At the tender age of 15, David Hwang was already working in the optical business, albeit as an apprentice.
Despite the young age, the boy already had a clear vision (no pun intended): he wanted to set up his own optical store one day.
After serving the army, he had wanted to put his grand plan into motion — but had no money. He tried getting investors to help him kickstart the business, but no one believed in him because he was still a “young boy”.
Months later, his friend decided to invest in the business and they soon became partners. The shop did well for a good two years before his partner tried to take over it, and this ultimately ended their friendship and business.
But David wasn’t ready to give up on his dreams just yet.
After getting married at age 23, he started his own optical shop at International Plaza in 1985 called Eden Eyeland with his wife.
There were very few competitors back then, so they had a first-mover advantage and managed to sell many designer eyewear brands.
Pivoting From Wholesale To Manufacturing
Then in 1995, David decided to branch out and start a wholesale arm as well as set up chain stores.
“During his search for frames at exhibitions to add to his wholesale collection, he realised that styles were always repeated. There was nothing unique — frames were still clumsy, ill-fitting, and unflattering,” said his eldest son, Silas Hwang, as he recounts his family business’ history.
“This was when he changed the wholesale business to a design and manufacturing business. He started sourcing for quality materials and crafting his own frames in designs he personally liked.”
Within the span of just two years, David’s design and manufacturing business arm — Emsley Eyewear Design — was exporting frames all over Europe, North America, and some parts of the Middle East.
Today, Emsley has been running for over 30 years. Meanwhile, his retail arm had closed down in October 2014 after almost 20 years of operation.
It’s unclear why he shuttered Eden Eyeland, but in an interview with Selah, David said that he had “lost close to S$3 million” and incurred countless debts due to “poor business decisions”.
The 1997 Asia financial crisis only made things worse, pushing him to the brink of bankruptcy.
Regardless, these two businesses made up the main pillars upon which O+ is built on.
A Fresh Start With Young Bloods
With a firm determination to start things anew, David wanted to revamp and rebrand the retail front of his business.
He was excited about the idea, but didn’t have the capacity to focus on that entirely. Coincidentally, his eldest son Silas decided to join the business at this opportune timing.
Together, they conceptualised and launched minimalist eyewear label O+ in 2014, which is aptly named after the family’s blood type.
Because of their family’s heritage as frame designers and manufacturers, they wanted to play to their strengths and churn out designs that “remain true to [their] tastes“.
“O+ is the first local grown single label eyewear brand with a true manufacturing background. Our aim was to design timeless and high-quality pieces without the premium price,” said Silas, 29.
Silas was only 25 when he became business partners with his dad. He had zero relevant experience — he was previously working in a startup, before he moved on to the real estate industry.
But growing up, both Silas and Shamus (his younger brother) were constantly exposed to the business.
“My father often brought us along on business trips and factory visits. So over the years, we [learnt the] ins and outs [of the business],” said Silas.
This also explained why Shamus, 26, gradually gained an interest and decided to join the business early at just 23.
Shamus, who has a background in engineering and mathematics, is now the head designer for O+.
After returning from studying in London, he picked up design skills from his father. Even nitty-gritty details such as the nose bridge measurements, and why a certain hinge is more suited in a specific frame can make a world of difference in terms of design.
While he strongly factors in the aesthetic aspect, Shamus also works hand-in-hand with Silas to ascertain if a particular design is viable for sale.
He shared in a separate interview that he even developed a 3D design and printing system to help drastically reduce prototyping time.
At the end of the day, it’s clear that O+ has absolute control of its products, and this independent management is what sets it apart from its competitors in the industry.
A Rough Start
When O+ first launched, its concept was still not firm and evolving.
“We were contemplating on many different ideas, and of course there were disagreements. But I’m glad my Dad [trusted me enough to] give me the freedom to try things, even if things didn’t work out like the way we imagined them to be,” said Silas.
Business did relatively well — they had pumped in $300,000 to kickstart it and took about only a year to break even.
But as part of O+’s rebranding in 2016, the family moved the business to Ang Mo Kio Hub, which turned out to be a huge mistake.
“We opened our store in an area that already had a lot of discount opticians. It also didn’t help that our store, with its open concept design and minimalist interiors, looked quite expensive — even though our frames were not. People were too intimidated to come in and we were not able to attract the target audience,” Silas told The Straits Times.
Thankfully, on the day their lease expired, they received an invitation to come to Downtown Gallery (their current location).
The mall, with its bustling business crowd and curated tenant mix, turned out to be exactly what they needed.
After the rebranding and relocation, their revenue increased by 50 per cent, and they took less than 6 months to break even.
“It was a difficult process, but we’re glad to have learnt a great deal from this to arrive where we are at today,” said Silas.
A Second Store And Overseas Expansion On Their Business Map
While the brothers have gotten a stronger foothold in the business, they still attribute much of their success to their father, who is still very much involved in the business.
Silas said they are constantly learning from him, and he doubles as their mentor both in life and business.
He added that the family business has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the years, but the only reason they’ve survived for over three decades in this industry is because of two key values: service excellence and quality.
Moreover, the industry is fraught with all sorts of challenges: lasik, contact lenses, online and discount stones, merging oligopolies, et cetera.
“We believe in taking one step at a time to cope with the struggles of this industry [and we are always] ready to learn and adapt to an ever-changing business landscape. Being the first-movers do not necessarily mean you’ll have the best advantage,” said Silas.
“Ultimately, it’s important to not be afraid to fail. A failure doesn’t mean the end of the road.”
Looking forward, the Hwang brothers shared their plans to open a second store within the next few months. With the launch of this new store, they expect their staff headcount to also increase by the end of the year.
They emphasised that they are always on the lookout for the “right opportunities” and are currently in talks to expand overseas in Europe.
Featured Image Credit: Tung Pham via The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore