Entrepreneurs attempt to discover alternative amid the COVID-19 uncertainty

Entrepreneurs try to find opportunity amid the COVID-19 uncertainty

SINGAPORE: Lower than a 12 months after opening their first enterprise, Lee Junxian and his co-founder discovered themselves questioning if they need to hold going or pull down the shutters.  

It was 2008, the Singapore economic system was feeling the wrath of a worldwide monetary disaster. The enterprise – a late-night stall serving up waffles and different snacks to college students residing in a hostel inside the Nationwide College of Singapore (NUS) – was nonetheless discovering its toes and the challenges of an financial downturn have been exhausting to disregard. 

That was additionally the 12 months Mr Lee and his enterprise companion graduated from NUS.

“Whereas there have been many F&B retailers close to the hostels, these operated throughout the day. At night time, we had a monopoly,” he stated.

“That was the market hole we noticed and we felt we had a sustainable aggressive benefit … however the financial disaster was shaping as much as be a serious one. As new enterprise homeowners and contemporary graduates, we needed to resolve what to do subsequent.”

They selected to press on and later because the enterprise stabilised, the pair determined to enterprise out of campus with a Japanese restaurant within the central enterprise district. However the workplace crowd proved to be extra cautious spenders amid a weak economic system so the restaurant closed after a 12 months in 2009.

Mr Lee recalled the expertise as a “ceremony of fireplace” that sharpened his enterprise methods.

“We had to determine easy methods to run a meals retail enterprise when folks weren’t spending. (After closing the restaurant), we shortly determined to deal with hostels and industrial parks the place there’s nonetheless demand and competitors is comparatively low,” he stated.

“That turned out to be the silver lining that noticed us by way of the monetary disaster.”

Since then, the snacks stall has grown into a restaurant chain referred to as Reedz Cafe, which operates primarily in tertiary establishments and enterprise parks. Mr Lee has additionally gone on to begin three expertise start-ups.

His newest enterprise is relocation start-up Moovaz which, like many different companies, is making an attempt to navigate the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Singapore trade minister said officials were hopeful of reaching agreement on the China-backed

The Singapore skyline. (File photograph: AFP/Roslan RAHMAN)

Earlier this 12 months as lockdowns kicked in around the globe, demand for the start-up’s worldwide shifting providers fell by as a lot as 90 per cent. However the scenario just isn’t all doom and gloom, stated the serial entrepreneur.

“With the pandemic, the enjoying subject has been equalised as a result of everybody has been hit. Individuals are in a collaborative temper now and even should you’re a small participant, they are going to be keen to offer you an opportunity you probably have an answer.”

For example, Moovaz has the benefit of getting gone digital from the beginning and is now tapping its wealth of knowledge to unravel rising ache factors in world mobility and cross-border logistics industries. 

READ: Firms search new alternatives to remain afloat amid COVID-19 pandemic

Additionally it is eyeing radical shifts led to by the pandemic, such because the rise of distant working and the way it will lead folks to maneuver both again to their dwelling nations or to completely different areas.

“What occurs if folks not want to remain in high-cost cities simply to be close to their workplaces? One in all our hypotheses is that individuals will transfer out of those cities to locations which are decrease price however with good infrastructure and the next high quality of life,” he stated.

These embrace Indonesia’s Bali, which has been attracting digital nomads even earlier than the pandemic, and rising hotspots like Estonia and Croatia.

“There are alternatives, you simply need to search for it,” he added. 


Mr Lee is hardly the one one who has a glass half-full mentality amid the pandemic-induced recession.

“Alternatives happen throughout a disaster,” stated Mr Christopher Quek, the managing companion of early-stage enterprise capital agency Trive. 

He famous how Indonesia’s GoJek, Seize, Tokopedia and Bukalapak – dubbed the nation’s 4 “unicorns”, or new firms valued at greater than US$1 billion in non-public funding – have been launched inside two years of the 2008 world monetary disaster.

“See the place they’re in the present day. COVID-19 is simply one other world disaster for start-ups to innovate and permit the acceleration and adoption of the expertise wave,” stated Mr Quek.

In the intervening time, traders CNA spoke to see momentum constructing in areas equivalent to meals safety, healthcare, schooling, on-line communications, e-commerce and logistics.

E-commerce and well being expertise start-ups have benefited from the elevated demand for at-home providers and supply, stated Mr Amra Naidoo, co-founder of Accelerating Asia, an accelerator and enterprise fund specializing in early stage start-ups.

Amongst its portfolio, schooling expertise additionally sees potential because the pandemic has given rise to the worth of distant studying instruments and platforms, he added.

READ: Enterprise resilience within the time of COVID-19: The story of a picnic firm, a magician and a company coaching agency

Noting that entrepreneurs can take “a broader perspective”, Mr James Tan, chairman of Singapore’s Motion Group for Entrepreneurship (ACE), stated: “Take a rising business like meals tech, it doesn’t essentially need to be about beginning a vertical farm. What concerning the different features, equivalent to storage and supply?

“You’ll be able to take part of it and ask your self if that is being tackled. If there are too many vertical farms, possibly you may have a look at provide chain and distribution,” added Mr Tan, who can be managing companion at Quest Ventures.

Sectors which are being battered by the pandemic additionally bear alternatives, though one might want to time for a restoration and be extra selective.

Meals supply, as an illustration, continues to have its second within the highlight. Throughout the meals and beverage (F&B) retail enterprise, Mr Lee noticed the emergence of “a story of two cities”.

“These which are serving the workplace crowd are having a tricky time however there are others which are thriving, like these serving the work-from-home crowd within the malls or nearer to residential areas,” he stated.

READ: ‘It’s about making an attempt till our final breath’: New F&B gamers cook dinner up survival plans for COVID-19 disaster

A brand new child on the block who’s undeterred by the COVID-19 turmoil is first-time cafe proprietor Shermaine Khoo.

The 27-year-old put her identify on the dotted line for a 2,000 sq ft store area alongside Kampong Bahru Highway round March. She has since invested near S$400,000 on renovation works and every day operations at her cafe Kream & Kensho.

“I’ve been working in direction of the purpose of getting my very own cafe for the previous six years,” stated Ms Khoo. 

“A lot as it’s unlucky that there’s a pandemic, I imagine I’m prepared and so long as I current a spot that’s snug and that serves good meals, clients will come.”

To this point, enterprise has held up with the one-month-old cafe “consistently full home” on the weekends. It sits 35 folks at anybody time with the secure distancing measures in place.

“I used to be anticipating some affect initially however surprisingly, we’ve had fairly a crowd. I feel persons are extra keen to exit throughout Part 2 and since they will’t journey and are working from dwelling on a regular basis, they’ve been extra open to visiting new locations domestically to make up for that.”

She added: “COVID-19 has taught me to be grateful for issues in life. I’ll prefer to be optimistic on this case to suppose that (the cafe was) launched at a greater time, in comparison with earlier than the ‘circuit breaker’ … and I feel it can get higher.”

Shermaine Khoo, owner of cafe Kream & Kensho

Shermaine Khoo (left) and her brother, Sherman Khoo, at their newly opened cafe alongside Kampong Bahru Highway. (Photograph: Tang See Package)


To make sure, these stay robust occasions for working a enterprise. 

At Kream & Kensho, some plans like launching a full menu to incorporate a distinct idea at night time needed to be delayed attributable to security measures in place and a manpower crunch.

Presently, the F&B providers sector faces a 38 per cent dependency ratio ceiling (DRC) and 13 per cent S Go sub-DRC, which can drop to 35 per cent and 10 per cent respectively in January subsequent 12 months. The DRC refers back to the proportion of foreigners an organization is allowed to rent.

However recruiting Singaporeans for F&B jobs stays a giant problem. “Despite the fact that there are individuals who have misplaced their jobs as a result of pandemic, they don’t wish to work in F&B,” stated Ms Khoo.

On the planet of expertise start-ups, a sure diploma of warning has set in amongst traders, making it troublesome for start-ups to safe much-needed investments.

“Actually initially of the pandemic and circuit breaker, there was a slowdown as traders targeted on supporting present investments and firms,” stated Mr Naidoo.

“Proper now, fundraising which was already aggressive could be much more so. As a brand new start-up on a great day, it may be difficult to connect with traders and signal these cheques.”

However it isn’t unimaginable.

Noting that a few of its portfolio start-ups have managed to shut funding rounds amid the pandemic, Mr Naidoo stated: “What we’re seeing is a shift in the best way that investments are being made. Whereas there have been a number of visits in particular person earlier than, a whole lot of traders and entrepreneurs are taking the conversations just about and adjusting due diligence procedures now.”

READ: Larger grants, extra mentorship help for first-time start-up founders beneath enhanced programme

READ: About 330 provided jobs with start-ups beneath SGUnited bundle between April and June

Mr Quek famous that there stays funding capital, particularly for start-ups within the pre-series A stage, with enterprise capitalists targeted on a number of concerns. These embrace a burn charge which has to final 30 months, up from 18-24 months, in addition to a path to profitability. 

Burn charge refers back to the charge at which new start-ups are spending its enterprise capital to finance spending earlier than producing its personal earnings. 

“Now not do VCs permit development with no earnings in sight. There’s a clear deal with again to fundamentals to make sure the start-up is earning money because it grows,” he stated. 

“There’s additionally a necessity for readability on the exit technique. Too usually, start-ups deal with the potential of the enterprise that they neglect concerning the traders’ requirement of getting a return.” 

Echoing that, Mr Naidoo stated traders are taking a “deeper dive” with a deal with enterprise fashions earlier within the cycle. Now greater than ever, start-ups should be “very conscious” of money circulate and work on mitigating dangers. 

“Having a strong enterprise mannequin and income streams is one thing we’ve all the time regarded for however there’s a pattern extra usually to dive even deeper and look if it’s a sustainable, sturdy enterprise mannequin for the longer term.” 

That is “not essentially” attributable to COVID-19 uncertainties alone but in addition “because of the publicity of a scarcity of a sturdy enterprise mannequin in some very excessive profile start-ups globally”, he added. 


Mr Tan from ACE thinks that extra folks might flip to entrepreneurship amid the unsure financial local weather, with some being “pushed by necessity” given the grim labour market.

“Whether or not this can be a constructive factor, it stays to be seen as a result of there could possibly be extra folks with the identical concept and never everybody will succeed.” 

Finally, there isn’t a “excellent or ideally suited time” for entrepreneurs to make the leap, others stated. 

“I feel that you probably have a sound concept, there’s room available in the market, a strong enterprise mannequin and are obsessed with the issue that you just’re fixing, then it’s potential to succeed,” Mr Naidoo stated.

READ: Commentary: Younger Singaporean enterprise homeowners are extra impartial than their worldwide friends

Beginning a enterprise, particularly throughout a disaster, additionally requires the abdomen for monetary danger and extra essentially, a real ardour for entrepreneurship. 

This is the reason Mr Lee had a full-time job in a worldwide monetary establishment whereas working his F&B ventures after commencement. 

“I used to be undoubtedly not sleeping a lot throughout these few years,” he recalled with amusing. “The Japanese restaurant we had was once simply reverse my workplace. On daily basis after work, I’ll cross the street and begin one other work day.” 

“I feel I used to be making an attempt to find myself … I wanted to know if I wish to be an entrepreneur, am I minimize out for it? How dedicated am I and the way far am I keen to go to make issues work?” 

Unusually, the closure of the Japanese restaurant was the realisation he wanted. 

“On our final day, we invited all our associates to the restaurant to complete up the meals within the fridge. When everybody left at about 3am, that was when my companion and I realised that each one the exhausting work didn’t work out. It was a really painful second for us. 

“However after two months, we determined to go at it once more and I feel that’s the surest signal that having our personal enterprise is what we wish to do,” added Mr Lee. 

“And I feel this core objective or perception is what’s most necessary.”

The CNA Management Summit 2020: Navigating the Submit-Pandemic World will focus on by way of a collection of TV programmes and webinars how companies and organisations have reacted to the pandemic and utilized modern practices.

Extra particulars can be found at: cna.asia/leadership-summit.

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