Growing her brands in the Garden City

New businesses are creative outlets, chances to change the community for good, says Spa Esprit Group founder Cynthia Chua.

CYNTHIA Chua creates new businesses the way some people create art and music. "Doing all this is an expression of my creativity," says the founder and chief executive of Spa Esprit Group (SEG), a lifestyle company that encompasses 17 different beauty and food businesses.

"I have so many ideas in my head, and each project is different so I see things in different lights. I learn on the journey and I feel like I'm growing up."

Well-known as the woman who popularised Brazilian waxing in Singapore with her waxing studio Strip, she is used to hearing opinions that her harebrained ideas will not succeed. But succeed she does. "If you think I'm not going to make it, I'm going to show you that I can make it," she says.

"If you want to be a pioneer leading a movement, you have to get used to people telling you that it won't work. You need to believe in yourself that it will work."

Since 1996, she has founded five beauty brands beginning with Spa Esprit and continuing with Strip in 2002, Browhaus, Beauty Emporium, and men's grooming store We Need A Hero.

Her first culinary venture was House in 2007, followed by 11 more including Skinny Pizza and Open Farm Community, a restaurant surrounded by urban farming space.

Of course, self-belief is not the only key to success, says Ms Chua. Her business ideas must have several elements before she pursues them.

First, they must fill a gap in the market. Her SEG brands provide only services and products that she wants to use, but cannot find anywhere.

Second, they must have an element of surprise, a quirk which she says extends across her businesses. "If everyone is doing something, I don't want to do the same thing. Because if I've seen it already, there is no element of surprise and I'm not interested."

Surprise is essential, even within brands, with no two stores designed the same way. For example, a Strip outlet at Plaza Singapura is decorated to look like the Grand Budapest Hotel of Wes Anderson fame, while one of the London studios has a Forbidden City theme.

Finally, she relies on her gut feel and business acumen in making the final decision.

"I think I can feel what people want, and having been born and bred in Singapore, I understand the culture here and how people think," she says.

Whenever she experiences something unique elsewhere, she tries to think of how it can be incorporated into the Singapore scene, from coffee culture and personal grooming to urban farming.

"These are things I want, and I know other people want them, too, but no one brings it here," she says.

"It's an ability of Spa Esprit Group to launch something and bring about a movement, to make it hip and cool so people will follow and make it mainstream. That is very rewarding."

However, even her best ideas do not take off instantly. As demonstrated by her Brazilian waxing business, it can be an arduous process to bridge cultures when bringing an idea from one to another.

In Strip's early days, customers were few and far between, and Ms Chua had to stand outside her Holland Village studio to hand out flyers for S$5 manicures.

"When business gets tough, what people say to you starts to ring in your head; that it's not going to work," she says. "My dad goes, 'You're a graduate, but you have to stand outside and distribute flyers? People get paid S$3 an hour to do that.'"

Slowly, she and her team coaxed customers to try their various services such as underarm and bikini waxing, until they were comfortable enough to try the Brazilian wax and business began to pick up. Today, Strip's 51 outlets are thriving in Singapore and 10 other cities.

"I don't like just taking things from overseas and putting them here. You need to understand the local culture and create a platform that is not intimidating, so that it can eventually become mainstream," she says.

"People need to learn to walk before they can run. No one knows what a Brazilian wax is, so you use creative campaigns, make it funny, and encourage people to talk about it."

Despite these challenges, Ms Chua still feels that Singaporeans are unusually receptive to new ideas and often ahead of the curve.

She attributes it to the advent of the Internet and social media, which make it much easier for Singaporeans to pick up on trends from influencers around the world. She adds that Singaporeans' love of travel increases their exposure to new, progressive ideas.

For example, Brazilian waxing was just gaining popularity around the world when she introduced it to Singapore in the early 2000s. However, when she went to London following Strip's success here, she found that customers there were still asking for electrolysis, an older hair-removal method.

"I thought they were so advanced, they would be doing Brazilian wax all the way. We don't even talk about electrolysis in Singapore."

Aside from satisfying her constant itch to try out new ideas, she says that founding new businesses is a way to learn new things and expand her mind.

"When I stop and look back on the things I've done, I look at things in a different, deeper way. The picture becomes bigger and bigger.

"When I started a business, it was just about beauty. Now we talk about community. I'm a little bit more educated about corporate social responsibility."

She wants to use her experiences and businesses to influence the community for good, as with her urban farming business concepts such as Open Farm Community.

She had never thought that farming was possible in Singapore, but changed her mind after meeting farmers and learning more about urban farming.

Her latest venture involves a rooftop garden smack in the middle of town in Raffles City, where her team has been growing ingredients for new beauty products.

"I feel like if people are educated (about farming), they would be where I am, too, but they didn't have the chance to see things like I did. So my job is to piece it together.

"Now, seeing Open Farm Community and seeing so many other people opening up farms because they are inspired . . . it is to lead a generation to see that growing is possible."

She believes that if she had not gone through the 20 years of hard work to set up her 17 brands, she would not be where she is today.

"I am who I am because I started from one shop. I can still relate to a cleaner, I could still be a cashier. But now it's about orchestrating a team.

"I was playing the instruments. Now I feel like I'm the conductor. But I pick the best band members to do bigger things in a quicker way. It's an exciting journey."