CEO Series

Here’s How 2 Ex-Lawyers From New York Created Asia’s Best Bar According To A Venture Capitalist

Entrepreneurship can be exciting, yet daunting. It can fill new business owners with hope, but also trepidation – never being 100% sure what lies ahead.

Some people leave behind careers to pursue an idea entirely new, learning from scratch all over again.

While hopeful startups may face struggles to make it out there, some manage to break through from humble beginnings to industry-recognised success, and there’s no lack of homegrown companies that show us it’s possible.

A great example is 28 HongKong Street, a bar known for pioneering the local cocktail scene with its speak-easy style, clinching the title of Asia’s Best Bar in 2016, and placing Singapore bars on the global tipple map.

When two ex-lawyers, Spencer Forhart and Paul Gabie, along with a third partner and close friend Snehal Patel, quietly opened the watering hole in 2011, they never expected the booming growth that followed.

28 hongkong street
Image Credit: WTG Global

Foresight For Rising Trends

Forhart and Gabie, young lawyers at the time, were right at the heart of the exciting development in New York City’s bar scene in the early 2000s.

They witnessed the rise of bars dedicated to offering unique spirits and concocting craft cocktails with a focus on quality.

Upon relocating to Singapore for work in 2007, they recognised the local bar scene going through similar changes as New York’s did, and stayed on to seize an opportunity.

28 hongkong street cocktail
Image Credit: Hello Raya

With a focused vision, they carefully selected a location “near the city, but still very discreet” in Chinatown.

Forhart said it had just the vibe to give 28 HongKong Street the mystery and intrigue they intended, which added to the concept of luxury in ‘fine drinking’.

From Opening One Bar, They Became Consultants To Other Bars

Affectionately known as 28 by regulars, the bar now receives so many customers that you have to book seats a week in advance.

28 hongkong street
Image Credit: travel360

Some would take this success and rapidly open more bars all over town. But Forhart and Gabie saw a different need they could meet, and they diversified.

“Because we were not serving mass-market brands on the menu, we were finding it very difficult to get the bottles we wanted,” said Gabie in an interview.

“It made us realise that there was space for us to start our own procurement and distribution business, not just for our own benefit, but also for the local craft cocktail industry that was growing rapidly at the time.”

Based on the success of 28, the entrepreneur duo started Proof & Company within the next year, distributing craft products and offering consultancy to other bars.

Paul Santos was the first outside investor in Proof & Company when it was founded.

Demand for independent craft products has exploded and taken their distribution of Singapore to numerous regional markets, like Hong Kong, China, and Australia.

the proof flat
Image Credit: Proof & Company

Since then, they’ve also played an important role in the establishment of award-winning bars in Singapore, like Manhattan at the Regent Hotel, and ATLAS in Parkview Square. Both have made it into the top 5 of Asia’s Best Bars this year.

In 2017, all 3 bars made it into the World’s 50 Best Bars, a remarkable record never before achieved.

On top of that, Forhart and Gabie also invested in Australian craft spirits distributor, Neat Spirits, firmly establishing their presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Proof & Company has grown quickly in 6 years since its founding in mid 2018.

Now, the group has more than 100 employees across Asia Pacific with offices across Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney and Auckland.

It all started with a small idea—a small business in a small country that did very well and opened up the door to much greater opportunities.

28 hongkong street
Image Credit: Proof & Company

How A Mentor’s Experience Can Help Small Businesses

Achieving even half the success of a business like Proof & Company may seem far out of reach for someone who thinks they have a brilliant idea but has no clue about how to proceed with it.

In fact, according to Startup Genome’s 2017 report, Singapore is abundant in entrepreneurial talent, but greatly lacking in startup experience.

To support aspiring entrepreneurs, Singapore Management University’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship is organising a course from 3 September to 13 September, Searching and Validating Entrepreneurial Opportunities.

Over two weeks, participants will learn from esteemed instructor, Paul Santos, previously mentioned investor in Proof & Company, who designed and instructs the course.

After all, new ideas emerge incredibly frequently, so tapping on the mind of a veteran could be an opportunity to help an inexperienced business owner set themselves apart in the crowd.

The bar is one of the many Asian successful startups that will be used as a case studies to teach participants how to identify entrepreneurial opportunities and challenge and improve their own business ideas.

proof and co founder
Image Credit: Proof & Company

Participants can look forward to guest speakers like Proof & Company’s Co-founder and Chairman, Spencer Forhart, and Co-founder and Commercial Director, Paul Gabie.

Ankiti Bose, Co-founder and CEO of fashion and lifestyle marketplace Zilingo, will also be sharing her perspective on her own entrepreneurial journey.

Lessons From A Venture Capitalist And A Management Legend

In a recent interview, Santos shared that, “There were a few things I wished I knew earlier about entrepreneurship and that would be good if I shared it with other people who aspired to be entrepreneurs”.

paul santos vc
Image Credit: Paul Santos

Participants can gain insights from Santos’ vast experience as a venture capitalist and an entrepreneur.

He has invested in over 80 startups in Southeast Asia, including Luxola (acquired by LVMH), Pie (acquired by Google), Zilingo, Structo, Coin.ph, Silent8 and Lynk.

As an entrepreneur, he co-founded 6 companies across multiple industries, and sold 3 of them.

The SMU course will also be based around modern management legend, Peter Drucker’s 7 sources of innovative opportunity.

Author of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Drucker’s insights on management and business leadership has left lasting impacts in the industry worldwide.

SMU believes lessons from these mentors will be invaluable to startup owners who have hit a wall in their development, SME owners exploring new business ideas, or even to-be entrepreneurs still on the lookout for an idea.

While Singapore is a small country, it’s also a melting pot of people with their mix of cultures and ideas, making it a fertile environment for new businesses to blossom.

Through learning about other Singapore-based startups that have made it through the clutter, aspiring entrepreneurs would gain insights they can apply to make their own ideas work.

Searching and Validating Entrepreneurial Opportunities will be conducted on evenings from 3 September to 13 September 2018, and interested parties can already start registering for the course.

To find out more about this learning opportunity, you can also register to attend an info session with Paul Santos on 1 August 2018.

This article was written in collaboration with SMU.

Featured Image Credit: Proof & Company

 

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