“The World Rewards Creativity”—Casetify Co-founder Wesley Ng on How He Built One of the World’s Biggest Tech Accessories Brands
Wesley Ng was still a primary school student in Hong Kong when he started his first business. “I traded Dragon Ball Z cards. I used to make tonnes of money for a kid—I could buy whatever I wanted, like a Game Boy,” he says, laughing. “So I think the entrepreneurial spirit has always been inside me, but it started small.”
Ng’s ambition has grown since then.
The 40-year-old is now the co-founder and CEO of Casetify, the booming tech accessories brand that he established in 2011 with his school friend Ronald Yeung. To date, Casetify has sold more than 25 million phone cases worldwide and collaborated with more than 100 companies, ranging from designer labels such as Moncler and Saint Laurent to corporations like Disney and even museums—most famously the Louvre, which entrusted Casetify to transform the Mona Lisa from canvas onto iPhone cases, AirPod holders, water bottles and phone chargers.
These partnerships have made the brand a firm favourite of celebrities such as the Kardashians and the Hadids, and have also attracted huge media attention, marking the business out as a start-up to watch in Asia. Casetify is privately owned and Ng has never publicly discussed revenue, but a recent investment gives some idea of the company’s value: in June, Adrian Cheng, executive vice-chairman and CEO of New World Development, invested an undisclosed eight-figure US dollar sum in Casetify in exchange for a nearly ten per cent stake.
From hustle to household name
So, as Casetify celebrates its tenth anniversary this month, Ng says he feels proud of everything his team has achieved so far—and is excited about what’s to come. “It is a big moment for us,” he says. “Now we’re at this mark, we have the luxury to do things we didn’t do in the past, which is expanding into different products, into different verticals, different business models. I have a lot of ideas.” Casetify itself came into being as the result of a very simple idea: that the iPhone was a great product, but the cases on the market were subpar. “When Steve Jobs gave his first keynote about the iPhone, in 2007, I thought, ‘Wow, this device is going to change the world’,” says Ng. “But phone cases back then were all bulky and ugly. There was no style whatsoever.” Ng knew he could do better. He was born and grew up in Hong Kong but moved to Australia to finish secondary school and study communication design at university, where he learnt about 3D animation, film, graphic design and more. “I’ve always been into art and design—I was always creative,” he says. “And I wanted a phone case that expresses who I am. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could turn all my Instagram pictures into a customised phone case?’”
Casetify—which first was called Casetagram—was born. “It was an interplay between software and hardware because we had to design the case and figure out the logistics of manufacturing, but at the same time we had to code our own app,” he says. “Our app was the first and the only one back then to let you customise your phone case with your Instagram photos.” International press including The New York Times, TechCrunch and Mashable picked up the story, hailing it as an innovative product. “We still had full-time jobs, so after work I was working with Ron on coding, design, shipping and answering all these customer service emails,” Ng says. “Those were the days—I was super tired, but it was super fulfilling.”
From the start, Yeung has overseen everything related to technology, while Ng manages product design, branding and marketing. Ng gave up his full-time job as head of digital and broadcast design at Now TV shortly after the launch. “One night, very randomly, our server was down. We looked into it and found out it was because there was massive traffic to our site,” he recalls. “There was a celebrity who picked up the story about Casetify and he posted on Instagram and on Twitter—it was Jamie Oliver. I have to give it to him: thanks to him, he killed the server and I said to my co-founder, ‘Hey, maybe we should quit our day jobs. Instead of treating this as a product, we should treat this as a business.’”
The company grew rapidly in the first two years, so much so that a string of copycat manufacturers sprung up, pushing Ng to move away from cases plastered with Instagram photos. Instead, Ng developed distinctive Casetify designs that people can customise in other ways, such as by emblazoning their names on their phone cases in hundreds of different fonts and colours. The brand has since further appealed to people’s vanity by releasing mirrored cases, some of which also incorporate glitter and other shiny, reflective materials that are as bright as Christmas baubles.
One of most famous fans of the mirror case is Kylie Jenner, who often poses with it in selfies for her 261 million Instagram followers. Other celebrities spotted with Casetify products include Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa and South Korean singer Jisoo, while actress Sarah Jessica Parker and superstar K-pop boy band BTS have collaborated with Casetify on their own collections.
Function and fashion
Ng also differentiated Casetify from the competition by becoming the go-to partner for fashion brands looking to launch tech accessories. “Around 2015 I emailed Sarah Andelman,” says Ng, referring to the co-founder and creative director of Colette, the multi-brand store in Paris that was dubbed “the trendiest store in the world” by Forbes before it closed in 2017. “I didn’t expect anything, but Sarah got back to us and said she was interested. So we made a Colette x Casetify Apple Watch band, which was the first third-party Apple Watch band. Sarah now advises our company in general, specifically on some collabs and even on brand building.” That partnership with Colette opened the doors to projects with other fashion brands, including with streetwear labels such as Vetements, Yohji Yamamoto and Sacai, as well as with household names like Coach.
Andelman was impressed from the start by Ng’s ability to negotiate partnerships with leading brands. “Casetify knew from the beginning to be flexible and to do cool collabs to touch many different customers,” she says. “If there’s one tech accessories brand that has successfully built relationships with the fashion and design worlds, it’s Casetify for sure.” Ng often describes phone cases as “personal billboards”—a description that resonates with Andelman. “I have always been surprised that luxury brands don’t develop more mobile cases,” she says. “I think it’s the best way to promote your brand if it’s in the right hands and selfies.”
On a personal note, Andelman has always admired Ng’s diplomacy and drive. “I think Wes is super smart,” she says. “I’ve always been impressed by his perfect look, open mind, curiosity and his aptitude for any challenge. I’m very grateful for working with him.”
Although most of Casetify’s sales are made on its website, physical retail spaces like Colette are important to Ng: he opened Casetify’s first standalone store, in Hong Kong’s Landmark Atrium, in October 2020. Exactly a year later, he now has seven stores around Hong Kong, one in Osaka, and is opening one in Tokyo this month. At the Landmark location is the first Casetify Cube, a mirrored room lined with LED screens, which can be programmed to showcase different graphics or video clips tied to Casetify’s latest release. When the brand worked with the NBA, basketballs appeared to bounce along the wall. At the time of writing, a recent collaboration with Disney has seen it turn into Cinderella’s fairytale castle.
The Casetify Cube was inspired by Yayoi Kusama’s famous mirrored installations, which attract hundreds of thousands of people to galleries around the world. “They are amazing; they look fantastic,” says Ng, who has visited Kusama’s infinity room at the The Broad museum in Los Angeles. “But there is no flexibility in them—they’re fixed. We wanted to see how we could add a variable into them.”
Ng is considering how to improve on the concept in his next stores. Over the next year, he plans to open spaces in Seoul and the US, which is Casetify’s biggest market. “They’re racing each other to open,” he says. He also plans to open more offices outside of Casetify’s current bases in Los Angeles and Hong Kong, the latter of which houses most of Casetify’s 300-strong team. “An office in New York, an office strategically in Europe and maybe one on the mainland” are all on the cards, Ng says. Again, plans for all of them are unfolding simultaneously.
This expansion has partly been made possible by Cheng’s recent involvement. “Adrian’s investment means a lot because it was the first time we decided to take outside money,” says Ng. “We didn’t need to take it and that matters a lot because it means that money is strategic. What mattered to us was thinking: do our missions, our values, align? With Adrian, they do.”
On top of Cheng’s work with New World Development, he is the founder of the K11 group, which owns and operates shopping malls that combine retail, art, design, food and more, targeting millennial and Generation Z customers, who also make up the bulk of Casetify’s customers. “I want to create a cultural ecosystem targeting the next generation with a focus on technology, lifestyle and media,” says Cheng. “Casetify embodies that vision.”
It helps that Cheng is personally a fan of the brand. Right now, he uses an iPhone case with a geometric pattern printed on a gold background and, recently, Ng gave him a second one, designed by cult Japanese artist Hajime Sorayama. “Wesley is a passionate entrepreneur. We share the same vision of building creative communities for global talents to thrive, and a strong interest in art and culture,” says Cheng.
The pair’s plans for the brand extend beyond tech accessories. “We are starting a new venture studio called IFY,” says Ng. “The idea is to invest in and acquire companies that fit into our core business, which is what I call the ‘expression economy’. Our mission is to empower people to express who they are—starting with phone cases.” Ng cannot yet reveal what businesses he hopes to acquire, or what other products he may launch under the Casetify brand. But, he says, he will not limit himself to accessories—or even physical products. “It could be a product, could be a brand, could be software,” he says. “Software or technology that enables people to express themselves is something that we’d be interested in.”
This willingness to explore other products is new for Ng, who remained totally concentrated on tech accessories for Casetify’s first decade, avoiding the temptation to expand into other products, even when it seemed profitable to do so. “One thing I told Ron at the beginning is, ‘Whenever I come up with new ideas, reject them,’” says Ng. “The market is huge. What we’re doing is just a tiny fraction of it. There’s still a big piece for us to grab. But for us, keeping our heads down and staying focused is priority number one. One thing that can kill a start-up is distractions.”
Even with his plans for IFY, Ng remains determined not to lose sight of his core business. “We have a roadmap for Casetify and a lot in the pipeline,” he says. “That’s going to require 80 per cent of my time. And 20 per cent will be new ventures.”
One of Ng’s key focuses moving forward is making Casetify’s products more environmentally sustainable. “We are working really hard to get rid of single-use plastics in our manufacturing process and packaging,” he says. And to counter waste created by the cases themselves, most of which are made at least partly from plastic, Ng launched the Recasetify recycling initiative last year, providing drop-off points in Casetify’s stores and a mail-in service through which people can return old phone cases to be recycled.
Ng claims that 100 per cent of old phone cases can be reused when processed by Recasetify. So far, the brand says it has recycled more than 50,000 cases. Ng is also experimenting with more eco-friendly materials. Last year, the brand launched its Casetify Conscious collection, which features phone cases, AirPod cases and water bottles made of a fully biodegradable, bamboo-based trademarked material called Ecotify. For every Casetify Conscious product sold, the brand is planting a tree through Earthday.org’s The Canopy Project; since April 2020, the brand says it has planted more than 50,000 trees.
Other collections support different causes—100 per cent of proceeds from the brand’s Pride Case support the Ali Forney Center in New York, which is the largest organisation dedicated to helping homeless LGBTQ youth in the US, while the Her Impact Matters range benefits Equality Now, an NGO that advocates for the rights of women and girls. “People wear what they believe in,” says Ng.
But style is as important as substance. Some of Casetify’s thousands of products are sleek and minimalist, while others are cartoonish and humorous—one iPhone case depicts an illustrated bulldog doing yoga. Occasionally, the brand will release something wildly extravagant: in February this year, it launched its first 18-karat gold phone case as part of its collaboration with the NBA. Only 300 were made and each sold for US$1,000.
Ng himself has a distinct sense of style, which has earned him a place on Tatler’s Asia’s Most Influential: Style list this year. He wears Thom Browne head-to-toe to the office, which he visits six days a week, taking Saturday off to spend with his wife and two-year-old son.
“My suits are like 50 shades of grey. I wear the same outfit every day. The reason is that I want to reduce decision fatigue—the same reason Steve Jobs wore the black turtleneck, the same reason Mark Zuckerberg wears that grey T-shirt. But for me, I wanted it to be a bit more dressy, more my style. I’ve always liked men in suits and Thom Browne is really the answer—it’s basically a school uniform. I think it goes way back for me, that aesthetic: I remember my mum buying me loafers in Lane Crawford for school. She spoilt me, obviously,” he says, laughing.
Ng completes his look with a Patek Philippe watch. He is more experimental with his hair which, when we meet, is bleached blond. “I have the uniformity with my clothes, so I can play around with my hair. Because of my 40th birthday, I decided to do something different, so I turned into an Asian blonde,” he says. “I’ve still got to have fun.”
Fun is important to Ng both in life and in business. He started Casetify as a passion project and hopes that his success might inspire others to follow their dreams. “You know, for the majority of people in Hong Kong, there are certain checklists you have to do, one of them being to ‘get on the car’—to buy a property. My mum never rushed me to do that, which really makes a difference. We were just a humble middle-class family—my mum was a stay-at-home mum and my dad worked in F&B—but they encouraged me to follow my dream, follow my heart, which I think was very important.”
Slowly, Ng says, attitudes towards creativity are changing in Hong Kong, and more people are willing to explore careers outside the historically celebrated fields of law, medicine and finance. “Compared to when we first started ten years ago, there are now more people willing to join a start-up in Hong Kong,” he says. “I think that it is very, very important to set an example that you can become rich and successful by joining a start-up—not just by joining a bank. What I really want to say is that if you’re creative, if you’re interested in marketing, if you’re interested in social media, there are places for you—there are options. The world rewards creativity.”
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