Singapore SMB rides out 'do-or-die' moment with tech

Standing Sushi Bar survives breaking point with the help of social media and other online tools, and now looks to build staff "camaraderie" by establishing a proper HR system and corporate identity.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor on

When I interviewed him last year for a video to profile his life as an entrepreneur, Howard Lo just left his salaried job to focus full-time on his food and beverage (F&B) business, Standing Sushi Bar. He had ended a 14-year stint at Microsoft, where I had first met him, and was looking pretty stressed out of his mind setting up a new — and third — outlet in the heart of Singapore's shopping strip along Orchard Road.

Trooper that he was, his anxiety wasn't apparent in the video, but he was feeling strained as he juggled between resolving staffing issues, answering multiple calls from suppliers, dealing with contractors, and ensuring his bank account was sufficient to pay off new purchase orders. 

Now, a year later, I caught up with him again to find out how the company was doing and was glad to see a much happier, less stressed-out entrepreneur with new plans for growth. 

Howard, who turns 37 this October, opened his first Standing Sushi Bar restaurant early in 2009 and currently runs three outlets in Singapore and one in Jakarta, Indonesia. The third Singapore outlet, called Tanuki Raw, officially opened in January 2013 and is a bar-cum-restaurant featuring martinis and fresh oysters. 

The company will clock just under S$3 million (US$2.37 million) in revenue across the three outlets this year and is expected to be in the black by the end of 2013, which has been seeing great growth.

But, it wasn't always all peaches and cream.

Howard's third Singapore outlet, Tanuki Raw, marked a "do-or-die" moment for the then-struggling company.

Asked if he ever thought, over the past three years, that his business wasn't going to make it, Howard said frankly: "Oh yeah, all the time, until probably around January this year. I knew Tanuki was basically going to be a do-or-die thing. If it didn't start breaking even almost immediately, then I was going to go out in a massive fireball. But, the good thing is, we made it!

"Everything just took off in 2013. Our sales for the quarter compared to last year went up by 150 percent to 180 percent for our Queen Street outlet," he said.

He attributed the growth to a combination of aggressive sales promotion at the outlet, and advertising on Facebook which was expansively shared. At the same time, Tanuki had just opened and media coverage and publicity for that spilled over into the company's existing two Standing Sushi Bar outlets in Queen Street — its most profitable currently — and Marina Bay Link Mall, further boosting sales.

"It's awesome. This year is so much better," Howard gushed almost sheepishly, after I reminded him how stressed out he was this same time last year when we were filming the video. "The worry is how then can you cement the success, and I think you do so by expanding. If you make your business more accessible to more people, and people see your brand around, then they'll want to visit it." 

With the initial three years tough, he found himself having to stretch every dollar he could. Turning to technology and the various tools available online helped keep his business extremely lean, and allowed him to remain a "one-man backoffice" outfit even as the company expanded into a three-outlet F&B chain in Singapore. 

"We were able to save money on office rental, manpower, and services as everything was stored and synced via the cloud, so I just moved around my restaurants using the laptop [as well as home desktop] to access all the data," he said. 

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"I've come to appreciate the work environment associated with big organizations where there's a corporate culture and identity, as well as internal branding."

- Howard Lo

What: Standing Sushi Bar
A Japanese restaurant chain with three outlets in Singapore, and one in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Projected to generate S$3 million in revenue and be profitable this year.

IT's role: Relies mostly on free social media tools including Instagram, Facebook, Foursquare, and Pinterest to gather customer feedback and publicize the restaurants' offers.

All essential paperwork is created using templates from Microsoft's Office Excel and Word. Sales data is put into Access and viewed as an Excel PivotTable, making it easy to identify trends and patterns for analysis, he added. Website builders such as Squarespace let him to create websites without external help.

In terms of its biggest contribution, though, technology was most impactful in helping to raise awareness about the F&B outlets, he noted. 

Howard said: "The tools available are powerful enough to really broadcast the brand and updates to a large amount of the population. From optimizing for search engines to paying for ads on Facebook, I would say that technology has made it very easy for people to either find us or learn about us, and that's a huge contributor to growth for a small restaurant."

He still relies on a range of social media tools including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Foursquare to spread awareness and news about his business, as well as gather public feedback. 

Instagram, specifically, plays a big role in helping him gather customer feedback about the restaurants and spreading word about the company. He described a recent visit to London where he was at a restaurant which asked its customers to share pictures of its food on Instagram along with the company's tag.

He returned home and adopted the same concept for his restaurants. It took off in a big way, generating many pictures on Instagram that are tagged to Tanuki Raw, allowing him to view the number of people who like and share a particular photo or dish.

Howard also pointed to new short-video tools like Twitter's Vine and Instragram video which he said could be used, for instance, to show his restaurant chefs buying and prepping salmon sashimi.  

People's attention span are a lot shorter now and videos offer businesses like Standing Sushi Bar a way to stand out a little more than photos, just as how photos stand out a little more than text, he noted. 

He's still using Foursquare, but the number of people using the location-based service in Singapore has dropped. This, he said, was a pity because its maker has been building in new functions such as allowing businesses to track how many times customers have visited the restaurant as well as entice visitorship with offers.  

He's now looking to reopen another branch in Singapore's Central Business District (CBD), where he had opened — and later shuttered — his very first outlet. Despite this initial setback, he is eager to have another go at it. 

"I started my business as a CBD concept, so my heart still is in the CBD concept and I want to cement the grid around CBD. I feel like I've been fine-tuning the formula," he explained. "This new outlet will be all about express and standing-only dining. Customers can customize their own sushi, on top of our existing menu options, and we'll be targeting the more health-conscious crowd. It'll also have an oyster bar. It'll be smaller, like an 8-seater, because I want it to be really focused on the CBD lunch crowd."

Need for corporate identity, comaraderie

Howard currently has about 30 full-time employees and another 25 part-time staff, the latter group is particularly fluid with some employees leaving after just three weeks or a month on the job. So, staff retention is a key challenge and it "will get worse before it gets better" with new government regulations restricting the hiring of foreign staff, he said.

However, as the company grows into a multi-outlet chain, this will help attract and retain staff, he said.

"As your name is out there in the market longer and gets bigger, more people just naturally apply to join your company," he explained, stressing the importance of setting up a proper corporate identify and HR system. "It makes you feel like you're part of something bigger and contributing to this branch, the customers, and so on."

Having worked in a major multinational corporation, he said he could now better see the difference between working for a small business and a big market player.  

"I've come to appreciate the work environment associated with big organizations where there's a corporate culture and identity, as well as internal branding. It's about being part of a team and the staff comaraderie, where we're all working toward a common goal for the company," Howard explained. 

He added that while he's looking to expand his business, the company is "disjointed" right now. He wants to close the gap and encourage his staff to feel like they're part of an organization that can provide a career path for them to excel. He's looking to put together and formalize a HR process, including a staff handbook, career mapping, training, and even a proper leave application process. 

Howard is also a blogger on ZDNet, where he discusses his experience running a small business.

"If the person feels like they're working for a stable, solid company — rather than working for Howard Lo — I think that would help," he said, adding that he wants to grow a corporate culture that can help change his employees' behavior, for instance, in terms of how they approach customer service and staff management.

Howard also recently paid for a year's subscription of Office 356 Small Business Premium, after having previously only used various free trial versions. "This is my first big IT software expenditure, apart from the monthly website-hosting service, so it's a big step...I'm becoming a proper company!" he laughed. 

And he wants to establish repeatable processes, having operated on very little right now, and is slowly building up a backoffice team — he only just recently hired his company's first "office" staff to manage adminstrative tasks.    

And he wants the business to be as big as possible. It's not just about the money, he said, but about fulfiling a dream that has taken him from being an employee of a IT company, to one — where he's still aspiring — to be an entrepreneur who travels the world to manage his business.  

The company is now over three years old and riding on positive cashflow, which opens up new options in terms of bank loans. "It's interesting because in the past, I would take out loans just to survive. Now it's about taking out  loans to expand and the amount can potentially be large. So now I'm sitting at a critical point where the business could now potentially grow exponentially." 

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