From what I read in "The Newpaper", I know that during your school days in NUS you set up the "Peers Tuition Agency". Can you tell me some of the difficulties you face in recruiting the tutors from your school?
It was a pretty smooth ride. I didn't find any difficulty in finding both tutors and students. Initially, definitely, without a big pool of tutors to choose from it will be difficult to find suitable tutors for the assignments. So that is probably one of the few difficulties that I face. It is about finding the right tutor. Because I am quite picky about the tutors that I choose. I do not want to just give any tutors who are not suitable for any assignment to parents and cheat their money. It's not right.
Did your school NUS show support or actually show objections?
No, no one knew anything about this. In fact, for NUS they do not and I don't think they are against we having jobs or having our own businesses because after all we are tertiary students. We are not like primary, secondary students.
How did you balance studies and work?
I was in the Arts faculty and probably have to study just like 10 to 12 hours a week for my tutorials and lectures. Basically I have lots of free time to do things.
Did you get any helpers or partners in carrying out this business?
The partnership last how long?
Initially, it was a partnership with my good friend. But subsequently we found that we are busy in our own ways and in the end I was the one running my own show. She was my partner but she was not getting any of the income because whatever assignments that we close the commission goes to us, whoever that close the deal. So initially when we started, it was like whoever gets an assignment and close it gets the commission. She did close some assignments but that's about all.
It was about, I'm not very sure about one and half years or close to two years, before we gave it to another friend. I just transfer my name to another friend so that she can carry on recruiting and giving assignments to students. I am not part of this agency anymore and this is just before I graduate. Now she is a teacher and so she sort of give up. The tuition agency does not exist anymore.
Why did you decide to pass this business to your friend and why don't you carry it on after you graduate?
Because I find that there's no challenges. I mean money is one thing, challenges and like assignments are another matter, and I feel that I can do much more than just staying at home and matching tutors and students. This is not what I really want.
I know that after you graduate you gave up your tuition agency to your friend, then you went on to finding jobs to do.
Just before graduating, I was actively participating in Ebay activities like Internet selling and get to know what we can actually buy and sell through the Internet. So because of that I sort of, I didn't feel like working for anyone. But one day, my friend actually call me up to ask me whether I am interested in joining his company to do marketing. The Ebay selling was during my school days. Just prior to graduating, my friend actually approach me to ask me whether I am interested in working for his company after graduating. So I finish studying in April, I think my last paper was like somewhere in May, subsequently I joined the company.
Isn't purely you join this company to actually accumulate experiences to actually set up this toy business?
It's quite a tricky thing. Initially, a few friends like three of us, we are interested in opening a tuition centre and I needed some money to start the tuition centre. So we actually applied for the approval by MOE to set up a tuition centre. Somehow we manage to get the approval but I lack funds so decided to work and subsequently when I started working my friends work as well so this thing never materialize. So actually, I wanted to have the tuition agency as a centre to have group tuitions later on. But due to the lack of funds I gave the tuition agency to my friend. The working part is just to try out what working life is like as well as to get some money to support myself.
I understand also from your business you actually saved up quite a lot already.
Ya but that was for my tuition fees. You actually have to pay like ten over thousand dollars for school university tuition fees. I paid them all by myself. Thus I have little left for my own business.
I knew that you work for one and half years in that company.
I work in two dotcoms. So it's during the one and half years I work in two dotcoms before joining an American firm to sell toys.
It wasn't more of like you wanted to set up this toy business so you actually wanted to accumulate experiences then you went into all these companies to work.
It is only during this like dotcom era that I realize that I wanted to operate a toy shop. During that time my mind is like thinking like what are the things I can do in life. Dotcom is just like a come-and-go thing and I find that my passion is still lies in like exciting, always new things and toys is one thing that is always changing. There are always new toys coming out and old toys will be bought by people who are interested.
Did the dotcom companies inspire you in thinking this way?
No not really. It's just something that comes into my mind suddenly during my working days in the two dotcom companies. Later on I joined the American toy company with the motive to accumulate experiences and this company is aware of, they knew what I wanted. I told them I will probably stay for just like one or two years. I can't be doing a sells job for my life. I can't. That's not me.
Presently, do you have any partners in this toy business?
Yes. I have a partner who is not registered as a partner. He's just like contributing money. He is kind of funding me. We share the ideas. For funding, we share too, fifty-fifty.
So is a he? How is he related to you? He's actually kind of the same age as you?
Ya. No friends, purely friends. We used to be competitors selling similar things in flea market. So one day I just talk to him while working, hey are you interested in opening a shop. So he was thinking, ya why not, so he discuss with his wife and we actually started.
No, he's four years older.
When was the moment you realized that the business would work and support you? Can you elaborate?
Just prior to opening Simply Toys, in October last year, the first branch. Just
prior to that, we actually rented half of the shop from another person to try
out selling toys.
Okay, we actually rented half of the shop space to sell toys to experiment and
that is not our own toy shop. We actually sub-list from this person. This is when
I am still working and to experiment. We were actually betrayed by the person
who we rented the space from. He actually cheated us of like rental and so on,
so we feel that might as well just get our own place and set up our own toy shop.
By that time, we actually accumulated quite a good base of customers. This was
the point of time I realized that the business would work and support me.
When you rented the place, it's still with the guy you actually liaise with?
Yes, it's not the other guy whom we rented the shop from but the guy I now partnership with, throughout.
Can you tell me about your first few customers and first few months or years of business?
They are mostly walk-ins, walk-in customers. For my Simply Toys shop, basically
they share the same clientele and our clientele consist of mainly of professionals
and tertiary students. Young professionals, those in the 20s and 30s. These will
make up the bulk of our clientele and students do come in and by. They spread
the word around telling them that there's an interesting shop in Far East. That's
how we get more people. Because our location in Far East Plaza is not very strategic.
It is quite difficult for people to find our place and we really rely on word
of mouth and walk-ins.
How's your early business?
I shan't go into the sensitive issues. When we started our Simply Toys shop, we have already a strong data base of customers so we just tell them that this is our shop. At the same time we still continue having the previous shop but now is no longer functional and is also in Far East. Because we started in October that is very close to Christmas time, I guess like sales is quite satisfactory. We were not expecting high volume of sales but it was better than expected.
After you set up your first shop in Far East, why did you decide to take on the concept of "rent-a-locker" from your friend, and what makes you think that this will be a success and a hit in Singapore? Is this idea the key factor in maintaining the business now?
When we started Simply Toys, we already took up this concept that was last year.
My friend actually went to Japan and saw this concept. At the same time, we were
toying the idea of opening our own shop. So when we thought of this idea, we thought
it might work in Singapore. The friend was my partner. My friend was shopping
and he saw this, so we fine-tune the concept to suit our local market. Initially
we were not overly confident of this concept. So what we did was we converted
half of the shop to do this concept to experiment and at the same time we have
the other half as the normal retail shop. So this would give us some leeway to
understand which model will be better suited for us. That was last year, 1st of
Ya I guess so. We are known as the pioneers in locker renting in Singapore.
Are there any other concepts that are pending to be carried out?
We are actually diversifying. We will still stick to the same concept but we will come out with new things to improvise and improve so that we are ahead of competitors. There are constantly ideas.
I read about the summary of how you actually managed to clinch the deal of being the sole distributor of the Lord of the Rings. Can you tell me some of the difficulties you encounter in getting the deal? After being the sole distributor of this Lord of the Rings toys, you actually have to liaise with other maybe department shops in Singapore to carry the products.
Applause, we are not sole distributor for all Lord of the Rings toys. So we need
to clarify this so as not to mislead people to think that, oh everything Lord
of the Rings is by us. Because there are many categories.
When you talk to such a major company, especially in US, you must have some credibility
in your company and we are so new, it's difficult for us to convince people that
we can do the job. So we paid cash. Everything like I promise them a certain amount
of sales. In business, priority is still like whether you can perform and give
me a good purchase order for their products. Actually we tried to convince them
that hey we are new but we are not distributor of many lines so that we can actually
spend more time convincing other retailers to carry your products.
So this is actually the idea of distributorship because it will not be a problem
if I have ten shops in Singapore, spread island-wide, but if I have just one shop
it doesn't make sense for me to be a distributor. I will not be able to absorb
the quantities. And some retailers are not supportive, they hey who are you are
you new player, they set very high standards for you to conform and they are the
big departmental stores. They are so hard to get them, so okay then I decided
to concentrate more on the mom and pop shops which will be like small retailers
like myself. So we don't distribute to big departmental stores except Toys 'R'
Us. Because we feel that if departmental stores they are not willing to carry
our products I do not want to lower my pride and beg them to carry my products.
I think it's their lost and not mine. I only approach one and if they are not
interested I do not want to waste my time and I don't really have a lot of time
to talk to all these people. It just so happen that I was in Hong Kong and I made
an arrangement to meet up with the buyers for Toys 'R' Us in Hong Kong that I
show them the products and they decided to carry them.
I understand that as the sole distributor of the Lord of the Rings toys, you have to agree to some of the terms stated by the Applause Company, such as you have to make a minimum purchase in the five-figure region, and etc. Given all these risky terms, what makes you feel so confident that you can satisfy these terms and actually use this new introduction to earn more profit?
Diversifying into distributorship. We have to start from somewhere. If these products
do not work, we will not feel like a failure, I mean at least we tried. We will
carry on to search for new better products to suit the local market. Like nothing
is like a bed of rose. Sometimes you just can't win everything. Certain things
doesn't work, forget it, look for other things. Try, we have try. If you don't
try you never know. Distribution is part of the business other than retailing
products in Singapore.
I understand that in the beginning you met with some difficulties because of you are raw and new in this industry, so what are the other difficulties other than suppliers?
Finances. Because when you grow too big you are unable to meet up. You have so many ideas, you have so many things to do but you are unable to get appropriate funds to fund your projects and your ideas. So this is the part that is hindering us from expanding further. So we have a lot of ideas but we have to pick the most suitable one to carry out. They also have to be carried out in stages. I mean I can definitely like do everything at the same time but then it will put me at risk. What if things do not succeed, I mean everything do not succeed, then I do not want to be in the situation of being bankrupt also. So it depends on which idea I want to accomplish first and later on try to accomplish other ideas with the money that we collect, like the profits that we get from the first project we use it to do others. But if I have more funding I would be able to do more quickly, rather than doing one at a time.
Do you face any objections from your family or close friends when you decide to set up this toy business?
No they give me their full support especially my family.
Who competes with you in this line of business?
Well, we actually have some close competitors but because the toy industry is quite an infant industry whereby there aren't many players around but it is growing. And what we do is we form alliances with toy shops of our industry so that we supply to each other products and live in harmony.
What kind of alliance?
For instance, there are several toy shops in Far East Plaza. So what we do is there is another major toy shop, Collectable Toy Shop, in Far East Plaza. They are called the Falcon's Hanger. They specialize in action figures and certain items which we feel that we will not want to clash with. So for instance if someone comes to my shop and look for an action figure I will direct them to their shop. We actually introduce customers both ways so if the customers are looking for soft toys or some cute stuff where you can actually find more in my shop then they will actually direct them to my shop. It is more of helping each other, in the same building. And if we happen to sell the same products we will come to an agreement to sell them at the same price, similar price, so that there won't be any price war..
How do you deal with big competitors like Toys 'R' Us?
We usually do not carry things that are sold in departmental stores. We are quite selective about the things that we sell because we do not have the space that departmental stores command. So it's only like things that appeal to our customers will we carry.
From the beginning until now that you have set up this Simply Toys shop, are there any point in your business life that you actually experienced something so significant such as economic crisis, new competition, shift in market behavior and other trends that affect or influence your life and business or even change the way you carry out your business?
First of all whenever people ask me, hey has the economic affected you, like the recession and so on, like 911 incident affected you. I just tell them when I started my company it's during the recession time, so I have not seen better times. So I am quite safe in that sense. Unless like it is a major world depression then I have to really reconsider what I am doing. So we have to be constantly thinking of new items to bring in so that to meet up to customers' expectations and we are quite personalized in our services. So the toys we bring in are mostly American toys, basically things that you cannot find in the departmental stores. We try to make our price competitive but we usually don't engage in price war, like the concept of locker consignment, they set their own prices, so it's a free market; we do not control their prices. You might find like two or three sellers selling similar products at different prices. So it's up to the customers to go around and search for the best buy.
Can you tell me some of your best day in business, how is it like?
The Company is still quite young. So it's quite difficult for me to tell you when is my best day or what. It's only like one year old.
Then how about your worst day in business? So actually there's like no point of time whereby you thought of giving up since everything is still quite manageable?
So far for the past one year, sales has been quite constant. So I guess we are
happy. We have not really experience like major confusion.
Ya can la, can do you know. If we find that there is like competition someone
wants to conduct a price war on certain product, we stop carrying that product.
So why compete.
Did your lifestyle changed tremendously after you succeed in this toy business?
I won't say that I'm very successful entrepreneur now, at this stage. I'm just trying to make a living and be happy. So my life is still the same. I'm still the old girl everybody knows. It's just that I have more flexibility in my time. I can like travel at my own time, much easier than if I have a job.
What are your dreams in life and what future challenges do you think you would like to take on? So actually your dreams in life, can I say that is to take on more and more challenges?
I am a fickle minded person. That's what I think I am. I can't stay in the position
forever. I'm always like thinking of challenges and like new things to do. So
one of the reasons why I open my second shop is because I'm quite bored in the
first shop. I want to have like new things to do; I can't just like stay at home
and not contributing anything. It's to make myself more busy.
Ya, to experience new things.
Can I say that the future challenges may be other business than toy shop?
Ya, I will probably you know as I grow older I might have different preferences.
Toys will always be one of the things I love but I might diversify to do other
things and hopefully, I always have this idea ever since I open my toy shop. I
will like to acquire a very big area, like probably a big store with many many
compartments to stock up different different types of toys so that it is more
like a toy museum and where people can just go there and buy whatever they think
they are looking for and can't find in departmental stores like Pink Panther,
Strawberry Shortcake, all those old toys. It will not be cater to the mass and
is more of exclusive items, where if you don't buy it now you might not see it
one week later that kind of things. It's not like what departmental stores are
selling where they have one thousand of each design.
At this point of time, which do you think is more important, family or career?
I guess I can balance this two pretty well at this time and my husband is quite
supportive, so I plan my free days around his time table.
Will there be a day whereby you actually give up your career for your family?
Ya, I guess I will. I mean I won't just give up. It's just I spend lesser time
in the shop. I will have to train reliable staff to mane the show.
What would you advise young people to do today in starting a business?
Don't be too impulsive today. Do not think that everything is so easy going. Doesn't
mean that someone is successfully making money in business mean that you can do
it as well. You have to do your research. For me is like a three-year plan. So
it was not really an impulsive thing, and do not be jealous of other people and
find that hey you know I just want to show that you can do it, I can. Because
why? I do not want to be inferior than my peers which I think is very wrong. So
they have to really reconsider what is good for them.
What do you think are the qualities that are needed to inspire others into entrepreneurship?
You have to be hardworking enough. You have to really put in a lot of effort in whatever you do. You can't just rely on others to help you in succeeding. And treat your staff well if you ever employ someone. They will grow to respect you. These are the people which will help you. For me like if you ask any of my staff they will feel that I'm like a friend to them. They don't look at me as a boss.
When did you actually decide to strike on your own instead of working for others?
Ever since I started tuition agency.
What do you think are the qualities to succeed in enterprising?
Hardworking ya, to do your own accounts well. It's relatively important to make sure that you do not run into cash-flow problems and work within your means. I'm already stretching a bit over my limit.
What are your own values in doing business?
Ethical. You must not be, don't be too aggressive to kill someone. Try to form
alliances with people of your own trade rather than make enemies. Just a summary,
just make friends rather than enemies. That will help you.
What will you like to pass down to your children or the arising entrepreneurs or future generations of Singapore about your values?
I feel that not everyone can be an entrepreneur. If you are more suitable to be a worker rather than an entrepreneur, don't force yourself and start business. Because things might not turn out to be what you want to be, and how can everyone be an entrepreneur and no one working. You know sometimes I do wonder like whether I made the right choice in striking out on my own rather than working. The reason why I started my own business is because I feel that sometimes employers or your superior do not value your ideas, and you feel like stifled, I can't express my ideas. You are just not recognize for what you have contributed, that's very sad. But I learn a lot from my first boss in the dotcom and I learn from them to be nice to their employees. My boss is still my good friend now.
What qualities do you think you have that differentiate you from those that work for others?
Creative. Always ready to change whenever there is a need to. Ya I'm quite adaptive to changes. That is quite important if you are not able to keep up with changes in preferences and consumer behavior. Good luck to you.
Why do you think someone will want to strike out on their own rather than working for others?
Probably for the same reasons that I have. You the idea of like, sometimes I guess like media and government plays a part. They're like always emphasizing on entrepreneurship and you know whether you are what stayer or quitter that kind of thing. This is what people will say. So if you are not cut out for business then don't do something. Know your calculations first before venturing.
Who do you admire in business, including those from other fields?
77th Street boss is quite inspiring, Elim. We are quite, okay we talk to each other and I think she has done well, and will continue to do well.
Do you ever think of expanding your business, even overseas? For example if you want to expand overseas which country would you think of?
Probably if I'm able to manage. If I can't manage, I do not want to over stretch myself. It will probably be like, seriously speaking I have not really thought about it but it might be the European countries.
In this award, eventually 38 finalists will be chosen and so will you come to the ceremony to be honored?
I don't know I think I'm too young for this and my business is still quite at the very infant stage. So if I'm really selected as, for this, I think I will be honored.
Will you be comfortable with the press, and TV asking you many of the questions if you are one of the finalists?
I guess it's not a problem for me.
Do you have any objections to this interview being posted on the website or even publish in newspaper?
I like to know what is actually written. Because I do not want to present the wrong idea to the public. It is quite dangerous.
As part of the award, there will be a scholarship given in your name directed to any school you would like to. So do you have any idea where you want it to be?
Outram Institute, my old school.
Student Interviewer's Personal Comment