Lyn Lee on starting up, young people, and choices


About Lyn Lee

Lyn Lee is a co-owner at Awfully chocolate, a successful chain of chocolate parlours. They have branched into other food initiatives, and are running branches across Asia, based out of Singapore. Lyn co-founded a small parlour back in 1988 with her friends when they realized they wanted to create, own and run something for themselves. They perfected a chocolate cake recipe with is a rage in Singapore today in 20 years. The brand and Lyn herself have grown in so many many ways since the initial days. Today Lyn mentors many youngsters.

Dhanya: I have read about Lyn and seen many interviews of her over the years. I admire strong women with a clear vision and Lyn was on my list of people to meet. I met her for a lovely hour – as we spoke about the retail and food industry. Her many pearls of wisdom are below in the interview! Hope you enjoy it, as much as I did!


Interview transcript

 

(00:00)

Dhanya:  What is your story?  I know you grew up in Singapore.  How did Awfully Chocolate come about?

Lyn:  Yes, I was born, bred, and schooled in Singapore.  My friends and I, all worked at different jobs and we used to talk about our dreams, and our ideas, and what we would do if we were our own bosses.  I think at some point we just said, “How about we stop talking and start doing?”

But we were fairly young.  We hadn’t worked more than a few years, some of us only one or two years.  We were cautious.  We couldn’t really borrow money from banks.  Banks wouldn’t give us a loan, so we cobbled together whatever we had and the premise that whatever we did had to be within our means because we had lived through this thing called the dot com disaster.  We had seen companies with airy fairy ideas get lots of capital, spend lots of capital on crazy office space and things, and then it all just sort of fizzled and people figured out that there was nothing behind it.  The deal was that it had to be done on a shoestring budget.

I get credited for the idea which is really nice but the truth of it is that it was always a team effort and the same people who were in it from day one are still in it today.  My idea won over, not because it was the best but because we couldn’t think of anything else.  I told my friends, “I love eating chocolate and there is this idea of this perfect chocolate cake which I just think would be great.”

They said, “Okay, let’s try it out.”

We workshopped the recipe over weekends when we were all still working.  When we were happy with it we didn’t do any market research or anything, but we started to look for a space and we started to figure out what we needed for it.  We just said, “Alright, let’s just give it a try.”

We were careful.  It was more like a hobby at that time because we all kept our day jobs.  One of my friends got retrenched, so she was looking after the store in the daytime.  The rest of us would run there after work, or we would go there on weekends.  It was this fabulous adventure and it was great fun.

 

(02:42)

Dhanya:  I know you started your first store and then it was 5-6 years later that you started your second store.  What was the plan during that time?  Were you guys hatching an extension plan, or were you just holding on?

Lyn:  Some of us would say there was no plan.  We were just trying to survive and figure out the retail world.  I think that we were actually fairly lucky.  Because the original store didn’t look anything like a cake shop, we either had people who just passed by thinking we were a clinic or something.

 

(We paused for a while here as Lyn was working at the same time!..)

 

(03:43)

Dhanya:  We were just talking about your first store and your second store.   What led you guys on the path to start expanding?  What changed after figuring out your recipe?

Lyn:  After we had no plans, right?  In a sense we were not the kind of people who had five-year plans and ten-year plans.  I think we just wanted to get the basics right, and to get a good reputation, and to be more solid about what we were doing.  We were all still working full time, so it took that time for the business to get up to speed.  Then one by one we quit our full time jobs to look after the business.  So I guess it was early days, it was transition, it was a lot of that kind of thing.

We did have the plan that if things worked out and it was viable – and as we were leaving our full time jobs to do this full time, it was obviously viable – we first wanted to make sure that we had enough stores in Singapore.  We actually had people talking to us from day one about expanding outside of Singapore, but we kind of held them back.  We kept in touch with them but we said that we didn’t feel that we should be going outside of Singapore until we first had at least  four stores, or a base and a system.  That’s why we took it slow and easy at first.

 

(05:19)

Dhanya:  How is it different between here and in Hong Kong?  What are the differences in the customers or how you’re able to run operations?  I’m sure the employee mindset is a little bit different.  There’s something unique everywhere.

Lyn:  When we first went overseas it was very straightforward.  We just said that if you’re living overseas then you come to us to start a franchise.  It was always very much at arm’s length.  They did the setup.  We would just come and visit and train.

Over the years we learned from franchising that there is no perfect franchise.  Some of them work so well that we’ve become best friends; we’ve become partners.  We’ve stopped being franchises and we’ve gone into partnerships together.  We’re even doing different things together.  Some of them just didn’t work out.  What we’ve learned over the years was to look critically at the relationship and say, “Can this store do better?  Could it do better if we ran it ourselves?”

I think at certain points we felt that we would do a better job because we owned the brand, and we knew the brand.  It’s different sometimes with you knowing it and owning it than someone just treating it like an investment or a business.  There is this part of the business which is passion, which is running like you love it and like it’s your own.  We actually have started taking back some of the stores.  We own and run the whole of Hong Kong now.  There’s no hard and fast rule.  Sometimes it just boils down to the people that we met and how it worked out .

 

(07:06)

Dhanya:  How are you trying to make up for this difference?  I think the big thing about running your own outlet and franchising it — is that the soul kind of goes out of it.  Are there ways by which you try to make up for it?

Lyn:  The biggest thing that we learned is that you can’t do franchising from afar.  I know that sounds weird, but we realized that if we are literally in another country and seeing things from afar it’s too remote, and you don’t imbue the culture and the values and the work ethic the way you want.  Now, when we do franchising we actually make sure that we have a staff member who’s prepared to live in the franchise country for six months to one year, whereas previously it would be shorter time and it would be more visits.  Now we treat it as if it’s one of our stores.  We really stay close with the process.  That has yielded better results.

 

(08:11)

Dhanya:  Not surprisingly.  You are doing Awfully Chocolate, and now you’re doing Everything With Fries.  Is it any different?  Is it just a different menu?

Lyn:  It is very different.  Sometimes I talk to my franchisees, and being people in food, everyone always wants to know if they run a small take-out store, can they run a café?  If they run a café, they want to sell hot food, or do a restaurant.  In the early years, it was something that we struggled with because the franchisor’s assumption was that they came to me because they saw this take-out store in Singapore and they liked it.  So why do they want to change it?  There was a bit of tension, but now that we’ve been doing it for so long, we realize that part of it is just human nature.  We always want to push ourselves a little bit more, do something more.  We’ve come to quite a happy balance where I actually can tell my franchisees, “The moment you get into dine-in, you start diversifying, you get more products, you change the menu, you go to hot food, it definitely gets harder and much more complicated and very often it’s less profitable.  If you want to do it, do it with me.”  Or else they’ll run off and do it with somebody else.

It’s really funny because after we do it and after  all the blood, sweat, and tears they come back and say that running a restaurant is much harder than just running a take-out store.  I think there is a value to having done something like that, especially for the staff.  We’re sitting in Everything With Fries which is a spinoff and the first staff project.  The Awfully Chocolate staff formed a project group and they drew up the menu or what they liked to eat.  You could tell they were all really young.  They still are very young.  Everything had fries in it.  Yes, there are ups and downs and difficulties, and it’s so challenging because they would actually – like I started – do their day jobs at Awfully Chocolate and then they would come after that and work on the project. 

I think it’s just spun off so many different things that we’ll never look back and think that we should never have tried anything else, even if some of them may be harder to do or even less profitable.  At least there is team building and there’s thinking out of the box.  We have people in the front line who were at the back end in another store but they came out of there to do the project; and similarly we have front end managers who then went into the kitchen as part of the project and found that really enjoyed it.  I think that’s really important that people sometimes step out of their comfort zone and try something different.

 

(11.20)

Dhanya: I am almost there towards my last 2 questions. Do you think it would’ve been different for you if you were a man? Have you ever thought about it? And do you have any advice for young people from your life so far?

Lyn: There is one thing that is relevant as a woman.  I’m so happy that I’m seeing my staff getting married and settling down.  They really were very young when we started.   I tell them about finding the balance because it seems that in society now everyone’s got really fixed ideas about work-life balance, and I tell them, “Don’t fix yourself on the idea.”  I would say that my life has been very unconventional.  I do not conform to this idea that we go to work at 9:00 and we’re going to come back at 5:00, and just only find a job that’s near your house and has those kinds of hours.  We get so many young people that the moment they hear that the office is a little further away from where they are prepared to work they say, “Oh, I’m sorry it’s too far.”

We tell them the difficulty is that we are a retail company, so even if you’re an account clerk, we want everyone to understand the culture which is that we’re retail so our busiest times are weekends, public holidays, and you might be cut back.  We just want you to be one with the culture and a lot of people can’t accept that.  I tell people that I’m a mom and I have three kids.  I really try to spend as much time as I can with them, but I just don’t do it in the conventional way and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  So many women especially – and we want them to have families and we want them to settle down – but I tell them that there must be a way, and don’t be afraid that your way is slightly different.

It would be so lovely if everyone had epiphanies about what they wanted to do. There are people who know what they want to do and work towards it. But I wasn’t one of them. In my first job, I was still searching around and that’s okay. The little decisions you take matter. They add up to bringing you to where you are. I like to think that if you make the correct small decisions, it is just as good as the epiphany you didn’t have. These small decisions are not hard. Don’t choose the job by the hours you need to put in, or how close it is to you. Sometimes you choose it for the pay package. Think of what you’re going to be doing, what you’re going to learn. Think of the wider things.


Thank you so much for talking to us, Lyn. Your down-to-earth and encouraging spirit is a pointer to how your team has stayed and grown with you!

Real Leaders Team