Six years ago, Susannah Jaffer was a fresh graduate who moved to Singapore from the United Kingdom in search of work. At the earlier part of her career, Susannah spent more than half a year in a PR agency working as an intern before being recruited for a job at Expat Living magazine in 2013, where she took on various roles such as a fashion and beauty editor to a creative director. Although everything seemed to be going well for Susannah’s career in editorial media, in October 2017, she decided to call it quits and left her full-time job to start her first business, ZERRIN.com.
Why? Here’s her story.
You were a fashion and beauty editor turned creative director at Expat Living. Future was bright for you. What made you decide that it’s time to quit full-time and start ZERRIN in the world’s most expensive city?
I got to the point that what I was doing every day was clashing with my values, so I needed to make a change. That was always on my mind and was negatively impacting my mental health. At the same time, while the spark of an idea for ZERRIN was in my head, I decided “if I don’t follow this now, then when?” It seemed crazy at that time, but so do many things before we put our mind to them, do the work and manage to achieve them.
What is ZERRIN and what are its unique selling points?
ZERRIN is Asia’s first multi-label e-commerce platform for sustainable fashion and beauty brands. Through a mix of responsible retail, content and events, our goal is to enable, educate and empower women to #ShopMeaningfully, and to reignite a sense of connection to our purchases in an accessible, down to earth way.
ZERRIN makes it more convenient for women to shop and discover independent conscious brands in one space. We’re the opposite of other fast-fashion marketplace concept retailers out there. Instead of a message of mass consumption, low prices and deals, we advocate slower, more thoughtful purchasing and appreciating quality over quantity. We’re also working hard to build and bring together a community through our blog, pop-ups and educational events. I see ZERRIN as more than just a retail store, but a movement, lifestyle and mindset.
Yes, Singapore is expensive. Luckily, the overheads of running an online store are a fraction of the cost of renting a physical space. I’m thankful that my career path, and mentors I’ve met along the way, have taught me resourcefulness, which meant I was able to set the business up and not break the bank.
What were the initial reactions of your loved ones when you broke the news to them that you are going to be an entrepreneur?
Call me lucky, but they never really questioned me. My dad was an entrepreneur from a young age, moving over from India (where he was born) to be an accountant. Eventually, he was earning enough to bring his family over, and he went on to start his own business. He likes to joke that I got it from him. He’s still working full time and managing two businesses at 78.
My partner has been a big support too, in a constructive way. He also works in retail, so there are aspects of my business that he could relate to and give feedback.
What were your challenges when putting your plans together?
Setting up the business while working full time in a demanding creative role. That got tough at times. I didn’t leave till after ZERRIN had launched. Thankfully, my boss at the time was very supportive when I told her about my plans. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Another factor was my budget. I had no external investor, and everything was on a shoestring. This got me down at times, but I learnt to pick myself up, revisit my long-term strategy and make informed decisions from there. I prioritised investing in areas of the business that my gut told me were the most important, like branding, essential website coding and some photography. Everything else I did myself – PR, marketing, additional e-commerce/blog photography, digital marketing, social media, accounting…the list goes on. Despite being on a budget, I didn’t want the vision of the company, and what I put out there, to come across as so.
What were the things you learned when setting up an e-commerce store?
There’s a lot to do. As a retailer carrying multiple brands, there’s so much to market, which is a blessing and a curse. Some days, it can feel like I’m not doing enough.
Also, you can’t just put a product out there and hope it sells. Consumers today are way more savvy than five years ago, and will see through your brand if it’s offering is lacklustre. The quality and authenticity of your message are also crucial, as is the strength of your brand story and vision. As a multi-label retailer, I think it’s vital to tell that story (in various ways) continually and not let it fade into the background, otherwise what’s your value proposition and how will you scale?
Where do you see ZERRIN in the next five years?
If all were to go to plan, we’d be an international name, and trusted as a destination for conscious brands, serving customers all over the globe. We’ll also have established a full lifestyle content channel (online and offline) which brings together our community of customers, brands and inspiring individuals paving the way for more responsible retail industry.
Will ZERRIN eventually open a brick and mortar store? If yes, why? If no, why not?
If it does happen, I don’t think it will be in Singapore. It doesn’t seem sustainable. Rent here is astronomical and I’ve seen enough stores open and close throughout my short career to know it’s not a wise move. Physical touch points are essential though, so pop-ups will always be key throughout the year. If we do eventually open a brick and mortar store, it will be more than just a retail space!
What’s your advice to people who want to start their e-commerce store?
It’s always going to take more work than you think. If you’re not digitally savvy or are not willing to learn, then forget it. Above all, starting any business is always a risk. You have to be willing to take it. There’s no guidebook, and you have to depend on yourself to get things done and make it all happen.
Whatever your concept, know your target customer and market, and do enough initial research to determine whether you’re product offering will stand out. Write a business plan! It doesn’t matter if it’s not the most detailed document on the planet (unless you’re pitching to investors from the start, of course.) It helped to gather my thoughts, guide my thinking and strategy. Being prepared is always a good idea!
Justin Fernando is a videographer and an award-winning photographer. He has recently left full-time employment to further his passion for camera works in the world of freelancing. So why did Justin trade a stable job for one that has no guarantee? Here’s his story.
Where were you before started freelancing and why did you leave?
After graduation, I joined my first company doing videography and editing for a year before I was approached to join another company that was starting up. In that company, I was the primary videographer and did editing and graphics as well. I was there for seven years and left just a few months ago to start off on my own. I guess I felt it was about time to venture out on my own and into the unknown. We all like to be comfortable, and I just decided to take the leap of faith and see what’s out there.
How did you conclude that it’s time for you to start out on your own?
I still love my job. However, after seven years I was looking for more progression. I decided to risk the safety of a monthly salary to start off on my own. It was a difficult decision, but it just felt right.
After almost half a year, I enjoy owning my time and developing relationships with my clients to understand their visions. It has become less of a touch-and-go, and more of coming together with them to create contents that are engaging and visually stimulating.
What was your loved ones’ reactions to your decision?
My parents have always been supportive of me pursuing my passion. Never have they told me to get a better job like banking or engineering or what most Singaporeans deemed as a “proper” job when I was growing up. This is the one thing I am grateful for – having parents who are supportive of what I am interested in doing.
What is your photography style? Portrait, architecture, landscape, etc.?
I love taking travel landscapes and portraiture. In my travels, I like heading into the rural parts of a country. The innocence and purity you can capture speak for itself. It’s a unique experience each time when you smile and ask to take a picture of them, show them the photo and see the gleam on their faces as they look at themselves and return the smile. It is humbling, heartwarming, and goes back to the basic of strangers connecting in a foreign land, even when we don’t share the same language. I usually get their contact and send them a print. In Singapore printing out pictures is not very common anymore, and it’s easy to forget the joy of having something physical and tangible to hold, look at, and maybe even passing on to their family in the future.
What was your most memorable work for photography and videography?
Having completed a countless amount of projects over the years, it’s difficult to pick one. When I first started off roughly 9nineyears ago, the Canon 5DM2 came out and changed the way videos were made. At that young age, I was tasked to shoot and edit my first television commercial. It was a surreal experience to have the opportunity to shoot a TVC and doing up a car rig when these were usually left to the veterans to helm. Seeing it broadcasted on national TV was tremendously memorable.
Since starting out on my own, I have had the pleasure of partnering Bask Communications to work with Red Bull Racing for Formula 1, revolving around the concept of Dan & Max trying durian for the first time. We had to work with a tight timeline of having only 15 minutes for the shoot, and editing it overnight so that it will be ready for timely dissemination the next day. The video garnered over 13 million views worldwide and won two PR awards – Best Use of Broadcast/Video and Most Creative PR Stunt – for the campaign.
Freelancing market in photography seems to be saturated. Just browse through Instagram, and you’ll see tonnes of them. So what differentiates you from them?
Yes, these days it does seem like everyone with a camera is a photographer! I try to let my work speak for itself and it’s equally important to provide good service and build the relationship with clients.
One of the most common questions asked in photography and videography is whether gear matters. What’s your take on that?
Gear to me is absolutely secondary. While it does play a big role in aiding you to achieve your final product, I have also seen great stuff done on a shoestring budget. Sometimes not having the luxury of expensive gear pushes you to think more creatively about what will generate the best results. Having always wanted to go against the grain, I decided to go with Sony instead of the obvious two choices around and have not looked back. Of course, every brand has its pros and cons, it’s a matter of knowing what to use to attain the needs of the clients.
What are the gears for both photography and videography would you recommend for beginners?
Sony Alpha makes great, small full frame cameras that film great videos. As mentioned, there is no one size fits all formula, it all depends on how comfortable you are with your gear. Samyang makes awesome glass at affordable prices so starting off on those primes is a sure win start.
What is your advice for people who aspire to be freelance photography?
My advice is just to go for it. The most important thing is that it should bring you joy. You should wake up in the morning not dreading going to work and that is how I know the work I do is not just a daily requirement in life but a joy that completes it.
Ms Erin Chen’s professional revolves around a topic that many Asians, including Singaporeans, still find it hard to talk about even in this open society. It’s about sex.
Erin is the Founder of SPARK Fest Asia. She is also a Sexual Wellness Advocate, Sex & Relationship Counsellor and Speaker. She started SPARK Fest Asia with the aim to provide a curated space to get people to begin conversations on sex, pleasure and relationships openly, and to encourage the next generation of local innovators and problem-solvers to overcome current challenges in this area. This is why at this year’s SPARK Fest Asia 2018, there will be sextech hackathon.
How long have you been in the sex therapy industry and why did you venture into it?
I’ve always been a sex geek at heart. Some people grew up loving fashion, or cars or cooking – I had an affinity for sex. Not the act of sex, but a curiosity about the human sexual experience and its connection to culture, psychology, wellness, relationships, etc.
I would be that friend who would share every new fact that I came across about sex with friends. I was that friend with whom friends felt safe confiding in when it came to talking about sex.
Though I’ve always known that this was something I was passionate about, what inspired me to take action was when I came across a company called Blue Bella, which has since pivoted to become a lingerie company. At that time, it was a home party company that did at home workshops for women where they can also purchase pleasure products. What inspired me was the woman who started it – she was Oxford-educated and the company also had a social mission to help educate and develop young women. It was the first time I saw that it was possible to do something different in this industry. And so I realized how much room there was to do things better and differently in this space.
After ten years in the corporate world, I decided to dive right into it and received my Master’s Degree in Science in Medicine (Sexual Health) from the University of Sydney.
Before starting my sex and relationship counselling practice in 2017, I owned a pleasure products company where I ran workshops for women and couples on various topics related to sexual wellness. That gave me a lot of insight into the psyche of women and men when it came to the questions and interests they had in this area. I started noticing a common theme in these workshops that also extended into my private practice – people are not used to talking about sex. There is a lot that most people miss out on because they never or rarely had the chance to explore this area without judgement. This is what inspired me to start SPARK Fest.
What were the reactions from your loved ones when you told them that about what you do?
My parents questioned me on my decision; it is, after all, an unconventional one. However, since I embarked on this career and over time, it has opened up conversations about sex with my parents. These days, they are very supportive, and my father is a business mentor for me.
What were your initial challenges starting up your business?
I’ve started three social enterprises in sexual wellness – a pleasure products retail company, a sex and relationship counselling practice and SPARK Fest Asia. And the challenges that come with each are similar, as they are related to the perceived taboos of sex on an institutional level.
For the pleasure products company, the primary challenge was the ability to advertise through traditional means. Facebook and Google have a stringent ban on anything related to sex. For example, for areas such as gambling, financial services, and alcohol, Facebook’s policy is to follow local advertising laws. However, with sex, businesses in this area often find their ads banned or removed, even when they are not explicit in nature and could be of a more educational nature.
For SPARK Fest, the challenge has been to educate and create awareness around what sexual wellness is and how it can be different than the way we are used to seeing sex portrayed in the media or porn. Seeing sexual wellness as part of overall wellness is a very new concept — similar to how mindfulness was a foreign concept to most a decade ago. It’s difficult to imagine something you’ve never experienced before. And so it takes time for people to trust what we are creating.
That said, we do find that once people get a glimpse or experience the kind of new conversations and approach we are creating, they are very receptive and enthusiastic. For SPARK Fest, I think this is because Sinnead (my co-founder) and I have always maintained the philosophy that SPARK is not about telling people how sex should be or not be. We are not here to give positive answers. Instead, SPARK Fest exists as space for people to get accurate and diverse perspectives so that they can choose what will empower their sexual wellness journeys.
What inspired you to start the SPARK Fest as well as host Asia’s 1st sextech hackathon?
Through my work in private practice and also hosting workshops and events related to sexual wellness, it became clear over time that there is a general need for better access to understanding and exploring the area of sexual wellness. Sinnead, my co-founder, also made similar observations when she worked in the mental health area and now as a yoga instructor focused on women’s health.
There are so many myths, misconceptions and unnecessary shame and awkwardness accompanying this area that is hurting relationships, overall well-being and general quality of life. And when we looked at what was available for people – their options were either porn or adult novelty type events, product-focused expos, medical-focused conferences or tantra centric gatherings. All of these events are great – and not everyone feels comfortable engaging with this topic in those various settings.
We saw a gap that needed to be filled – making sexuality fun and normal! Like any other area in wellness be it yoga, nutrition, mindfulness – no one has yet to take this approach and we wanted to provide that platform for the community to connect with the multidisciplinary and wide range of professionals and change makers that bring sexual wellness to life.
Ultimately, we are doing this for our future children. For them to grow up in a world where sex is not shrouded with shame and embarrassment, and where they feel free to make informed choices that give them fulfilling sexual experience and relationships – however that looks like.
In general, our Singapore’s society is still mostly conventional. What were the considerations made over the years when planning for SPARK Fest?
Our main priority is to normalise the conversations about sex. It is very common for people to think of sexual intercourse when they hear the word “sex”. That is why we emphasize that SPARK Fest is a sexual wellness festival – it looks at more than just sex (and by the way, sex includes so much more than just sexual intercourse!). There are many elements that are at the intersection of healthy sex and sexual wellness – from physical well-being to emotional well-being to self and relational well-being and on a bigger picture, a community’s well-being when it comes to the quality of life of its citizens.
Sexual wellness is something that universally affects everyone, at all stages of life – whether you are single, a parent, or retired. And SPARK Fest aims to be the place where everyday people like you and me can gather to learn and take away something that can be actionable to improve their sexual wellness.
For example, you can attend a talk on how to talk to your kids about sex and how to go about navigating it (Having the talk: Do’s and Don’ts When Talking about Sex with Your Children), or sit in on a panel discussion on how intimacy can be kept alive (THERE IS NO NORMAL SEX). You can even participate in the first Future of Sex sextech hackathon ever in Asia to innovate ways to improve challenges in the sexual wellness world.
As you can see, we’ve curated the programming carefully to address various topics from pleasure to sex ed to relationships to the various health aspect of sexual wellness to gender roles. Fundamentally, we want to empower people to fulfil the experiences that they want. We are not here to tell people how sex should be – you are the expert of your own sexuality. We are the platform that supports your discovery of that.
It is also important to involve the innovators and change makers because they are the people who will keep creating solutions that help improve sexual wellness for everyday people! We wanted to showcase these individuals as well because we believe it is powerful for people to see that there are people driving change in this area – and who knows, someone in the everyday crowd might be the next Steve Jobs of sexual wellness. How cool would that be!
How did the idea of hosting Asia’s 1st Future of Sex sextech hackathon come about and why is it important to organise it?
The overall mission and goal of SPARK Fest are to normalise sexual wellness as a part of the whole wellness conversation. To accomplish that, we strive to bring together a community and space for people to explore and approach the topic of sex with thought leaders, brands and advocacy groups in this space. Part of that means also to seed ideas and solutions that will improve and impact change in the sexual wellness world.
When we saw the sextech hackathon being held in NYC last year, we knew that it was a great way to help bring about more conversations in this region. Afterall, change requires action and hackathons are all about action and problem-solving.
At the same time, we knew that Bryony Cole from Future of Sex was organising the 1st sextech hackathon in Australia this year as well. What began as regular calls to exchange ideas and best practices organically turned into a natural collaboration for Singapore to be the first city in Asia to host the Future of Sex sextech hackathon.
We both believe when we start to remove the taboo and shame around sex and see it as a typical and universal to the human experience, we will naturally begin to seek solutions for the current challenges that exist in this space — that is what makes this space so exciting!
What can we expect from the hackathon?
Firstly, we are very excited to be partnering with Bryony Cole of Future of Sex and Disruptor’s Handbook to run this pioneering event in Asia.
Secondly, it is important to point out that this is not a hardcore coding or technical type of hackathon. In fact, if you are not techy – you can still participate! A great team actually includes people from various backgrounds – from business, to design/creatives, to those who have a passion to make a difference in this area.
The 48-hour event will provide participants with opportinity to collaborate and get involved in the fast-growing sextech indiustry. Speakers, mentors and panellists from around the world will come together with participants to address a set of challenges at the intersection of sexual wellness and technology.
Example challenges from previous hackathons include “How to make condoms cool?” “How to make the sexual expression more accessible for the 1 million Australians with disabilities?” and “How to reinvent sex education for teenage girls?”
Other potential areas that can be explored include fertility, access to sex ed, the gender gap, sexual violence, and the list goes on! The specific set of challenges chosen for this particular edition will be shared with participants in the week before the hackathon.
Over an intensive weekend of team-building and creation, a variety of solutions will be generated.
Hackathons specifically encourage a diverse range of voices to participate in order to discover better solutions to current social issues. We will provide the tools and frameworks to bring ideas to life, along with mentors providing workshops and recommendations to help the teams deliver a final pitch – shark tank style!
According to the Guardian, sextech is a USD 30 billion industry growing at 30% a year, potentially outpacing high growth sectors like drone manufacturing. Why are we not hearing more about it?
Sextech is being discussed a lot more in the West, in particular in the United States. NYC is currently the epicentre of new and exciting female-led startups in this space. It has been covered by the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC, and many other mainstream publications. It has garnered attention in the US because issues around sexual harassment, women-centric healthcare, diversity and women at work have gained more spotlight in recent years in the American media. These conversations gained speed partly because of political and current events. As they become more aware of these issues, the natural question would be to look for potential solution and innovation ideas.
I think we are not hearing more about it in Asia because we are at the beginning of these conversations, which makes for an exciting time to come!
What’s the traditional perception and some misconception of sextech, and how can we expect it to evolve?
In the past year, The New York Times, Forbes, The Guardian, and many other global media have covered sextech. However, what you know of sextech is likely limited by three common storylines that tend to dominate media in this space: sexbots, VR pornography or female-designed vibrators. These three headlines have perpetuated the idea that sextech is only about sex itself. No doubt, innovations around our orgasms are important and fascinating conversations in their own right, but sextech goes beyond robot girlfriends, virtual reality dates and sex toys. Sextech is defined as any technology designed to enhance sexuality.
Bryony Cole from Future of Sex had shared with us that, this area breaks down into four major fields: remote sex, virtual and immersive sex, robots and augmentation. Cryptocurrency tokens for the adult entertainment industry to ensure the privacy of transactions, VR experiences to swap genders, apps to turn your smartphone into a microscope so you can measure the number and speed of your sperm. The possibilities are infinite, awe-inspiring and at times, somewhat terrifying. In many ways, we don’t know where we will go. Hackathons are a way of inviting a wider audience to ponder the future of sex and have a hand in its direction. Plenty of areas need improvement in sexual health and education, the world over. We can expect to see those innovations emerge in this second wave of sextech. Of course, there will also be unexpected ways this evolves and impacts society. Technology has always influenced how we have and think about sex and fall in love. In the last few decades, the invention of the Pill, online video streaming, and dating apps have all radically changed sex, companionship and the cultural attitudes toward it. Where we go from here, is up to us.
The participants at the Future of Sex hackathon in Singapore are pioneers in a new and exciting industry setting the agenda for human experience and sexuality in the 21st Century and beyond.
What are some of the exciting trends, opportunities and potential in the sextech industry today?
A tremendous opportunity for forward-thinking entrepreneurs is to address issues that impact sexuality beyond the obvious, from sexual violence and abuse to global health crises like AIDS and STDs, and to education models that can help us live healthier lives. This is the true intersection of sex and technology.
We can also serve grossly underserved markets for sex, such as the ageing population, and those living in isolation and people with disabilities. Dating apps for the ageing population, better access to sex education and sexual partners through immersive technologies like VR, and telehealth platforms for sex therapy are all examples of how sextech is accommodating the unique needs of these populations. There is so much untapped potential in sextech when we reach beyond the obvious.
Ms Stephanie Besse was an accomplished executive in a world-renowned marketing and advertising corporation. But more than ten years ago, a holiday trip to France saw her leaving the corporate world to start an adventure that befits our sunny island Singapore.
Stephanie is the founder of Forest Adventure and here’s how her entrepreneurial career started.
Share with us how long have you been in Singapore, and why chose Singapore to settle down with your family?
I have been in Singapore for 21 years. Landed in Singapore with a two years contract, meet my husband few months after arriving here, had children and before I knew it, I have been here for ten years! Singapore is a great place for bringing up children.
What is Forest Adventure and how did you get this idea?
Forest Adventure is a tree top adventure park. We first discovered the concept of tree adventure parks during a holiday in France back in 2005. I immediately thought this would be perfect in Singapore due to the year-round warm climate where an outdoor business could be open for the whole year. At that time, there were not many outdoor reactional outfits in Singapore aside from the newly launched Luge at Sentosa. Hence, we started to look at the feasibility of an adventure course in Singapore.
You were a regional director for WPP group of companies before Forest Adventure. It should be a good paying job. So why and how did you decide to drop it for something uncertain like starting a business?
After 15 years in advertising, I needed a change as this is a very demanding industry. I also had a regional position which meant that I was travelling a lot and with three young children. I was missing out on being a Mum. I wanted a job that allowed me to be home every night for dinner!
Following a passion is far more fulfilling than money!
What were the reactions from your loved ones when you announced your plans?
My husband is an entrepreneur, so he was super supportive!
What were the initial challenges to put your plans together?
Our biggest challenge was to find a piece of land!
How did you secure the funding to set up Forest Adventure?
A mix of personal fund and investor.
In general, Singaporeans do not come across as the adventurous type of people. How was the initial reactions from the locals and has it changed over the years?
The business was very well-received among the adults when we started. It took a little time for the Kids Course to pick up and now, we have almost as many kids as adults! As the only rope course open to the public and designed for the sole purpose of outdoor reaction, Forest Adventure is a unique activity for visitors to come and have a fun day out together with family and friends while enjoying the sense of achievement that comes with overcoming all the obstacles and challenges.
Technology has taken over the daily lives of many young people including parents, in your opinion, does the outdoor still appeal to the masses? If not, what has been done to attract them?
We still have a growing number of customers coming to Forest Adventure even after ten years, so it looks like there is still a place for outdoor activities! This is especially so with the launch of our new course early this year.
Forest Adventure is located near the Downtown Line at Bedok Reservoir Station. Has it helped to bring in more visitors?
Hard to say as the opening of the Bedok Reservoir Station and the launch of the new course coincided.
Forest Adventure welcomes visitors starting from the age of 5 all the way to seniors in the 70s. How does Forest Adventure incorporate safety features and designs to ensure all participants can overcome the several challenges and have a great time?
The new course includes the latest development in course design and safety equipment. Participants are attached to the safety system from the ground with no ability to detach themselves until the end of the zip lines. There is no risk of falling when at height.
The climate is changing, and Singapore is getting hotter as years go by. What are the plans in place to reduce the risk of heatstroke?
We strongly encourage participants to drink and stay hydrated. The course is divided into six sections hence customers have many opportunities to come back to the ground to hydrate themselves.
What’s new at Forest Adventure, and where can we expect the business to be in the next few years?
We have a brand new design, 69 new crossing with many that were not included in our previous course. We have also launched a new Junior Course. Business has been steady, and we hope to have Forest Adventure at the top of mind for people of all ages looking for fun activities to do in the outdoors.
What’s your advice to people contemplating whether to follow their passion or follow where the money brings them?
Following a passion is far more fulfilling than money!
See Wee Heng is a social media and digital marketer. But what many don’t know about him is that under that disguise, he is also the man behind the popular blog, AspirantSG, which over the years have garnered a strong following. So how does he manage his time between his day job and a blog that has an audience that craves for new reads? Also, what is his advice to people who aspire to be an influencer in this day and age?
We caught up with Wee Heng to find out more.
What is AspirantSG?
AspirantSG is a food, travel, lifestyle and social media blog in Singapore with a readership of 400,000 page views monthly. The blog reaches out to Professionals, Managers, Entrepreneurs and Businessmen (PMEBs) – generally working adults with spending power and a penchant for lifestyle, travel and more exquisite things in life.
How long have you been running Aspirant SG and what inspired you to start the blog?
AspirantSG started in 2012, so I have been running it for six years. I have a passion for good food, travels and photography hence I wanted to share my experience with folks who ‘aspire’ for similar pleasures in life.
Back then, I was also ‘foolishly’ inspired by the ancients – Pharaohs & Emperors who left legacies behind after their death. I wanted the blog and my experience to be available on the world wide web long after I am gone in the future, which unfortunately was quite a silly concept because the website goes down once you stop paying for your domain and web hosting.
What were the challenges you faced when you started AspirantSG?
Well, the biggest challenge was readership. It can be demoralising curating content when no one reads. I had to find channels to get my content out to potential readers and learned the hard way that I must curate contents that people want to read and not the other way round.
How long did it take for you to hit your first million page views and how did you feel when you saw the figures?
Wow, I forgot how long that took me. I was more obsessed with keeping traffic up month on month than to track the increasing traffic. If I am not wrong, it should have taken me between 2 and 2.5 years.
We know that you have a full-time job. How do you manage your time to keep the popular blog afloat?
Having made friends with PR agencies and communications folks, I now have the luxury of picking the releases and experience that I wish to focus on.
Content curation for the entire upcoming work week has to be squeezed within the previous weekend.
Did anything change after being acquired by TIN Communications?
Dennis Toh and William Ang have their style when it comes to content curation. I supposed I was fortunate that AspirantSG was not overly reliant on my persona hence my readers were able to tolerate slight shifts in writing style and content line-ups.
Now that I am with a progressive and supportive employer, I am glad that I can regain editorial control of AspirantSG and continue to pursue my blogging passion.
As a veteran blogger with loads of digital media experience, what are your thoughts on the current influencer hype?
I feel that we are the heyday of the ‘Super Influencers’ and they should seriously reap their worth when the sun still shines. Micro-influencers may be the next upcoming trends when people want to see things through the lens of numerous ‘average person’.
What’s your advice to people who want to start their blog/website or be an influencer in this saturated market?
Blogging or running a website if you have the passion and commitment can develop into an excellent secondary source of income for rainy days or retirement planning. But to activate this source of income, you must have good business sense, hungry and be on an active lookout for various income streams. I have met many passionate bloggers who are good at their craft but not able to get their worth of secondary income.
What does it take to revitalise a family business? Ironically, family connections seem to be the key. Entrée.sg had a chat with Mr Sean Tay, 26, chief operating officer ofSG Bike.
Like Father, Like Son
Many youths spend their school holidays playing computer games or going foroutings with friends. But at the age of 13, Sean Tay was helping out at his father’s bicycle rental shop inEast Coast park.
At 16 years old, he and his school friend worked to roll out a loyalty programme to sign up new customers. It was during these sessions, that he would have long conversations with his fatheron business strategy and philosophy. And so the seeds were sown in his teenage years. He knew then, that he wanted to start his own business.
“Like father like son. For the longest time, I’ve always been inspired by my dad to dobusiness,” he says with a laugh. “Through my father’s lenses, I saw the potential of this market, that there was a hugedemand for bicycles.”
That was how SG Bike came to be launched in August 2017, when at 25 years old,Sean took on the role of Chief Operating Officer. The bicycle-sharing firm is a joint venture between leisure bicycle operator CoscoRecreation, and estate upgrading company ISOTeam.
At that time, it became the fourth bicycle sharing player after ofo, oBike andMobike.
The Search for a Solution
But there were challenges that Sean had to surmount – chief among them, theproblem of indiscriminate parking.
He had considered electronic docking stations, similar to what was done overseas. But the costs were too high. At the heart of it all, he sought to answer this: Can I find a way to run a geographicallocation like a bicycle shop? It was during a university trip to San Francisco that a solution emerged.
At an exhibition, a start-up was showcasing its radio-frequency identification (RFID)solution for inventory control and stock-take. Pondering over it, Sean believed the technology could be applied to bicycles. An idea took shape: Geostations – designated parking spaces with devicesincorporating RFID technology. If users do not park their bicycles within the Geostations, a built-in alarm will ring,and the user would receive a warning message on the app, risking a penalty charge.
“It’s a technical challenge to decide and design, what type of frequency are yourunning, what is the range, how will this be affected by the estates and landscape inSingapore? Thankfully, I was reading physics at the National University ofSingapore and had some theoretical knowledge of what I was trying to look for. Thathelped a lot – at least I understand the concept of electromagnetic waves.”
“The other challenge is the lock. At that time, there was a boom in bike-sharingtechnology. There were many off-the-shelf solutions for bike-sharing locks out in themarket already. But we didn’t want to just do that. We wanted to find some way forour bicycles to take advantage of our Geostation idea.”
His father then stepped in with his connections – business partners in China thatthey could tap on. With his father, Sean travelled to Guangzhou in search of a manufacturing solution.
Armed with the technical requirements and desired outcomes, they engaged innumerous meetings with factories. “It’s really quite tough. We’re talking about weeks and weeks of research. We’retalking about contacting many different manufacturers. This product is really notsomething that’s built from one factory, in fact, it’s something that’s built up from atleast ten factories. It’s quite a miracle that we managed to pull it off after at least halfa year.”
And the last step of the puzzle:
“When we settled what we wanted to do, we realised, ‘wow, this is really expensive!’We can’t do this alone.”
His father tapped on another contact for this – ISOTeam, which had expressedinterest to go into bike-sharing. The organisation came to be the main source offunding for SG Bike.
Today, SG Bike employs 17 staff. It boasts a fleet of 2,000 bicycles spread out over 2,000 Geostations. Its bicycles are available in Holland-Bukit Panjang, Bedok and Sembawang. It isexpanding into more areas in neighbouring towns such as Khatib, Yishun and ChuaChu Kang.
The company aims to grow its fleet and install over 20,000 Geostationsislandwide by 2020.
A Mode of Transport
Sean’s vision is to expand the business so that all Singaporeans can use SG Bikeas a mode of transport.
He fondly recalls his father’s words: “He told me, ‘son, your dad has been doingbusiness for some time. The bicycle business is one that you should seriouslyconsider’.
“He felt that the business has been supporting our family and has become part of ourlives. He said that we can’t let go of this business and hoped I can take over one day. These words have been etched in my mind. From there, fast forward to today, Iam proud to say that I’m still able to keep the game going.”
It is incredible how Charli manages to do so much within the same amount of time we have and that we still complain about not having enough. So what is her magic to be able to do all these and still able to find time for her travels?
entree.sg speaks to Charli to find out more.
How old were you when you started your YouTube channel?
I started my YouTube channel back in 2013 when I was 24. My younger sister had started a channel, and she introduced me to the world of vlogging. She’s the one who opened my eyes to the fact that YouTube was more than funny cat videos!
What was your aim when you started your channel and had that aim changed over time?
I started my channel because when I got interested in watching vlogs, I wanted to subscribe to a channel by a designer who didn’t just post tutorials, but talked about their life and the issues they face as well. I couldn’t find any! So I decided that was a sign that I could start producing that type of content. My aim from the start has been to showcase the life of a designer and to help young creatives learn what they need to be successful in this industry.
What was your very first side project? What gave you the idea for your first side project idea/business idea?
My very first side project was an apparel company called Liner Note Kids. I created designs inspired by music and printed them onto t-shirts and hoodies. Unlike my side projects these days that have a lot of planning go into them, Liner Note Kids evolved from something very small: posting some lyric graphics on Tumblr. I had a few people say they’d like to see the design on a t-shirt so I decided to investigate how to get them printed, and a little business grew from there! I didn’t intend for those initial designs to become a business, but they did. Once I knew the interest was there I had a great time learning more about business and things like profit margins, and about t-shirt printing too.
How did you manage your time juggling your day job and working on your side project?
I started Liner Note Kids around ten years ago when I was in university. While my studies kept me very busy, I didn’t have 9-5 hours as I would have a day job. That meant I could spend an afternoon at the printers getting shirts made, and taking 20 packages to the post office if I needed to. I spent many nights staying awake late peeling vinyl designs to prep them for print, updating my website and working on new designs. While I got pretty good grades, I probably could have done better in my classes if I wasn’t spending so much time on my business. But the way I saw it I was learning a lot through running Liner Note Kids that university wasn’t teaching me. So it was time well spent!
What were your obstacles and how did you overcome them?
In both my apparel business and now with my YouTube channel and podcast, the biggest obstacles have been entering an entirely new world and learning all the unspoken rules and the things that sometimes it seems everyone knows but you. How do I source blank t-shirts to print on? How do you get brands to sponsor videos? How do you get a podcast episode you’ve recorded into an RSS feed? I overcame them with a lot of googling!
Another struggle I’ve faced (and still face now and then) is hitting burn out. When you have so much on your plate, it’s easy to let the work/rest balance swing too far to the work side. One day you’re feeling super productive for getting everything done, but when you try to maintain fast pace overtime, you start to get very tired, stressed, maybe even ill and then you hit burn out. Reaching that point, while terrible, really teaches you the importance of rest.
Ever since you moved to the UK, you started your podcast, continue to make videos, work at ConvertKit, manage your social media profiles, maintain your Liner Note Kids store, gave talks here and there and travel. Many people always say that they have no time to work on things. How do you plan your time? Are there apps that you use to help you manage your time?
My best advice for this is something no one likes to hear: wake up early. – Charli Prangley
Everyone can make time for the things that are important to them! My best advice for this is something no one likes to hear: wake up early. I found I was always exhausted after coming home from work and didn’t have enough energy to put into my side projects, so I gave waking up early a try and spent a few hours on side projects before I left for work. It gets my day off to a productive start! And the best part is that I can then fully relax in my evenings knowing I already achieved enough that day at both my day job and on my side projects.
To fit everything in, you need to get good at prioritising and being organised. You always need to know what you should work on next. I’m continually writing lists, and last year I started using the bullet journal system to keep track of what I need to be doing each day, and it’s been an incredibly useful tool. Every evening I write two lists: one for the tasks I need to achieve for ConvertKit the next day, and one of the things I need to get done on my side projects. It means I can start my morning knowing exactly what I need to be doing. This analogue system works better for me than any app has, but I do use apps such as Trello to keep track of all my content ideas, and Silo (a Pomodoro technique timer app) on my Apple watch for those times when I need extra help focussing.
How do you stay focused when you have so many things happening around you?
I have way more side projects and ideas for how to improve them than I do time in the day, so I’ve found the best way to move them forward is to pick one particular thing per month to focus my side project time on. That doesn’t mean I’ll ignore all the rest of my projects; it means I’ll do the bare minimum on them for a month so that I can push one ahead. For example, coming up soon I’ll be giving a talk at Craft + Commerce, the ConvertKit conference. This next month my primary focus is on getting my talk finished. I’ll still produce my weekly videos and podcasts episodes, but I won’t, for example, take on my channel rebranding project or rebuild my website in the same month. If you try to do too much, you’ll end up executing on everything at a mediocre level. I’d instead do one thing well than get a bunch of really average stuff finished!
What are the challenges ahead for you?
Managing my work/life balance and staying on top of my email inbox will always be a challenge: there are so much to do and so many emails to answer! I’m also constantly struggling with imposter syndrome, but I’m trying to get over it and stop it from affecting me taking up opportunities.
What advice do you have for people who are planning to start a side business/project or a YouTube channel?
Successful side projects are formed over time, and if you can spare even just an hour in your morning to put towards your project, you’ll get somewhere. – Charli Prangley
First and foremost, you have to love what you do. If your primary reason for starting a side project or a YouTube channel is for the money or the fame you’re going to find it incredibly hard to get through those early days (or years even!) before your project starts to pick up steam. You have to be in this for the long haul, and the only way to do that is to be genuinely passionate about your subject matter. Once you’ve got the passion nailed, let it fuel your motivation and make sure you get one thing done every day (even if it’s only something small). Successful side projects are formed over time, and if you can spare even just an hour in your morning to put towards your project, you’ll get somewhere.
Forty-five years old Joeven Soh is the Founder and Regional Sales Director of Cell-II International Pte Ltd, a company that develops, manufactures and sells organic skin care products. Before you make any further guesses of his previous work experiences, let us save you some time. Joeven was not in the beauty industry before his new venture. He was in a completely different field – Oil & Gas.
So what makes him look beyond the familiarity of the energy industry to beauty? Here’s his story.
When did you start Cell-II International Pte Ltd and how did you come up with the name of your company?
We started this business in 2017, and the corporate name means generating new cells for the skin.
Before you venture into this business, what were you working as?
I worked in three different companies in the Oil & Gas Industry between 2005 and 2017, where the oil slump affected the whole Oil & Gas Industry globally.
What makes you want to leave your comfort zone and what aspire you to start your own business and become an entrepreneur?
I was working for a Marine contracting firm for seven years after leaving the Singapore Navy in 1996. I started my first company in 2005. I want to create an empire for myself rather than building on someone else’s dream.
Do you have someone you approach to seek advice? Are your parents entrepreneurs as well?
No, I do not have anyone I can approach to seek advice. My parents are not entrepreneurs, but they are very supportive and encouraging, which is one of my push factors in my journey of building my business.
Of all types of business, why beauty products? Do you come up with a business plan or do any research before you decide to go into beauty industry?
We did extensive research on Organic Skin Care products and found the potential global growth rate of 5% per annum and a market size of 196 billion by 2020.
How do you differentiate your business from your competitors?
We plant, harvest, bottle our products in a closed loop system, which guarantees our customer the best organic experience.
Have you met with any failures and how do you overcome them? What were some of the biggest lessons learned and how had it impacted the way you run your business?
I failed three times, but I got up on the fourth try. The biggest lesson I have learned from past failure is cash flow management and company growth plan.
How do you think being an entrepreneur has changed you as a person?
Being an entrepreneur changed me in a good way because it requires strategic planning and I am responsible for our shareholders’ monies. It makes me more cautious when making financial decisions and expansion plans.
What advice would you give to people who want to start their businesses? Any specific skills needed to run a business?
The rule of thumb, you need to be consistent, persistent and always remind yourself why you started the business. My favourite quote is “Successful people don’t do anything different, but they do the same thing differently” – Shabbir
What do you want to achieve for the company in the next five years?
We plan to build this local brand “Cell-II” into a global brand and bring our company public.
Raymond Tan started Madebettr in 2015 after feeling jaded from climbing the corporate ladder and the constant need to justify his worth to the company. So far, it has been a great decision for him. Today, amongst his clients include Soup Restaurant and NTUC Membership. So what’s his story? We asked him.
What does your CV look like before you became an entrepreneur?
I started off as an in-house graphic designer at Challenger with no design education besides fiddling with photoshop during my poly days. A lot of stuff was self-taught from theory to technical skills. Then I realised that the job was stagnant, so I switched to a marketing role in another company, changed again to a marketing/design role, then went back to being a designer, then finally switched to the position of marketing communications.
Having a stable job is the default rule to earning a living in a structured society not just in Singapore but all over the world. What made you take the plunge to start your own business?
I think I told myself when I was young that I want to be a boss. I realised the possibility of starting my own business is real after I got my first freelance gig, which was designing a simple catalogue. I told myself, “Hey, I can bring in more income from this!”. Eventually, I started freelancing for about five years, before finally taking the plunge. Another reason why I did it is that I was quite tired of climbing the corporate ladder, where good work and performance are just a small part of the equation. So yes, it tipped me over to starting out on my own.
What were the initial considerations you thought through before deciding to quit your job?
Lol. Money, for sure. With commitments from phone bills to insurance to saving up for marriage and future home. I also considered the worst case scenario if I had no income, how much money would I need to set aside so I can maintain my lifestyle and necessities.
Did you start your business before or after you got married? What were your wife and your family’s reactions to your decision as it also means goodbye to job stability?
I started Madebettr before I got married. My parents and my wife were supportive. My parents told me as long as I know what I’m doing, by all means, go for it. My fiancée then (wife now) was also supportive, because I shared with her my plans such as my contingency plans, and also I have set aside an amount which I think would be enough for us to get married even if my business did not work out in the end. Without her full support and encouragement, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
How did you start Madebettr, your thought process? Was there prior research done on a need for design services or it was driven by the passion that you want to pursue? Why?
It was purely driven by a long-burning passion. I didn’t do any prior research as my previous work experiences and industry knowledge have already told me that there are plenty of agencies around, both big and small, and those who produce high-quality work that is price-driven. So I asked myself how I can position Madebettr to make myself unique?
Everyone’s creative ideas are unique to themselves. So what I can provide is to fuse design and my experience in marketing from the client’s perspective, together with the brand’s positioning and philosophy. On top of that, I believe my quality of work is better than the agencies who are price-driven, and my charges are more affordable as compared to the bigger and more established agencies.
What were your initial struggles and how did you manage them?
My initial struggles were self-discipline and complacency. There were days when there was no work to be done or rushed, and it’s often a struggle to utilise that time to grow the business. I depended heavily on the regular clients for work and forgot to court new clients for new projects. I came to a realisation when revenue dipped in my second half of the year since I established Madebettr.
I began to worry and started to think about how I could get more clients. I did up my website, polished my portfolio, drafted cold emails and did cold calls, and got myself out there to link up with some old contacts. Thankfully, I managed to get some referrals through that.
How long did it take for you to stabilise your finances?
Depends on how you define “stable”. When you’re in a business which is paid on project basis there won’t be a moment when it’s considered stable I guess? For me, I am blessed not to have encountered any problematic moments so far, because I don’t have much overhead or operating cost, and I did plan my finances properly before I started everything.
Have you ever regretted and thought of going back to the 8 – 5 jobs? What made you shake that mindset off?
A big “NO!” Haha! I have not regretted my decision so far, and the thought of going back never cross my mind. On the contrary, it is one of the many factors that pushes me to want to succeed. I have never liked the corporate environment, or climbing the corporate ladder, as my experiences have not been enjoyable. I cannot fathom the idea of boasting about your achievement each year during appraisal to fight for that bonus and promotion, and the routine life of an 8 to 5 job. And there’s no real 8 to 5. More than often you have to go the extra mile, so if I have to go the extra mile anyway for a fixed salary, why don’t I put in the effort for my business where the profit I earn is based on how much effort I put into it?
What’s next for you?
I would like to be more active in getting my brand out there, through social media and the digital space, improve my quality of work and the ideas behind it. I would also love to expand my network through events, but I’m not an extrovert at such events, so maybe the next thing for me is also to improve my self-confidence.
Josh Loh is the founder of the Rehab Pro Movement Therapy. Taking a quick look at their Facebook page, and you will see many proven records of how the company’s Neuro-Kinetic Therapy (NKT) have helped many regained control of their body through the specialised technique.
However, long before Josh became the entrepreneur he is today, he spent seven years of his earlier part of his career serving the Singapore Armed Forces as a Fitness Specialist.
So what changed? Here’s his story.
How does your CV look like before you started Rehab Pro Movement Therapy?
I was a Physical Training Instructor with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), training men and recruits who were in the service, and I eventually became one of the Fitness Specialists in green. After my tenure with the SAF, I sold fitness equipment for a short period before moving on to managing a rehab gym owned by a Physiotherapist. That’s where I picked up my skills in rehabilitation and refined my knowledge of fitness.
What made you start your own business?
I was pushed into starting my business when my former employer decided to sell off her business. It was at that point where I began to question myself about what’s next for me since I was having my second child. What made the decision even tougher was that I am the sole breadwinner for my young family.
My professional qualification was in economics and finance, as well as an instructional designer. To stay in my field with my certificates may not be the most beneficial as local companies still tend to look at papers more than experience and capabilities. That’s when I decided to start my own business.
What were your family and your wife’s reactions when you broke the news that you want to do something of your own?
My wife prefers for me to have a stable employment so I can spend more time with her and the children. Sometimes, we do get into some disagreements because my work may at times require me to begin work at 7 am and end later than 9 pm. It’s demanding running a lean startup.
But we make small compromises here and there. I am happy that my wife supports my work by helping me take good care of our kids and the household and all I have to do in return is to allocate more of my weekends to spend time with them.
What were the considerations you had when you were planning for the business? Did you draw up the pros and cons?
I guess a good friend gave me a good nudged towards starting my own business. In a way, I was consulting with him, a serial entrepreneur, after losing my job. He reminded me that he had not had a similar experience as he had never been underemployment before.
The pros of running your own business are taking away the negative experience of being out of a job. However, it does come with other stresses. My business partner and I worked hard to keep the company afloat as we strive to get more people to experience our treatment. We are happy that those who came through our doors are happy and thankful after our therapy sessions.
I took over the space that my former employer gave up, and that, together with my existing patients helped a great deal in the beginning. It allowed me to spend less and yet able to enhance the survivability of the business.
To start a brick and mortar business requires serious investment. How did you manage to secure the funding or did you pour all your savings into the company?
I took a loan from my aunt, and I am still servicing the credit now. Thankfully, I have a strong team, and we are making enough for our operations to stay afloat.
I believe that our goal of delivering the best solution and care underlines our growth. It is also our best possible marketing strategy, which is serving the business well. This mentality has helped us grow our followings slightly, and it helps with our bottom line.
When did Rehab Pro Movement Therapy start its operations?
We begin operation in September 2016. Operating out of Camden medical centre, in the gym space that I designed and managed for my boss over the five years before calling it our own. Now we have relocated to Clarke Quay area for the convenience and accessibility of our patients. This new space is also bigger and allows us to design and deliver more innovative movement that can help in their recovery.
We are also looking at using this space to bring in more therapy-related courses that are beneficial for the industry as a whole. This helps our company stay true to continuous education and learning so that the best possible solution is provided.
What were the difficulties faced when setting up Rehab Pro Movement Therapy?
Aside from funding, we started out as a rehabilitation clinic staffed with strength and conditioning coaches. Our skills and knowledge were not the ones that people would go to for their body conditions, which limited our outreach.
When I tried collaborating with a golf coach, he commented that he is the first person people go to, and my company was not. Although I helped with resolving some pain and imbalances issues for his clients, our partnership never kicked off. It’s sad, but we eventually moved on.
We had also done subcontract work for a physiotherapy clinic with a 10-day credit term. They bullied us by owing more than six-month of debt, and it effectively transferred their risk to us. To date, they still owe my company payment, and we have to resort to legal means to recover the fees.
Moving our business to a new location was also a big challenge. We found a suitable place to settle down, but the agent backed out of the deal after we agreed to their proposed price. It is disappointing that we met people who didn’t keep their words. But we moved on, and thankfully we managed to emerge from these experiences a little wiser and stronger.
What’s so different between working for a company and owning a company?
I guess the most significant difference is that you are accountable to yourself. Running a company is challenging and stressful, but it allows me to drive ideas of care and treatment. I’d like to think that I take responsibility, whether by proxy of my employment or by running on my own, so it’s not too different in other aspects.
You have an impressive record of certifications in sports and wellness. Why did you decide to focus on therapy and not fitness training?
When I left the military, I didn’t know what my destiny was. By God’s grace, I was offered a role in a rehab gym as the manager. There, I learned and experienced the joy of helping patients get better.
In the USA, Physiotherapists are known as Physical Therapists. It was there where we learned about highly educated athletic trainers with specialised knowledge on performance. Though Singapore is still a distance away from this standard, I believe that we, as rehab coaches, movement therapists or whatever you like to call it to have a role to play in patient care.
We fine-tune and optimise individuals through highly customised programmes with the aim of getting them better and granting them pain-free movement.
Therapy is also more fulfilling. Imagine your patient telling you how your treatment had allowed her to carry and bathe her baby. Priceless.
If someone was to tell you that he/she wants to start their own business, what advice would you give them?
I’d say go ahead and give it your best shot. We all have the same opportunities ahead. It’s how we manage the opportunities and leverage them to our advantage. However, the caveat is that they have to be prepared to put in hard work. Push through, and stay true to the reasons for starting out. If that reason is that you are unhappy with status quo, think deeper. Our goal for being in business is because we believe in the modality of treatment and sincerely want to help more people get better through movement.
I originally wanted the business to be called Inspire Movement because it stands for the importance of movement. The human body is designed for moving like how we need oxygen. The other meaning for this is also that we hope in a tiny way, we encourage and inspire non-movers to start moving more.
So what’s next for Rehab Pro Movement Therapy?
Well, I guess, for now, we are trying our best to get the word out about our work. Marketing is not our strength, but I believe that our results and our patients’ testimonials speak a lot more than us blowing our own trumpet. We are also big on developing future therapists, and we do so through our internship programme where they spend a great deal of time learning from every one of us. On that front, we are actively hosting study groups and live seminars of therapeutic modalities that we use. We hope that the industry grows so more people will enjoy movement as we do.
As a knowledge-driven practice, we spend a lot of time furthering our education and that allows us to be at the front of techniques that may help us achieve better and faster results for our patients.
When things stabilise, it is my goal to spend more time giving back to the elderly population. We try to do a bit here and there, but more can be done.
So with hope, we will sustain and survive the short run!