Baby Boomer Entrepreneurs

Enterprising over-50s show what it takes to run their own businesses

THERE ARE NO dreams of unicorns or Series A funding, but a group of 50- and 60-something entrepreneurs are showing that age is not a factor when it comes to starting their own business ventures.

Former lawyer Chen Deah-Chien says she is past Singapore's official retirement age of 62 but has a schedule dominated by networking events and sourcing distributors and licensees for her healthy dessert - avocado green tea ice cream.

Richard Koh, 56, was displaced from his IT job a few years ago, but now runs a totally unrelated business selling cold brew coffee.

Derek Choo, 54, was himself made redundant after 25 years in a construction company. He spent six months in despair, but has since turned his passion for leather crafting into a profitable business.

Meanwhile, 60-year-old Eve Lim had plans to travel the world when she retired at 50. But family issues put that on hold. The retiree now spends her time conducting craft workshops.

They join the ranks of educated, professional baby boomers who are putting a different spin on retirement or retrenchment, carving out new businesses to take them through their next phase of life. Reality bites when they say age has not always been to their advantage, but they are not deterred.

Growing a business that they created is a challenge that goes beyond making money into something more satisfyingly intangible - taking charge of their own lives. Which, as a certain credit company likes to say, is pretty priceless.


DEREK CHOO

Owner,  Choo-P Leathercraft

Having spent 25 years in the same construction company, former regional IT manager Derek Choo thought he would stay on with the firm till his retirement.

So it came as shock when he was made redundant in 2016. "The news came out of the blue, the company couldn't give me a good reason for the decision. I was frustrated, angry and lost," says Mr Choo, who was then 52 years old.

He took a short holiday, and when he returned, he began job hunting but without success. "I hadn't written a resume in 25 years and had no idea how to do it," he says. He went to the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i)  to learn resume writing and preparing for interviews.

Out of 90 job applications, there were only two interviews. "One told me upfront that I was too old for the job, even though they wanted someone with decades of experience," says Mr Choo. At the second interview, his potential supervisor felt that Mr Choo would be a threat to him, hence rejected his application.

It was at e2i, where a former chef he befriended learned of Mr Choo's passion for leathercraft and suggested that he turn his hobby into a business. "I was already making my own leather bags," says Mr Choo, who taught himself leather craft more than 10 years ago.

"But I had no idea how to go about selling, so I didn't take up the idea," he says. He was still hoping to get an IT job. He considered part-time jobs, such as  being a driver, but wasn't confident of his driving skills. He liked cooking and thought about opening a food business but shelved the idea when he realised it wasn't easy.

"After six months of feeling useless, I decided to turn my leather crafting hobby into a business," he says.

He found a shop at Chinatown that was small and within his budget. Since he often visited leathercraft shops overseas, he had an idea of how the space should be set up. To save on costs, he bought supplies from Ikea and fitted out the shop himself.

He got in touch with leathercraft suppliers overseas for his inventory. He had grand plans for opening day, including a big buffet spread for friends and family, but decided to scrap that in the end to save money.

"I picked an auspicious day, said some prayers and opened the shop quietly," he says, adding that even on that day in June 2016, he still wasn't mentally prepared to open shop. "The retail business was so new to me."

Since no one knew about him, business was slow. There were a few enquiries, and he began getting more jobs for repair work. "I only knew how to make bags, so I had to do online research on how to repair designer bags," he says.

A bad experience taught him the importance of taking "before" photos of the products and also confirming the cost of repair with the customer before starting the repair work. "It was an expensive but necessary lesson for me," he says.

Besides repair work, Mr Choo also conducts workshops, takes bespoke bag orders, and sells leathercraft tools and materials in his shop.

He says he made back what he invested within a year. His people skills have made it easy for him to conduct lessons and he used his IT knowledge to set up his website and get on social media.

Mr Choo admits that he still hopes to go back to the IT sector one day. "But I no longer look for jobs as frequently. And now I ask myself, how much do I really want this IT job," he says.

His advice for those who face a similar situation like him is to "stay optimistic and move forward with skill sets they possessed which they may be unaware of".


RICHARD KOH AND ONG BEE YAN

Entrepreneur and mixologist at  1°C

Married couple Richard Koh and Ong Bee Yan readily admit that they are usually the oldest diners in a hipster cafe. Mr Koh, 56, and Ms Ong, 62, love cafe hopping, and would do so every weekend.

A few years ago, they were introduced to cold brew coffee and liked its less acidic taste. They even thought about starting a cold brew coffee business but as Mr Koh was still working then, that idea was just talk.

But in 2016, Mr Koh, a former regional business manager, was retrenched by his IT company.  "I was not ready to retire when I was asked to leave," he says. He was at a loss,  not knowing what to do next, when Ms Ong brought up the cold brew coffee idea.

"We saw the potential in it. Customers could have ready access to cold brew coffee any time of the day. And we also wanted to supply to cafes, to save them the trouble of brewing their own," says Ms Ong.

Mr Koh adds: "Cold brew coffee appeals to the millennials, so we were confident there would be a market for it."

The couple did their research, went to different roasters to get beans and came up with their own blends.

Cold brew is a method of preparing coffee by steeping the grounds in room temperature or cold water for as long as 24 hours, depending on the recipe.

Their first guinea pigs were friends and family. "We got tasters of different ages so that the coffee would suit a wider audience," says Mr Koh.

As the company's mixologist, Ms Ong experiments with different ingredients to come up with new concoctions.

After four months of recipe development, the couple were ready to launch their brews through their online company, 1°C.

The C in their brand stands for coffee and cold, and the 1° stands for it being a made-in-Singapore product as Singapore's location is about 1 degree north of the equator.

1°C sells white and black cold brews as well as almond milk and marsala versions. It also sells three types of cold tea - blue pea, basil and mint, and beetroot and cardamom.

The drinks are sold in glass bottles and cost from S$4.

They first sold their products at a flea market at the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

"We were so new, and didn't realise how heavy the bottles were, and how we were going to carry them up to our booth. In the process, the box fell over and we broke some bottles," recalls Mr Koh.

Knowing that they could not rely on friends forever, the couple decided to take part in more pop-up events to get their name out.

Ms Ong also wrote to cafes, hoping to supply them with the cold brew, and was disheartened when none replied. But things were looking up.

Two years after they started, their brews are now available at The Social Space, Bake & Bake and The Salad Shop, and they are also getting corporate clients. The couple still make their rounds at the weekend markets. The brand also has an active presence on social media.

"We know a bit about social media and food styling, but we get our son's friend to help us manage those areas since he is more savvy at it," says Mr Koh, who handles the delivery himself.

The couple decline to reveal how much money they invested in 1°C, but say they have made it back.

"Unlike younger entrepreneurs, we don't have another job to fall back on. We are more cautious, tight with our budget and would rather our company grow at a manageable pace than expand too quickly," says Mr Koh.


CHEN DEAH-CHIEN

CEO of Harvest Prime Corporation

The next time you're grocery shopping at Market Place, look out for Joyful Heart Avocado Green Tea ice cream. It comes in a small white cup, decorated with a picture of a scoop of green ice cream flanked by an avocado.

You're holding the only avocado ice cream in the world, according to its creator, Chen Deah-Chien, made only with the pure purée and oil of the fruit.

"I cannot accept synthetic ingredients and preservatives in my ice cream," says the 60-something Dr Chen, who worked with Singapore Polytechnic's Food Innovation and Resource Centre for nearly four years to perfect the recipe.

"It was so difficult to produce. No wonder there is no such product in the market."

An accountant and lawyer by training with over 25 years in the accounting, legal and banking professions, Dr Chen loves ice cream but never thought that she would one day be selling the product.

In her early 30s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and became a vegetarian. Her interest in food as medicine led her to obtain a master in public health and a PhD in environmental policy.

Not content to just live healthily, she wants to spread the message of healthy eating. Since she loves ice cream and avocado, she decided to marry the two.

Getting the product made wasn't as simple as she thought, especially when she had no food manufacturing experience.

"I thought I needed to buy an avocado farm, but my friend pointed out that even with my own farm, the quality of the fruit may not be consistent," she says.

Using avocado puree was the alternative, and even then, it took time to find the right source.

The puree produced using avocados from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand was not thick enough, and the end result was more a sorbet than ice cream.

The right consistency came from using Mexican avocados. "I visited the farm in Mexico to meet the farmers, to ensure that I get the quality avocado puree that I want," says Dr Chen.

Since avocado itself is tasteless, another ingredient was needed to boost its flavour. Green tea powder was used, as it was the same green shade.

The ice cream also had to be made using a special method to keep its taste and nutrients.

Joyful Heart Avocado Green Tea ice cream was finally on the shelves in 2016, retailing at S$9.35 a cup.

Dr Chen says sales have been slow. "In hindsight, I should have done product marketing when it was launched," she says.

Instead, her ice cream is often lost among the other brands in the freezer.

But after investing S$1 million, Dr Chen isn't giving up. "Once I embark on a project, I see it through," she says. She has hired a marketing company to get the word out, particularly on social media which she has no interest in.

"I have gone for marketing and social media courses so I know what it involves, but the work, I will leave to someone else."

Her plans don't stop there. Dr Chen is looking for distributors and licensees who can help produce and sell the ice cream overseas.

She is eyeing the Japanese, Korean and American markets. Her days often involve going to conferences and food trade shows, both locally and overseas to meet potential partners, and also checking out supermarkets overseas.

She doesn't see this as work, as she enjoys it.

"Brand awareness has been the biggest challenge," she says.

"But I forsee within 15 to 20 years, Harvest Prime will be a one billion sales revenue company."


EVE LIM

Founder, Vintage Fabric Crafts

At the age of 25, Eve Lim planned to retire at 50 and spend the rest of her life travelling the world.

The former marketing executive worked in various industries such as furniture, engineering and electronics manufacturing. She lived frugally to meet her goal.

Ten years ago, she did retire at 50, but sometimes life doesn't go as planned. Her mum, a former seamstress, passed away that year, and left her about 100 boxes of rayon, cotton and polyester fabrics.

Ms Lim managed to sell about 60 per cent of the stock, and was left with solid coloured fabrics. Those travels were put on hold.

"I put on my marketing cap and started to research what I could do with all these fabrics," says Ms Lim, 60.

"I always enjoyed crafts and wanted to use the fabric this way."

The art of screen printing appealed to her, so she went online to learn more. The technique involves using a mesh to transfer ink onto fabric, except in areas which have been blocked by a stencil.

"This traditional craft is fast vanishing, as more people screen print using computers," she says.

Ms Lim simplified the process into easy-to-do, one-hour workshops, which she conducted at craft fairs.

By chance, she met Victor Lim, a passionate collector of Peranakan tiles. She loves Peranakan design and using the tiles as inspiration, made her own stencils, which she uses for screen printing.

Her workshops attract a mix of young and old participants.

They screen print flowers and geometric patterns on fabrics which Ms Lim's mother left behind. She also conducts workshops on stencil crafting.

She gets invited by venues to host workshops but says that she does face age discrimination. "When they see me with my silver hair, they tell me they don't want someone old at their events," she says.

Ms Lim doesn't let those comments get to her.

"I let my work speak for myself," she says, showing pictures of millennial participants at her workshops. "My marketing skills in the past are put to good use when it comes to marketing myself."

Her days are packed conducting workshops, and also sewing items such as bags and pouches which she sells at events.

"I like working for myself as it gives me better control of my time," she says.

"I find time to travel in between conducting workshops."