Retouch Power is a leader in the USB powerbank space. Founded by international entrepreneur and former model Lee Tsui in 2012, it turned a strong profit in the first year, and has been seen growth repeatedly double and quadruple in the years since. Lee sat down with us to share his story and give advice to others who want to start their own company.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was raised by my mother in a small town called Leicester in England. I come from a very humble English working class background where we didn’t really have much, but really made the most out of it. I was raised in a very tough area called Highfields on a council estate and spent most of my youth being a hooligan with my riff raff buddies. It was actually one of the happiest times of my life. We were wild and free and caused trouble constantly. I learned from a young age how to be street smart because of this so it did me good and gave me a huge perspective and large sense of humility later in life that has served me very well.
I was too rebellious to stick it out working for a boring structured company, too creative to sit in something mundane.
I got older and hit my limit in Leicester where there are very few opportunities for someone strong headed like me to grow. You have only a handful of choices in a small city. Work for a company and earn peanuts or start a small business and probably earn peanuts because there’s such a limited to scope to what you can achieve in a 3rd tier location.
The problem with me was that I was too rebellious to stick it out working for a boring structured company, too creative to sit in something mundane and my lack of patience didn’t give me the 10 years to keep my head down and play it safe to become a manager of something I really didn’t care for anyway. I felt by 24 I’d hit my personal limit on what I could achieve in Leicester. Everything looked dull and lifeless and I’d got into a repetitive cycle that I couldn’t escape unless I truly moved away. So I took a handful of cash and one day escaped to Hong Kong to try a totally different way of life.
If you ask why Hong Kong? It was because my absent father is Chinese and I’d visited him many times on holiday and always dreamt of being here. By 24 it was my time. Looking back I’m very proud of myself for having the guts to have dropped my cars, houses and family to try something totally different, and looking back I have zero regrets of my decision to JUST DO IT Shia Labeouf style. I can’t agree more with his ethos actually.
What did you learn as a model?
Honestly very little, but it was a lot of fun because you can just stand around getting paid stupid money just to look ridiculously good-looking. I really had a lot of fun, maybe too much ☺. But honestly I’ve never really been much of a style over substance kinda person, so I tend to focus on substance and hope that that substance allows me to blag the style somewhat. Anyway I can honestly say I did it for the money. I’ve always been a passionate musician and in bands, but by 26 I’d broken my voicebox and could barely talk for 2 years, at that low point in my life I realized I seriously needed to find a plan B if I wanted a guaranteed successful future.
By 28 my voice came back stronger than ever, but I’d already decided Plan B at 28 was probably the best way to guarantee success. My plan B was to design electronics. I started out by drawing up a phone case concept and began trying to source a manufacturer for the concept. I was really willing to give it a go but didn’t really have any direction on where to take it. However at that time I found out an old friend of mine was also entering electronics from a different angle so we started working together on promotional products. Within a year it was quite clear we had very clear differences on where we would take the company and very different sets of ethics. So sadly at that time we had a pretty hard break up and I took my newly developed skills and set up my own promotional gift company Load Ltd.
Load specialized in USB electronics designed for gifting and promotions and amazingly on launch it took off big time and I’m still frantically trying to stay on that wave that we created by launching product after product for it.
If I can retract from the above, I just realized I did learn something really useful from modeling apart from avoiding bullshitters, and that’s how to arrange products and people and launch chic looking stuff. This has obviously helped us with Retouch, so I will give modeling some credit for these two points above.
Why did you decide to start Retouch Ltd?
Retouch was built on the idea that USB tech didn’t have to be masculine, and in fact I’d noticed no one had so far designed USB tech for ladies. Yeah, there were phone cases and a few girly products here and there, but where was the collection? Where was the line of fashionable items? I knew at that time every single girl had a smartphone in 2012 but no one had really designed products for them.
Every single girl had a smartphone in 2012 but no one had really designed products for them.
As Load limited was at full speed and profitable it was decided that me and my now wife Angelina would risk going for this concept if there was a 50/50 chance of success. After some due diligence we saw a niche could be carved out and decided it was worth a try. At the time we didn’t know if it could work. But I had a belief that if we could match the style and desirability of high fashion it would.
Our first units were heavily inspired by the top rung of high fashion brands like Gucci, Prada, D&G and Chanel. But, we also needed to consider that Asian girls were most likely to accept girly tech products, and so we geared up to design a range that was Western chic but also eye catching and super cute. It was a hard balancing act to find that sweet spot between Western high fashion and Asian cuteness, but I think we’ve nailed it down well.
What are your biggest markets?
Japan is our big market right now, followed by UAE, Italy, France and UK. USA is a market we are still trying to gain ground in and we are confident that now we have the budget for it, after a rebranding for USA tastes we can enter States in a way that’s more palatable for American ladies.
Why have you seen such success in Japan?
I think we managed to balance the desirability of Western chic with the eye catching loudness of Japanese design. We really geared our initial concept to Japan and really did our research on what Japan would love before closing down the units. It’s only now after a year of dominance in Japan that we are now looking to close down Japan (in terms of not needing to change anything) and to focus now on restyling the brand for Western tastes, which is something we are working on already.
I’ll also give credit to our amazing Japanese partner who managed to grow the business with us into what it has become. Without his work we’d still maybe be struggling and I could definitely say not as successful. Picking the right partners is an essential part of this industry as you can’t do it all alone.
Are fakes a big problem for your business? How to you fight back?
Huge huge problem in electronics as China offers zero IP protection. Alibaba to me feels like a criminal organization, rich off the back of IP theft. It seems that to follow their rules to take down fakes, you are the criminal that needs to prove your innocence before they even help you to talk to the fake stores. It has taken me maybe 50% of my energy this year battling fakes that enter from China, and now arguing with international buyers who just want to get a cheap rip off of your product rather than work with you.
The legal system in all countries to protect IP I think seriously needs to be revised as only the lawyers win. You walk away with nothing but losses trying to protect your company against IP theft and the criminals right now always seem to win and the protector lose. The only way to truly fight back is to outcompete the fake companies and make better products, but the problem is, once they notice your company, they copy all of your products and steal your art and photography as soon as you launch the product, then email your clients and offer them $1 cheaper.
The only way to truly fight back is to outcompete the fake companies.
Something in China really needs to change as it is a totally counterproductive system they have. In a smart society, creative innovative companies should be protected and encouraged to grow, with their growth comes better jobs and higher standards. But China allows, if not encourages these types of innovative companies to be dragged down and destroyed by the weight of fakes and lack of protection.
All you are left with is a bland choice of cutthroat assholes stealing IP and stripping their own people to cents and paying their staff peanuts. This system truly needs to change if China wants to see true reform and improvement in their country.
What is next for Retouch Power?
We’re launching sexier and sexier products and working with bigger and bigger brands in crossovers. We will release a new range of items in 2016 that are a huge step up in design and beauty. We are growing staff and building a team geared to tackle the West and grow our own brand to be recognized in every region you enter. That is the dream, the dream is the plan.
What personal goals do you have as an entrepreneur?
Build a solid foundation off of which to launch more ambitious ideas. The bigger your foundation, the more safely you can launch more ambitious projects. Through the success of modeling I was able to safely build a small promo company, as that company got bigger I could safely try to launch Retouch as a brand (something very risky needs a stable foundation to project from) and from Retouch and Load Limited I will be looking to build the next foundation to allow me to do something far more ambitious. I’ve got my endgame on building an electric car brand in China. But that is at step 100 and I’m maybe on step 4 right now. 😉 Dream big and ambitious, but work small and methodically.
What recommendations do you have for someone who wants to be an entrepreneur?
Be prepared to fail constantly and learn to be the glue that binds everything together. If you’re working with China, expect everything you do to fail at least three times before it works and it will probably fail again later on when someone drops the ball. Be the glue that binds and don’t expect to be able to control all the issues that pop up. Find the right people to team up with that can work with you, not for you and make sure those people’s ideals match up with your own. Everything in business works best when everyone involved is winning.
Everything in business works best when everyone involved is winning.
If you’re not rich or don’t have a rich daddy, you need to be very safe with your decisions and that each action has an extremely high chance of success before making the decisions because one bad decision especially at the start of a company means failure unless you have stable funds.
I think being an independent businessman requires you to tread on a very thin tightrope over a cliff whilst juggling problems. I’d suggest you really think hard about if you have the chops to build something alone, if you don’t suggest you find a team of people that can protect each other and reinforce each others weaknesses.
All photos courtesy Lee Tsui and Retouch Power.