Out of Business: A Former Entrepreneur on His Failed Cafe Business in Singapore
“I think the only thing I’ve been successful at is dealing with failure,” Daniel laughs.
I’m sure it isn’t the only thing, but one part of his statement is true: He is remarkably successful at dealing with failure. Oozing positive energy, it’s clear he doesn’t see failure – for the lack of a better word – as an end.
Daniel is referring to his cafe business that he started back in 2015. Things didn’t quite pan out the way he wanted it to, which eventually led him to close the doors of his cafe for the last time in early 2017.
In fact, he’s one of many in the same situation. The ever-evolving F&B industry is a tough one to keep up with – from increasingly discerning customers always seeking the latest food trends to back-of-house technology giving some businesses a one-up over others in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, it’s a lot to handle.
Before I even begin asking about his journey as an F&B entrepreneur, he ventures, “Can I ask myself my own question?” His serious tone then breaks into a more candid, perky one. “Occupational hazard lah,” he jokes, “I have to call the shots.”
His question, worded exactly so: What is it like to be a failed entrepreneur?
“It’s probably not polite to ask it this way, but that’s what I am – a failed entrepreneur – and it’s not exactly a bad thing.” Daniel shares. “Someone has to ask it, you know? There’s so much focus on the people who made it, but all that’s said about the other side of the story is ‘Be careful, you might also fail.’”
Interviewer: Your background was in logistics. What gave you the confidence or inspiration to go into the F&B industry, and how was the transition?
Daniel: There’s a lot of logistics that goes into running a cafe or restaurant, or even, for example, a hawker stall. So my background was useful in that sense, although these days there’s a lot of technology that would make that part of the job much easier.
Ultimately, I went for it because it was a viable business opportunity. Even though I didn’t make it, I can’t deny, even on hindsight, that it really was.
To be honest, though, I don’t think it’s the switch in industry that was the most significant transition. It’s the fact that you’re going from being an employee of a reasonably stable company to being your own boss.
I remember first sitting down with my then-business partner, and he said, “You know every day we’ll be going in to fight battles all day, right?”
I told him, “I’m going to go in on the first day to fight, and I’m not coming out until the last day.”
I: What was the most critical issue that eventually led you to close the cafe?
D: In the first place, we had so much trouble opening.
Our cafe opened at the height of Singapore’s cafe boom. Meaning to say, there had already been cafes that had opened and established themselves as the food place to be. They were all over Instagram, Burpple, and all of that.
But we didn’t intend to open this late. We had planned to start operations way before and be one of the so-called “first movers”. We only realised, as it happened, that starting any business will always take twice as long and cost twice as much as you hope.
I: There’s definitely a strong first mover’s advantage in Singapore’s food scene. If you’re late to the party, should you even bother turning up?
D: We still considered ourselves as part of the cafe trend, so we also took a lot of inspiration from what other cafes were doing. Thinking about it now, maybe we went a little overboard with that…
I mean, if you want to jump on the trend, do it, but make sure you’re really, really good. Otherwise, you’ve got to create a trend, or at least your own unique selling point.
I: And did you try to create a trend?
D: Yes, of course. We were very experimental with our menu, and a lot of our ideas, I dare say, were 100% original. We combined Asian flavours like laksa and kimchi with your conventional brunch food. We sourced for the best coffee beans. We ran seasonal promotions. We did a lot of stuff.
We were very strategic about it, too. We did market research, we found out what people liked, we found out what people didn’t like... It’s not like we just created random stuff just for the sake of being different. But I must say this: Sometimes you fail when you try to stir the market, and there’s no shame in that! How would you know if something new works if you don’t try?
I: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
D: Perhaps better planning in terms of our timelines and budgets, but mostly, my answer is no. I think we did our best, and we did very well. It’s just that other people were doing very, very, very well.
I: How long in advance did you decide on your closing date?
D: About 5 weeks at first, and then we brought it forward to about a month. I was a little hurt that nobody protested. [laughs]
I: So, what is it like to be, in your own words, a “failed entrepreneur”?
D: We lost money, but at the very last closing shift, we weren’t even thinking about the financial losses because we were dealing with all our emotional losses.
The F&B industry is crazy competitive. Some businesses succeed, some don’t. That’s just how it is, and if you want to enter the F&B industry as an entrepreneur, this is the sort of climate you have to prepare yourself for.
I: Do you think you’ll try starting an F&B business again?
D: If I have a great concept, why not?
But when everything first ended, that was the last thought on my mind. Closing a business is a huge thing. As much as people always say that you shouldn’t let such experiences define who you are as a person, it’s harder said than done. If you’d asked me to make crucial business decisions back then, I don’t think I could have stopped my emotions from getting in the way, in some way or another.
I: Based on your experience, what is one tip you’d give to aspiring F&B entrepreneurs?
D: There’s no such thing as a status quo when you’re running a business. When you’re facing a problem, don’t think about how to bring the situation back to how it was before. Think about how to make things better than they were before.
Say you’re at point B, and you get pushed back to point A. Think about how to get to point C.
This way, you’re also reminding yourself to be aware of the bigger picture. Otherwise, you might get too fixated on the problem itself that you lose sight of your end goal.