Cover Photo: Sharon Wong

As Motherswork celebrates its 24th anniversary this month, here's how an accountant with no retail experience launched one of the most recognised baby and mum brands in Singapore and China

Whether you’re a parent or not, it’s highly likely that the name Motherswork rings a bell.

With 300 international retail and distribution brands under them and a total of 14 stores in both Singapore and China, the boutique is widely regarded as the go-to store for mums since its inception in 1998. However, did you know that Motherswork actually started out as a new mum’s hobby? To be specific, a hobby that involved shopping.

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“Becoming an entrepreneur actually stemmed from my journey as a mother. I wanted the safest car seat, the coolest stroller, the most efficient steriliser, that cute baby treadmill, you name it I wanted it,” shared Sharon Wong, the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Motherswork.

“By the time I was pregnant with my third child, I had done a lot of research and I had a portfolio of brands from around the world. All I wanted to do at that point was to share that knowledge with other moms.” 

But Wong had zero retail experience. She held an Economics degree from Monash University, a Graduate Diploma in Taxation Law and years of experience at some of the top accounting firms in the world.

From the early days of her career, Wong was a skilled accountant who quickly climbed the ladder to hold high ranking roles such as being the Regional Tax and Treasury Director at one point at an American firm. 

However, she knew nothing about starting her own business and never imagined that she actually would do it. 

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“Motherswork started as a hobby. It was my personal little store with everything that I have tried and tested. The retail store was modelled with me, as the customer. Since I had zero retail experience, I had to develop practices from scratch,” shared Wong. 

The maternity store started out in 1998 as a small space in Forum The Shopping Mall in Orchard Road and initially, it was relatively easy to make decisions on product curation because Wong had tried and tested each product and knew exactly why she loved them and why they were necessary. 

The store stocked clothes, strollers, kid-friendly utensils, toys and more and in the beginning, Wong would bring her young children to the store to play while she talked with other mums who walked into the store. 

The store continued to do well and Wong opened another outlet at Great World City soon after and kept it going even after moving to the US, where her husband was posted for work. 

By the time Wong and her family returned to Singapore in 2009, Wong’s kids were much older and she was able to take a closer look at Motherswork to see how the business could be improved. 

She decided to redesign her Great World City store to improve the customer experience and opened a third outlet in Tanglin Mall. As she was doing this, she was meticulous when it came to the people she hired and regularly worked closely with them to build them up and to journey with them. 

“Many say in retail that the most important thing is location. I say people are key and so are the communities within our business. We must recognise that there is such a variety of things that motivate staff these days,” Wong explained. “Find the right dance with each of your people to help them grow into their role and give them opportunities to improve on their weaknesses while harnessing their strengths and you’ll find people who will stay, who will journey with you. Success to me is when my team walks through the fire with me.”

True enough, with the support of staff that brought all sorts of expertise with them, Motherwork continued its thrilling ascent as a reliable name in the mum and baby industry.

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It wasn’t long before Wong began to realise that Singapore was too small a market and that there was a significant limit as to how big Motherwork could grow. This led to her setting her sights on China. 

“China is a very competitive and fragmented retail environment and the fastest growing e-commerce economy so it was certainly a challenge to penetrate the market,” Wong said. 

“The day we opened our first store in Beijing, we changed the baby retail industry in China. We raised the bar. To remain relevant, to navigate that ever-changing roadmap, we keep on evolving, we run fast, we change, we adapt to keep up with the China speed,” she continued. 

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And adapt they did, always preparing for every challenge ahead. Even unexpected ones such as a pandemic. 

“When China went into lockdown in January 2020, our first task was to ensure our employees in China were safe. Second, it was to ensure our mums were not left stranded without their daily essentials,“ Wong said soberly. “So, our team at the various store locations quickly pivoted to change the business operations once again to service our community of moms from home through Wechat and phone calls. We also had our store on Tmall to provide convenience for mums,” she continued. Tmall is an e-commerce platform used primarily in China. 

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“A few months later, when Singapore went into lockdown, we quickly pivoted to using the Motherswork flagship store at Great World City as a fulfilment centre for our online store,” Wong said. “With access to our store and products, we were able to pivot further and implemented virtual services like personal tours for mothers who are about to deliver, virtual shopping for mothers who are unsure of what they need and curbside pickup for urgent needs.”

The company also started making use of Instagram Live to have conversations that aimed to help mums navigate the different challenges of motherhood especially as they juggled working from home and managing their children at the same time. 

With a firm belief that a women’s pre and post-natal needs are crucial, they also started to normalise sexual health and wellness by simply talking about it. 

“We launched a new product category actually. We wanted to talk about a woman’s sexual health and normalise sex toys so we now sell professionally packaged sex toys at Motherswork’s Great World flagship store and we deliver within half an hour,” Wong said. “I believe we are the first mother and baby retailer in Singapore if not in the world that sells sex toys, leading the conversation on sexual health and wellness amongst the community of mothers.”

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Considering that Motherwork started with Wong’s deep desire to share her own knowledge with the community, it comes as no surprise that the entrepreneur recently released a book that she wrote over the pandemic detailing her life’s journey. 

The book, entitled Wo(Mum), is, according to Wong, a primer on what to expect with motherhood and growing a business.

“Success to me is when I am able to provide a platform to lift others and over the years, the practical advice and guidance with my business and personal life has proved helpful. I simply want to pay it forward,” she said. 

To further emphasise her desire to grow the next generation, all proceeds from the sales of Wong’s book are being donated to Halogen Foundation, a local non-profit that aims to inspire and influence the younger generation. 

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Today, Wong’s children have all grown up, which leaves her with more free time on her hands. Thus, Wong is pushing ahead in her mission to reach out and help new mums as well as to be a pillar of support through her work at the store as well as in promoting her book.

With her attention divided between multiple projects as well as her family, we find out how Wong does it all in her own words. 

What is a typical morning like for you?

Sharon Wong (SW): A typical morning before my husband and I go about our exercise routine is to have coffee together. I watch as he makes coffee for two on his La Marzocco espresso machine, measuring and grinding the coffee beans, practising his foam art. When we have no classes, the morning ritual will include having breakfast together.

What do you usually have for breakfast?

SW: Most days it would be scrambled eggs with leftovers from the night before or baby spinach and mushrooms and definitely avocado either on focaccia toast or wholemeal wraps. On Sundays, we expand our breakfast palate by trying different eateries for brunch with the extended family.

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What does a standard work day look like for you?

SW: Since the circuit breaker, we have weekly regular internal meetings starting at 9 or 10 am, usually on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, followed by external meetings in the stores or in the office with business partners. Sometimes I host events as well. I usually reply to emails and deal with deeper issues that need strategising after dinner.

How would you describe your working style?

SW: Democratic, nurturing and (at times) demanding. My leadership style is perpetually in conflict. I’ve learnt to ‘dance’ with my staff. By fostering open communication and understanding how they ‘dance’, I have managed to retain and motivate many to find their purpose at work.

Often it also means having to adjust and personalise the job scope to their skill set until they are ready to step up and flourish.

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What time do you usually have lunch? What do you usually have for lunch?

SW: Lunchtime can be anywhere between 12 pm and 3 pm depending on my schedule and where I happen to be. Lunch is when I eat just about anything to satisfy my cravings or just to feed my hunger. So there is no “usually” for lunch.

How do you achieve a work-life balance? How do you set boundaries?

SW: It’s all about time management and energy management. I kept a strong tab on my Apple calendar and all three kids’ schedules (when they were younger)

My calendar was a rainbow in the past. It had a colour designated for each of my children. Every recital, every class, every parent teacher conference was marked out. I learnt to lean in and balance according to the different seasons of our lives and to prioritise what is important in each season.

Free time: overrated or underrated? Why?

SW: In a way, Motherswork is my life’s work, it has given me purpose and has impacted many mothers. I found my passion and I made my passion my work. So free time is overrated.

How do you chase your dreams?

SW: I dream, I become obsessed and I rise to the challenge. Then it’s simply putting a plan together, strategising and action. Honestly, I believe it is that simple.

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Risks: should you take them? Why or why not?

SW: To each his own. Some see risks. I see risks as luck. The secret recipe that I did not share in my book is PPVL: Passion, Product, Vision and Luck.

Luck is a point where readiness and opportunity intersect. At that particular moment when the opportunity presents itself,  are you prepared, able and willing?

There are two types of people. Those who say they are not yet ready because they see risks and those who rise to the occasion and grab that opportunity.

How do you deal with your shortcomings?

SW: I compensated by working twice as hard in my younger days. Now I just run my own race. I accept that I am a constant work in progress and together with the team and my business partners, we find solutions and soar higher together.

What is the best piece of advice that you have ever gotten?

SW: “Do not let anyone who does not matter to you affect you.” My husband’s advice to me and to the children is to remind us to run our own race and that we are not here to please everyone.

What is an idea/thought that you heard recently, that you thought was interesting?

SW: Space travel for the public. I would be the first to queue for tickets.

How do you unplug?

SW: By baking. I’m a self-taught baker and I usually bake at night. There is something comforting about just mindlessly following recipes and not having to make any decisions.

The quote, “practice makes perfect” is so true. The more I needed to unplug, the more I bake. The more I baked, the better I became. My cookies, chewy on the inside and crunchy on the outside are good. I now deliver my cookies to friends of Motherswork under the brand “Theceowhobakes”.

How do you stay grounded?

SW: Motherhood. Nothing grounds you like family. My three children keep me grounded with all the reality of family life and the best feeling is that I know I’ll always be home with them.

How do you manage stress?

SW: I’m not sure I know what stress is. I may have taken advantage of the word and used it loosely, but I cannot really say I experienced stress. Perhaps it’s because I have the ability to cut out the noise around me by watching Netflix and maybe because I believe there will always be a solution tomorrow.

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How do you stay motivated?

SW: I find my own inspiration from other women. Women, rising to the challenge to become leaders in their own fields, integrating careers with motherhood.

Over the years I’ve come into my own and as I mature as a mother, I also mature as a leader. I found my purpose, in a way. Motherswork is my life’s work, it has given me purpose, filling a gap and helping women as they journey into motherhood and integrating that purpose with my life and with Motherswork. I found my passion and made my passion my work.

What is one item that has changed your life for the better?

SW: The mobile phone. It allows me to manage and balance my time and work more efficiently with all the different apps. The app Wechat is a lifesaver and is the key to me managing and communicating with my team in China.

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Do you have moments of doubt and how do you overcome them?

SW: All the time. We all have imposter syndrome, but I crush that doubt by moving forward. Keep moving because it’s when you stop that you get overwhelmed.

What would you consider your greatest accomplishment to date?

SW: My children. They do not define me but being a mum has allowed me to be the best version of myself and I am a better person because I have them.

What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?

SW: I reflect on the day and listen to music on my playlist.

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