Driven by Passion: Henson Tsai, SleekFlow

by Portfolio Magazine
Images courtesy of SleekFlow
13 Oct 2022

Hong Kong-based Henson Tsai is the 27-year-old Founder and CEO of SleekFlow, an omnichannel SaaS social commerce platform, which is now backed by Tiger Global and Alibaba Entrepreneur Fund.

Tell us more about yourself and what you’re passionate about, which led you to what you’re doing now.
I’ve always been passionate about building my own business from scratch and liked the idea of working as a team and fighting to achieve the same goals together.

I grew up in Hong Kong and went to the UK for university. In 2017, I graduated from Imperial College London with a BSc in Mathematics with Statistics for Finance. You could say I started my entrepreneurial career then because it was that time that I created a smarthome software and won an internal start-up competition at Imperial.

Thereafter, I worked at HSBC and Ernst & Young. When I was 25 and had saved up enough capital, I decided to turn my dreams into a reality and started my first business venture – TasteOut, an online food ordering platform. However, within the first six months, I burned through 6-digits worth of funds. What came out of this experience was that I started noticing the heavy reliance that customers had on social messaging apps. I transformed TasteOut’s idea into my second business – an all-in-one communication app tailored for hotel concierge services. With this new business, I joined RISE, an international exhibition for start-ups where I realized that my second idea wouldn’t work either after receiving feedback from industry attendees. While I received no inquiries or leads from hotels, I was surprised by the strong interest demonstrated by customers in the e-commerce and retail sectors.

We pivoted the idea once again, pitching it as an e-commerce SaaS platform, and got over 400 signups in 3 days. This was a pivotal point for me because it gave me the idea for SleekFlow – an all-in-one app to streamline workflow for those in client-facing industries.

Turning something you’re passionate about into a viable business isn’t always easy. Walk us through your journey and the challenges you’ve met along the way.
I think one of the toughest parts was having to let go of people when we transformed into an e-commerce SaaS platform. At that time, our team comprised of just me and two other developers who are both a part of SleekFlow’s founding team.

Another challenge was getting SleekFlow up and running. During the first month of running our omnichannel e-commerce software, our revenue was HK$2,000, which motivated me to work harder on developing the product. In the early days, Cyberport fully subsidised our developers’ salary, so we are fortunate to be supported by Cyberport as an incubator.

In 2019, we joined JUMPSTARTER, a global pitch competition hosted by Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund. While we didn’t win, they pulled me aside after my pitch to express interest in investing in SleekFlow. This was our first pre-Series A funding and after which, in June 2022, we secured US$8 million in Series A funding led by Tiger Global, with participation by AEF GBA Fund and Transcend Capital. It is incredible to think that SleekFlow had nine people at the beginning of last year and fast forward to today, we have a robust team of over 80 people in less than a year.

My current challenge is to maintain the momentum of growth for the global team and ensure that we all understand why we are changing so fast. I often ask myself, “How do I strike a balance between changing frequently and making people feel comfortable?” We constantly need to act fast to build new products as trends evolve and develop high-quality products to address these needs, but it is also necessary to keep pace and ensure that we do not dilute what we have in the midst of exponential growth.

What are your long-term goals and what steps are you taking to realize them to ensure longevity and sustainability?
I don’t think we expected the social commerce market to grow this quickly. With SleekFlow, we are working into more verticals. It is quite rare for a Hong Kong-based startup to go into the UK and Europe markets in its second year, but we are proactively scaling, and we aim to establish the brand in five more countries in our third year. We are also planning to work closely with social media giants like Facebook and Instagram and add more tools to emerge along with the trends.

I also believe in spending the resources to hire the right people at the right time, encouraging them to increase their capacity within the company through development and training, then making sure they see themselves as valued contributors who would stay long-term.

How would you encourage those who want to act on their passions and turn it into something more, but have no idea how to get started?
A lesson from my father is that there’s no such thing as absolute luck. It’s about missing the first 100 times and then working to get it right at the 101st time. I think this lesson speaks true of my past experiences and applies to any entrepreneur.

I’d suggest joining an incubation program, like Cyberport’s Incubation Programme, to start. It’s a great way to get tangible resources to fund your idea and expand your industry network. Essentially, those who wish to get started should focus on using minimal resources to make a maximally viable product in the beginning.

Define what passion is for you.
Passion is working on something that I find purpose in, with the right people, and being able to see the progress in myself, my team, the product, and growth for the communities we serve.