What does exploring wines of the Old World have in common with braving the New World of start-up 3.0?
“When I fall in love with a hobby or type of work, I want to understand the details and the parameters shaping it,” says Crystal Pang, CEO of data-driven door-to-door delivery platform Pickupp, who is an ardent wine enthusiast and fervent landscape photographer. Whether it’s blind tasting wine to decipher its provenance, composing the ideal position-aperture-shutter speed equation for a shot or decoding high costs and inefficiencies in logistics, Pang always has a nose for refining processes.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to find out how to fix what isn’t working,” she shares. This inclination prompted a move to boarding school in Canada when she decided early on that Hong Kong’s conventional public school system wasn’t the right fit. Here she had “some of the best times in my life being encouraged to think out of the box, and living under the same roof with people from different countries, languages and cultures.”
The University of Michigan alumnus majored in electrical engineering and completed a master’s in biomedical engineering, which says, “really prepares you for life after college.” For Pang, that life meant multiplying her hyphens in a career that’s seen her assume roles in software engineering, investment banking, financial information technology and – in a sign of the times – Uber community relations. Plus, breaking the routine of master’s lab work to spend a year in Osaka setting up store monitoring software for Sanyo.
And now, it’s unfurling her five-year-old start-up’s logistics infrastructure across Asia to crest the quick commerce wave, riding on a total of US$57 million fundraising to date – US$37 million of which was secured in December 2021. Already, Pickupp has proven its prowess by serving more than 24,000 businesses in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan, powered by more than 100,000 delivery agents.
An unlikely career choice
As part of Uber’s Hong Kong launch team in 2014, Pang realised that many merchants were hiring cars to “deliver other stuff, anything but people,” yet they didn’t have options such as non-immediate dispatches at lower rates. Naturally, she started cracking the logistics cost savings code.
What if orders could be bundled using dynamic pricing, and deliveries decarbonised by increasing walker and cyclist courier pools – which also improves peak traffic hour efficiency? What if merchants and couriers had a wider range of service options – from on-demand to three-day delivery? What if a burgeoning network of satellite warehouses minimised costs and maximised earnings? Pickupp does all this, while its algorithms and machine learning technology automatically pre-matches, suggests and clusters orders based on past routes and current locations.
“No one would imagine from day one that I would end up in logistics, but it wasn’t a difficult decision,” adds Pang, who also considered pursuing the prestigious and notoriously tough Master of Wine accreditation. (She would be only the fifth woman in the programme’s six-decade history.) “What drove me here was my experience in software, operational structures and fundraising, and constantly moving around to try new things.”
‘Cultural fit is very important’
Experiencing enterprises from disruptors to multinationals, Pang grew more mindful of what works and the potential pitfalls for businesses to avoid.
“Cultural fit is very important and top on my list – if you surround yourself with great people, even a so-so employee will be influenced to become better,” observes Pang, who dedicates at least two days a week to team and one-on-one meetings. “Hiring may not be as fast as we want, but when you have one bad hire, it destroys the company’s morale.”
Knowing from the get-go that Pickupp would be a regionally fragmented organisation, Pang designed business processes to be remote-friendly, recruiting people who proactively seek alignment with colleagues and communicate to close the gap between functions and cities.
She also extends this positive ethos to Pickupp’s courier community. Because “it comes down to empathy, understanding why people want to come onto our platform and what they hope to achieve, whether as a full- or part-time job,” Pickupp offers perks in insurance, telecommunications, car services and vehicle rentals based on delivery agents’ specific needs.
The female entrepreneur doesn’t flinch at the male-dominated tech frontlines, already knowing as an engineering major that she would always be “the one female in a room of 20.”
“It’s an opportunity, because stakeholders see women as more communicative and empathetic, and will open up to me in a more collaborative and engaging style. Not to stereotype, but this works to my advantage in many ways,” she reveal.
Pang had her first meaningful encounter with wine as a software engineer in Boston, her first job out of college, where horizontal and vertical wine tastings flowed during dinners with co-workers.
“Everyone spoke jargon I had no idea about, and that started me thinking about this whole new world,” reminisces Pang, who’s big on classics such as Burgundy and Barolo. “It was never in any academic training! I had to discover more about the production and understanding of wine, and fortunately, this ‘training’ took place during one of my favourite evening pastimes.”
Delving into the intricacies of wine by scrutinising their soil origins and vinification styles, and journaling this wine wanderlust via keeps Pang busy during her travels.
“I always pick a wine country, and drive and bring my photography gear, and indulge in both at the same time,” says Pang. “That’s my ideal getaway when I’m not working.”
Otherwise, and especially with pandemic travel constraints, she makes sure she slips into whole-hearted play mode every. Effectively switching off, Pang hikes, gets together with friends, and indulges in quality bonding with her three cats and foster dogs – “that makes for a big happy family.”
By Sunday afternoon, the computer flicks back on because the end game is always to align businesses’ capabilities and their customers’ satisfaction. She draws parallels between ground-breaking wine movements and her sphere of data driven transformations.
“My motivation comes from the desire to solve problems that have meaning and are important,” says Pang. Just like how “wines from the volcano area of Etna used to taste very raw because of the soil, but with new winemaking styles, they are now their own distinctive identity and opportunistic region – like the start-up world.”