BYOB (Be Your Own Boss)

Do you have what it takes? We speak to some of today’s most well-known business owners



They say all you really need is a kick-ass idea. But everyone knows it takes a lot more than that to be the owner of a successful business. Without the right strategy, starting a business is similar to playing a game of uncertain outcomes; one that could turn your dream into a nightmare. 

Risks and uncertainties aside, there’s a lot to be said for those who take that leap of faith to be their own boss. First off, there's never a good time to set up a business — a lot of it is about taking a chance and doing all you can to make things work. Also, it’s not possible to know everything there is to know about running a business; like with many other things, you just have to learn as you go. 

Starting a business is a scary proposition regardless of your experience. Also, you may think that the business you have in mind to start would have too much competition. But guess what? The presence of competition already confirms the demand for your business offering. 

Singapore has seen its fair share of businesswomen who have gone on to great achievements. They include The Spa Esprit Group’s Cynthia Chua and Hyflux’s Olivia Lum. Meet a new generation of businesswomen who continue to fly the flag of entrepreneurship. Be inspired by them, and who knows, 2015 may just be the year you become your own boss.

Diana Ong, 38, single. Editor-turned-founder and director of six-year-old public relations agency The PR People with five employees

On starting her business

“I was at a crossroads after spending nearly 12 years in journalism, and I knew public relations would be an extension of what I had been doing — yet give me creative expression to build on my already-honed skills and afford me my first opportunity at entrepreneurship.” 

Overcoming fears and worries

“Keep focused on the goal, and don’t let yourself get side-tracked by fears, worries and naysayers. That’s crucial in moving forward.”  

Learning from mistakes

“If you are going into a business with partners, get contracts drafted up to determine your functions, duties and obligations. The more detailed, the better. I did not do this with my partners, and thankfully, we all reached a mutual agreement, but you can save time when you do this. Also, never go 50-50 with a partner; someone needs to have the final say for the things that matter, especially when time is of the essence. I did not do this, and problems arose when my partner wanted to keep the business small, while I wanted to expand it. This could have been circumvented if one of us had a bigger stake.”

Job satisfaction

“There are many merits but the biggest one for me is creative control. You can accomplish your goals and measure your success on your own merits, without answering to someone else. You are not limited in the ability to change and adapt to the ever-changing marketplace.”

Words of advice

“Be realistic in what you can achieve — you can set expectations, but make sure they are within reach. Have a strong sense of purpose or vision; you need to be completely convinced and passionate about your business in order to face setbacks, naysayers, and financial challenges. Without this sense of purpose, my business would have failed.”

Melissa Wang, 34, married with a  son. Director/founder of five-year-old Shop Wonderland, five years old with five employees

On starting her business

“I found that there was a lack of aesthetically pleasing furniture for use at weddings and events in Singapore. The aesthetic quality of our events at that time was a stark difference from those in the US. There was much room for improvement. So I did a survey of the market for Tiffany chair hires, the inventory available, prices and logistical requirements for managing a large inventory.”

What to consider  

“While it is important to understand and know the market academically, it is more important to trust your instincts and understanding of the demands of current trends and target market. Every time someone approaches me with their new business, my first question is: ‘Who are you targeting?’ Your target market will determine everything about your business, from pricing, to style and further developments.”

Starting the process

“First you create your business plan, think of a name, check its availability as a business entity and then on all relevant social media and [as a] website. If it is available, register your business as an entity. Next, get your website and social media going — those would be your strongest marketing tool.”

Lessons learnt

“It is important to balance romanticism with business realism. Do not do your business as a sideline. I have seen friends commence their businesses while still holding on to their full-time jobs, and unless you are very determined and disciplined, you can never do two things well.

You need to have something to lose to be hungry enough for something to succeed. Also, plan your margins and stick to them. The best advice I have received regarding numbers is that “turnover is vanity, bottom-line is sanity”. New businesses always want to bend over backwards to acquire the necessary traction. But one must know when to stop and maintain business value, if not it’s a very short-term outlook and unsustainable.”

Words of advice 

“It isn’t as easy as it looks! Do your research, speak to people in the industry and stay focused.”

Pauline Ng, 28, married. Managing director of six-year-old Porcelain the Face Spa with over 30 employees

What to consider

“Having proper cash-flow planning allows you to continue operations even if the business may not be profitable at the start. Next, the team you want. Having the right partner(s), with an aligned vision, communications strategy, and clear and distinct responsibilities, is extremely important. 

“Finally, ask yourself what a similar business has done and how can I do it better and add more value to what is being done now in the market. If you don’t know the value of what you’re providing, it is hard for clients to buy into you.” 

Sacrifices made

“I had to give up on some really good job opportunities (and an offered salary of up to $4,000 a month as a fresh graduate). And I had to defer paying my $25,000 college loan as I was making only $800 every month, for a year. I was basically working in and on the business for seven days a week during that first year. Thankfully, I didn’t have any dependants or liabilities apart from my loan.”

Getting the process going 

“By day, you meet people, suppliers, distributors, partners, office sourcing and so on. By night, you work your business plans, cash-flow planning and research on the industry, and pray for creative juices to flow and get eureka moments. I did not have the luxury of time to take a long time to start, so I refined my processes along the way, learning about licensing, sales, marketing, lead acquisition, sales conversion, retention, social media engagement and media relations. You have to multitask all the time, and you have to learn really fast.” 

Learning from others’ mistakes

“Do not make pride-driven decisions. It doesn’t matter that you work in a tiny room with three people sharing one large Ikea desk. Spend on things that improve your clients’ experience, and increase the value of what you are delivering. Don’t just spend on things that make you look good — do you really need the 400-gm, laser-cut name card, or that Herman Miller chair? And do you need that 4,000-sq ft office when you haven’t had a single client yet?” 

Monitoring growth

“Set one-, three- and five-year benchmarks with KPIs in terms of client pool, conversion rate, sales, profitability and so on. Look at the numbers, and do forecasting and tracking to determine how well you’re doing. Look at relevant numbers to determine if you’ve met your objectives. Profitability may not be everything if you’re trying to aggressively grow your business organically. Look at market share, or overall sales figures to decide if your strategy has paid off.”

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