The New Mavericks

They're not quite Airbnb or Grab, but these entrepreneurs are making disruptions of their own in their respective businesses

Tay Suan Chiang
Published Thu, Aug 9, 2018 · 09:50 PM
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DISRUPTORS AREN'T ALWAYS to be found in multi-billion dollar startups or even in trendy millennial-created apps. Just regular businesses are being transformed as forward-thinking entrepreneurs come up with better ways of doing things.

Take Darren Tan and Javad Namazie, who found it such a bother to keep returning to an optician to replenish their disposable contact lenses, that they started their own direct-to-consumer business.

Zenos Schmickrath and Yoan Kamalski didn't believe that tenants had to be tied to long contracts and be at the mercy of their landlords when they rent an apartment. They started Hmlet, which introduces a novel concept of co-living that is set to make big waves in Asia.

Even on the food shopping front, Singaporeans Jack Leow and Ken Koh are changing the way consumers shop for everyday items such as spices and soya sauce with their modern shops.

Together, they're showing that the time is now to change accepted ways of doing business.

JACK LEOW Co-owner, Anthony the Spice Maker

Among the many stalls in the dry section of Mayflower Market and Food Centre at Ang Mo Kio, one sticks out in both look and smell.

At Anthony the Spice Maker, light brown packets of spices with black and white labels on them are lined up in wooden crates, all neatly displayed on black shelves. In another corner, a fridge is filled with small plastic containers of pastes, and at the entrance to the stall, more packets of spices are displayed on a trolley.

Jack Leow, 28, who runs this stall was inspired by the markets in Australia when he was renovating this stall. "The markets there are so clean, and you don't even feel like you are in the market," says Mr Leow. The stall is named after his father, Anthony, who runs another outlet in Chinatown.

Mr Leow wanted his stall at Ang Mo Kio to look different from the traditional ones in wet markets, "to get people to notice us, and to do something that hadn't been done before". He undertook the renovations himself and even applied for permission to have glass panels installed on one side, so that even when the main shutters are down, passersby can still peer into the stall to see what's for sale.

Unlike other hawkers who may sell spices in loose form, Mr Leow chooses to invest in coffee pouches to package his spices. "These pouches are better for locking in the fragrance of the spices, and they can be resealed," he says.

The design of the pouch labels are kept simple, and have recipes printed on them. The labels on the plastic containers which contain spice pastes come with QR codes, so that customers can access the recipes online. The website offers recipes and even video tutorials with Mr Leow, a self-confessed avid home cook, doing the demonstration.

While most of their customers in Singapore buy from the stalls, an online shop has also been set up. "We also want our overseas customers to continue buying from us, so we offer international shipping too," says Mr Leow.

He adds that, "while the shop and the operations are modern, we are still a very traditional business". The spices are blended and packed on a small scale, at a neighbouring stall.

The Leow family got into the spice business way back in 1979, thanks to Mr Leow's grandfather. The family used to live in a kampong, and his grandfather ran a sharksfin cleaning business. When the family was relocated to a HDB flat, his grandfather had to give up the business and decided to switch to selling spices. He knew nothing about it, so he sent two family members to Little India to learn from a spice merchant the basics of handling spice, as well as how to turn the spices into paste, or rempah.

Later, Mr Leow's father took over the business. Six years ago, Mr Leow decided to join the family business.

Anthony the Spice Makers carries about 70 types of raw spices and herbs, blends and pastes. Their best seller is the Curry Powder Singapura, made with spices such as coriander, chilli, fennel, turmeric and black pepper.

Mr Leow says that most people come to them to buy blends for familiar dishes such as chilli crab, rendang and laksa. Spice blends cost upwards of S$8.50 a pack.

Asked about his plans for the future, Mr Leow says he will "do what needs to be done", elaborating that he wants to reach out to a wider spectrum of customers and streamline operations.

He isn't thinking about opening another market stall. "Who knows? Wet market stalls are dying, and there may be none left in the future," he says. But he isn't too worried about his business if that happens. "We can still continue selling our spices online," he says.


While co-working spaces are a dime a dozen in Singapore, co-living spaces are a new trend in Singapore, starting with Hmlet, a tech co-living company founded by former engineers Yoan Kamalski and Zenos Schmickrath. Both have been living in Singapore for over five years.

Targeted at the millennial workforce, Hmlet offers rooms and apartments for rent from S$1,400 a month. Mr Kamalski, 28, says that unlike conventional renting, "tenants don't have to deal with a long lease rental, finding flatmates and cleaning the apartment".

The minimum length of stay is three months, with a 30-day notice period, and potential tenants take a profile test before they are paired with like-minded tenants. They are asked questions such as how fussy they are about cleanliness, and their preference for cooking or dining out. Mr Schmickrath, 37, says that so far, their tenant pairing has been peaceful, with no serious conflicts reported.Couples can rent a room with an ensuite bathroom, while singles who rent a room, have to share the bathroom with another tenant. The apartments come with a kitchen, WiFi and weekly cleaning and ironing services. They also come furnished, so tenants can just move in with their suitcases.

Since its start in 2016, Hmlet has about 300 members across co-living spaces in Tokyo and Singapore. In Singapore, Hmlet is in Joo Chiat, and it recently opened a second location at Sarkies Road in Newton.

Mr Kamalski explains that the business model is a win-win situation for tenants and the owners of the buildings. Hmlet rents the entire building from the landlord, redesigns and refurbishes the apartments and rents them out to tenants on shorter leases. "We've increased the yield for buildings where the rents were doing so well," says Mr Kamalski. For example at Hmlet @ Sarkies, two-bedroom apartments have been redesigned to fit an extra bedroom. Previously little-used and unused spaces, such as the rooftop and the carpark have been converted into chillout areas.

Since the founders want to create a community among the tenants, monthly get-togethers offering activities ranging from yoga classes, networking sessions, to book clubs and cocktail evenings are organised.

"With real estate becoming more expensive and people increasingly feeling the bite of isolated living, we are seeing that co-living is becoming a necessity. We want to make the process of moving and finding a place to live as seamless as possible for all our members, whether they are relocating to a new country or moving from their family home," says Mr Schmickrath.

Unlike Airbnb which is illegal in Singapore, Hmlet's business model doesn't run afoul of the rules. "Airbnb is competing with the hotel industry, whereas Hmlet is a long-term solution to replace current market landlords and expensive service apartments," says Mr Kamalski.

In July, Hmlet announced that it signed an agreement to acquire Hong Kong co-living startup, we r urban. The deal marks Hmlet's expansion into the Hong Kong market and is their first acquisition of a direct competitor. we r urban currently manages a portfolio of 30 co-living spaces, housing 70 members across 15,000 square feet in Hong Kong Island. Following the acquisition, Hmlet plans to more than double the number of members in the city by the end of 2018.

While their tenants are aged 19 to 42, with the majority in the 25 to 30-year-old age group, Mr Kamalski plans to create a co-living space for families. "The possibilities are endless. We can redesign the apartments for families, and there can be shared services such as babysitting."

KEN KOH Business Development Director, Nanyang Sauce

For most Singaporeans looking to season a dish, a bottle of soya sauce rather than salt iswhat they reach out for. It might even be from Nanyang Sauce, which started in 1959 and is one of the few brands that still produce soya sauce in Singapore.

According to Ken Koh, its business development director and third-generation owner, it is the only sauce brewery in Singapore that uses 100 per cent non-genetically modified soya beans from Canada.

The soya sauce is still made in the way that Mr Koh's late grandfather did. Beans are steamed before they are put into large clay vats with salt water and wheat flour to ferment under the sun for nine months.

A former corporate trainer, Mr Koh, 34, joined the family business in 2017. He is no stranger to the firm, having spent his childhood days working there.

"As the eldest grandson, I feel it is my responsibility to tell my grandfather's story," says Mr Koh.

Since coming onboard, he has made significant changes. They include introducing more modern bottle labels, launching gift bottles, opening a soya sauce boutique, and conducting workshops.

His parents and grandmother who are still in the business had their reservations about his plans, but they were encouraging.

Nanyang Sauce is not sold in supermarkets. In the past, customers could only find them in selected provision shops or at the brewery in Jurong. But from 2018, they can buy them online and at the boutique in East Coast Road.

"No one has thought of a soya sauce boutique, but I didn't see why it couldn't happen," says Mr Koh. To showcase the long heritage of the brand, Mr Koh wanted to retain the nostalgic feel of the shop, so he kept the original flooring, light switches and metal folding doors.

The boutique is stocked with bottles of soya sauce that come in dark and light versions, as well as premium and virgin brews.

Some come in fancy bottles, which make great gifts. "We decide to focus on the artisan gifting market as our sauce is handmade with great umami taste, limited production and a solid Singapore heritage story. This is a game changer as before this, we never think of gifting sauce but we gift wine, tea and whisky," says Mr Koh.

He also designed a collection of 100ml bottle sauces packed in a carrying box, priced from S$28. "The small size makes it perfect to carry onto airplanes," he says.

Mr Koh also started selling soya sauce salt, which are salt crystals found at the bottom of the vats. "True foodies know to ask for these," he says.

Mr Koh is also the first to introduce soya sauce workshops, which he says are an interactive way to create awareness about how traditional soya sauce is made, and also about preserving a slice of Singapore's history. The workshops include sauce pairing, appreciation, profiling and sauce making. Far from being esoteric activities, they are often oversubscribed.

"Whatever you see today is a concerted team effort by my grandparents, parents, uncles and colleagues. We have kept our business and our core values for the last 59 years," says Mr Koh. "My mission is to build on my grandfather's legacy and brew the best soya sauce in the world, made right here in Singapore."


Disposable contact wearers know the drill of having to visit their optician regularly to stock up on lenses. Not only is it a chore, but lenses can be quite a high monthly expense, depending on the brand.

Friends Darryn Tan and Javad Namazie, who met in primary school, got tired of the high costs and regular visits and believe that buying contact lenses can be a more pleasant experience.

In April 2018, they launched Two of a Kind (TWOOAK), the first direct-to-consumer contact lens brand in Singapore and possibly Asia.

The duo, both 39, have been wearing contact lenses for 26 years. A lawyer by training, Mr Namazie wears lenses for sports and Mr Tan, "for vanity reasons", he says. Neither have a background in optometry.

What they didn't like about the current sales scene for contact lenses was that "pricing is unnecessarily inflated, approximately 15 times more than the cost of manufacturing them", says Mr Tan, who used to spend about S$4 for a pair.

The duo could not believe that even though advances in technology and scale allow major manufacturers to produce lenses at a fraction of the cost compared to a decade ago, retail pricing for contact lenses has risen steadily.

They believe that a new entrant like themselves would be able to bring prices down.

"By going direct-to-consumer, we create a win-win situation," says Mr Tan, a former management consultant. "We splurge on quality products and materials and take out the other unnecessary traditional markups so the price to the consumer is affordable and sensible."

TWOOAK lenses cost S$50 for a month's worth of lenses. Mr Tan says that is about 65 per cent less than what users would usually pay. "If you are a daily wearer like ourselves - you're spending S$500 to S$700 less a year on your daily contacts."

The lenses are sold online, and the company even offers a subscription service, where lenses are automatically sent to the user at specific times, saving them travel time. Prices are cheaper for a longer subscription period.

New customers are required to book an appointment for an eye examination with their in-house optometrist, before they are given a few complimentary pairs of lenses to try at home.

Mr Namazie says: "We get to engage our customers personally. For their part, they get a qualified and objective eye health assessment."

Mr Tan believes that no one has changed the way disposable contact lenses are sold because industry players have not felt a need to change anything. He explains that optical stores can easily stock and retail lenses from major brands. "The pricing, marketing and product trust has already been established," he says. "The 15 times markup means there's plenty of money for everyone to profit from business-as-usual."

The duo however were confident that their direct-to-customer business model would appeal to consumers. As part of their research, they tested 30 brands of contact lenses to test for fit and comfort. The lenses are manufactured in a global medical sciences manufacturing hub in Taiwan and approved by the Singapore Health Sciences authority. They also come with Class I UV protection - the industry's highest certifiable standard.

They also worked closely with regulatory bodies to rigorously review and approve their product and supply chain.

They now have 300 customers, and their three-month subscription service is the most popular.

Mr Tan says it is too early to talk about their five-year plan. "For now we are focusing on nurturing and sustaining the business locally before potentially expanding into other markets."

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