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Elim Chew’s Lessons on Entrepreneurship

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Ms. Chew is Founder and President of 77th Street (S) Pte Ltd, the leading youth and young adults streetwear fashion and accessories retail chain in Singapore with 13 outlets locally and a shopping mall in Xidan, Beijing called 77th Street Plaza. She is humbled by awards such as Most Promising Woman Entrepreneur in 2001 by the Singapore Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, Montblanc Businesswoman of the Year 2002, Young Woman Achiever 2003 by Singapore Press Holdings and Singapore Promising Brand Award 2004. She is recently honored as a Forbes Asia’s Hero of Philanthropy 2010.
Currently, she sits on over 20 boards and committees of public service, youth and community organizations such as the Programming Committee of *SCAPE, an iconic youth community space; and the Culture & Education Action Crucibles for Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) of the Ministry of Trade and Industry Singapore and many more.
Ms. Elim Chew is also a highly sought public speaker on issues of youth matters, social entrepreneurship and work excellence. She has formally set up the speaker circuit programme to share her experiences and inspire our students, youths, educators, civil servants, working professionals and community on issues that are close to her heart.


Interview transcript

(00:00)

Dhanya: How did you decide that you want to work in retail?

Elim: I trained in hairstyling in London, and came back to Singapore to enter the hair styling business. As I looked around, I couldn’t really find a lot of fashion here. So I started importing from overseas. I was 21 when I started my hairstyling salon and at 22 I started 77th street. I literally coined the word 77th street – a fashion and accessories store. I started 77th street in 1988.

 

Dhanya: What was the challenge in creating a brand? I am sure the scene was very different back then in 1988, but what was your challenge in building a brand in Singapore?

Elim: In anything that you start, you need to have money, content, network, and manpower. To be honest, when I first started I did not know what a brand was. You literally just start! You don’t really think through a lot of things – you want to import things, you want to open a shop, and you want to sell something you really love. I love the number 77, so I decided that would be the name. It would also be something people will remember. Through time, people grow up and now one whole generation of young people have grown up with 77th street and they are actually working adults today. It takes time to build a brand. The most important thing is for you to start-up.

It took 20 years to build my brand, but today you have social media and all the different platforms it comes with. It’s a quicker process to build a brand. You can immediately start something online, form your community, attract customers who like what you do and in essence communicate with them. However, sustaining a brand takes time.

 

Dhanya: That nicely leads to my next question. How has internet affected the marketing strategy you use? What are the pros and cons?

Elim: In the early days, it was a lot of human interaction that led to word-of mouth. In those days, we were the only street fashion wear. It was about being who you are and what you love – if you want to be quirky, then you be quirky – that attracts attention. We became friends with every customer, we know their names and their stories. Rental was affordable back then. Social media has taken over this interaction. If I want to say something in this interview, you are able to translate into thousands of people and share it with them. I had to do that one by one, back then.

And in this scenario, trust comes in being able to deliver your goods on time; your credit facilities must be trustable. However, I do think the human interaction is missing. Back then when someone lost their wallet and walked into the store saying they didn’t have any money to get home – we would give them $50 and ask them to give it back to us when they come back. Today, you can’t do that with internet. High tech is great because we can sell to the world, but that trust is missing.

 

Dhanya: Is it even more valuable today?

Elim: I think it has it’s pros and cons. Pro is that you are connected to the world and someone from India could be buying from us. Simply because they don’t have this product in their market, but they have internet. They could even get things at a lower price than their home market. Whereas with physical touch, it is one transaction at a time. It’s much slower. With going to a physical shop, you get to feel the product and decide whether you like it.

Within this though, I believe we can find a space to create something that everyone can be a part of. 

 

Dhanya: How do you think someone can build the skill of strategic thinking? 

Elim: It’s all about experience. It’s about being on the ground and starting as young as you can. Kids as young as 9, 10 and 13 are building apps and starting companies. Today, it is about how early you start. There is a lot of knowledge out there that you can learn from.  I feel everyone should start as young as they can. If you want to be a chef, start cooking at home for your family and scout the internet for more. While reading is one thing, self-improvement and implementation is another. 

 

Dhanya: I work in a big retail firm that has a lot of young people working. My biggest hurdle at work is motivating these young people. Do you have any tips for me, considering the work you do with them?

Elim: I believe that this is a generation that is driven by purpose. You need to show them the purpose. Why are they in retail? Why are they social entrepreneurs. Why are they professionals. In this environment you see the people doing their part of retail. We show them the importance of their initiatives, the vision of helping the poor, the vision of taking an idea to implementation and becoming successful. And usually, its not about the money (Money is great) but the process is so much more motivating.

I think we have to show them their future. For what they don’t know or see, they don’t have a purpose. If they do see their success, they will show you more. So it’s about encouraging them to achieve their best. Also, never fail to give credit when it is due! As Asians we tend to put ourselves down a lot more. We think that praising might get to people’s head. But I think we need to praise and give constructive feedback.

I work with those young people that react to motivation. For those who don’t, their peers (the ones I work with) act as inspiration. Using what is real – my experience in creating 77th street out of nothing and now all the way to logistic and consulting business I show it to them that it is possible.

 

Dhanya: Did you have to break any glass ceiling? What were the obstacles in your journey?

Elim: Every other day you live and break the norm. You create and innovate – you will stay stagnant otherwise. It could be simple things – can you walk this way differently? Can you wake up earlier? Entrepreneurship drives people to see things differently. There are people who have 9-5 days and extremely structured lives as well. You can do what you love. The more you tell us, social entrepreneurs, we can’t do it, the more we want to prove you wrong. We are dealing with issues everyday – is there a way to break this pattern today and create a new way?

 

Dhanya: How do you manage your time?

Elim: I don’t manage it very well as you can see.. I am involved in 20 over platforms – in boards, committees, my own businesses, etc. That is also what drives me. The day I wake up and realize I have nothing to do – I will suffer. I will probably have a mental breakdown, haha. There are times when I think I could’ve worked it better – for example your appointment. When you write an email to me, its going to stay in my mind till I meet you even though I don’t have time. That’s why I thought I better meetup with you and do this. And we measure ourselves by the things we do, right?

We are inspired by young people like yourself. We are inspired by the people who have tried and been successful. Even for the ones who haven’t had any success – we respect their lessons. They know what is going to work and not. When someone asks me what is my good experience – I think its all my bad experience rolled up into what will work and hence a good experience.

Experience is the knowledge that will create depth for what is to come – in studies, in work, in travel.

 

Dhanya: I am reading this book where the author says – ‘There is nothing called talent. It’s all the hard work and practice one puts in acquiring a skill’. Do you also believe in this? 

Elim: I think it’s about the effort you put in too. The 10,000 hour principle by Malcolm Gladwell is something I believe in. The reason for my success is the number of hours I put in ever since I got into the workforce – I worked everyday. And over the years I have gathered the experience and practice in everything that I do today. However there is a little bit of talent that helps with the starting phase. And that little extra effort you put in affects the olympic record you can break, no matter what your level of talent is.

written & presented by Real Leaders Project. see more.

Entrepreneurship

Is There A Coworking Space Bubble?

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An annual growth rate of nearly 100%, almost five years in a row? More than 60 coworking spaces in a city like Berlin? Are these the characteristics of a bubble? Nope, these are characteristics of a lasting change in our world of work, which has been further catalyzed by the recent economic crises in many countries. But what makes this change different to a bubble? We’ve summarized some arguments of why the coworking movement is based on a sustainable change. However, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job to open a good working coworking space.

Five reasons why the growth of coworking spaces is based on organic and sustainable growth: 

1. Coworking spaces invest their own money and create real wealth

Already, there is a convincing argument supporting why coworking spaces are not developing in a bubble: the fact that they create real wealth.

Whether referring to the dotcom bubble a decade ago or the real estate crisis in Spain or the United States, the crisis originated in a glut of cheap money, in an environment in which the sender and the recipient were unacquainted. From funds and banks, money flowed in steady streams to investments which offered little resistance and the most promising returns – which only a little while later turned into delusions and ruined investments.

Redistributed risks create illusions. Those people who distributed the money rarely wore the risk of investment decisions. The risk was mainly taken by small shareholders or people who bought parts of those investments. This was because either both parties’ (better) judgement was drowned out by the noise of the market, or because shareholders were unaware of the risk, and were at the mercy of banks and funds for reliable information.

Another fundamental condition for the creation of bubbles are the sheer amounts of money that flow from various locations globally and are concentrated, by comparison, in much fewer places.

Most coworking spaces, however, receive their funding from local or nearby sources and do not operate within this financial system. In fact, the founders mainly inject the bulk of the required investment, and turn to friends or relatives for additional support. They wear the full brunt of the risks that are involved in small-time investment.

They have access to much more information, because it is their own project, rather than a foreign one thousands of miles away. This also includes failures and mistakes that are encountered along the way, but the risk is less redistributed, thereby decreasing the probability of failures.

2. Labor market changes demand on certain office types lastingly

Most users of coworking spaces are self-employed. The proportion of employees is also on the rise, in many cases simply because they work for small companies that increasingly opt to conduct their business in coworking spaces rather than in traditional offices. The industry of almost all coworkers fall within the Internet-based creative industries.

With flexibilisation of work markets, new mobile technologies that are changing work patterns, and the increase of external services purchasing from large and medium-sized enterprises (outsourcing), the labor market has changed radically in many parts of the world.

The long-term financial and emotional security of becoming an employee no longer exists, especially for younger generations of workers. Bigger companies are quicker to fire than hire, and precarious short-term contracts are on the rise. Promising options on the labor market are more often recuded to freelancer careers and starting your own company.

And that’s possible with less money to invest. All you need is a laptop, a brain and a good network. For years, the number of independent workers and small businesses has been growing worldwide – particularly in internet-based creative industries. Anyone who has sufficient specialized skills and the willingness to take risks may adapt more quickly to market conditions if they own a small business or are self employed; more so than if they were to work in a dependent position in an equally volatile market.

Coworking spaces provide an environment in which to do this. Once they have joined a (suitable) coworking space, these factors become apparent to coworkers, who will remain in their space for years to come.

Furthermore, independent workers rarely fire themselves in crises, and even small companies are less likely to give their employees the boot – compared to their large counterparts. This combination enables more sustainable business models – and less business models à la Groupon.

3. Coworking spaces don’t live on crises

Global economic growth is waning while the number of coworking spaces is continually growing. Do coworking spaces thus benefit from this crisis?

The current crises accelerate the formation and growth of coworking spaces, because they offer solutions and space for the resulting problems. Coworking spaces are therefore not a result of a crisis, but the product of change that pre-dates their existence. A crisis is simply the most visible expression of change.

The first coworking spaces emerged in the late 1990s; the movement’s strong growth started six years ago – before the onset of economic downturns in many countries.

4. Coworking spaces depend on the needs of their members

Most coworking spaces are rarely full. Does this mean they are unsuccessful? On average, only half of all desks are occupied. But the average occupancy rate of 50% refers only to a specific date.

In fact, coworking spaces generally serve more members than they can seat at any given time, since members do not use the spaces simultaneously. Coworking spaces are places for independents who want to work on flexible terms. Smaller spaces rely more on permanent members. Larger spaces can respond more flexibilty to the working hours of its members, and, can rent desks several times over.

If a coworking space is always overcrowded or totally empty, the purpose of said space would be defeated. Firstly, it is rather impossible to work in an overcrowded room. Second, it’s impossible to cowork in an empty room. Given the nature of flexible memberships, a coworking space only can survive if they fit the needs of their members. Members would otherwise be quick to leave, and membership would be much more transient.

5. The coworking market is far from saturation

Less than 2% of all self-employed – and even fewer employees – currently work in coworking spaces. Reporting on coworking may increase, but inflated reporting on the coworking movement in the mainstream media is still far away.

Coverage of coworking space are most likely to be found in the career or local sections in larger publications – front cover coverage remains the dream of many space operators. This is because the whole coworking movement can’t be photographed in one picture. What appears to be a disadvantage, however, is actually a beneficial truth: niche coverage allows the industry to grow organically, and avoid over inflation.

Conclusion

Coworking spaces don’t operate in parallel universes – like the financial market. Demand and supply are almost exclusively organic and operate in the real world economy.

For the same reason, there is no guarantee that opening a coworking spaces will be automaticly successful. Anyone who fails to learn how to deal with potential customers in their market, or is unfamiliar with how coworking communities function, will have a difficult time of making one work. In the same way that business people in other industries will fail if they do not understand their market.

Those who simply tack on the word ‘coworking’ to their space’s facade will need to work harder. The structure of most coworking spaces is based on real work, calculated risk, and real-world supply and demand.

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About the Author

This article was produced by Deskmag. Deskmag is the magazine about the new type of work and their places, how they look, how they function, how they could be improved and how we work in them. They especially focus on coworking spaces which are home to the new breed of independent workers and small companies. see more.

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Callum Connects

Dextre Teh, Founder of Rebirth Academy

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Dextre Teh is a consultant and marketing guru, helping F&B businesses to tighten their operations and grow their businesses.

What’s your story?
I help frustrated F&B business owners stuck in day to day operation transform from a glorified operator into a real business owner. I’m a 27 year old Singaporean second generation restaurant owner and a F&B business consultant. Entering the industry at 13 years old, I have always been obsessed with operations and systemisation. At the age of 25, I joined the insurance industry and earned a six figure yearly income. However, I left the high pay behind because it was not my passion and returned to the F&B industry. Now I help other F&B companies to tighten operations and grow their businesses with my consulting and marketing services.

What excites you most about your industry?
The food. I’m a big lover of food and even have a YouTube show on food in development. But that aside, it is really about impacting people through food. Creating moments and memories for people, be it a dating couple or families or friends. Providing that refuge from the daily grind of life. So in educating my consulting clients and training their staff to provide a better experience for their customers, I aim to shift the industry in the direction of creating memories instead of just selling food.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and bred in Singapore. I love the culture, the food and travelling in Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore hands down. The environment here is built for businesses to thrive. The government is pro business and the infrastructure is built around supporting business growth. Not to mention the numerous amount of grants available in helping people start and even grow business. If I’m not mistaken, the Singaporean government is the only government in the world that offers grants to home grown businesses for overseas expansion.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Learning to do things you do not intend to master is a BIG mistake in business. Focus on what you are good at and pay others to do the rest.

Many business owners including myself are so overwhelmed by the 10,000 things that they feel they need to do everyday. We try to do everything ourselves because we think it saves us money. The only thing that, that does for us is overload our schedules and give us mediocre results. Instead we should focus on what we do best and bring in support for the rest.

Who inspires you?
Christopher M Duncan.

At 29, Chris has built multiple 7 figure businesses. He opened me to the possibility of building a business on the thing that I loved and gave me a blueprint of how to do it. He also showed me that being young doesn’t mean you cannot do great things.

Imran Mohammad and Fazil Musa
They are my mentors and inspire me every single day to pursue my dreams, to focus on celebrating life and enjoying the process of getting to where I want to be.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Time is always more expensive than money. Money, you can earn over and over again but time, once you spend it, will never come back.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I am a firm believer that your experiences shape who you are. I am grateful for every single moment of my life be it the highs or the lows, the successes and the failures because all these experiences have led me to become the person I am and brought me to the place that I’m at so I will probably do things the same way as everything was perfect in its time.

How do you unwind?
Chilling out in a live music bar with a drink in hand, listening to my favourite live band, 53A. Other than that I’m big on retail therapy, buying cool and geeky stuff.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Bangkok. It feels like a home away from home where the cost of living is relatively low, the food is good and the people are friendly.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Everything you know about business is wrong by Alastair Dryburgh. It is a book that challenges commonly accepted business “truths” and inspires you to go against the grain, think different, take risks and stand your ground in the face of the challenges that will come your way as a business owner.

Shameless plug for your business:
I’m the creator of the world’s first Chilli Crab Challenge. It gained viral celebrity earlier this year with 3 major newspaper features and more than a dozen blog and online publications featuring it in the span of two weeks. In the span of the two weeks, the campaign reached well over a million people in exposure without a single cent spent in ads.

Now I help F&B companies to tighten operations, increase profits and grow their businesses with my consulting and marketing services. Chilli Crab Challenge (https://www.chillicrab.com/nationalday)

How can people connect with you?
You can connect with me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/djtehkh) or visit www.rebirthacademy.sg for more information or book a 10 minute call with me @ www.tinyurl.com/dexclar

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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