You’d think that a city so famous for shopping would already be offering everything a homemaker’s heart could desire, but that’s not always true. Growing nostalgia for the craftsmanship of a bygone time, plus a yen for the quirky, the recycled and the rare have opened up a marketplace gap that savvy entrepreneurs are more than ready to fill. However, starting your own business needs more than that initial vision. It always takes some capital investment and much hard work – sometimes nerves of steel, and often a generous dollop of luck. We asked three home décor entrepreneurs how they did it.
SINGAPORE TRADING POST
Jo Harrison was already working at Expat Auctions when Rob Pendergrast bought the business in 2010. Together, they launched Singapore Trading Post in September last year, selling a distinctive range of homeware inspired by Singapore’s colonial past. 102F Pasir Panjang Road , #02–04 Citilink Warehouse , call 6274 0511.
What brought you to Singapore?
Both of us moved here as “expat wives” in support of our spouses’ careers. Jo arrived from England in 2007 with husband Chris and three children, and Rob moved here in 2010 with wife Stephanie and two children.
What gave you the business idea?
Jo was inspired by reading Noel Barber’s evocative story of forbidden love, Tanamera, set in 1930s Singapore; for her, Singapore Trading Post is a sort of homage to the romance of the colonial age.
Rob used to have antique shops and loves sharing his finds with others. What’s more, Expat Auctions was constantly being asked for smaller decorative pieces. Plus, when people buy a bed or sofa at auction they often want sheets, cushions or throws, so there was a clear opportunity to present a more complete offering.
Why this particular location?
We set up our store in the same location that Expat Auctions has been in for more than five years: Citilink Warehouse in Pasir Panjang Road. This minimises our overheads and also means that clients coming to the auction house for viewing and auction days can also check out the store.
We’re well aware that more than 50 percent of new businesses fail in the first year, so keeping our overheads under control is important; iwwt allows us to offer the best value for money to our customers.
With so many furniture and home accessory businesses in Singapore, what makes your business special?
We created the business with our customers in mind, and tried to engage them from the outset. Feedback from our loyal auction customers and Facebook followers has played a major role in shaping our range, and we are constantly reviewing and refreshing it. In response to demand, we are offering a bespoke service on certain furniture pieces. We even sold our own counter to a customer who wanted it installed in time for a company Christmas party!
Our range is our own interpretation of the rich colonial era that began when Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore as a “trading post” for the British East India Company, and you won’t see the same pieces elsewhere. We not only source them directly from a diverse range of suppliers, but have also created some designs of our own.
How are you sourcing your stock?
We made several trips to the original British East India Company locations before opening in September 2013, and then two more in the lead-up to Christmas. We have journeyed through several regions in Northern and Southern India, Java in Indonesia, and have also selected pieces from Myanmar and Vietnam. Our luxury hand-made bedding range is from Hong Kong.
How is business going?
We have had a fantastic reception from our Expat Auction client base and are getting to know lot of new people who come just for the store. Our first range of mirrors and our Burmese parasols sold out really quickly, and there is strong demand for our artwork. The sheet sets and wicker baskets sold well over the holiday period, as people were preparing their guest rooms for visitors
What have you learnt, and would you do anything differently next time round?
Our customers have been a huge inspiration in how they store has taken shape, and word of mouth has been great for business. It’s the same with suppliers; we try to treat them more like partners, as our success is their success. Finally, we know the importance of partnering with someone who makes you laugh… and keep on laughing.
What’s the most fun you’ve had so far?
We have absolutely loved the experiences on our sourcing travels: visiting manufacturers in rural India or Indonesia and getting to know these wonderful people… not to mention dodging camels in Jodphur! We’ve also been blessed by the generosity of the community: talented designers, photographers, visual merchandisers and advertising creatives have all become part of the Singapore Trading Post story.
What are you looking forward to for 2014?
Having already remodelled our store to increase our space and improve the layout, and we are excited about expanding our range of smaller pieces and introducing more gift items.
We’ve also started Expat Expert Talks for people who want to learn about furniture and collectibles. So far, we have focused on the various types of wood, how to distinguish genuine items from replicas, regional décor specialities and so on.
We’re also looking at establishing a Pasir Panjang Homeware Hub in collaboration with a few other shops in our area. As part of this, we have created a map for the location detailing various food and homeware outlets. And we plan to have more of a presence at the fairs, and in publications such as Expat Living.
At Artful House, Padmaja Rajagolapan sells colonial and recycled furniture, objets d’art and collectibles, home accents and accessories. 315 Outram Road, #08-04 Tan Boon Liat Building, call 8112 6127.
What brought you to Singapore?
My husband Pramod and I were in banking and financial services respectively when we moved here in 2011, having lived and worked in New York, Melbourne and London. While I turned entrepreneur, he is still in the banking sector.
What gave you the idea?
Though I loved my nine years in the financial sector, I was looking for something new, a challenge. This was an opportunity to blend my commercial and business skills with my creativity.
I’ve always sketched and had a passion for interior design; my mom was artistic and something of a collector, and I take after her. While working in New York, I did art courses on the side whenever I could.
After I’d furnished our historical Cairnhill Road terraced house here, other people saw what I’d done and started asking for my help in decorating and sourcing special and one-off pieces. So, I saw an opportunity to take what I had been doing to the next level.
Location is important. Why Tan Boon Liat Building?
People who are shopping for furniture often want to go to a hub. I particularly chose this building because it hosts a collection of other businesses that tie in nicely with mine, especially good furniture stores such as FairPrice Antique, The Shophouse, Mountain Teak, Jehan Gallery and Journey East. We also have The Providore and Underground Wines, giving buyers even more incentive to visit the building.
This is not your average mall: it’s more individualistic, and an interesting location to showcase my products. We started with a bare slate: high ceilings and a lot of space. We kept the neutral flooring and added vibrant turquoise and red accents. I find that the right setting helps to introduce new ideas to your clients – like how to use colour in their own homes.
What makes your business special?
Right now, we are focussing on two particular lines of furniture. The first is South Asian and Southeast Asian colonial furniture. This is sourced from India and Sri Lanka, and we’re also looking at Indonesia. They’re special because there’s a story behind each of them; what’s more, the craftsmanship they display is increasingly hard to find. Each item is a piece of history you can enjoy owning, and also pass down to future generations.
Our second line is furniture made from recycled or reclaimed wood. Old painted doors and window frames, for example, are transformed into items that suit modern living spaces so well. Their time-worn colour adds distinctive beauty to a room.
Both of these lines express my feeling that history has a place in our lives and in our homes, even in the most contemporary of settings. Each piece is carefully handpicked for that purpose.
We’re smitten with the crane design on your dinnerware. Tell us about that.
We design and manufacture our own dinnerware, and the black-necked crane motif does indeed have an interesting story. Some time ago, I was sketching in Bhutan’s Phobjika Valley, and the people told me I was lucky it was the season for these special black-necked cranes, which fly there every winter from Tibet. There’s a 16th-century monastery in the valley, and local legend has it that the cranes circle the monastery three times before they come down to forage for food.
Though our home accent products have European influences, they are all from this region, and mainly inspired by indigenous fauna and flora. We use ikats (handwoven cloth) from Indonesia and Cambodia for our soft furnishings, working with local weavers and artisans to create limited-edition designs.
How do you source your furniture?
I pick each item personally. It helps that my mom is a collector and that I’ve developed my eye for quality over many years. For the old colonial furniture, we work with dealers; we’ll see the piece, often in indescribably poor condition, then work with restorers to return it to good condition. For example, I found a rosewood table with great stylistic details, but first it needed to be stripped of the oily pink paint that covered it.
In the store, we provide information on the provenance and use of each old piece. We also suggest ways of using it in a contemporary setting. One client, for example, uses what was originally a dowry chest as a bar – the secret jewellery drawer has become a hiding place for a rare or special single malt.
What have you learnt from this venture?
Entrepreneurship is very challenging, but I’m blessed to have had help and advice along the way. Though you have to make your own decisions, it’s important to keep your mind open and listen to suggestions. In the end, friends and family are all behind you and they want you to succeed.
TREASURES OF THE RAJ
Having travelled widely over the past 20 years, Harriet Dias decided to combine her hobby of collecting priceless antiques, art and colonial furniture with her Indian roots and hard business skills. The result is Treasures of the Raj, a stunning collection of colonial furniture and antiques. 19 Tanglin Road, #02-30 Tanglin Shopping Centre, call 9173 5041.
What brought you to Singapore?
Though I hail from Bombay, I am a global citizen, having lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for 15 years. I’ve been here since 2003, when my investment banker husband was relocated to Singapore. Melwyn has been a Singapore citizen for the past eight years, and the rest of the family are permanent residents. So we’re all firmly rooted here!
What gave you the idea for this business?
“The Raj” can be loosely defined as the colonial period in Indian history – British, Dutch, French and Portuguese, known for its graceful European-style furniture with local accents, made in solid mahogany, teak or rosewood.
Given the fast-diminishing supply of this quaint, period furniture and seeing the plethora of copies and fakes that are around, I have made it my mission to restore and retail this furniture.
What makes your business different?
In order to distinguish my business as the “real deal” and set myself apart, I do something that I believe no other furniture business does in Singapore: I undertake to buy back any piece of furniture sold, at the end of three years, at the price paid by the customer.
This is only possible because I know the background of each piece and its intrinsic value, given that it has been painstakingly restored to protect its unique personality, character and history.
Each piece comes with a Certificate of Authentication that gives a brief history of its provenance, a photograph of what the piece looked like before and after restoration; it also comes with a Buyback Guarantee.
My goal is not to make old pieces look new, because antique furniture should be allowed to convey a sense of its history and charm. When it comes to antique furniture restoration, I follow the dictum that less is more.
How do you source your stock?
My supplier in India sources over 90 percent of all the furniture from four palaces – two in Gujarat, one in Rajasthan and another in Kerala – and the rest from old colonial mansions.
Once I have decided on the pieces I will be purchasing, having a clear idea of its provenance, I give it to my team of six experienced restorers. After critical examination, the furniture may be clarified and polished, or lightly cleaned and renewed. Good judgement and the application of antique restoration best practices are the ideal way to enhance the value of antique colonial furniture.
Why Tanglin Shopping Centre?
This was a no-brainer. An iconic mall located in the prime Tanglin and Orchard Road shopping belt, it is known for its antiques, exotic artefacts, artwork and jewellery.
The key to success in our business (or any other business in Singapore, I believe), is to own the premises where you operate. For that reason, we purchased two units at Tanglin Shopping Centre. This was an important move, given our promise of a 100-percent buyback at the end of three years, as it projects a sense of continuity and permanence.
Would you do anything differently next time round?
I opened shop in October 2013, and honestly, the response has been beyond my wildest expectations. I have been truly humbled by the appreciation of both my furniture and the business model that I have introduced; the word-of-mouth publicity has been astounding.
Though it is still early days, nothing has come up so far to make me think that I should have done things differently. One important thing I have learnt, though, is that each person has completely unique likes and tastes. So, in order to be successful I should have no preconceived notions about what people are shopping for, but instead have a range as wide and diverse as possible to meet different tastes.
Anything in the pipeline for 2014?
All going to plan, I will expand to a second unit within Tanglin Shopping Centre. Also, I would like to establish a warehouse outlet where I can display a much wider range of furniture.