At only 21 years old, Isabel Lee and her business partner Anna Ng are already making their mark in the F&B world. We speak to the young lady boss behind The Acai Affair to find out how she’s doing it all.
When you receive a calling, it’s best to answer it. And that’s exactly what Singapore Management University business undergraduate, Isabel Lee, did with her course mate Anna Ng when they both chose to pursue their passion for unassuming bowls of acai. Personal challenges and lack of experience didn’t deter the dynamic duo from launching their venture, with the store opening its welcoming doors in late 2016. The business is continually thriving one year on, proving that success isn’t necessarily defined age.
How did the idea behind An Acai Affair come about?
Anna and I are fans of acai bowls. We’re not the first in Singapore, but we felt that there was further potential for it. Taking into consideration that the selections available here are rather expensive, we wanted to come up with something more affordable and of good quality. Being business students ourselves, we made sure to do extensive market research on public opinions, competitors and the general market for healthy foods in Singapore. We decided to open our store in the East as there are plenty of gyms and wellness studios in the area, and people who patron these places usually look for healthy food after their workouts.
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What made you want to pursue the brand with your current partner, instead of venturing on it solo?
It’s always easier to have someone to do it with. I think if we were to venture into business alone, it’d be much more daunting. Sharing the workload with a close friend makes it easier.
Did you face any financial challenges and how did you overcome them?
Initially, we didn’t have the funding. After pouring all our savings into the rent deposit, we had no money left so we turned to our parents for financial help. My parents refused at first, but we tried very hard to persuade them and eventually they decided to lend us some cash to cover our equipment and renovation costs. We are also lucky that we started making profits from the get-go, which makes it easier for us to repay our loan.
How do you balance time between work and school?
It’s really about managing priorities and making full use of all the time I can get – for example, spending less time going out and shopping. Not that those things are not significant, but doing it less allows me more time for other priorities. It’s getting better now ever since we hired more employees, but we definitely had to make sacrifices in the beginning.
What were the reactions of your family and friends upon hearing of your decision to set up a business?
They were quite against it as they were worried that I would flunk out of school. To my parents, doing well in my studies was a top priority. My mum knows how hard it is [to start a business], and she thought I was going into [this] without being fully aware of how difficult it would be. It took a lot of persuasion to show my parents that this was what I really wanted. After we overcame the first hurdle, they’ve been really supportive.
What’s the best thing about accomplishing your startup at such a young age?
I think it’s something that Anna and I can really be proud of. We tried to save as much as we could on setting up the store, so we did a lot of things ourselves. We have this black and white design wall that we drew ourselves, which took us 12 hours. Though it’s been a tiring journey, it’s been so fulfilling and it’s something really meaningful to us. Not a lot of people would have their own business at our age, although there’s increasingly more in recent years. It’s nice to hear when other people tell us that they didn’t think it would be possible for young entrepreneurs to succeed until they heard about us, or that they have been inspired by us to start their own ventures as well.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned as a student entrepreneur?
It changed my perspective on life as a student. I feel that in Singapore, everyone is so caught up with the paper chase. I used to be someone like that, and I would get bothered if I didn’t do well in school. For some people, their calling may not be in academics – it may be in art or singing, for example – and I think they would feel held back by the expectations of their parents and the norms of our society. I feel that I’ve managed to break out of that, and I wish more people would do the same and pursue what they’re passionate in.
What are your hopes for the business in the future?
Our second store at Marina DUO, Bugis is currently undergoing renovation so hopefully that will kick off. After that, we’re looking to expand the business to more outlets in Singapore and possibly overseas to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where more people can enjoy our acai bowls.
What advice would you share with fellow budding entrepreneurs?
The quote “In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take” by Lewis Carroll really rings true for me and the journey of An Acai Affair so far – which is why it’s up on a neon sign at our store! If you have a goal in mind and the means to attempt achieving it, you shouldn’t be afraid to try your best.
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An Acai Affair is located at 101 East Coast Road, Singapore 428796. Get your daily dose of acai goodness on Facebook and Instagram via @anacaiaffair!
This article was adapted from the November 2017 issue of Teenage.
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