Education

He Left His Social Work Dream Job To Start Up - Opened 5 Art Enrichment Centres In 1.5 Years

There are so many enrichment classes in Singapore to cater to parents who want their kids to excel above the rest.

The stereotypical ‘kiasu’ Singaporean parent would sign their child up for language, math and science enrichment classes.

However, there’s also a wide variety of other enrichment programmes out there that focus on character building, and developing non-academic skills like acting, music, sports, baking, and art.

More than being good at studies, children should have the chance to explore avenues of creativity, know themselves better, and have fun as they grow.

Nick Kao, 35, and Lynn Teo, 34, believed in guiding kids to discover their own ideas, so they brought an award-winning art centre to Singapore to make it happen.

They discovered the Malaysian brand, Muzart, during one of its road shows in Johor Bahru.

Led by founder and CEO, Daphne Teh, the art enrichment centre, opened in 2009, is best known for its heuristic teaching methods, and has also won multiple awards.

An Entrepreneuring Couple

Ever since they met each other at the age of 18, Nick and Lynn had always dabbled in small businesses.

They started out trying to sell “random stuff” at roadshows and push carts, like toys, bags, watches and gifts.

Image Credit: Nick Kao and Lynn Teo

Gradually, they took to doing wholesale trading, and also found some success with an e-commerce venture on Qoo10.

However, the couple who have been married since 2011, have both had other dreams since they were young.

For Lynn, it was to be an art teacher. For Nick, it was to help others.

I always wanted to be a social worker since I was young as I enjoyed helping people,” Nick says.

However, I enjoyed working with Lynn on our business, and continued to support one another till I decided to move on to the social service sector.”

It wasn’t a simple and carefree decision to switch to social work, as Nick shares that he only managed to do it in his 30s, when they had “some level of financial freedom to pursue their dreams”.

But after only 3 years of work in a family service centre, it was for the sake of setting up Muzart that he left social work aside again in 2016.

muzart singapore
Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

Not Just Replicating A Model Art Piece

In a different way, Nick is still helping people through his work with Muzart.

What drew the couple to the award-winning art centre was that its curriculum helps children develop confidence and social and cognitive skills, beyond just learning how to do art.

As parents ourselves, we had also done some research about other existing art centres in Singapore,” Nick says.

We felt that a lot of art centres conduct their classes in a more traditional way, where students were not given much freedom to express themselves in their art pieces.”

muzart singapore
Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

In an earlier interview, Nick once explained how Muzart teachers guide students to think independently and discover their own creativity.

With a different subject to draw or paint every week, teachers will first take students through a mind-mapping process to decide what they would like to present in their finished piece.

Answers are not given straight away. Even when children don’t know how to paint, the teachers let them mess it up first, and then teach them how to problem solve.

Instead of reproducing a ‘model artwork’, the kids are allowed to be their own experts, resulting in hardly any two students with the same piece of work at the end of a class.

muzart art teacher
Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

He shares that teachers at Muzart always seek to build rapport with each student first, so they can understand their individual personalities and take them every step of the way, no matter what’s their pace.

“[Knowing that Muzart’s] heuristic art learning has helped thousands of children in Malaysia realise their artistic potential, we [wanted] to bring it over so that the children in Singapore can benefit too.”

muzart student
Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

Setting Up Base In Singapore

To do that, Nick and Lynn arranged a meeting with Muzart founder Daphne Teh to understand the business and its operations.

After discussing their potential partnership, Daphne agreed to make them a Master Franchisee with the obligation to help Muzart develop expansion plans through a robust franchise business model.

The couple tapped into savings they had accumulated over the years, and invested “a few hundred thousands” to set the business up in Singapore.

I roped in my elder sister to help with the recruitments [to get teachers for the centre], as she had vast experience in the HR sector,” Nick says.

Muzart Singapore’s first centre was opened on 1 January 2017 in Jurong East Central.

muzart jurong east
Opening of HQ at Jurong East / Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

Advocating The Importance Of Art Education

Before Nick confirmed it, we could already guess that the toughest hurdle was convincing Singaporean parents that academics aren’t the only important form of enrichment.

It was like going against the “natural” way things work here.

We had [sales] training in Malaysia, but we had to adjust some of the marketing techniques to fit the local culture,” Nick shares.

We not only had to convince that our art programme is good, but also educate them why art is an essential part of a healthy development for children growing up.”

muzart class
Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

If we started the centre around 5 years ago, we might have failed, as parents were more inclined to send their children for academic enrichment classes then.

However,” Nick tells us gladly, “we seem to see a shift in parent’s priorities for the children, where a happy and healthy childhood is just as important as academic success.”

Apart from kids, Nick and Lynn also noticed that adults were interested too, and they began introducing art jamming and art therapy sessions for all ages this year.

art jamming singapore
Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

Franchising In Just 4 Months

Nick and Lynn planned to give themselves a year to stabilise their own centre before beginning to franchise.

Instead, they grew much faster than expected due to positive reviews from customers, and rolled out the franchise programme just 4 months into Muzart’s launch.

muzart kids
Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

The franchise marketing programme was mainly launched on Facebook where we had more than 30 interested parties,” Nick says.

“We eventually shortlisted the candidates who were best aligned to the brand’s goals.”

Today, there are 5 Muzart centres around Singapore in Jurong East, Tampines, Yishun, West Coast and Bukit Timah, teaching about 800 students.

They’re planning to get new branches up and running in Hougang by August, East Coast by September, and Ang Mo Kio by the end of the year.

muzart yishun
Opening of Yishun branch / Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

An Extreme Introvert Breaking Out Of His Shell

While Muzart’s art curriculum helps children gain confidence in themselves, the entrepreneurial journey did the same for Nick.

He considered himself an extreme introvert, which proved to make networking and marketing for his business an arduous challenge.

Even in social work, Nick used to struggle with interaction.

He would use his lunch time as a break for himself in between talking to the families he helped, rejecting his colleagues’ invitations to eat together even if it may seem rude.

So to avoid meeting and speaking with people as he started up Muzart, he decided to get the brand out through social media.

His strategy of using Facebook marketing ads worked out wonderfully, gathering up hundreds of leads and getting the word of Muzart’s art classes out there.

“Some parents paid the deposit and confirmed their slots even as the centre was still undergoing renovations.”

While social media gave him the power to reach out to potential clients without getting out of his comfort zone, Nick has definitely had to work with people after all.

I’ve become more outgoing, I’m able to meet and speak with more people.

ntuc art elderly
Art Jam with NTUC Health SilverACE / Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

Through Muzart, Lynn has found the chance to be an art teacher in her own centre, and Nick has continued using art to help people.

They give back to the community by taking part in charity runs and organising art jamming sessions for the elderly.

Ultimately, Nick and Lynn hope to help more children in Singapore develop confidence and creativity that will stay with them through life.

“Eventually, we hope that Muzart will be a household brand in Singapore as we continue to advocate the important of art education in a child’s growing up years.”

Find out more about Muzart’s unique art courses here and follow them on Facebook here.

Featured Image Credit: Muzart Learning Centre Singapore

 

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