Her recipe for success is make the clients wait
Zhao Yue is creative director of Panda Mandy's Slow Delivery, a start-up, snail-paced postal service that is the perfect antidote to today's hectic world.
Where did this idea come from?
Last summer one of our founders was in the ancient town of Lijiang (in Yunnan province ) and saw a rundown post office. She poked around and came across some old postcards. She was the only customer and the smell of the room reminded her of the 1980s. Time seemed to freeze. She decided to sit down on a shaky bench and write three of us, and herself, a postcard.
She flew back to Beijing the next day and resumed her fast-paced life. The trip to Lijiang faded in her memory. Then a month later, the postcards arrived. She held hers with both hands and read it. The memories - sweet and sour - came flowing back. We met at a bar one night after work and she told us about the little post office and its incredible inefficiency.
She did not blame it at all and in fact felt quite grateful as the postcard had helped her slow down and remember some beautiful bits of life she had not paid attention to.
We all agreed, because receiving a postcard sent by a close friend from the past is special. Our discussion gradually heated up: so many things could have happened in one month.
What if the recipient moved to a new apartment? What if the sender got sick or died? The more we talked about it, the more excited we became. Suddenly, I slapped my lap and shouted: why don't we open a slow delivery company and give people a channel to communicate with their future?
How did you turn the idea into a business?
It wouldn't have been possible without the financial crisis. We are capital investment consultants. When the crisis came our companies lost a great deal of business and we didn't have much work to do. None of us had start-up experience, but after getting investment advice we were all familiar with the drill. We drafted a business proposal, raised a few hundred thousand yuan from our own pockets and looked for a location.
Here was where the financial crisis helped again. We didn't think in our wildest dreams we could get a spot in Beijing 798 Art Zone, but the financial crisis meant some galleries had gone bankrupt.
When we opened the shop on January 1, the crisis was at its height, the weather was cold and we had no customers. The idea was new and when a customer came we could see the confusion on their faces. The bright side was, when we explained it to them, the confusion would become amazement, and they would say how wonderful and write a letter or two.
The business took off in spring, and some of the biggest shopping malls in Beijing have approached us with very favourable rent offers. Soon our second shop will open in Wangfujing, and I have just quit my job to work full-time on the business.
How did you get customers to understand your idea?
From a distance a woman may see our Panda Mandy logo smiling at her on the street (man di - means slow delivery). She hastens her steps but halts at the entrance. There is a small waterfall in the way that she has to walk through to enter the store. She takes a deep breath, leaves the urban world and enters our quiet, slow world.
A shop attendant greets her and guides her through an exhibition of photos and items that bring back memories, like primary school exam papers or university love letters. At the end of the exhibition is our selection of the most beautiful postcards. She can sit down and write to anyone.
This last part is not easy and not everyone finds it pleasant, because you ask a lot of questions that don't have an answer yet. You might struggle to finish, but when the other person receives it the hardship is worthwhile.
Do you promise that no matter how long from now, the letter will reach the recipient on time?
Yes, we do. For letters that require months or even years before delivery, we would get the recipient's e-mail and establish contact to ensure we have the correct address when the time is due. A young couple came to us one day. They had just got married and wrote each other a letter that would be received 50 years from now. Would they still be in Beijing? Would they still be together? Would they still be alive? I really want to see what is in their letters, but is impossible because they are kept securely in a big bank's safe.
Zhao Yue was talking to Stephen Chen