Motherswork: From small hobby to huge international brand

This article was first published on IE Singapore's website in September 2017. Head here for more stories from its #SgGoesGlobal series.

The baby industry in Singapore is very different from what it was 20 years ago. Back then, while working overseas, Ms Wong would spend her time sourcing for useful, high quality baby products that wasn't available in Singapore. Back at home, major departmental stores carried a meagre range of the good brands.

It was not uncommon for parents to spot her with a Bugaboo stroller and go “Where did you get that?” Given the interest that people had towards the baby items she bought, she thought it would be a good idea to buy them in bulk, and sell the extras to other parents.

At the time, she had a full-time job in a multinational company in Tax and Treasury, and never saw herself running a business of her own. Eventually, due to the burgeoning number of baby goods at her home, she decided to sell them at a retail space in Great World City. While she did not have an extensive inventory, the unique items she carried made her store stand out. Before she knew it, her 'hobby' took off.

The year 2009 was when Motherswork reached a turning point. More retailers were stocking up on the same products she carried, and she felt the pressure to differentiate Motherswork from her competitors. "I decided it was going to be a shopping experience, rather than just three walls and products."

Ms Wong believes that the business of selling baby products is not a one-time purchase, but one that is part of any parent's lifestyle. With that, she focused her energy on two main areas – designing a store with an enjoyable shopping experience, and introducing products that are top of the line.

READ ALSO: Motherswork works hard to spread its wings

Motherswork curated a criterion to identify these top of the line products, which includes product quality and safety. This explains why a majority of their products are international brands, largely from America and Europe, "as their products are backed with extensive research and development" said Ms Wong.

She stands by the motto that all the products must be thoroughly tested and also meet proper safety standards. "If you don't (have it tested), I as a mother, would not use it. So how can I pawn it off to you, and pray that nothing will happen to your child? I can't. That's why we say we have the top brands, and it's tried and tested."

While Motherswork was well established in Singapore, Ms Wong faced many difficulties trying to enter the ASEAN markets. Thankfully, in 2012, Ms Wong engaged the help of IE Singapore, which became key in helping Motherswork enter the China market. IE's regional office in Beijing has since been supporting them in their expansion in China.

"I thought, if I could make it work in China, I could make it work anywhere. But I didn't expect the first year to be so difficult."

Many were sceptical if she would succeed, but she worked hard to prove them wrong.

"They didn't believe we could do it, but once we opened, we were like a designer brand. We elevated the market and the standard of the shopping mall. And it also proved that we can operate outside of Singapore."

The first store space Motherswork secured, was a locally owned shopping mall. Ms Wong wanted to ensure that a certain level of standard and experience was met, so she sent some of her Singapore staff to train the new managers in China. During that period, she noted that difference in language, culture and work ethics proved to be a challenge.

For one, she believes that it's important for staff to be engaged and feel the passion to get things done right. She turned things around, leading by example "I am very hands-on. So, that's why I am at every site for renovation. If I am here till 1 a.m., everybody is here. Someone mentioned that when I opened more stores, I'm not going to be around anymore – I'm like, watch me." Her hands-on approached managed to convince her local staff to do the same and they are currently a lot more involved with the day-to-day operations.

Many of her competitors and suppliers want to find out her recipe for success. "In China, they see that we can implement. We do know what we are talking about. A lot of people show them images, and promise a beautiful store that they are going to open. But it turns out it's not what it is. They can draw, they can copy, but they can't pull it together."

She believes that it's the Singaporean attitude of being "on-the-ball" and able to multi-task that helped her overcame the challenges. Currently, China is the only market they have branched out to. The plan is to continue to expand in China to about 30 stores, through franchising with help from IE.

Other than brick and mortar stores, Motherswork is also growing in its online platforms.

Like many retailers hit by the effects of e-commerce in recent years, Motherswork also had to jump on board. To ensure that her business stay afloat, Ms Wong introduced her products on online platforms like Lazada and Redmart. In addition to that, she will be introducing QR codes on products she carries in-store. In the near future, when customers walk in, they will be able to scan the code on the product, make a purchase via mobile, and have it conveniently delivered to their doorstep.

On top of that, IE has managed to connect Motherswork with the head of Tmall Global in China. This connection led to Motherswork setting up presence on Tmall Domestic. This online platform is highly sought after by major international brands and to be one of the featured brands meant that it opened a lot of doors for Motherswork.

With IE's foreign desk support, Ms Wong expresses that she was been able to enter an unknown market with greater assurance and ease. She explains that, "they have the knowledge, connections, and are in contact with other companies that have already internationalised, so borrowing on other SME experiences' is essential in helping to grow outside of Singapore."

While the online platforms do help with sales, Ms Wong still believes there is a place for brick and mortar stores.

"In terms of strollers, cots, and car seats, you don't want to buy online because you want to (be able to) touch and feel," says Ms Wong. If one is not savvy, one may be purchasing items that are old models, two to three years behind, from online sites.

That experience is unlike that at the stores, where customers will have access to experienced staff equipped to help inexperience parents navigate and make an informed decision – a service Motherswork feels people cannot do without.

Ms Wong confidently says, "My staff will show you every single thing that you would love, but when you're on your own, you don't see it."

Motherswork

For Ms Wong, expanding her business to China has been exciting. Over the years, she has formed friendships with the Chinese suppliers, learned to work around grey areas and dramatically improved her Mandarin so that she can communicate with her staff, suppliers, and partners.

"We are little bit different yet similar, we are still Chinese and we still can understand. We have a western influence here that we bring to the table, (in which) a lot of local Chinese brand owners can't do."

To Ms Wong, growing Motherswork has been first and foremost – a passion. She enumerates that if she were to start it as purely a money-making business, she would not be here today. It is simply her passion and the support of her team that keeps Motherswork going.

This article was first published on IE Singapore's website in September 2017. Head here for more stories from its #SgGoesGlobal series.