Ren is a powerhouse. There, we said it. She’s the kind of person who makes things happen, and when she’s not doing that she’s making things happen for other people – because that’s the other thing she does. Ren connects; she connects people, causes, and ideas. Which is why her third business venture, Matter, comes as no surprise – the socially conscious lifestyle label is all about creating a collaborative platform for different communities. We talk to Ren about her successes and failures as an entrepreneur, how she’s found her own ground, and what it’s been like walking away from a position of privilege – her family business of luxury travel.
Q: Okay Ren, we’re going to start with something a little different. Let’s talk about you as a child. What were you like and do you think that has impacted who you are today?
A: I was a bit of a rebel – I was into sports and cut school quite a lot. I used to take a pillow into class and would actually use it.
If you ask me what about my childhood had the most impact on me, I would say the years I took out before university. I spent about two years doing totally random stuff. I waitressed at Marmalade Pantry; I was a transcriber for a Mandarin to English tourism video for Singapore Tourism Board; I was a media gopher for advertisements; I was a retail assistant for Milan Fashion Week; I worked at a marine lab as an intern; I volunteered for an orphanage in China; and after the tsunami I volunteered in Khao Lak, Phuket.
At that time I just knew I wanted to explore. I think that period impacted me because it’s the same as travel – you put yourself in so many different environments, interact with different people, do different things. It was a useful experience for who I am and what I think is important. That sowed the roots for a lot of what I do today, which is why whatever I do I strongly feel it has to be positive. I was shocked when I left Singapore and saw the rest of Asia and really gained the perspective of how lucky we are here. Of course you know that – but it’s different reading about it in print or travelling as a child versus being in an orphanage and having a four-year-old boy sit on your lap writing his name on your hand because he wants to belong to you. Direct experiences make more difference than knowledge.
Q: What made you do all that?
A: I didn’t know what I wanted to study at university. It was a long time coming, partly because of being in the education system for so long (12 years!) and not knowing myself, what I was good at, or what I cared about. I felt like I didn’t know enough of the world and of my place in this world. At that time I don’t think I had a strategy, save the one of putting myself in different situations to discover more. My parents were really worried because they thought I was drifting and that I wasn’t going back to university, but always supported me and trusted in my judgment. I am very grateful for that. And it was hard to go back into school.
Q: But you did go back.
A: Yes, I did. I studied sociology and economic development, and I did my thesis on social entrepreneurship.
Q: What’s the story behind Matter?
A: I guess I’ve always been very passionate about connecting things. Kennel. was part of that – it connected people with spaces and community, especially in the creative space. And then I tried launching a crowdfunding platform, Ideasian, which didn’t work out because I’m not a tech person and the market is too young for that here. But that was also about connecting. I realize now that I started Matter because it’s all about connection as well; it’s connecting artisans with designers and heritage with modern design.
Whenever and wherever I’ve travelled, I’ve always loved going to textile markets and seeing the local fabrics. There’s so much culture and history in that. My academic background is in sociology and I did my thesis on social entrepreneurship so I’ve always been interested in cultural stories in that sense. I can’t see anywhere else – besides maybe architecture – where you can see a culture of a place reflected so much as in textiles and the woven or printed motifs in them.
I met Yvonne in Mexico in 2009 and the idea came about because we wanted to do something for women, and we thought that pants was a symbol of the freedom that we enjoy. This individual freedom that we could travel, be our own person, make our own lives.
Q: Yvonne is the co-founder listed on your site, right?
A: She’s an inspirational co-founder. We met in Mexico, where the idea came together. She’s now based in Shanghai with a full time job and I soundboard with her, but I’m mainly working on this full-time.
Q: So why start Matter now? What changed between 2009 and 2013?
A: When I first decided to start working on Matter I cold-emailed many social enterprises in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia etc., but I received very few replies.
It was only when I went to India with Adrien in January 2013 on a Fluk Fluk trip where we drove this tuk-tuk 3000km and raised money for charities, around the idea of providing the basic essentials – water, nature, education and play. Through that trip I really saw the colours of India and fell completely in love with it. Through one of the charities we donated to, Barefoot College, I found a textile community and social enterprise in India. Long story short, it was a domino effect of meeting the right people in India that I continued working with.
That particular project made me feel like it was the right time to start on Matter. Out of all the countries I’ve mentioned, India has also been the most responsive in terms of email, virtual Skyping, replying messages etc. The social enterprise sector in India is by far the most advanced in Asia, and the depth of their infrastructure and organization is impressive.
Q: How has the working and learning process been?
A: I started working full-time on Matter in April 2013, and to be honest it’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would.
Managing production quality from overseas has been a lot more challenging than I expected, and I only just hired a production manager last month who is based there. Coming from Singapore, working in India teaches you about letting go of the results and learning that something that’s different from what you initially planned is better – or, how can you make it better, learning to working with different kinds of people, understanding that flexibility is the key to success, or being able to see available resources in every type of scenario. Turning things to my advantage is something I’ve learnt how to do more of now.
It’s all about the power of one – even though I worked with a photographer, a PR person, a branding person etc., it’s still me divided into different roles. It’s not so much the amount of things I have to do, it’s more like the mind shift between roles. Shifting from something like deciding on production costs and doing a P&L, writing website copy, choosing which photographs to use for the lookbook, to setting up an outreach plan for marketing and doing your product marketing campaign... I’m doing so many things and constantly having to make decisions so I’m experiencing decision fatigue where I take longer to make decisions and the quality of my decisions is decreasing.
I’ve become more stressed but also more dynamic. More stressed because I’m juggling so many things and I have so much more doubt.
Q: How much capital did you start with and have you put in any more money since?
A: I’m starting with my savings – I have 50k put aside.
Q: Has that been enough so far?
A: It all depends on what your goals are. It’s not enough for me to hire someone, but it’s enough for the first year to get it off the ground and test the concept and product. I’m focusing on product market fit and price testing in this initial phase. I’m not taking a salary right now either. It’s not enough for where I want it to be though, so I will put in more six months after the launch.
Q: While working on Matter, have you been looking for say, freelance jobs to support yourself?
A: No. To get something off the ground you really need to be entirely committed. I think I’m very lucky because I have Adrien as a support. I feel like I’m able to take more risks because he supports me as a partner.
Q: So how has your support system been like? You’re coming from a place where you’re now on your third business venture.
A: My friends are amazing. There’s a really big community in Singapore that’s very collaborative – the start-up community here and the social entrepreneurship community are super supportive. I have mentors – one’s based in Delhi and another one’s based in New York – that I Skype with regularly and they connect because they are aligned with the cause and passionate about it. There have been so many people who offer to help in ways that they can – at events or by giving feedback – because they believe in what I’m doing, and that’s a huge encouragement to me.
With Matter people tell me that it’s very aligned with who I am and what I believe in. It feels like it’s something I can carry on into the distant future, and I’m encouraged myself knowing that I am committed – there is less pressure to ‘succeed’ within a certain time frame because you know it’s just a matter of time and tweaking to get it to work.
People were most doubtful about the crowdfunding platform. Friends and family saw how I was passionate about the cause but didn’t see how I could execute it. I stuck at it for 5 months with a technical co-founder because... I was stubborn. And I learnt the hard way that a good idea is not enough. You need to be the right person and have the right resources to carry the idea out, and I wasn’t that person. I think people knew that before I did, and they tried to tell me in different ways, but I refused to listen.
Closer friends also asked me questions like ‘how long are you going to do this?’ I think that’s because I come from a place where there is a family business, which I left to start my own ventures, and there’s an assumption that this is an interim sabbatical and that I’ll one day return to that.
Q: Didn’t your parents ever pressure you to return to the business?
I think my family was questioning at first, but they’ve never been unsupportive. They were definitely skeptical when I first started working on Matter. They wondered why I was taking “unnecessary” risks and making things difficult for myself like making a niche product like pants and travelling to India alone. And yes, for a while the issue of our family business kept surfacing – they reminded me that there’s a lot of things that I can do within the family business that’s good for the world too. And I acknowledge that for sure. Everything is a matter of timing though.
The real difference started when I recently added them to Matter’s mailing list and started sharing what I was doing with them. They told me that they could really see where this is going and that it’s aligned with who I am, which is incredibly heartening. I talked to my dad about the business model and how to take it forward and I talked to my mom about production and working with communities, because that’s what she used to do. I think as I show commitment to this and continue to work on it they will be extremely supportive. It’s been about 4 years since I left the family business and they know that working on this alone and without currently earning any money from it takes commitment.
Q: You mentioned mentors? Tell us about those relationships.
A: I think there’s a difference between technical mentors i.e. people that you go to for skills, and mentors that you go to who give you the strength and wisdom to carry on working.
In Singapore within my peer network I have a lot of mentors whom I bounce ideas off, work with etc. We review each other’s marketing and business plans, we talk about our theories of change and that kind of collaborative mentorship really supports me here.
I have actively sought out people in similar fields who aren’t just based in Singapore, so I have a mentor in New York who teaches in a business school there and works with artisans, and another mentor in Delhi who also works with artisans. These two I talk to more on an industry and business basis.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
A: The future of Matter will be about creating different kinds of travel wear, not just pants. But we’ll also issue editions of products i.e. fixed styles in different fabrics.
I hope to be in many more fabric-intensive geographies in Asia like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia for sure, China, and Japan. I would love to see that diversity come through in our products. There will be a definite global presence in our retail platform.
I’m also pushing for a lot of designer collaborations – because I’ve always seen Matter as a platform for both artisans and designers, and fabric is such an easy medium for that kind of collaboration. You have a fixed style and a fixed technique; you teach the designer the fabric technique; they design based on their understanding of the technique and existing motif histories. That’s what I think will make craft cool. Which is why I think the artisan-designer collaboration is so important. That’s the reason why our branding isn’t unique but more inclusive; I don’t want to be a designer label. I want to be a connecting platform for those collaborations and to showcase and retail the result of those collaborations.
Q: What is success to you and do you think you’ve achieved it?
A: I think success is aligning what you’re good at and what you love with a positive impact in the world. I don’t think I’m successful yet, but I’m on the right path.
Matter is my third venture, and so I think I’ve defined new parameters for where I want it to be. With Kennel. it was all about passion, love, community, creativity, and I didn’t really think about the other things. I think I’m now wiser about where I want Matter to be and a bit more realistic about what it will take to get there.