I had met Vincent Goh and Tan Yi Fong (or Yvonne), founders of Ministry of Retail, a few weeks back at Facebook’s office in Singapore. Well, they were there to share how the social network’s advertising system helped them reach out to more customers.

Alighting at Jurong West Street 52, I quickly made my way to Block 517D. It was not too difficult to find. As I neared the flat unit, the door was wide open. I saw four people – Vincent, Yvonne, and their two colleagues – working from a table full of pieces of clothing. Vincent looked up and asked, “Is this Elaine?” He then quickly made his way to the gate and while he unlocked it, he told me that they were anticipating a customer.

Ministry of Retail was launched three years back in October 2009 as an online store with a niche for modern Korean fashion. Back then, Yvonne was only 21 and Vincent was 28. Vincent was already working and serving a six-year scholarship bond with the government while Yvonne was an undergraduate in Nanyang Technological University studying accountancy.

From organizing sprees to being a business owner

Everything seems normal but it all started before that. In 2007, Yvonne was organizing sprees on Livejournal, a social blogging platform. Sprees were organized to reduce shipping costs when ordering items from overseas. Vincent explained, “Sprees were organized to purchase items from overseas at lower prices. By getting pre-orders from the community of users on her spree channel, she was able to make overseas shipping affordable for the spree participants.” However, there was no revenue generated from this. So in 2009, they decided to take a leap of faith and build their own online store, using the same pre-order model she had.

The brand is now flourishing with over 50,000 fans on Facebook, and 1,000 orders generated every month from both Singapore and overseas. However, when they started out in 2009, they had their fair share of problems to counter. While expecting her first child in December, Yvonne was warded at the hospital. During that period of time, Ministry of Retail encountered a hiccup. It was nearing Christmas and they had promised their customers that the items would be delivered and received by Christmas Day itself. However, the items came late from their suppliers and the two of them had to drive around Singapore to deliver on Christmas Eve.

Vincent said, “When Yvonne was delivering our child, she still had to work from the hospital during her confinement period even though she was supposed to rest. I had to do all the packing and mailing even though I couldn’t differentiate one design from another so it took me a really long time. It was a challenging time for us.”

“My mum had some reservations. She was wondering, ‘Are you sure it is a wise choice?’ I think it is more  exciting and the upsides are unlimited. If I had stayed in a government job, I would probably do well, but it is not as exciting and I don’t want to be in the rat race.”

One line of advice

So what can Ministry of Retail offer in terms of advice to young startups, especially those dabbling with the fashion scene? Yvonne shared that before they set up shop, albeit online, they had little experience and knowledge on how to handle and manage a business. Both of them invested in classes, workshops and meeting other entrepreneurs to become more business-savvy. More importantly, these founders have to be willing to learn from others.

Vincent also added that being an online business owner is very much like building a house in the Sahara desert. When trying to direct traffic, startups have to focus and put emphasis on sales and marketing. If they do not differentiate themselves from the rest of their competitors, no one will know about them. And as if that is not bad enough, consumers might ignore them.

With regard to marketing, Vincent shared that email marketing works very well for their business to target their existing customers. However, their social media presence adds to reaching out to new and potential customers. They also run promotions like discounts or giveaways, which brings them more sales. They have also worked with Laurier and Aqua Rine to give away items which their customers will like.


Working with your spouse

Is it really that easy to work with your significant other or spouse? At the last Founders Drinks Bangkok, we heard one of the participants ask the founder of DDproperty, “How do you work with your wife?” Well, when conflict arises, how can couples work it out without wanting to break things?

“Sometimes, we want to be professional but it is difficult to draw the line,” shared Vincent. Yvonne added that it is important to have tie-breakers. So when they do have conflicts, they would often ask their other team members to help vote. But working with your spouse also means one thing: you get to spend more time with them, understanding their strengths and weaknesses better.

Yvonne added that in December 2010, Vincent had a minor episode with cancer. He shared, “We read somewhere that the top regrets of dying patients are […] not living the life we want to live and not spending enough time with family and friends. By working with my business, I could live my life the way I want to, and spend more time with my wife and family.”

Image Credit: Ministry of Retail