Sheffield-based ‘Mak Tok’ founder tells how Covid totally changes nature of business

Like many other entrepreneurs who were hardest hit by the pandemic last year, Malaysian-born Sheffield man Will Chew considered himself one of the lucky ones to still be able to survive despite having to completely transform his marketing strategy.

Monday, 28th June 2021, 11:33 am

The 30-year-old founder of Malaysian chili paste, 'Mak Tok' heavily relied on face-to-face marketing where he would go on food festivals across the country and restaurant visits with co-founder and cousin Ng Shang Yin just to promote the products which are considered foreign to British cuisines.

Mak Tok, which means ‘Grandmother’ in Malay, was founded in 2017 – three years after Chew came to Sheffield to do his postgraduate studies.

But Covid-19 and multiple lockdowns changed his business landscape entirely, putting a halt to an otherwise brilliant marketing approach that he adapted since the start of his business four years ago.

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Mak Tok founder, Will Chew on his struggles of managing a business during Covid pandemic and how it's changed its entire structure of how the company operates throughout the various lockdowns. Picture: Chris Etchells
Mak Tok founder, Will Chew on his struggles of managing a business during Covid pandemic and how it's changed its entire structure of how the company operates throughout the various lockdowns. Picture: Chris Etchells

He said: "Before the pandemic, we did all our shows on food festivals and sold to restaurants - those were our top revenue stream.

"When the pandemic hit that side of the business, it went non-existent. We had to sort of pivot and change to an e-Commerce side of things and there's just so much that we need to learn to improve it.

"We have big giants who have been around for a long time and their brands are more established with more budget in digital marketing. We are a very small team and we have got to with whatever we've got."

Chew, who once appeared on popular TV show Dragons’ Den and secured £50,000 investment from one of the dragons Sara Davies, said social media has become their main business platform.

Mak Tok founder, Will Chew on his struggles of managing a business during Covid pandemic and how it's changed its entire structure of how the company operates throughout the various lockdowns. Picture: Chris Etchells

He added: "The pandemic has given us the opportunity to explore our creative side of marketing and learning new ways to stay connected with our consumers.

"Since tasting was something that is really important to our business, we try to describe and help our consumers to 'imagine' the flavours of the dishes we made."

Chew, who holds an MA in Psychology of Music, also expressed his gratitude for the support he has received from dedicated Mak Tok fans called 'Tokkis' - who have been spreading word about the products - even without their physical presence.

"Word-of-mouth tends to be our strength in acquiring new consumers. We are really blessed to have a group of super supportive Tokkis that are always sharing our story and products with their circle of friends.

Mak Tok founder, Will Chew on his struggles of managing a business during Covid pandemic and how it's changed its entire structure of how the company operates throughout the various lockdowns. Picture: Chris Etchells

"Such engagement sort of drove traffic to our site and generated the revenue we needed to keep growing as a small business in the midst of a global pandemic."

He said last year in particular, was challenging, even as a founder like himself had to be in charge of the manufacturing side right down to deliveries.

"We had to venture into things we weren’t very familiar with like Google Advertising and that required a bit more learning and took us a long time to understand.

"The fulfillment side was another issue for us – we had to take orders and pack them so that took a lot of time.

Mak Tok founder, Will Chew on his struggles of managing a business during Covid pandemic and how it's changed its entire structure of how the company operates throughout the various lockdowns. Picture: Chris Etchells

"I did a lot of things on my own. I also did the deliveries. We recently set up a small team but the whole of last year it was just me and my cousin, trying to support one another.

"Throughout, manpower was very tricky last year…On one side of the revenue went completely zero. Thankfully we managed to adapt quite quickly and moved everything to e-Commerce.

"Because of that, we still had a year-to-year growth, about 79 percent, so that was good.”

Asked if he would turn e-Commerce into a large part of his marketing strategy in the future, Chew did not rule out that possibility.

"Potentially yes, when things start to open up. But with the uncertainties surrounding the regulations due to new variants coming out, things have been quite tricky.

"We don’t know if we should fully invest in the digital platform or restart exploring more physical side of our business – which is selling and doing shows.”

He said the ‘human touch’ still plays a major role in his business as this is what the customers would want to come back for more.

"I enjoyed going out there and talked to people and shared my stories. When the pandemic hit, the entire communication just went missing and we had to resort everything to social media, which is great but the human touch itself is missing,” he added.

On the possibility of him moving his base elsewhere when his business expands, Chew said Sheffield will remain special in his heart as it resonates well with his Malaysian roots.

"I think it’s the people that make me want to stay here. Out of so many cities I’ve been in, I think Sheffield has got that warmth that resonates really well with my Malaysian culture.

"People here are quite open and they are really open minded. They are willing to try new things and they have got a new group of generations coming in to make this city more vibrant than it was.

“Sheffield gave a lot to me and I try to give back to Sheffield as well. We had this little programme called Little Martin where we’d go into schools and do workshops with them before Covid and we'd usually work with entrepreneurship kind of programmes with them.

“It is a city to be in and with the new development going on, new investment coming into the city and to be part of the growing community itself, i think its really important,” he said, as he hopes to be an ambassador for Malaysians in Sheffield one day.

The company sells its products at high-end supermarket booths, various farm shops and its own website.