TEO REN FENG: How did Motherswork begin?
SHARON WONG: It started because I was looking for products myself. I felt that there was a lack of variety available in Singapore, and as a first-time mother, I wanted to have the best product in each category, whether it was car seats or strollers for my baby. I travelled a lot for work then, spending months overseas in the States, Holland and Australia, so I’d frequent the shops after work. I’d ask questions and do my research everywhere I went, sometimes even if it meant finding my way to the suburbs without a car. By the time I was pregnant with my second child, I had a list of brands that I wanted to use, but not everyone had a supplier in Singapore, and you had to order at least 4 pieces. I’d end up having at least 3 spare items and my husband would tell me to get rid of the stuff. So I thought: Surely there are other mothers like me, looking for items that we couldn't easily get in Singapore. Eventually, I opened a store—a place with cheap rent, to put all the items. But it was really a hobby.
REN FENG: When did it change from being a hobby to a full-time business?
SHARON: Our first store was really just a ma-and-pa shop, then we evolved to become a one-stop shop, and later a full retail experience in 2009 when I came back after living in the States, and my children were all in school.
REN FENG: You’ve quite a number of stores in Singapore and China. It’s a huge development for what started as a hobby.
SHARON: Motherswork is not a product brand, but a retail brand that we've somehow managed to build out of nothing. I don't think I would be sitting here with you right now, if I was simply a businesswoman. Twenty years is a long time, and each step of the way has almost been like starting a new business. I wouldn’t have the energy for this if I did it for the money.
REN FENG: What is your motivation then?
SHARON: I love what I do and I'm forever learning. I'm very inquisitive and I think it's the desire to learn as well as the journey which keeps me going. Everyone is always telling me to be more cautious, especially since the economy isn't great at the moment, but I still get very excited about a new product. I don't know what you’d call that kind of energy—it’s probably passion which drives me to keep growing and evolving.
REN FENG: The list of brands and products that you’ve created would have required a lot of research and work in the past, and that gave you a niche in the market. But in the age of information and online shopping, how are you staying ahead?
SHARON: We might be a little bit arrogant to say that we believe we are at the top of our game, and it isn’t simply because of the products we sell. Yes, you can get information and access to all these products easily through different sources today, but there’s also a lot of misinformation out there. What we offer you is 20 years of expertise. Plus, you’d still need to go to 20 stores to get everything you need, because certain brands do not just authorise anyone to sell. We’re recognised as a very good retail partner who grows brands, and that is why major brands like Bugaboo and Stokke fight for space in all our stores. The Chinese retailers who are willing to pay for them to be in their shops, cannot understand why. So having an extensive offering, all under one roof, gives us an edge over the rest.
REN FENG: You’ve successfully penetrated the notoriously difficult Chinese market and to date, you have 9 stores across the country. What was the impetus behind this move?
SHARON: I have to admit that I went into China because I was bored. My children were all grown up, and there’s only so much I can do in Singapore—there are only 30,000 annual births. Everything about the business was hunky-dory, but it was pretty boring too. So we decided to go into China, and oh my god... it was a case of step up or step out.
REN FENG: What was the greatest challenge you faced venturing overseas?
SHARON: When we went to China, all of them were telling us how naive Singaporeans were in thinking that they were going to make it there; look at the number of people who entered but failed. I said to them: We’re different. And they responded: “Mothercare is already in the market.” At that time, the Chinese didn’t know that Motherswork had overtaken Mothercare as the premium baby retailer in Singapore. So I told them in very broken Mandarin, “Mothercare is copying us—the student has become the teacher”, but they rolled their eyes at us.
When they threw down the gauntlet in China, and all my managers just wanted to walk back out, I said: Have you ever been to Motherswork? You haven't seen what I can do.
REN FENG: How did you keep your chin up in the face of such doubt?
SHARON: I really believe in our curation and the brands that we carry. And I knew that if I went into China, I would have support from all the brands. I don't think anyone else can say that because of the years of relationship and trust we have built. So when they threw down the gauntlet in China, and all my managers just wanted to walk back out, I said: Have you ever been to Motherswork? You haven't seen what I can do. It made them doubt their words, so they said, “Fine. Show us a successful Motherwork store in China, then we'll give you a chance.”
REN FENG: Was that your break?
SHARON: No. I fought just to make a point, but they wanted proof first that we could operate outside of Singapore. We came back empty-handed, but 2 weeks later, one of the malls called and said that they got a new GM who saw our proposal and wanted to meet us. So we went, and his only question was how much space we wanted. The reason was because it was a dying mall [laughs]. The retailers had come and gone, and it wasn’t doing well. But that was my break. Today, that local mall is the most successful children’s mall in China.
REN FENG: How did you manage to turn it around?
SHARON: We really lifted the game and upped the bar, which made others in the market start to renovate and pull together their own collection of brands. Even though the temptation was there, we refused to compromise on our products, which gained us a reputation for being very trustworthy. The consumers in China were eager to have our products because previously, there hadn’t been anyone like us. Word spread quickly.
It's a privilege to be able to lead a team, but you have to take care of everybody, and that can be very lonely.
REN FENG: It sounds like a runaway success.
SHARON: I found my motivation in making things possible. We signed the lease and started paying rent before I realised that we couldn't get a business license in less than 12 months. So we had to find our ways around the issue. The Chinese are very bureaucratic too, and I told them: In Singapore, it’s so fast. Aren’t you bigger and better and brighter than us? Surely you can get us our licence sooner. It worked, and I got my way. It was fun.
REN FENG: Do you think being an entrepreneur is a privilege?
SHARON: It's... a responsibility, and it's also a very lonely life. [tears up] This is the part where I get very emotional. It's a privilege to be able to lead a team, but you have to take care of everybody, and that can be very lonely. When times are good and jobs are easily available, they leave you; we serve as a training ground and stepping stone. And in bad times, you have to find ways to keep them, because they have bills to pay and mouths to feed. Yet, you still can't share all your difficulties with them.
REN FENG: Has working in China gotten easier now that you have made some headway?
SHARON: It's not easy to do business in China. When others ask if they should venture into China, I always say: Yeah, go! It's great! But then when I sit down to think about it, maybe my answer would be no. If you are not resilient and you don't have the energy to keep going, I would not recommend it.
REN FENG: Why?
SHARON: I always have a "road map" that I follow, when going into any venture. In China, we had no idea where we were going, and obstacles still keep popping up out of nowhere, and sometimes they don't make sense. You just have to deal with it, and it's very tiring.
REN FENG: Can you give me an example?
SHARON: Recently, we got soft toys which we covered in plastic bags when we were renovating and it was dusty. Consumer Affairs came in, took the product for testing, and came back to tell us that the plastic bags were 0.02 mm too thin. I'm not even selling the plastic bags, but because the products were wrapped in it... I didn't even think it was possible to measure 0.02 mm. So we received a fine. Things like that happen all the time, and when there's a deluge of them coming your way, you really consider whether or not to continue or cut your losses. I won't ever complain about operating in Singapore again.
I'll tell you that the secret to retail besides location, is really, people.
REN FENG: Why do you keep going then?
SHARON: I’ve always felt like I'm the mother hen and every time something comes up, my instincts are to defend and protect. [laughs] I think I've become like the Chinese. Every time I'm back from China, my arms are always up like this [mimics a boxer's raised fists] because I'm so ready for others to come at me. That's actually the attitude that keeps us and our team going.
REN FENG: You mention frequently about how much you rely on your team.
SHARON: I know I talk a lot about having passion for what you do, but if you ask me today, after 20 years, I'll tell you that the secret to retail besides location, is really, people. Recently, we had our annual company dinner and gave out two 17-year Long Service awards, two 10-year awards, and ten 5-year awards. My team has grown alongside me and they know what's on my mind. They tell me everything I want to know, even before I get to ask any questions, so I'm only left to make decisions.
REN FENG: What’s the secret to retaining and building a team?
SHARON: We empower our staff and I think they know that. In China, we are 5 years old now and have 10 employees who have been with us since day one. Everybody thinks that our staff retention rate is ridiculous, especially for the Chinese market. These same staff have been asked by competitors to go for job interviews, and when I asked how much they were offering, they told me that they didn’t go because they had no intentions of leaving.
Even though 80% of my company is made up of women, our management is all men. And this isn’t because women haven't been given opportunities, and not because I don't try and push for them—but it’s simply because they don't want it.
REN FENG: You're an advocate of women empowerment, and you volunteer with CRIB plus other women societies. Do you feel that women have it harder than men?
SHARON: [laughs] I hate this question because I'm conflicted about it all the time. Let me put it very truthfully: I've never had problems because of my sex. I've always been very lucky to have had a mentor in every area or every stage of my career, and somehow they were all men. They have never stopped me from growing, and in fact, have pushed and propelled me to the next level, way before I was even ready. So it's very hard for me to say that women have it harder. When I became my own boss, even though 80% of my company is made up of women, our management is all men. And this isn’t because women haven't been given opportunities, and not because I don't try and push for them—but it’s simply because they don't want it. Like I told you, I go and get what I want. My children always tell me that I'm very pushy, but who doesn't want to be a manager? Well, apparently… some. When I had bosses, I would always volunteer to be picked even though I wasn’t senior enough.
REN FENG: What were you like as an employee?
SHARON: I’ll tell you how I got a job in Melbourne without being a PR there. The firms had all gone to my university to recruit Australians, but they didn't specify that you needed an Australian passport to qualify. So I applied. They didn't check, gave me the job, and I turned up for work before they realised the issue. They tried to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to work for them, but said: I'm allowed to work—20 hours a week. Somebody in HR had messed up, but I had their letter of offer. I hadn't lied to them and they had to support me, so I got my PR.
REN FENG: It can be hard balancing family life or even getting back in the field after taking time off to become a mother.
SHARON: Someone just told me that it's hard getting back in the game after you've taken a few years off to have a child, especially in a field like IT. I think that's a load of crock. I met a lady who started an app that was the first mother and baby app. She wanted me to invest in it, but I told her that I couldn't because I didn't think it was going to work. Eventually, I became her mentor and friend. Recently, I caught up with her, and she told me that I was right—it didn't work. But she's now working for a big MNC and loving it. She has 2 kids. Who says you can't go back? She tried her own venture, realised that it wasn't going to work unless she had 10 million, so she stopped pursuing it. I always tell my daughters: If you want it, no one can stop you.
REN FENG: What are your greatest regrets?
SHARON: Different things at different times. I was a full-time mom when my children were young, because I left the business here and moved to the States from 2000 to 2009. We had a great time and I became the mother that I wanted to be. Those years were very important to me, but sometimes I wonder if I could have done more. I’m sure I have plenty of regrets, but I've never really sat down to think about them. I just keep moving forward because everything is changing.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap