Working with Family: Selling batik with my mother
By Clara How, Oct 03, 2019
It’s a common saying that you shouldn’t work with family, because it’s hard to draw the line between personal life and business. It doesn’t seem to have been the case for the mother-daughter team behind YeoMama Batik, a homegrown clothing label that sells self-designed, handmade batik outfits. Since launching in January 2018, the brand now earns a stable five-figure monthly revenue and have recently set up a permanent storefront in Oxley BizHub 1.
Desleen and Mrs Yeo (or affectionately known as YeoMama) got there by being themselves — relatable, gungho, and rolling with the punches. Before starting YeoMama Batik, Desleen used to only see her mother on weekends or at night. Spending so much time together gave her appreciation for not just her mum, but also her dad and brothers. Drawing a line between family and business? There’s no need, and the Yeo family prefers it that way.
Two years ago, I was suddenly woken up by a phone call at the crack of dawn. It was my mum, calling from Indonesia. She was on holiday, and had come across batik fabric while shopping.
Her: “Do you want to sell batik??”
Me (half asleep): “...Okay anything…”
It was October 2017, and I was resting at home because I had undergone ankle surgery. I couldn’t move much for a few months, and I was so bored from staying at home. I was a stereotypical millennial: I left my corporate job in events because I felt burnt out, and decided to try a bunch of ‘fun’ jobs. Between May and September, I did freelancing gigs, was a greeter at a restaurant in Sentosa and worked as a receptionist at a dance studio.
My mum’s phone call gave me something to do. She brought back two suitcases with around a hundred pieces of batik fabric, and I started to think about clothing designs and a brand name. Everything had to be done quickly: we knew that we had to catch the Chinese New Year rush to get our brand name out there, which meant that we only had two or three months to launch our shop by January (Chinese New Year was in February 2018).
As a kid, I always loved pretending I owned a business. I even turned the bedroom into a petrol kiosk, made paper ‘money’ and got my brothers to pretend to have cars. But when I grew up, I thought working for someone would be better and less stressful. That didn’t work out either, and it’s almost like I’ve come full circle.
I wasn’t a huge batik fan as a child. Batik is a traditional fabric that is hand-dyed with wax and dye, and some of the finest pieces of batik have originated from Indonesia. My mum is Indonesian, and she used to buy me traditional batik outfits to wear. But when I saw all the batik that my mum brought home this trip, I was amazed. It was so different from the batik that I knew. There were beautiful gradients, textures, and pastel colours.
At the start we just wanted to do simple cheongsam-style outfits for Chinese New Year. It was very basic: either sleeves or sleeveless, fitted or flare, dresses, or a jumpsuit with a Mandarin collar. Everything was based on what my mum and I would personally wear. We sent the designs to tailors in Indonesia, and they sent back our finished cheongsams.
I started a Shopify website and bought Facebook ads, and we rented out an empty back room in a hair salon my dad patronised. It was in Lim Tua Tow Road, and was a very small space that could only fit four IKEA clothes racks and a makeshift fitting room. Everything was completely trial and error — I didn’t know anything about web traffic, or how to get social media reach. I just put up photos of my mum and I wearing the clothes, featuring different styles for both our age groups.
When we launched in January 2018, we were amazed at how many people came! Customers were confused by the hair salon and would text us to ask if they were in the right place, and we would say: “Yes! Just come through to the back!” We sold all our pieces in that one month.
As for the brand name, we started off with a really bad name: Batikpura. Years ago, I made a necklace for my mum and it read ‘mamayeo’. I suddenly recalled it, and thought hey, why not change the name to YeoMama? I wanted to name the business after my mum as she’s from Indonesia, and that’s also where the batik is from.
After we sold all our stock during Chinese New Year, we were on a high. But we had no more clothes! It was then when we thought, why not try lifestyle designs? I designed office dresses, weekend dresses, jumpsuits and trousers because I’m more ‘chor lor’ (like to play rough). My mum designed clothes that she would wear. It was never about what was trendy, it was just what we would want to wear ourselves because we felt like it was more relatable.
We spent around $10,000 on our first batch of clothes, including rental space and the flights from Indonesia. We were very scared that we weren’t going to be able to earn it all back (what if people only bought batik because of the festive period?), but we broke even within the first month of starting YeoMama.
What also helped was that we were able to keep some of the costs low. Our rental space was cheap, and because batik fabric is limited, with each new design we don’t have a large quantity. We have a fast turnover rate, and can have many new designs to keep drawing customers in. With that revenue, we rented a new space at The Promenade@Pelikat (it was also because we got kicked out of the salon! The owner said we made too much noise).
We just opened our permanent storefront in Oxley BizHub 1. With this shop, customers can come in to browse, and we have a space to manage the online store. I have a vision of YeoMama Batik eventually becoming a holistic 360 brand that has home living products like bed sheets and cushion covers, and with shoes and bags. We’ve just launched our batik sportswear range.
People have asked me how I know what to do to maintain a business and honestly, I don’t know how to answer. When there are problems, you just think about how to solve them. I’ve never thought about giving up. It’s a mindset that has changed since I started working for myself, as compared to my previous short-term jobs.
When I was working for other people, I would either wait for someone to give a solution, or I had my colleagues to help. But here, if I don’t solve my problems, who will? I also want to set an example for my staff, even though the team is small.
I think back about how I wanted to run a business as a child, and I do think that the reality is almost exactly like how I imagined — having freedom to do what I want, no fixed routines, getting to create what I love. But as a child, I didn’t consider that running a business is also about the things you don’t like, such as worrying about hiring staff, handling finances, or managing my emotions as an entrepreneur. But that’s life, isn’t it? You have to accept the bad with the good, and find your own balance. There are so many things I want to do, but my parents are always there to remind me to keep my focus, and do things step by step.
I think a big reason why YeoMama Batik has done well is because people like my mum. She’s a ‘real’ model, and on social media and our website, we’re the ones who wear our outfits.
My friends joke that we are fashion icons because we are not like influencers with perfect bodies. This is really how we look like everyday, and these are clothes that we like.
My mum loves clothes — she notices what people will wear on the street, or she will take photos of what she sees in movies or in magazines. She’s the kind of person who, when it’s the climax of the movie, will turn to you and say, “The clothes are very nice right?” She’s also just discovered Pinterest for design ideas.
People also warm to her because she’s great at talking to new customers and making them comfortable. She has that auntie charm where you want to talk to her, and customers even end up showing her their family photos!
YeoMama Batik really is a family business. My dad is very involved and my brothers also give their input. Last year, my brother casually said, “Hey, you should do batik angpaos for Chinese New Year.” And I thought, yes, we should! These suggestions just come up at random in conversations. My two brothers wear our batik clothes and talk about the business with their friends — when my little brother went to Germany for his exchange programme, he asked us for our name cards so he could hand them out.
My dad is the one who helps to make my ideas come alive. He’s a semi-retired civil engineer, and he’s always been efficient. He helps us liaise with contractors, takes measurements and looks at the floor plans. He’s even created an Instagram account just to follow us. Sometimes he will call me out of the blue and ask, “I noticed you haven’t posted today. When are you going to post?” He jokes that YeoMama Batik is his retirement plan.
My mum and I never had cold wars or bad arguments growing up. I was a very naughty child and she used to scold me — I used to draw on the furniture or tip the mop bucket over. But, we still had a good relationship. Now, I think we understand each other better.
We still have little disagreements, and we will see who gives in first. But we’ve never had a big fight. Sometimes I just want to try my way first, even though she doesn’t agree. There was a time where she wanted us to use thin velvet hangers for the store, but I preferred white wooden hangers because they look prettier. So I waited until she was overseas and I sold all her velvet hangers! I did the same thing when she wanted a red carpet — I bought a brown one when she was away.
To be honest, I had to learn all these things because I had no choice. For our very first batch of clothes, I went to Zara and took a whole bunch of clothes into the changing room with a measuring tape. I measured each size so I could tell the tailors. But I had to do these things because if I don’t know the basics like size measurements, how can I sell clothes?
Working with Indonesian tailors is still a big challenge. These tailors are used to measuring women in person, and sometimes when you send off a sample of what you want, the end product isn’t the same. It’s heartbreaking because you have a vision of the outfit, and it doesn’t come out the way you want it to. For example, I once designed a wrap skirt that was meant as office wear. But the final product had a slit so high that it was inappropriate for work. Because batik is unique and limited, you can’t just recreate the fabric. If I only have 40 pieces of that fabric, and it’s ruined, there’s nothing I can do.
The biggest thing that I learnt from my parents is the emotional side of running a business.
While I would be tempted to ask the tailors to solve the problem, my parents taught me that these tailors are not surviving on a high standard of living, and we shouldn’t force them to fix everything. Like us, they need to earn a living.
So what we do now is that we rework the piece if we can, or sell it at a lower price. If the slit of the dress is too high, I market it as a beach wrap instead. If a Mandarin collar is too high, I remove the collar and sell it as a different style of top.
The best thing about working with my parents is that I get to spend more time with them. In the past, I would see my mum after work, or when I come home for dinner. Now I see her when I go to work. When we first started working from home, I would be on my laptop and she would just talk and talk, you know, how aunties like to share their stories. But seeing her more often makes me realise how cute she is. Even the little things like the way she cleans, or how she likes to stand and stare at something while thinking is endearing.
It’s funny: 10 years ago all I wanted was freedom, and more freedom! I didn’t want my parents to know so much about my life. But since my ankle surgery and starting this business, I had a sudden realisation of how much my parents care about me. They’re just unable to express it well in words, so it just comes across as naggy or annoying. So right now, I just want to spend time with them while they are fit and healthy, and I feel grateful that I am able to do so.
We also spoke with Desleen’s mother, YeoMama herself! This is what she has to say about the family business, and how Desleen has grown up.
I was in Indonesia on a holiday, and didn’t have much to do.
I went to some shops that had a lot of batik, and thought, why not bring them home to sell? So I called Desleen to ask her. At first I wanted to sell batik outfits for women like me who aren’t slim, because it’s hard for us to find clothes that fit us.
When I asked her about selling batik, I didn’t know exactly how to go about doing it. I only have ideas about what I like and don’t like. She’s the one who has executed everything. I always think that if we don’t teach our children, as parents, it’s our fault if they don’t know certain things. But when working with Desleen, I realised that she is very capable and hardworking.
Running the business with her has been fun from the start. When I wear our batik pieces to the shop, people want to try what I’m wearing. Maybe it’s because women my age or size don’t dare to wear certain things, but when they see me, they don’t mind trying. But if a customer doesn’t look good in something she chose, I can’t tell her that she does. Instead I will ask her if she really likes it and will really wear it often. I’ve always told Desleen that the most important thing when running a business is to be honest.
Every business will have problems. When the tailors make mistakes with our pieces, it’s still important to think of their feelings. It’s hard to get work these days, and these tailors don’t earn that much money. If mistakes happen, I think it’s best to sell the items at a cheaper cost or donate them.
For Desleen to have done all this for the business, it’s not easy. She has handled everything from the start. Even though she was such a naughty child, it was always about little things that were not that important, like throwing cassette tapes into the water. In secondary school, she asked me: “Mama, am I guai (obedient) now?” But she always has been.
YeoMama Batik retails online at www.yeomamabatik.com, or at their storefront at 65 Ubi Road, #01-87 Oxley BizHub 1.
Photos provided by Desleen Yeo.
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