SINGAPORE — It’s been four years since the business took off, but Desleen Yeo still sheds tears of joy while standing at the entrance of YeoMama Batik’s boutique — the fruit of the Yeo family’s labour.
The 31-year-old co-founder of YeoMama Batik told Yahoo Finance Singapore she is a “very emotional” person who had tried her hand at multiple endeavours after graduation.
Yeo had worked as a piano teacher, a receptionist at a pole studio, a customer service officer at a bar in Sentosa, an events executive at an agency, a freelance presentation designer, and a henna tattoo artist. She even tried to sell her own line of polewear and bring karaoke booths to Singapore — both of which were ill-fated.
This was before the batik life “chose her”, Yeo said.
The seed of YeoMama Batik was first planted by Yeo’s mama, who casually suggested selling batik clothing when Yeo — then unemployed — was stuck at home in the later half of 2017 due to an ankle surgery. Yeo, usually energetic and active, was so bored that she threw herself into the conception of YeoMama Batik with S$40,000 from her personal savings.
What was “for fun” soon turned into a full-fledged batik fashion line from fabrics sourced in Indonesia. Yeo would then have tailors make the clothes from designs from YeoMama Batik, including trendier styles such as A-line dresses, cheongsam maxi dresses and jumpsuits. She experiments with different styles to get a better sense of what her clients like.
The effort that goes each handmade piece is reflected in the price, which can range from a $68 top to a $368 cardigan.
Under the guidance of her businessman father, Yeo first operated from a small store space behind a salon in January 2018, stocking batik clothing just ahead of Chinese New Year.
Business was so brisk that the landlady soon “chased” YeoMama Batik out for disrupting the salon. Yeo then moved to a remote location at Jalan Pelikat, but that didn't stop the customers from coming.
By 2019, YeoMama Batik had outgrown its space. The boutique then found a new home in Oxley Bizhub. YeoMama Batik now pulls in a stable five-figure revenue on a monthly basis, compared to a borderline five-figure revenue when it first began.
A family business is fun but very annoying
Working with family is “fun” but also “very annoying”, Yeo said with a big laugh.
"I see my parents at home, I get nagged at at home and when I come to office I also get nagged… over here (my mother) can still come over and (pick on things),” Yeo said.
She mused, “I guess it’s a traditional upbringing where they have certain standards of how a daughter or a wife should be. They need to know how to clean the house, cook, but at the same time my dad as a businessman hopes I can run my own business. So it’s like you want to juggle all of these and you want me to meet the expectation of a traditional wife so how do I balance? Sometimes you just snap.”
The boutique’s cleanliness was a sore point between Yeo and her mother, who would insist on cleaning everything.
“I feel like a business should feel like a business. Sometimes it feels like it’s being handled too much like a home.”
Apart from the occasional friction with her mother, Yeo’s business approach also clashes with her father, who is more “traditional”. While Yeo prioritises the intangible, "feel-good factor" of the business, her father is more focused on the business' tangible aspects.
“His generation of doing business is a lot of ‘I sell you buy’. Our generation of doing business is you need to focus on customer loyalty, the customer service part of things and there’s social media, there’s engagement,” Yeo said.
Nevertheless, family is an integral part of the YeoMama Batik brand, with the brand’s story featuring a quirky video with candid shots of Yeo’s entire family —her parents, two brothers and a grandmother, dressed in batik clothes (YeoMama Batik of course).
Family also influences Yeo’s business decisions. For the foreseeable future, Yeo, who married last year, plans to start a family. To prepare for the potential disruption at work, she has expanded the staff strength to 5 full-time workers so that they can manage the store even when she is away.
Like other businesses, YeoMama Batik ran into its fair share of hiccups when the pandemic struck. Yeo was unable to fly to Indonesia to talk with the tailors. She also had to focus on digitalising her business as her boutique remained closed.
Even more worrying was the drop in sales, as the partial lockdown put a stop to events resulting in a lack of demand for batik clothes.
“The revenue was just barely covering (our salaries),” quipped Yeo.
Yeo had to completely change the production line-up so that she could stock casual clothing instead of dresses and other formal wear. She improvised by using cloths that would have been used for the dresses so that they did not have to sample new materials.
But the pandemic was not without its silver lining. YeoMama Batik’s activewear line, which was a flop when it debuted in September 2019, sold like hotcakes during the partial lockdown.
Communication was also a challenge after Yeo took her interactions with her tailors online. The tailors were not fluent in English while Yeo’s Bahasa Indonesia was rudimentary.
She also had to contend with tailors falling sick, or being affected by floods. To deal with that, Yeo is always on the lookout for tailors to diversify her business.
Even with all these obstacles, when asked if she had ever considered returning to a corporate job, Yeo responded with a resounding “no”.
“Just try lor” was her candid advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. “I just feel like there’s nothing you can do wrong about it because every wrong thing will come out with a lesson learnt… You never try you never know,” she said.
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