It takes more than just passion and purpose to be a successful entrepreneur. For Taylor’s Business School alumni, Benjamin Soo and Jasmine Teo, it’s the experience gained and the perseverance to push through the challenges that made them the successful entrepreneurs they are today.
International Business major, Benjamin, and Marketing major, Jasmine, have come a long way since graduating from the Bachelor of Business (Honours) programme in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Benjamin, co-founder of Modern Lao Homes, and Jasmine, director of Poke Twins and Shaka, share with us their journey towards building a business, what it takes to be an entrepreneur, and the different challenges faced.
Q: How did the idea of starting your own business come about?
Benjamin: Modern Lao Homes was born at the right moment at an unexpected time. After failing to make a profit from my first business, I decided to explore the option with my then Australian business partner, Greg, to build, renovate, and design houses in Laos. There was a growing demand for good quality houses but there were a lot of scammers and unqualified builders.
Our first project, that we got when we advertised on Facebook, was built out of trust and lots of anxiety but it became the launching pad we needed to get more projects and eventually earning us a reputable standing in the market.
The desire to start my own business grew gradually along with my passion to alleviate poverty and to develop the community. I knew that by creating a business it would create job opportunities which would ultimately lift more and more people’s quality of life.
Jasmine: Poke Twins is my first venture that focuses on offering poke bowls and poke tacos while Shaka which opened one year after the launch of Poke Twins, offers poke bowls, tacos, poke burritos, snacks, and a variety of hearty breakfast. There’s no limit on the growth of my businesses. After almost two years, we’re still growing, improving, and always striving to be better.
The idea came to mind when I was in my final semester. After completing my internship, I felt that I didn’t really fancy corporate jobs and the fixed working schedules so I decided to build my own start-up.
Q: What’s your best experience handling a start-up?
Benjamin: I think the best experience is when we hand over the keys to our customers and seeing their happy and delighted faces as they walk around their brand new house.
They’re our biggest cheerleaders. We’re always pleasantly surprised that whenever an inquiry is made on Facebook about renovating, designing, or building a house in Laos, our past customers are always the first to tag or recommend us.
Jasmine: Watching my customers’ satisfied faces. Till now, it makes me feel really good and motivated every time I see customers enjoying my food.
Poke Twins and Shaka founder, Jasmine Teo, putting together the perfect poke bowl!
Q: What’s the most challenging part of starting your own business and how did you come out from it?
Benjamin: The biggest challenge is to have grit. When faced with uncertainties, failures, discouragements, and instability, we need to understand that these are part and parcel of running a business.
There were many times I thought to myself how different it would’ve been if I pursued a more stable career, but it’s in those moments that I’d remind myself of the amazing opportunities I would’ve missed if I did. I’d likened the journey to a rocket taking off. If you brace yourself through the different ‘atmosphere turbulences’, you’ll eventually reach a place where you’ll enjoy more stability and explore infinite possibilities.
Jasmine: When it comes to building your business, people often judge you by your age, background, and experience. I was only a 22-year old fresh graduate with no F&B background or working experience when I first started Poke Twins!
I was often looked down by suppliers. None of the suppliers would provide me with credit terms. I only dealt in cash. At that time, as a new start-up, it was quite tough because we needed to have a strong cash flow to pay our suppliers. But now, almost 90% of the suppliers provide both of my outlets with at least 30-day payment terms. We’re able to negotiate such terms because we’ve always cleared our invoices and statements on time and never owed any of our suppliers.
Q: Based on your experiences, what are some of the values needed by an entrepreneur?
Benjamin: Leadership is most crucial. I think entrepreneurs don’t spend enough time looking more into this. I believe that above and beyond every other resource that allows us to create an enterprise, the people behind it are the most important and valuable.
So we need to ensure excellence through leadership. We’re given a space in time to be able to make a difference in someone’s life for a brief period of their employment or partnership. That’s our little window to make the world a better place, one person at a time.
Jasmine: Passion and purpose. There’s a quote that goes, 'My passion drives me forward and my purpose keeps me there.’
What is your purpose of starting a business? Is that what you love to do? My purpose of starting a healthy food cafe was to get the people in Johor Bahru to enjoy eating healthy at an affordable price and to taste the quality and freshness of the ingredients. I’ve always loved creating and cooking healthy foods as well as playing around with different ingredients and spices in the kitchen.
Put both of these values (passion and purpose) together and never change them along your start-up journey. I always believe that managing my businesses in alignment with my core values is the key to keeping my businesses sustainable, profitable, and distinguishable.
Q: How did your degree help you in your entrepreneurship journey?
Benjamin: I enjoyed and appreciated the connections made during my degree that has formed and moulded some of my beliefs as an entrepreneur today. The theories were the foundational blocks that helped with starting up the company but it was the connections with my mentors, lecturers, and driven friends that pushed me to become the entrepreneur that I am today — and I’ve still got a long way to go!
Jasmine: Although I majored in Marketing, the valuable knowledge I’ve gained in Taylor’s Business School isn’t limited to it. I’ve gained business knowledge along with experiences and skills when taking part in competitions. I’m glad I met a few lecturers in TBS who would always give me advice, even after graduating!
I’m also glad that I took up the Entrepreneurship Acceleration Project (EAP) during my final year. It really nurtured me through critical steps and equipped me well with a thorough understanding of the planning and decision-making processes in an entrepreneurial setting. EAP provided me with a strong foundation — a starting point to where I am right now.
From planning a business to execution, planning objectives, market analysis, finance, marketing, human resource, and operations are involved. You can’t start a business without planning. You might fail if you get your objective or analysis about your target audience wrong or even choosing the wrong location for your café! You won’t be able to sustain yourself if you’ve no idea how to analyse your financial performance or manage your human resource in operating the café.
Q: What’s the importance of having a mentor or team to support you during your journey?
Benjamin: I think it requires a certain proactiveness on the part of the student to look for opportunities, to put yourselves out there and hone your craft, or put the theories you’ve learned to the test.
I remember volunteering to emcee for some of our business school events and orientations which were some of the highlights of my time in Taylor’s as I received great support and guidance from different lecturers that eventually helped grow my talents and skills. Whenever I had ideas or questions, I’d stay after class to talk to the lecturers or my friends to see if it’s worth pursuing and that has always been a great way for me to grow.
Jasmine: During the EAP, I teamed up with three group mates who majored in Finance. Each of us had our own strength and knowledge and often shared them among each other. No one’s strong in all business sectors and my group mates could leverage their skills on finance while I was in charge of Marketing.
Even after graduating, we still keep in touch. Two of my group mates are now business owners too and whenever we experience something that we’re not familiar or strong at, we’ll call each other to seek advice. Sometimes, I’d call them when I need advice on tasks involving finance.
Q: What are your thoughts on the importance of hands-on experiences in shaping your entrepreneurship journey?
Benjamin: I think it’s extremely fundamental to have hands-on experiences in shaping any entrepreneurship journey. For our final year project (FYP), we were the first batch where the EAP was launched as an option. I remembered my friends and I being ecstatic about signing up for it. In a short span, our team quickly took action to build up a viable idea.
It started out as a Frankenstein-looking idea, unable to stand on its own, with many loopholes, but it quickly got ironed out as we continue to persistently work on it with the guidance of other mentors and lecturers.
Jasmine: A hands-on experience is like a warm-up session before going in-depth about what you’ll be doing. I used to work as a part-time crew at a Poke Bowl cafe when I was in my final year. Although I only worked there for two weeks, the experience I gained was so valuable.
But I must say that when I applied to work there, it wasn't because I wanted to learn or follow the recipes. In my opinion, recipes and menus are the soul and identity of your business and it can't be duplicated.Instead, the things that I've learnt during those two weeks gave me a rough idea of the ways to manage an F&B business, the operation manuals, standard operating procedure, etc. Once you've gotten that rough idea, you’ll be more confident in planning your own business.
Founder of Modern Lao Homes, Benjamin, organising Laos' first ever TEDx event in 2017.
Q: What do you think about the new Bachelor of Entrepreneurship (Team Entrepreneurship) (Honours) degree at Taylor’s?
Benjamin: It’s a great starting point for aspiring entrepreneurs especially with the advantages, connections, and benefits that it’d bring for students. I think it’ll be a great environment to glean and grow in. Though, it’s important for future students of the programme to be proactive in making the most out of it!
Jasmine: It’s definitely a good degree introduced at Taylor’s. The trend is changing where self-employment is on the rise. Sharing sessions with entrepreneurs is crucial as it helps students avoid making unnecessary mistakes, boost their confidence level, and also adopt skills and knowledge.
Q: What is your advice to students who are unsure whether this path is for them?
Benjamin: Speak to a programme counsellor, if there are any provided, who are more inclined to help in this area related to the Bachelor of Entrepreneurship. Or even better, if you can get in touch with any alumni from Taylor’s that have pursued an entrepreneurial track after their studies! It’ll be a nice way for us to contribute back too. Though fair warning, we may take longer than anticipated to get back to your email.
Jasmine: Trust in your instinct, focus on your values, and take action. People always don’t take action because they’re afraid — afraid of messing up, afraid of things not working out, or afraid of realising that what they thought was the right direction, isn’t right for them.
Fear clouds your vision. It may convince you to give up on something because it’s too risky. On the other hand, letting go of your fear will clarify your goals and help you see beyond the risks. Try to find your own values. If you’re not aware of what those values are, you may not be able to make decisions regarding your life’s direction.
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