With just a small amount of savings and money he loaned from friends, Kelson Say started Kelsonbetta - all because he wanted to rear more betta fishes at 23 years old.
As we step into the shop, rows of jars containing betta fishes greet me immediately.
The shop, Kelsonbetta, is no bigger than a typical HDB, yet it does not feel squeezy at all. If anything, it feels more intimate.
The owner, Kelson Say, welcomes us immediately. He does so for every customer that walks into his shop.
“I like interacting with my customers. That’s very important for myself because nowadays, everything is online and you don’t get to interact much with people when you’re making a purchase.
“For them, buying a fish is easy. But for me, it is important to ensure they are able, and have the knowledge, to take care of their fishes,” Kelson says, his voice unable to hide his excitement when it comes to the betta fishes, or fighting fishes, that he sells.
Kelson has been operating Kelsonbetta (no prizes for guessing the inspiration behind the name of the shop) for close to 16 years. His passion for the fishes started back when he was still studying at Queensway Secondary School.
There were two shops that sold betta fishes nearby the school and he frequented the shops before classes started. At times, he would purchase a fish with the pocket money he saved up and brought it to class.
Once, his principal walked past his class and caught sight of the bag of fish that Kelson hung by the classroom window.
“He asked me if I liked fish and I replied that I love it a lot. He gave me a thumbs up and said it is a good hobby,” Kelson recalls.
As he grew older, Kelson started collecting more of such fishes. His parents eventually complained about the number of fishes even – “I kept so many at home,” says Kelson – and as a workaround to continue keeping the fishes, Kelson decided to open Kelsonbetta in 2004.
At 23, he had just completed his national service then and was deciding whether to further his studies instead. But he figured that he was free, with no obligations and responsibilities on his shoulders, and decided to pursue his passion.
With his savings of $1,000 and money he borrowed from his friends, Kelson started his shop. It wasn’t all smooth-sailing however.
“People were skeptical, including some of my friends and relatives. There were a lot of fish shops selling all types of fish and those shops weren’t doing that well. And then I went ahead to open a shop specialising in just one type of fish,” Kelson explains.
“To many, fighting fish is a cheap fish as well. But what they don’t know is that there are different quality-types of betta fish. I still went ahead, partially because my passion grew much more.”
A few months after he opened his shop, two of the shops that he used to buy betta fish from closed. Instead of being demoralised, Kelson says that he was motivated to do better.
“The difference between us was that I ensured the quality of my fish by flying to Thailand or Indonesia to select the fish by myself. That way, I can choose the best fish for my customers,” he shares.
However whenever he met some of his friends and relatives in the first few years of his shop opening, they would always ask him the same question: “Is your shop still around?”
While the question didn’t irk him as much as he thought it would, Kelson felt it was a sign that the skepticism continued. Then the questions stopped in the fifth year, as they realised Kelson was doing well.
Sixteen years on, it’s fair to say that Kelson has succeeded.
“I always remind myself that I’m very blessed to have an occupation like this. I made a career out of this. I have my freedom, I can do what I love, I actually enjoy my life so much,” Kelson shares, adding that he’s glad that he does not need to drag himself out of the bed every morning and force himself to go to work.
“I have excitement [in my life]. I can travel to different countries, as they invite me to be a betta judge in their country. I also travel to meet a lot of new people. I’m also helping a lot of customers to cultivate a love for this hobby.
“Life is already so tough, in SIngapore it’s so small, we need a hobby, else it’s very boring,” Kelson says with a grin.
His passion for the betta fishes hasn’t diminished one bit too. Kelson, whose favourite is the red half moon betta fish, tries to share his knowledge with his customers as much as he can. He often recommends his customers not to follow trends blindly. Rather, he chooses to educate them about what makes a betta fish valuable.
“Right now, there are all sorts of names for the fishes. For example, Avatar, Black Star, Galaxy, Koi, Samurai and Blue Rim. But the colours are subjective,” he explains.
“When my customers ask me what’s in trend, what colours are nice, I’ll always advise them to look at the finnage and the form of the fish instead. That’s important because if it isn’t there, no matter what colour you put on the fish, it won’t be nice and there will be no value in it.”
Like many others, the COVID-19 pandemic also affected Kelsonbetta, which sees up to 10 walk-in customers daily. Kelson had to use video call to ascertain the quality of the fishes he was bringing in and that itself was a challenge.
Then during the circuit breaker last year, customers weren’t allowed to enter his shop, so he had to do his sales online through social media, before arranging for a delivery partner to deliver the fishes. For a period of two months, the only one allowed to enter his shop was him, so he could take care of the fishes.
He was able to sustain his business thanks to the savings he’s built up – he earns a profit between $3,000 and $8,000 each month – a far cry from the early days of his business.
“I will always advise younger people, when they do well in business, when the sales are good, to set money aside for rainy days. Always not to overly invest, or expend too fast,” Kelson says.
“The problem for a lot of businesses that flopped is because they reinvested and put in all their money into the business. When times are bad, it’s hard to cover everything.”
While he did not explicitly mention it, it feels as though his passion for fishes has taught him more about life than he realises. And just like how he’s always so eager to share his passion with his customers, he also wants to share what he’s learned running Kelsonbetta with the younger generations.
“Follow your passion when you can, and don’t wait till it’s too late. Else, it may be too late after you start having a family and have plenty of commitment.s It’s difficult to change your career path then.
“If you have a passion for something, you just need to believe in what you love and do it well. That’s the most important,” Kelson shares.
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