goldman Sachs’ Global Investment Research department as an analyst covering the technology sector. Even though it was an amazing experience, I realized that I wanted to get involved with the day-to-day operations of tech companies more than analyzing their stock values. So, I moved to San Francisco to work in product and growth. After a few years, I decided that it was time for me to face the challenge of building and running my own business.
What does your start-up BigBalo do?
In a nutshell, BigBalo is a trusted community connecting shoppers who want to buy items unavailable to them locally and travelers who can make money delivering these items from their trips. Fun fact, “Balo” means “backpack" in Vietnamese. We just released the web version of the platform, with the mobile app to follow in the upcoming months. Our vision is to become the ultimate travel-experience sharing platform. We believe that one can fully enjoy a travel experience, even without traveling, through seeing things, meeting people, and acquiring unique travel goods. These days, social media and platforms like Airbnb facilitate the “seeing” and “meeting” parts very well. And yet, we’ve all experienced a time when, in browsing Instagram, we wished we could taste that delicious croissant from Paris, or buy an awesome pair of elephant pants from Thailand. Now, imagine a platform where you could “follow” your friends (and strangers) as they walk down a flea market in Seoul or browse the sales section at department stores in Milan. Then, make a request for them to bring you back a piece of that country whether that be a one-of-a-kind handbag or a package of exotic coffee. We aren't just developing BigBalo to present a cheaper and faster international shopping and shipping alternative. We aim to empower the modern travelers whose valuable knowledge and experience is worth sharing and getting rewarded, while satisfying the shoppers whose needs are beyond local availability.
How did you decide to work on this idea?
To me, cross-border shopping is a fascinating market. In 2015, international travelers spent $200bn on shopping alone. Nine out of 10 people we surveyed have bought items for friends and family while traveling internationally, and two thirds of them are interested in making money buying and delivering items cross-border. Having been both a frustrated cross-border shopper and a scrappy traveler, I want to build BigBalo so people like me could buy anything from anywhere in the world, earn extra money to afford more travel, and connect with locals.
Tell us about your team
You rarely find a mother-daughter founding team in business nowadays, especially in a tech start-up. However, I feel most fortunate to team up with my mother, who has more than 30 years of experience running cross-border logistics businesses. In the ’80s, as a Vietnamese expat living under Communist Bulgaria, she was among the most successful traders to import and resell western medicine and goods into Vietnam. Our engineering team is currently based out of Vietnam, which is actually an up-and-coming start-up hub in Asia. Our engineers have the perfect start-up mentality, and defy all the misconceptions about Vietnam's engineering workforce only evolving around low-cost, low-quality outsourcing work. I'm very proud of our team.
How is BigBalo funded?
We actually have been bootstrapping with the founders' money, as well as a small amount of investment from an angel investor. We understand that investors want to see traction and that's why we held off on fundraising efforts. However, with the recent launch, as well as very promising pre-launch list of customers, orders, and revenue, we are now actively looking for investors and partners that could help us achieve our vision.
How did your education at Westminster help you navigate your entrepreneurship journey?
I loved the collaborative and analytical learning environment at Westminster, where professors, staff, and classmates challenge you to think outside of the box. I used to hate getting back my prompts with “so what?" and “why?” comments written all over. But now, I'm grateful to have learned how to ask the right questions in building out the product roadmap for BigBalo. So many start-ups have failed because they were chasing the wrong performance numbers and wasting money building out fancy features that do not matter. I believe that what I've learned at Westminster will allow me to think analytically every step of the way in building out my company.
Do you have any advice for your younger self?
Never underestimate yourself. A “no” doesn't mean “you're not good enough,” it simply means “you’re not yet ready.” When I was younger, I overanalyzed rejections, thinking that they implied I was not smart enough to take on certain opportunities. However, the more I advance in my career, the more I realize that successful people don't know it all. They succeed because they know what they lack but still have the courage to pursue opportunities, the resilience to not give up, and the work ethic to continue learning.
For more information on how to get involved with BigBalo, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.