Published on August 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:
Looking at Carmen Kot, you would conclude that she’s a very stylish girl. After speaking with her, you would conclude that she’s also a very pragmatic one. “I think one of the biggest pieces of advice for people starting a business is to just start, because the hardest part for me was just starting,” she admits. “Once you do that, it becomes easier just because you’ve got that groundwork in place. The hardest part is just biting the bullet.”
After taking the plunge, it took about 8 months for Carmen to turn her idea for SurviveSG into the website’s soft launch, which went live last year. A chic and user-friendly online store, SurviveSG offers products specifically for expats struggling with tropical conditions. “The first few years were tough on me,” Carmen states in the About section of the site. “I suddenly had NO IDEA how to deal with such a humid climate — I was constantly battling my frizzy hair, ugly mosquito bites and I felt so hot and bothered all the time! And I’m Australian!”
Originally from Sydney, Carmen worked in finance in London and Hong Kong before relocating to Singapore in 2009. Not long after, she says she realized, “I was kind of over working for someone else.” As she had spent years testing out and hunting down the best hair-care, skin-care and cosmetic products for life in Singapore, Carmen felt that she had collected a great range of effective products that not only worked, but were often organic or environmentally friendly. Everything started from her love of that collection and Carmen won’t sell anything she hasn’t personally vetted herself, from shampoos to umbrellas to lip gloss. As such, visiting SurviveSG is like gaining access to the bathroom of a wise and fashionable older sister.
Though the idea for SurviveSG came to Carmen very quickly, she says it was important to her to do things right the first time, despite having no previous experience in entrepreneurship. Along with her husband and co-founder Geoff, she navigated Singapore’s business regulations in order to establish a company that was best suited for her needs and wants. Besides the legalities and the logistics, she admits that finding the right people to partner with was a trial and error affair (like when a courier company dropped out): “One of the things necessary for being an entrepreneur is knowing when you don’t know something and finding a person who can provide you that knowledge. You have to swallow your pride a lot because you don’t have money to throw at problems and you have to ask somebody for help.” To that end, Carmen has grown close to Singapore’s diverse network of expat and local entrepreneurs, whom she has found to be incredibly supportive, particularly Secret Women’s Business and Creative Mornings.
In addition to her vivacious networking, she attributes her success to her ability to view setbacks as opportunities. When her courier backed out and she had to make all deliveries in person, she used it as opportunity to meet her customers face-to-face. Currently, SurviveSG is still run out of their home, where Carmen packs all orders by hand into chic, minimalist paper bags tied with bright green ribbon. She’s hoping to hire her first employee in the near future so as to allow herself to take time to travel, a passion of hers that has recently been neglected in favor of her business.
The hard work is paying off though. Sales have doubled since last year and SurviveSG is poised to move into the next stage: SurviveAsia. While still actively sourcing her products, Carmen now also fields pitches from a number of companies who want her to carry their goods. But she is firm in not offering any item that doesn’t agree with her mantra of surviving in Singapore. “You have to stick by your brand strategy,” she declares.
Despite the challenges and the risks of entrepreneurship, Carmen’s energy and ambition seem endless. “It is a huge emotional roller coaster,” she says of the start-up journey. “You absolutely can’t coast and you can’t just blame someone else. But I think if you’re adaptable and are willing to try again, you do make it one day.”