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Turning passion into profit
The building blocks of success
Nicolas Foo, 39
SO what if you're old enough to vote, get married and drive a car? It doesn't mean you have to stop playing with toys.
Just ask Nicolas Foo. At the age of 39, he's still assembling little bricks of Lego into massive toys, such as a life-sized Christmas tree for the ArtScience Museum, an island relief of Singapore containing almost 500,000 bricks, and a gorgeous "Iilluummii" working lamp.
He makes small toys too, such as figurines for wedding cakes, Valentine's Day gifts and a Lego version of Mr Tofu - most of which are made on private and corporate commissions. As he states enthusiastically, "I can build almost anything that stirs your imagination."
A piece can take anywhere between 10 days and three months to complete, depending on its scale and complexity. He declines to reveal his rates, but is willing to work within his clients' budgets .
Indeed, Mr Foo is one of only 13 Lego Certified Professionals (LCP) in the world. What this means is that he is authorised to use its logo in his advertising materials and purchase bulk quantities of the building block at a cheaper rate.
He says, "The LCPs meet up annually or bi-annually to share and discuss our work. We've become close friends who share mutual respect and look out for each other."
His fascination with the blocks began on his eighth birthday, when his mother presented him with a small Lego car model.
In 2008, he uploaded a photo of a Lego bear he made for a friend on social media. The bear was special because it had a secret compartment in its tummy. Suddenly, requests for commissions streamed in.
He then made a decision to switch from being a well-paid creative director of an agency to a Lego professional - something he has no regrets about. He says, "Life's too short. Knowing what we are good at and pursuing it diligently with positivity is what we should do with the time allotted to us."
Nicholas Foo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for commission enquiries
Drone racing takes flight
Garry Huang, 33
Drone racer and customiser
IMAGINE playing a racing game at the arcade - except, well, these races are three-dimensional, held in the air and a crash can cost you upwards of S$400.
The game is called drone racing and is becoming increasingly popular among Singaporeans, with dozens of boys and young men regularly congregating in remote locations in Punggol, Old Holland Road and Tuas to race.
Capitalising on the popularity of these unmanned aerial vehicles that can be controlled using a handheld remote or a smartphone, former investment banker Garry Huang co-founded local company Drone Matters in April 2014 to import and customise drones for customers from all over Asia.
In less than a year, sales went up by 20 per cent. Local interest has also increased, with drone sales to local buyers jumping from 5 per cent in 2014 to 20 per cent today.
Mr Huang estimates the company's annual revenue to be at just under S$1million. But the real icing on the cake is that he and his co-founders, Keith Hong and Alvin Wong, don't just do it for their customers.
"We build them for ourselves too, we fly at least twice a week," he says with a cheeky grin. "When you turn your hobby into a business, there are perks because you're in the front line. You get to try new stuff, and you get what you want for your hobby at much cheaper prices," he says.
Mr Huang was introduced to drones on an online forum after he left his banking job. Within three months, he had already spent S$30,000 on it. He says, "Shortly after, I decided to make it a business - I had to make the money back somehow!"
It's not hard to get hooked on drone racing. Drones are commonly used for aerial photography and videography. But for races, the camera on the drone transmits the video to a monitor or video goggles, so you feel like you're sitting inside as the drone whizzes through the air.
"At the start of the race, you set the parameters. We'll say, we have to go under this tree, that branch, around that trunk, over the length of that canal - it keeps things interesting."
"I love my job," he says. "Though I earn a lot less, my work-life balance is a lot better."
Brewing up an indie humdinger
Neo Say Wee, 38
IT all began one evening in the early 2000s when Neo Say Wee was drinking with his friends: "I was at Brewerkz, and wondered aloud why I wasn't crafting my own beer. My friends joked that if I did, it would be undrinkable."
Mr Neo, however, took that remark as a challenge. In 2004, he decided to become a homebrewer. He left his job as an IT analyst and turned up at Brewerkz: "I was fortunate that they were looking for a part-timer. They trained me on-the-job and I picked up skills on what interested me more while I was working there."
He continued to work at Brewerkz as a brewmaster while starting his own company Homebrew Pte Ltd, selling home-brewing kits. In its first year, it sold about two kits a month. Today, it sells around 10 a month.
Regular customers are mostly from overseas, but "more locals are willing to get their hands dirty these days", he says.
Having experienced a revenue growth of about 20 per cent annually since 2004, Homebrew upgraded their premises last year, from Telok Blangah to River Valley Road. He has also partnered with Five & Dime's Hsu Chen Kang because "I can't possibly operate a one-man show anymore - it's keeping me very busy," he says. With the new partnership came a new name: Homebrew Co-op.
The new space will offer classes for beginners and advanced brewers alike, with classes about creating your very first brew to classes about pairing beer with food.
Today, Mr Neo is Singapore's first and only accredited beer judge. He says, with a hearty laugh: "Now my friends are always asking me for more of my homebrew!"
Looking back at his former life as an IT analyst, he adds: "A traditional career isn't all it's cracked up to be."
The biggest satisfaction he gets from his work is enjoying the variety that brewing one's own beer offers: "Beer is made from water, malted barley, hops and yeast. When you change even one of these compositions, the result will taste different. With the number of types of malts, hops and yeast in the world, you can't really get bored of making your own brews."
He contends that his home brews are just as good as commercial brands: "The beers from the microbreweries that I brewed and consulted for have won multiple awards. My advice for aspiring home brewers is to be daring and experimental."
Homebrew Co-op is located at 297A River Valley Road. It can be contacted at 8716-7161 or email@example.com
Clarion call of an eco-warrior
Jessica Cheam, 32
ONE of the things that Jessica Cheam asks herself when she looks at her two young kids is: "What kind of an environment will they grow up in?"
The journalist-turned-eco-warrior says: "I see being eco-friendly as a moral obligation - to preserve what's been given to us, and to leave a better place for our children."
Formerly a correspondent with The Straits Times, Ms Cheam is the founder and editor of Eco-Business, a media company that deals with clean technology, corporate responsibility and sustainable business matters.
Apart from a weekly newsletter that's sent out to about 60,000 people, Ms Cheam fights the good fight by speaking at and moderating talks, panel discussions and forums on sustainability, energy and corporate responsibility.
Her passion is youth education, as is evident in her organisation and moderation of the Responsible Business Forum Young Leaders Dialogue for two years running. She says, "Education is one of the best ways we can spread awareness about new models of development and business."
She also advises companies on how best to approach corporate responsibility. Last year, Eco-Business helped multinational electronics company Ricoh carry out its Eco-Day campaign for its staff.
Since 2012, Eco-Business has seen an average revenue growth of 85 per cent each year and last year (FY2014) saw a boost of 129 per cent from the year before (FY2013).
Ms Cheam first saw she could make a difference when she won a global journalism award at the Earth Journalism Awards for a story on emerging clean technology from the perspective of the energy sector.
"I realised then that the media is a powerful way to inform people, change things and accelerate transformation that's good for society."
After founding Eco-Business in 2009, she left her husband, James Hosking, in charge. She re-joined the company in 2013 as its editor, and hasn't looked back since.
The journey, however, hasn't been without its challenges: "Companies were unwilling to pay for our services because they felt that everything related to the environment sector should be free. It was tough convincing them of the valuable service we provide, and that sustainability and sustainable development are important topics we needed to discuss."
Jessica Cheam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for enquiries