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Dennis Tay knew that he wanted to be an entrepreneur even before he started Naiise, the retail store for all things well-designed. He knew it before he enrolled in entrepreneurship at the Singapore Institute of Management-RMIT University. In fact, he knew it even before PSLE.
"In primary school, I was selling erasers," recalls Mr Tay, 32, referring to the ones with flags of different countries printed on them. "The rare ones were of the United Nations and Singapore, and I could sell them to my schoolmates at a higher price." After selling five of them, he could recoup the cost of the original box of erasers, which he sold back to the bookshop auntie.
He used the money to buy toys that his parents refused to buy for him.
Fast forward to 2013 when, with just an investment of $3,000 out of his own pocket, Mr Tay started Naiise. That first year, Naiise made $30,000. Last year, the company made $5 million.
Despite not having a design background, Mr Tay, who says he always liked beautiful things, felt that well-designed products should be made available to everyone and not only to those who could afford it. He also wanted to be the platform where local designers could showcase their talent.
The multi-label design store started business online, but today, has six stores around Singapore. For 2017, Mr Tay plans to open one or two more stores in Singapore, revamp the shopping experience for its present stores and to take Naiise overseas to Malaysia and the United Kingdom.
Do you consider yourself a shrewd businessman? I wouldn't dare to make that claim. For me, the passion and business is really fuelled by our desire to help others. I also have to make it work in dollars and cents while ensuring that we never lose sight of our mission and vision.
I used to have to knock on doors to get brands to sell their products on Naiise. Today, I get 20 brands daily emailing me their interest. But it doesn't mean I will stock everything. We have 1,300 brands now, and they must meet three criteria: originality; quality; and the product must improve people's lives.
I think we have been successful because of the opportunities I've had. Naiise entered the market at the right time; our products are novel; and I have a strong team.
Naiise started as an online business. In today's sluggish retail scene and amidst high rents, why have you chosen to open physical stores? Some of the stores are pop-ups while some have a longer lease. Omnichannel retailing is the way to go. With the stores, whenever anyone wants to buy something, they can do so, without waiting for the item to be delivered to them. Some of our online customers prefer self-collection over delivery, so we need to have shops.
Having a shopfront allows us a more permanent presence. This way, we can work with partners such as Singapore Tourism Board or TripAdvisor, so that when tourists come they can always go to Naiise to find something exquisite.
It is also a chance to expose local designers to a new market, instead of them just remaining online.
Why did you choose to expand to Malaysia and the UK? Malaysia, because it is closer to home. But the market is a challenging one - it is similar to Singapore when Naiise first started. But there are plenty of talented designers whose works should be showcased. Malaysia and Singapore have a similar culture, so I believe some of our Singapore-designed products would do well there too.
The UK is our second largest online market, after the United States. We have a lot of Singaporean customers who go there to study, work or live and they do like things that remind them of home, such as the cushions shaped like kueh tutu or gem biscuits. The UK customers also like the products by South-east Asian designers.
We will have a store in Kuala Lumpur, but I'm still undecided about opening one in the UK. We may have a fulfillment centre instead, so that items can be shipped out faster.
Your wife Amanda is also the marketing director at Naiise. Do you separate personal and work life? For us, the lines between work and personal life are blurred. Amanda understands that this is because work is my passion.
We do talk about work at home, but we also talk about regular stuff, such as our dreams and holidays. Even now that we have a baby, Ralph, work sometimes creeps into the homefront too. Because of Ralph, we make the time to play with him, and do things with him like going out to see the Christmas lights. He has brought a new dimension to our relationship.
Congratulations on baby Ralph! How has fatherhood been? It has made me happier, but I still work as hard as before. Since we don't have help at home, we have a cot in the office. Everyone helps to take care of Ralph, who is four months old. I am a very hands-on dad. I help change his diapers, bathe and play with him. I'm not so good at feeding him because he doesn't really like the bottle. And I'm always at every doctor's appointment, even when Amanda was pregnant. We plan to have three kids if we can. Having Ralph made me realise what my parents had to go through bringing me up. I'm definitely more respectful to my parents now.