Declan Ee is not your typical startup founder. Not often do you find a young Singaporean business owner who is a family man, has 10 years of experience in the finance industry, and is a music DJ who has found success on the Billboard charts.
Castlery, the furniture brand Ee co-started with his friend Fred Ji in 2013, has had tremendous growth in just four years. Its business model is mostly digital, and involves cutting out the middleman to keep the prices of designer furniture low and accessible – something few other retailers are able to do.
The brand name quickly gained recognition and in 2016, they took a leap of faith by investing heavily in aggressive expansion. That year, Castlery upgraded their showroom from 7,000 square feet to 12,000 square feet, and added 40,000 square feet of space to their warehouse.
It was a big risk they were taking. If sales slowed, the business would be put under huge financial strain. In the end though, it was all worth it as Ee says subsequent sales “rose to match our expansion”.
One man, many hats
Managing a business as large as Castlery’s should be draining and time-consuming, but even if it was, you can hardly find any signs of it on Ee. The 34-year-old is every bit as enthusiastic as he sounds in articles, even as he remains involved in various projects in the FinTech and music industries today.
On his daily agenda are matters related to Castlery, music production, investment banking and helping out with his family’s business. To say he has a lot on his plate is an understatement.
One habit he has developed is to keep a journal. Keeping track of his thoughts allows him to “check in on the goals I have set for myself on both personal and professional levels,” he tells us.
His routine typically involves spending mornings at the gym or with his children, who he says mentally and emotionally rejuvenate him. He then divides his time neatly so he has three hours to handle Castlery’s business daily, three nights a week to manage his fund overseas, and two half-days a week to create the music he loves.
He says music affords him a creative outlet so he can deal with challenges from new perspectives when he returns to work.
Not an easy road
When Ee and Ji first embarked on the Castlery journey, they were blank slates with zero knowledge about making or selling furniture.
“We had to personally travel across SEA and China to meet furniture manufacturers and attend furniture industry conventions to learn about suppliers, raw materials, fulfilment and logistics. All these while we simultaneously built our own integrated supply chain, which was also difficult because we were unable to partner suppliers and manufacturers without large orders,” he tells Business Insider in an e-mail.
The initial obscurity of their startup’s name did not help, and it took 18 months for the duo to convince their first designer to come on board for the Castlery Feat. series, which features pieces designed by award-winning furniture designers from around the world.
As a business working on radical ideas, Castlery also faced the issue of disloyal team members who copied their ideas and strategies to launch similar businesses on the side.
Betrayal is a hard pill to swallow of course, but Ee says the experience is a learning point and a “motivational factor to continually execute faster and better”.
As for the disloyal members, Ee and Ji had little choice – they had to let them go.
Indeed, it seems difficult to get this go-getter down, and he seems to be able to see the silver lining in every situation. Failures, while upsetting, are important as they help him learn more about his shortcomings, he says.
Knowledge of one’s shortcomings comes in handy when he needs to choose who to go into business with. What he’s learned is that the best partners are those who “have strengths that balance your weaknesses”.
“This is my biggest lesson in my career, and I believe it applies to any industry. These people should also be trustworthy, and should share at least some of your passions and values,” he adds.
Passion and practicality
Passion can be pretty blinding at times, and the young startup founder continuously aims to strike a balance between his passions and practicality. That is, after all, how he envisions success will be like when he achieves it.
“Living consistently and fully in that space where family, work and passion intersect; devoting enough time to each of these different aspects of my life – all of which I believe are very important,” is how he defines success, but admits it is a continuous process throughout one’s life and career.
This is perhaps what sets Ee apart from the usual pool of young entrepreneurs. They may share the same drive, but few are able to see the climb to success as a lifelong process.
As a man who has tried it all (well, almost all), Ee says his experiences in other industries have done a great deal to pave the road for him.
His advice to young entrepreneurs is thus to work for someone else and “side-hustle” to gain experience – and get paid.
“Work in a job in which you can do well and get paid well for a few years to gain experience. But at the same time, build up your own ‘side-hustle’. Spend the 5pm after work till 2am working on different projects and businesses,” he says.
If you’re thinking that it’s too tiring, you’ll be surprised by how the hard work will pay off later. And remember – starting your own business means there’s no rest for the wicked.
“Doing multiple side-hustles allows you to experience what it is like to be part of a business, and can prepare you for a life of entrepreneurship, which is a 24/7 commitment,” he says.
Experiences from working for someone else can instill in young people a ‘problem solving mode’, and provide them with a steady income despite the failures they make in their passion projects.
In other words, seize the opportunity to get paid to make mistakes. This way, you know how to better deal with sticky situations when you decide to be your own boss.
If you still have doubts, a look at where Declan’s experiences have taken him will tell you that that’s good advice.