From A Big Dram Comes “Little Man”

Alicia Ong (BBA 2005)

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While many of her fellow graduate schoolmates were busy attending job interviews with financial, human resources, or consultancy agencies, Alicia Ong (BBA 2005) had set out to carve a name for herself in the fashion industry. This led to an initial stint as a freelance designer for brands like DKNY, JCrew, Wykidd Song and Club 21. However, she felt she wasn’t growing professionally, and decided to leave Club 21 for greener pastures.

This led to her first business venture in the creation of the Al & Alicia brand, which was a venture between Alicia and Ian Yeo, founder of JIAN Associates, an architecture and interior design agency. Her unique creative style, which she describes as a “slightly tomboyish look”, would grace stores in both Singapore and abroad. After years of hard work and determination, she embarked on a second successful business with the establishment of the multi-brand concept boutique called ‘Little Man’.

Redefining fashion
It all started after graduation, when Alicia pursued her passion in the fashion industry. Working and learning from renowned fashion houses, she was soon ready to open her own store and display her work. Armed with a government grant from DesignSingapore Council and a headful of ambition, she embarked on her dream. Occupying the top floor of a three-storey shophouse among Bukit Timah Road, Alicia opened her first business venture and quickly made a name for herself with her fresh, chic clothing designs.

Meeting the needs of her neighborhood
When the tenant of the first floor of the shophouse moved out, the young entrepreneur decided to take over the unit and start her second business venture. Having lived in Bukit Timah for more than ten years, Alicia knew that there was a lack of shopping malls in the area and decided to operate a business that would go some way to plugging that gap. With proceeds from her core business, her own personal funds and funds from her business partner, and supported by the experience gained from her first business, Alicia started ‘Little Man’ in December 2011. A one-stop retail lifestyle store, ‘Little Man’ carries everything from clothing to home accessories, books and magazines to fashion accessories, catering to people of all ages in the neighborhood. It even has home-made popsicles! While not long open, ‘Little Man’ has fast become a regular place for families in the Bukit Timah area to shop.

Overcoming uncertainty
Starting out was not easy. In spite of her great determination and talent, Alicia was initially very nervous and apprehensive about running her own business. “There were too many things to consider”, she recalls, “such as capital, sustainability of the business, feasibility…the list was too long.” Drawing on the skills garnered from her degree, particularly its Finance component, Alicia pored over business plans, did countless break-even analyses and considered potential problems from every angle. “Planning and strategizing are very important, and one must look into the long-term future of at least five year ahead,” she advises. “For those starting out, I would say, when you make mistakes, learn from them and don’t be afraid or you’ll never get far.”

This entrepreneurial spirit she took from her father, also a businessman, who shared what he could of his experience to help her realize her dream. Strong support from the rest of her family and her friends also contributed to her eventual success.

An on-going challenge
Even now, with two successful businesses, Alicia still faces a multitude of challenges daily, one of which is hiring people for ‘Little Man’. She is finding it hard to recruit Gen Y, who look for the challenging combination of high pay and short working hours, but endeavors to find staff by investigating different avenues through which to attract the right people.

Alicia is also faced with the tiring task of sourcing for new items to stock her shop with. “Seventy per cent of my products are imported, so I have to spend hours on Skype and browsing Web sites to select the best merchandise,” she explains. For her local items, she meets up with vendors, participates in trade shows and attends exhibitions as a buyer to source the best and most interesting brands and products. With so many things on her plate, Alicia does a great job of juggling it all by practicing good time management, another skill she picked up in her NUS undergraduate studies.

But her greatest worry is marketing her store and creating awareness. “Even though I have a steady stream of customers, I still want to make ‘Little Man’ known to more people”, she explains. Currently, besides the shop’s Web site (http://www.shoplittleman.com) Alicia has been employment the use of social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to spread the word around. ‘Little Man’ has also been covered by the media and the press through write-ups, and her loyal customers contribute through word-of-mouth.

Looking forward
Alicia has big plans for ‘Little Man’. She hopes to strengthen the brand name and be able to extend its influence past Bukit Timah. In the shorter term, she hopes to expand the current shop so that she can offer more products, and the long-term plan is to expand Little Man globally.

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