To the age-old debate of whether nature or nurture makes a champion, we may have found the answer in Sherlyn Tan.
Most know her as the founder and CEO of Twenty3, the local clothing brand that took the internet by storm when it first launched 3 years ago and continues to thrive today. Others recognise her as the fitness enthusiast on Instagram who is unafraid to be as real and raw as the journey can get.
I saw a ball of fire compressed into a petite five-foot-six frame and wrapped in a soft-spoken, smiling demeanour, every inch of which radiated fearlessness, passion and an impermeable drivenness when she shared with me her journey with Twenty3.
“I registered the name for the company a day before I turned 24, hence Twenty3,” she reveals earnestly. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do back then but I decided to just register the company first. I figured I would think about what to do with it later.”
That was the first indicator of her innate foresight (ie, nature) that may have led to the success of Twenty3. Add that with the guidance and training she has had with the likes of Joel Neoh and Chen Chow Yeoh who started Groupon Malaysia where she was also part of the pioneering team (hello, nurture), and you have a young woman who has a brewing formula for inevitable triumph.
Shifting with the tides
One trait stood out most vividly about Tan as she retold her journey to me: determination.
Despite doing more than well at Groupon Malaysia, she was determined to follow her dream of becoming a singer, so left the company and tried her luck at a singing competition. Winning it gave her a chance to head to Taiwan but cheating agents and a small amount of savings that was quickly running out stole that dream from her. But it didn’t break her will.
“At the time I was also running sort of a blog where I was also selling clothes online,” she divulges. “So I thought why not just stick to selling clothes. I always had a good eye in fashion and a knack for marketing. I have a good eye for whether something can sell or not.”
Even after that, the universe refused to give her a break. She lost a couple tens of thousands more trying to build an online e-commerce website that is reliable enough to see to her online clothing business.
With her last RM5,000, she booked a flight to Bangkok for a last attempt at a supply run for dresses, told herself it was make or break with this and finally got her lucky break.
“I told myself then that I needed to make a profit of RM10,000 from this to survive. And I did, in the first month. I didn’t just break even, I was profitable.”
Twenty3 went on to make close to RM1 million in its first year.
“There was no funding or anything, “ Tan tells. “When I made my first million, I didn’t know the scale of my profits. I was very sales-oriented so all I focused on was selling as much as I could. I was just setting targets and enjoying hitting it.”
Three going on four years in, Tan has made an approximate RM10 million with a team that has grown to be about 30 people and today oversees 3 brick-and-mortar stores across Klang Valley while still tending to Twenty3’s online arm that delivers to over 20 countries worldwide.
Not bad for someone who started with an “online blog” all by herself, seeing even to the packing and shipping of items by herself.
“I really never expected Twenty3 to blow up to such a scale,” she reflects. “For me, I was just working. I was doing what I love – I was building something. Back then I did it all myself – I modeled it, I did the photography, I shot the video all by myself.”
She isn’t one to rest on her laurels either. She started realising that just buying and selling wasn’t a sustainable business model – “it wouldn’t help establish the brand” – so she brought in designers and Twenty3 started a new era. It now designs and manufactures its own pieces ranging from casual and work wear to bridal wear and the current It trend, athleisure.
Growing and learning on the job
That upward growth curve also came riddled with many bumps, something Tan honestly revealed was a big part due to her naivety back then.
“Our second year saw me taking one of the biggest risks I ever took,” she divulges. “I went to China to source for products as I felt Bangkok couldn’t really upkeep with the supply we wanted anymore in terms of quality. I’ve spent hundreds of thousand on pieces that aren’t up to par so they’re just sitting in my warehouse right now because I can’t sell them.”
Cost aside, she also had a little coming out of her own shell to do. “I’m quite an introvert and I didn’t have much networking so that was hard for me."
The most trying time for the brand came true with the theorised 3-year bump of any start-up. Critics came in and started questioning Twenty3’s designs. “I didn’t realise to be able to say you designed something, everything had to be from scratch. It doesn’t count if you sourced the fabrics from elsewhere and used it in a design. You are scrutinised right down to the prints.”
Unfazed, she used it as fuel for improvement instead. “I took up the challenge and hired designers to counter this – that’s when we launched Sher by Twenty3. It took 5 months to materialise but it led us to become an official label. We now have 6 lines, designed by 4 designers working around the clock. I think we’re in a very good place now.”
“Twenty3 is honestly growing faster than me.”
When prodded for what else is in store, excitement washes over her, apparent from the light that comes on in her eyes but she is hesitant to reveal too much. She does, however, hint at a new location, a facelift and a new direction with the brand, all of which she promises to keep us posted.
She is treading into the future with utmost caution.
“Twenty3 is honestly growing faster than me,” she admits. “It’s natural to sometimes feel like you’re not good, smart or strong enough to carry something, especially when it’s something that means so much to you. When that happens, I always assure myself that I know the company better than anyone else. I built it from scratch – I know what needs to be done to take it to where it needs to go.”
So is it nature or nurture that births a good leader, a successful business person, a winner?
As illustrated by Tan, it is both, with one perhaps leading the way at the start but never able to get very far without the other coming into play and supporting it further down the road.
As a last note, Tan shares some of her business tips for anyone needing a little motivation to get their own start-up going:
Just do it
"I always tell myself, just take the risk and do it. Believe that you can do it, or be like me, don’t even think about the possibility of failing. Just do it, and persevere. A lot of people overthink and never put their thoughts into action." (swipe left for next page)
"Listen to your customers. Find out what they want and tailor your strategy to market to them. You can listen to all the motivational speakers you want and sit through as many talks as you want but those won't necessarily work for you because their customers are different from yours." (swipe left for next page)
"Have a good support system, people who can balance you out. My boyfriend is in the business with me now. He’s an economist and his calm nature helps me settle down. I am very aggressive and just want to go, go, go. He calculates the risks for me and advises me on what’s the most sensible path to take."
(Photos: Sherlyn Tan)
Another entrepreneur who clawed his way to the top: Andrew Tan Luxury Boutique Accommodation and Appshack Asia.