On the surface, Wendi Wu looks like a regular 25 year-old Chinese student. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a button-down shirt, he scrolls through his mobile phone, replying to WeChat messages as he leisurely sips a cup of coffee.
From his appearance, you would not be able to guess that Wu had in fact dropped out of his prestigious Chemistry and Biology PhD program at Tsinghua University to start his company, Crazy Bunny Box.
By simply purchasing a Crazy Bunny Box, which costs between 30 – 60 yuan, customers can try up to 20 different kinds of imported snacks in trial-sized packets. This allows them to taste different types of tidbits without breaking the bank.
Wu’s start-up, which went live in March earlier this year, was inspired by a combination of his love for snacking and the popular food-box subscription model overseas.
“I love nibbling on tidbits, but when I go tidbit-shopping in supermarkets, I find that imported snacks are often expensive,” Wu lamented. “I often didn’t recognize the brands and didn’t want to take the risk of spending so much money on them, in case I didn’t like how they tasted.”
He first became inspired when he came across US start-up Love with Food, a start-up that runs on a subscription box model. Subscribers pay for a yearly subscription and receive monthly snack boxes filled with organic, all-natural snacks.
“When I came across Love with Food, I thought to myself, ‘Why not do the same with tidbits, and allow consumers to try different foreign tidbits to see which they like?’” Wu quipped. “If they like the snacks, they can buy it in bulk, and even if they don’t like how the snacks taste it is not a great loss since they didn’t spend that much money.”
“Plus, demand for imported snacks is growing in China! With Crazy Bunny Box, ‘lazy’ people who prefer not to navigate the various kinds of imported tidbits in supermarkets can simply buy a Crazy Bunny Box and try the tidbits from the comfort of their own home.”
Wu started working on Crazy Bunny Box in January 2014, when he was still a graduate student. Shortly after, he decided to drop out of his PhD program in Tsinghua University and focus entirely on his start-up. Wu had already assembled a team of four and registered his business by August 2014.
Wu explained that quitting university and starting up were two large life decisions he had to undertake.
“I am an opinionated person by nature, and I’ve always wanted to do something innovative in the natural sciences field,” said Wu.
However, Wu and his supervisor did not see eye to eye in the laboratory. Although Wu wanted to be more innovative in his experiments, his supervisor was not too supportive of his ideas.
“I was very unhappy, and thus I decided to leave university and do something innovative on my own,” said Wu. “Of course, my parents were not too happy with my decision!”
An original business model?
According to Wu, he believes that Crazy Bunny Box is an original start-up in its own right, despite the similarities to start-ups such as Love with Food.
“Start-ups like Love with Food, or Naturebox, run on a subscription model that works better in the US,” said Wu. “Plus, there is a big focus on healthier and organic snacks. In China, there is a different need, this market is not yet mature.”
Wu believes that Crazy Bunny Box is different from the subscription-based food boxes, since customers can choose to purchase the boxes whenever they want without being tied to a subscription plan.
Wu is not the first entrepreneur in China that has attempted to offer food boxes. In 2013, a Chinese startup called Chihuo Hezi (literally translated as Foodie Box) attempted to break into the subscription box market in China, but ended up closing its doors shortly after.
“I don’t think that the subscription-based model is mature enough yet for the Chinese market,” Wu stated. “Many feel that this business model is not replicable. We referenced this business model, but modified Crazy Bunny Box so as not to make the same mistakes.”
Although Wu successfully raised 200,000 yuan in initial seed funding, he chose to take a more methodical approach instead of trying to launch Crazy Bunny Box as soon as possible. He first tested his idea on Chinese crowdfunding site Dreamore, with a humble target of raising 2000 yuan. By the end of the crowdfunding campaign, Wu had exceeded his initial goal by over 1200%, raising over 20,000 yuan.
“I wanted to test the idea for Crazy Bunny Box to see if it is truly something that the market wants,” said Wu. “Till today we are still constantly adapting our business model according to our consumers’ needs.”
After the crowdfunding campaign, Crazy Bunny Box entered a long period of trials and market testing. It was during this period of time that Wu made an important realization – over 40% of his customers during the trial period were purchasing the snack boxes as gifts.
“Most of the time, it would be guys buying it as presents for girls. At this time we decided to also market the Crazy Bunny Box as a good tool for courting girls!” Wu added cheekily.
Together with his team, he implemented a new feature for Crazy Bunny Box, which allowed the sender to customize the packaging, the message on the postcard as well as the general ‘taste’ category of the boxes. According to Wu, allowing personalization of the Crazy Bunny Box makes it a more sincere gift that would no doubt help many a guy profess their love.
Wu’s innovative ideas do not stop there. He plans to unveil future features, such as a ‘Guess Who?’ function that allows the gift receiver to go online and guess who had sent them the gift based on several hints provided. He also revealed that a ‘dual delivery-tracking’ feature is in development, which allows both the sender and recipient to track the Crazy Bunny Box’s delivery progress based on either party’s mobile phone numbers.
Challenges of a student entrepreneur
Although Wu’s start-up may sound like a smooth-sailing endeavor, he was quick to point out several obstacles they had met along the way.
“As a student entrepreneur initially, one of the largest problems I faced was a lack of financing,” he shared. “I simply don’t have capital. So, I consider myself pretty lucky that we managed to raise some angel funding, even though the amount is not much as the investors recognize that my team is young and fairly inexperienced.”
He also admitted that inexperience resulted in fairly costly mistakes. In the early days of Crazy Bunny Box, Wu wanted to hire an external design company to help build a strong brand name for the start-up. However, good design companies were unaffordable to the small team, and thus they hired a freelance designer to design their collateral.
“This was a big mistake, as the final product was not up to our expectations at all,” Wu said grimly. “The amount of money we spent on the external designer was as good as wasted. I ended up hiring an in-house designer to help with the designs.”
“What’s worse, I didn’t learn from this experience. Instead of hiring a web developer to help us build our website, we chose to outsource it. It is no surprise that we were once more not happy with the final website, with more money going down the drain.”
“These were very inexperienced decisions that I made.”
Thankfully, Wu’s team now comprises of a talented designer who helps them to conceptualize the designs of the Crazy Bunny Boxes and the graphics of the site.
“This is also one of the challenges of being a student entrepreneur – the lack of experience mean that it is easy to make mistakes. The lack of experience caused me to lose much precious time, money and effort,” Wu said.
“What’s more, since I have little capital, I have to rely largely on investment. If investment is insufficient, this also restricts growth, which is another obstacle I have to navigate around.”
Entrepreneurship and support from family
In China, it is not uncommon for students, especially those from top universities such as Tsinghua and Peking University to pursue white-collar jobs in large companies or state-owned companies. Wu’s path is considered rather unconventional in China, and he admitted that it took much time to persuade his parents that this is the right thing for him to do.
“My parents were really upset that I wanted to give up on my degree, something that would give me stability upon graduation and a good job,” Wu laughed. “I spent a long time convincing them. Now, they are still not fully supportive of what I am doing, but because I am their son, they try to be more understanding.”
“They support me, not because they have high expectations of what I am doing, but because they see that I am so invested in this venture.”
Wu’s friends have also been fairly supportive of his venture, something that he attributes to the nature of his start-up.
“After all, my start-up dabbles in tidbits. My friends can benefit too, from trial-tastings and such!”
Despite the current support he has from friends and family, Wu admits that one of the reasons he chose to become an entrepreneur is due to necessity.
“Now that I’ve quit graduate school, it’s going to be much harder for me to find a job. I have very high expectations of myself and it would be difficult for me to find a fitting career,” he said. “Few good companies would hire me based on my bachelor’s degree alone.”
“I don’t have any working experience either. Hence, entrepreneurship is a form of survival for me, I have little choice.”
Despite his somewhat pessimistic reason for becoming an entrepreneur, Wu is filled with optimism for Crazy Bunny Box’s future.
“Crazy Bunny Box may seem to be just a snack box, but to me, it is an entry point to the tidbit and snack industry as a whole,” Wu chirps. “In the future, we can also purchase full-sized packs of tidbits from manufacturers. When customers like one of the trial-sized tidbits, they can then also purchase the retail-sized packs from us in bulk.”
“This is what I hope we can eventually become, part of the tidbit ecosystem,” said Wu.
“It’s not simply a snack box. I believe that Crazy Bunny Box has much potential and I am excited to see the future developments of my start-up!”
Image Source: Wu Wendi