Innovating within tradition: How did 2nd generation owners of Xishi Bak Kwa take their heritage business online?

10 min read
Ler Ka Leng

For 38 years, Xishi Bak Kwa has been serving some of the most innovative Bak Kwa flavours in Singapore. From pineapple to the tongue numbing mala flavour, the products derived from this popular treat is a testament to the creativity of its founder, Mr Koh Hock Bin.

Mr Koh Hock Bin, Founder of Xishi Bak Kwa

After a long career in his entrepreneurship journey, Koh has roped in his children to help with the business. Since early 2000s, they have been hard at work bringing Xishi Bak Kwa's business online.

Upon discovering GoDaddy's Website Builder back in 2020, Sandra Koh (Mr Koh's daughter) managed to build an online store in 30 minutes. With the help of their online store, business continued to grow steadily despite the pandemic!

In this feature, we learn about Mr Koh's experience in upholding a timeless tradition, and Xishi Bak Kwa's journey in bringing their heritage business online!

From kitchen assistant to apprentice: Mr Koh's humble beginnings

Xishi Bakkwa
Bak Kwa is a savory meat jerky, usually made of either pork or chicken. A popular snack in many parts of Asia (especially Singapore), this delicacy is a must have during Chinese New Year.

The story of Xishi Bak Kwa began in the 1970s. As a child, Koh was never interested in academics. Preferring to learn things hands-on, he worked as a kitchen assistant at a dim sum restaurant in Singapore.

During the Chinese New Year festivities, there was always a shortage of staff. Because of that, the elderly chef from the neighbouring bak kwa store sought help from Koh. Curious to pick up something new, Koh agreed.

This marked the start of Koh's journey with bak kwa. Seeing Koh's talent in making this delicious traditional treat, the chef invited Koh to become his apprentice.

In 1985, Koh established Xishi Bak Kwa, which marked the beginning of his family business in producing bak kwa. When asked about the origins of his business name, Koh mused that it was a combination of his wife's surname (Shi) and their residence in the west side of Singapore (Xi).

From tradition to innovation

"When I started the business, I purchased bak kwa from many brands as part of my research.," said Koh.

In the midst of the taste testing, he found the right balance of sweetness and savory, and decided that it was time to venture further.

Armed with the traditional bak kwa recipe from his mentor, Koh began experimenting with new and unconventional flavors.

"Given my previous profession as a chef, I love experimenting with new flavours and adding new ingredients into bak kwa."

The result of this passion for experimentation is an eye popping variety of bak kwa flavors unique to Xishi Bak Kwa.

One such flavor is the monascus rice wine, derived from fermented red yeast rice. This wine is believed to contain a medicinal fungus known for its cholesterol-reducing properties.

Other interesting flavors include Mala Bak Kwa, Chicken Seaweed Sesame Bak Kwa and Stout Bak Kwa - a hot favorite amongst customers.

School of hard knocks: challenges of running a business

Xishi Bak Kwa

Mr Koh's journey as an entrepreneur hasn't always been smooth sailing. From non-paying customers to unsuccessful business ventures, the foundations of Xishi Bak Kwa were laid down by him brick by brick.

When he first started Xishi Bak Kwa, Mr Koh had a start-up capital of SGD$2,000. With that money, he bought some metal and roped in his friends to help cast the metal into a barbecue oven. It was a very barebones setup, but Koh got to business, making use of the limited resources that he had.

Recalling his early years of entrepreneurship, Koh was grateful for his business associates and suppliers who gave him a lot of support and flexibility. "One of my suppliers was really kind to extend a credit line of one year to me, which really helped me in my business."

It was through this process where he developed a strong instinct to help others. Koh places a high value on the relationship that he has with his customers and business associates. He feels responsible to ensure that they are well taken care of.

However, this proved to be both a blessing and a curse. During some of the toughest periods of his journey, Koh had to deal with non-paying customers. This added on to his business woes, which caused a lot of stress for himself and his business.

From traditional to digitization: passing on to a new generation

During a particularly tough period for Xishi Bak Kwa in the 2000s, Koh knew that he needed more help. Amidst the myriad of business challenges he was facing, Koh also felt the pressure of digitization. From E-forms to other digital processes, he knew it was time to rope in his children to help with the business.

It was at this juncture that Sandra Koh, Mr Koh's daughter, joined the business to help her father with marketing and operations. For Sandra, it felt like a necessary step, as she knew her dad needed help.

"It got to the point where my dad would phone me while I was at work, to ask me questions like 'how to spell eleven'," explained Sandra.

It took Sandra some time to understand how her father ran Xishi Bak Kwa on a day-to-day basis. Armed with experience in retail, Sandra set forth to help Koh look into other avenues to retail their Bak Kwa.

"I had to learn a lot of things from scratch. Despite all the manual paperwork and processes, my father had developed a system of operating the business for many years."

Buying their domain name with GoDaddy

Xishi Bak Kwa has been a customer with GoDaddy for 15 years. Back in 2008, when E-commerce and online selling was still in its early days, Mr Koh bought a domain and web hosting plan from GoDaddy. With the help of a web developer, the first iteration of Xishi Bakkwa's website was born.

At that point in time, the website served as a directory for potential customers to discover their brand and products.

"Within our factory compounds, we were one of the first few businesses that started selling online," recalled Koh. "Until now, I still have many other business owners who approach me to ask how our online sales is going, and to share tips on how they can get started with selling online."

However, given that their website was hard coded, no one within the business had the expertise to make any edits. As a result, the website was left in its original state for years.

Therefore, as a start, Sandra started using 3rd party marketplaces to bring Xishi Bak Kwa's business online.

Building an online store in 30 minutes with GoDaddy's Website Builder

As COVID-19 hit Singapore in 2020, Sandra saw a greater urgency to establish a stronger online presence for Xishi Bak Kwa. As she attempted to make adjustments to their website, she stumbled upon GoDaddy's Website Builder.

"I started playing around with GoDaddy Website Builder's interface, and eventually got to build a simple website," said Sandra. For her, it was a quick and hassle free process.

"From putting in our corporate video to setting up our online store, it took me approximately 30 minutes to put Xishi Bak Kwa's website together using GoDaddy's Website Builder," explained Sandra.

Currently, Xishi Bak Kwa uses GoDaddy to power their website. They use a suite of solutions such as domain, web hosting and SSL, on top of the Website Builder. With all the help and tools that they need to manage their website, GoDaddy has provided a one-stop shop solution for Xishi Bak Kwa to establish their online presence.

From starting their own social media handles to putting their online store together, Sandra saw the importance of being a recognizable brand in today's digital world. The roots of Xishi Bak Kwa's innovation were long established by Mr Koh when he started the business.

However, it is now up to Sandra and her siblings to continue modernizing the business and take it to new heights.

"It is important for us to leverage on digital channels to increase our brand awareness and generate new sales," said Sandra. In her opinion, with the popularity of social media platforms and more people buying online, it is important for Xishi Bak Kwa to keep up with trends as a way to modernize the brand.

From Gen X to Gen Y: generational differences in business philosophy

As a business owner, Mr Koh values trustworthiness and sincerity. His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs - always remain sincere and trustworthy. This is on top of ensuring the bak kwas are produced with the highest quality and standards.

When Koh's children started helping out at Xishi Bak Kwa, their fundamental differences in running a business were stark. For Sandra and her siblings, it was important to ensure a healthy balance sheet for the business. Their priority is to establish a robust process of cost monitoring and ensuring payment is collected, amongst other business processes. On the other hand, Koh was highly empathetic and valued relationships with his customers and business associates.

Reminiscing the days when she first started out, Sandra noted that patience is an important virtue. "It is important to understand how the business was ran, and find ways to make adjustments gradually," said Sandra.

Looking to the future of Xishi Bak Kwa: passing the baton to a new generation

Mr Koh and Sandra from Xishi Bak Kwa

With his children fully integrated within Xi Shi Bak Kwa's operations, Mr Koh is looking forward to pass the baton.

"I am still helming the innovation of new bak kwa flavors, as it is something that I am most familiar with," said Koh. However, he hopes that he can fully hand the business over to his children in the next few years.

As for Sandra, the journey to modernizing her family business continues. From refreshing Xishi Bak Kwa's brand identity to increasing their footprint online, she hopes that their venture into the digital world will continue to yield them more business.

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