Banker Kenneth Tan and accountant Tay Shixian hit upon the idea of starting a pram-sharing service for needy parents just over a year ago. Within months of launching PramShare, the married couple discovered another niche territory yet untapped in the market - cleaning the prams. PramWash was conceived and now, the 29-year-old newly minted parents tell Rupali Karekar how they are taking baby steps into regional markets.
Q: How did the idea for your companies originate?
Mr Tan: It was around August last year. My wife was expecting our first child, so I inquired with a female colleague the type of stroller or pram I should buy.
Being a mother of four kids, she had four strollers of different sizes and for various age groups, and jokingly suggested that I should just rent from her.
The idea struck me as interesting and I shared it with Shixian. We wondered how many other parents were in the same position as us.
Ms Tay: Some market research later, we found that there is demand in Singapore for such a service, but no supply.
That's how our first company PramShare was born. The customer base was healthy and we started getting a lot of orders, mostly from visitors and travellers.
Mr Tan: One month later, one of our customers asked if we could wash his stroller for him. And while we had no expertise in doing so, we decided to go for it after digging around and realising that there are companies in the United States, Australia and Dubai providing such services. Again we discovered there is a market for washing services.
PramWash was born, and now both entities are private-limited companies with considerable demand from local and expat parents.
Q: How did the businesses take shape?
Ms Tay: Ours has been a trial-and-error journey, with a steep learning curve. Initially, we started from our 85 sq m Housing Board flat in Queenstown, bootstrapping to buy an inventory of two to three strollers. Both of us continued with our day jobs - I am an accountant in a shipping firm and Kenneth works at DBS Bank - using after-office hours to set up and run the business.
I also designed our webpage, using basic tools, pictures from the Internet and information available online, to put our idea out there.
I designed the logo and we decided on the pricing.
Mr Tan: We kept our business agile. We would wait for an order to come in and, as per the requirement of the customer, go to the store and buy a pram or a stroller.
Soon, our flat was flooded with inventory which also included car seats. Initially, I also worked as a delivery man-cum-cleaning guy. My evenings would be spent delivering the required items to customers around the island, and later washing the equipment until late in the night.
Our businesses grew by word of mouth, as well as through marketing efforts. We visited the concierges of every hotel in Singapore and requested them to stock up on our brochures at the counter.
Most obliged, without charging us a single cent.
Later, we also raised capital by pitching our idea to a relative and a friend - both of whom invested $20,000 in our start-up.
Soon, we rented a two-storey unit in Jurong which doubles up as office-cum-storage space where we run both our firms.
Q: What is your business model?
Ms Tay: For PramShare, potential customers can visit our website to choose prams, strollers and car seats. Information - like dimensions of the equipment and weight capacity of the strollers - and product videos are on the website to help them choose. After customers place a booking, they are given a locker number and its PIN number.
Their chosen prams are kept in the lockers for them to collect at their convenience. The self-service pick-up and drop-off area is open 24/7. We have engaged the services of a courier service, if customers prefer doorstep delivery.
Our administrative team is always on hand to help customers.
We also keep extra equipment in the lockers to give them a choice.
Mr Tan: The method is similar for PramWash. Customers can go to our website to choose a suitable cleaning package.
We wash strollers, car seats, baby cots and baby carriers, with the same booking and pick-up procedure as PramShare.
Our cleaning and washing are done by hand. We use three to four types of cleaning solutions that are odour-free, non-toxic and do not cause any allergies.
All our products are made by a local manufacturer with children's safety in mind.
Our cleaners dismantle the equipment fully, steam-clean it thoroughly and sanitise it. We then use a non-tumble dryer to heat-dry the equipment, which ensures that the material of the prams, strollers, car seats or cots is not damaged.
It is a joy to see the children being happy with their cleaned pram or stroller.
Q: What are the difficulties you face in your business?
Ms Tay: Initially, the difficulties were aplenty. We were new to the business, so we had to learn everything from scratch, including the different types of prams and strollers on the market.
Also, we had no legal knowledge of setting up a company.
I used to make frequent calls to the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority hotline to ask for its advice on things I did not understand.
Mr Tan: My friends from law school helped too, as did our families, who were ready with advice and aid.
There was a lot of hard work, a lot less sleep and cutting down on social life. I learnt how to say no to friends who wanted to hang out.
Now we have two full-time employees and three part-time staff to help with the cleaning.
But we still find it difficult to get cleaners, especially young men who would want to do the job. Some of the strollers are really bulky and heavy, and a male cleaner would be of much help in such cases.
Our female cleaners are all full-time mothers who work for extra income, but they are bound by emergencies at home. More male staff would be welcome.
Q: What are your plans?
Mr Tan: Right now, our main aim is to boost awareness among parents on the importance of clean equipment for their kids. This is especially important where there is an outbreak of flu, chicken pox or hand, foot and mouth disease.
Once we do that, we plan to expand and set up stores in different Asean cities. Some day, we would probably scale up more by going international.
We have also been in talks with a few interested parties in Kuala Lumpur and are looking for franchise partners in Indonesia, Taiwan, Brunei, Hong Kong and South Korea for both our firms.
Ms Tay: Besides this, we also make sure we give back to society.
We have approached the prison service with offers of cleaning jobs for ex-convicts. We are also in talks with the Red Cross, who have hundreds of donated strollers.
We have offered to clean them for a nominal fee, before they can sell them in the market for a slightly higher price, which will benefit them as a charity.