Tjin Lee, 41. The CEO of PR and events firm Mercury Marketing & Communications also founded the Singapore Fashion Week. The mother of two-year-old Tyler aka ‘Bubu’, who’s now expecting her second child, is also behind Crib, a female-centric business incubator which helps women find the right business partners. “It’s a bit like speed dating where we match creatives, business managers and angel investors,” Tjin quips.
Her home is: A three-storey conservation shophouse on Neil Road which was, at one point, the late Lee Kuan Yew’s childhood home. And, no, they’re not related.
Her ride is: An Audi S4. “My husband [who works as an operations manager in a commodities firm] is pushing for a family MPV now. I told him, ‘No, that’s the death of all things good and cool! I’d rather take a taxi.’ (Guffaws)”
What she earns: “I think I’m a seven out of 10. I’m contented. Has anyone ever said 10? (Laughs) There are always people who have more, or less, than me.”
8 DAYS: You started your company when you were 28 without savings. How did you make things work?
TJIN LEE: I didn’t save [money] throughout my 20s, and I was upset about it. I envied my friends who owned nice apartments and cars. But a friend pointed out that since I didn’t own a house or car, I had no debts. It was the best time to start a business. So I sold my country club membership and invested $10,000 from the sale. Together with two other friends, we started Mercury with $30,000. It was a small sum, especially in our current times. Looking back, no wonder we ran into cash flow problems! After two years, one of my partners left Singapore ’cos the business was not profitable. The other partner went back to a regular job ’cos she wanted a stable salary. For a while, we fell out but we eventually [made up]. Later on, I met with another business partner who more than quadrupled my company’s profits.
So never go into business with friends?
I’ll still invest in a friend’s business if it’s a good idea, but I won’t be involved too much. (Laughs) I’m running a baby clothing business called Baby Style Icon with [blogger] Xiaxue. She asked me, “Why should we start a business together when we don’t know each other?” I told her, “Since we’re not friends, it’s easier to start a business together.” Friendship brings its own baggage into the business, so it’s better to work with a stranger. Then you won’t say things like, “Hey, I’ve spent all Saturday packing stock, why aren’t you helping?!” Sure, you can make friends with your business partners, but that’s not a necessity for a business.
What other business lessons have you learnt after over a decade of being an entrepreneur?
It’s not enough to only invest [financially]. You need angel investors, business managers and creatives working together. In 2013 before Crib’s inception, I spent about $100,000 opening a kids’ photography studio called Wonderland. I had approached a stay-at-home mum who took amazing photos of her daughter to do a start-up together. She said, “I know nothing about running a business”. I assured her that I had the funding. As it turns out, she was a pure creative who couldn’t handle e-mails, booking schedules or even set up Internet in her studio. The money we invested [in the studio] depleted very fast. We paid about $3,000 for rental every month, but business was slow ’cos she wasn’t a salesperson. She eventually gave up, so it’s lying dormant at this moment. I can’t pull the plug ’cos I’m locked in for a two-year rental contract. That was my most expensive lesson. I wouldn’t have set her up for failure if I had known the importance of having business managers help her with things like e-mails and customer service. Entrepreneurship can be very discouraging if the business wasn’t set up with the right foundation.
Above: Tjin Lee's two-year-old son, Tyler aka ‘Bubu’
How has being a mum changed the way you look at money?
I no longer spend frivolously on myself ’cos there are a lot more considerations now. When I was property-hunting in my 30s, I thought a 99-year lease sounded like a good idea. I’d be dead anyway by the time the lease is up, so who cares, right? (Laughs) But after having a baby, I couldn’t bear the thought of my son being evicted when he’s 75. Now I only look at freehold properties.
What was your own childhood like, financially?
My dad was a doctor and my mum was a remisier-turned-entrepreneur. She now runs a violin school. I’m the second of four girls. I was not the most frugal. My parents sponsored my university education in Canada and gave me an allowance. I paid my housemates there to do housework like cleaning the toilet and washing dishes. I don’t think most of my friends had done a day of housework. I lived with five Canadian housemates, and some of them had to work two jobs just to pay their school tuition fees. That was my first business transaction. I learnt to outsource at a very early age! With this arrangement, the house is clean and my housemates get extra income. (Laughs) But it’s not the best life lesson to impart to my children. It’s a selfish, entitled Singaporean mentality. We’re very lucky in Singapore.
What kind of money lessons would you impart to your kids?
They’ve got to make their own money. Nothing will come easy! As parents, we naturally give them the best start in life in terms of education and upbringing. But they’ll have to forge their own way. I don’t want them to grow up with the expectation that everything is handed to them. I’ll be happy if they tell me, “Mum, I want to work at a restaurant, or McDonald’s.” They should get their hands dirty and work to learn the value of money.
Between you and your husband, who manages the household budget?
My husband and I have our own separate accounts. I’m used to being independent when it comes to money. I guess that’s a good thing ’cos I can buy him gifts and he can’t say, “You spent how much on my shoes?!” Not that he’s never said that before. (Laughs)
Singapore Fashion Week is on May 13 to 17. Go to www.singaporefashionweek.com.sg for more info.