Doing the COVID pivot: Singapore brands who have successfully changed their businesses

Niki Bruce
·Contributor
·18-min read
(PHOTO: Lauren Alexa)
(PHOTO: Lauren Alexa)

When COVID-19, hit Singapore, many brands discovered that their businesses not positioned to manage the drastic changes in the market. From restaurants and nail salons to various creative and even construction companies, suddenly life - and business - was not as we knew it.

However, some companies and entrepreneurs were able to shake off the shock and quickly pivot to something new. From fashion to food, from corporate offices to homes, from building to education, here are 6 Singapore businesses that have survived and thrived on the COVID pivot.

Lauren Alexa: From styling to baking

Lauren Alexa is a successful Singapore-based fashion stylist who works mainly as a freelancer on a variety of projects. When COVID-19 hit Singapore, she saw her entire industry disappear; here's what she did.

How did you move from your previous business to the new one?

“All my styling jobs were cancelled and disappeared once COVID-19 hit, with nothing in the foreseeable future. Luckily my husband makes enough to cover our expenses, but I got sick of seeing my bank balance keep dropping from spending on groceries.”

"I'd always had an interest in cooking and baking, and I've also been getting into leading a lifestyle as close to zero-waste as I can, which meant that I wanted to minimise plastic and make everything from scratch. So I spent the first 2-3 months of the Circuit Breaker (CB) testing and developing new recipes and perfecting old recipes.”

“After speaking to my aunt and a few friends, I decided to sell my much-loved banana cakes. Then a cousin asked if I would be selling the cookies, I'd brought to the family Christmas get-together, and so I decided to do a trio of my tried and tested cookies along with the banana cake. And from there, Little Bake Shop was born.”

“I'd say that COVID played a big part in starting the business, as I'm sure is the case with numerous other home-based businesses.”

(PHOTO: Lauren Alexa)
(PHOTO: Lauren Alexa)

What has surprised you the most about how your new business has worked out?

“My sister brought some cookies to the clinic with her for her colleagues to try, and the next thing you know, I received an order for 200 cookies! That surprised me that someone would order 200 after just tasting one.”

“And then another doctor that had placed an order with me saw the posts from the nurses from that large order and placed another large order for Nurses' Day! It was a challenge to produce 200 cookies in my tiny kitchen, for sure! It was worth the effort since it was for those who are serving on the frontlines amid this pandemic.”

What is the future of this new business? Will you continue it after the pandemic ends?

“Yes, I definitely will continue it after the pandemic! I've always loved bringing joy to people, whether it be through giving them a more positive view of themselves through clothes, or in the simple pleasures of good food. I feel that's an excellent way to live life.”

Do you miss your old job?

“I do, especially the camaraderie on set, and creating beautiful images together. That feeling of collaboration and letting creativity flow is almost unmatchable. Baking is quite a solitary activity, which I love, but can get a bit lonely when you're baking into the wee hours of the night while the world sleeps.”

You can check out Alexa's cookies and cakes at www.littlebakeshop.co and her styling work at www.laurenalexastyle.com.

Shanghood: From fashion to food

One of Singapore's longest established streetwear fashion brands, Shanghood found itself without customers once COVID-19 hit the country. Realising that with people staying home rather than going out, there was little need for fashion, brand director Ruix Tan decided to pivot to food.

How did you move from your previous business to the new one?

“Due to the Circuit Breaker and safe distancing, our retail showroom saw a 90 per cent drop and online business has also fallen by 50 per cent. We have been trying to innovate the next thing to survive [the situation].”

“Noticing the trend of care packs for friends and family, we decided to get into the space of care pack food items to capture this piece of the retail market during the downturn of our core business.”

“So, we embarked on a collaboration with Enchanted Cafe, to come up with a cold brew white and black coffee bottle collab and BOB The Baker Boy, for a limited pastry box collaboration. These two items led us to venture into the food space with our clothing brand, creating a new concept called the Shang Cafe, so we can park all our food collaboration ideas under this concept for our faithful followers to await more food surprises.”

What has surprised you the most about how your new business has worked out?

“Both of our collaborations have surprisingly generated more than SG$8k of sales within one month. We sold out 400 bottles of cold brew within two weeks.”

“And it doesn't stop there; we are also collaborating with another famous brand to come up with a durian mooncake in September.”

“These collaborations have helped both of the businesses to attract new customers in each other's areas and created a win-win situation combining fashion and food in a significant way.”

What is the future of this new business? Will you continue it after the pandemic ends?

“The future is still all about collaborations to bring to our customers constant surprises and fresh ideas; the 'wow factor'. We have also collaborated with Singapore gaming chair maker - Royale Ergonomics - to produce a gaming chair series to be launched at the end of September!”

Do you miss your old business?

“We still hope to continue selling apparel as our core product, but by using this collaborative concept, we hope we can gain more followers of our style and let more people know about our stories and ideas.”

To get hold of Shanghood's Bob The Baker Boy pastry box, go to www.bobthebakerboy.com or www.shanghoods.com. New concepts will be available on the Shanghood website.

Millennial Indian girl in wireless headphones sit at desk at home working on modern laptop, young ethnic woman in earphones browsing Internet shopping online or studying on computer in living room
(PHOTO: Getty Images)

Minimalist Society: From interior design to education

The Minimalist Society is a Singapore interior design firm that not only renovates your home but also simplifies your life with its suggestions on how to live a stylish life with less stuff. When COVID-19 arrived, design projects get put on hold, and the company had to come up with something new. Since they couldn't physically do renovations, they decided to teach people how to do their own.

How did you move from your previous business to the new one?

“We created a series of courses to empower homeowners who are seeking to shape their home in a minimalist fashion. There are a total of three different classes with different core focuses.”

“The Minimalist Playbook is where you learn about the minimalist mindset, habits and how to create a minimalist home/environment using minimalist interior design principles. Crafting A Minimalist Kitchen is for homeowners looking to revamp and remodel their kitchen. SimplySketch is for the inspiring interior designer in you, where we teach you how to craft your carpentry designs using free SketchUp software.”

What is the future of this new business? Will you continue it after the pandemic ends?

"On our end, we are still sticking to our bread and butter of interior design, but adding avenue to reach out to our fans and audience for them to learn more.”

To join one of the Minimalist Society's courses, go to minimalist.sg/courses

(PHOTO: 1929 Mask)
(PHOTO: 1929 Mask)

1929 Mask: From industrial production to making it at home

Keenon Lee founded 1929 Mask as a quick response to the impact of COVID-19 on his family's fabric production company Rengitex. The masks are treated with water-repellent and anti-microbial properties and tested by international test centres to last for 100 washes.

How did you move from your previous business to the new one?

“It all started with the Coronavirus. Everything came together rather quickly. Around the start of this year, as the spread of COVID-19 escalated, masks are sold out everywhere. My mother was particularly worried about my brother, who works in the healthcare sector.”

“My family owns a textiles business, Rengitex, that's been around for more than 20 years, and supplies customised fabrics to major clothing labels worldwide. Our factory in Batu Pahat, Johor, had bales of cloth, and we felt the material could be used for a new business while helping to ease the shortage of masks at the same time.”

“The Singapore government was also calling on Singaporean enterprises to come forward to help meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was my mother who came up with the idea when she heard a minister making that call on television.”

“She and my dad are a winning team where fabrics are concerned. She has five decades of experience in textiles manufacturing and worked as a quality controller at the Esprit clothing label, so she knows all about treating, dyeing and printing fabrics.”

“My father was a lab technician and factory manager at chemicals maker Union Carbide, so he's passionate and knowledgeable about mixing chemicals and their effects.”

“Together, my family researched, made and tested many prototypes ourselves to ensure we had the right shape of mask for the most comfortable fit. We also used the best fabric and chemical combination for optimal protection before sending our masks to international test labs to ensure they meet rigorous standards.”

Mountain. (PHOTO: 1929 Mask)
Mountain. (PHOTO: 1929 Mask)

What has surprised you the most about how your new business has worked out?

“We are humbled by how much we have managed to achieve over a relatively short period in terms of our masks' protective qualities; helping to safeguard lives around us.”

“The water repellency and anti-microbial properties of 1929 masks have been tested to withstand 100 washes, exceeding the industry average of 15 to 20 times. Bureau Veritas check our masks, and they have achieved a bacteria filtration efficiency (BFE) of about 95 per cent – similar to a surgical mask.”

“That's hard to achieve for reusable masks due to the nature of different fabrics and the fact that they are washable.”

“We are encouraged by the many positive comments we have received. So many customers have told us how they feel more secure stepping out in a 1929 Mask because its qualities have been tested and proven. And it's soft, comfortable and snug as well. We are truly humbled.”

What is the future of this new business? Will you continue it after the pandemic ends?

“Yes. For now, we are introducing more fabric designs and colours beyond the original black and navy blue, after taking some time to experiment with printing techniques to figure out the best method that would ensure the protective qualities of our masks.”

“We also recently began selling an extender that goes around the back of the head and attaches to the loops of a mask, making it more convenient for those wearing a headdress to put on and remove one.”

“In the longer term, we plan to introduce more products and are researching other protective features to add to fabrics for other uses. Stay tuned for more details.”

Do you miss your old business?

“Before the pandemic, I was running my own renovation company. We've recently been able to restart the business after the economy in Singapore gradually reopened. We have several backlog projects and have been very busy.”

“I enjoy both businesses and am grateful to be given the opportunities to be involved. I have no regrets about setting up 1929 Mask as mask-making is a significant business during this unprecedented time in human history.”

You can buy 1929 Masks at 1929mask.com

(PHOTO: Office Planner)
(PHOTO: Office Planner)

Office Planner: From government offices to home offices

When COVID-19 struck, Gavin Woo, owner of Office Planner, had been supplying office furniture and fit-outs to various Singapore government groups for 23 years. Suddenly projects were put on hold, and the future of the office was in jeopardy.

How did you move from your previous business to the new one?

“When Circuit Breaker was implemented, almost all government projects were put on hold. We realised that since everyone was stuck at home, we should be developing a range of home furniture so that we could have a go at something new, yet not so different from what we were initially doing.”

“Coronavirus has certainly impacted our business, but at the same time, it has also given rise to a new line of business.”

What has surprised you the most about how your new business has worked out?

"What surprised me most during this period was how seamless it was to work from home, an idea which I used to frown upon and dismissed very quickly because I felt that working from home would be challenging in terms of communication between colleagues.”

“When Circuit Breaker forced us to stay away from the office and to adopt different modes of communication between colleagues and staff, we quickly launched our Freeplay and Freeplay 1+1 series. These are a mobile height adjustable study table that can double up as a utility table in the home.”

"Also, our traditional way of doing business was so different from selling the home study tables online. During this period, showrooms were not open, and we found that consumers had no issues about buying online.”

“This is very unlike how we have been doing our business for the last two decades because all our previous clients needed a showroom to view our furniture and we didn't expect to be able to bring our business online.”

“During Circuit Breaker, there were many queries into home furniture, and we have been selling quite a bit of our height adjustable tables online for homes which is encouraging.”

Cleo Midback Chair. (PHOTO: Office Planner)
Cleo Midback Chair. (PHOTO: Office Planner)

What is the future of this new business? Will you continue it after the pandemic ends?

“The future of the office workplace [is unclear], it is evident that a lot of companies will encourage their staff to work from home since it's possible.”

“Luckily for us, we started working on new home office designs as early as April 2020. We are collaborating with two local design firms, Fraction Design Studio (Ms Celine Ng) and Sevenvine Pte Ltd (Mr Adrian Chua) to design and manufacture a range of 'working from home' solutions.”

“We've created a height-adjustable study table that both children and parents can use. Other designs include a dining table which can double up as a study cum meeting table with flexible height capabilities, home sofa sets for both indoors and outdoors which can double up as a working pod with power charging options etc.”

“The home office is a big market which is waiting to explode… After a vaccine is tested and proven, working from home will be a reality as huge real estate costs - one of the big-ticket items for companies - would be lowered since many people will opt to work from home and return to the office when necessary.”

Do you miss your old business?

“I have resumed our core business which is the manufacturing and supplying of office furniture for MNCs and government bodies. It's slowly coming back, but I am thrilled to have a new market on our radar which we are looking forward to developing. I won't say I miss my old business because I am now doing both.”

You can shop Office Planner's new home office pieces at www.office-planner.com

(PHOTO: Joshua Pillai)
(PHOTO: Joshua Pillai)

A Phat Cat Collective: From live clubbing to a virtual dancefloor

One of Singapore's most exciting, accessible and innovative lifestyle companies, A Phat Cat Collective (APC) was aware right from the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic that they would have to adapt and do it fast. Joshua Pillai, the Co-founder and Managing Director of APC, immediately moved into the world of digital and virtual events.

How did you move from your previous business to the new one?

“We knew once COVID-19 started hitting Singapore hard, we had to transition to online-based activities quickly. We wanted to bring positivity to our guests through various forms of entertainment that are fun and relatable to our brands.”

“The transition was more of a creative process and exercise for us. Nineteen80 & Pinball Wizard are quirky and fun concepts, so finding ways to show their personalities online can be pretty tricky. In everything that we do, we make an effort to ensure that we can weave in that same energy and edge.”

“Take our delivery cocktail menu, for example. For our alcohol deliveries, we make it unique by putting a retro and party spin on it. We provide props for people to have fun with and encourage customers to tune in to our live streams for a more immersive experience. For our live streams, we host guest DJs and even have different forms of virtual events, including trivia nights and 80s workouts that are inspired by game shows and exercise videos of the past.”

“Besides that, we've also launched our Nineteen80 collection of retro-inspired face masks that are produced by the team. It's something different from what we usually offer, but we thought it would be a practical way for people to show their support while enabling us to encourage staying safe and positive.”

Virtual Trivia Night. (PHOTO: Nineteen80)
Virtual Trivia Night. (PHOTO: Nineteen80)

What has surprised you the most about how your new business has worked out?

I think what surprised us the most was how united and positive our patrons have [been in engaging] with us through our activities. During our streams on Twitch or Zoom, we have live chats, and they would chat with our team members and DJs, make new friends with other viewers, and share how much they miss our clubs and memories of their nights with us.”

“It's always nice, and at the same time, it's a poignant reminder that there's uncertainty. The interactions may be behind the screens, but the connection feels personal; we're all going through this together.”

What is the future of this new business? Will you continue it after the pandemic ends?

"We have a few more ideas to keep us going. With what's going on right now, especially, we want to make sure that our music is more accessible to our audience and the experience is not confined to a physical space.”

“We're launching a Mixcloud Selects page which is a platform where people can subscribe to us for curated playlists by our DJs and guests. We may also explore streaming our DJ sets from our club or even hold virtual events on it. There are a few ideas up our sleeves, and we'll try to make the most out of any situation!”

Do you miss your old business?

“Definitely! I miss seeing the fun and joy we bring to people! From the time we first started, we always wanted to create unique and thematic concepts in the scene that are engaging, interactive and have a human connection.”

“It's always nice to see people soaking in the atmosphere, drinking and dancing the night away, and we're all looking forward to the day we can do so again.”

To enjoy one of APC's virtual events, go to www.facebook.com/aphatcat

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