A bunch of thoughtfully arranged blooms is an age-old way to say “thank you”, or “I love you”.
With an abundance of new-age florists sprouting into the scene, bringing fresh trends like budget-friendly bouquets, everlasting roses and flower-sharing for weddings, Singaporeans have more options now than ever.
But even as the industry changes, local pioneers find ways to keep their roots strong.
Last year, we interviewed the second-gen owner of one of Singapore’s oldest florists, Far East Flora, who shared about how they strengthened up over the years with digitisation.
Another company Singaporeans will be familiar with is Xpressflower.com, which was also a first-mover into e-commerce, as their name suggests.
Although they now have a chain of 18 stores and a café concept in Singapore, and even send bouquets across the globe, their founder Joseph Soh hadn’t wanted to sell flowers at first.
We had a chat with him to find out how he arrived at where he is today.
Learning The Ropes From His Sisters
Joseph grew up in a family of 10 siblings, of which he was the second youngest.
For parents to raise such large families in those days, they weren’t able to send their children through a full regime of education which is the norm for us now, and many of Joseph’s siblings started their own businesses out of necessity.
So when some of his older sisters started running a flower stall, he tagged along at just 10-years-old.
As a kid, I was just kaypoh to go and help out. My sisters’ shop was at Redhill, but during Chinese New Year they took a temporary stall at Chinatown, and I went to help for that period.
Those were the days he experienced selling flowers out of the back of a van, and running away when the “di gu” (police) came.
Years later, his sisters took a change of route into the printing industry and he continued helping them during school holidays. As he noticed they were “more successful” in that venture, Joseph began to develop an ambition to start his own printing business.
He first started off as an employee in a Japanese printing firm after graduating, followed by joining Singapore National Printers.
“I was in the trade for about 5 years,” Joseph tells us.
While he was working to gain knowledge and open his own company one day, he never thought he would be returning to flowers.
But fate would have it this way—and all it took was one article in a magazine that Joseph browsed on his flight during a business trip to Australia.
“[I was reading] about how the export of dried Australian wild flowers was booming in Japan.”
“In my mind [I started thinking]: If it goes to Japan, it will come along to the ‘Four Tigers of Asia’, which are South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore,” he recalls.
Wasting no time to jump on the opportunity, Joseph took a 2-hour drive out of Melbourne to meet with farmers, and kickstarted his first step into entrepreneurship by importing dried flowers in 1995.
Pick The Battles You Can Fight
As a crucial key in his journey, Joseph also shares that his decision to strike out on his own was impacted by an awakening push he faced in the army.
To be frank, I didn’t come from a family that is rich. My dad raised ten of us by being a bus conductor. He was the person who used to issue tickets to passengers [before ezlink cards came about].
“There was no such thing as tuition, so at whatever level of studies I could reach, I would just go to work from there,” he says.
For that reason, he considers himself “lucky” that he did well enough to get into university, and likewise climb the ranks to become an officer in his NS days.
For Joseph, it was “a really big eye-opener” to find himself among peers “from the top junior colleges in Singapore” when he went through the officer cadets’ course.
He recounts how they went through a gruelling regime that had them sleeping at midnight, reporting for ‘turn outs’ at 2am, rising for breakfast and physical training at 5.30am, while still having to attend lectures at 7.30am daily.
“You can imagine what happens during the lectures—everybody was sleeping. But the other guys would still score distinctions, while I nearly failed,” he says.
Since then, Joseph realised he couldn’t compete by going neck and neck to vie for positions in banks and MNCs, with others who would be graduating into the job market alongside him.
Because of that, I decided that wherever I’m going, I’m not going to walk the same path [as others]. I have to, in a way, carve out my own direction.
Building His Own Walls
After supplying his imports to local florists for some time, Joseph was encouraged to give retail a try.
However, he soon realised selling dried flowers alone wouldn’t make much in Singapore’s small market, and decided he had to bring in fresh flowers too.
He secured his first retail store when the landlord at Century Square offered him a “very tiny space”, he tells us while gesturing to the area that roughly one group-seating table now occupies at his café.
While I thought that was a humble beginning, Joseph’s first office was even more so.
He had to quite literally build his business, by putting up a formation of metal racks to prevent the air conditioning from escaping in the first space he could rent.
But challenging times didn’t give him hazy vision. Back in 2001, he recognised the huge role the internet would play in the future, and set up Xpressflower.com as an online business.
Unlike the way e-commerce thrives today, having an online shop wasn’t an obvious choice at the time.
In those days, nobody buys online. It was like trying to set up a business at the graveyard—nobody goes there.
Joseph also focused just as much on building brick-and-mortar stores, as he believes an actual visit to the florist should feel as personal as a trip to your trusted hairdresser.
Having scaled up so much since then, he admits it’s an even bigger challenge now to “balance between creativity and uniformity” as Xpressflower expands.
Now, the business is vastly different than before.
Besides having two spacious office units with cold rooms to hold new imported flowers, they also clinched an exclusive license to produce designs with Disney characters.
On top of that, they’re a member of InterFlora, an organisation that selects florists of high standard to fulfil international orders.
Xpressflower.com sowed its seeds in the Philippines with its first branch in Manila two years ago, as they plan for further expansion into Indonesia next.
In 2018, the company raked up about $6.7 million in revenue.
Through all of this, Joseph credits his involvement in flower importing for giving his business more resources to gain an edge over its competitors.
Flowers, Food And Furniture
Taking on unfamiliar challenges continued to be a pattern for Joseph, which led him to add F&B and furniture into his repertoire in 2016.
These new verticals came into play as he was inspired by the way florists in Hong Kong made do with limited space in their tight little shophouses.
When I walked [into a café in Hong Kong], I saw there were plants on the right, a girl arranging flowers on the left, and I could smell coffee in the air.
To replicate the idea at a larger scale, he bought an entire 2,600 sq ft warehouse unit “for a record price of $4 million”, where he created Knots Café and Living.
At a glance, the collection of furniture, decorations and flowers look like they were added to build the café’s warm, homely ambience—but in fact, these all can be purchased too.
While Joseph had some connections in the furniture trade that helped him get started with his curation, he was close to clueless heading into F&B.
Still, he went through as much coffee tasting as he could manage, and even learnt to brew it himself back when he had to support his first hired chef.
For a period of time, there was only one qualified chef in the kitchen, while Joseph and a marketing manager from Xpressflower scrambled to learn any cooking they could to cover the bases.
Now that he has a crew with the proper expertise on board to serve up delectable dishes, Knots draws in a decent lunchtime crowd of working professionals in the area.
Beyond reaping his successes, Joseph also believes in running a business that gives back to society.
If diners may notice there are special needs workers among the crew at Knots, this has actually been a practice that started years back in Xpressflower, to provide jobs for ex-convicts and people with disabilities.
Featured Image Credit: Simitaiseng / Xpressflower.com