June 7, 2023

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Confessions of a serial entrepreneur

(PHOTO: Victor Tan)

(PHOTO: Victor Tan)

SINGAPORE — Some people are happy to work in an office job their whole lives. Some people set up a business to scratch an entrepreneurial itch they had. Victor Tan, 58, has started about 15 businesses over nearly 20 years. 

Now an independent consultant, Tan shares his success and failures as a serial entrepreneur and why he has never stopped trying to set up new businesses over the years.

Here’s his story.

“My journey started when I was in university in the United States. The entrepreneurial bug hit me then, and my friends and I bought and took over an Indonesian restaurant there together. The five of us pooled our money together and took turns to cook, serve, and clean. The restaurant lasted for about a year before we decided to call it quits because it was too time consuming and tiring to balance school and the restaurant. From there, I focused on graduating and landing a job in Singapore.

I eventually ended up working in consultancy and business development for about 10 years. One day, however, my colleague suggested that I start my own business, perhaps because I’ve always had an entrepreneurial way of thinking. I like to look at the big picture, so it can be quite hard for me to work in a job where I have to focus on a specific area of the job scope. Either way, I decided to take his advice and quit my job to set up Urban&Co with my ex-wife. And it just exploded onto the scene.

Over ten years, Urban&Co had 30 stores in seven countries. Things were going well for us, and we decided to move to the U.S. because we had an opportunity to venture into the market there. We opened two stores there but had to call it quits after about two years because we were undercapitalised. Hence, we moved back to Singapore.

However, at this point, besides the business challenges Urban&Co was facing, my ex-wife and I were also facing some marital issues, and I eventually decided to leave Urban&Co for the good of the business.

But because the urge to set up new businesses is in my blood, I continued exploring new ventures in the years after. And one important lesson I learnt was that the first lesson of doing business with friends and family is to be prepared that it won’t end well.

I learnt this the hard way with Firestation Hillside Gastrobar, a gastrobar I opened at the old Bukit Timah Fire Station. I started it with about five other partners, all of whom were my close friends. The initial agreement was that I would run the show, but eventually the others wanted more say as well. Suffice to say that when the partnership ended, I lost S$150k along with six friends. It’s true that too many cooks can spoil the broth, even if business is doing very well.

That same year, I set up TwoFace Pizza & Taproom, which transformed the space of an empty coffee shop in the evening into a bar. TwoFace was one of my best creations – we were full of customers from our second day. But all good things have to come to an end, and for us, that came in the form of the landlord tripling the rent. This also coincided with some health struggles, and so I decided to shut it down even though we were at our peak.

At that point in time, I had to undergo a major operation due to some health issues. It took a long while for me to recuperate and recover after that, both physically and mentally. Trying to make a comeback again has been difficult, so I’ve been lying low for a while.

I eventually decided to become an independent consultant partly because of my health, and also because I don’t want to go through the stress of investing my own money into a new business again at my age.

However, if given the chance, I would love to revive TwoFace. It’s tough to find a suitable location because of how unique TwoFace’s concept is, but I’m always on the look-out for one.

I think the biggest challenge of any entrepreneur would be to know when to cut your losses. Some people hang on for dear life and keep pumping in money with no end in sight. But you have to be impartial and objective and cut if you need to. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary.

Looking back, every step of my journey was worth it. I do have some things I would do differently, but I have no regrets how things turned out. Every failure had its lessons, and every success and failure was enjoyable.

To me, entrepreneurship is everything it’s made out to be, and more. If you have that itch in you, if you have an idea, if you see something that can be better, do it. Give it a shot when you’re young. That’s what I did, and I have no regrets. After all, you only have one life.”