Meet the 30-year-old streetwear entrepreneur trying to stamp out online fakes
Richard Xia, co-founder of Novelship, a sneaker and street culture marketplace, started his platform to cater to Asian sneaker enthusiasts who were plagued with online scams, frauds and counterfeit products.
When Richard Xia needed some capital to launch Novelship, his sneaker reselling business in 2018, he did what any cash-strapped millennial might do. Together with his co-founder and long time buddy Chris Xue, the duo resorted to selling their prized streetwear and sneaker collections to raise funds for their start-up.
“Our parents did not want to give us pocket money,” Xia recalled with a laugh. “So I told Chris that even though it would be painful, if we sold our collection, we would raise around S$10,000 to S$20,000.”
So, he resold his collection of streetwear by cult brand Bape while Xue, a big NBA fan, sold his prized collection of Air Jordan sneakers. “Once we built our platform, we figured we could ourselves be users of the platform to get everything back,” the 30-year-old added.
The idea to launch Novelship was borne out of the pain points that the co-founders, both ardent fans of streetwear and sneakers, had personally experienced when trying to shop for products they wanted from cool brands like Supreme, Nike, Adidas Yeezy and Fear of God.
“We wanted to create a sustainable business venture based on something both of us are passionate about,” said Xia, who had by then launched two other businesses, including a mobile cafe he had set up outside the library at the National University of Singapore while he was still a student.
“We thought about the issues we faced as customers in the region and realised that the demand was developing so quickly that it was very difficult to have access to authentic limited edition products. Because of that, people tend to buy from strangers online on Facebook groups, forums or classifieds platforms where there are scammers and fraudsters out to make a quick buck,” he said. Counterfeit products were also a problem, he added.
To solve this issue, they wanted to create a specialised platform for buyers and sellers in Asia to buy and sell limited-edition sneakers, streetwear and collectibles. Every single item purchased or sold on Novelship undergoes a rigorous quality check and authentication process using cutting edge technology and industry expertise to ensure consumers never receive a fake, he explained.
To date, the Singapore-based company, which employs about 60 people, has five processing centres and has a presence in six markets around the Asia-Pacific, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.
“People tend to buy [streetwear and sneakers] from strangers online on Facebook groups, forums or classifieds platforms where there are scammers and fraudsters out to make a quick buck.” – Richard Xia
According to Xia, what sets Novelship apart from other international marketplaces such as Goat or StockX is its well-established network in the region, such as transactions being carried out in the local currency and having a well-oiled customer service system to help troubleshoot where it is needed.
Even though there is a perception that many resellers jack up prices to multiple times the retail value, Xia said this is actually a rare occurrence that typically applies to ultra-hyped items like the Air Dior collaboration between the Jordan brand and Dior.
“Most of the items being traded are between S$200 and S$300,” he said.
Popular items on the marketplace include Nike Dunk Low, Air Jordan 4 and Adidas Yeezy sneakers. Recent hot items include the NikeXSacai collaboration shoes, he added. Apparel by rapper Travis Scott is also hugely covetable, as are pieces from the KawsXUniqlo collaboration.
But while hypebeast – and hypebae – culture is arguably showing no signs of slowing down among the younger generations, the company’s success was not an immediate guarantee, especially in its early days.
He can still recall the exhaustion of doing everything from customer service to deliveries in the early days of the business. “Recently, people have been talking about China’s 996 work culture of working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. I tell you, entrepreneurship is 007 – you work from midnight to midnight, seven days a week, especially for the first few weeks,” he quipped.
In 2019, the duo secured US$2 million (S$2.7 million) in funding led by Global Founders Capital, which has also backed companies including Lazada and Slack, to drive its expansion in “key high growth markets” across the region.
However, just as they were putting these growth plans into place in 2020, the pandemic struck, prompting widespread global lockdowns that affected their ability to even run a business.
“We wanted to create a sustainable business venture based on something both of us are passionate about.” – Richard Xia
“I remember quite clearly barely two weeks into our launch campaigns in Indonesia and Malaysia, COVID-19 hit, logistics lanes were cut off and we could not ship reliably into these countries,” he recalled. This meant that customers who had bought products would have to face delays in receiving their items.
“And in Singapore, when the circuit breaker happened, our warehousing crew and logistics flow was further disrupted.”
To keep afloat, the entire team had to act quickly and come up with multiple contingency plans while implementing various safety processes at the same time to ensure they could continue operating their business. “This period was the biggest challenge we have faced so far,” he said.
Thanks to the quick response by the team – and the surge in online shopping during the last 18 months of lockdowns, the company has managed to navigate the pandemic.
“Entrepreneurship is 007 – you work from midnight to midnight, seven days a week, especially for the first few weeks.” – Richard Xia
Up next, he is setting his sights on growing the business further such as by launching an Android app (Novelship already has an iOS app) and setting up drop-off locations in its key markets for greater convenience.
There are also plans to work with celebrities and influencers to offer a curated selection of products or to host exclusive releases on the website. “What we want to achieve is to be a one-stop solution for Gen Zs and millennials,” he said.
For these two millennial co-founders at least, they have already achieved this. True to their goal, they have already rebuilt their collections that they sold all those years ago to start their own business.
“Don’t worry about Chris (Xue), I just checked out his room a few days ago and he has tonnes of shoes – he got most of his collection back,” said Xia with a chuckle.
“I have gotten into sneakers as well and I have been collecting Supreme figurines as well as Kaws and Bearbrick collectibles. It is an expensive hobby!”