Renyung Ho on Launching MATTER
This feature was originally developed as part of Thirty Under 30, a series of intimate and often difficult conversations with enterprising young individuals in various industries: retail, F&B, technology, creative services, and even sports. Our quest to answer the frequently asked questions of first-time entrepreneurs left us high and dry: locally-produced interviews often skimped on the important details, while internationally-produced articles lacked local nuance and addressed entirely different issues. Hungry for guidance, we knocked on the doors of people we admired for their courage and hard work.
Thirty Under 30 was conducted from January 2014 through April 2015. This particular feature was written in February 2014. Juliana Tan, a Singapore-based editorial and commercial photographer kindly partnered with us on portrait photography.
Ren is a powerhouse. 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 great and small. 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.
But the genesis of MATTER, while seeded many years ago, was not a straightforward path. Born into a family of privilege (her parents are the founders of luxury hospitality brand, Banyan Tree), Ren tells us how walking away from the family business has helped her to finally find her own ground — but not without a few failures of her own.
Okay Ren, let’s talk about you as a child. What were you like? Do you think your childhood impacted who you are today?
I was always a bit of a rebel — in fact, I was into sports and often cut school. I used to take a pillow into class and would actually use it!
I would say the years I took before university had the most impact on who I am today. 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 2004 tsunami I volunteered in Khao Lak, Phuket.
At that time I 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. It really gave me perspective on how lucky we are here. It’s not that I didn’t know that already, but it’s different reading about it in print 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.
What made you take that time out?
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.
So what’s the story behind MATTER?
I guess I’ve always been very passionate about connecting things. My first business venture, Kennel., was part of that — it connected people with spaces and community, especially in the creative sector. And then I tried launching a crowdfunding platform, Ideasian, which eventually failed because I’m not a tech person and the market is too young for that here. But that was also about connecting. I realise now that I started MATTER because it’s 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, my inspiration co-founder, in Mexico in 2009. 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.
But why start MATTER now? What changed between 2009 and 2013?
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.
The turning point came when I went to India with Adrien, my husband, in January 2013 on a Fluk Fluk trip. We drove a tuk-tuk 3000km to raise money for charities that provided 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. And through Barefoot College, one of the charities we donated to, 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 at the right time.
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 organisation is impressive.
How has the working and learning process been?
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. I’m slowly learning that sometimes, unexpected results can be better than what was initially planned. And if they aren’t, then it’s figuring out how I’m able to make it better, and how we as a team can make it better. Flexibility is the key to success — turning an unexpected result to my advantage is something I’ve learnt how to do more of now.
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. Many days 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 number of things I have to do, it’s more like the mind shift between roles. Shifting between things like deciding on production costs and doing a P&L, writing website copy, choosing which photographs to use for the lookbook, down to developing an outreach plan for marketing... I’m doing so many things and constantly having to make decisions! And that’s probably why I find myself experiencing decision fatigue: the quality of my decisions is decreasing while the time taken to make them is steadily increasing.
When you’re on your own and not earning any money, there’s no source of validation for what you’re doing. But if you can pull through it, you’ll find that there’s a lot more satisfaction because you see a direct impact from every decision you take, and the learning curve is constant.
How much capital did you start with?
I’m starting with my savings — that’s 50k.
Has that been enough?
Well, at the end of the day, ‘enough’ depends on what my goals are. It’s not enough for me to hire someone, but it’s enough to use for the first year to get MATTER off the ground and test the concept and product. But bear in mind that I’m not taking a salary right now either.
I recently decided 50k isn’t enough for how I want MATTER to grow, though, so I will be putting in more money six months after we launch.
Since you haven’t been drawing a salary, have you been looking for freelance jobs to support yourself?
No. To get something off the ground you really need to be entirely committed, so I’ve stayed off that path. I know I’m lucky though: I have Adrien to help out financially, and I feel like I’m able to take more risks because he supports me as a partner.
So how has your support system been like? You’re coming from a place where you’re now on your third business venture.
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 — whom I Skype regularly with, and that really helps 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.
People tell me MATTER is 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 it out 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 out the idea, and I wasn’t that person. I think people knew that before I did, and they tried to tell me in different ways. I just 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 viable family business. There’s this assumption that what I’m doing is an interim sabbatical and that one day after I’m tired of experimenting on my own I will return to the family business.
But haven’t your parents ever pressured you to return?
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. “Why do you only want to make pants? Why must you travel alone to India?”
And yes, the issue of our family business kept surfacing for a while — my parents 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 began 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 all 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 mum about production and working with communities, because that’s what she used to do. I believe they will eventually grow to be extremely supportive if I show commitment to this and continue to work on it. It’s been about four years since I left the family business and they know that working on this alone — without currently earning any money — takes real commitment.
Let’s backtrack a little and talk about mentors. Tell us about those relationships.
I think there’s a difference between technical mentors i.e. people you go to for skills, and mentors you go to who give you the strength and wisdom to carry on working.
I have many mentors who I bounce ideas off and work with within my peer network in Singapore. We review each other’s marketing and business plans, we talk about our theories of change. 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.
I believe that everyone is a mentor and the mindset that one should have in that position, especially if you’re working alone, is to be open to learning from anyone and also giving what you can. You can always end a conversation with “how can I help?” Never see mentorships as a top-down relationship.
Okay Ren, final big question to cap off the interview. What is success to you and do you think you’ve achieved it?
I think success is aligning what you’re good at with what you love. And a successful combination should also create some kind of 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 like financial growth. I’m now wiser about where I want MATTER to be and a bit more realistic about what it will take to get there.
All images taken by Juliana Tan.