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The serial entrepreneur
MARK Zuckerberg notwithstanding, most technopreneurs have realised that success can lie way outside the mainframe. Having shaped modern web browsing (and supercharged the search engine), Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt have their fingers in countless proverbial pies - from self-driving cars to a plan to mine platinum and gold from asteroids. And let's not forget Elon Musk, who went from kickstarting Paypal to space exploration and electric cars. Tech heavyweights aside, it seems that closer to home, even young entrepreneurs have ambitions to be the next Richard Branson or Mark Cuban.
While the headlines used to be about people giving up cushy desk jobs to start their own cupcake, mobile app or pottery company, the real risk takers now are those who have found success in one business venture and then plunged head first into a brand new one. From a web-programmer-and-ramen-restaurateur to interior-designer-slash-spa-owner, these multi-tasking own bosses can't stop at just one.
Pinstripes to pizzas
WITH eight menswear retail outlets under their braided calfskin belts, Nelson Yap and his business partner Damien Tan have nailed what men want when it comes to fashion. Starting their Benjamin Barker brand of trend-setting and affordable formal wear in 2009, the former college roommates weren't content to simply sell suits.
"I lived in Melbourne for a couple of years where I worked as a barista and cook during my university days, so I became really interested in the café scene there, especially their strong coffee," says Mr Yap, who majored in film in Melbourne University.
"Damien, the group's general manager, did a stint in Naples, Italy where he pursued his passion for cooking as an apprentice under a pizzaiolo, Gaetano Fazio. So naturally, when we became business partners, The Assembly Ground was born."
Last year, the duo opened a 64-seater café The Assembly Ground at The Cathay next to a new multi-label boutique, the Assembly Store, serving coffee and pizzas, pastas, burgers, brunches and home-made desserts.
"The café sits beside The Assembly Store as its food-loving (but equally well-dressed) other half," adds Mr Yap. "It was borne out of a shared love for clothes and food, coupled with the belief that a well-made, fitted shirt is just as important as a comforting and tasty panini."
And to think that Mr Yap never had ambitions of being a retail mogul, or even running his own gig to begin with.
"To be honest, I never wanted to be a businessman," admits Mr Yap, who would sell digital single-lens reflex cameras on Ebay to pay his school fees and rent when he was in university. "I have always indulged in the creative arts and after my graduation, I pretty much thought I was going to end up as a film maker, musician or struggling artist."
Upon graduation, he had planned to stay on in Australia to pursue a career in the creative industry or advertising. However, his father was diagnosed with cancer and he had to return to Singapore to help out with the family business, which sold discount suits on Telok Ayer Street. His father passed away soon after and the business was heavily in debt, and Mr Yap decided to start his own company instead - with a S$100,000 loan from his mother, who had to re-mortgage the house to fund the first Benjamin Barker store in Marina Square.
"To be honest, aside from store renovations and the first shipment of stocks, we only had enough capital for the first month of rental at Marina Square," says Mr Yap. "Luckily for us, we managed to pull through and for the first year, profits for each month were pumped back into the business to finance our stocks and store rentals etc."
In the first two years, Mr Yap would personally man the store, deliver stocks, travel overseas for buys and enlist his wife to be a salesperson on weekends. In the third year of operations, Benjamin Barker's second store opened in Suntec City, and the third in Orchard Cineleisure was unveiled a year after. Even today, all profits are pumped back into the company to further expand its retail presence. While some stores were more profitable than others, all outlets are now in the black. Mr Tan joined the business in 2013.
"I don't think eight stores is a lot compared to quite a number of other brands that I know who have 20-over stores islandwide," says the ambitious retailer. "I also always had in mind that 10 stores is the maximum number of stores that I wanted in Singapore. From here on, we will be looking to expand Benjamin Barker overseas."
While both Mr Yap and Mr Tan have experience in F&B, neither planned to open a café so soon - until they were offered a sprawling 6,000 sq ft space in The Cathay. They then conceptualised the space as a lifestyle destination offering products from brands like Swedish labels Happy Socks and Fjallraven, and local brand Fabrix, alongside the café.
"Given my passion and experience in F&B, setting up The Assembly Ground actually felt more natural than when I first started Benjamin Barker," says Mr Yap.
"In fact, fashion was a totally new industry to me and I jumped into it with no experience, skills or industry contacts. However, my experience with Benjamin Barker helped with the business side of things, such as human resource management, brand management, creating a work culture, system and experience - all of which were what we built our business on," he says.
Spa by design
THE dramatic chandelier of glass globes cascading down from the ceiling of The Luxe House should be a giveaway to its owner's credentials. Chris Tan, founder of the pampering spa in Dempsey, owned a design company that dressed luxury show flats, homes and commercial projects, before venturing into hospitality and, most recently, wellness.
"I think entrepreneurship has always been in my blood. I am a go-getter who likes to be in control of the things I do, and I like to pioneer and drive new things," says Ms Tan. "I am constantly on the lookout for new things to do, so I guess these enterprising traits have led me into various business ventures."
Prior to unveiling The Luxe House last year, and adding on an extension this year, Ms Tan and her husband worked with Japanese interior design firm Super Potato and DP Architects on the design and launch of the Movenpick Heritage Hotel in Sentosa in 2010. She undertook the project management and consultancy for the project together with her husband, who has experience in the hospitality industry.
"After the completion of the hotel project, I took time off to travel and rejuvenate, while searching for new inspiration at the same time," recalls Ms Tan.
"During my travels, I was deeply inspired by the holistic healthcare and wellness approach in the countries I visited, especially in China. Since I am a strong advocate in optimising personal health, I decided to venture into the wellness and spa industry to create a homegrown luxury wellness concept that I want to see in the market."
With details like bespoke massage chairs, plush communal rooms for group spa sessions, and innovative treatments like and breast and lymphatic wellness programme at The Luxe House, it might come as a surprise that Ms Tan is new to the wellness business.
"Each business is very different, with its own set of challenges," admits the driven businesswoman. "The cumulative experience of setting up each business has given me the drive and foresight to plan and create visions for the brand, as well as the determination to make things work.
"Being a perfectionist, I am very hands-on in every business I do, and the learning curve is different as each industry business has its own kinks that needs to be ironed out."
For example, Ms Tan personally styled the treatment rooms of the spa, draping interiors in ornate fabrics as she also ran a business producing luxury fabrics for various décor purposes. And as much as hotels already specialise in high-end, pricey spa packages, The Luxe House aims to offer effective treatments that target existing ailments in a posh environment.
"I am constantly curious and intrigued with new and interesting ideas or inspirations," adds Ms Tan.
"And I have complete passion in whatever venture I delve into. I think this combination has sustained me well in my various business ventures."
A common thread
WHAT does running an omakase and kaiseki restaurant have in common with helming a luxury fashion menswear label? The personal touch, as designer Chong Han San has proven.
Following the successful launch of his rakish line of bespoke and ready-to-wear looks in 2011, the former designer of men's shirts for homegrown brand Raoul founded Marukyu, a designer décor Japanese restaurant on Telok Ayer Street offering fine Japanese cuisine in September 2013.
His entrepreneurial streak began at Raoul, where he realised his passion for menswear. This sparked the debut of Clothesmith, a made-to-order menswear concept store that catered to younger customers intimidated by or disinterested in traditional tailors. The Temasek Design School grad then left the partnership and started Q Menswear, three and a half years after Clothesmith was launched.
"I've had a lot of business ideas in my mind that went beyond the fashion industry from a very young age," reveals Mr Chong. "It just so happened that the café owner who was leasing the unit on the first floor, beneath our studio, was vacating the premises and the landlord was willing to rent the entire shophouse to us at a good rate. At the same time, a talented chef and friend of ours was planning to relocate his Japanese restaurant and we grabbed the timely opportunity to collaborate with him to start our restaurant concept."
Serendipity aside, the tenacious entrepreneur admits that he picked the two toughest industries to break into. The F&B industry, for example, involves high start-up costs in terms of fitting out a kitchen and also faces a manpower shortage. But that hasn't stopped him from persevering and excelling at both businesses.
Having run Q Menswear for two years, Mr Chong felt confident of opening a second start-up because of an increase in revenue and healthy cash flow growth. Following what Mr Chong described as "a tough start", Q Menswear managed to break even in its second year. It is a profitable business at the moment, as is Marukyu, which has been able to fill its tables from the first day of operations.
"Definitely with each experience of setting up a business, there's a stronger business network to support every new start-up I do," adds Mr Chong.
"Nonetheless, I've also learnt that with every new industry that I venture into, the mechanics and practices are very different and it will be a steep learning curve for each new industry."
A common thread nevertheless exists between both seemingly divergent industries. Much like how bespoke tailoring caters to the nuances of individual body types and is very much a personalised service, a meal at Marukyu is also a unique experience that takes place in an intimate setting - ensuring that each diner feels pampered and well taken care of.
"It's about predicting what my customers expect and providing a good product that they want," says Mr Chong, who advocates the importance of a human touch in any business.
"It is also important listening to the customer and understanding market expectations and their threshold."
From apps to eats
IT takes a certain amount of gumption to be an entrepreneur, much more if you're delving into an industry that is completely unfamiliar. And John Ng of MezMedia and Buta Ramen sure is one gutsy man. After successfully running his multimedia company MezMedia for a decade, which specialises in iOS apps, the serial entrepreneur went on to set up Buta Ramen, Singapore's only pork rib tonkotsu ramen restaurant last year.
"We like a new challenge. Food is another passion of ours and we are quite adept cooks," says Mr Ng, father of a seven-month-old baby girl. "We've always wanted to enter the F&B industry at some point in our lives. Plus, it made sense to diversify the business."
Talk about diversification indeed, Mezmedia was conceived as an interactive digital business in 2005 with his partner Sandy Yeo, offering a full suite of services from video, to web and mobile applications and interactive games. And the application that Mezmedia is best known for is Bamba, its own brand of 10 educational iOS applications targeted at kids below the age of six. Boasting a plethora of interactive games for junior, Bamba now has over 2 million downloads across the US, Northern Europe and the Middle East.
"I thought that one day I would run my own design studio after years of working in one, gaining all the experience and contacts I needed to start," he recalls.
And while he did not intend to run more than one business, the go-getter recently spearheaded Buta Ramen. Combining the appeal of tender pork ribs, inspired by bak kut teh, with ramen, Buta Ramen is a Singaporean spin on the traditional Japanese staple. He worked with his partners, one of whom has experience in the Japanese F&B line, on a rib recipe, executed sous vide-style. Initially, the founders were in the restaurant every day but now pop in to manage staff and check on the quality of food and service.
"The experience of running both are totally different," says the businessman, who explains that his hours are flexible at Mezmedia and he is able to work on tech projects from the restaurant as well. "We are still finding our feet in the F&B world."
With its capital and labour intensive nature and low margin for error, the F&B industry is one of the toughest to survive in. Nevertheless, the businessman remains undaunted. Having invested a low six-figure sum into Buta Ramen, the owners are close to recouping their start-up capital.
"These are the de facto industry problems. We just have to find innovative ways around it, like any business," says Mr Ng.
"We have had many positive reviews for our ramen and have been profitable since the day we started. So we've got a great start."
A true tech guy indeed, he also quips about the possibility of using software to tackle some problems in the industry. "I do have some ideas floating in my head, but nothing concrete for now."
"The business chooses you"
THE biggest cliché about creative people is that they are all about form and not funds. Luckily for Suraj Melwani, he boasts an associate's degree in fashion design from Parsons The New School for Design in New York, and a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Northwestern University.
And so it's almost a natural progression for the multi-hyphenate to start several enterprises rooted in design: co-founding multi-label boutique KIN; designing and owning Sifr, a label retailing premium essentials for men; and now, heading the design of his family's boutique hotel project in Ubud, Bali.
"I'm a believer that you never choose the business, it chooses you," says Mr Melwani, who worked with a Singaporean interior design firm and Indonesian architect on the new property, Bisma Eight. "We love spending time keeping it simple at the family home in Ubud and one thing led to another. I had the same gut feeling about our hotel's locale as when I first opened my menswear store in Haji Lane."
Becoming an entrepreneur was, similarly, an organic progression rather than a calling to dominate as many industries as possible. His boutique KIN, where he was a co-owner, had to close because men were not spending very much on independent designer clothing and the business was "not very profitable". Instead, most of Sifr's sales come from international orders from its online store today.
"I am a pretty simple guy without great big needs. It's just that when you get the opportunity and your mind starts rolling, and you can't sleep much at night because you are brimming with ideas and excitement, you know it's time to do something about it," says Mr Melwani, who is married to Resham Melwani, director of the Jay Gee Melwani fashion group. Resham's maiden name happens to be the same as Mr Melwani's family name.
"You just hop on and learn as you go along, staff correctly and the rest falls into place. Do I plan to do more things in the future? Let's see where things take me."
Thankfully for Mr Melwani, his multiple businesses are now at different points in their development, allowing him to channel his energy into whatever project requires the most personal attention.
"The Sifr business is now going through a point where we are streamlining and taking e-commerce very seriously. It's been around for a few years so it's running nice and steady where the customer base and message is firmly established," says Mr Melwani. "The other is a baby that needs to be nurtured so most definitely Bisma Eight is a lot trickier."
The designer and businessman learned the tricks of the clothing trade by working at his family's garment manufacturing facility in Indonesia, where he encountered the ultra-soft and lightweight Pima cotton - the only material used in his Sifr designs.
"I loved those days when you learn most about who you are and your sensibilities from all of the endless experimenting and learning," says Mr Melwani. "This is where I realised the intricacies of balancing aesthetics and business."
Certainly, it is his innate creativity and experience in perfecting a personal sense of aesthetics that propels him into each new venture.
"Design and conceptualisation is something that grows with you," says Mr Melwani. "It matures and over time you understand how to apply it to different fields."