Ministry of Retail – Tan Yi Fong

Hi, I’m Yi Fong.

This year, my online fashion store, Ministry of Retail ( turns 3. I have always loved shopping online. Even so, starting an online store was not always in the plans.

In 2009 when I was a second year NTU undergraduate, I frequently organized sprees to buy things from overseas. Even after factoring in the shipping cost, some items (ranging from clothes to daily necessities) still cost cheaper overseas.

Seeing the amount of time I spent on my spree organizing activities, my husband (then-boyfriend) Vincent suggested turning it into a business.

Why I Wanted to Start My Business From Home?
Vincent and I did not ask ourselves “why”. Instead, ours was a “why not?”

There was little opportunity cost to us then. If the business did not take off, I could always fall back on a job upon graduation.

Secondly, our business did not require much capital. We decided to take pre-orders (just like online sprees) where we would collect the orders and payment upfront before placing orders with our suppliers. To start the business, all we needed was a proper website to get the online store running. Thankfully, Vincent had experience in that area.

As Vincent had a day job, he could only find time before and after office hours to work on the website. As a result, he was often the first to reach and last to leave his office.

A few months later, Vincent and I got married, the online store was launched and sales were encouraging. The turning point came when I discovered I was pregnant.

Pregnancy: The Turning Point
I was still a student then with only one school semester left to graduation. After discussing with Vincent and my mum, I decided to apply for a semester break starting January 2010 and focus on the business.

As I had time on my hand, I read various business books, took notes and applied tips that I learnt. I could not believe my eyes – revenue went up 200% that month and I was netting an income higher than a starting graduate’s!

Beginning: The Journey
My expected due date was 5th May 2012 but my mischievious daughter couldn’t wait to see the world and decided to make Aprils’ Fool Day her birthday! That was also the month when our online store netted a 5-figure income.

The great thing about running an online business was that I could work from home and play with my daughter when she was awake.

This might sound like a fairytale ‘happily ever after’ ending but this was just the beginning.

Before this, having to juggle studies and business was difficult enough. Imagine adding a baby into the equation! Thankfully my mum was supportive. She volunteered to help out with the baby and quit her job the moment I delivered.

On the business front, things were getting busy and I could not cope alone. At one point in time, things were getting so messy that some customers received their orders twice and some customers did not receive their orders! We decided to hire help (moms and students who part-time) and worked out a process to keep track of items delivered and improve our operations.

I went back to school in August 2010 to complete my degree. Without the help of Vincent, my mom and the staff at Ministry of Retail, I could never have done it.

Challenges… Make You Stronger
In December 2010, Vincent developed a persistent cough that did not go away after many weeks. After seeing 3 doctors, given cough syrup and even stronger cough syrup, a GP recommended Vincent to get an X-ray of the chest. Vincent’s heart sank when he saw the X-ray results. The X-ray showed a bulky mass in his chest.

The GP then recommended Vincent to go for a CAT scan to determine what the mass was.

I was studying for my examinations then and did not know Vincent was going for all these scans.

One day, Vincent sat me down and broke the news to me. The CAT scan confirmed that the mass was cancerous – Vincent had cancer.

I broke down and cried. I could not believe the news. Vincent and I had just bought and moved into a new flat, had a baby daughter, and I was about to graduate… why did this happen to us?

We could only pray for the best.

Still shaken, I took my examinations the next day before visiting Vincent at the hospital. Vincent had to be hospitalised so the oncologists could perform a biopsy test on him.

Thankfully the cancer turned out to be Hodgkin’s Lymphoma! This cancer is very responsive to treatment and is in fact the first cancers to be cured by mankind.

As part of the treatment, Vincent had to go to the National Cancer Centre regularly for a 4-hour chemotherapy session. As I only needed a laptop and Internet connection to work on my online business, I could accompany Vincent to his chemotherapy sessions while work at the same time.

After numerous sessions of chemotherapy and subsequently radiotherapy, I am happy to announce that Vincent has successfully overcome his cancer!

Don’t Forget To Make Time For The Family!
When Vincent knew he had cancer, he came across this article ‘Top 5 regrets of the dying’. ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’ was the top regret. Many regretted missing their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. As a result of Vincent’s cancer episode, we decided not to work on weekends and holidays so as to have quality family time.

Any Advice For Starting A Business?
Don’t focus on the ‘HOW’. As long as you have a strong WHY (or why not), kick start the business and fine-tune along the way. Even into our third year of business, we are constantly fine-tuning our business.

Having said that, either do something you truly like or craft a niche for yourself. Don’t jump on the bandwagon of the latest trends (remember the roti mama or the luohan fish bubble?). That’s a sure way to fail. Also, rethink the business model. Is there any way you can start the business with little or no capital? Can you partner someone with a complementary product/service? Or sell other people’s products/services?

I’d like to leave a quote:
“A journey of a thousand miles begin with a single step.”
Will you take that first step? I’m glad I did.

Filed under Mompreneurs Story #

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