Written: Oct 2012
For a Business Journalism module.
Young entrepreneurs taking the road less travelled
Not your conventional career
Going to university was no longer an option for 22-year-old Jody Ang when she failed to get into NUS law school. Not wanting to pursue another degree she had no interest in, the straight ‘A’ student from Victoria Junior College decided to drop all her university applications and spend her time doing what she has always enjoyed – baking.
That was three years ago.
Grin Affair is a cosy dessert shop managed by Ms Jody Ang and two part-timers, selling homemade cakes and puddings in jars. PHOTO: CANDICE NEO
Now, she has transformed her hobby into a business, baking daily in her dessert shop Grin Affair, which is tucked away in the neighbourhood of Everton Park, a 10-minute walk from Outram MRT station.
“Everyone was like, why don’t you go to university? But I didn’t want to get a degree just to get employed, which is what nearly everyone else is doing. I wanted to pursue what I like, and I wasn’t interested in any courses in university,” says Ms Ang, who opened her shop in November last year.
She is one of the rising number of young people in Singapore who are veering away from the conventional path of getting a job after graduation, and choose to be their own bosses instead.
With the rising affluence of the younger generation which breeds a culture of risk-taking, more youths are starting up their own businesses, says Professor Wong Poh Kam, the Director of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Entrepreneurship Centre (NEC).
Although Singapore used to be entrepreneurship-shy in the last few decades, this trend appears to be changing, he adds, observing that NUS students who approach the NEC for start-up advice has increased steadily by less than 10 per cent over the last five years.
“The older generation tends to be more risk-averse and shy away from setting up their own businesses,” he says. “But now, the family size is smaller, so the burden of supporting the family is less great. The middle and upper middle income are also richer and can afford the start-up capital.”
“Also, with so many graduates out there competing for a job and trying to move up the corporate ladder, the opportunity costs of getting employed is higher,” he adds. “So these young people want to differentiate themselves.”
With the growing climate of entrepreneurship in Singapore, more opportunities are also available for those willing to take that leap of faith. Government agencies such as Spring Singapore offer start-up grants. Entrepreneurship-related competitions organised by corporates such as Google and Ideas Inc. and even the local universities are common.
Entrepreneurship programmes and modules at NUS, NTU, Singapore Management University (SMU) and Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) are also open to the general student population, and enrolled students can get hands-on experience on starting a business and advice from experts.
“These opportunities drive interest even more,” adds Prof Wong.
Technological start-ups are in fashion
In recent years, one major development in the entrepreneurship scene is that technological start-ups such as mobile applications are increasingly common, Prof Wong says.
“This is due to the diffusion of intelligent devices, greater connectivity among young people and the low barriers of entry in this industry,” he says. “Everything is done on an online platform. You don’t need to worry about space and rental, which saves a lot of cost. Singapore also has a good broadband infrastructure.”
One such technological venture is an iPad rental service founded by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) business graduate Kevin Chan and two of his ex-schoolmates. Their 10-month-old start-up SGPad targets corporates that use iPads during events such as meeting conferences and exhibitions.
“These events require using iPads as a one-off session, so renting is more practical than buying them,” says Mr Chan, 23. Currently, 40 iPads are available at SGPads for rental.
His company also does app development for corporate and educational organisations, for instance creating apps for clients to improve their outreach to customers. So far, SGPad’s clients include major players such as Japan Tourism Board, Standard Chartered and OCBC.
Each app can cost from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on its complexity.
There is a growing market for such apps due to its innovative nature, says Prof Wong. “People always want new variety,” he says. “There are more opportunities for differentiation through smartphone and enterprise applications.”
Unconventional services such as that SGPad offers gives it an edge. According to Mr Chan’s research, there are three other smaller players offering similar services, but his company is the only one attracting the larger corporate clients.
Coffee, dessert and good music
The interior of Grin Affair is decorated with simple Do-It-Yourself wooden furniture. Owner Ms Jody Ang also sells little trinkets like fabric tape and hand-dyed T-shirts. PHOTO: CANDICE NEO
Besides technological start-ups, young entrepreneurs also tend to go into the Food and Beverage (F&B) industry, as Ms Ang did. “The barriers of entry for F&B are not high,” Prof Wong explains. “But for this industry, new players need to have a very good understanding of the market before they start. Learning experience and innovation is very important.”
Indeed, Ms Ang started out by experimenting with dessert recipes and working at various cafes and bars to better understand the F&B industry before opening Grin Affair. She also has a unique concept for her dessert, which sets her apart from other cafes and dessert shops – her cakes are sold in jars. To be environmentally friendly, she encourages customers to return the jars.
In another creative concept of combining literature, music, art, film and alcohol, bar café The Pigeonhole is also a popular hangout for young people. Set up in March last year, founders film editor Rayner Lim, 33, and his lawyer girlfriend Ave Chan, 27, wanted to support the local arts scene through the café. They regularly invite independent musicians to perform, and offer an exhibition space for local artists to showcase their work in the café. Book lovers can also browse through a small international collection of books on the shelves.
Like Ms Ang, both founders also decided to step away from the conventional route of being in a nine-to-five job, which they left to start up the café. Now, while operations are stabilized, Mr Lim is freelancing as a film editor while Ms Chan is an in-house lawyer at a private equity fund.
However, for Ms Chan and Ms Ang, starting up their own business was not an easy decision in the beginning with parental objections. Ms Chan says: “My parents were initially not too keen on the idea (of setting up the café) as they were concerned that it would not be as stable as legal practice, but they gradually warmed to the idea.”
Similarly, Ms Ang admits her mother still nags at her occasionally to return to her studies. “She believes that I should at least get a university degree,” Ms Ang says. “But she is still supportive of what I’m doing and comes to help out at the shop frequently.”
Having control of time
Venturing into entrepreneurship is more than simply risk-taking and being different. One major perk of becoming the boss is the flexible hours on the job.
Says Mr Kevin Chan: “I want the flexibility to create life on my own terms. By working for yourself, you can figure out how to create an efficient system, and a good balance between family and work life.”
He adds that he was heavily influenced by his father, who started his own business nearly two decades ago. “Because his time was flexible, he always had time for the family. It’s like, Dad was always there, to attend my school events and all,” he says. “I want to do that too.”
Another young businessman Zhao Shiyu, who graduated from NTU last year, also admits that he enjoys having control of his own time when he set up his company CF Ideas with two other friends, selling Polaroid cameras on online platforms such as Gmarket and Groupon.
The 24-year-old mechanical engineering graduate says: “When I was on internship during my third year at a large engineering firm, I realized that most of my colleagues were doing mundane, repetitive tasks at work. I don’t want to lead such a life.”
“Now, I work with a flexible timing of around 1 to 7pm, and I deal with a wide variety of things such as packaging, checking with suppliers, coordination etc,” he adds. “There are new changes every day, and this unpredictability keeps me excited and gives me motivation.”
Charity can be a business
Not only do young entrepreneurs strive to take charge of their businesses, but they do good along the way as well. According to Prof Wong, the rise of social entrepreneurship is another phenomenon in Singapore.
“In the past, philanthropists donate money to charity. But nowadays, young people want to help disadvantaged groups and solve social problems through their businesses,” he says.
One such social enterprise that was incubated by NEC is Start Now, an online portal that serves as a bridging platform for non-profit organisations and volunteers. Its main aim is to encourage volunteerism by reducing the administrative work needed when people want to volunteer.
One of the co-founders of Start Now, Ivan Chang, having fun at Marina Barrage with a resident of the Sree Narayana Mission Home. It was a tie-up between Start Now and the Home to bring the elderly out earlier in May this year. PHOTO: COURTESY OF START NOW
One of its two co-founders, Ivan Chang, 23, who has been volunteering at Make-A-Wish Foundation and other organisations for the last six years, found that an unnecessary amount of paperwork often goes back and forth between the volunteer and the charity organization.
“This slows down the process and can be very frustrating,” says Mr Chang, an undergraduate at SMU double majoring in Business Management and Information Systems. “On our portal, we link individual volunteers, schools and companies up with charity organisations that are looking for volunteers. Everything else that is needed in the process – contacting both sides, coordination and technical work – is all settled by us.”
“People also prefer to volunteer with friends, and want feel appreciated,” says Mr Chang. “Start Now users can share volunteering activities on Facebook to gather friends to volunteer together, and we also send thank you cards to them on behalf of the non-profits.”
After the website was built late last year, the Start Now team began outreach to corporates and non-profit organisations in January this year. Its database now has 192 non-profit organisations, 10 Small and Medium Enterprises and around 45,000 users interested to volunteer.
Currently running on Spring Singapore’s start up grants and past competition winnings, the team aims to make their business sustainable by charging corporates for services that eases employee volunteerism, such as helping companies monitor the activities their employees volunteer in.
Expanding into the Southeast Asian market
But besides looking at the domestic market, young businesspeople should aim to expand internationally too, says Prof Wong.
“We want to encourage new start-ups to enter the ASEAN market,” he says. “At the university level, it is important to build social networks with people in the region to develop more awareness. We need to know our own backyard.”
“Many Singaporeans don’t know much about the markets in Thailand, Indonesia and other neighbouring countries. ASEAN is under appreciated – there is actually so much potential there,” Prof Wong adds. “We can bring our advantages – such as good communicative and technical infrastructure – to the other Southeast Asian countries that don’t have them.”