We spoke to Lee Junxian, who owns a chain of cafes (Reedz) that hires vulnerable segments in the neighbourhood. Junxian is a SIFE (now Enactus) alumni, and steered the NUS club when he was a student.
Could you tell us a bit more about your first steps into running a business? What were the early years into your entrepreneurship journey like?
I was into my 2nd year of my undergraduate studies at NUS Business School. It was a time when most guys started stepping up, seeking and exploring meaningful things to do in our post-army lives. For me, the opportunity presented itself when NUS decided to set up a small student entrepreneurship retail area in support of student start-ups. I jumped at this opportunity.
I did my own research, finding out what the local community at the student hostel needed or desired, trying to identify areas of pent up demand, as my studies had taught me. The end result was a gaming café named the Black Box. At that time, console gaming shops, similar to Play Nation, had just begun to take root in Singapore. And we rode on that wave. We rented and renovated 4 enclosed rooms, equipped it with flat screen panels, theatre-styled surround sound systems and the latest console gaming units.
As you would imagine, business boomed.
I eventually sold off the gaming business for a small profit, and bought over an ailing café within the hostel with a partner who had been operating another small café. We have been working together on our café business ever since. It’s been about 7 years.
How did SIFE (now NUS Enactus) influence your entrepreneurship journey back then?
To me, SIFE was the perfect platform to get a taste of the entrepreneurship world. It gave me the opportunity to dig my hands deep into a project, P&L, to manage within a working budget, to meet with top level executives and manage a team. Armed with this experience and knowledge ultimately gave me the confidence to pursue my entrepreneurship dream.
What is the single-most important lesson learnt during your time in SIFE that still holds true for you today?
I still hold the mantra of “Head for Business, Heart for the World” close to me. This continues to govern the values and ways in which we conduct our business. In Reedz, we work with local VWOS to engage and hire vulnerable segments of the population (e.g. single mothers). This is a win-win-win situation as (1) the society benefits from higher employment rates amongst this group, (2) the staff secures much needed employment and (3) Reedz secures motivated staff.
It’s safe to say that the current cafe market in Singapore is fairly saturated. How does Reedz Cafe do it?
We adopt a hyper-local strategy: We deep-root ourselves close to each local community and engage our stakeholders on a regular basis so as to remain relevant and keep ourselves abreast of sentiments on the ground. What makes us unique is also a challenge on the flipside, as our outlets and menus are non-standardised and we cannot extract the full value of economies of scale from procurement of similar ingredients in bulk.
What is one thing that you wished someone told you before taking the plunge into running your own business?
SIFE gave me the wonderful opportunity to come into close contact with both corporate and business leaders. While these leaders had already warned me on the perils that entrepreneurship would bring, especially the challenges that I would face during the start-up and growth years of the business, the level of focus and dedication that is required to keep a successful business going still surprised me.
If there’s one thing you could change about your journey as a young entrepreneur, what would it be?
I would have opted to start earlier. I had three things going for me during my university days: (1) Studies, (2) Work/business (3) Hobbies. While all three are important, I would have placed more emphasis on my business on hindsight. As many have said, you fail early so as to succeed early. What you learn from doing business is at least as important as what you learn from books.