SME Spotlight

Motherswork works hard to spread wings

Small and medium-sized enterprises are planting the Singapore flag in distant markets around the world. In the third instalment of a four-part series, Rachael Boon looks at the case of Ms Sharon Wong, founder of retailer Motherswork, which specialises in products for mothers and children.

Small and medium-sized enterprises are planting the Singapore flag in distant markets around the world. In the third instalment of a four-part series, Rachael Boon looks at the case of Ms Sharon Wong, founder of retailer Motherswork, which specialises in products for mothers and children.

Q: How did Motherswork, which has four bricks-and-mortar outlets and is also in three department stores here, grow its China footprint to eight outlets?

A: I was in a regional tax and treasury role for a multinational company and travelled a lot for my job. That exposed me to a lot of products when I was pregnant and searching for things for my baby. Twenty years ago, Singapore didn't have much for mothers and their babies.

I used to buy a lot of quality products for myself; I was happy in my corporate job. In those days, suppliers said if I bought four items, I could be a wholesaler. I had so many of the same items and my husband said as there was no space at home, why not open a shop?

Motherswork became more than a hobby later on as it took on a life of its own, but I turned it into a full-fledged business only in 2009.

You might say I went overseas for all the wrong reasons. Five years ago, I was bored and looking for a new challenge, and retailers don't have enough volume here.

After looking at countries including Indonesia, China and Malaysia, I thought if I were to move away from Singapore, the minute I step out, it's a new ball game and it doesn't matter how close I am.

At least if I'm successful in China, the volume is there. I said let's start in Beijing, the hardest place to do business. If I can make it work in Beijing, I can make it work anywhere.

BLESSING IN DISGUISE

It is sometimes a blessing in disguise to be Singaporean outside the country. The Singapore flag commands a certain respect in the marketplace. In that aspect, we play up the Singapore card a lot for trustworthiness and integrity, but it also works the other way.

MS SHARON WONG, founder of retailer Motherswork.

It was tough for the first 12 months. The environment is so different.

You don't realise it but Singapore is the easiest place to start a business, it's just hard to sustain and maintain because of high rental.

China is the other way round. There was a lot of bureaucracy we didn't know about. I went in and we did everything on our own.

I plan to redo the first store, which is in Beijing and about 750 sq m in size, and maybe turn it into a baby emporium. Our biggest store is in Chengdu at 1,000 sq m.

The China business has been growing 30 per cent to 40 per cent year on year.

Q: How has flying the Singapore flag helped in your expansion?

A: We are going to be stocked in the biggest department store in Beijing. We were approached for a store-on-store, and didn't know how big it was. We were told Louis Vuitton and Burberry's turnover from the store was probably their top 10 in the world.

Later on, we heard from a lot of suppliers that it is hard to get into department stores in China, and you usually have to be invited.

It is sometimes a blessing in disguise to be Singaporean outside the country. The Singapore flag commands a certain respect in the marketplace. In that aspect, we play up the Singapore card a lot for trustworthiness and integrity, but it also works the other way.

Some suppliers were appointed the official distributor at the same time I brought in some brands, and I ended up having to buy the brands from them instead, as "I'm Singaporean and have integrity".

Q: What has it been like over the last five years, after Motherswork first stepped into China?

A: It's been five years and we're still around in China with no connections or joint-venture partners, purely just working with IE Singapore.

We went in without IE Singapore first, and realised later how valuable its input was. Five years ago, IE Singapore wasn't the same, and now it has a China desk. It's amazing how they know so much about the market. IE Singapore in Beijing opened the doors for us for Tmall.

When IE Singapore calls, you take the meeting, and it was kind of easy going online, as we were established. IE Singapore also helped us in the beginning in terms of marketing and, in recent years, they have developed more connections.

In China, the first part to opening a business is to meet other businessmen and usually you might not even get to meet them, but it's about how you convince them you're an amazing brand. Sometimes when we sit in Singapore, we assume the world revolves around us, but people outside don't know.

I remember back then, when I had already been around for 15 years in Singapore, the Chinese told me that doesn't mean you can operate outside Singapore. I remember one guy saying: "You guys have everything so easy in Singapore, so can you prove to me that you can operate outside?" Now, we command their respect as we've proven we can execute. Anyone can start a business but can you sustain and continue to execute your plans?

Q: In a way, has getting onto e-commerce marketplaces like honestbee, RedMart, Lazada and China's Tmall expanded your reach?

A: As a small and medium-sized enterprise, you can't afford to keep opening stores here. Millennial mums shop anywhere.

The China business is so much bigger. When China abolished the one-child policy, you could immediately see the baby industry changing. We started in Tmall Global sometime in October or November. For a Children's Day weekend in June, we had 280 orders. We were scrambling, but very pleased. Tmall Global is for international brands selling products in China. I'm sure some firms have a lot more orders every day but it was a milestone for us.

This year, we will also be available on Tmall's domestic site. In China, Tmall and the Alibaba group are strong, not like in Singapore where you can just have your independent website and buy ad space on Google.

Even big players like Zara open an online store on marketplaces, and Amazon has its own store in Tmall.

It wasn't easy to get onto Tmall in China. They only allow brands to open, it's not a trading space. First, getting onto Tmall was only for individual brands, and now we've proven Motherswork is a brand, rather than a multi-label entity. We hope to launch on Tmall Domestic soon. It's for products that have already been imported into China, that have already cleared all the Customs and such, like products in our China stores.

Q: What is Motherswork's game plan for the future?

A: When we first went into China, we were a bit naive. My plan was to have 30 stores in five years.

But assuming we look at the number as what the Chinese count as stores - one can be just 50 sq m to 80 sq m - in terms of space, we're doing well.

I still plan to be in 30 locations, and with online and offline channels , we've pretty much covered different areas.

We're in the top first-tier and top second-tier cities like Chengdu, and our expansion depends on the maturity in the other second- and third-tier cities, which is not easy for foreigners to get into.

There are not many small SMEs in retail in China, and that's why IE Singapore is very supportive. We need IE Singapore to continually open doors for us.

We also started an initiative to support local parents who are entrepreneurs by giving them a voice and platform in our stores for them to showcase their brands here and in China.

And going online is another channel for reaching out to consumers who may or may not make it out to the stores. There are some very successful firms doing just online sales, but, first and foremost, we need the touch and feel.