“Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.” – Confucius
Co-founder of Kennel.; Co-founder of UNION Experience (the design/innovation lab that is Kennel.’s parent company)
Co-founder of Kennel.; Co-founder of UNION Experience
Ho Renyung, Ken Yuktasevi and Mark Wee are co-founders of Kennel., a collaborative workspace located at Dempsey Hill that provides creative entrepreneurs not just with a conducive physical environment in which to carry out their work, but a community with which to connect, exchange ideas and collaborate. It also hosts educational programming and events such as Kennel Night, where various speakers share their personal experiences relating to particular themes and seek to explore these ideas to the fullest through communal discussion.
How did Kennel get started, and what inspired you to set it up?
RENYUNG: Kennel, like all great things, started quite serendipitously, through a series of different events – there’s a bit too much detail to go into, but it started because of a common vision that was shared by the three of us, and when the opportunity came, the intention had already been ripening for a while. So when all these different factors came together – the space became available, there were people asking for it, we had energy and time to put into it, and we had noticed more and more of these spaces coming up and the desire for it – we were like “okay, let’s do it”.
There was no single overwhelming reason; it was just a confluence of different factors. In terms of why we started it, we wanted to have an environment and a platform that enabled people’s dreams to be realised. It sounds quite lofty, but it was really about creating a space where people were comfortable being themselves and could explore different options and varieties of work-life integration to find what they wanted, and could also meet different kinds of people. That’s why it’s called Kennel, because we don’t want that diversity of species to be lost.
MARK: And it’s just a funny word, “kennel” – it’s a whimsical kind of place to house a dog, and the spirit of that word suited the fact that this was a place people would work out of. This space actually used to be our design office, and we ran our design studio out of here for a while. When we moved out, we decided to transform the space into a place where people could work and where they could have a community. So we said, “Okay, why don’t we call this place Kennel?” And I think it fits. More than anything, we’re trying to create a community of people here, where they are able to dream and hopefully make their dreams a reality. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Kennel is a space for collaboration – what experiences have you had that have shown you the value of collaboration?
KEN: I think part of the reason why Mark and I really believe in collaboration – apart from our being closet hippies – is because of the very work that we do. We do something called experience design in our own design studio – I’m actually a filmmaker, and Mark’s an architect – and in the process of experience design, we create solutions and ideas together that we would never have come up with if we just hung out with filmmakers or architects. I think a certain amount of values come attached to a proper collaboration – it’s almost like marriage. You can’t really collaborate without humility, or courage, or curiosity. For us, we realised that all these things just worked well in the work that we did, and we believed that we could bring that to the world.
RENYUNG: A lot of our Kennelists here work with each other on collaborative projects – sometimes it feels almost like a production house. Everyone spends time informally finding out what one another’s skillsets are, and then sees how these match their existing projects. We ourselves spend time finding out what our Kennelists’ passions and areas of expertise are, and we usually develop projects together with them, and facilitate situations that bring them together.
MARK: One important collaborative experience we’ve created is Kennel Night. When we first started a couple of months ago, we had a mystery speaker and mystery musicians, and now we even have mystery chefs. We had a Christmas market in December, which brought together a lot of people, and was just really fun.
What do you think are the elements that make for a successful collaboration?
RENYUNG: The first thing is that everyone shares the same vision and big picture. That must be established and shared by everybody, so everyone knows: Who is leading it? Who is supporting? Who is defining this? Who is giving what? This way, everybody is clear on what their roles are and what every person brings to the table, the separate skillsets they’re bringing that add to the whole. And of course, a fair agreement on the consequences of the collaboration must be made right from the beginning, so that any benefit is shared fairly.
KEN: People tend to think about collaboration in very project-based terms; it seems to be becoming a trend nowadays for a fashion brand to work with another or with a photographer for this one project or one event, which is then billed as “a collaboration between these two”. What we’ve started to realise is that that’s not so much what collaboration is about.
True collaboration is more like leading life together, in the same space. For example, we host a digital user experience firm called Paperplane, and them being able to work, within Kennel itself, with Myles & More, a company that does authentic storytelling through film – to conduct interviews or supply their clients with a new product, just by being in the same space – is the real essence of collaboration.
Kennel being quite young, no massive collaborative projects have come out of it just yet – we have quite a few in the pipeline, but right now most of the collaboration in Kennel happens by going through life together, rather than just doing work together. What we get excited about is not the output of a project, but the kind of person that comes out of it. For me, a success is not a collaborative project, but a collaborative person.
Kennel frames the individual in terms of “who they are, not what they do”. Could you elaborate on this outlook?
RENYUNG: People always ask us if being a “creative entrepreneur” means they have to be a designer, et cetera, but we aren’t defined along industry lines – what people do – the way a lot of co-working spaces are. Everyone here has a very different background. When people want to become a member of Kennel, we ask them their intentions behind joining the community, and find out where they’re coming from, what their passion is, and so on, because we think it’s important that those things be recognised. We go by who they are, meaning the values that they hold. The values that we consider most important for creativity are respect – respect for others’ ideas, respect for diversity – curiosity, lateral thinking, honesty and openness. And all of that will bring about collaboration and creativity.
KEN: Values come above everything else in Kennel – we’re really passionate about our values here. I think sometimes what people do can get in the way of them expressing who they are; for a lot of people, their identity is tied to their successes and their occupation, and they see that as the entirety of who they are, when there’s actually a lot more than that going on beneath the surface. Especially when networking nowadays, people come to the table constantly going “this is me, these are my accomplishments”, but since we put values first, we don’t just look at a person’s facade like that, and what we’ve found is that people don’t like to see themselves that way anymore either. Like if I look at you and say “oh, you’re just an architect”… people no longer appreciate being pigeonholed like that.
What challenges have you encountered in your work at Kennel?
KEN: On the cultural side of it, we’re dealing with something quite new here – there’s no business model for it, no standard operating procedure. You go on gut feeling a lot of the time, and not having a structure can get quite frustrating. Things are falling into place now and we’re starting to understand what works, but it’s still being sorted out. And of course, as with anything else, funding is really tough, because you want to run an open, non-exclusive community which everyone can access, but at the same time you need to pay your rent. To be honest, I thought one of the biggest challenges would be getting people to understand what Kennel is, but for some reason people seem to be very receptive to and accepting of the concept.
RENYUNG: It intuitively made sense to them. Getting people to understand the culture of Kennel, in terms of the vibe, was not hard. Getting them to understand the business model and co-working culture, getting them to be open to working alongside someone who’s a stranger from a different business, was a bit harder. There was a difference in the types of questions we got from people – those who had lived outside Singapore, or had perhaps been in a place like this before, understood that they could be working here one day and there the next, working beside this business one day and beside a different one another day, and were comfortable with that uncertainty. In contrast, quite a lot of people here like the culture and community, but still want to be in a closed space of their own, for that feeling of security and routine. So we’re still searching for the right mix in terms of physical space.
KEN: Ren acts as what we call a “catalyst” to get those uneasy people to settle down – she sets the mood and models the vibe by coming in here and interacting with everybody. And like she mentioned, before people come in, we sit down and have a very in-depth conversation with them about what’s important to them, so that they enter Kennel in the right frame of mind. We make sure we set expectations.
What are the future plans for Kennel? Are any expansions slated to take place?
KEN: The main reason why Kennel exists is to facilitate a transformation in culture, and we’d love to see more Kennels, but establishing more Kennels around Singapore or Asia or even the world would not be for the sake of making more money. If someone, say in Indonesia, really wants to start another Kennel because the need has arisen in that cultural context, then we’d be happy to do that. Right now, we’re looking at the possibility of expanding Kennel beyond a workspace. It could become a cafe, or a shop – a different kind of experience. We’re open to that as well. We’re still in flux.
What is the most significant thing you have learnt from your experiences at Kennel?
KEN: It’s very easy for people to come into a conversation telling you what they have, what their achievements are, and what they can bring to the table. I find that it’s really hard for a person, myself included, to come with no baggage and just receive advice or another person’s story. But I’ve realised that entering into a conversation with my hands empty can be a very beautiful thing, and my work at Kennel has helped me to leave behind that baggage and be more accepting when interacting with people.
RENYUNG: The biggest thing I’ve taken away from Kennel is that randomness is a good thing, but your values must always stay the same. I think I’ve changed the way I approach things – I was previously more results-oriented, but now I accord a lot more importance to the vision and values I start out with. Those are the foundation, and if they’re firmly settled, I have more faith that everything else will fall into place eventually. In the past I would instead look at what I wanted to achieve and work backwards. And I used to like to be in control of everything that happened around me, but after hearing about so many journeys of discovery and stories about how people look back on their lives and realise that everything that happened to them was connected, I’ve been able to change my perspective and see more connections between things that seemed disparate and random before. So I’ve realised the value in exposing yourself to as many new things as possible, even things that might not make sense at the time.
What do you think of the entrepreneurial scene in Singapore, and how can it be developed further?
KEN: It’s really exciting right now, and I think what Singapore probably needs is a change of mindset among local Singaporeans, because people seem to think that it’s such a small place that there aren’t enough resources or a large enough market for everybody. That needs to change, and there needs to be a lot more collaboration, non-competition and honesty.
RENYUNG: The current push for entrepreneurship is partly driven by the government and institutions and big agencies, who are all promoting it for economic reasons. What interests me, though, is the reason why individuals are turning to entrepreneurship – they’re looking for meaning. People are looking toward entrepreneurship as a vehicle to express themselves and self-actualise. Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, but they’re not necessarily very clear on what they want to be an entrepreneur of. I’m fascinated by how people are using this philosophy of work as self-definition, and using the kinds of businesses they engage in as a means of defining their lives, also because they’re looking to move away from the work-life balance issues of our parents’ generation. So it’s a whole generational shift in thinking, in terms of identity and what is important in life. Flexibility and variety are becoming more important; meaning is now much more variable and subjective. And this is all taking place in the context of a young nation that is trying to find its place in the world. That’s what I find most interesting about entrepreneurship in Singapore. As for further improvements, I think soft capital is what is needed right now. In the academic institutions and businesses, there’s a lot of infrastructure to help entrepreneurs, like the incubation centres and training schemes – all that is knowledge, but it’s not soft capital like what School of Thought provides, namely a support group that cultivates confidence and resilience in the face of change. What’s missing are systems that build the entrepreneurial character, not the entrepreneurial mind. That has to do with the way members of society respond to each other – the way parents support or disapprove of their children’s choices, and the way the education system funnels us down certain paths.
KEN: Something that Singapore entrepreneurs need, especially because a lot of them are young, is shepherding, fathering – a community that can support them and build that kind of entrepreneurial character.
RENYUNG: Another major problem with the way we approach entrepreneurship is that we overlook so much about the process, and just have our minds on the concrete outcome of building a profitable company. The Singaporean education system tends to make you feel that if you can’t quantify something, if you have nothing tangible to show, you shouldn’t do it, but entrepreneurship is about being comfortable with uncertainty and taking risks. So what we’ve done at Kennel is make it about the person and not the output, focusing on the process and what you’re doing at the present.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs out there?
RENYUNG: Develop a support system and find mentors.
KEN: It’s okay to mess up.
Profiled by Lilian Huang