I went from packed lunch-boxes to 340,000 followers and a sustainable career

By Clara How, Mar 21, 2019

You may know Shirley from Instagram as @/littlemissbento, creator of kawaii food art, writer of five cookbooks and commander of over 340,000 followers. The Singaporean’s bento box creations are so painstakingly picture perfect, we’ve included a handful of our favourites in this introduction. 

Is she an influencer? Not quite, as she doesn’t identify as one. You’ll rarely see a selfie or an OOTD from her, because she believes it’s not the kind of content her followers ask for. She tells us how she went from making bento boxes as office lunches to turning them into a sustainable business model. 

* * * *

When I first started out on social media, it was very accidental. I never meant it as a means to generate income, or get famous. I believe that what you do needs to be something that fulfils you, and not for fame or money. If it’s your sole driving force, your followers can tell. 

People say that I’m an influencer, but I rather call myself a food artist, because it’s essentially what I do. My career isn’t just based on the bentos that you see on social media. I also create content that I don’t post, such as for client projects or products, such as helping hotels or restaurants by styling their menus.  

I’ve always liked creating art. And food art is like having a plate or a box as your canvas and you create using ingredients. It’s satisfying. When I did art in school, I would spend hours painting and feel fulfilled.

But making bentos started off very organically. It used to be something I made for my boyfriend in school, you know, as a means to get love haha. They weren’t complicated, they were just regular sandwiches. I continued packing my lunches when I started working full time as a dancer in a dance company, but I didn’t bother with styling.

Food art only became a thing for me when I left dancing to work full time in a fundraising job. There wasn’t any food available nearby and I didn’t want to walk under the hot sun at noon and sweat in my office clothes. So I started to pack food and thought of making it cute, like the way the Japanese mothers make their bentos.

The first bento box I made was a rabbit with teeth made out of corn. Back then I was very proud of it, but looking back, it’s really ugly lah. 

But I would never delete the picture because I’m not ashamed of it! Everyday I would bring cute bentos to work, and my colleagues started to notice and comment on them. They were the ones who told me that I should start a blog. I was such a noob that I didn’t even know what a blog was, but I figured there’s no harm, so I started my first blog in 2011.

One of Shirley’s early bentos in 2012

One of Shirley’s early bentos in 2012

In the first year, no one was really reading my blog. There was no styling, I was just taking pictures on my handphone with bad lighting. It was called Little Miss Onigiri, and eventually I started a Facebook account called Bento Singapore. I wasn’t thinking about cohesive branding or marketing. The accounts and names were just whatever suited me at the time.

I’d say the only time I had deliberate branding was when I changed the name of all my platforms to be Little Miss Bento so it could finally be consistent.

It was Instagram that really sparked my career. I signed up for it in 2014, when many people were also joining the app. I didn’t even know about hashtags, so I had no idea how people even found my account. But I find that if you want to grow a following, you need to be active on the account. When you’re using any platform, you can’t just be a silent user and expect people to find you.

Honestly, I preferred Instagram’s old algorithm, where posts appear chronologically on the feed. Now it depends on what Instagram think you’re interested in, so you see selected content and miss out on others. I think I went into Instagram at the right timing, and people started to get to know me. Then brands took notice and started inviting me for tastings at restaurants.

At the time I didn’t really think much about it, and I went along because I thought that was what everyone was doing. I didn’t think about its purpose, or whether these events actually added anything to my content. But the more events I attended, the more I realised that my followers don’t get excited by this kind of content.

There’s much more engagement with my original content, which was why my followers came to me in the first place. It reached the point where I was attending events that had no value to my personal growth or to my content. It didn’t make sense!

So now I’m a lot more selective about the events I go to and the brands who I work with. It needs to be things that I personally like, and I’m happy to pay for them. If it’s something that attracts me, then the content will be something that my followers like. My signature content is geared towards Japanese food art, the kawaii culture. And this cute stuff is also what my followers are into.

Eventually, managing Little Miss Bento reached the point where I was overwhelmed. I would get up at 5am every morning and take an hour to make my bento to bring to work. I was still working full time, at an office job that paid well. I liked my colleagues, my bosses, and the work was good. 

But the fear of not being able to do my food art outweighed the fear of quitting my job. That was what made me decide to go into food styling full time.  

But it wasn’t an easy decision because I’ve always been scared about money. When I was dancing full time, the pay meant that I never had any savings. I was living pay cheque by pay cheque. I wasn’t covered for retirement or if I fell sick.

I didn’t even buy bubble tea because I could have used the money to buy a bowl of noodles for dinner. 

Even now, I don’t drink bubble tea out of habit. But I could have put up with the crappy pay if dancing fulfilled me. But after six years, I had injuries and the work no longer satisfied me.

So when I quit my fundraising job, the fear was that I might go back to that kind of lifestyle where you worry about money for the next month. When you’re self-employed, that’s just something that you have to deal with. It was one of the first things I discussed with my husband, to let him know that I might have to go back to a situation where money will not be constant. And I’m very fortunate that he has generally been very supportive.

Right now I would say that 50 per cent of my income comes from social media, where I create content for brands that resonate with me, like a bento design based on their mascot or a new movie.

The other 50 per cent comes from consulting, teaching workshops and my cookbooks. And by the end of the year I’m hoping to launch my own products - I can’t say too much, but it’ll be related to food and cooking.

Pre-bento making sketches

Pre-bento making sketches

A lot of the consulting work goes into styling menus for character cafes (like the Gudetama cafe), or cafes who want a menu that’s styled a little differently, or want a kids menu. It’s fun because it’s in line with what I do, but it was a huge learning curve to start going into consulting work. Dude, I didn’t even know what SKU meant. I had to learn about the kind of difficulties that F&B companies face, and how to cater my content to help them achieve what they want without compromising on quality.

As for the cookbooks, they take in under SGD10,000 a year. Honestly, unless you are JK Rowling, it’s hard to rely on books for income. But I wrote the books because I really like teaching and it’s a way for my international fans to connect with me. I don’t need to be physically there for them to refer to and connect with me. So my books helped me build an international portfolio, and in fact, I conduct more workshops overseas than in Singapore. I’ve taught in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and even Abu Dhabi and the States.

I’m busy every day, but these days I am more selective with projects. At the end of last year, I felt a bit burnt out. I realised I needed to pace myself. I’ve just started a side career as an aerial instructor, because I need something on my own that’s outside of social media to keep my sanity. When I teach, I spend all that time away from my phone.

I do have a separate account for my aerial activities, but I don’t have a personal account that I post more private moments. (But I do have a boliao account for my stuffed toy lah but that’s more for my friends haha.) I think that the little moments in my personal life are precious and special because they are private, and I like to keep it that way. My followers don’t come to my account for selfies anyway.

I think it’s just in my personality not to get caught up in how many likes or followers I get. I’m a very outspoken and direct person, and it really irks me when people do things that aren’t real or ethical. Like I really hate bots. And now there are these group chats where they tell everyone in the group to comment on each other’s post to make it look organic.

Perhaps it’s an artist’s point of view, since I used to be a dancer. Everyone works hard, so what makes you better than other people just because you’ve used other means to get traction? So I rather have imperfect engagement, because I would know if I was lying to myself. 

The social media bubble could burst at any time. If you put all your emotion and self value into it, then it’s just not right.

At one stage, when Instagram changed their algorithm I did feel disappointed when I saw a drop in engagement. I would be lying if I didn’t feel anything. But it has never crossed my mind to get bots - it was more of me questioning if my content is still good. You just need to accept that, look, social media is the medium that we chose and it’s constantly evolving. We need to accept change.

I don’t really get trolls because of the nature of my content, but of course I do get the occasional negative comment, like: “who is so free to create these bentos.” But people have the right to say what they want, so you just have to take it in your stride. These trolls just say these things to get a reaction lah. So I don’t feel a need to respond to them, and sometimes other followers will respond for me, like: “don’t like it then don’t follow!”

Sometimes young people write to me and ask me how they can be ‘famous’, or be like me. I generally tell them that they need to find something that’s special to them.

Social media is so saturated that if you want to stand out, you either create the crazy content that YouTubers are doing, like smashing their iPhones to go viral, or create a niche. And it’s important to find something that you’re passionate about. If you choose something that you think will earn you money, you can’t sustain that. Especially at the beginning when you need to grow your numbers. 

If you don’t like the content you create, it’s hard to persevere until you reach the stage where you have a following.

I also tell them to know their consumers. For example, if your followers are mostly parents, don’t post late at night when they are either sleeping, or exhausted. Try late mornings after they drop their kids off at school. These aren’t things that you think about until you have content, but this only happens after you’ve decided exactly what you want to create.

Photography is another thing. Aesthetics are very personal, so I can only make suggestions. Some people prefer a rustic or moody setting. I think it looks great, but I’m bad at recreating that style and anyway it’s not my preference. I personally like bright, well lit spaces. But just because I use a white background doesn’t mean you should. 

It’s really important to have a visual signature with a consistent look and feel because people can recognise it. Sometimes followers even tell me that someone else has used my photo, because they recognise the way it’s shot and styled. So find a style that suits you, and that you can produce with quality. I take all my photos at home, or at an external studio. I just point and shoot, nothing fancy. Videos are produced by my interns.

At the end of the day, I know that if I’m tired of what I’m doing now or it no longer becomes sustainable, I will just go back into the workplace. That door is never closed - it’s just not the door that I want to step back into at this stage. That belief was also why I quit my full time job: because if I try and it doesn’t work, I can always go back.

In Singapore, I believe that if you’re willing to work, you won’t starve. You just may not be doing the job you absolutely love. And I’m not ashamed of it if I eventually have to return to a full time job. But for now, I want to stay where I am for as long as I can.  

* * * *

We have always wondered what it's like working with a food stylist and an online personality, so we spoke to Shannon, 20, who's one of the freelancers on Shirley’s roster.

Shannon helps Shirley with her video creations. A university student, she takes up projects with @/littlemissbento when she’s not weighed down by midterms, finals and the entirety of uni life.

* * * *

My friends mostly ask about what Shirley is like in real life. 

I mean, everyone knows that whatever you put on social media isn’t true representation of who you are lah, obviously. Usually I tell them that she’s very relaxed. She talks in a very casual and cheerful manner. You don’t feel like you’re different from her, even though she has that kind of status on social media. You never feel inferior.

I’ve been freelancing for Shirley as a video intern for almost a year. I didn’t set out to work for her – someone I worked with during my poly internship knew Shirley and heard that she was looking for someone to help her with shooting videos. I had heard about @/littlemissbento before as part of a poly assignment, but when this colleague asked me about working for her, I was intrigued. Food is not an area that I had ever worked in, so I figured, why not just go for it?

When I met up with Shirley for a casual interview at a café, she wasn’t what I expected. You would think that influencers would be all about being #aesthetic and wanting a specific visual. Of course she still expects a certain standard of quality, but she had a very chill vibe and seemed very receptive. She told me, “You’re younger than me, you would know more than me as a millennial, and I trust your feedback.”

My job scope is to shoot and edit videos, and occasionally take photos. Sometimes it takes one to two hours to shoot a video, and one to two days to edit. If the video is for a client and they have feedback, the whole process can take up to a week, depending how fast they get back to us.

So how it works with Shirley is that she will send me details about the client (things like branding, nature of the client and what they’re expecting to see) and the nature of video she wants to produce (a cheerful vibe or something more corporate and serious). And then I come up with ideas on set and it’s up to her if she chooses to accept or reject them.

Out of all the videos I have worked on, my favourite one was with Muyoo+, where the brief was to present their bread in a cheerful and lively manner. So I came up with the idea of doing a stop motion video so it would add some movement to what she created. I thought the effect would be more three-dimensional and less flat.

It’s not my usual way of working - I’m a very structured person and I’m used to go into shoots with a set plan in mind, but through working with her I learnt to embrace changes on the go. I have to learn to adjust to the situation (like being on set with Disney Channel Asia and having to compete with their crew for angles and lighting). That’s just part of her job - she has to adapt to a lot of change as an influencer, like evolving with trends, to her audience’s tastes, and with clients. But I like that she’s very open to feedback and she listens to what you have to say.

Her focus isn’t about the likes - I would say that she primarily cares about the way the work is presented and then let her work do the talking. We discuss the art direction of the photo, what the lighting should be, what props to use. She has a huge drawer of props and I have control over what I want to do with them. That was something I had to learn as well: how to coordinate props, spacing, how to utilise a certain fabric to its best - e.g. by using one of dull colour scheme to make her creation stand out.

When I first started filming for her, I was worried that my videos would not appeal to the demographic of her audience who are older than me, like the homemakers and mums in their 30s. I was concerned that my style might be too contemporary, and used to check the comments if there was any negative feedback. So far I haven’t seen any, aside from a couple of comments that the video is too rushed for them to follow step-by-step - but that’s partly down to the one minute restriction of Instagram.

I guess the last thing I would say about Shirley: I thought that when you work with an influencer, they would constantly check your footage on the spot. But with Shirley, she really trusts you with the whole process. Of course she looks at the completed draft, but she doesn’t always check on what you’ve shot on set. It really does feel like a shared ownership of the end result.

Writer’s note:

You can see more of Shirley’s aerial acrobatics on Instagram at @/shirleyaerialist. She has authored Kawaii Bento, Kawaii Deco Sushi, Kawaii Sweet Treats, Get Started Making Fun Sushi and Kawaii Bread.

Pictures provided by Shirley Wong and Shannon.

Join the community. Download Dayre now.

Enter your mobile number to get started.