An interview with Winnie Chow about her new online retail business, boxesnthings.com
Last year I spent a lazy, enjoyable afternoon with Winnie cooking up her family’s heritage chicken rice. (The recipe can be found here and trust me, you’ll want to try it at home for yourself. It’s absolutely delicious.) She told me about her background, from kampong living to HDB to her landed property and now a small business owner.
We had a wander around her house which was designed in part by herself and has numerous sustainable and ecological features built into it, including a compost yard. This is because Winnie believes in doing what we can to live a sustainable existence.
While we were cooking away (well, she was cooking and I was tasting), she told me about her dreams of starting her own business. Fast forward a few months and she’s done just that!
I knew that I needed to catch up with her to talk about her business, boxesnthings.com, an online shop where you will find modern, beautiful homeware. I knew that she would weave her own ethos and beliefs into her business so I’m extremely proud to share her story with you. From little things can come great adventures. Find out more about her new business by reading on below.
Thank you, Winnie, for taking the time to talk to us!
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I am the youngest of six sisters, born and raised in Singapore. My parents came to Singapore from Hainan Island in the 40’s after WWII, in pursuit of a better life. Without education and skill set, raising six children in Singapore was not easier for them than being farmers back in Hainan. But, they pull through it all by sheer hard work and being extremely frugal.
My parents were strict in discipline and values, not in grades. I grew up with little compared to my children and nearly everything I had was made by Mom with love. My mother never read to me, but she told me stories about herself, about her life back in Hainan, about the war, and about her arranged marriage to my father. They were priceless. The great outdoors was my playground and hunger was my curfew.
Why did you decide to start boxesnthings.com?
I started making and selling things when I was about ten. I used to crochet tiny dresses for dolls, tissue box covers and sleeves with slings for water bottles to sell to friends and neighbours. Although I don’t remember making money out of my crafts, I remember the satisfaction of selling my crafts.
I would say I had jobs, not a career, in very different fields. I was a cosmetic consultant, a corporate sales manager, account director, a makeup artist, a marketing manager and other jobs in productions. I enjoyed working in productions, but I was never truly passionate about the other positions I had held.
After starting a family, I decided that when I was ready to go back to work again I was going to start my own business, thinking that it would give me flexibility in juggling between work and family. On top of that, I could choose something I was passionate about. There was no shortage of ideas for business, but I was not clear until my first visit to Australia in 2000. I loved homeware shopping there and I was overwhelmed by the galore of homeware shops, the varieties and styles. My favourite was Wheel and Barrow. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t even get a fraction of what they have there here in Singapore. Actually, after being in the business for only less than a year, I totally understand it.
There are good homeware stores in Singapore, but the nicer things are rather expensive. I liked to go to Pantry Magic and Lemon Zest, both are not in business anymore. Many other homeware shops have also opened and closed. It was not very encouraging for me.
However, now that my children were a little older and more independent, I asked myself, “if not now, then when? What the heck, doing nothing is also a risk”. And that is how boxesnthings.com started.
I thought to myself… “Another homeware shop? Do we need it?” and I decided, “Yes, we do! One that is driven with heart and soul.”
I want my business to have a soul. Even though I am only selling things, my business has to mean something to me and to the people I interact with in business. It is not about making a big impact, little doses are equally meaningful. So my business must reflect my personal beliefs and values. It is an extension of me, almost like another child of mine.
Although bottom line is important, business is not only about profits. In every aspect of my business I strive to operate responsibly, including practicing responsible marketing. With the explosion of social media, consumers are bombarded by an overload of promotional messages– Buy 2, get 1 Free, 20% Off, 1/2 Price, Mid Year Sale, End of Season Sale – it goes on and on, day-in and day-out. Buy, buy, buy, and we all end up with more than what we really need. Instead of marketing and advertising excessively, I believe I can reach out to my customers in a different manner.
I love beautiful things, but I am also a practical person. I like products that can be washed or easy to clean, products that are durable and can be serviced or repaired, and quite importantly items that are not too expensive.
When I saw Hoop 2, one of OMMO‘s top selling items at a homeware fair last April, I was intrigued by its design at first. After a representative showed me its functionality, I was blown away. It’s aesthetic and functionality put together in a very innovative way. I was over the moon when I discovered that the brand is committed “To deliver timeless, functional products at an affordable price and never compromising quality or design”. What a coincidence!
How do you source your products?
Besides going to trade fairs to source good products, I try to fit in a little “shopping and research” whenever I am on holiday. I try to see what I can find. The latter is very enjoyable and that was how I found Onya, a brand of eco-friendly products.
Who do you think would most appreciate your range of products?
Generally, people who appreciate good design. People who like spending time at home, cooking and entertaining, and people who care about the environment, socially and ecologically. And perhaps people who care about their pockets.
What is your favourite item in your collection?
I have quite a few favourites. I like Tiers, a 3 level cake stand by OMMO. There is Loft and Hoop 2, also by OMMO.
I also love my new arrivals – reusable coffee cups and produce bags from Onya. I was shocked to learn that take-away coffee cups are not recycled! And the Onya produce bags are made of recycled water bottles. You can use the bags for fresh produce at the supermarket instead of the plastic bags that you tear off from a big roll. You can wash your fruit and vegetables right in the bag and then pop them directly into the fridge. You can also use it for organizing small items, as a laundry bag, an exclusion bag for fruit on trees (to keep flies and pests away)… anything you can think of! I would like to add that it is a very tough bag. It can hold up to 2kg of produce.
Is there any advice you’d give to someone wanting to start their own online retail business?
Given today’s technology, many aspects of running a business can be made easy. It is not a “no-brainer” but it is also not too difficult to setup an e-commerce website (though some basic knowledge is handy). There are many short-term courses that are helpful. Find one that is endorsed by WDA, you might be able to get some part, if not all, of your course fee subsidized. I took a three-month digital marketing course that was fully subsidized.
It also takes time and effort to build traffic to your online store, a crucial part of any successful website. Advertising through Google can be costly, while advertising on Facebook is much more affordable and targeted. It’s useful to set up a Facebook page for your business and you may need to advertise because not all your followers will be notified about your new posts. There may also be other avenues or websites where you can sell your products before you have a steady stream of visitors to your own website. But be prepared to loose a portion of your profit margin.
I am only starting out myself, so there is still a lot for me to learn. If there is anyone out there who is thinking of starting a new business, especially women, I would say – if you are passionate about it, go for it! Since starting my business, I have met many other woman entrepreneurs with great products and great ideas that gives me inspiration to carry on. Women are endowed creators. We are equipped with the best traits to create something from scratch.
Just go for it. Doing nothing is also a risk.
Thank you so much Winnie, for inspiring us to just DO something. I love the attitude that “doing nothing is a risk” because that is so true.
For more information or to browse and buy some fantastic products, visit boxesnthings.com