Pauline Ng is the 27-year-old Managing Director of Porcelain Pte Ltd, which is most well-known for its spa outfit Porcelain, The Face Spa. Having set up this venture at the tender age of 23, Pauline is one of the rising number of young women who have chosen entrepreneurship as their career path, eschewing the tried-and-tested route of a 9-to-5 job.
The first thing that struck me most when I met Pauline was how excited she gets whenever she talks about being an entrepreneur. She reached out to us at Material World when she learned about us leaving our jobs to start a business of our own, and took the initiative to find out if we needed any help or support from her. We definitely benefited from her generosity and enthusiasm. She has a can-do attitude that is infectious and her positivity is indeed inspiring.
This week, I speak to her to learn more about the challenges she met trying to set up her own business and how she deals with the competition in the Singapore’s bustling spa industry. If you are looking to venture into the world of beauty, this is one interview you have to read:
1. What inspired you to start Porcelain, The Face Spa?
Porcelain started only as a pet project and to help my mom. I recall one day a few weeks into starting Porcelain, one of my mom’s long time client from her asked me, ‘Pauline, do you know I used to look really ugly. I was ugly, but your mom made me beautiful.’
That was the moment I became convinced about starting Porcelain, and the Porcelain you know now started to take shape – the philosophies, the training, the products etc.
2. When starting a business, the paperwork and the admin matters are always the most daunting. For a spa business, what kind of licenses did you have to apply?
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The paperwork never ends! I still dedicate 3 to 4 full days a month just for paperwork and that’s only because we have an admin assistant now. It’s unbelievable. But it’s good to have good protocols and systems to ensure checks and balances.
We are not registered as a spa business because right from the start my strategy was to specialize and focus purely on skincare – facial treatments and products. For a spa business in Singapore, you will need a Massage Establishment (ME) license from the Police Licensing Division. Prior to that you’ll need to get your Fire Safety Plans (FSSD) approved by the Fire Department and any changes to the space usage endorse and approved by the landlord and Urban Redevelopment Authority. After the ME license, you can proceed to apply for Casetrust License for Spa.
3. Did you enlist help from any experts when starting the business? Like lawyer, real estate agent, a mentor … Who were they and how did each of them help you?
When I started, I did not engage any professional help. However, along the way, and it’s still happening now, I will talk to my family and a close circle of friends as and when situations arise and I have difficulty fixing.
For example some close consultants are my uncle -who is a successful SME owner, my father-in-law (a business veteran), there are friends who have given me advice, who are CEOs and fellow entrepreneurs, friends who are lawyers and tax managers etc.
These advice range from GST tax issues, Employment Contracts, expansion strategies, hiring issues etc.
Then there are people like my husband and some close friends whom I can throw fresh ideas out at and they will tell me honestly if it’s foolish or great, without coating their words.
I am thankful each day for great people like them, without whom I could never have come so far.
4. What was the initial capital you had to start Porcelain? How did you go about finding it?
Our startup capital was from bootstrapping, goodwill from my family and bank loans.
We drew a meager salary for 2 years because I reinvested almost all the profits we have made into growing the firm. We have been doing so for the past 4 years. Whenever Porcelain makes money and we’d put more into buying equipment, into hiring, training and product R&D.
5. Did you apply for any funding? If so what was it? Was it difficult getting funding?
We didn’t apply for funding at the start. We are in the midst of applying a grant for a small project right now, but we can’t disclose yet. I would say the report writing skills from my college days paid off when applying for funding. The process is long, so for anyone who would want to consider getting government grants, apply 9-12 months ahead.
6. How do you work out the finances – like how much you need to make, how to go about meeting those targets?
You’ll definitely need to work out your cash flow projection when doing up your business plan. Even though things will never quite go according as planned, you’ll still need these two things done.
After 4 years of working on the accounts, I know where exactly each dime goes. Excel is my best friend, using that I have created multiple models projecting my hiring (including attrition) costs, inventory projection, high-cost purchases and payment terms, investment projections, marketing plans and ROI, Per Employee ROI etc. These models allow me to more accurately forecast my spending (on top of our monthly operational costs) and understand how much I need to be making to be black.
I am rather obsessive, I track all rates and numbers you can think of. Lead conversion rates, retention rates, channel effectiveness, cost per lead, ROI on all investments, cost per room, rate of utilization of our resources, cancellation rate and things like daily capacity etc. If something doesn’t seem to meet my expectations, I will come up with solutions to make it work better. That’s my job.
7. Was the business profitable from the very start? When did Porcelain started becoming profitable?
We were profitable within months of operation and have been since due very tight cost control and a steady, growing base of clients who believe in us. We are extravagant only on product development, equipment, and people. You cannot cut corners on things that matter, the fancy ‘good to haves’ can wait. For example, I learned how to do basic computer networking, and did the entire setup of our office myself! I still carry furniture back from IKEA and put them together for our office. My staff had to bring their own laptops to work during our first 2 years.
8. What advice do you have for new spa owners who are struggling to get their businesses off the ground?
Pay attention to the quality of your treatments and service levels of your staff. It needs to be consistently delivering above expectations.
Plan ahead but allow yourself some flexibility to make adjustments to your plans when some things don’t work. Don’t be afraid to sound stupid. To all fellow entrepreneurs, ask questions, throw ideas around, be fearless, you’ll never know what answers and inspiration you’ll get.
9. How do you deal with competition in the spa industry? How do you guard your business against competitors?
It’s my personal philosophy that the market is big enough, for as many quality competition as it can be. I view competition with respect (some with awe for their achievements) and love to meet entrepreneurs from my industry. Each business simply needs to find a space within the market to compete in, the pie is big enough for everyone to get a hearty slice.
To guard our business against competitors, we simply have to outdo ourselves and outdo them. If you are not good enough, if your product sucks, no amount of ‘guarding’ that could save you from failing.
10. How would you describe yourself as a businesswoman?
I am still very new in the industry and as an entrepreneur, and I am still finding my style of leadership and learning how to make better decisions faster.
I guess I am very hungry for knowledge and am quite a perfectionist when it comes to my work. Some may also say I am too optimistic but I think that’s a good trait to have.
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