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What COVID-19 taught S’pore bizs on surviving uncertain times

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses were mainly reliant on globalisation and the ease of transporting and receiving goods from all over the world. 

When the virus hit Singapore shores in 2020, we were plagued with the effects of the pandemic. From thousands of infections that increased daily, to circuit breakers, and ultimately, the closing down of borders, Singapore found itself in a state similar to isolationism. 

Now with the onset of embracing a post-pandemic world, borders have since reopened and the business landscape seems almost back to normal. However, the future is never certain.

In a volatile, unpredictable world, businesses need to learn from the past to move forward. These three local business shared how they adapted to keep afloat during the COVID-19 crisis and the lessons they’ve learnt in surviving times of uncertainty.

Getting hit by COVID-19

Kevin Chiak, former Mr. Singapore, used to feed stray cats around his own gym vicinity and eventually adopted three feline companions of his own. However, when he wanted to travel, he realised that he had no one to care for them while he was gone. 

He later founded cat hotel Catopia in 2016, with the aim of catering to the needs of pet owners like himself who needed caregiving services for their cats. Catopia looks after pet cats whose owners are away on vacation, staycation, busy with renovation, or even pet cats that require a safe space for post-surgery recovery.

Catopia cat hotel
Catopia cat hotel / Image credit: Catopia

Reliant on cat owners’ in-person activities, Catopia dealt a major blow during the pandemic, especially when the circuit breaker was implemented. 

“No one could travel, so no cats came to stay thus no revenue was coming in,” recounts Kevin, adding that even bringing a pet to the vet was not an easy walk-in task.

Further aggravating the situation, rescue cats were still being admitted during that period, which meant that his business operations were getting stretched.  

SOJAO, a home goods brand that launched in 2018, also faced problems during the pandemic since they were reliant on imports from overseas. 

Priscilla Tan, co-founder of SOJAO, started the business because she noticed a gap in the market for high quality, ethically-made, yet affordable bed sheets. “I couldn’t find one and I was disappointed to learn that all the things I had been bombarded with such as thread count and Egyptian Cotton, were actually mostly marketing gimmicks”.

Together with co-founder Janice Tan, the duo decided to bridge the market gap while also ensuring that they engage with consumers to educate them on their consumer choices. “We believe strongly in helping people sleep better, from the customers, to the workers and cotton farmers in our supply chain”, said Priscilla. 

SOJAO bedsheets
SOJAO’s bedsheets / Image credit: SOJAO

Priscilla shares that SOJAO started off as an online-only store and would attend physical pop-ups to connect with their customers in person. As such, during the height of the pandemic, they had to get their staff working as remotely as possible. 

We had to figure out how to continue to [fulfil] orders in a safe and lawful manner, and we suddenly had a deluge of growing orders as people were forced to shop online. We consider ourselves really fortunate that we were already in the online space before then.

– Priscilla Tan, co-founder of SOJAO

There were also businesses like Studio MUYU (romanisation of the Chinese characters ‘木语’, which mean ‘language of the wood’), that struggled to stay afloat even before the pandemic. 

Launched in September 2018 as an artisanal woodcraft brand by Lyn Ng, Studio MUYU focuses on slow-made wooden jewellery, bags and lifestyle products. “We work with carpenters from Singapore to collect their discarded wood pieces and make them into jewellery for the modern women”, says Lyn. 

Studio MUYU woodcraft
Studio MUYU’s woodcraft / Image credit: Studio MUYU

When the first circuit breaker started, we were in a rut as our business is not considered as an essential job and we had no chance to work on any production for the two months. All pop-ups have been cancelled, which means that our income has been cut off completely.

Without a place to produce our jewellery, we were deeply affected and had to survive on our past earnings to get through those two months of circuit breaker.

– Lyn Ng, founder of Studio MUYU

Pivoting strategies

With their resources drawn tight and experiencing a blow to their revenue stream, these businesses had to come up with ways to adapt to the pandemic. 

For Catopia, it decided to change its concept to a cat cafe. “This would at least bring in some revenue since no one is allowed to travel, no cat to check-in”, shares Kevin. 

Catopia cat cafe
Catopia cat cafe / Image credit: Catopia

But this pivot brought other problems as well. Kevin recalls that it was challenging having to shift to a place that allowed for a food and beverage business.

He adds that renovating the new place to meet Singapore Food Agency’s specifications was difficult, considering the fact that contractors couldn’t be activated due to their foreign workers being quarantined. 

Fortunately for Kevin, he has an old acquaintance who could gather some contractors to get the permit to renovate the new premise. “We are also lucky that the new premise landlord[s] were kind enough to understand our plight and rented us the unit at a low rate, enabling us to ride through the lockdowns and restrictions”. 

Priscilla from SOJAO believes that as a startup, pivoting strategies and improving processes becomes an innate response. “This was just one of the many challenges our nimble organisation and efficient team had to overcome in order to grow”, which ultimately improved their team communication. 

In order to better serve customers during this time, SOJAO also offered free fabric swatches to customers.

Observing a gain in traction of online workshops and a general increase in the public’s interest in crafts during the pandemic, Lyn shares that Studio MUYU hopped on the bandwagon and launched a Stay-at-Home Craft Kit for families and couples to make their own lifestyle products at home. 

Studio MUYU upcycling
Upcycling wood / Image credit: Studio MUYU

Thinking out of the box, she made use of the leftovers from their previous production, upcycling them into materials for the craft kits. They also reached out to public relation firms and relevant lifestyle websites to help promote their initiative.

But of course, having to pivot strategies doesn’t come easy. One of the biggest challenges Lyn faced was the lack of production due to them not being able to use their machinery during that period. “[W]e had to move all our wood back to my home and cut them manually for the kits. It took a while to prepare them for sale”.

Post-pandemic: Yet another pivot in strategy?

Now with Singapore embracing a post-pandemic landscape, does this signal yet another need for pivoting strategies?

Considering the reopening of borders and the effect of the travel industry resuming, Catopia has been seeing more of its regulars returning for their cat boarding services. 

As such, Kevin shares that in order to meet the demand, they are looking to get another unit to start their boarding services again. On the other hand, with regards to the strategy he adopted during the pandemic which was to open Catopia cat cafe, he notes that it has also become more popular. 

Kevin Chiak Catopia
Catopia cat cafe / Image credit: Catopia

“[M]ore people are more willing to try to live life like before. With that effect, the food and beverage industry is seeing more crowd and possibly profits”, he reasons. 

For most businesses, the pandemic would have taught them a valuable lesson of having to digitise their operations. For SOJAO, the pandemic encouraged them to do otherwise. 

Priscilla shares that the pandemic encouraged them to open a physical store as restrictions died down, because they “figured people would be missing the experience of shopping in person”. As such, they stopped offering their free fabric swatches as people can now come down to their physical store for the full experience. 

SOJAO home goods store
SOJAO’s physical home goods store/ Image credit: SOJAO

Nonetheless, they are still planning to keep the operations they have implemented during the pandemic, such as being able to work remotely. 

As for Studio MUYU, when asked whether they would stick to their pivoted strategies, Lyn shares that they would, since that their craft kits are still as popular and are now considered one of their lifestyle products for corporate workshops and festive gifting. 

But are other businesses in Singapore that pivoted during the pandemic sticking to their new strategies? Kevin feels that most would shift back to how they operated during pre-pandemic times, while Lyn believes that businesses are moving forward with their new strategies deployed during the pandemic to make operations smoother. 

However, Priscilla reasons that it depends on their business models and how keen their organisation is on adapting. 

If their team has adapted well to working from home, for example, then they would find ways to keep that or combine it with some days in the office. If not, they will probably return fully to the office for example. It also depends on if they had invested enough to make the strategies adopted during the pandemic sustainable for long-term, like we have.

– Priscilla Tan, co-founder of SOJAO

The key to surviving in times of uncertainty

During this time of uncertainty, we have mainly seen two groups of businesses — one that didn’t make the cut, and one that adapted to survive through it. 

There were multiple reasons behind some of these businesses’ failures. Kevin shares that bigger small-medium enterprises probably suffered a lot due to their bigger operating costs, rental costs and manpower costs that they were not able to sustain with their limited revenue. 

Priscilla adds that it could be due to businesses’ inability to pivot online, or even the inability to overcome challenges in their operations due to major disruptions in the global supply chain.

In my opinion, many businesses took Singapore for granted thinking that nothing bad like the pandemic will happen. And for that, they are unwilling to change and adapt to the upcoming trends during that period.

– Lyn Ng, founder of Studio MUYU

Ultimately, as Priscilla highlights, it is “hard to say” exactly why some businesses didn’t make the cut. Nonetheless, there must be something in common among surviving businesses to have gotten through these tough times. 

Kevin and Priscilla’s main key to surviving in times of uncertainty is being able to pivot the business and being able to adapt to the general lifestyle requirements and needs of people during that time. 

Besides that, Priscilla emphasises the importance of being open-minded and having grit. “[T]hat desire to succeed and survive no matter what, is incredibly important for anyone to thrive and grow”.

As Lyn highlights, there must be a “willing[ness] to change your brand’s vision to the ever-changing environment. If something does not work out the way you want it to, think of another solution and just try!”

They add that support from the local community is also necessary. Specifically, the #supportlocalsg movement helps to build stronger ties with their customers and enhances their brand loyalty.  

With regards to the government, even though they feel thankful for the implementations and measures put in place to help businesses like them during the pandemic, such as increasing budgets to help the digitising of businesses, they suggest that more can be done. 

Lyn highlights that a lot of the support during the pandemic was focused on local businesses that already have popularity compared to those who are still in the startup phase, like herself.

“If the government can take in consideration small craft businesses like us and provide relevant financial help or even consultation, that will be the best way to help the community.”

Moreover, as Kevin mentioned, local SMEs definitely struggled due to manpower issues. In response, Priscilla feels that in times of uncertainty, restrictions and limitations on foreign labour can be loosened where applicable and justifiable to aid in solving these issues. 

She feels that continued assistance and rebates should also be provided to support local SMEs’ competitiveness against larger companies. “Incentives are often given to global MNCs to set up shop here, and I hope the government can continue or improve the balance in this aspect for local SMEs too.”

Nonetheless, sticking firmly to their mottos and beliefs in sustaining a business, it is no wonder why Catopia, SOJAO and Studio MUYU have continued to grow even during the pandemic. 

SOJAO, that started off with a two co-founder team working out of a bedroom and storage space has grown to a team of over a dozen, working with a physical store and online store within four years. 

SOJAO clothing line
SOJAO’s clothing line/ Image credit: SOJAO

Studio MUYU, which took a loss in their first year of business, now has a loyal customer base that are willing to support their operations. “With the addition of corporate workshops, the brand is able to purchase better equipment and make complicated designs to attract even more people.”

As for Catopia, their relentless effort to improve their customer services and the wellness of the cats have contributed to a “ripple effect of happiness”, that Kevin deems their true milestone.

Featured image credit: Studio MUYU, SOJAO, Catopia

Also read: Nail salon meets art gallery: This 28-year-old started up during COVID, expanded to 3 outlets

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