Covid-19 as a catalyst to Rethink Your Business
Covid-19 has thrown a spanner in the works for many businesses and the furniture industry is not spared. With the lockdown, furniture showrooms – conventionally the preferred route for buyers to physically experience and test the pieces – are forced to be shut. Furniture Retailers are forced to rethink their business model and to focus on bringing their potential buyers to the online shops. This transit is easy for some who already have an online presence pre-Covid-19, but a challenging one for some who have been mostly relying on their brick-and-mortar shops. Creativ Space is one initiative by SFIC to bring an online alliance and presence for Singapore furniture designers and manufacturers. With the sudden pause imposed on the whole world, how are the furniture manufacturers tackling the drop in sales? What lies ahead for them and what are the new strategies?
Covid-19 and its Impact on the Furniture Industry
Kelley Cheng: Can you share with us how this pandemic has affected our furniture industry?
Mark Yong: The Singapore furniture industry is quite a multifaceted one. Amongst our members, we have manufacturers, contract manufacturers, retailers, designers, and the supporting industry players, those that are supplying materials, components to the industry. The level of impact is different for each of these different clusters. Everyone was impacted one way or another, whether it’s by supply chain disruptions, by lockdowns in countries that they are buying from or where they are selling to, or just limited by regulations, such as in the retail scene where they are not allowed to be opened, and also in the built environment, the construction industry, where we are affected by the quarantine of a huge number of migrant workers.
Those that were less impacted are the ones who already had a robust presence online pre-pandemic, with a good ecommerce logistics system to back them up, so they can still fulfill sales without being in a physical space or without having to come face to face with clients. At the other end of the spectrum, those that are more severely impacted must be the contract manufacturers, those who are supplying kitchens, wardrobes, bathroom furniture to residential developments for instance; not only are they less likely to pick up new projects during the lockdown period, for ongoing projects they also face manpower issues due to the dormitory lockdowns. Up till today, a lot of them are still suffering quite badly.
Kelley Cheng: What are some of the measures taken by SFIC to ease out these troubles by your members?
Mark Yong: We did a few things. Most notably, we launched the SFICAssist. We took out about $1 million from our coffers, and through the government’s STEER Programme, under MTI (Ministry of Trade and Industry Singapore), $1 is matched by the government for every $2 that we raise. Overall, we have funds of $1.45 million for our members to access. These funds can be used on training, on digitalisation initiatives, on design, innovation and internationalisation initiatives, so that they can put their downtime to good use, and continue to build capabilities and emerge stronger after the pandemic.
At the same time, we also have our secretariat working very hard to link them up with business opportunities that arise out of the pandemic. For instance, many of our members started to pivot towards supplying acrylic panels for segregating spaces. Some members who are specialising in sofa upholstery turned to sewing masks. Also, some went into supplying furniture – beds, lockers, and other items – to community care facilities, hospitals and workers’ dormitories. We also waived the membership for this year.
Kelley Cheng: How was the response with the $1.45 million funding from SFIC?
Mark Yong: Up till now, about 35% of the funds have been utilised for upgrading courses at the SFIC Institute and other programmes. This scheme actually runs for 18 months, starting from April 1st 2020, so members can still access the funds until end of September 2021.
During this period, the SFIC Institute got busier than ever. It was announced on the 3rd of April that the Circuit Breaker will begin on the 7th of April; within those few days, we managed to plan and push out a series of classes for online learning. We actually had a manifold increase in participation in classes, probably because everyone was stuck at home, so they might as well attend some classes that could be relevant to their work. There was also the added incentive of absentee payroll provided by the government for the hours that were spent in class.
Creativ-Space & Digitalisation of Businesses
Kelley Cheng: Moving to the next topic on the digitalisation for businesses, can you tell us more about Creativ-Space? What’s the vision and mission to create this platform for your members?
Mark Yong: Creativ-Space is primarily a B-to-B e-sourcing and marketing platform. Many of our SFIC members are actually focused on B-to-B. It’s really not easy to find a B-to-B portal that can meet our industry’s needs. Almost all our members have their own websites, some have even developed their own e-commerce platforms. We feel that having a portal like Creativ-Space, it can help to cluster and aggregate, and be more effective in terms of outreach and creating business opportunities for our members. This is particularly helpful for buyers who are looking for furniture and furnishings, but do not already know our local brands.
Having your own website means that the person must already know you, or you must invest a lot in your search engine optimisation in order for them to chance upon you. So you have to buy ads and invest in SEO. But for Creativ-Space, it really is a curated e-portal, so the on-boarded brands and companies must be reputable, and they must have good business standing.
For a start, we will be having a Singapore focus. We hope to bring more ASEAN players onboard eventually as we are all part of the ASEAN furniture community. A lot of our ASEAN counterparts also have good standing, with good product offerings and good branding. Our vision for Creativ-Space is that we really want to be the go-to portal for good ASEAN furniture brands and companies, and to be a super connector, whether it’s for projects, designers, specifiers and companies to come on this e-portal to search easily for good brands and good materials that are born out of our region.
Kelley Cheng: COVID-19 has forced many brick-and-mortar retail shops to go online, as well as distributors and manufacturers. Without the convenience of traveling to international furniture fairs, what are some of the challenges that the members face in terms of moving their whole business operation online during this pandemic? Or is it tougher to operate without the furniture fairs?
Mark Yong: The online world is a very overwhelming space, it’s very vast and busy, and you can easily get lost as you are not bounded by geography. For our members to go online, it’s tricky and can be scary for those who have never done it. It can also be quite daunting for their buyers as well. A brick-and-mortar space still has the advantage of being able to capture the attention of your clientele, and it is easier to present and explain new concepts and innovations through good old salesmanship, or good curation and settings.
Another thing is relationship building. This is something that can only be done through face-to-face meetings, through verbal cues, body language. Moving online, members find difficulties in translating or adapting their messages; they have to work within the limitations of the tools available currently, to do justice to their branding. Generally, communication online drastically lowers the attention span of the people that you are talking to. They also have to contend with not being able to physically demonstrate certain important elements in furniture, which is the touch-and-feel factor, an important thing that is very, very closely associated with furniture purchase decisions.
Members also need to understand that online platforms operate 24-7, 365 days; there’s no rest time, anybody can go online to buy anytime. Customer service is a different animal online and you have to cater for an instant response to any buyer globally, as sometimes online customers will experience dissonance when they feel that they are not given that quick service that they are used to when they are going into a physical environment.
Another thing is complaints. If you don’t address complaints fast enough, or if you don’t address the removal of trolls online for instance, you can create some long-term bad effect for your business, if you don’t manage these things well. So, there’s a lot of learning when members want to go online. It’s so much more than just having a good website, having a good platform to be on. There’s a lot of thought behind the decision to go online, and how to structure it; also, the after-sales service, including your logistics, your fulfillment, also your maintenance, or returns, all these things have to be thought through.
Kelley Cheng: How is your own personal experience with your own company Ewins during this pandemic? How do you juggle suddenly going online? Was it a smooth transition? Were there some challenges?
Mark Yong: In the past, we have already used some of the available online platforms to sell some of our items, especially the smaller pieces. But our business is mainly a B-to-B one, and a lot of the focus is on the customisation of pieces, depending on the needs of the specifier or designer, we customise furniture for fit-out projects; so unfortunately these things could not really be done during the pandemic. Besides selling some furniture through our online platform, luckily, we did a bit of pivoting and we could supply some furniture for the needs of the pandemic. In the last 50 over years, we have been doing a lot of sourcing for international buyers, so we have very strong connections with factories all over Asia. During the beginning of Covid-19, the government was scrambling to get the decanted dormitories and all the community care facilities fitted out. So we managed to get some business selling dorm furniture to these facilities.
In terms of our online platform, we have always used it more as a marketing tool, because a lot of transactions still have to be done through face-to-face consultation, as everything is so highly customised.
Kelley Cheng: Marketing online is very different, how do you promote and drive traffic to your site? What are some of the strategies that you recommend for a successful digital business?
Mark Yong: In terms of marketing online, there’s always something new to learn about. I actually meet up with our service provider once a month at least to talk about our marketing outreach through our online tools and platforms. Almost every time we meet, there’s some new innovation in better customer targeting, which is really good. They’re constantly developing and innovating new tools. If companies have access to the funds to then access these tools, it can work very well in terms of focused targeting.
On traditional platform, sometimes you have to fend off a lot of people who are not serious buyers. But I feel that many customers from online platforms are still focusing a lot on the price side of the equation. When people go online, they expect maybe certain kinds of special pricing or so on. The online B-to-C environment is quite mature, but for B-to-B businesses to get the right traffic to their site, it’s not so easy to find the right fit in terms of available solutions and platforms online, and you need constant updates due to the fast-paced development of online tools – all these apply not just in marketing, but also in terms of closing deals.
Kelley Cheng: As you shared earlier that the online environment is very overwhelming and saturated. So even if you start a wonderful website, it does not automatically draw the attention of people.
Mark Yong: The foundation of it all is important, the content is very important. Another important point is that the portal must be able to replicate as much of the physical buying experience as possible, whether you’re a B-to-B buyer or a B-to-C buyer. When different people access your site, they have different depth of needs. When you go to a site, the accuracy of its services or supplies, and also the timeliness of the information is of extreme importance. If I’m only going in to look for a sofa, I don’t want to also be bombarded with information about coffee tables and so on. Or if I am someone who simply wants to look for a cheap sofa, I don’t need too many details about how the leather is sewn or the source of the leather, for instance.
The layering of the information is very important to customise the information for buyers with different needs. So, you don’t over-communicate or you don’t under-communicate. We already know – after much dabbling in online platforms – that the user-interface for navigation and transaction is very important, but there are also many other elements that will really add to the success of the platform. That includes – like I mentioned just now – the logistics for delivery, the customer service, after-sales service, and also all the other offline touch points throughout your purchase journey. For instance, if someone needs to buy a sofa again, and they need to access swatches, or experience the touch-and-feel of the leather, or maybe try out the foam density, how do you amalgamate that process into your online system? How do you order swatches so that you receive them the next day so you can complete your buying journey?
Kelley Cheng: Currently are there any readily available logistic partners in the market that you can simply outsource all the after-sales service, the fulfillment and all offline touchpoints to and free yourself of that part of the business?
Mark Yong: Yes that can work, if your logistics partner is a good one that is already very adept at doing online sales fulfillment for furniture. There are indeed some companies that can do that. But really, even within the furniture landscape, there are so many different kinds of furniture, and there are different ways to treat the same type of furniture even. How do you assemble it? How do you communicate the care and maintenance? How do you facilitate a return process if something is faulty? It’s a lot to think about, but members are getting better at it with experience and professional help.
We do have some logistics players who are our affiliate members. They are those that are very close to us. They have offices in the region, so if we have a project in Vietnam, they have a team there to help with the fulfillment and installation, amongst other services. This is of great help to companies that do not already have a physical presence there.
Kelley Cheng: It is a digital world where a lot is possible online, whether you do it right or not. Do you think that international furniture fairs are still relevant?
Mark Yong: I do think so. Covid-19 aside, established furniture fairs are still very well attended, because up till today, physical shows are still the best way to fully experience what a company can offer. It takes time to build relationships and trust with business partners. And this is difficult to achieve without a physical presence, these things cannot be easily replicated through digital means. Also, there are many buyers out there who are shopping around for brands. How a brand presents itself in a physical showcase can assure these buyers of the company’s standing and history, and not one that is fly-by-night.
For many years, our members attend major international fairs consistently and plan their annual calendars around them. If I want to showcase something in Milan in April, I will start to prepare in June or July the year before, so that it can be ready for shipping out in February. Trade fairs also allow you to congregate with people from the global furniture industry – everyone is a buyer or seller. For one week, you go and you meet people, discuss, discover and plan for the future.
Covid-19 is the first time ever that physical fairs are cancelled. The good thing is that people realise that things can still be done virtually, you can still meet your same objectives. In an online environment, targeting can also be very effective, because you don’t have to be waiting for people to come visit your stand, whereby usually up to 80% of these visitors are the wrong audience, but in a physical situation, you will still have to serve them, talk to them, spend half an hour with each one of them.
Kelley Cheng: On the topic of furniture fairs, we know that SFIC also has an annual show, IFFS (International Furniture Fair Singapore), but due to COVID-19, we didn’t have it this year. Moving forward, are you planning to have it next year again?
Mark Yong: Probably not next year, but yes, we do want to continue it in the future.
Kelley Cheng: IFFS has been going on strong for many years, what do you think made our show successful? What is our competitive advantage as an Asian furniture show? Do you have a new vision for the show?
Mark Yong: Yes, we had been successful, probably because we started the show at an opportune time and geographically, we are in a favourable position. IFFS was started in 1981. During that time, there were no other shows in the region. So we are actually the oldest furniture fair in Southeast Asia, or maybe even Asia, because at that time, China didn’t have furniture shows targeting the region.
We grew the show with a vision to be a showcase for the best of all the ASEAN furniture producers, with a strong focus on Singapore manufacturers. But over the years, the industry evolved. A lot of our manufacturing members do not manufacture in Singapore anymore, they manufacture in Vietnam, in China, in Malaysia. Slowly, a lot of the other countries started to build their own furniture industry, and they created their own fairs, some of these local fairs evolved into regional or international ones.
So in a way, the barriers to entry are very low, and there is a lot of competition. Everyone is fighting for the same pie. Prices are going lower, and we try to keep our positioning as a premium one with good manufacturers and brands from ASEAN. We already decided last year that we will take a break this year, so we’re really lucky we didn’t have to deal with having to cancel the show with all the sudden lockdowns everywhere.
Moving forward, we are rethinking the role of furniture fair in Singapore — how we can make it a more targeted one, and how we can make it more impactful. There are so many different kinds of fairs around the world. Each one is a different animal altogether – some are focusing on price, some are focusing on design, so we ask ourselves – what is our position here to have a furniture fair that’s representative of the ASEAN region?
When we decided to take a break, we thought that we would lose our exhibitors to China or to some other shows, but we realised that we really have a loyal bunch of followers who decided that there are no other shows that they prefer to go to, unless they do their own mini show amongst themselves, and fly people in. So this really got us thinking about the future of the fair – especially in terms of how we can bring the right value to the right target group. In the past, we grew bigger and bigger and we tried to be everything to everyone, but in the end, that simply dilutes the message behind what our furniture fair stands for. Now we have a task force that’s thinking about the future of the IFFS, how we can innovate and create something that fits the new normal of the exhibition landscape.
Transformable & Other Innovative Furniture
Kelley Cheng: I’m coming to a topic close to your heart, transformable furniture, because I read in an interview that you did in 2017, you were actually advocating for that. You were saying, property prices in Singapore are getting higher, spaces are getting smaller, so furniture has to be multi-use to fit in future homes. That becomes very prophetic with Covid-19’s Work-from-home situation, whereby suddenly everybody has to transform their homes into offices and classrooms, and spaces have to be multi-purpose. Since you spoke about this in 2017 until now, are there any new grounds broken in this genre of furniture? Did the SFIC members heed your advice, and has it become a much more vibrant industry?
Mark Yong: In the last few years, I do think that many of our members actually started to incorporate a lot of transformable features or multi-functionalism into their furniture. They included special components or mechanisms that help their furniture to be not just single use. In a way, it’s more sustainable also, as the same piece of design can be used for various activities, so you can maximise your purchase.
I see more innovation now for sure, in terms of material innovation, and the use of smart components like actuators and touch sensors, so the whole process of transformation is not something that is difficult for the layperson, be it adults, kids, or senior citizens. Incorporating safety mechanisms is also important, because often moving parts and furniture can be a safety hazard, especially for kids. Using certain mechanisms to allow you to lock the system when there’s no adult supervision, for instance.
For Ewins, we started working on transformable furniture a very long time ago, about 10-12 years ago, and we used to only supply the mechanisms to furniture factories. We also helped to customise and prototype certain mechanisms that are now used by factories around the world. It was only later that we started to develop our furniture pieces with these transformable mechanisms, and we now have a brand called Roomier. This brand stands for space-saving furniture, particularly beds that can be transformed into tables, into sofas, and so on.
Even before the pandemic, we already saw that in the last one or two years, there’s a heightened demand for transformable furniture pieces. This is especially so for table mechanisms. Then, during the circuit breaker when everyone had to work from home, and there’s home-based learning, a lot of homeowners approached us for solutions. If it is a family of four or five, it’s very difficult if someone is doing a zoom call next to someone doing homework, at the same table. So people started thinking – how can I transform my bedroom, my study room, my playroom, my living room, all into working spaces. As a result, we sold quite a lot of such transferable furniture during this period.
Transformable furniture is definitely here to stay as up till today, a lot of us are still working from home. It has also trained companies to see that it is not a bad thing to work from home. A lot of Asian bosses think that if you are at home, you cannot be productive, they need to keep an eye on you, sit behind you, and look at your back, make sure you are working and so on. But right now, everyone is working from home, and they can be as productive.
Kelley Cheng: Let’s talk a little bit about inclusive designs. Are there any initiatives for SFIC members to invest in R&D, in the area inclusive designs, tackling physically challenged people, seniors, etc.? Are there any interesting innovations in this area?Â
Mark Yong: Last year, we co-launched the Design Innovation Programme (DIP) together with Enterprise Singapore. This programme aims to bring together designers and engineers together with our manufacturers within our larger furniture ecosystem to develop products for commercialisation. The products born out of these collaborations will all fall under the overarching theme of urban living, which is meant to address how we can solve issues faced by people living in urban areas, not just in Singapore, but in any city. Focusing on topics such as space-saving, silver generation and smart living, we hope to achieve 36 such projects by end of 2021. A lot of these designs will be about inclusiveness, convenience, space efficiency, and catering to the aging population.
Another facet of inclusiveness is about providing for our community. The pandemic has brought to our urgent attention that the rampant spread of Covid-19 in the workers’ dormitories was due to their cramped living spaces. We are in conversation with government agencies as well as the Singapore Institute of Architects to think about the future of such co-living spaces, and how we can design furniture for such spaces that can allow them to have more comfort.
Kelley Cheng: How about SMART technology? How are they incorporated into some furniture designs?
Mark Yong: In the area of SMART technology, we are seeing more touch-free sensors being incorporated into furniture. When it’s touch-free, you can have a more hygienic environment, as you don’t have to physically touch it to operate it. Also, I mentioned these little mechanisms called actuators, that can be incorporated into beds and chairs, for instance, to help physically-challenged people get in and out of the furniture more easily. These are more and more prevalent in transformable, inclusive design or universal design furniture; people are using such technology to make furniture more accessible, whether it’s for health reasons, or for ergonomics or accessibility reasons.
Also we have seen more innovation in intelligent lighting. For example, when you are putting on makeup at your dressing table, you activate a certain hue of light; when you are using the table for work, you activate another hue of light that’s conducive for reading and writing.
Digital sensors, LED displays are being incorporated into kitchen or bathroom furniture, bathroom mirrors, to help you access information when you’re using that piece of furniture – you can access recipes while you are cooking, or in the morning when you’re brushing your teeth, you can watch the news, such technology are already available. In terms of materials, we see a lot of innovation in terms of nanotechnology. Making, for example, furniture surfaces that are self-repairable when they get scratched, using laminates with a nano-memory to fill up the scratched part of the material. Or you could have anti-microbial additives that’s impregnated into the material itself, that can help clean the material. This is especially relevant during pandemic time.
Kelley Cheng: In terms of B-to-C, how has the consumer shopping patterns changed over the years?
Mark Yong: This is something that I think about all the time. I feel that even 5, 6 years ago, the only things I’d buy online are tickets, hotel stays, or books. But in the last 5 years or so, the consumer purchasing pattern has changed a lot. They are more willing to buy bigger ticket items, or maybe higher risk items, and perishables. Other than groceries, people are buying electronic goods, they’re buying furniture pieces, they’re buying luxury goods.
When we were growing up, we’re always told not to listen to strangers, and when we are buying something, we always rely on friends’ and relatives’ feedback, people that we trust and we know. But now, more than ever, consumers don’t care about their friends’ and their relatives’ opinions, they care about online reviews, online comments. This thing that has 5,000 comments and the average score is 4.7, it must be good. Basically, you rely on online reviews when you’re buying something.
For the furniture industry, our members have experienced a steady increase in terms of the number of pieces of furniture that they are selling online, often without the customers having to visit their physical shop. It is very different from the past when people still research online, then they go to your store to check out the actual piece. It’s probably thanks to the return policy on most e-commerce sites. Recently, my friend wanted to buy a mattress, she enquired online, “Where can I try the mattress?” And the person said, “Oh, there’s no shop, but we will deliver the mattress to you, you have a 10-day trial period, and if you don’t like it, you can return it.”
Things have changed so much. The ease of returns, warranty conditions, everything has really tremendously improved. It’s really encouraging a lot of people to buy online. This is really the main change in consumer patterns. In terms of physical stores, on the retail front, shops used to cram as many pieces of furniture in the space as possible. But now, if you go into a nice furniture store, it’s not about putting in as many pieces as possible any more, it’s about creating curated settings – it’s all about the brand experience and philosophy of the company that you are buying from.
Kelley Cheng: In that manner of speaking, do you think that we are going to see retail furniture shops getting smaller and smaller?
Mark Yong: Yes, I think so. Smaller and smaller is the way to go, because it’s still very, very expensive to rent retail spaces, you’re always at the mercy of landlords. Now that you can augment the brand experience with digital tools, you don’t have to show a lot physically, and you can communicate a lot digitally.
Kelley Cheng: How about B-to-B? Do you think there are any trends and directions that have particularly changed?
Mark Yong: In terms of B-to-B buying, companies are advocating more on the sustainable use of materials. In the past, they might be more profit-driven but now a lot of companies are ethics-driven as well, as it is a good way to communicate that the company is forward-thinking.
Also, we are seeing a good shift actually towards brand creation and product innovation. In the past, a lot of manufacturers just focused on “copying”, simply adapting designs that are popular. But now, many of the manufacturers are collaborating with designers, with engineers, and they have a sense of pride over what they’re producing, and they want to create something that truly belongs to them. So there’s definitely a lot more products that are being innovated in the furniture industry.
Design Innovation Programme (DIP)
Kelley Cheng: You touched briefly on DIP just now, can you tell us about the DIP? Is it a scheme initiated by SFIC or Enterprise Singapore?
Mark Yong: It was jointly initiated by Enterprise Singapore and SFIC. We created the programme that can bring together designers and brands or companies who want to innovate, and have these collaborations translate into commercialisable outcomes.
Kelley Cheng: Did your company participate in this scheme?
Mark Yong: Yes, my new company Verotec did.
Kelley Cheng: Can you share some details of what your guys are working on?
Mark Yong: Yes. I started Verotec in 2017. It is a company that is focused on innovative door handles. My father actually came up with the idea of creating a soft rebound mechanism for handles. All the ambient noises in our environment actually psychologically affects us. Pressed handles – when bouncing back – can sound really loud in a quiet environment, this adds on to the little stresses that we feel throughout the day, whether it’s an aircon whirring, a fan buzzing, a TV with static noise, etc.
Originally, we wanted to just innovate on the mechanism and sell the mechanism to handle companies around the world. 10 to 15 years ago, all our drawers and doors just slammed close, but after that, everybody started to think about soft closing mechanisms. Now, having soft closing doors and drawers have become the norm. We wanted to bring that same philosophy to door handles.
When we showed our early prototypes to few designer friends, they were quite amazed. One of the designers I shared with was Gabriel Tan, and he said, “Hey, why don’t we do something together?”
Previously, I have introduced Gabriel to a furniture company from Japan and they had a very successful collaboration which resulted in a new brand called Ariake. Hence, I thought it will be a good idea to work with Gabriel as he is able to curate a stable of good designers to produce a series of door handles, similar to what he did for the Ariake collection. Working with prolific designers from different parts of the world is also good for market outreach.
The brand of our handles, Turn, was born. We got on board designers like Snohetta, Norm Architects, Jin Kuramoto, and Gabriel himself. We decided to embark on DIP to make the whole story richer by getting many more designers and architects to collaborate. Including the early designs we already had, plus the ones that we are onboarding through DIP, we will have a total of 13 or 14 collaborators. Many of them are renowned architects or designers, that are big brand names themselves like CKR, Pauline Deltour and so on. But what we are doing now is that we are not just focusing on design, we are focusing also on the internal mechanisms, and we are doing more innovation on the mechanisms. We thought that focusing on aesthetic design alone is not enough, we also bring onboard an engineering company who is helping us to perfect the rebound mechanisms.
Kelley Cheng: You said that you have about 14 designers, and most are foreigners, but the DIP can only fund Singapore designers such as Gabriel?
Mark Yong: Gabriel is the creative director for the Turn collection. So we use DIP to fund Gabriel for the creative direction that he is doing with all the designers. A major part of this design innovation project is in fact the engineering. The DIP also covers the prototyping of the designs, the registration of intellectual property, and also the engineering work that goes into the creation of the mechanism.
Kelley Cheng: So the DIP does not just fund singular piece of design, it can fund a whole collection?
Mark Yong: Yes. It can be a collection. If the company is applying to launch a collection of furniture for the elderly for instance, and they have 10 different pieces of furniture, then the funding is on that 10 pieces of furniture.
Kelley Cheng: Oh I see… is the funding up to the prototyping stage only?
Mark Yong: The funding can cover prototyping, patent fees; DIP pays for most of materials used in the ideation process, the design fees, consultation fees, and also they are funding the manpower involved. For example, if you are putting two people in your company on this project, then their salaries can be funded.
Kelley Cheng: Wow, that’s fantastic! Who are some of the other companies participating in DIP?
Mark Yong: KompacPlus with Fraction Design, Sharikat Stone with Nathan Yong Design, House of Teak with Forest and Whale, Superstructure with Antimatter, etc.
Kelley Cheng: Will there be an overall marketing plan by SFIC to market designs produced under DIP, or each company will take on their own marketing plan?
Mark Yong: We intend to do some publicity for the companies together when it’s the right stage of the project, the whole programme is supposed to last for 36 months. Companies typically are given about 12 to 18 months to come up with their collection, so we will market at an opportune time when we have amassed enough of the products. There will be some kind of launch mechanism, but we haven’t thought through the details. Because in the past, we always think in terms of a physical launch, but is there something else we can do other than physical? Or should we bring them overseas for a showcase to have better outreach? Or should we do it as part of a design festival such as SingaPlural?
Kelley Cheng: Talking about SingaPlural, are there any plans to continue that?
Mark Yong: Yes. SingaPlural, like IFFS, we also decided to take a break this year, because we want to rethink about its role in the long term. SingaPlural has evolved to be more than just a furniture event, but it has become quite all-encompassing, involving the landscape architects, the architects, graphic designers, and so on. Having a design festival like this is quite a logistical challenge for the council to take on. But we have done eight editions of SingaPlural and perhaps it has the potential to become something bigger, something that it can be truly beneficial for our design ecosystem.
For such a design festival, sustainability is always an issue as they are very costly and you don’t really profit from it. How do you make sure your audience and your exhibitors come back year after year and want to use this platform to innovate? So we are self-reflecting on how to move it forward to the next level, and be able to sustain it financially.
Moving Forward Post-Pandemic
Kelley Cheng: We are coming to the last part of the interview about moving forward post-pandemic. Two years ago, you championed a three-year roadmap with the support of DesignSingapore Council and Enterprise Singapore for the collective vision of the Singapore furniture industry to be “the Asian Hub influencing tomorrow’s urban living” by the year 2021. How are we doing with this roadmap? Are there any milestones to share with reference to three guiding pillars; Growth Asia, Urbanite-Centricity, and Business Agility?
Mark Yong: We have done quite well. In terms of Business Agility, it’s a lot to do with training and capability development, how to innovate for the future and stay agile. We started the ASEAN Business Leadership Programme’s (ABLP) first run with London School of Economics with 15 participants. We touched on topics like the future of business, strategies to sustain your business, and so on. During the week-long London trip, other than the days spent on campus at LSE, we also provided learning journeys to furniture companies and related retail companies, so they can evolve and transform well. Even though we can’t travel now, we’re still planning ahead for collaborations with renowned universities from around the world. The plan is to have two runs of ABLP per year, with between 15 to 25 participants, when we are able to travel safely again.
In terms of Urbanite-Centricity, just like the DIP, we are focusing a lot on urban living. Singapore has always been dealing with city problems – we have limited space, we have an aging population, we live in a very fast-paced environment. We have successfully led our companies to focus on creating products that are very suited for urban lifestyles.
And in terms of Growth Asia, in the last 2 years when we could travel, we have strengthened our ties with our neighbours, bringing members on several business missions and exhibitions to countries in the region. After such missions, some of our members saw a spike in sales to these markets. But at the same time, we hope to cultivate Singapore as the choice platform for our ASEAN counterparts to launch their innovations. Through this alliance called the ASEAN Furniture Industries Council, we are also working on programmes to collaborate with different countries, whether it’s a company-to-company or designer-to-company. We want to strengthen our networks amongst the different players within the ASEAN region, because we see ASEAN as the next bastion of growth, so we need to be ready. We are here already at the doorstep of the area, so we need to be prepared when the business really flies.
Kelley Cheng: What do you think will be Singapore’s edge in being a leader in this ASEAN furniture industry?
Mark Yong: We don’t have the baggage of a certain kind of furniture manufacturing background, or some kind of raw material background; we started with nothing, that’s why we have no baggage. When it comes to materials, we are very open-minded. We can work with any material, we can work with any innovator, any tech expert to bring together ideas, and experiment with new ways of doing things. Unlike our neighbours, for example some have a rich history of cane, rattan, teak or bamboo, and they might feel compelled to work with that as their whole industry wass built around those raw materials that they have ample access to; but because we don’t have these natural resources, we have always focused on building capability through innovation and through design.
We have always been very outward-looking because we cannot only rely on our local market, as our local market is too small. Having a global or regional mindset is our strong point. We can also lead our Asian or ASEAN neighbors to work with us, and use us as the conduit to reach out to a global audience.
Kelley Cheng: Do you feel that the Singapore branding is quite strong in this region?
Mark Yong: Yes, I do. I do think we are strong in terms of innovation in the industry. We have many, many brilliant specifiers. Our architects and designers here have designed prolifically in many countries around our region and sometimes even beyond our region. That kind of branding is strong.
In terms of trust and responsibility, our furniture companies also have a strong standing. Many international buyers or collaborators trust us because Singaporeans are known to be law-abiding. If they trust us with their designs for production, we will not copy them. Most of us are genuinely concerned about protecting the rights of our clients, and that is an important part of our brand.
Kelley Cheng: Moving ahead, as Singapore is nearing Phase 3, where everything can be more or less be back to a new normal, are there any plans for SFIC to help boost sales in the furniture industry?
Mark Yong: We will continue on our digitalisation drive through Creativ-Space, and also other collaborations to accelerate the digitalisation process of members, so that they are not so reliant on the physical sales environment. There will still be a lot of diplomatic interfacing with our international counterparts to try to push our branding and innovation, working with some of the connectors in Europe, to try to really uplift the reputation of our industry as a whole, and to profile some of our companies meaningfully and effectively.
At the same time, we will step up on our business matchmaking efforts to try to match our companies to projects, or match our companies to interesting buyer groups for instance. We will continue to bring companies to strategic exhibitions and showcases around the world.
Kelley Cheng: Last question, so for your company Ewins, what are your plans for Phase 3?
Mark Yong: Sell more!
Kelley Cheng: What’s your strategy?
Mark Yong: I hope to get onboard someone who can help me with focus on product development and do more innovation in the areas of smart furniture, inclusive furniture and so on. We are looking into developing more smart technologies, and including these smart technologies into our space-saving furniture. We are not just looking at furniture components, we’re also working on surface materials, so our outreach now is to architects and specifiers. We are hoping to expand our reach there.
Also, I’m developing Japan as a new market for some of my products, so I need to travel very soon… if I can!
[An Interview with Mark Yong, President of SFIC By Kelley Cheng]
6 October 2020
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