Monday, September 26, 2016

On the pages of Simply Her Magazine

A couple of months ago, I was interviewed by Simply Her Magazine and the story is out! It's in the October 2016 issue under the feature "Mumpreneurs We Want As Our BFFs". I noticed that I'm the only mum featured in her 40s, everyone else is in their 30s

The focus of the interview was on how I set up my writing agency and how it empowers others mums. As is usually the case in such features, there's a word count constraint, so the article is a heavily summarised version of the interview. For the benefit of readers, here's the full Q&A of my interview.

What is the main target of your company?

In essence, we want to help organisations communicate better through writing that is simple, clear and creative. It sounds straightforward but you’ll be surprised how difficult it is to achieve this. Often, when you’re in an organisation, you can’t see through the fog caused by massive information overload. Everything is important! And it’s made worse when people throw in jargon and buzzwords indiscriminately, often to mask the fact that they’re not quite sure what they really mean.

My writers aren’t just adept at writing, most of them also have extensive business and marketing experience, so we are able to capture the essence of what organisations want to communicate and wrap it in a succinct, readable package.

What made you decide to set up? What inspired you? How did you see the gap in the market?

In 2002, I’d been heading corporate communications departments in different organisations for about 10 years. My kids were only 5 and 2 then, and I didn’t want to miss their crucial, growing up years. So armed with a passion for writing, I decided to start a copywriting business, working from home. Thus, Hedgehog Communications was born.

It was a riskier decision than many people realise today. 2002 was at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis. Jobs were scarce, businesses were failing. Furthermore, back then, outsourcing writing wasn’t the norm. It was almost unheard of. Most PR departments took care of the writing internally. So it was actually a huge risk. I was giving up a great job and salary as head of communications at SMU to start this venture. With two very young kids to feed! Many friends thought I was out of my mind.

What life changes did you have to make personally to start your business up?

I didn’t have to make any drastic changes financially because writing has very low overheads and start-up costs, plus I did have clients almost from the get-go. However, once I moved from being a salaried employee to an entrepreneur, I started counting every cent. Somehow when your wages are not paid to you automatically every month, you tend to be more careful about how you spend your money. 

How easy was it to set up? Tell me about how you started, and what was easy, and was tough.

The physical aspects of starting up a writing business are almost non-existent – all I needed was a computer and I was good to go. What was harder was learning the ropes about starting a business. When you’re a one-woman show, you’re basically the manager, accountant, sales rep and worker all rolled into one!

Did you have a slow start or did the business boom immediately? How did you go about garnering interest and drumming up advertising?

In the beginning, winning the business is always the hardest part. I knew I could write, but convincing people to pay me to do so was another kettle of fish! But I gave it my best shot. I made a gazillion cold calls, knocked on doors and hawked my cv. Having said that, I must say I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had people willing to give me a try pretty much from the time I started. From there, word of mouth helped my business grow steadily and I never looked back.

After about five years, I found myself with so much work that I had to turn jobs down. That’s when I started thinking of ways to grow the business and I looked for copywriters to join Hedgehog Communications. It was slow at first because I only wanted copywriters who could write with the level of professionalism that Hedgehog Communications had come to be known for.

One group of people I actively sought was mums like me who wanted flexi-work so they could spend more time with their kids. It’s my way of paying it forward but I have to admit, it’s not entirely altruistic. I find these mums an untapped and underappreciated resource. They’re very capable, often with years of corporate experience behind their belt; they’re reliable because they’re used to getting things done quickly and effectively; and they’re loyal because they’re grateful for the opportunity to engage in meaningful work. I’m very pleased to say that eight of my 13 writers are mums with young kids. All my writers are on flexi terms, meaning they’re free to take on as much or as little work as their schedules would allow. And we have an extremely collaborative and supportive culture in Hedgehog Communications – when a writer is suddenly unable to take on a job due to an emergency, someone else will always step in or lend a hand. That’s the “mum” culture at work right there!

How has the business developed (staff, money, popularity etc)?

Today, Hedgehog Communications is one of the most established writing agencies in Singapore, especially for the public sector. Unlike some other companies which may be fronted by senior personalities but farm out the work to junior staff, all our writers are experts in their own right. We have among us, an ex general manager of a public relations company, managing editor of a publishing firm, deputy editor of a national magazine, communications head at an MNC, etc. And these are the people who actually do the writing, hence the quality of our work.

We’ve taken on many, many projects that help both public sector agencies and private companies simplify their written communications for websites, brochures, reports and so on. I don’t advertise at all so I’m sometimes astonished (and mystified) that clients from as far as London and India have heard of and wish to engage our services. It’s something I’m incredibly proud of – to have built a setup that I didn’t know whether would last six months, to an enterprise that serves a real need in the community and provides meaningful work for many people. I find great satisfaction in that.

How has your life changed since becoming a Mumpreneur?

Where do I even begin? The bond I have with my kids is strong, I mean elephant-glue strong. Even though my kids are now teenagers, we still chat all the time and we discuss anything from our love of books to our love of food! I even write books with my daughter, Lesley-Anne. Our first series of five children’s books, titled "Danger Dan", was published by Epigram Books from January 2014 to July 2015. The series has been supported by the National Arts Council. The series was successful enough for Epigram Books to offer us another series, so we embarked on the "Danger Dan and Gadget Girl" series, the first book of which was published in April this year. As mother and daughter, we also conduct talks and workshops at various events, such as the Singapore Writers Festival, and at primary schools.

As for work-life balance, most definitely. When I work, it’s in short productive bursts, which leaves me a lot of down time to be with my kids or to do other things.

What are the downsides?

Like with all businesses, financial uncertainty is right up there. There are good months and bad months, and the current situation is not necessarily a good predictor of the future. Fortunately, Hedgehog Communications is pretty stable now, but in the early days, I would get nervous whenever I faced a lull period.

What plans and hopes do you have for the future of your business? 

I’m actually quite dismayed by the standard of English I see in official collaterals and signs. How is it that with English as the official language of business and instruction, people are increasingly unable to use the language correctly and appropriately? It’s a lofty ambition but I hope Hedgehog Communications can play a major role in raising the level of written communications in business and the corporate setting (well, in Singapore at least!)

What advice would you share with other mums who are considering setting up their own business please?

Do your homework! It can be rewarding but running your own business is challenging. Having a passion is not enough – you need to have a plan, scrutinise the business aspects and make sure that it’s financially viable in the long run.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Early admissions to polytechnic

You might have noticed that the updates on this blog this year have mostly centred around Lesley-Anne - 'A' levels, university choices, scholarship, etc. There have been so many developments this year that time has just tornado-ed by. Are we already coming to the last quarter of 2016? Gosh!

No, I haven't forgotten that I have another kid (the perpetually hungry one). It's not that it's all quiet on the Andre front. It's just that some events were up in the air so I haven't been able to talk about them yet...until now.

This is Andre's 'O' level year and as any parent of a kid sitting for a national exam would know, it's called the "Year of No Life". Apart from mugging, there's really little time for much else. Andre's last experience of this was in 2012 when he sat for the PSLE. As mentioned in a blog post then, his leisure time was mostly spent playing sports like mini ping pong.

Four years on, the mini ping pong has made a comeback!

In reality though, these upcoming national exams are a lot less stressful than the PSLE. One reason is that being four years older (and hopefully wiser), Andre is more responsible when it comes to planning his own revision and timetable.

There's another reason though. In 2014, I wrote about how Andre communicated to us that he wished to pursue the polytechnic path instead of jc and study a particular course. Since then, his interest in that industry has strengthened and he's now very sure that's where he wants to go.

So earlier in June this year, he applied for Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) to the course. EAE is essentially like DSA for p6 students, except it's for sec 4 or 5 students to apply for early admission to the polytechnics. It was previously called Direct Polytechnic Admissions (DPA) but was changed to EAE this year as the process was tweaked. You can find out more details about EAE here.

As part of the course criteria, Andre had to attend an interview and sit for an aptitude test. When Lesley-Anne and I were prepping him for the interview, we could tell he was pretty nervous as he'd never attended an interview before. He kept asking, "What if they ask me this? Or that?" until I said, "Aiyah, then just use your common sense!" To which, he replied rather indignantly, "Like I have any!"

Andre is usually quite chill so it was quite unusual to see him behave like an eager beaver during the process. On the day of the interview, he arrived at the venue a whole hour early, prompting the person marking attendance to mutter, "Wah, this is very rare." Thankfully, Andre was not nervous during the interview. He could answer all the questions asked and he felt that he left a good impression. It probably helped that he was captain and vice-captain of his school badminton team for four years (leadership attributes matter in EAE, from what I understand). The aptitude test was a series of general knowledge MCQs specific to the industry.

His instinct was good because when the results were released in end August, he found that he was successful in his EAE application. Woohoo! Once again, as with Lesley-Anne's tertiary journey, we'd prayed for God to grant Andre this pathway only if it was right for him, so we're very glad that all indications seem to be yes.

It definitely takes the pressure off the 'O' levels as he will just have to meet the minimum criteria and not the cut-off point for his course. But it's the knowledge that Andre has finally found some direction in life, that is more rewarding and reassuring. We've warned him not to think that polytechnic studies will be a piece of cake, that it requires consistent effort. He knows this but he says he's motivated to work. And that makes all the difference.

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