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The General Company’s Colin Chen on creativity, sustainability, and serial entrepreneurialism.

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Colin Chen is the founder of The General Co and The Refinery. (Photo: Colin Chen)

Does the notion of sustainability have an impact? Can one person be an entrepreneur and a creator? In this installment of Creative Capital, we ask Colin Chen, one of Singapore’s driving forces in the design scene.

Over the last ten years, Colin Chen has been one of the key players in our design community. Chen is now 39 and established The General Co in 2012 to promote locally-made crafts and crafters, help skilled craftspeople find jobs, and provide classes on the basics of design and skill for the general public. I’m willing to bet that many young crafters in the present started their careers in a General Co workshop.

Before he founded The General Co, Chen already owned a crafting business, making sleeves of fabric for technology that was essential. Unsatisfied with his two firms and a couple of years in the industry, he decided to enter the F&B industry with The Refinery in 2014. In 2020, fueled by the notion of creating the first sustainable home decor business, he founded GRAMS.

The General Co is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The General Co hits its 10th anniversary. I had a chat with the businessman, advocate, and artist to discuss his journey.

WHAT ATTRACTS YOU TO HANDMADE GOODS?

To be sincere, I’m usually interested in the story of the product, the process by which they were created, the source of the materials used, the purpose behind their design and method of production, and finally, the tale of the person who made the items. This gives a properly-crafted product its sense and soul.

YOUR MOTHER WAS A CRAFTSPERSON HERSELF. HOW MUCH OF WHO SHE IS, DO YOU THINK INFLUENCED YOUR CAREER?

My mother certainly played a significant role in my personal and professional journey. She picked up traditional dressmaking techniques through an older tailor in her early years. She, later on, would become a seamstress at home, accepting private projects and commissions for small businesses. As a child, I would follow her around while she bought and picked out fabrics and other materials and arranged meetings with customers and suppliers. She created uniforms and garments and other textile items for a livelihood making a minimum wage as small sums, despite her expertise and abilities, to make an income for my sister and me. I witnessed firsthand how traditional handicrafts were undervalued in a society driven by the quest for more efficiency through automation and industrialization.

Colin Chen is an accomplished leather artisan and a champion of the local crafting scene. (Photo: Colin Chen)

Remember that it was the 90s when the Government was attempting to attract international multinational companies to open shops in Singapore, which led to an overwhelming demand for young people to obtain professional certifications that could guarantee them an employment opportunity in the corporate world. Innovation, entrepreneurship, and the “skills-based economy” weren’t a thing. I am a bit sad, to admit it, but all of the work that has been done was not noticed and appreciated in the world of handicrafts. For a long time, Craftspeople have needed to have their story told. They need to be more represented. I believe that’s where the seed was first planted in my mind.

YOU ONLY WORKED A CORPORATE JOB FOR A VERY SHORT PERIOD AFTER GRADUATING BEFORE DECIDING TO DO YOUR OWN THING. WHAT GAVE YOU THE CONFIDENCE TO DO THAT?

Technically speaking, I began working at a young age. I stopped receiving my parents’ money before my National Service days. I would accept any part-time job during breaks or on holidays to earn pocket cash. I’ve done them all as an assistant at the university bubble tea shop, waiter, the salesman at a roadshow. I began my first small-scale online company while still at university. In the short story, I designed a handmade label for a fabric sleeve called Fabrix. I sold iPod covers, and later iBook bags and PowerBook bags. I offered them for sale online after I had learned HMTL photography, Photoshop, and HMTL. The results show that having a mother who has dressmaking skills is very beneficial. It was also during this time in which I became more involved in making objects from scratch.

At the time I graduated, I’d had an active side business. I was presented with choosing between working full-time just like everyone else or beginning my own company. What did I do? I was hired just like everyone else. However, I quit after only two months since I felt I had to leap of faith and do something I truly loved. It wasn’t an act of faith. It was more like an impulse. Also, there was no risk since I was in a bind in the first place.

WHERE DID YOU PICK UP YOUR CREATIVE SKILLS?

I was fortunate that my mom had worked long and hard to grant my sister and me an early benefit – access to high-quality education, computers, and the internet. This was extremely expensive at the time. This was done hoping that it would help us achieve higher grades and get corporate jobs, naturally. I was fortunate enough to have a Teleview subscription and dial-up Internet service, and all of this allowed me to see the world and a chance to develop new skills.

I acquired technical knowledge such as fundamental HTML programing, Photoshop, and many other things through the internet. My time with my mother as she was at work inspired me to think creatively. Through her, I discovered a deep interest in textures, materials, methods of construction, and design thinking, as well as other peculiarities through Fabrix that I was also able to know several young artists, illustrators, and designers.

The stubbornness of my personality also played a role. I’m an individual who is constantly questioning the status quo frequently! ‘Why?’ and ‘why don’t you” Why not?” are my most requested questions. Due to that, I’ve encouraged myself to continually explore new perspectives and often give way to innovative outcomes.

DO YOU THINK OF YOURSELF AS MORE OF AN ENTREPRENEUR OR A CREATIVE?

If I had a dream, I’d love to be a skilled craftsman or artist; however, I’ve met many incredible creatives who aren’t represented. This made me think I could make a great bridge to connect the creative and business aspects of life, as I was a fan of both. So, I’d like to think I’m more an entrepreneur who happens to be more creative than most.

YOU HAVE QUITE A FEW BUSINESSES. HOW DO YOU SPLIT YOUR TIME AND ATTENTION BETWEEN THEM?

Many times, I ask myself that question! As a 20-something, the most straightforward answer was to reduce my sleep and to work longer in the evening so that I could do more than most people. After a while, and as the years began to take over, I realized it was better to master the art of prioritisation and to delegate. As I’ve worked on my own throughout my beginnings as an entrepreneur, It became clear that I’d need to create teams and depend on my coworkers and colleagues to oversee many businesses.

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I’m guilty of what is commonly referred to as an erratic focus. Indeed, there’s generally a seasonality to the various companies, and I’d set aside time for each one according to their importance. I’m distracted by thoughts and ideas about different businesses; however, I’ve learned to manage that better over time and, in a more distorted way, utilize it to my advantage in tackling problems and issues with greater creativity.

HOW BADLY DID THE PANDEMIC AFFECT YOUR BUSINESSES?

The pandemic ended the life of a few of my companies which caught me off guard. The reality is that there aren’t all businesses that can be digitally transformed seamlessly, and that’s even more evident in the realm of craft, where the human touch plays a significant part. The way I view it is that it allows resetting. It gave me the time to revisit business models and go back to my drawing board to discover that perfect intersection with my passion for crafting hospitality, business, and.

YOU LAUNCHED GRAMS A FEW YEARS AGO. WHAT WAS YOUR INSPIRATION FOR THE BRAND?

GRAMS has always been my passion project that began when I ran The General Co and Fabrix. Through personal experiences, I’ve seen how waste and excess materials are a real issue, even for small companies. This is why the idea of a circular economic system looks pretty appealing to me.

In 2020, Colin Chen founded GRAMS, a home decor brand focused on sustainability. (Photo: Colin Chen)

I began GRAMS in the year 2020 to discover new ways to use our surplus, using top-quality materials. I was looking to create stunning ordinary objects which challenged the conventional process of making products that are to purchase to consume, then dispose of. Instead, the distinctive design of GRAMS is the circular loop that we have adopted. We can bring in older GRAMS pieces that may be damaged by accident and then repair them if a buyer decides to change their mind and wants to dispose of the item they purchased. It is possible to clean them to make them usable to be used in future collections. This will unlock the objects’ intrinsic “value” that can be transformed to new forms while minimizing the waste and issues of overflowing landfills and constantly being thrown away items. Our motto is “Let’s make a difference in the world by a few GRAMS at each time.”

DO YOU FEEL THE SUSTAINABILITY MESSAGE RESONATES WITH TODAY’S CONSUMERS?

Sustainability is, without doubt, among the more sloppy terms ever. It’s on par with “crafted”! You’re required to incorporate that word in the present to show that you’re a progressive company or brand. However, there is no doubt the modern consumer is more receptive to environmentally sustainable practices, so everyone wants to get on the bandwagon and “do what is right.”

DO YOU FEEL THAT CERTAIN AUDIENCES OR GENERATIONS ARE MAKING MORE CONSCIOUS CHOICES TO BE MORE ETHICAL OR SUSTAINABLE? AND HOW DO RETAILERS NEED TO MEET EXPECTATIONS?

What is it that a simple water bottle, created a long time ago, can suddenly be marketed as an eco-friendly product since it encourages less drinking from plastic cups? Although I believe that it will reduce the use of plastic cups for single-use, I am also of the opinion that there’s a quantity of marketing and junk currently being marketed. The public needs to be more aware of which sustainable companies have a real impact. Don’t be fooled; there are some genuinely significant companies.

It’s also no problem to admit that GRAMS, in the moment, is a hobby project to promote awareness and education about sustainable alternatives and practices. However, in actuality, the amount of waste that we manage and recycle is not enough to significantly impact environmental conditions.

Education and information are practical tools that could result in a more significant impact shortly. For retailers, it’s fantastic to encourage sustainable practices, but do not go out of your way to support it just to be included.

YOU’VE HAS BEEN A DRIVING FORCE FOR INSPIRING CRAFT AND CREATIVE TALENT THROUGH THE GENERAL CO FOR ALMOST A DECADE NOW. HOW DO YOU THINK OUR LOCAL CREATIVE AND DESIGN SCENE HAS CHANGED IN THE LAST 10 YEARS?

Thank you for reminding me of my age… Haha. I’m sure it’s a different time than when I first began getting engaged in Singapore’s design and the creative scene when clients and customers would look at me blankly when I talked about local products and Singapore-based merchants. The situation isn’t getting any better.

GRAMS makes trays, vessels and other forms of decorative homeware using upcycled and low-impact materials. (Photo: Colin Chen)

It’s incredible to witness the skill and creativity that has grown over the last decade in such a tiny country. Today, we can see internationally recognized brands coming from Singapore’s local artisans and designers being sought out by the most famous and prestigious companies around the globe. With the influx of NFTs and blockchain technology, I’m convinced that Singapore’s local scene will grow more.

WHAT ELSE ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW THAT YOU CAN SHARE?

In the aftermath of the pandemic, I decided to revamp the F&B business to make it more efficient and make it more efficient, most because of restrictions on no-dine-in and lockdowns that were detrimental to the whole industry. The real reason behind this choice was my obligation to care for my employees whose livelihoods depend on the business. Thankfully, we could get through the most challenging aspects of the crisis together as a family. Since then, we’ve been looking at ways to expand our business and provide new opportunities for our core team. At the end of this year, we launched an additional location called Hello Arigato along with Upper Thomson, and the community has been extremely kind to us. Presently, I’m working on a new site opening in March. Please keep an eye on this area!

WHO AND WHAT INSPIRES YOU?

I’m sure I’m influenced by a variety of icons that I’ve read about in books or found on the internet: Stephen Hawking for his ability to think critically, Warren Buffet for his discipline, Walt Disney for his imagination, Andy Warhol for his creative expression, as well as Steve Jobs for his tenacity. I’m still constantly inspired by other remarkable entrepreneurs I have read about. I believe that a portion of each creator or entrepreneur is aspiring to greatness, but only a handful will achieve it. The next thing that I’d like to strive to achieve is to increase value and make an effect that has a net positive impact on my fellow citizens, and I hope that they can pass it on and help improve the lives of those in their vicinity.

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