In the first of a multi-part series, Singaporean entrepreneur Choo Yilin opens up about her journey from accidental entrepreneur to founder-CEO to now, finding the right candidates to succeed her
I started my jewellery business in the late 2000s, and growing it has been the most consuming and significant endeavour of my life.
And yet, I suppose with some irony, when I was growing up, I was certain that I never wanted to be in business, let alone be the CEO of a startup. When I was in the final stage of interviews for a civil service job, I was asked why I was not considering a job in the private sector instead. The interviewer said, “the pay would be better.”
With the naivete and self-importance of my 20-something self, I declared that “I don’t want to sell my soul to the business world.”
But life had plans for me despite my youthful convictions.
Read more: Causing a racket: Singaporean badminton star Loh Kean Yew on the highs and lows of his career so far
The beginning: fumbling with no rule book
When I was 26, I moved to Bangkok and found myself needing to recreate my professional and social networks from scratch. That’s when I came across a group of incredibly talented fine jewellery artisans. I decided that I wanted to work with them, and that’s how I became an accidental entrepreneur.
The first few years of my entrepreneurial journey were a tragicomedy of unforced errors. But there was also an incredible amount of grace: the little company that I founded grew, despite me not knowing things like what a gross margin was, let alone deciding what healthy margins should look like.
This later led me to pursue an MBA at London Business School in an effort to get a better grasp of business fundamentals.
At b-school, I was assigned an executive coach. When she studied my profile, she shared that creatives like me would almost never be found in an environment like this. She wanted me to be aware of how the culture in the MBA programme and by extension, a career in business management, might be at odds with my motivations and strengths. I did not disagree.
Read more: Kno founder Marianne Hughes on the obstacles she faces as a young female entrepreneur
The education: dreaming big
Despite my profile not being an intuitive fit for business leadership or management, b-school was quite precisely what I needed at that time. I acquired the business fundamentals I needed to answer some of the questions I had as an entrepreneur.
While I missed telling stories with my jeweller’s loupe and gems, there was no shortage of stories of other sorts.
I learnt the stories of what balance sheets told, and I understood how pursuing good strategy was about saying no to nine possible stories in order to actualise one excellent one.
But perhaps the most compelling stories I took back with me were the tales of founders, who had built global luxury brands that continued to thrive long after they passed on.
I graduated from the MBA armed with a dream that I, having grown up in tiny Singapore, had a fighting chance to grow my brand, Choo Yilin, globally one day. And that despite my earliest misgivings and my executive coach’s cautionary advice about suitability in business management, I could make a play as a founder-CEO.
Read more: Foreo founder Filip Sedic doesn’t care about being copied
Closures are not always unwanted events, precipitated by tragedy; they are sometimes necessary in order to prepare for the next phase of being
The quest: being a founder-CEO
The years after graduating from b-school were a flurry of non-stop doing and trying to grow Choo Yilin to the best of my ability. While my peers marked their lives through external life changes—moving overseas, getting married and having babies—I felt it difficult to offer anything beyond the company’s milestones and leadership gaps that came at me faster than I could address them.
The media has celebrated our wins and our financial statements told a beautiful story of bootstrapped success—year-on-year double-digit growth and consistent, growing profitability as well; cash flow was healthy.
Though, for me, time was marked not by these external milestones of achievements, but by how every year seemed like an uphill climb, where the incline kept getting steeper. While my title never changed, my actual work was marked by a constant evolution of skill sets that I felt I had to acquire from scratch again and again, always without a guidebook.
Read more: Casetify founder Wesley Ng on catching BTS and Kylie Jenner’s eye, and his recipe for success
I thrived on telling stories about heritage, love and becoming through our intricate pieces of gold and jade, but as we grew, these creative projects gave way to long meetings on financial planning and quart