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Work And Business

How to set up a business in Singapore according to four successful women


When we moved to Singapore seven years ago, I had been working in the US as a freelance writer for more than a decade. Luckily, writing is a portable and flexible profession, and within weeks of settling in and putting my three-year-old twin sons in preschool, I was soliciting local publications for freelance writing assignments, including Expat Living.

I love the process of writing, from querying editors and getting assignments, to interviewing people, and stringing words together, ideally in clever and informative ways. If an article doesn’t turn out well or I miss a deadline, I have no one to blame but myself. There’s an inherent satisfaction in having that level of control.

Earning a few bucks feels good too, though working isn’t always about the money – for many expat women here, it doesn’t matter at all;it’s about having a purpose beyond motherhood and wifedom.

“As a mother, working not only gives me my own identity, but it also sends a positive message to my children, that work is something we all need to do as nothing in life is for free,” says Neena Ali, founder of The Art Room art studio.

For some, starting a business stems from their belief in an important cause. “Our business plan for our gallery grew from our passion to showcase the fresh and exciting work of under-appreciated Indian designers and artists in Singapore,” says Rajee Vissa, co-owner of Madder Moon gallery, along with partner and former design schoolmate Priya K. Sharma.

Being their own boss motivates business owners like Zahrah Munib of The Lounge beauty salon.“I always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I had a passion for the beauty industry, and it was the right time to start my own business as my kids were getting older,” Zahrah says.

For other expat entrepreneurs here, setting up a business is the fulfilment of a personal challenge.“I wanted to prove to myself that I could move to another city and press the restart button. I took a drastic career leap from working in fashion to running a cupcake shop,” says Alia S. Dada, owner and Chief Cupcake Executive of Swirls Bake Shop.

For many, making money is not the driving force;rather, pursuing a passion is.“We don’t make huge profits at The Art Room, but my work keeps me blissfully happy, unlike the career I used to have in banking,” Neena says.

A labour of love is still hard work sometimes.“When you have committed to being open certain hours in a day, you need to be there come rain, sick child or traffic jam, and that can be quite exhausting,” says Rajee.

Challenges are to be expected. In the beginning,Neena had trouble finding a suitable and affordable accountant, while Zahrah and Stacey Schwarz, founder of the SPEED fitness centre, initially grappled with finding and financing the right space to rent. For many, staffing is another hurdle, especially since the Singapore government introduced changes to the number of foreign employees one can hire.

Unforeseen roadblocks are part of the entrepreneurial landscape as well. For instance, Neena initially encountered problems when talking to Singaporeans who spoke Singlish and couldn’t understand her.

“Purchasing a Singlish dictionary soon put an end to that. I treasure it with my life,” she adds.


Owner and Chief Cupcake Executive, Swirls Bake Shop

Since January 2012, Alia and a team of 15 employees have been baking 101 flavours of gourmet American-style cupcakes in three different sizes. 

Why did you get into the business?

“When my husband Danish and I were road-tripping around America,wewere taken aback by the number ofcupcake shops. Each cupcake we tasted was so delicious and there were so many different types. And each shop was unique. We kept thinking: there is nothing like this in Singapore. So we did a lot of research while we were in America and brought a little bit of heaven back to Singapore.”

Greatest joy?

“We have had a lot of our American customers compliment Swirls Bake Shop and say things like, ‘Better than Magnolia Bakery in New York City’ and ‘Wow this is the best cupcake I have ever tried.’ Little things like these keep us going, and so does knowing we put a smile on someone’s face.”

Biggest challenge?

Alia was a fashion stylist for magazines in Singapore and in London and had never baked professionally before, but after being inspired by her trip to America, she took baking classes. After that it was just lots of practice and good, old-fashioned trial and error. “Once we got it right, people just kept ordering,” she says.

Swirls Bake Shop
8 Rodyk Street, #01-08 (off Robertson Quay)



Co-founders, Madder Moon

This art and design gallery launched in December 2012 to showcase and sell a rotating exhibition of textiles, ceramics, furniture, objets d’art, paintings, illustrations and other pieces handmade in India.

Why did you get into this business?

“Contemporary Indian design and art aren’t well known in Singapore. Our business plan grew from our passion to showcase the work here. We’re not focused on making huge profits, but on promoting these designers, and in doing so building a context for our own creative work.”

Greatest joy?

“Hearing someone visiting the gallery,admire a piece and say, ‘Wow, this is really from India?’”

Biggest challenge?

“In our business it’s important to be located in a quirky neighbourhood with character, but great spaces like ours on Ann Siang Road are very expensive to rent.”

Madder Moon
16 Ann Siang Road, #01-01



Founder, The Art Room

Opened in 2008, this full-service art studio invites kids and adults alike to dabble in all media, from sculpture to painting and lots in between.

Why did you get into this business?

“My love of arts and crafts and the sheer frustration of not finding a suitable art class for my children – most I found too controlled or teacher-guided – motivated me to start up my own business. There were a few art studios that concentrated on painting, but none that offered a wide range of arts and crafts such as papier mâché, clay work and mosaic, in an environment that nurtures the creative process.

Greatest joy?

“Teaching students a new skill and watching their creativity and confidence grow’

Biggest challenge?

“Location, location, location. I wanted a space that was open-plan and big. I hated the thought of being in an expensive shopping mall unit, so I decided to think out of the box. Finding my current space at One Commonwealth was fantastic, as it had everything I ever wanted athalf the price.”

The Art Room
1 Commonwealth Lane, #08-14One Commonwealth



The Lounge

This hair, beauty and nail salon launched in November 2012and employs a full-time team of three beauticians and therapists.

Why did you get into this business?

“My passion for the art of beauty developed as a young girl living in Pakistan. I would accompany my mother to the local beauty salon where she would be pampered, primed, and prepped to look her best. I watched my mother’s mood change instantly for the better and it intrigued me how a haircut and styling with a few sweeps of blush on the cheeks could transform a woman’s self-confidence.”

Greatest joy?

“Improving women’s self-esteem and making them feel better inside and out.’

Biggest challenge?

Finding a suitable place to set up the salon. Zahrah eventually found a space that had been a beauty salon and had closed down. She made it over into a fresh and relaxing environment.

The Lounge
81 Farrer Drive, #01-03Sommerville Park