How I Started My Own Business At 19

By Mandy Chan Xin Yi, SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business and Co-founder of BOW For Bold

Hi there. My name is Mandy, and I’ve only just crossed 22 this year. Yep, I’m not any older than the baby-faced interns you see out there because just like them, I’m still a student! I don’t have many years of wisdom to preach about, but I do have something interesting to share for those who are afraid to take the leap of faith—the story of how I started my own business—at 19.

Fresh out of high school at the age of 18, I knew next to nothing about creating products from just a sketch. While my peers were enjoying their 8-month break before university started, I was knee-deep in creating marketing materials and making sales to people who were at least twice my age in the three different start-ups that I had interned at. I spent 8 months fruitfully polishing my soft skills, training to be what they call ’street smart’.

It was daunting yet exciting at the same time. With only a vague and incomplete idea in mind, I was ready to step out and start working on a brand new product.

Yet my “free time” was coming to an end. My break before university was nearing its end and I had to confirm my attendance at Singapore Management University in the coming academic year. To everyone else, it is a no-brainer. Go to university, get a corporate job and have a family before 30. It is a tried and tested path that our parents and many others before us have walked. Furthermore, it was my dream university.

But something felt amiss. Something in my gut was telling me that I needed to reconsider my decision. The next few days were spent making the toughest decision of my life. I contemplated again and again whether to take a leap of faith and take a gap year, or to just go with the flow. This was made worse when my traditional Asian parents heard of my reconsideration.

Eventually, I decided to let go of all my fears. With the final thought of “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” I decided to hold off school for a whole year and pursue my entrepreneurship full time. Surprisingly, SMU gave me a chance to pursue my goal and granted me the deferment within days. I was really touched that the University had chosen to believe in me even before they actually got to know me.

I thought the gap year was my boldest move yet, but that was just the start.

 

Mandy Chan - Making a prototype

Making my own prototype

 

The first 11 months of the year were spent in the prototyping lab without seeing any real results. I headed down to the streets and public bus stops alone, seeking validation from strangers about my obscure ideas. Once, I even stood on top of a pavement and shared about my product to people waiting for the shuttle bus. I remember my hands trembling as I distributed the survey forms—which came back negative (talk about double heartbreak). I had to travel to China alone in search of factories, going on 14-hour train rides stuck in a cabin with five strangers. It was my first time travelling alone and the fear of not returning home kept me wide awake for the 14 hours.

And even after everything, my first product of a bag on wheels was an epic failure. Despite countless attempts at making it work, the moulding cost still came up to a hefty $20,000. And people didn’t seem to want it from my street surveys. Having poured almost my entire life savings and my part-time earnings into it, I decided to let that idea go. It was so painful that I cooped myself up in my room and cried for several days. The vision of the BOW Bag taking off was a blurry image yet again. I was, unfortunately, back to square one.

There were so many times like these that I wanted to throw in the towel and be just like everyone else—go to university, get a degree and get a job. But I didn’t because of the promise to give my all for the gap year. And of course, to prove all the naysayers wrong. I wiped my tears off and got more driven than before. I must make it. I had to.

 

Mandy Chan - Making friends in China

Making friends in China

 

Mandy Chan - Factory visit in China

Factory visit in China

 

In the last month of my gap year, I finally had a breakthrough! After months of brainstorming and going back and forth with the manufacturer, I had something tangible in hand. It was surreal for me to actually hold my first product, to see it take form from the sketches and prototypes. I would always remember that feeling of accomplishment—which was far greater than any As that I scored in tests and exams.

You would think that the story ends here.

But that was not the end. My mentor had subsequently challenged me to hit 1,000 bags in sales within 2 months. If I managed to do that, I would receive a $5,000 start-up fund from him as a reward. The catch? I would have to give him $2,500 if I failed.

My first reaction should have been, “Siao ah (The Singaporean term for ‘you’re crazy’)!” $2,500 was a sum that I barely scrimped, through my 18 years of meagre pocket money. It would be utterly foolish to gamble it all away. But, I must not have had much sleep the night before, because I actually accepted his double-or-nothing challenge without hesitation. The 2 months that ensued were the most exciting (and desperate) time of my life.

Talking to friends like a pyramid scheme: check. Street sales: check. Knocking on doors at gyms: check.

 

Mandy Chan - Packaging in progress

Packaging in progress

 

To hit the first 1,000 bag sales, my co-founder and I went on to set up booths at various exhibitions to increase exposure for our first product—the Sweat Bag. Triathlon meets, basketball competitions, and even dragon boat events were a few that we took part in. I had never felt so worn out (and unfit—but that’s another story). Though it was tiring, it was a happy kind of exhaustion—if that makes sense. But it was also through these on-the-ground interactions that we gathered feedback for what was to come.

Eventually, the big break came when we met someone who really believed in BOW. Andrea Bell, master franchise of Anytime Fitness Singapore, took a chance on us. Despite our shaky start with the product demos, and even incomplete prototypes to show for, Andrea believed in our vision as strongly as we did. Even till now, we are grateful to have her both as a partner and a friend.

After 3 months, I went back to the drawing board following the feedback I’d gathered about Sweat Bag. More trips to factories, more tears, but this time round, more laughter as well. It was no longer about proving other people wrong. It was more about doing it because I really liked it.

 

The Quiver bag by BOW

The Quiver bag by BOW

 

Fast forward to a year later, I’d just finished my freshman year finals. This was also when I had subsequently launched my first ever Kickstarter Campaign—which successfully hit its funding goal of $15,000 in just 4 days!

My BOW journey continues. I’m not sure how things would turn out but one thing is for sure – that being bold was how I started my journey and being bold will be how I continue this venture. So, don’t be afraid and make the leap.

P.S.: We won the gamble!

 

Find out more about BOW’s products here

Keen to take the next step with SMU? Join our Undergraduate Programme today.

 

2 thoughts on “How I Started My Own Business At 19

  1. Friend

    Really happy for you, Mandy! To think you’ve come so far and achieved such a feat – genuinely happy for you. Here’s wishing you all the very, very best! 🙂

    Best,
    The (only) guy who wore home clothes to NYJC Experience Programme 6 years ago

    Reply

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