Singaporean

How These S’pore Entrepreneurs Kept Their Hopes And Businesses Alive During A Recession

The recession has hit many businesses in the face, resulting in store closures and a slew of bankruptcies such as sportswear retailer Sportslink, minimalist lifestyle brand MUJI and supplement retailer GNC.

However, there are some Singaporean entrepreneurs who have gritted their teeth, displayed courage and perseverance, and are encouraging fellow Singaporeans to do the same.

These individuals are living proof that the Covid-19 pandemic was not going to dampen their passions and kept their businesses going despite tough times.

Three local entrepreneurs share with Vulcan Post how they have weathered through the difficulties and sustained their businesses during this crisis.

Manning A Hawker Centre Stall Alone But Not Giving Up

For 62-year-old Tan Mui Choo, she has been single-handedly manning the Cuppage Fried Kway Teow Hokkien Mee stall at Hong Lim Food Centre that she shares with her husband.

Her husband, Cher Kay Hion, has been recuperating from an injury so she is the only one operating the hawker centre stall now.

The husband-and-wife duo has been frying char kway teow and hokkien mee for over 20 years.

“I just put the “Self-Service” sign lor,” she laughed rather good-naturedly, when asked how she has been coping with the roles of a cook and a server.

When the circuit breaker and dining-in ban were implemented in April this year, just like many other hawkers, she knew that sales would be affected greatly.

She then took a short break for about a month to reflect and rest before returning to work.

When she reopened the stall, it was tough as sales had plummeted drastically with no dine-in customers and they had to depend solely on takeaways.

Before Covid-19, she worked at the stall till 3.30pm but now she extends her working hours to 5.30pm.

Hawkers Cher Kay Hion and Tan Mui Choo / Image Credit: Cuppage Fried Kway Teow Hokkien Mee

“You must sacrifice,” she said. She wakes up around 4 or 5 in the morning and reaches Hong Lim Food Centre by 7 where she has her breakfast. After that, she will prepare the stall for business and by 10.30am, she’s ready to take in orders.

She lamented that her profit margin is very low and that ingredients are very expensive. She added that “they are lucky that the rental fee of the stall is just $320 so they can cover [it]”.

When asked about how many plates she used to sell a day, she simply said that “[she] will sell till [she] makes a profit, and then close the stall”.

Cuppage Fried Kway Teow Hokkien Mee is one of the 14,000 stallholders in National Environment Agency (NEA) markets and hawker centres who benefited from NEA’s five-month rental waiver – 50 per cent in March, full rental waiver from April to July, and a 50 per cent rental waiver in August.

Back in April, NEA announced that they will provide a one-time funding of S$500 to stallholders who engage food delivery platforms or third-party logistics partners to deliver food to their customers during a certain period of time.

The hawker couple has since onboarded their stall onto hawker food delivery platform WhyQ, in a bid to sustain the business.

Mui Choo is glad that she did so because business improved through the online platform and she could continue her passion: whipping up plates of fried noodles for customers.

On whether her two sons have plans to take over the stall, she laughed and said that the younger generation does not wish to take over the back-breaking business.

However, she lets on that she is open to nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs or anyone who wants to cook and sell fried noodles.

From Fitness Gear To Kitchen Utensils

Haslinda Ali has more than 20 years of television experience in producing, writing and researching.

She used to be a TV presenter on MediaCorp’s Suria channel. In 2000, she left MediaCorp and founded a media production and social media content agency Screenbox with her husband.

In 2002, she had her first daughter. “It is very easy to put on weight after pregnancy,” she said.

She used that as an excuse for piling on the kilos and shelved the thought of losing weight.

“After I got my second daughter, I realised that it is not a healthy mindset,” she added.

Haslinda then leveraged her Facebook profile to reach out to her fans and working mummies and shared secrets with each other on how to stay slim and healthy.

The response rate was so good that she decided to start FitFab by Haslinda Ali, a Muslimah Fitness and Wellness movement with the aim of showing that keeping fit need not be a chore but a lifestyle choice.

Before Covid-19, FitFab had more than 13 zones of Fitness and Nutrition programmes running across Singapore on a weekly basis.

She held fitness classes, organised boot camps and motivated the members to keep fit.

FitFab fitness class
Image Credit: Haslinda Ali’s Facebook Page

Haslinda also created a line for plus-sized women who are deterred from exercising because they have trouble finding clothes suitable for them. The line consists of a range of hijabs and long-sleeved sportswear available on her e-commerce site, Fitfab.sg.

“When the circuit breaker hit us, classes were cancelled and even when Phase 2 kicked in, gatherings could only be kept to five people each,” said Haslinda.

During the fasting month, she reflected on how her business could “bounce back”.

She pivoted her fitness classes online and held virtual training sessions via Zoom. There were take-ups, but it was not sufficient to make up for the huge portion of income lost from her physical fitness classes.

She also filmed a live cooking session with her husband on social media and the response rate was good. People started following her recipes and wanted to know where she got her cooking equipment from.

Haslinda Ali and Sujimy Mohamad
Haslinda Ali with husband / Image Credit: Sujimy Mohamad’s Facebook page

This triggered her to expand her e-commerce website to include cooking ware. She imported kitchenware through a local distributor and the products were sold out quickly on the site.

As a result, her e-commerce sales during the circuit breaker saw a 200 per cent increase and “now about 300 per cent increase with the right projects (pivoting to virtual training sessions and expanding to cookware)”.

To date, she has gained over 30,000 followers on her social media and has received a lot of support in her sharing of healthy recipes and her workout regime.

Haslinda wants to inspire struggling entrepreneurs to keep their businesses going.

“Entrepreneurs have to adapt quickly to the new normal and think of new ways to survive. We have to accept that things will not be going back to how they were before.”

“Those who are hoping that business will go back to the usual are in denial. It is important that business owners need to evolve along with the circumstances,” she said.

Reining In Their Expenses

For Vinod Nair, founder and CEO of personal finance portal MoneySmart, the failure of his first business venture did not deter him from pursuing his entrepreneurial dream.

The 38-year-old’s first venture — property search engine HomeSpace — became defunct in 2008 because he faced stiff competition and acted on the wrong advice.

“As Mike Tyson once famously said, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’. We found ourselves in a position where the previous plan wouldn’t work in the current circumstances and we had to think differently in order to survive and emerge stronger,” said Vinod.

The Ngee Ann Polytechnic IT and NUS Computing graduate did not give up and set up his second business, MoneySmart.sg, in 2009.

After the first four rocky years, the firm earned a five-digit net profit in 2016.

Vinod Nair
Vinod Nair / Image Credit: MoneySmart.sg

However, when Covid-19 hit Singapore, MoneySmart saw a decline in search volumes for many financial products.

With the decline in travel globally, verticals like travel insurance were not longer viable revenue sources for us. They also saw banks tightening their criteria for products like personal loans and home loans.

“We had to take measures to reduce our expenses so that we could ride out this storm,” said Vinod.

“With over 120 people in MoneySmart, many people have taken a leap of faith by joining us instead of a corporation. I have a great deal of responsibility resting on my shoulders to see this company through this storm as the livelihoods of many of my colleagues are dependent on me. Failure is not an option and we will do our best to preserve as many jobs as possible,” he explained.

With that, the team gritted their teeth and cut down on any expenses “that aren’t absolutely necessary to get to the longest runway possible without destroying too much value”.

Employees also worked longer hours to keep the business going and as a result, the business was able to pull through.

“With more of our staff working from home we actually felt that people tended to work longer hours as the lines between work and home were blurred,” said Vinod.

To show how much he values the team and their efforts, he gave his employees a company-wide day off as a gesture of appreciation.

Keeping Their Hopes And Passions Alive

Hawker Mui Choo, influencer Haslinda and founder Vinod are just a few examples of individuals who empower other Singaporeans to do what they love in this city of possibilities — regardless of whether you are an artist, entrepreneur, frontline worker or civil servant.

Over the last few months, we have seen the display of passion, tenacity and determination of many Singaporeans from all walks of life, stepping up and forward.

Years of hard work would have been negated by the Covid-19 pandemic and it is easy to throw in the towel, yet this trio are real-life examples that displayed how important it is to not give up easily and give us hope and inspiration to carry on the Singaporean spirit.  

If you would like to do your part and invoke hope and positivity to the community during this time, share your stories online with the hashtag #ThisisSG

ThisisSG is a national campaign that hopes to promote the pursuit of passions in Singapore and rally support for the members of our community.

When we bring members of our community together, they make so much more possible for one another.

Featured Image Credit: Cuppage Fried Kway Teow Hokkien Mee / Haslinda Ali’s Facebook page / Glassdoor

This article is written in collaboration with SGBO.

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