Often times, when we see a bunch of youngsters hanging out at the void deck, we shoot them a disapproving look, give a little tut, and think to ourselves that they are juveniles who have nothing better to do.
This of course is a mere generalisation, and not all who hang out at the void deck is up to something (bad).
This is especially untrue for the Reservoir Dayak (RSVR DYK) boys — Samir Seth and Izzat Asyraff Nahrawi — who have lucratively turned their HDB void deck at Bedok Reservoir (hence the name) into their personal workspace.
Affectionately called the ‘Dayak Council’, the void deck has been the place that had witnessed the duo’s blood, sweat and tears.
An Untapped Opportunity
The 30-year-old duo started up their own leather crafting business six years ago, shortly after their trip to Phuket together.
There, they met a Thai who was crafting and peddling his leather goods (ranging from accessories to bags and wallets) by the roadside. All he had was a very small space and few tools to work with. This however did not seem to pose a problem for the man at all.
Awe-struck and inspired by his excellent workmanship, they decided to support his business and bought plenty of leather goods from him as souvenirs for themselves and their family and friends. As they were handmade and not mass-produced, the quantity was limited and the man had to work longer than his regular hours to complete their orders for collection the following day.
“The man was extremely kind and his passion was clear to see,” said Izzat. “He indirectly shared his passion for leather craft to us and we decided to try it out as a hobby.”
“Back in Singapore, when friends saw us making our own leather goods at the void deck (Dayak Council), it sparked their interest and they wanted one for themselves too. That’s when we realised that there is a market for this, so we came to a decision to turn it into a business venture.”
Getting Down To Business
Ambitions are great, but you need to have the talent too.
Since neither of them had any deep knowledge on working with leather, they decided to have one-half of them take up a leather crafting class to hone their non-existent skills.
Samir religiously went for classes at Woodlands 313 leather shop conducted by a certain Mr Soh at the old Heeren shopping mall (now Robinsons Orchard) to learn the basic techniques and how to work the tools. Samir would then impart all the acquired knowledge to Izzat. Simply said, they killed two birds with one stone — they managed to save costs on the classes, but both benefitted from it.
Mr Soh wasn’t their only mentor though. They also received guidance from another renowned leather crafter, Mr Rahmat, who owned a shop at Jalan Kledek.
With all the training, support, and encouragement received, both of them grew in terms of skills until they are confident enough to take on customised orders from customers.
All of their products are built-to-order and hand-stitched. No form of machinery is used for their craft, which may come across as backward and inefficient, but Izzat insisted that he still prefers the traditional method.
“I strongly believe in making all my products by hand — all the cutting and stitching are done manually. This requires a lot of patience and care, especially since leather is a sensitive material, but all the hard work is reflected in the final product. The superior quality is visible, which my customers appreciate,” explained Izzat.
Another downside to handcrafting leather is that it is also time-consuming. In the early days, they took approximately a week to finish making a leather wallet or bag. But over time, they grew more adept at working with leather, and can now easily finish the said product in a span of one to three days.
The daily practice working on leather at the void deck for over 12 hours a day certainly paid off.
Money Is Never The Motivation
“We are an independent label with limited resources and manpower, so running the business was definitely not a smooth ride in the beginning,” said Izzat.
“We invested quite a fair bit to kickstart the business and we didn’t want to fork out more on renting a studio. We figured the HDB void deck would work just as well. It has a big table and ample lighting, and that’s all we need really.”
Converting the void deck into their personal workspace initially drew curious looks and annoyance from fellow residents and passersby. But people soon began to develop an understanding that they are just a group of boys who are using the public space to do something productive, putting their minds at ease.
“Senior citizens who often walk past the Dayak Council would sometimes drop by for a chat. Some also supported us by buying our products, and some offered words of advice and encouragement. Most importantly, we made sure to keep the noise level low so as not to disrupt other residents, and keep the space clean,” shared Izzat.
But I was still really curious about one thing – how much does this business make?
According to Izzat, their encounter with their muse in Thailand left a very deep impression on him. “The man was our role model — his products may be inexpensive, but they are of very good quality. He also went out of the way to fulfil our orders and that’s very heartwarming to see.”
This experience moulded the mantra for their business: selling quality products at reasonable prices, and providing good customer service.
Making a huge profit is, and never was, a priority for them.
Izzat also makes it a point to personally deliver the customised order to his customers just so he can put a face to their name and personally thank them. “Dealing via postage may be convenient, but I much prefer to build a rapport with my customers so as to build customer loyalty. Moreover, I believe word-of-mouth marketing is the best marketing tool out there to raise awareness for our brand,” said Izzat.
Standing Tall Alone
After four years of working together, Samir decided to split from their partnership and find a ‘proper’ job — a full-time job that offers regular income — so as to better support his family.
Izzat fully understood his situation and they amicably went their separate ways. Samir still helps out at the Dayak Council in his free time, but Izzat admits that it has been a tad taxing for him to work on the craft alone, especially when there’s an influx of orders.
The biggest order he’s had so far is customising 1,000 key fobs for wedding favours.
“It was a real challenge for me, especially when the wedding was only a month away. Time management was crucial, and it was important to divvy up my work across the weeks and work in a systematic manner. I also called up some of my neighbourhood friends to help me with the stitching, under my supervision of course,” he added.
When asked about his future plans, Izzat shared his dream of acquiring a new and bigger workspace so he can conduct workshops for fellow leather enthusiasts. He also hopes to expand his one-man team and hire staff who are as passionate at leather crafting as he is.
“Thinking about how far I’ve come over the past six years has been pretty surreal and I am constantly grateful for all the support that I have received from my family, friends and loyal customers. It has been a rewarding journey thus far and I have never regretted diving into this business as a full-time job.”
“They say passion don’t always pay the bills, but as long I’m happy and my customers are happy, that’s all that matters.”
Featured Image Credit: Hilmi Zailani