When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Singapore, thousands of stores found themselves badly affected by the drastic drop in customer footfall and sales.
Among them was a poultry stall in West Coast Market that was run by Kenny Chen’s parents.
With access to the market being restricted during the circuit breaker, Kenny’s parents, who are in their 60s, found it a daily struggle to sell their produce.
“I was just revising at home when my mom came back and started sharing about how bad the business was at the stall,” Kenny recounted.
“It just so happened that the thought of helping them go digital had always been on my mind, especially because they are getting on in years. So, I thought that if I could bring their business online, they wouldn’t have to spend such long hours manning the stall at the market and could ease into retirement.”
As a National University of Singapore (NUS) Electrical Engineering student, Kenny admitted that he had little to no knowledge of how to run a digital business.
But that did not stop the 26 year old from venturing into that domain. He first started a Facebook page to sell products from his parents’ stall, and, through trial and error, eventually managed to grow its following.
Kenny cited the “problem-solving mindset” that he honed from studying engineering over the years as one of the reasons he was able to overcome the initial hurdles of digitalising his parents’ business.
“Having studied engineering for a few years, it’s now instinctive for me to want to find a solution whenever I see a problem. In this case, there was extra motivation for me because it involved my parents and I wanted to do something to help them.”
Market boy Kenny at the market. (Photo was taken in May 2020.)
As the popularity of the page increased – it currently has over 10,000 likes on Facebook – so too did his parents’ business.
This convinced Kenny to branch out and include products from the other stalls at the West Coast Market on the Facebook page. In the process, he also rebranded the page, which had previously borne the name of his parents’ stall, as Market Boy.
He even set up a website for Market Boy to streamline and automate logistical processes, while also making it a more holistic shopping experience for customers.
Growing Market Boy, however, posed its own challenges for Kenny, who was essentially working alone.
“Market Boy was a huge challenge for me because it was more or less a one-man show – from order-taking, expansion, running the Facebook page and starting the website, to even things on the operation side like delivering orders. I had to do almost everything on my own,” Kenny said.
“Granted, it was a tough learning experience with long working hours but the thought of quitting never crossed my mind. And I would like to think that with Market Boy, we’ve managed to help some people during the circuit breaker period.”
Two months after starting Market Boy, Kenny was approached by a friend from the NUS Business School with a proposal to plug another Covid-19 related gap – this time, to supply UVC ultraviolet light sanitisation products that were environmentally friendly and would not contribute to plastic waste.
Kenny would go on to co-found Phoray UVC with his friend. They have since secured deals with various local hotels, schools, and logistics and events companies, and are also exploring the possibility of taking the product overseas.
Phoray’s roots can be traced to a study trip Kenny made to the Middle East in late 2019, as part of NUS’ STEER (Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment) programme.
Kenny (standing, third from left) and his NUS STEER schoolmates on a visit to one of the government agencies in the Middle East.
“If I didn’t go on the trip to the Middle East, I wouldn’t have met my co-founder,” Kenny mused. “I think it’s really important to explore new things while you’re in university. Go for overseas exchange trips if you can. Expose yourself to new experiences. The good thing is that NUS provides a lot of such opportunities, but you have to be proactive and grab it.
“You have to be daring to try and not be afraid of failure. This is when you can make mistakes and learn from it before you go out into the workforce.”
Kenny, who graduated from NUS earlier this year, is currently doing a traineeship with Siemens, while still running Market Boy and Phoray in his free time.
And while he counts Market Boy and Phoray among his biggest achievements, Kenny is equally proud of his role as a mentor in Asia Institute of Mentoring (AIM).
“When I was younger, I received a lot of mentorship and guidance that helped shape me into the person that I am today,” said Kenny, who was a mentee in the NUSS-NUS Mentorship Programme.
“So, I want to become a mentor because I feel like it’s a way of giving back, to share my experiences and perspectives with others. Now that I’ve graduated, I feel it’s important for me to help others by mentoring them. It’s incredibly rewarding to see the person that you’re mentoring grow and improve.”
This spirit of collaboration and helpfulness is something that Kenny also experienced while studying at the NUS Engineering school, in contrast to the cut-throat environment he had expected.
“In Engineering, we’re doing projects half the time so you will be placed in teams and have to work with your group or partner,” said Kenny.
“The thing I like about this is that everyone would then have a discussion and share ideas, and if anyone has a roadblock, we’d all start thinking of solutions together. There’s a collaborative culture in the school and I would say that the majority of us are always very happy to help.”
(All photos in this story were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic, unless otherwise stated.)