Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Retail Therapy: Maki Squarepatch: hello eco!

Boy do I have a special treat for you today! I want to first say thank you to Enqi and Xin for taking so much time out of their busy schedules to answer a ton of questions. They're in the middle of moving and setting up their new shop in Bali Lane (Singapore). Enqi and Xin are the creators of the Maki Squarepatch brand and the owners of Maki Squarepatch: hello eco!, a shop focused on handmade and eco-friendly. They're all about taking discarded, throw away items and giving them new life by turning them into something magical.

They've given us tons of great advice below, so whether you dream of opening up a shop one day, are looking to sell your handmade goodies wholesale, or are simply a fan - read on, print it out, bookmark it and enjoy!

>> click here to expand & read the full interview


1. What were you doing before you went into business?
Xin >> I was part-time waitressing at a local Japanese restaurant.
Enqi >> I was doing marketing in a local fitness/spa chain.

2. What would you guys be doing if you weren't involved in Maki Squarepatch?
Xin >> I would still be making art (painting, drawing, sewing), do some odd jobs in between and approach shops to sell my goods. Maybe even save up some money and create a really good graphic novel. That’s still a dream I am working to fulfill! Minus the odd jobs definitely.
Enqi >> I recently accepted a day job. The job found me - I wasn’t looking. It’s a non-profit organization that develops programmes for youth which I find highly meaningful. I’m not overly sad about having a day job, because it gives me additional exposure which is also beneficial for Maki Squarepatch. I've encountered some people along the way who were familiar with our work and have requested to work with us, so that’s pretty cool! On top of that, I hope one day to write a book, write music and sing.

3. When did you start to develop a passion for eco-awareness and recycling? Is this something you grew up around?
Xin >> I did not grow up separating my trash or switching off the lights when leaving a room. But what I know is, I was always very fascinated by my grandmother’s thrifty, simple and realistic practices. She would sew tablecloths and pillow covers from fabrics she did not want to throw away. Most people would buy new plastic boxes for storage, but my grandmother would use her coffee cans to store hers. You can get a lot of ideas just by observing the everyday life of lower-income households & the elderly who grew up in a different generation. It was starting the business along with the wave of eco-consciousness being EVERYWHERE that I began to adjust my life around it too.
Enqi >> I remember owning a book on 100 green things to do back in the early 90’s. The only green thing that was being promoted on the streets of Singapore was using both sides of paper because it was the easiest and simplest thing to do. I was fascinated how people overseas were doing a lot more. I had no idea how to get started and sad to say, I never really got passionate about it - until now. Better late than never.
4. How has owning a business changed your lives?
Xin >> I became more confident day by day. That is the best thing that ever happened, because that is where real freedom begins.
Enqi >> It has made me more outspoken and confident in what I believe in. It has also given me an avenue to share my love for handmade, nature and all things that deeply inspire me. It has also helped me get to know my sister a lot better and I really appreciate that.

5. What does the future hold for Xin and Enqi?
Xin >> I hope that once the new Maki Squarepatch shop is up and running, I could take some time out to travel. Hopefully create one graphic novel that I can be super proud of - so proud that I'd want it to be cremated with me.
Enqi >> Wow this is just the beginning! I dare not even dream, but I have big big dreams. I'm gonna have to keep those fantasies to myself (for now), or at least until our next interview =)


1. Why did you decide to open a brick & mortar store as opposed to making Maki Squarepatch an online-only business?
Xin >> We wanted to open a shop because a physical space creates an environment. An online-shop could only present, but not provide an experience of handmade crafts and the spirit of recycling. Plus we are very blessed with the support of our family, thus the up-coming shop’s existence.

2. I know that you're in the middle of moving from one location to another. Can you tell us how you went about choosing the new location?
Xin >> Our parents have great insight into the world of commercial real estate.They helped us a lot in the search for a space. The location we picked was an area under conservation, which meant that it would be unlikely for the local government to change/develop the area for many years. That was a key factor that got my attention.

3. What's the best lesson that you've learned so far in owning your own business that you can pass on to our readers?
Xin >> The best lesson is confidence (with what you make) and patience (with the things that need to be done to get the attention it deserves). Never desire for short-cuts. I do wish for short cuts sometimes, but I will tell myself to stop it!
Enqi >> I've learned that forming relationships with people is key. As well as learning how to cope/work with different personality types and being humble, patient and recognizing every individuals’ special idiosyncrasies and talents.

4. Most people advise against going into business with a partner if you can help it, especially partnering with family. Can you give us a few tips on how you guys make it work? Also, what's the best and worst part about having your sister as a business partner?
Xin >> You can make it work, when you sincerely believe that your business partner (in this case, my sister) wants the best for the both of you. We want us to be the best that we can be, with or without Maki Squarepatch. The best part about working with a sister is that I never fear being questioned by her. In our working relationship, there’s no authority figure to answer to. It can be the worst part too because I might take the sister-working-relationship for granted. I just have to constantly check myself to make sure that I never do that. I do take her for granted at times, but I try my best to prevent it from happening the next time around.
Enqi >> Our policy is to be honest about how we feel in order to make things work. Even if the truth can be biting (eg your work sucks! Or buck up, you’re being plain lazy), it’ll only help us get better and constantly challenge us to be better. The best part is that we already know each other and have a decent idea on what it's like to work together. Besides, doing it together has allowed us to take the plunge. The worst part is that it's easy to take each other for granted, especially since we're family. Of course knowing the negatives help because I'm much more mindful and try my best to not take advantage of the fact that we're family!


1. We know that you also make most of the products you carry in the shop. How successful is your wholesale business? Are your products currently sold in other shops? What advice can you give to other artists looking to sell their wares to shop owners?

Xin >> For a young shop, we have been successful in getting a couple of overseas boutiques interested in our products. Yes, they are currently sold in a couple of shops (mostly located in USA), though we have been really happy to be recently receiving inquiries from Europe. I am still learning… but one piece of advice would be, to be very real and true about what you make. How you make your works for instance. The passion and how much you put into creating something will eventually seep into the way you describe yourself as an artist and in the character of your items. Plus a good (realistic) photo of your work is always a plus.

2. Do most of the other designers you carry come to you or do you actively seek out new designers/crafters? If so, where?
Xin >> Sometimes when I am lucky, I find somebody whose work I admire and I will ask if they would be keen for us to carry it in our shop. But most of the times, artists & crafters contact us. We carry handmade or recycled works of art by local (Singaporean) artists and crafters at our shop.
Enqi >> We are also particularly passionate about carrying eco handmade goods in our shop because of how we ventured out into our business! Just to clarify, our online shop only carries Maki Squarepatch products. Our brick & mortar shop Maki Squarepatch: hello eco! is positioned as a mainly eco and handmade shop. It’s hard to find eco designers but they keep sprouting up and that brings us much joy and delight to see many people becoming more aware.

3. What is your process in choosing merchandise and what can artists do to stand out in your mind?
Xin >> Artists who put A LOT of effort into their work makes a lot of difference. You can see it in their sensitivity to materials and colors. Plus it has got to be ‘off’, like it isn’t following a regular paper pattern. It has to be made based off of pure ideas. That usually catches my attention.
Enqi >> Well here’s where we differ. I love even those who use paper patterns! Sometimes being neat and clean is a plus – at times it turns out boring. I think it’s really how the artist uses different materials, textures, colors, and pays attention to the necessary subtleties that merge functionality and art that makes it a good product.

4. You've received a good amount of press coverage since opening. Do you have any marketing and promotion tips for aspiring artists and shop owners?
Enqi >> Tell your friends about you and get them to support your work! They can also be your best critic so welcome it with open arms. What they say can be what others will say too and it's better to first hear it from somebody close to. Pitch your products to shops which may be keen to carry your stuff and be bold in doing so. Talk to blogs and magazines and show them what you’ve got!

Best sellers: A tie- between small sling pouches and our Flat Toys,
a flat toy based on Enqi's childhood toy. Small accessories like keychains, zip pouches have been popular items too!

TELL US...What changes have you seen in the Singapore handmade and eco-friendly scene in the past couple of years?Xin >> Before we started out, there were very few markets we knew of that catered (solely) to the selling of artworks made by artists and crafters. Now, every month… there are at least a couple of markets set up for the locals to shop for handmade products. I am not sure whether we influenced the handmade or eco-friendly market in Singapore, but if we did a little, that's a good thing!
Enqi >> With global warming being a prominent issue in the news, some Singaporeans are sitting up and becoming more aware that despite being in a small part of the world, their actions can have huge consequences. And I think such awareness will go along way moving forward to educating the mass and engaging them at some level to move from inertia into action, hopefully adopting good eco habits that go BEYOND using both sides of the paper before you trash it. Go beyond and consider where that paper ends up and the consequences it entails.

Any websites, blogs, artists that you're currently in love with?
Xin >> . Am currently listening to The Bluest Silence. Very raw and soul-breaking music.
Enqi >> I love and, just two retailers who carry our stash. Go check them out.

Again, I'd like to thank both Xin and Enqi for giving us such an in-depth interview and glimpse into their business. Now go and check them out!


ei! kumpel said...

Great interview, well conducted and very nice answers! I like the honesty and simplicity of the artists.


Amy said...

I LOVE Maki Squarepatch's wonderful off-the-beaten path sewing and cuddlies. Xin's zines are also fantastic!