Low Ying Yih (Class of 2000, ACC) has long held an interest in being her own boss. As an undergraduate at the Nanyang Business School, she not only completed a Minor in Entrepreneurship but also explored the subject for her Final Year Project.
For the project, she surveyed small business owners to see if their personality traits would affect how their businesses fare. Being a "self-motivated action-taker", it might not surprise that Ying Yih finally took up the challenge of running her own business, launching King of Nests last December with her dad George.
Says Ying Yih: "I had been entertaining thoughts of starting something of my own that is artistic yet scalable, be it writing books, painting, or even creating a YouTube channel. I began dabbling in these and soon realised that I could do all these by creating a brand."
"In fact, brand-building, or brand storytelling, involves a holistic creative process and covers a wide spectrum of media. By starting a business, with a brand, I could satisfy my creative cravings at the same time."
The pieces of the King of Nests puzzle were already there. Ying Yih had developed a passion for the delicacy as a child, viewing it as a gift of love from her dad. After all, it was one of the first dishes the busy career man had learnt to cook for the family.
Meanwhile, George had built up a ready network of potential bird's nest suppliers in Indonesia from his stint as director and general manager of a Singapore listed company.
The two also saw the business potential: falling prices of bird's nest, an increased interest in a healthy lifestyle, and globalization are all factors that have led to increased consumption of the product.
As George's career started to wind down, father and daughter started to experiment with new bird's nest recipes in the family kitchen. So it was a natural next step to start King of Nests when he retired in 2014.
The idea for an online concept store struck in mid-2014, says Ying Yih. "The high capital outlay of starting a brick-and-mortar shop, along with the dominance of technology, e-commerce, mobile apps and social media, all suggested that starting an online business would make more sense."
Ying Yih and George moved swiftly. That December, she left her cushy job as a senior audit manager at Ernst & Young to concentrate fully on King of Nests. The following month, the King of Nests online store went 'live'. And by March 2015, they had also listed their products on the reputable e-commerce platforms Rakuten, Lazada and GoBuyLah.
Being the only employees, they had to cover all aspects of the business, be it sales and marketing, operations, or purchasing and delivery, with family members assisting on occasion with roadshows or lunch-time cooking demos and talks. They also invested a "high five-figure sum" in the business.
Two weeks into the launch of their Rakuten store, King of Nests "had some beginner's luck" and made its first online sale.
But it was not all smooth sailing, with the new start-up soon experiencing a dry spell where it went a couple of months without any sales. The problem, says Ying Yih, was that they could not articulate what their brand was about.
"A string of marketing campaigns failed miserably as we were not able to pitch ourselves properly. It hit me that if we don’t know who we are and who we are targeting, we were not going to get anywhere nor achieve anything."
Thus, they sought the help of heroes… or rather, Project Unsung Heroes, a local start-up that assists other businesses in building and telling their brand story.
Says Ying Yih: "In order to define what we represent and who our target audience is, we first had to understand how these definitions come naturally from within ourselves."
She dived headfirst into the "self-discovery process". As a young girl, Ying Yih would look forward to the weekends when the family would bond over the bird's nest soup prepared by George - this would prove the inspiration to pitch King of Nests as a lifestyle brand with an emphasis on family love and bonding through bird's nest dishes.
With a carefully-chosen brand identity established, they got cracking conducting regular road shows and lunch-time cooking demos and talks, complete with bird's nest appreciation and tasting sessions, at schools, companies and banks.
And the pair got creative in the kitchen too, partnering a popular local patisserie and café respectively to launch bird's nest egg tarts and mooncakes – the latter starring exotic flavors like "Gui Hua with Wolfberry Custard" and "Pearl Almond with Gingko Lotus Paste".
Further playing up the lifestyle aspect of bird's nest, Ying Yih has been busy promoting it as the perfect beverage pairing for mooncakes at mid-autumn parties.
Their efforts have succeeded in differentiating their brand from their competitors - most of whom are concentrated in the Traditional Chinese Medicine market - and led to increased sales.
Says Ying Yih: "With slightly more than half-a-year of operations, we have begun to see encouraging numbers from both offline events and our online stores, and are averaging a few thousand dollars in revenue per month."
Indeed, keep this up and she might soon be calling herself the Queen of Nests.
By Christopher Ong