Nanz Chong-Komo, 48, first hogged headlines in 1997 with the meteoric rise of her One.99 chain, when Daiso was still unheard of here. Things took a turn for the worse in 2003 for the first poster girl for local entrepreneurs, when the business got hit badly by the SARS crisis and Nanz declared bankruptcy.
The erstwhile model used adversity to her advantage, penned three books about her business failures, and went on to become a motivational speaker. She’s making her retail comeback, taking over the local distributorship of SodaStream, the Nespresso of carbonated water which provides an economical and eco-friendly way to make your own sparkling water and sodas at home almost instantly.
8 DAYS: You’ve had to face your fair share of adversity in business. How are you doing things differently this time round?
NANZ CHONG-KOMO: I’ve learnt to work with people now. Last time, I [wanted to do everything myself] — I sourced for my own products, trained my staff etc. It was a lot of work for 15 stores. Maybe it was different in your 20s — you feel like you can conquer the world. So even though we had $14mil turnover [for One.99], the business wasn’t focused. I don’t know if I want to do that again because I need quality time with my loved ones. But the SodaStream (below) is a great product that has been around for over 100 years — I don’t have to remake or repackage anything. We mainly focus on the marketing, and that’s my core strength. I’ve written books about the lessons I’ve learnt and I know my strengths a lot better now. Young entrepreneurs may not know [the importance of this] — they think that as long as they love the product, they have to go into business. I was like that too.
What have you been up to all these years?
People have been asking me to set up businesses over the years — restaurants, nail bars etc. But I’ve written three books, opened a little F&B business which failed. It was a couple of barbecue chicken stalls at food courts. It’s not easy — the rental is so high and it’s so hard to hire people, so sometimes I go to the stall and do things myself. We closed it after one-and-a-half years and lost about $100,000. But I’m also helping my dad who’s been a jeweller for 50 years and has a shop in Lucky Plaza. I helped him put some items online and it did very well.
Given all that you’ve been through in the business world, were there any concerns when you first took the plunge with this new venture?
It’s harder when you’re in your 40s. That’s the truth. I told my good friend that sometimes it feels harder than before. But it’s not actually harder — it’s just my mindset. I now distribute only 20 products — it used to be 4,000 products with One.99. Plus, the Internet and social media has made everything so easy now. In the past, if you wanted to know who was selling sparkling water in town, you’d have to call them up or go around to find out. I often tell people about this mental obstacle [where I think things are harder now], so I’ve got to tell myself that I can do it and it’s actually way easier than before.
Do you shop at Daiso?
Yes, I do. My kids like it. Once, we were in a Daiso store and one of my kids asked, “Mummy, you had a shop like this before?” I told them I had 15 and they asked, “Are you sure your shop was as big as this?” (Laughs) So cute, right? I have shown them my press clippings, and my girlfriends have told them: “Your mummy was so popular last time”. They’re just fascinated ’cos they love Daiso so much.
Maybe you should get them to read your books. What have you learnt from your setbacks that you’ve imparted to your kids as life lessons?
We talk about ‘business lessons’ all the time. [My husband and I] are not as obsessed about their homework as we are their social and communication skills. So if they go to the playground, they get to learn things, like how to help people. My son broke his wrist at the playground, and he’ll learn that if there’s pain, you get up and it’ll heal. A lot of us when we fall — whether in terms of business or relationships — we think it’s the end of the world. We raise our kids not to be kids, but to be adults. So they know that if you don’t do well, it’s fine. You take responsibility for your own actions. If you nag at them, it’s counter-intuitive. Even for adults, we don’t like it when our boss nags at us, right? Actually, maybe I should ask them to read my books so they can learn how to make their customers happy.
What customers do they have?
They sell lemonade to raise funds to buy food for stray cats and dogs. They set up lemonade stands and knock on doors to sell. When they come back, we show them how to do P&L [profit and loss], like how much do the lemon and the ice cost, or how much is their salary, if they had one. Then we ask them if they’re making money or not, and if not, we tell them to get a sponsor for the lemons or something. At the end of the day, they have to be ready for real life. We’ve been doing this since they were around four years old, but only if the situation arises, like if their teacher asks them to do a lemonade stand. It’s not like we have weekly sit-down lessons!
From selling items at a flat price of $1.99 to hawking a sparkling water-maker that makes it cheaper to drink sparkling water. Are you someone who likes a good bargain?
To me, it’s about adding value to people’s lives. There were a lot of things cheaper than $1.99 when I was running the business. But you have to let people understand why [your product] is worth it. Similarly, for SodaStream, we have to communicate and help people see the value in paying $269 for the machine.
What did you last buy for $1.99 or less?
Duct tape! My daughter makes wallets out of duct tape, and she’s made 50 of them, including the one I’m using. So whenever I see nice designs, I’ll buy them for her.
Home is: A Woodlands condo where she lives with her Japanese-American husband, 58, and their three kids, Zara, 13, Christian, 12, and Zoe, 10.
Her ride is: A Toyota Alphard that she’s been driving for eight years.
What’s in her wallet: Name cards, membership cards, credit cards and hardly any cash in this cardholder made out of duct tape (below) by her youngest daughter, Zoe. “I don’t like to have too many things in my wallet. I don’t go out shopping and only buy stuff when I’m online or when I travel,” Nanz says.
Main photo: Ealbert Ho
Sodastream is available at ToTT stores and Home-Fix Ion Orchard. For more info, go to www.sodastream.sg.