Leading small business owners Elise Mawson of Taxi Baby Co. and Dr. Vanessa von Auer of Integrated International School share their essential business advice for aspiring mamapreneurs
Have you been considering a career change, or trying to figure out how to re-enter the workforce on your own terms? Our new series, Wise Words from Mamapreneurs, aims to shine the spotlight on women small business owners in Singapore. Each month we’ll meet two mamas from dramatically different backgrounds, each of whom is successfully hustling in the Little Red Dot and living her dreams. Please join us in supporting these mama-led businesses, and read on to let their wisdom, experience, and hard work inspire you!
A mother of three (she is her own target audience!), Elise is Australian by nationality but spent time in Saudi Arabia as a child, and comes from a chemical engineering background.
Vanessa is German and a clinical psychologist (she founded IIS at the urging of some patients’ families), and the mother to two daughters. Read on to find out more about their businesses and how they landed in their current roles!
1. Give us the elevator pitch for your business:
Taxi Baby Co. aims to make travelling with children safe and convenient, because we believe parents shouldn’t have to compromise on either. We are a social-impact driven organisation improving the safety of children travelling in various modes of transport by offering child safety advice and niche range of car seats, strollers and travel accessories. We co-create sustainable, practical solutions with private enterprises, government agencies, educational institutions and community groups to raise safety standards and affordability of travel solutions across Southeast Asia.
The Integrated International School was founded in 2009 because of our vision to transform Singapore’s educational landscape to one that actively redefines success for young learners. Too often mainstream education simply focuses on academic prowess. However, different learners demonstrate different strengths, which should be acknowledged and celebrated in addition to academic achievement. We are a forward-thinking and inclusive international school that places just as much emphasis on our students’ academic success as their socio-emotional well-being. Our students’ feelings and thoughts matter – they are at the heart of our school. We have always embraced individuality – we aim to give young people the chance to make significant contributions to our community in their own way so that each of them feels empowered, effective and inspired.
2. Tell us about your background and what led you to create this business? What made you the right person for the job?
I’m a Clinical Psychologist who has always loved working with kids and their families. I’ve always had a knack for putting myself in both a child’s and the parent’s shoes; thereby being able to create compassionate communication and harmony between children and their families. Through my first business, the VA Psychology Center (VAPC), I was approached by clients who saw how their children had quickly improved in social-emotional and cognitive parameters under my care. These families banded together and encouraged me to open a boutique school to extend my unique teaching approach. When I decided to take the leap of faith to open a small pilot programme of IIS, we opened with five students who enrolled in 2009 and three teachers.
I’ve always been safety conscious, even as a two year-old. We lived in Saudi Arabia then and flew incessantly. My dad tells everyone that each time I boarded a plane, I’d crawl under the seat to make sure the lifevest was there. For over a decade, I enjoyed an international career in the hyper-safety-conscious mining industry, working across technical and supervisory roles at the coal face and corporate office. I am a Chemical Engineer by trade, and earned an MBA with Harvard and Melbourne Business School. I started the business in 2015 after being frustrated at not finding the necessary products in Singapore to travel safely with my oldest.
3. What were some early setbacks and challenges to getting your business up and running?
Starting any new business is exhilarating and scary at the same time. Suddenly, you are in charge of so many areas, are responsible for so many people and have multiple roles (Psychologist, Teacher, Secretary, Bookkeeper, Marketer, etc.) to fulfil. This made it challenging to balance work and personal life at times. However, because I am lucky to do what I am fiercely passionate about, I never felt there was a setback or challenge that couldn’t become a powerful asset to the business and myself.
I had a lot of difficulty with scale at the start. I leveraged interns and offshore virtual assistants to keep labour costs down,and sought affordable legal advice through Upstart Alliance (doesn’t exist anymore, sadly) for contract reviews and boilerplate agreements that I could edit as necessary. I had to get creative with logistics which formed the backbone of our business, such as bundling orders to meet the minimum shipping threshold. I saved on warehousing by renting a landed property to live in plus extra storage space and couriers could come and go without condo security woes. I’m operationally-minded but bad at marketing so I’m grateful that Cardinal Digital helped us start small and scaled as our business grew.
My big issue – then and now – is being seen as more than just a retailer. Much of what we do is not ‘businessy’ – like giving free advice to parents who don’t know where to start and most of the time, I’m recommending products we don’t even sell. We want to raise awareness across the region that all kids need to be buckled up, and that being cradled in mum’s arms, or riding in a taxi or school bus won’t miraculously exempt a child from the laws of physics. Unrestrained kids die in car accidents. Even small, seemingly inconsequential, low speed prangs. And it kills me that some organisations don’t understand this and still sees us as ‘just a retailer’, trying to ‘trick’ parents into buying car seats.
4. What is the best part of running this business…and what is the worst part?
I get to witness little miracles occurring each day. One day, I see a child with a lack of confidence and the next, she is volunteering to sing in front of an audience with 250 people in the crowd! One day, a child doesn’t find pleasure in learning to read and the next, he is initiating a class book club!
I’d say the worst part is, that as an international school, we have to say good-bye to fantastic families who have become such strong advocates for their children and IIS, when they relocate or move back to their home countries. It is part of our industry, but it never gets easier when you’ve made great relationships within the community.
I like being the decision maker and have never had any trouble being the one who takes the blame if something goes wrong. The upside of this is that I get to call the shots. I had some absolutely amazing managers in the past, but also some duds. After my first son was born, I promised myself I would stop working for fools because what’s the point in spending so much time away from your kids, if the work is a joke?
The worst part is that my job doesn’t have boundaries. I haven’t had a day off in four years and it’s taking its toll (read: I’ve aged ten years in the last four!).
5. Did you work with a mentor or network while you were setting up your business?
While I was running the VA Psychology Center, many of my clients were young children who felt they had no suitable schooling options in Singapore. My personal goal was to provide a safe sanctuary to students to develop confidence in, and ultimately encourage a love for learning. I’d built strong relationships with hospitals, specialist clinics, mainstream schools and therapists, so combined with VAPC, I had a great network to begin IIS.
I looked around, and joined some groups online and in person, but never really found what I was looking for. Nowadays I really get a kick out of helping other aspiring mumpreneurs navigate the pitfalls of setting up online businesses in Singapore.
6. How does being a parent affect your job?
Being a parent helps me to stay creative and to appreciate life’s experiences through my children’s eyes. The beauty of children is that they don’t “sweat the small stuff” and that they focus on what matters: fun, love, and quality time with family. This beautifully simple philosophy of life helps inspire me to continue to offer all of our students a fun, loving, and positive learning journey at Integrated International School.
The obvious answer to this is that I am my target market and many in the baby industry aren’t actually parents themselves, so this is a huge advantage. Our business sprung from my individual need for child passenger safety products and not being able to access them easily. I won’t sell anything I wouldn’t use for my own kids. Case in point, we had stock of a popular inflatable booster seat, but since seeing (unpublished) horrific crash test performance from Canada, we’ve stopped selling it. Motherhood has made me immeasurably better at my job – a kinder, more self-aware person, and I now have the best reason in the world to get home ASAP. I’m more productive, deliberate, and decisive in my business decisions. I do what needs to be done, as efficiently and effectively as possible, then I go home to my babies. Having a job has also made me a better mother. Time away from home each day means that when I come home, I am present. And I have enough patience, tolerance and curiosity to get a little closer to being the parent I want to be.
7. What can you share with our Sassy Mamas who aspire to start a business?
Take calculated risks. Work out how much you can invest to bootstrap your business, then do two seemingly conflicting things at once: 1) Stick to your budget; don’t drink the KoolAid and get swept away with the romanticism of living the dream that you sink too much of your savings. 2) Within those boundaries you’ve just set, go hard! Take risks, go out on a limb, get butterflies in your stomach, put yourself on the line. Be prepared to put yourself first every now and then. Entrepreneurship is a cruel mistress and there will be many times when you are depressed, sick, overwhelmed, and not coping. In these moments, put your blinkers on and your head down. Focus on the bare minimum that needs to be done, be kind to yourself, and let your default response to all social, professional or even family invitations be ‘no thank you, not this time’. Don’t beat yourself up about your mothering quality, diet, mood, or wifeliness. Identify when you’re drowning and then push through to ‘survival mode’ for a short period of time is a really important skill in this endeavour. Oh, and always go with your gut. She knows more than we give her credit for.
Chase your passions – not the money or status quo. More importantly, don’t delay your dreams and aspirations, do what you love without feeling guilty about not being with your child 24/7. It is possible to juggle being a fabulous mama with being your own boss lady.
- Vanessa: Don’t overwhelm yourself with an endless, stress-provoking to-do list – prioritise your top 3 tasks at the beginning of your day. And take a break, mama! Turn off all outside communications and give yourself the necessary luxury of undisturbed “me time” for at least 30 minutes a day.
- Elise: Use the Wunderlist app – it lets you plan to-do lists (with sub-lists, attachments and heaps of detail), and share them with others (hello husband, intern, virtual assistant). Set up auto filters in your email so you don’t get overwhelmed with an inbox tidal wave. Automate repetitive processes wherever you can (Google Forms is ridiculously powerful for anything that might need to go into a spreadsheet or email).
- Elise: Keep your good ideas to yourself. Don’t get so carried away with ‘showing off’ that you mistakenly give your secret recipe to strangers; you never know who’s listening. Don’t be waiting for a silver bullet; tech being what it is these days, you can pretty much get your name where it needs to go, without relying on ‘who you know’ as much as we used to. I’m not saying forgo the networking events, just make that your Plan B and keep Plan A (your own way) going full steam ahead. Redefine ‘networking’: maybe it’s just one person who seems to get you, and you have wine a few times a year.
On Work/Life Balance:
- Vanessa: Don’t feel guilty, mama! As a mom, balancing work and home life can be a tough challenge. I often felt torn about leaving my young children to go to work but I also disliked not being at work. However, I quickly figured out that it was the quality of our interactions/experiences that mattered and impacted our relationship rather than the amount of time we spent together. Have fun! Your overall physical, emotional and mental health should be one of your main concerns; prioritizing your health doesn’t have to consist of radical or extreme activities. Do something you love that you consider fun! It can be as simple as daily meditation, a dance class or your favourite form of exercise.
- Elise: Be present wherever you are (everyone says this nowadays, and it’s not easy, but makes a huge difference). Don’t multitask – it just means you’re giving only part of your focus to each task (kids included). Have ‘tech blackouts’ each day. I put my phone in the cupboard from 6-8am and 4-8pm each day so I can dedicate my attention to my family. I’ve created decision trees for my team to follow in case something goes very wrong and worst case scenario, they can call my landline.
- Elise: Be careful who you confide in; err on the side of caution. You don’t have to find a single mentor for every part of your life/business. Perhaps you have a friend you admire for her resilience, or someone who’s impressive at time management. Pay it forward; even if you feel you’re really small fry, remember there’s always someone who’s even smaller and could really benefit from your advice.
On Challenges and Hardships:
- Vanessa: Don’t fear challenges. Challenges are often seen in a negative light. But if you train your brain to perceive them to be powerful opportunities to learn, to progress, and even improve your skill sets or your business, they will soon become your strength.
- Elise: Try to put challenges in perspective – is this really the end of the world? If you’re having a rubbish day, toss your to-do list and do something that makes you happy (you started this business after all, so you must enjoy at least some of it!). When all else fails, wine!
Thanks so much to Vanessa and Elise for sharing your wisdom! We hope you will join us in supporting these mama-led small businesses; check out some exclusive Sassy Mama perks below!
Visit www.taxibaby.com to get shopping!