Fresh-faced Maia Lee is the picture of an enthusiastic university student, just starting out in her first semester. But in actuality, the 21-year-old already has a wealth of entrepreneurial experience under her belt.
Her handmade jewellery business, Smileys By Mai, has over 5,000 followers on Instagram. Its website and Instagram page are pastel dreams, featuring delicate beaded necklaces, mask chains and earrings, themed by playful collections such as ‘Powerpuff Girls’ and ‘Seashore’.
Initially, however, Maia had no intention to start a business. She started out by ordering beads and crafting items for herself, discovering that it was a hobby she enjoyed.
When she saw more small businesses coming up on Instagram, she thought she’d give it a shot herself.
Watch the video below for Maia’s honest reflections on how she went about setting up her small business, and how she navigated challenges of being a novice entrepreneur.
The road to growing her business
Maia was able to tap on her savings alone for the start-up capital as the amount required wasn’t too hefty. Four to five months later, she began turning a profit, relying on her sales for revenue.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. With no prior experience in advertising or marketing, or anything related to business, Maia wondered at first if Smileys by Mai would take off.
“I definitely had a lot of doubts when I first started,” she shared. “I didn’t think that this was going to go anywhere.”
The biggest challenge was building her audience and customer base. At the start, she only saw two or three repeat customers, and mostly friends, her parents or her parents’ friends patronising her online shop.
Besides posting her new products on Instagram and Facebook, she also created behind-the-scenes TikTok videos of her packing orders and taking photographs of her products.
Gradually her customer base began to grow. Maia also expanded the availability of her products to people overseas, offering international shipping for those in Europe, the US and other regions.
The start of university has brought with it new challenges, as Maia juggles student life and being a business owner. On top of that, she is spending her first semester abroad, and relies on a friend to help her pack and ship orders.
She confessed that she found herself at a crossroads when she started school. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my business,” she said. Possibilities included continuing with Smileys By Mai while she was overseas, handing it over to a friend, or ending it.
Eventually, she decided to just give herself time to mull over the future of the business. She found that she missed everything about running it, and is anticipating picking it back up when she returns to Singapore in a few months.
“I’m so excited for the future. I have so much planned,” she said.
Advice for budding entrepreneurs
Maia expressed surprise at the fact that only 26% of businesses in Singapore are owned by women, speculating that this could perhaps reflect that certain fields are more male dominated.
Fortunately, this has never been an obstacle for her.
“Personally I’ve never had my gender be a limitation, especially in the field that my business is in. I think if anything it’s come as an advantage,” she said.
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After experiencing what it’s like to start and manage her own business, even without any business background, Maia’s advice for others thinking about doing the same is to “go for it”.
“You have to take the leap, you have to take the risk,” she said. “At the end of the day, you never know if you never try.”
Her own start, through building a business out of an activity she enjoyed, is something she recommends for others as well.
“I’d say do something that you enjoy so it doesn’t feel like work,” she said.
This feature is part of Planner Bee’s SG Women In Business series, where we spotlight female entrepreneurs and the stories behind their businesses. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more of such videos!
You can also check out our #SGFitnessPros series, where we challenge savvy fitness pros to eat better and spend better.