Hi there. My name is Mandy, and I’ve only just crossed my big 21 this year. Yep, I’m not any older than the baby-faced interns you see out there, because just like them, I’m still a student! I don’t have many years of wisdom to preach about, but I do have something interesting to share for those who are afraid to take the leap of faith – the story of how I started my own business at 19 and how I have become a young entrepreneur.
Fresh out of high school at the age of 18, I knew next to nothing about creating products from just a sketch. While my peers were enjoying their 8-month break before university started, I was knee-deep in creating marketing materials and making sales to people who were at least twice my age in the 3 different start-ups that I interned at. I spent 8 months fruitfully polishing my soft skills, training to be what they call ’street smart’.
It was daunting yet exciting at the same time. With only a vague and incomplete idea in mind, I was ready to step out and start working on a brand new product. A product that solved my own problem – always needing to carry multiple bags for different activities and losing so many toiletries bags in gyms)!
Yet time was up. My break before college was nearing its end and I had to confirm my attendance for university in the coming year. To everyone else, it was a no brainer. Go to university, get into a corporate job and have a family before 30. It was a tried and tested path that our parents and many others before us have walked.
But something felt amiss. Something in my gut was telling me that I needed to reconsider my decision. The next few days was spent making the toughest decision of my life. I contemplated again and again on whether to make the leap of faith and take a gap year to be a young entrepreneur, or to just go with the flow. This was made worse when my traditional Asian parents heard of my reconsideration.
Eventually, I let go of all my fears. With a final thought of “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” I decided to hold off school for a whole year and pursue entrepreneurship full time.
I thought the gap year was my boldest move yet but that was just the start.
The first 11 months of the year were spent in the prototyping lab without seeing any real results. I headed down to the streets and public bus stops alone, seeking validation from strangers about my obscure ideas. Once, I even stood on top of a pavement and shared about my product to people waiting for the shuttle bus. I remember my hands trembling as I distributed the survey forms – which came out negative (talk about double heartbreak). I had to travel to China alone in search of factories, going on 14-hour train rides stuck in a cabin with 5 other strangers. It was my first time traveling alone and the fear of not returning home kept me wide awake for the 14 hours.
And even after everything, my first product of a bag on wheels was an epic failure. Despite countless attempts at making it work, the moulding cost still came up to a hefty $20k. And people didn’t seem to want it from my street surveys. Having poured almost my entire life savings and my part time earnings into it, I decided to let that idea go. It was so painful that I cooped myself up in my room and cried for several days. The vision of the BOW Bag taking off was a blurry image yet again. I was, unfortunately, back to square one.
It was so tough to be a young entrepreneur. There were so many times like these that I wanted to throw in the towel and be just like everyone else – go to university, get a degree and get a job. But I didn’t because of the promise to give my all for the gap year. And of course, to prove all the naysayers wrong. I rubbed my tears off and got more driven than before. I must make it. I had to.
In the last month of my gap year, I finally had a breakthrough! After months of brainstorming and going back and forth with the manufacturer, I had something tangible in hand. It was surreal for me to actually hold my first product, to see it take form from the sketches and prototypes. I would always remember that feeling of accomplishment – which was far greater than any As that I scored in tests and exams.
You would think that the story me being young entrepreneur ends here.
But that was not the end. My mentor had subsequently challenged me to hit 1000 bags in sales within 2 months. If I managed to do that, I would receive a $5000 start-up fund from him as a reward. The catch? I would have to give him $2500 if I failed.
My first reaction should have been, “Siao ah (The Singaporean term for you’re crazy!).” I did not have $2500. And even if I did, it would be utterly foolish to gamble it all away. But, I must not have slept well the night before. Because I accepted his double-or-nothing challenge without hesitation. The 2 months that ensued were the most exciting (desperate) time of my life as a young entrepreneur.
Talking to friends like a pyramid scheme, check. Street sales, check. Knocking on doors at gyms, check.
To hit the first 1000 bag sales, my cofounder and I went on to set up booths at various exhibitions to increase exposure for our first product – Sweat Bag. Triathlon meets, basketball competitions, and even dragon boat events, were a few that we took part in. I have never felt so worn out (and unfit but that’s another story). Though it was tiring, it was a happy tiredness, if that makes sense. But it was also through these on-the-ground interactions that we gathered feedback for what’s to come.
Eventually, the big break came when someone believed in BOW. Andrea Bell, master franchise of Anytime Fitness Singapore, took a chance on us. Despite our shaky start with the product demos, and even incomplete prototypes to show, Andrea believed in our visions as strongly as we did. Even till now, we are grateful to have her both as a partner and a friend.
After 3 months, I went back to the drawing board after hearing the feedback about Sweat Bag. More trips to factories, more tears but this time round, more laughter as well. It was no longer about proving other people wrong. It was more about doing it because I really liked it.
My BOW journey continues. I’m not sure how things would turn out but one thing is for sure – that being bold was how I started as a young entrepreneur and being bold will be how I continue this venture. So, don’t be afraid and make the leap.