Becoming an entrepreneur at 46

By Hoe I Yune, Jan 14, 2021

46-year-old Shan had been working in the publishing industry for 17 years when she faced retrenchment. It happened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, just as working from home became the new norm and Singapore headed into a deeper economic recession with job losses and wage cuts.

Buried neck deep in work, she didn’t see it coming. But the working mother chooses to focus on the good things. With the love and support of her husband and their 15-year-old and 13-year-old sons, she is doing something she’s never done before: starting a business of her own. 

Shan shares with us what it’s like to go from having a routine at the same job to becoming her own boss. It might still be early days for her reusable face mask business Bloom Diary but she is hopeful about her new adventure. 

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When I lost my job in August 2020, I was not at all mentally prepared for it. I worked as an associate art director for a monthly magazine publication and my work revolved around styling shoots and designing magazine layouts. Leading up to the day, there had already been job cuts, so those of us who remained employed shouldered very heavy workloads. Every month, we struggled to meet deadlines. There were days when I couldn’t find time to think about anything other than work.

I was working from home when the company held yet another one of its virtual town hall meetings. Almost immediately afterwards, I was called into a conference call with a couple of bosses and the head of human resources. They told me I was out of a job.

I was so blindsided that it felt like an out of body experience. Even during the townhall meeting, I half-listened while trying to complete my work before an evening deadline. All I could think of was the task at hand.

Thinking I was the only person from the team to be let go of, the first thing I said was that I needed to hand over the task I was working on. But they were adamant that I not speak to anyone and stop working. Later, I learned that three out of four members of our team were asked to leave. 

The first family members I broke the news to were my husband and mum in the next room. My mum thought it was a joke and kept saying she couldn’t believe it, because I gave her the impression that I was too swamped at work for my job to be at risk. My husband, on the other hand, remained very calm and pointed out the silver lining. Magazines belong to a sunset industry and at the very least, I got a retrenchment package which can tide us through the adjustment period. The company also later contacted me again about working as a freelancer for an additional month. 

My husband was right but I loved my job, so to come to terms with the loss was rough. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I was so naive. Colleagues from other magazine titles said they already speculated that more job losses would be afoot after every town hall because of poor company performance.

I was first headhunted for a job at the publishing house 17 years ago. Magazines were in their heyday and required a different set of skills from what I had been practicing as a multimedia designer, but I was honest about my limitations, learned quickly, and climbed up the career ladder to associate art director. It was so interesting to work on all sorts of fashion, beauty, and lifestyle photo shoots. I was never bored. Working with different colleagues, editors, and newsmakers, I saw different aspects of humanity and it shaped me as an individual, wife, and mother.

The first few photo shoots I worked on involved young children and I noticed that the most well-behaved children had parents with a firm hand. That made me conscious of how important it is to instil a sense of discipline in my children. As a mother, I want to be able to prepare my sons to be independent, caring, considerate and street smart. 

My husband and I have always been upfront with our teenage sons about the value of money and both the good and the bad we experience at work. So we didn’t hesitate to tell them that I had been retrenched. I was really touched because they were immediately concerned about how I felt. A week later, I saw my youngest son had written in his notebook a list of ideas on how to make money, and my eldest son asked if we should dial back on dining out at restaurants. I reassured them that we didn’t have to and that I’m looking for a job.

We might not be the wealthiest but we’re comfortable thanks to my husband’s work as an IT consultant. He has gamely taken on the role of sole breadwinner. Back when we both had jobs, we could joke about wanting to resign and leaving it to the other person to financially support the household. Now that it has become our reality, I worry that it’s very taxing on him but he has taken it in his stride and says I can take a year to look for a new full time job.  

Although I’m hoping to get back on my feet sooner, there is comfort in having his support because it allows me to experiment with what I want to do next. The day I lost my job, I began looking into starting my own reusable face mask business, Bloom Diary. It was an idea that I had in the back of my mind for two months but had no time for.

When COVID-19 hit our shores, I wanted something eco-friendly that didn’t put a dent in my wallet. But masks which met international guidelines tended to be plain, while more creative designs tended not to provide sufficient coverage. 

You could say I’m easily paranoid and very cautious when it comes to hygiene and safety. During the early days of the pandemic, when much of virus transmission remained unknown, I wore goggles to optimise eye protection; kicked doors open so that I didn’t need to touch shared surfaces; and worked out a way to avoid touching germ-coated lift buttons. My sons thought I was overreacting and made “Mummy, are you crazy?” comments every now and then. 

Wanting face masks that my husband, elderly mum, children and I could wear out without feeling like we were compromising on safety and comfort, I decided to create my own. 

The first hurdle was finding a manufacturer willing to print face masks in small quantities. After speaking with a handful of reluctant manufacturers, I found someone through family ties. It’s not something she’d typically do, so all the more, I’m immensely grateful that she’s willing to help out.

She’s much more business-savvy than I am. Even if we don’t necessarily see eye to eye, I value her input. As a budding small business owner, I’ve yet to break even and am still navigating how to balance production cost and making a profit.

Wanting to keep the masks affordable, I’ve priced adult size face masks starting from $16.90 and child size face masks starting from $14.90. But I’m reluctant to scrimp on quality and I’m quickly seeing how the more benefits that you weave in, the higher the production cost. From adding an adjustable ear loop and nose bridge to using cotton fabric for UV protection and weaving in an insert pocket to add more filter layers for enhanced protection, it all adds up. 

From the looks of things, Bloom Diary can’t sustain me as a full time job like I had originally hoped. But I enjoy creating face masks and don’t plan to give up on it. Maybe it’ll become a side hustle; at the very least, I am happy knowing that I’ve learned a lot.

Many people define success based on the end result — are you famous? How much do you earn? But success to me encapsulates the journey. To broaden my knowledge is also an achievement. 

Now that I’m my own boss, I’m responsible for all that goes into running Bloom Diary. As a one-woman show and without anyone to report to, I have more control over day-to-day operations. What’s challenging however is having to figure out how to keep up with a workflow structure and budget things on my own. Without a team to lean on, working alone can also feel quite intimidating and lonely. But there’s a wealth of information on YouTube and friends and family have been so willing to help out. For instance, a friend who runs her own e-commerce store gave tips on conducting market research and determining your target demographic before running Facebook ads. Sometimes I ask my eldest son to help cast his eyes over my Instagram captions. 

Thanks to my editorial background, styling lifestyle and product shots come with ease, but it’s through Bloom Diary that I’ve picked up new skills such as marketing and running social media and e-commerce platforms. Over time, I’ve realised how important it is to pick up Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and continue with website and social media updates, so that potential customers don’t think I’ve closed shop. I’ve also learned to report trolls for leaving anti-face mask comments ladened with vulgarities on my Facebook page. 

When I first saw how social media-savvy youngsters are, I wondered how I could possibly match up. Now that I manage my own pages and created a website from scratch, I’m pretty pleased to say that I’m not too shabby myself. Next, I plan to enrol in an online media strategist course. 

Design is my forte but the job market is constantly evolving and I’ve seen designer job descriptions seeking to hire people with the additional writing or digital expertise. Writing in English is my Achilles’ heel and that won’t change overnight, but I can hone my digital skills. I want to be smart about playing to my strengths. 

Honestly, there are times when I doubt myself, especially when I look at the job market. To earn less while putting in the same amount of time and effort as I used to is also an unsettling thought. While I don’t think I’ve felt much of a difference in my personal spending habits since I’m quite frugal to begin with, I want to be able to provide my children with opportunities to further their education. 

My husband is the voice of reason when my confidence wavers. I was indecisive about spending money on a new course, without any guarantee of financial return but he was completely encouraging. He said he trusted me to go for what I want and reminded me of how he previously took a Psychology course despite not practising it professionally. It’s not always about the money.

They’re normally quite camera shy, so it means a lot to me that my husband and youngest son, as well as my mum and helper, have been so sporting about modeling my face masks for Instagram and the website. 

My son has also posted Instagram shout-outs to introduce Bloom Diary to friends, which I know isn’t easy for a teenager to do. 

On my birthday, I was surprised by the handwritten messages from my husband and children, because I hadn’t expected them to be so vocal and supportive of Bloom Diary.

On my birthday, I was surprised by the handwritten messages from my husband and children, because I hadn’t expected them to be so vocal and supportive of Bloom Diary.

As a mother, I want to lead by example. My youngest son has growing aspirations in becoming a businessman and watching me work on Bloom Diary has piqued his interest. He recently started selling unused household items on Carousell. I can’t say running a business is the sort of life that I want for my children as it’s so stressful, but I’m glad that he is taking the initiative and learning from first-hand experience. He has seen how some buyers might be flaky at the last minute but setbacks haven’t deterred him from achieving his goal. Similarly, I don’t want to give up so easily. 

He bought us dinner the other day using his earnings, which was such a sweet gesture and it’s moments like this that remind me how blessed I am to be surrounded by my family. 

I might’ve been forced to close a chapter due to a changing climate, and the guilt of not earning my keep and bringing home the bacon doesn’t escape me, but my family has been my rock as I figure out where I can go next in my career. Friends too would forward along job postings and support Bloom Diary. Counting my blessings, I really can’t complain. 

Find out more about Bloom Diary at Pictures were provided by Shan.

For more on how to upgrade your skills, check out SkillsFuture on SkillsFuture offers courses on lifelong learning and provides all Singaporeans aged 25 and above with an opening credit of $500, with an additional one-off special $500 credits for all Singaporeans aged 40 to 60.

Writer’s note:

My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about choosing a job based on my interests, talking about money matters in a relationship and learning to save for a rainy day.

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