Entrepreneur

6 S'pore Entrepreneurs Who've Tasted Failure And Lost Up To $1M Before Finding Success

Failure is inevitable, any entrepreneur will tell you that. In fact, failed ventures serve as lessons for bigger things ahead.

Many entrepreneurs have actually went on to set up successful business empires despite losing a lot of money when they first started out.

If you ever feel worn down or intimidated by the thought of failing, just take a look at these six Singaporean entrepreneurs who failed before making it big.

Golden Duck – Jonathan Shen And Chris Hwang

Gourmet snack brand Golden Duck was founded by Jonathan Shen and Chris Hwang in 2015.

Their salted egg yolk snacks gained so much popularity that they “peddle around a thousand packets of addictive snacks per day.”

Subsequently, the Golden Duck founders were listed on Forbes’ acclaimed 30 under 30 list  in 2017.

Golden Duck chris hwang
Chris Hwang (left) and Jonathan Shen (right) / Image Credit: Golden Duck

However, Golden Duck was not their first venture. They had previously opened 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.”

Yummy Bros – Gerald Tan

Gerald Tan and Anson Lim are fitness junkies who hit the gyms often.

One day, the duo decided to skip ‘leg day’ and went for drinks instead. Over drinks, they complained about dieting.

While they love going to the gym, they don’t particularly enjoy watching what they eat. As a result, they decided to start a meal prep business that focuses on turning Asian food into healthy meals in 2018.

Yummy Bros
Anson Lim (left) and Gerald Tan (right) / Image Credit: Yummy Bros

In under three years, Yummy Bros has achieved seven-figure annual sales and grew over 400 per cent in revenue from the previous year.

However, it was not Gerald’s first time starting up a business as he had previously tried to build his own fashion and lifestyle media platform startup GetFash for a good three years, which “failed miserably”.

“We had two rounds of funding amounting to S$140,000 (but) bled money till there was nothing left,” said Gerald.

Irvins – Irvin Gunawan

Irvins was founded in 2015 by Indonesia-born serial entrepreneur Irvin Gunawan.

He first moved to Singapore with his family in 1998, and has dabbled in various F&B businesses over the years.

His first venture was Cocoba, which is a wordplay on chocolate bar. Unfortunately, it never got launched so he “went back to the drawing board and found that [his] family had a few recipes of Indonesian food.”

This led to the opening of his first restaurant Chilikong in Tanjong Pagar in 2007. It never broke even, and shut down in a span of two years.

Despite the failure, Irvin went on to open a few more restaurants, namely Irvin’s Seafood Cze Char in 2008, Irvin’s Live Seafood House in 2011 and Leban HK Café in 2012.

Irvins
Image Credit: Peter Guest via Nikkei Asian Review / ChinaHao.com

The zi char restaurant at River Valley did well, until they were forced to move out when their contract ended. The landlord increased the rental by almost 50 per cent, so they had to start from scratch again.

Despite its relocation, the seafood house did not do well and was “deep in the red every month” so they had to find a way to boost sales.

As a result, they started selling salted egg snacks after multiple rounds of experimentation for the perfect recipe.

They saw immense popularity in Singapore, and also launched their snacks overseas. Today, they are available in nine countries, including Dubai, United States, China, Japan and Taiwan.

Kueh Ho Jiak – Sandy Tan And Elizabeth Chan

Sandy Tan and her daughter Elizabeth Chan are the co-founders of Kueh Ho Jiak, who put a fresh spin on old-school confectioneries.

After operating a home-based business for some time, they decided to open a physical stall at Ci Yuan Hawker Centre in 2015, and later moved to Tanjong Pagar Plaza Food Centre in 2017.

Subsequently in 2019, they opened a café outlet at East Village in Bedok, which unfortunately turned out to be “a mistake”.

Kueh Ho Jiak
Image Credit: Kueh Ho Jiak

While they received crowds on weekends, business was not as good on weekdays.

Eventually, they felt that they could no longer justify bearing the rental costs for just two good days of business each week.

The failed venture cost them “six-digit figures”, but for them, they felt that the breakthrough was understanding their audience better and scaling back to focus on things that worked.

During the circuit breaker, they saw sales increase by “40 to 50 per cent” while most F&B businesses have struggled during the ‘circuit breaker’ period.

The Soup Spoon – Andrew Chan, Anna Lim And Benedict Leow

The Soup Spoon was founded by Andrew Chan, Anna Lim and Benedict Leow.

They invested S$250,000 in their first outlet at Raffles City in June 2002, targeting working professionals on the go.

The Soup Spoon
Image Credit: The Soup Spoon

On the back of the positive response from customers, they were motivated to open a second outle at United Square.

However, it was a huge failure as it closed down after just 1.5 years due to a mix of poor planning and bad luck. Business dwindled because of the SARS pandemic.

Two years later, they closed down their United Square outlet, which caused them to lose S$100,000.

They also downsized their 2,000 square-feet kitchen to 500 square feet and did catering to make ends meet.

Undeterred by this setback, the trio went on to expand their business and open a new outlet at Raffles Place in 2005 after conducting market research.

Learning from the downturn of the Novena outlet, The Soup Spoon started focusing on courting its core customer base of working adults.

Raffles Place proved to be a strategic location as the area is crowded with health-conscious and time-starved Singaporeans.

In 2008, their sales turnover hit $7.29 million and today, they are the biggest soup chain in Singapore.

Noosh Noodle Bar & Grill – Ummi Abdullah

In 2010, Madam Sa’adah Jan (who goes by the moniker Ummi Abdullah) suffered a failed conference management business venture with a partner.

This setback incurred her a S$100,000 debt, and she had to sell off her four-room flat, have her car repossessed, and even let her maid go.

Her family of five then had to move into a one-room rental flat with her sister and cancer-stricken mother.

They also lived on a very tight budget of about only S$300 a month, as the bulk of her husband’s salary went to repaying her debt.

Ummi Abdullah
Image Credit: Dapur Ummi Abdullah / Parenthetical Pilgrim

To make a comeback, she decided to start a home-cooked meal business. Her venture immediately took off, with deliveries made to 300 families everyday.

After two years, she opened a stall at a coffeeshop in Kelantan Lane, before relocating again to Tanah Merah Country Club in November 2012.

Business was so good that she took the leap and opened a 60-seater restaurant in Bedok called Ambeng Cafe. Ummi soon earned the nickname ‘queen of nasi ambeng’, but she did not rest on her laurels.

She went on to make her mark in the industry with various F&B ventures – Tiffin Club (a cafe for The Esplanade’s staff lounge), Noosh Noodle Bar & Grill, and Anggerik Bakery in 2016.

Failure Is The Mother Of Success

Successful entrepreneurs frequently speak of the need to pivot and use failure to help shape future decisions.

Virgin’s Richard Branson once wrote: “Nobody gets everything right the first time … Successful entrepreneurs don’t fear failure; they learn from it and move on.”

Almost every successful entrepreneur has failed at least once. Whether it’s having their business idea rejected, making a wrong decision or not reacting to changes fast enough, running a business is never easy.

Some of the most amazing entrepreneurs out there have hit road bumps on their path, but they ultimately succeed with grit and perseverance.

Featured Image Credit: Irvins / Golden Duck / Dapur Ummi Abdullah / The Soup Spoon / Kueh Ho Jiak / THe Fit Loco

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