This 33-year-old brings plants to ‘life’ using paper
When the pandemic started, Mabel Low gave up the security of a full-time job to be a paper florist.
While an average workday for most people involves sitting in front of a computer screen, Mabel Low spends it working with paper instead.
For up to 16 hours a day, Mabel sits at her desk folding and cutting pieces of paper, transforming it into paper plants and flowers.
The 33-year-old runs Papersynthesis – a combination of the words paper and photosynthesis – selling sustainable paper crafts mostly in floral designs, single-handedly. While the business started when the pandemic began in 2020, Mabel came up with the idea of Papersynthesis in 2018.
Then, she had just gotten her BTO flat and wanted to “create an insta-worthy house with a lot of plants”. But she quickly realised that she couldn’t keep the plants alive and turned to an alternative – one that would eventually become her full-time job.
“I decided to make everything using paper so it’s more sustainable, and I actually enjoyed the crafting process as well,” she explains.
It comes as no surprise that Mabel loves working with paper. She first found interest in making paper products while studying for her Diploma in Experience & Product Design at the Singapore Polytechnic. While studying Industrial Design at the National University of Singapore, she came to realise she “really love paper a lot”.
“I have this weird obsession with paper and all my design outcomes tend to be paper-related,” she remarks.
“I would say that I am someone that really likes arts and crafting. I wouldn’t say that I really like design, but I do enjoy the process of trial and error, and getting the final product to be what I really like and what I want to achieve.”
Prior to converting Papersynthesis to a full-time business, Mabel was working as a brand manager for a local design store. She had been with the store for years, having had three internships stint with the company from 2012 to 2014 before joining as a full-time staff in 2015. But right about when COVID-19 struck Singapore in 2020, the store closed and she was transferred to the store’s parent company to do project management and graphic design.
That presented an opportunity for Mabel to hit the ‘reset’ button in her career to start Papersynthesis, as she didn’t want to “take the easy route” in life.
At that point, Papersynthesis was merely an Instagram account to showcase her paper plant and flower designs. However, from time to time, she received sale enquiries from those who chanced upon the account. That gave her the courage to take the leap of faith to convert it into a full-time business during the circuit breaker.
Her friends and ex-colleagues had described her as “brave” and “courageous” for choosing to leave. At that point, Papersynthesis only had 1,000 followers on Instagram. Setting up the business was the toughest part of running Papersynthesis so far, says Mabel, as she hardly made any sales in the first three months.
The costs of maintaining the website was eating into her savings. To compound matters, she started questioning if she made the right decision to turn her hobby into a full-time business.
“It was maybe $300 worth of income in the first three months. And then I started asking myself, did I take the right step to do this full-time? That was like my lowest point – self-questioning,” recalls Mabel.
“I tried convincing myself that it is okay, everything is good, by posting a lot of pictures on Instagram. By posting a lot of photos on Instagram, people can see what you are doing, what you are trying to do, and then all these comments from followers, they actually encouraged me quite a bit and tell me that I’m doing fine.”
Papersynthesis’ big break came in October – about five months after the business started – when Mabel launched her Animal Crossing collection. The Animal Crossing: New Horizons game was launched in March 2020 and quickly became one of the top hits of the year, including in Singapore. Mabel played the game as well and got inspired to recreate the plants and flowers from it.
She posted her works on Instagram and overnight, the number of followers grew to 7,000. Orders then began pouring in too, as it was nearing the end of year festive period.
Today, Mabel fulfills between 30 and 100 orders a month. During the festive period, Mabel only sleeps about five hours each night. The rest of her waking hours are spent fulfilling orders – from checking sales on her website, to making it and eventually mailing it out.
“I do get a lot of questions whether I’m doing well, or is this sustainable. But I guess I don’t regret my decision because I think I’m happier now because I get to do what I like literally everyday, whenever I want to, which is crafting. And I do really enjoy the process and the sense of ownership. It really does encourage me a lot,” shares Mabel.
But it is not all perfect. Mabel admits that her health has taken a toll running the business, since she’s the only person running the entire operation. She works between eight to 16 hours a day, spending those hours sat at her desk, and eats irregular meals. This was not what she had expected.
“I imagined myself being a tai tai going to shopping malls, going for tea time. Of course, that didn’t happen. I’m just working and rushing orders all the time now,” Mabel explains.
Ironically, she has learnt to be prudent with her finances.
“I pay myself from the company, including CPF too. While I’m earning similar to what I earned in my previous job, I’ve started trying to save more, because it was pure hard work. I stopped spending unnecessarily.”
She’s also learned to be more meticulous with her work. Without a co-worker to check on her, any mistakes that Mabel makes is on her and rectifying it may mean more costs for the business. As such, Mabel takes extra care to check every detail before she ships out orders.
Despite the hard work, Mabel is thoroughly enjoying herself. She claims that she feels “happy every day”. Receiving feedback from her customers – some constantly tell her that she’s talented and that they haven’t seen something like this before – keeps her going too.
“These comments really push me on, because I know that I’m doing something that is different from what everybody is doing, and somehow [that] encourages me to work even harder, which is bad for my health,” she laughs.
Still, Mabel is not planning for an expansion of her business nor does she intends to hire someone else to run the business for her. She simply wishes to keep it small and personal, as she enjoys working on every aspect of the business.
“If you really know me, you’ll know that I’m not a proud person. I’m very humble. I just want to earn enough money to pay my bills every month and live comfortably with my loved ones. That’s all I need.
“I just want to be happy,” she says.