Nison Chan, co-founder of We The People, found an unconventional method to help his company thrive during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Nison Chan was sweeping the floor at a U Stars Supermarket outlet in Jurong West when he heard a middle-aged lady tell her daughter: “See, see. If you don’t study hard, you will end up sweeping the floor.”
Such jibes were commonly heard during the two months Nison spent working at the store selling fruits and vegetables. But it couldn’t be further from the truth.
The 30-year-old not only holds a bachelor’s degree in hotel and events management from the International Management Institute Switzerland. He is also the co-founder and managing director of Singapore-based startup, We The People (WTP).
WTP is a store for crowdfunded projects and a startup accelerator platform that gives entrepreneurs and creators the resources they need to launch their ideas. Over 300 brands are listed with it.
It begs the question: Why was he working in a role that he was overqualified for?
Nison told Youth.SG: “If I work a certain number of hours per day, it could cover the potential company pay cuts so the boys (his employees) need not worry about money.”
In mid-March this year, Nison returned to Singapore from the United States, where he was overseeing the launch of WTP’s new Silicon Valley store. He remembered feeling deflated after a team meeting where sizeable pay cuts for employees were discussed.
WTP was also facing an uncertain future as revenue has dropped about 80 per cent due to the global COVID-19 outbreak. Together with the accumulation of various arrears, such as rents and loans, Nison had some tough decisions to make.
But a casual walk around his neighbourhood right after he served his 14-day Stay-Home Notice gave him the idea of working at the supermarket to help cover the losses. He faced ridicule – even from people he knew – and got stereotyped as someone who could not meet the grade in school, but it did not matter to him.
“When I heard what that aunty said, I was fine with it – I wasn’t demoralised or anything. When my friends found out what I’m doing, they asked me ‘do you really need to do this’?” Nison recalled.
“For me, I don’t find it degrading [as a founder] to do this to earn extra income. You can see the situation now with so many businesses folding and there are still people who want to stay in their comfort zone. I don’t want to sit there crying and do nothing. It’s no longer about pride, it’s all about making ends meet.”
Nison certainly made the most out of the experience and did everything from sweeping the floor to being the cashier. On top of selling fruits and vegetables, he also learned how to select and curate them, and shared his new-found knowledge through tutorials videos on Instagram.
He worked six days a week for almost two months, shuffling between eight-hour day shifts and 10-hour midnight shifts, earning $7.50 per hour. Whatever he earned over the period was transferred into the company to prevent pay cuts for his employees.
The unconventional decision to work there also led him to develop fresh ideas for WTP to thrive again.
As there were less customers during his night shifts, Nison used the downtime to “get into the zone” and reflect on his company’s business model. He soon realised they had to pivot to one that sells COVID-19 related items, instead of focusing more on travel products.
That decision helped the company to recoup some lost revenue. One of the products, a foldable plastic case for face masks, proved to be “a big hit among companies”. Nison said that even the “Singapore Police Force bought around 8,000 pieces for officers on the ground”.
“Since everyone is focused on hygiene now, I thought it could be feasible to sell UV and LED sterilisers, so we brought them in from South Korea with all the proper certification. It has been selling well since,” said Nison.
WTP also caught a lucky break, when a change in marketing strategy got them appearances on a live show with Hossan Leong and appearances on radio and TV. Those helped to boost their sales. Coupled with subsidies given by the government, it meant that WTP is in a better situation than previously thought.
To think it all came from a left-field decision from Nison to work in a fruits and vegetables store.
“It’s just an epic story lah,” he reflected.
“I simply worked there to get more money for the company, I never thought of painting this whole feel-good story thingy. One thing for sure is that if I didn’t develop those ideas during my time working at the fruits and vegetable store, WTP would have gone bankrupt because we simply have too many bills to pay.”
Nison felt that his biggest takeaway from this COVID-19 situation was that businesses should not be afraid to adapt. Bosses should also be willing to do whatever it takes to help their companies.
“No one expected this [pandemic] to happen, but we have to do something to adapt to the new normal,” he said. “If we didn’t change the way we did things, we would have ceased to exist by now.
“We should never feel that it is degrading of a CEO or a founder to take up part-time gigs to get through this tough period. We have to stand up tall and do whatever it takes to help the company when the ‘shit’ gets real.”
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