Thian Zhiwen, 32, ran marathons, and once rowed around the island of Singapore in a dragon boat for charity. Besides bloomerang, Zhiwen also runs after business students in Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Singapore Polytechnic where he is Associate Lecturer in business innovation modules. He is willing to travel for good food but probably not in a fancy car; a fuel efficient vehicle or bicylce that takes him from one place to another will suffice just as well. Also, he drinks way too much coffee and thinks about bloomerang 24/7.
bloomerang Pte. Ltd. was founded by Thian Zhiwen in 2008, and its first product—bloomerHang — was a finalist at the President’s Design Award Singapore 2009. bloomerHang transforms clothes hangers into a novel, eco-friendly advertising platform. It is made of recycled cardboard and is completely biodegradable and recyclable. The company has since been featured in local newspapers The Business Times and The Straits Times, marketing magazines, marketing textbooks, and on television (Channel 5 and Channel 8). Zhiwen was also interviewed for a business programme on Channel U and by the radio stations NEWS 93.8 and Capital 95.8FM.
Till date, bloomerang has replaced some 60,000 plastic hangers with its recycled and 100% biodegradable paper board and cardboard eco-hangers.
I would describe Zhiwen exactly the way I would describe his creation, bloomerHang: refreshingly simple yet brilliant. Right from our first meeting, Zhiwen displayed complete sincerity to his work as I spotted him with a recyclable bag and was offered his business card that was made from recycled paper. He definitely walks the talk and the entire interview process was an exciting learning journey. This is especially since he was open to new and unconventional questions and shared many of his genuine experiences that would be beneficial to anyone that is interested in entrepreneurship.
- What is the nature of your business?
My business involves printing advertisements and public messages on our proprietary corrugated cardboard hangers - advertising then pays towards the production and distribution of our eco hangers. So essentially it is advertising with a green twist.
- What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
We need things every day; these products and services we consume carry a ‘voice’ that influences our purchase decisions. That ‘voice’ is advertising and marketing, branding. So long as we need things, there will be advertising; it is like an ever green industry of sorts.
When I go to my mailbox, I see so many leaflets. Businesses were, and still are, printing advertisements, coupons. I guess I must have thought then that everyone was going pretty strong on print, and every business needs marketing - still wants a printed advertising platform - perhaps I can come up with something along the same line.
I wasn’t looking specifically at the advertising and marketing industry. It just kind of added up for me: products, services and advertising go hand in hand.
- How did this idea of advertising on hangers come about?
It was an episode at the gym. I was changing out and could not find a hanger to hang up my clothes. I went locker to locker looking for one, and I found a locker stashed with hangers with a slip of paper that said “to throw.” I thought that such a waste; some of these plastic hangers looked perfectly fine.
I also observed a L’Oreal men’s advertisement on the wall which featured an annoyingly handsome Daniel Wu. The wall advert and the locker full of hangers just came together for me at that instance. I thought: “Why not have Daniel Wu’s advertisement go on a clothes hanger that goes in the lockers?” That was the starting point, but I had not the slightest idea as to where I should begin.
- When and how did you decide on your final choice of material, corrugated cardboard?
Well, it was helpful that I was in a company that did disposable food packaging. Hence I knew enough about the materials of paper and plastic.
I experimented with a few materials; combining corrugated paper board with card paper etc. I looked at plastics even: ‘green’ plastics weren’t big back then, and regular plastics would just mean steering away from what I was trying to strive at.
When it comes to how eco-friendly the arrived at choice of material - corrugated cardboard and processed paper - is as compared to wood, plastics and metal, we got our numbers – we did our homework.
- How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: the time and getting the start-up capital to carry out the various experiments to finalize the choice of material.
Time is easier. I think if someone says to me that he would be hung up on a task all day long, I would think he is either lying or just plain inefficient. I think one can definitely find pockets of time in a day to work on something 1 to 2 hours, and build on it for another 1 to 2 hours another day.
When it comes to other resources like money, I am conservative in that aspect: I bootstrapped and grew from the ground up.
I also realised my friends can come in really helpful. We were all starting out in our careers, and some of them were doing pretty interesting stuff and I was able to tap on their resources and expertise. It helped that we had shared interests, and we believed in returning of favours and reciprocating of friendly affections.
When you are starting out fresh, you have to count on help. I shared with my friends about my ideas and I was fortunate to have gotten their buy-in and support.
- What were the challenges when transiting from a job to starting your own business and how did you overcome them?
When you are working for or with someone, you get all the expected benefits of a 9 to 5 job - you have security, stability and predictability.
Starting your own business would mean not having those for a while at least. It also means running at your own pace; no one is looking over your shoulder, checking on you. You have to be disciplined. That’s one of the main challenges that one can face.
If you are not disciplined, and grounded enough, you will squander time and what limited resources you’ve got in your hands.
- Very often, entrepreneurs are imagined to be working on their business day and night with little rest or time for loved ones. How true is that for you and how do you manage your time?
I think: maybe I am not working as hard as I should be - or the other entrepreneurs are exaggerating!
I do have time for myself and my loved ones. This is something I tell myself at the get go: that the business should never be run at their expense. So I plan my time.
This is an excellent question.
It was just the other day that I was chatting with one lecturer at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic where I am an Associate Lecturer on business innovation. We observed Singaporeans are typically complaining about not having enough time to finish our work.
It occurred to us that Singaporeans try to pack a lot into a day at work. We believe we can come in at 8, work our heads off allowing minimal distractions, get off at 5, and then somehow be ready for dinner at 7pm. That’s the kind of pressure we put on ourselves.
This is opposed to our observations of overseas where, yes, they put in really long hours but they allow themselves the luxury of stretching out their tasks, they welcome distractions etc. They don’t try to squeeze everything in a day. I guess it’s another way of looking at efficiency.
When it comes to me, I definitely want to have time for myself, loved ones and for the things that I enjoy doing outside of bloomerang.
I read and hear repeatedly in the papers and media that that’s how an entrepreneur ought to be: the whole romantic notion of penning down your one big idea on the back of a used napkin, drinking lots of coffee and staying up late into the night – a very arduous and lonely fight. I’m afraid it’s not that dramatic for me. I figure if I plan well ahead and have a reasonable expectation of what I can do in a day, I could have pockets of time for myself, and loved ones.
- Do you think the media over-glorifies highly successful entrepreneurs? And if so, what impact does that have on the 99% of the entrepreneurs who may never be recognized?
I think it is not an enviable position to be in the news and media industry right now.
I can appreciate the issue that the news industry is facing with: how are you going to reach out to an increasingly indifferent audience. On one part you have to be impartial and factual, but that makes your read too dry and uninspiring. Then does the media embellish and sensationalise, to bring attention to the stories? So is the role of the news industry to inspire and educate – or entertain with these stories? That’s a tough balancing act.
Nonetheless, I think the media is an ally to entrepreneurs. While sometimes it can get uniform with more or less the same moulded stories of prominent entrepreneurs, these stories can at least help to inspire all, and to an extend give voice to practising entrepreneurs.
At the same time, we do need to be careful. If would-be entrepreneurs are solely inspired by the sometimes underdeveloped stories that they read in the papers, I don’t think they would be able to go far. There must also be a drive from within that moves you to wanting to do more with your time.
- In today’s economy, how important is it for one to attend University in order to be successful in business?
You don’t need to go to university to know opportunity cost – a basic yet key business concept, yes?
Yet, it is assuring to know tertiary education has worked for me at least: it trained me to think critically. I was taught to not accept the given wisdom so readily. I was taught to challenge. There is no systematic way to teach out-of the-box thinking, and university – and life - has equipped me with the tenacity to go beyond the obvious.
Some will thrive in the university education system and do really well after they graduate due to the training they received. Be it in business or in their career.
I would say for the most part to stay in school if you can afford it, and pick up the critical thinking skills - and social skills. These skills will really stand you in good stead.
However, if you are that brilliant and are ready to head out into the big bad world, then why wait?
- What are some business ideas and decisions that you have implemented that created great results in your business?
It’s something that I did not know would bring great outcomes at that time. Very often, business owners will tell you that all their good decisions were purely by deliberate design and robust planning. In my case - and perhaps many others would agree, too - a large part of my good fortune was due to happenstance.
I had my company logo and products registered at the IPOS; I did the necessary and got the trademarks, copyrights and registered designs. It was a happy occurrence that I was reading up on intellectual property protection before I started bloomerang. I was also exposed to it during my university studies on how important, and useful, it might be.
That decision definitely helped. There were instances where companies tried to pass off as bloomerang. Once, we found out from a member of public who congratulated us on doing a great job and that they had seen our bloomerHang at a symposium. We did nothing of that sort and we found out someone was tapping on our registered designs. We were able to come to a negotiated outcome - a happy outcome for both parties - they ran paid campaigns with us.
Getting IP protection was definitely one of the best decisions I made.
- What would be the biggest mistake that you have made while running your business, Bloomerang?
I can be blind to these things. When something does not work out for me, I learn from it and I move on.
When something appears in similar form and shape – or gut feelings - to my past experiences, my senses will pick it up and I’ll steer clear, if I can. Or if I can’t, to tackle it a wiser man.
I plan for the best outcome but most of the time, at the end of the day, when I compare the actual outcome with the planned one, it never turns out exactly the way I imagined it to be.
Yes, we can have bad starts but it is always a happy or amicable ending.
If you want me to put a finger on the worst situation or biggest mistake, I cannot do so; I don’t harp on bad feelings and experiences. I would remind myself that I should not be expending so much energy on a situation, or person, that makes me feel so agitated.
I will look at it rationally, make sure I don’t colour the situation to make it seem worse than it actually is, and then learn from it, and move on.
- Entrepreneurs need to be passionate but not emotional. How do you manage what seems like a contradiction?
What is the difference between being passionate versus emotional?
Being passionate, in my opinion, is about knowing things, about having a wealth of knowledge to back your passion on. Being passionate would mean that you are a subject matter expert, that you can talk about a subject matter a great length, and that you would only want the best for that subject, or improve on the subject matter. Talk about hangers, and I can go on about what it is made of, I can tell you how it is so useful and so much more; I am being passionate about the subject matter.
On the other hand, emotional is abstract. It is irrational. You feel things but cannot really put a finger to it. That’s the difference, I think, between being passionate and emotional. One requires more thought (that is passion) while the other one lacks big mental effort (that is emotion).
Also, when you are being passionate, like I said, you want the best for the subject matter whereas emotional is more self-centric – it’s about how you’re feeling right now. I don’t get angry when people don’t get my work with clothes hangers, but I can get animated when asked to share about bloomerang.
Of course, you cannot be at extremes. If you are all passion and zero emotions, you would not be enjoying the beautiful moments in your life, and if you are all emotional, you would simply be irrational. You’ll want a balance of both.
- In the course of running your business, did you meet any inspiring entrepreneurs/customers that shared with you something valuable?
Yes, I have met some really great people. I remember one lady boss, Susan Chong, of Green Pac. I met her at SMU. It was a sharing session where she was a guest speaker. Green Pac has some really big customers in Asia like HP and IBM; Green Pac does their worldwide packaging solutions. You can imagine how busy Susan would be in her work.
Yet despite that, Susan took time to see me. She would fit me in between her meetings and her work. That was very kind.
While she couldn’t help me with a question I got, she was quick to point me to a business associate of hers.
That was brilliantly professional.
Running a business is effectively like living a life, isn’t it? Business is all about relationships and about the people you meet along the way and how you make one other feel. Susan made me felt kindness, and professionalism, and I am truly inspired.
- What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
One thing is for sure, we want to strengthen our connectivity, cloud computing etc. for work. That is really important to us. Along with that, building a bigger base, also. Right now, I am just working with interns. There are people who have just graduated and have expressed interest in joining us as full-time employees. I think I do not want to grow too much, too fast.
That is the accepted wisdom: to get funding and grow. Fast. It is a very aggressive growth strategy. Not that it’s a bad thing, yet I think there’s a whole lot more wisdom to growing and expanding sustainably. I’m not there yet so I’ll take things slower. I do like growth but at an organic pace, at my own terms; I’d rather be doing less work but be really good at it.
So, two things in 5 years. First, connectivity and secondly, to grow at an organic pace.
You will probably not see a bloomerang building. Actually, not probably, you will definitely not see that. We can’t afford it anyway. But yes, you will certainly hear about bloomerang somewhere.
Someone will always be talking about us. We don’t need the whole world to celebrate us – just the correct people to talk about us and get our message out there. You will still be hearing about us and the quirky things that we are doing in the next 5 years.
- What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
To me, it is the freedom to pursue your interests. It is to turn your ideas into tangible outcomes. It’s about making a living for yourself. However that said, I think if you are interested in being an entrepreneur solely for money, that motivation will run dry someday. It is not that you will be unsuccessful if you are driven by money only, but you could tire out from it.
How do you define success? E.g. If you define success by driving big luxurious cars, that motivation can work for you to a certain level. What happens if there’s an even bigger car in the market? It becomes an endless pursuit which I find can be tiresome.
- What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
I have 5 pieces of advice that have stayed with me all these years.
Number 1: Make yourself heard. If you are passionate - not emotional - about a subject matter or even that special someone, make yourself heard.
Use methods that you are most familiar with. So, to the youths today it would be the social media platforms. Blog it, tweet it, facebook it or instagram it. Find out a lot about your subject, go in depth and do your homework about what you interested in. Express yourself and take ownership over whatever that you are passionate in. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find out about yourself along the way; you’ll be the better person for the experience.
Number 2: Don’t fall in love with your one big idea.
Don’t be so self-absorbed with that one idea that you have come up with. Be flexible. Like the cliché goes, when life throws a lemon at you, then you make lemonade out of it. Or, if you are really passionate, and you go against the accepted wisdom, throw the lemon back at life – and come up with something yourself.
Number 3: Be kind; there is absolutely no excuse for bad behaviour. Also, be useful.
I have always wanted to be useful. We always externalise it: that to be useful is to be so to others only. But in the same breath, we also need to be useful to ourselves.
There is only so much time we have. If you want to commit yourself to a “cause”, make sure that something is useful to you and to others.
Like how bloomerang is useful to me because it makes me happy since I get to experience so many things; bloomerang pays for the bills, the business pays for the holidays I take. And at the same time, bloomerang is also useful to the environment, albeit in a very subtle, very unsexy way. But hey, people still talk about us because we are not the usual, and they are inspired by our work. In that sense I am being useful to the environment.
Number 4: Separate the urgent from the important.
There will be a lot of things that will demand your attention right away right now; those are things that we call urgent. Then there are the important things. And as the name implies, these are the very things that you should probably be spending more time on.
Know this: It is the important things that will have the greater impact in the longer term than the urgent ones.
The urgent ones will come in waving red flags and sirens blaring, and they will exhaust you. More often than not, you’ll realise these are not critical at all, and these are the things that will burn your time.
Don’t let the urgent crowd out your important decisions in life.
Number 5: Critical thinking.
Criticise, think and never accept the offered wisdom at face value.
Pursue an avenue that allows you to think critically. Look at things in all angles and in its entirety. Develop this as early as possible.
- What would be the biggest myth about entrepreneurs that you would like to debunk?
Not everything that we read in the papers is representative of the entrepreneurship landscape, I guess.
I think successful entrepreneurs place too much emphasis on good planning, good people, high intellect, social connections, hard work, strong cash flow, diversification etc. You’ll be hard-pressed to find one who will admit to, and credit the role of good luck and happy happenstance in his successful business outcomes.