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4 Singapore start-up businesses that have flourished despite the pandemic

Samantha Chiew & Jasmine Alimin
Samantha Chiew & Jasmine Alimin • 14 min read
4 Singapore start-up businesses that have flourished despite the pandemic
These local entrepreneurs share with us how their start-up businesses have managed to flourish despite the pandemic
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It has been more than a year since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Singapore. Many businesses especially suffered due to the pandemic; some shuttered their doors and some are still struggling to stay afloat. However, there were others who took the situation by their hands and managed to build a name for themselves.

Singapore might be in what some people are calling “circuit breaker 2.0”, as dining in at restaurants are once again prohibited and safe-distancing measures are heightened as only groups of two are allowed to be out. But for these companies that Options spoke to, this latest round of stricter measures could be a boost, just like how the previous one was for them.

Specialising in fermented products, such as kombucha and kefir milk, Lau started her business in her home with just $1,000 in capital from her savings — and sheer determination

Brewing healthy drinks with a local flavour
At just 22 years old, Adele Lau, a polytechnic fresh graduate, decided to take the plunge and start her own small business — Le Vyr. Specialising in fermented products, such as kombucha and kefir milk, Lau started her business in her home with just $1,000 in capital from her savings — and sheer determination.

A chemist by trade, Lau left the science scene but took the experience from that field into the F&B space to brew and ferment kombucha and kefir milk. She explains that the flavours for her products are inspired by local flavours. Lau noticed that most kombucha in the market have rather common fruity flavours, and nothing really stood out. “I felt there was a gap in the market and I wanted to fill that gap by introducing some local flavours. I’m also very proud of my local roots and this was a good way for me to show that,” she says.

Lau tells Options that the idea for this business came about only in November 2019, and the business was launched only in May 2020, which was in the midst of the circuit breaker. The thought of starting her business during such a peri od was scary, but luckily, the community stepped up. With no access to bubble tea during that period and with people becoming more conscious about their health, Lau quickly saw demand grow for her kombucha and milk kefir products.

“In terms of sales, we have made improvements of about 30% to date. At the start, it was a lot of friends and families who supported me, so we did get a good start,” says Lau, who just after a few short months running her business from home, decided to scale up and move the business into a larger space. She reinvested her profits to rent an office space to scale up her production in a larger and more sanitary location.

At this point, Lau is a one-woman show, running every aspect of the business on her own, from the manufacturing to accounts and even photography. “For now, it is just me. And I think that is the beauty of it. I get to be involved in every different element of the business. It is crazy and the learning curve is steep, but I have more appreciation of the skills I have learned along the way. That’s why this business is so valuable to me,” says Lau, who in time does in- tend to hire more people as she scales the business up.

Currently, Le Vyr is only available online for consumers and can be easily ordered through the website. Apart from catering to consumers, Lau explains that she has even some dealings within the business-to-business space, where she supplies her products to hotels and restaurants. One on-going partnership she has is with boutique hotel Wanderlust, where she not only supplies her brand of products, but also works with the hotel to conduct small group workshops for hotel guests.

Although Lau has already achieved so much at just 22 years old, she does intend to go back to school one day and get her degree. “Ultimately, going back to school and getting my degree is still very important. Even if this business grows, I would still want to go back to school to learn other skills that can be applied to my business and improve it,” says Lau.

Lye, Go and Hong (back row, from left to right) jointly created Our Barehands, which aims to build strong and sustainable communities around the world through handicraft

Building strong and sustainable artisan communities
In 2019, three friends — Germaine Lye, Chanel Go and Mitchell Hong — got together and decided to start something meaningful, not just for them, but also for the global community at large. The three musketeers joined hands to create Our Barehands, a collaborative platform that aims to build strong and sustainable communities around the world through handicraft.

By uncovering potential in small-producing communities and connecting these artisans to a network of resources, Our Barehands co-creates market-ready, unique and quality lifestyle pieces for the consumer market. “Our vision is to see our artisans have a sustainable livelihood and a life of dignity for themselves, their families and their communities,” Lye tells Options, adding that this year will be Our Barehands’ second anniversary.

When the company first started, they worked with only three artisans. Fast forward to today: “We currently work with 10 small-producing communities across eight countries. The artisans are from varying backgrounds, in countries such as India, Myanmar, Malaysia, and some from our very own Singapore,” says Lye.

She adds: “We believe in a sustainable business model and giving communities the ability to fend for themselves and be financially independent. Instead of allowing these communities to rely on donations, we give them the opportunity to build their dignity and learn how to be in control of their finances.”

Our Barehands’ platform grew in popularity during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people were searching for gifts to give their loved ones during lockdown periods, and revenue grew for the group. Our Barehands saw sales in April to June 2020 increase by 20% compared to the previous quarter.

That said, Our Barehands explains that they are primarily an online lifestyle brand whose sales cycle is largely driven by seasons. The circuit breaker period normalised its sales across the year instead of it having a saturation based on particular seasons and events, such as Christmas or Chinese New Year.

With profits from its business, Lye and Go explain that they will usually reinvest a portion back in the artisan community, helping them to upskill and scale up by providing more and better equipment. “We are focused on the livelihood of our artisan partners, as well as our social mission. We look at what we do as holistic development for these communities,” adds Go.

With quality and consumer trends at the forefront, the Our Barehands team explains that they are committed to providing consumers with a range of products that are not just sustainable and have a social impact, but also trendy and of quality.

“We strongly believe that only products that serve the needs and wants of a consumer will have longevity in the market. In addition to quality, both functionality and aesthetics do play a crucial part in that. Longevity is important to our artisans as it ensures that their products hold value and they are indeed meeting a real market demand that will enable them to continue building a sustainable income,” says the team.

Michael and Ashley LeCaine’s jewellery start-up opened its first brick-and-mortar showroom at Millenia Walk late last year

Carving a niche with conflict-free diamond alternatives
While the pandemic may have put a dampener on large-scale wedding banquets, it has not stopped people from buying rings for proposals, anniversaries and other romantic milestones. In fact, if you visit jeweller LeCaine Gems’ website, many of its popular engagement rings are sold out.

Led by husband-wife team, Michael and Ashley LeCaine, the two-year-old jewellery start-up has been doing so well that it opened its first brick-and-mortar showroom at Millenia Walk late last year. “We originally started off as an online platform with a big range of customisation options available for our clients through WhatsApp. Unlike most other companies which went from brick-and-mortar to online sales, we actually did the reverse. This mainly stemmed from our emphasis on the human touch. What better way than to provide a physical showroom for our clients? Expanding our means of contactability is also testament to how much we value our customers’ feedback and needs,” enthuse the LeCaines.

In this very saturated $400 million industry, the couple has carved out a niche as the Singapore market leader for moissanite gems and other ethically sourced stones. Moissanite is a naturally occurring gemstone discovered from a meteor site in 1893. Nobel Prize winner and French chemist Henri Moissan had initially mistaken moissanite crystals as diamonds, but later correctly identified them as a new type of mineral — silicon carbide (diamonds are 100% carbon).

Due to its hardness, highly refractive optical properties and ability to withstand high pressures, moissanite gems are the perfect and more affordable alternative to diamonds. Not only do they exude strong brilliance and fire that exceeds diamonds’ luminosity scoring on the diamond colour grading scale, they cost only one-tenth the price of a diamond. A standard one-carat diamond costs at least US$4,000 ($5,300), while a one-carat moissanite would fetch about US$400.

Currently, all the moissanite in the world is lab-created since the natural gem is extremely rare, but they all go through the same rigorous grading processes for cut, clarity and colour, and are certified at independent labs in Hong Kong. “The moissanite we sell is conflict-free and minimises any harmful environmental impact that occurs with mining activities such as deforestation. The entire process from sourcing to display is also strict and regulated. So concerns like ethical mining and labour rights are definitely addressed within our supply chain,” says Ashley, whose family has over 20 years of experience in the watch and jewellery business.

As parents of young children aged five and six, the LeCaines’ deliberate attempt to avoid selling mined diamonds stemmed from a genuine concern for their children’s future and the environment. “After we became parents, we pondered much about our children and their future, whether we can teach them about living responsibly and the impact of our carbon footprint. We decided to look into environmentally friendly gems and gradually designed pieces that can be worn as fine jewellery without the negative consequences,” she shares.

As a primarily online business, LeCaine Gems is not only popular in Singapore but receives a lot of orders from the US, New Zealand, the UK and Japan, and hopes to break into the China market soon. “Eco-friendly alternatives are really popular in the Western world and now gaining more acceptance in Asia. We are definitely getting more enquiries month-on-month, especially from a younger customer base,” she affirms.

Aside from moissanite, LeCaine Gems is also widening its repertoire to include other lab-created gems and ethically sourced precious stones such as emeralds, sapphires and spinels. The jeweller is also pending a trademark application for its gems “so anyone who wishes to retail Singapore-designed conflict-free jewellery can look to LeCaine,” reveals Ashley.

While Ho (left) and Li have plans to launch new nut flavours in the coming months, the priority is to take a community-led approach to serve the needs of the people rather than create cookie-cutter recipes

Cashing in on the health benefits of nuts

If it wasn’t for LinkedIn, Li Zhiliang would have never met David Ho and formed an unlikely friendship that would result in them starting 2nutguys, an online business selling naturally flavoured, home-roasted nuts free from preservatives, colouring and MSG.

Pre-Covid, Li was working for an international tech company providing IT solutions regionally, while Ho was running his own financial advisory business brokering medical benefits for companies. “Zhiliang’s posts would always appear on my feed, so I ‘swiped right’ on him, and suddenly we were doing a webinar together!” laughs Ho. “Even though we still hadn’t met in person, it felt like we had been buddies for a long time,” says Li.

When Li was made redundant from his job in the middle of last year, Ho suggested the pair buddy up and start a business together. “I used to sell sio bak (roasted pork) to the residents in my estate, but it’s not a viable plan because it’s very hard to roast large quantities at home. Then I told David I had actually been roasting my own nuts for my family and they love it, so that fateful day of Sept 29 was the moment we decided to become the 2nutguys!” shares Li.

With the $5,000 the pair pulled together, they bought a Thermomix, and they have been using the rest of the funds to purchase quality nuts such as almonds from the US and macadamias from South America. Their bestsellers include the Nutmond Butter, Mummy’s Nutmond Butter, and Sweet Salted Spicy Cashew Nuts.

Although Li was the first to create nutty recipes, Ho is the one holding onto the Thermomix machine as he developed the delicious spread launched recently. According to Ho, 44% of the 30 mothers who took the pro-lactation spread have seen improvements in their milk supply or milk quality.

Working from home has greatly helped to lower operating costs, and according to Li, 2nutguys has broken even with an almost five-digit profit in less than a year. “Sales has really picked up and we’ve managed to meet demand. We just sleep less and learn to be more efficient with our time. The more we did it, the faster we got, so I think that has led to a greater margin. The nut spread is really selling by itself and we are really happy with the results,” he says.

Married in their 30s, Li with a two-year-old son, the two live on opposite ends of the country but do make it a point to meet up every Sunday to discuss recipes and realign their business objectives. “Operationally, it’s been quite challenging, but it’s fun. We’re constantly learning and routinely check-in with each other to see if the business is getting ahead of us. Things are constantly evolving and we’re just a bunch of nutty guys, so it’s sometimes hard to stay on track!” jokes Li.

For 2nutguys to succeed, the priority is to stay small and nimble, be ready to adapt to changes and have courage to accept failure. “Even though we put our heart and soul into creating something, we try to be emotionless should it fail. I think it’s about being open and learning to take failure as a teaching moment. It helps that we’re both nuts and are not ready to give up!” adds Li.

While Ho handles nut R&D, finance, marketing and community engagement, Li has taken an active role in the selling and business development side of things. He shares the story behind one of their latest flavours, Harissa Nuts: “A friend of mine who owns a Middle Eastern restaurant gave me some homemade harissa to try at home. I mixed them with my own condiments and he loved it so much that he serves them free with beers and packages them in gift boxes.” He adds: “We’d be happy to work with a Japanese company to create special sake-flavoured nuts!”

While the nutty duo have plans to launch new flavours in the coming months — most recently, they created limited-edition laksa-flavoured nuts and almond milk — the priority is to take a community-led approach to serve the needs of the people rather than create cookie-cutter recipes. “We want to solve problems and address needs with healthier options for diabetics, the elderly, and the lactose-intolerant and gluten-allergic,” he concludes.

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