Co-Founder and Creative Director at School of Thought
Kuik Shiao-Yin is a co-founder and creative director of the Thought Collective, a collective comprising four companies – School of Thought, which offers tuition for General Paper and Language Arts; Food for Thought, a restaurant that recently saw the opening of its third branch at the Botanical Gardens; Think Tank Publishing which publishes magazines for students; and Thinkscape Learning Journeys, which offers learning and heritage trails for schools.
Tell us about how School of Thought came to be, and what motivated you to set it up.
It’s important for people to realize that none of the three directors “planned” this or thought about how to construct this right from the beginning; it was very organic and I think it’s useful for people to realize this. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that entrepreneurs are born that way, but I believe it is about a call and a response. It’s what makes you entrepreneurial in the end.
But I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after I came back in 2002 from the States where I did architecture. At around that time I talked to Tong Yee who was a good friend then, and he was telling me about his experience in NIE where he saw an interesting gap – a problem that all of us knew: kids that graduated from school were just quite self-centred; it didn’t matter whether you were an A or F student; it was all about you, not about your country, your society… yet there was this one subject at JC level that requires you to think about such things. It’s the one opportunity you have in the classroom to think about rights and wrongs and politics and all that but it’s taught so badly.
So there was a social gap. And there was also a market gap – no one specialized in GP tuition then because it was thought that it was an unteachable subject. So it was a market and social gap, and that was a perfect marriage.
Any stumbling blocks you encountered?
I did seriously think about ditching the business. When you’re young, not business trained and you start a company, a lot of it was by honorary and verbal agreement –so I was never really sure if everyone was in it. I wasn’t really sure if I was in it either… especially when my parents kept bugging me to find a proper job. What made me carry on was a bunch of kids from Anderson Junior College who came to me at the end of A levels telling me they wanted to keep learning but their parents wouldn’t pay since exams were over, so I decided to run tuition for free since they wanted to learn. I got them to propose things they wanted to learn and I’ll teach it. They said they wanted to learn why there’s good and evil, and why there’s suffering.
Those were big questions that few adults even bother asking, and I was so struck by how self-motivated the kids were. When I told them in jest that what’s fun would be to go ask some monk what he thinks of these questions, two of them actually went to a monk and asked, “This is what we studied – what do you think?”
To me, it was a sign that this was a fruit of what could be and I told myself that even if my friends won’t come on board, I’ll figure out how to do this, though I didn’t believe I could do it alone. Thankfully, because I didn’t prematurely cut it off, my friends came on board full-time later on, and their expertise, distinctions and skill sets helped the company grow.
How did it lead to Broader Perspectives and Food for Thought, which has expanded to its third branch recently?
It was in 2007 that we shifted into doing all sorts of funny things. Everyone thought we were going to expand overseas to China, Malaysia and all that. We knew that was never what we wanted to do. We knew it had to be something to do with Singapore, but we didn’t have the words of it. We had been teaching for five years, and we had interesting insights that we wanted to put down on paper… we thought it’d be cool to come up with a magazine – and there again we saw a market and social gap: any teacher or student could tell you exactly the kind of magazine they needed, but no one was producing it. Everyone was subscribing to Times and Newsweek but those were not contextual to their need. It comes too frequently and it piles up, it assumes you know everything about America, and it’s too America-centric. All we had to do was to reverse-engineer it: make them less frequent, explain the terms, and make it more Singapore-centric… and Broader Perspectives was born!
As for Food for Thought – Liz (the other co-founder) was joking about how the bubble-tea shop opposite us was jacking up prices and we should undercut them. It was a joke but the joke turned serious. Ahtough we had no experience in opening restaurants, we thought it was true to our cause because we were always being pigeonholed as a tuition centre; when we opened up a restaurant, it broke us out of that mould and opened ourselves to the public rather than just teachers and students. It was a $100000 gamble it could bomb. Was it worthwhile doing it if it bombed? The answer was yes. We wanted to set up a restaurant where conversations can happen. We never wanted to start the restaurants in shopping centres and all that; the idea was to position ourselves in public institutions and add value to them For example, putting ourselves in the botanical gardens is about bringing value to a very precious institution in Singapore. The garden celebrates family life, rest and relaxation, so we designed the whole restaurant to be very family-friendly, representing the good life. The restaurants seek to reinforce whatever messages the place already is about.
What do you see as the mission of the Thought Collective?
Right now we have five companies, and each one has a big goal to reach. Over the years we have refined what our social mission is about. It is about helping to transform and strengthen the soft capital in Singapore. Singapore’s really great at hard capital. But all the stuff you need to create a culture of innovation, enterprise, creativity and all that kind of stuff… you need an X-factor. All the businesses we set up are about helping to create or reinforce that X factor.
Any advice for youths and entrepreneurs out there?
For entrepreneurs out there, Singapore – I swear – is one of the best places in the world for social innovations. As someone once aptly put it, Singapore could be the Silicon Valley for social innovations if it believed in it. It has all the possibilities. We have the highest concentration of millionaires in the world and there’s a lot of money here. Despite what many people believe, there’re also a lot of people with very good hearts here. But there’s a serious shortage of good ideas, which tells you, very sensibly, that if you have a good idea with a good plan, it’s not going to be too hard to find people with money and who believe in it. It’s about refining that idea, getting all your distinctions correct so people know what they’re listening to.
One of the big lessons for me has been this: Providence is crucial, and so is choice.
People are usually very black and white about these things – they think that if you’re successful it’s all about either providence or choice, but I think it’s a mixture of both. I guess it’s about making sure you’re ready to make those choices when providence comes…because even when opportunities appear you may not know what to do with it. Then it’s pointless.
Also, life is not quite straightforward. For some people that may be the case – especially for the crazy type As who have their whole lives planned out. But we’re not really that way. Events will happen. You have to know what to do with those events. Or if events are not happening, what to do with your life anyway? Your life is about refinement, preparations…I always say that it’s not about what you want to do, but why and how you want to do whatever you do. If you can answer those two crucial questions, the ‘what’ sorts itself out. I think in Singapore we pay too much attention to “what do you want to do?” But, if you know the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, the ‘what’ is just so common sense. If you want to change anything or make a difference in whatever sector you’re going into, it’s important to figure out the ‘why’ question first.
When do you know when you’re ready to take that leap of faith?
I think you can never be completely ready; there are certain aspects that you should make sure you are ready, but you can never be prepared totally. What has driven us is a very long-run thinking; we keep asking ourselves: is it worthwhile doing? Even if it’s going to painful in the short term, if you can see it working out in the long run and it’s something you believe in and it makes sense…do it.
– Profiled by Chan Chi Ling