Leadership Network member growing Yeyo in China

We chat with Leadership Network member Christiana Zhu about establishing her coconut yoghurt brand Yeyo, a journey she set out on in no small part thanks to her connections in the network.
Christiana standing on the Great wall of China

Christiana: "The importance of people, community, and networks as your most valuable asset in business (and in life) plays a big role constantly for me."

How is life in Beijing at the moment? 

Apart from not being able to go abroad without being prepared to quarantine for three weeks China-side, everything is more-or-less normal. In fact, domestic travel and leisure is a having a bit of a boost because it's such a hassle to get in and out, so people are finding ways to entertain themselves closer to home.

I'm traveling frequently between Beijing, our factory in Hebei, and Shanghai, where we're doing most of our marketing activations and where my sister, who's also my business partner, is based. 

 Can you tell us about Yeyo? Where did the idea for it come from?

Yeyo was born out of my need for dairy-free yogurt when I developed lactose intolerance after my move to China.

In fact, the first-ever iteration of Yeyo's recipe was created by a fellow network member, my great friend Graci Kim!

At the time, my immune system was under a lot of stress after having gone from Queenstown, population 20,000, to Beijing, population 20,000,000.

My allergies led to severe eczema and I was desperately searching for probiotic plant-based yogurt to heal my gut but couldn't find it anywhere, not even on taobao.

One day, Graci made some coconut yogurt for me and it was absolutely amazing.

Over 80% of ethnically Chinese people experience some degree of lactose intolerance and I created Yeyo to make this delicious goodness available for more people who needed it.

What’s are the latest developments with Yeyo?

In April we hit a major milestone, successfully scaling up our artisanal-sized operation where we were making 20L batches in a central kitchen, to commercial-sized production with 2000L batches in a state-of-the-art factory.

We've also opened a Tmall flagship store for Yeyo, the first-ever plant-based coconut yogurt store on China's biggest e-commerce platform, and have been achieving solid early sales growth.

We made it onto Tmall's list of fastest growing chilled dairy products within our first three weeks of launch, and have also been featured on top food and drink guide "Penguin F&B"s curated Tmall store where we sold 500 units on the first day of listing.

A woman holding a punnet of Yeyo yoghurt

Christiana: "Plant-based beverages have really taken off as a category in the last couple of years, with 800% growth in 2020."

What are your plans for the company going forward?

The broader vision for the company, Marvelous Foods, is to build a portfolio of functional plant-based beverages and snacks.

Plant-based beverages have really taken off as a category in the last couple of years, with 800% growth in 2020.

From the inception of Yeyo until now, we've spent most of our energy on product refinement and building our brand story. So, we are very excited that the moment is now here to take Yeyo to a much bigger stage and we managed to secure some venture capital funding to do so.

We will also be working on R&D for new product lines, especially around ambient beverages, to be released in the first half of 2022.

How has it been getting a business off the ground in China?

The set-up admin part was complicated and lengthy, but once that was out of the way, the execution is super dynamic and fun.

On the supply-chain side, there are so many options for manufacturers and for us this has made marketing and packaging customisation fast and cost-effective compared to producing in other markets.

The downside, however, is that quality control takes a lot of effort as it's often hard to identify which suppliers are good, so you need to have good referrals.

Innovation can be hard if you are a small customer because MOQs (minimum order quantity) for customisation can be quite high - you have to order packaging of each flavor in the hundreds of thousands at a time.

On the customer-side, there's obviously a lot of opportunity around addressable markets, but cost of acquisition is very high so as a small company it's important to be targeted. 

What would your number one tip be for someone looking to do business in China?

Listen. The market changes fast and you will need to keep up both on product design and how to play to stay in the game. The best way to do this is to find good local partners that you can work with closely, or invest in local staff on the ground.

Has being part of the Leadership Network helped you in your journey to create Yeyo?

Absolutely! I met Graci during my network induction conference in Wellington, she opened my eyes to the world of coconut yogurt. Another key character in Yeyo's growth journey is fellow network member Alex Worker. He operated a food concept incubation space called The Hatchery in Beijing and it became Yeyo's first commercial kitchen. 

How have your ideas of leadership been shaped through being part of the network?

The importance of people, community, and networks as your most valuable asset in business (and in life) plays a big role constantly for me.

The best leadership (and business ideas) comes from thinking about how you can deliver value to the community (your target market).

I started my career in tourism but pivoted to building a business in food because I realised that I could deliver more value through making allergy-friendly and nourishing plant-based food.