Back in 2017, The Golden Duck founders was listed on Forbes’ acclaimed 30 under 30 list for their coveted salted egg yolk snacks.
In a previous Vulcan Post interview, co-founder Jonathan Shen, 30, proudly shared that they “peddle around a thousand packets of addictive snacks per day.”
That’s a significant achievement, considering that they only had two salted egg yolk products (potato chips and fish skin crisps) in their arsenal.
A lot has changed since then, with the introduction of new flavours and skyrocketing sales. But how exactly did two young millennials turn their snacks into a beloved homegrown brand?
Lost S$1 Million From Their Joint Nightclub
“In my early twenties, I learnt the hard knocks of business life through a few start-ups in events, media, and F&B/nightlife marketing,” said Jonathan.
Jonathan and fellow co-founder Chris Hwang, 27, got acquainted with each other through a mutual friend back in 2012.
At that time, Jonathan was running an events and marketing company, while Chris was pursuing a law degree at the National University of Singapore.
Chris later dropped out of the university, but had an illustrious academic background regardless — he is an alumnus of the Singapore Sports School and Raffles Junior College.
The two hit it off and went on to open a nightclub together called Vice in Clarke Quay in December 2014.
A legal dispute later forced the club to close down in just four months. Albeit a short-lived venture, it caused them to lose a hefty S$1 million.
“It was out of our control when the company that held our lease was forced to wind up,” said Jonathan.
“Through that failure, I grew close to Chris (my investor at the time) and after a period of reflection and recalibration, we started The Golden Duck.”
The Golden Duck Hatched
Jonathan had noticed the rising popularity of salted egg yolk as people started actively “posting pictures of the age-old flavour on new mediums such as buns, pastries and desserts.”
“When I caught up with an old chef friend of mine, he said he was confident of replicating the flavour onto multiple mediums.”
He attempted to pair the salted egg yolk flavour with potato chips and after “30 rounds of research and development (R&D)”, The Golden Duck was born.
The two pumped in over $30,000 of their savings to launch the business in November 2015.
Jonathan and Chris were aged 26 and 23 respectively then, and faced a lot of doubts and skeptical remarks from naysayers.
According to Jonathan, because they were both Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) graduates, many people had the impression that they hail from well-to-do families.
We used to get comments such as ‘where did you get your capital from?’ and ‘who’s funding this business for you?‘, subtly implying that we had help from our parents.
“[We] had to rely almost entirely on our acumen and lessons learnt from past failures to steer this ship early on. Till this day, when we meet people for the first time, we still get told that they expected to see much older [men].”– Jonathan Shen, co-founder of The Golden Duck
No Salary For About A Year
Jonathan previously shared with Vulcan Post that they had a tough time scaling the business in the early days due to manpower shortage.
They couldn’t secure staff who were willing to work at a low price, and also couldn’t find proper kitchens that can cope with production demands.
They resorted to renting a kitchen space in a friend’s restaurant every night after it closed for business.
From 10pm onwards, their chef will manually produce as many salted egg yolk flavoured chips as possible.
Without the luxuries of external funding or support, the two had no choice but to wear multiple hats.
They had to literally get hands-on with the business operations, from slicing potatoes by hand to making their own delivery rounds.
We bootstrapped most of our first year of operation, not paying ourselves a salary for about a year.– Jonathan Shen, co-founder of The Golden Duck
This meant that they couldn’t afford to quit their day jobs just yet — Jonathan was holding a managerial position in an F&B company, and Chris was still studying law while running another venture.
“We worked longer hours on weekdays, and used the weekends to make The Golden Duck work,” added the 30-year-old.
It takes a special kind of mindset to be able to get down and dirty for the business when required, and do it with a smile on your face. Not many young entrepreneurs possess this kind of grit nowadays.– Jonathan Shen, in a 2017 interview with Vulcan Post
Sold 100 Packets A Day At Launch
The duo had $35,000 in initial capitalisation, and spent about $20,000 of it before even launching their product. The bulk of it was spent on R&D as well as machinery.
Their investment paid off — sales was doing so well that they broke even in just four months.
The Golden Duck made its public debut through a pop-up store at Suntec City.
Given that they were pioneers of the salted egg yolk snack, the duo was unsure of how sales would turn out. Contrary to expectations, they sold out within the first six hours of operation.
They stocked 100 packets a day (due to limited production capacity), and successfully sold all daily.
The pop-up stall turned out to be a good business strategy — it served as a launchpad that allowed them to test the market, and operational costs was also low.
To accommodate to the high demand, the two decided to venture into online delivery.
Without any coding experience, they developed their own website and partnered with Oddle — a local startup that builds online ordering systems — to deliver snacks to offices within the Central Business District.
Demand surged again a month later, forcing them to move production to a larger kitchen and open a physical store.
While pop-ups were good for a short stint, people were asking us on Facebook and in emails: ‘Hey, where did you guys go?’
We realised that the traction we built in each spot was being lost without something a little more permanent. So in 2016, we actually opened our first store, which was at Chinatown Point.– Jonathan Shen, in a 2018 interview with Southeast Asia Global
This move was a “turning point” for The Golden Duck because it generated constant sales for them.
Compared to its rival Irvin’s, The Golden Duck was also the first to open a permanent store, which proved to be “very profitable” for them.
From Pop-Up Stall To 1,500 Points Of Sale Internationally
Each packet retails at $7, which definitely sits on the pricier side in the snack market.
Jonathan reasoned that “the ingredient costs to produce a snack of this caliber are high.”
Unlike other snack companies that use flavouring powders and oils, The Golden Duck starts the process with sourcing fresh ingredients from markets.
It was between $7 and $8 (we actually argued long and hard about this *laughs*) because anything lower would result in us not making enough of a profit to stay afloat in the long-term.
We ended up deciding on $7 because we felt that it was what people would be willing to pay to make this snack a part of their snacking habits. Our pricing remains, 4 years on and millions of packs later.– Jonathan Shen, co-founder of The Golden Duck
Although they started from a humble pop-up store, The Golden Duck has rapidly expanded to 1,500 points of sale internationally — mainly in premium, gourmet convenience chains and supermarkets — by the end of 2018.
They also have distributors in countries such as Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Giving New Life To Age-Old Favourites
The Golden Duck launched at the peak of the salted egg trend, so is their success simply a matter of opportunistic timing?
We saw something blowing up and we capitalised. But growing the business and brand after the dust settles, that’s another ball game altogether.– Jonathan Shen, co-founder of The Golden Duck
He added that The Golden Duck never started out with the intention to be just another salted egg snack company.
“Early in our second year, we were already thinking up [of] new flavours and combinations beyond salted egg yolk.”
In 2018, they pivoted from salted egg yolk snacks and launched a chilli crab flavour containing real crab meat layered on crunchy seaweed tempura.
“We only took so long because we were constantly expanding our production capabilities to cater to the demand we were experiencing.”
“We have since grown a lot on all fronts, and that’s why in just a short six months after our Chili Crab launch, we launched a Mala Hotpot snack pack.”
This new snack is inspired by Chris’ obsession with mala dishes; and as part of the R&D process, the team even had to travel to China to search for authentic Sichuan flavours.
They ended up with a snack that comprises a medley of crispy fish skin, beancurd skin and a trio of crunchy mushrooms — all tossed in a spicy mala blend that is made up of 19 ingredients.
For every snack they churn out, the duo made sure that it tastes close to the actual dish, and better than existing snacks.
It’s clear that The Golden Duck has a lot of trendy flavours, from salted egg to their new mala snack. Since trends typically fade and die, will their business continue to be viable in the long run?
The beauty about the flavours we currently have is that they have been around for decades. Salted egg, even with its crazy popularity in the last few years, has actually been around since our parents’ generation.
The same [goes for] Chili Crab and Mala. With that perspective in mind, we’re actually not experimenting with trendy new flavours, but instead giving new life to age-old favourites.– Jonathan Shen, co-founder of The Golden Duck
What Dishes Can Be Turned Into A Snack?
What drives The Golden Duck is “snackology” — a self-coined term that refers to the obsessive art of turning complex flavours into gourmet snacks.
Sourcing for an innovative flavour has now become an occupational hazard. They always question if what they eat can be turned into a snack.
But of course, not all flavours will turn out good in a snack form. As they experiment with new flavours, they strictly follow one rule of thumb: never compromise on taste and quality.
In an interview with CNA, Chris revealed that they have killed several ideas — from chicken rice to ‘crispy rendang’, a notorious dish from MasterChef UK.
Regardless, Jonathan said they will continue pushing the envelope when it comes to innovation, exploring what a snack can be and changing mindsets around what it’s supposed to be.
When asked about potential new flavours, Jonathan kept a tight lid on it and vaguely said that possibilities are endless.
“Given where Singapore sits in Asia’s landscape, we are connected to over a billion tastebuds across many cultures, each with their own cuisines. I can’t really share what we’ll be dropping next, but Vulcan Post will be one of the first to know,” he said cheekily.
To date, their salted egg yolk fish skin crisps remain their best-seller internationally, selling over a million packs in 2018.
In Singapore, their sales have tripled within the past two years.
Its Salted Egg Crab Seaweed Tempura and Chilli Crab Seaweed Tempura have also seen significant uptake and now “make up a good percentage of [their] total sales.”
As Products Evolve, So Must The Company
Since their products tap on trendy flavours, the duo expected their business to slow down over time but they were proven wrong with consistently good sales.
In 2018, they realised that their company was “not fully equipped to handle the current scale of the business, and the expansion plans into 2019 and beyond.”
As the business scaled beyond our initial expectations, we started realising the need for capital to grow new revenue. Also, due to our lack of experience managing our finances, we had a couple of scares where we spent a little too much, too early.– Jonathan Shen, co-founder of The Golden Duck
Despite the struggles, the duo kept it in their stride and treated every mistake as a lesson.
“A strong senior management team was [also] becoming a pressing need if we were to continue to grow,” said Jonathan, lamenting the company’s growth pains.
As founders, our roles were quickly changing and pivoting. We maintain certain core roles, but given the fast growth of this company, founders often have to flow into roles that are required by the company [so we] relook our roles every six months or so.– Jonathan Shen, co-founder of The Golden Duck
“This is also to ensure that Chris and myself take ownership over different core areas of the business and maximise our attention and efficiency. Very rarely will you see us overlap on roles that do not demand both of our attention.”
As young individuals themselves, the duo tends to hire “young bright minds”. Despite their passionate spirit, they realised that these hires lacked the depth of experience required to make certain high-level decisions and steer the company in the right direction.
Since employees are the most valuable intangible assets to the company, their efficiency and talent determines the pace and growth of the organisation.
A company is only as good as the people it keeps, so hiring individuals who are skilled and knowledgeable is critical to a company’s success.
When asked to impart a piece of business advice for fellow entrepreneurs, Jonathan said that he has many to share, but shortlisted it to three key ones:
Firstly, actively choose to work with the right people. This starts with your business partners and extends outwardly to every work relationship you’re involved in. In fact, this is so important that it should be read as “actively refuse to work with the wrong people”.
Secondly, focus. It is better to do a handful of things with excellence, than do many things at 80% [effort].
Lastly, find out why you’re doing whatever you’re doing. As an entrepreneur, your purpose is the nucleus of everything you do and the thing that shapes your every decision, action and reaction. It will be what you fall back to in the lowest-of-lows, and the cause for greater celebration in the highest-of-highs.– Jonathan Shen, co-founder of The Golden Duck
Featured Image Credit: The Golden Duck