Walter Oh loves just how nuanced the Chinese phrase for business is.
Sheng yi, after all, has intimations of “birth”, “growth”, “life”, “idea” and “meaning”.
In his case, giving up a promising banking career to co-found food start-up BoxGreen has been meaningful and fulfilling in more ways than he had expected.
What he and co-founder Andrew Lim, 35, conceived as a snack subscription service in 2014 is now a thriving B-corp certified business which uses sustainable packaging, spends 60 per cent of its expenses with local suppliers, gets its snacks packed by ex-offenders and has an open hiring policy, employing former drug addicts, single mothers and people with special needs.
A B-corp business is one which uses business as a force for good.
The duo came up with the idea when they were management associates at DBS Bank. Often pulling long hours, they bemoaned the fact that healthy snacks were either “insanely expensive” or not easily available and vending machines dispensed only “crappy stuff”.
Mr Oh says: “My idea was, if we could get 1,000 subscribers to pay us $20 a month for a box of healthy snacks, we would have it made.”
The high four-figure salary he was earning then and the certainty of a much bigger pay cheque in the future were not easy to give up, but he did not want them to become golden handcuffs.
Much to the ire and despair of his property-agent parents, he took the plunge. Mr Oh, 33, who has an elder sister, despaired on many occasions too – it was a lot of sweat and tears for little or no salary for the first couple of years. But he also learnt a lot, including how to pitch, raise funds, manage people and run a business.
“It’s been like a six-year MBA,” quips the economics and business graduate from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
On several occasions, he thought of throwing in the towel. And once, he nearly did, but three aunties, whom he had hired as packers, stepped in to save the day. More about that later.
This is the first in an eight-part interview series on social entrepreneurs making a difference.
He says: “Everything we tried to do for profit, the money never comes. But when we do something good, something better always comes along.”
A meaningful business, he says, is one which cares not just about the customers but also its staff and the world. Hence their motto: Snack Good, Do Good.
The outfit – supported by the DBS Foundation, which helps social enterprises scale up – has expanded into Malaysia and raised more than $1 million in two rounds of funding.
Turnover has doubled year on year for the last four years and crossed $1 million last year.
Today, BoxGreen supplies nearly 50 varieties of snacks – packed at a facility in Changi – as well as cold-pressed juices to more than 500 companies and 2,000 homes. It also operates vending machines. It has a motley crew of more than 20 employees from various backgrounds.
“We’re not out to save the world. But as long as we make some lives better, we’re happy,” says Mr Oh, who is married to a bank executive and has a three-year-old daughter.
“Some people interpret sheng yi as finding meaning in life. It’s what I’m experiencing right now. I’m learning about life, both good and bad, and it’s a lifelong education.”
To earn money as an undergraduate, you literally wiped someone’s butt every day. Tell us why and if butt-wiping is character-forming?
I chanced upon a job at the university as a personal care assistant (PCA) to a fellow student with cerebral palsy and was intrigued by the role. It paid relatively well and I ended up helping with his basic daily routines and personal hygiene.
Some of the tasks PCAs may perform for a person with disabilities include helping them change their clothes, brush their teeth and hair, exercise and shop. It’s not just butt wiping, but a whole lot of other interactions.
To be honest, I never thought about it much except that I got to help someone and earn something on the side. In hindsight, having different experiences and perspectives helped me frame my mindset about life.
Some may think wiping butts is disgusting, but to me, I would never have met a person who is as smart and genuine as Patrick. We bonded and I learnt a lot, thanks to him. We went to football games together, made cocktails in his room and hung out with his friends.
You and your co-founder had it made working in DBS. So why give it all up to peddle nuts?
A favourite lunchtime discussion among my friends was thinking about what we were going to do in our post-banking careers. Some wanted to go the traditional route – get an MBA and join a private equity firm. Others spoke of starting a company or taking time off to travel.
Whatever it was, the consensus was to continue to grind away until you accumulated enough money. And that was true – every year, I got paid a little more and worked a little less. The comfort it provided was addictive. I realised the golden handcuffs are real. I ended up spending more every year as a way of validating the time spent in a job I felt I was not cut out for. Ultimately, I felt bad complaining about my job but not having the guts to leave it.
Over lunch with Andrew one day, we decided to act on the idea of delivering healthy snacks. The original domain name was andrews nuts.com.
Did your parents threaten to disown you?
They flipped initially, but I believe they always have my best interests at heart. Being business owners themselves, they felt the difficulty and risk of starting a business and had their reasons to doubt me when we started.
Snack Good, Do Good. From day one, you wanted to do good?
I guess so – that’s why we started the “one box, one meal” initiative with (charity and soup kitchen) Willing Hearts, where we donate a meal to the needy for every box of snacks we sell. We don’t just donate meals. We also help to cook, pack and deliver meals at Willing Hearts. It’s great for team-building.
Tell us about the three aunties you hired as packers but who eventually played an instrumental role in where you are today.
A few years into the business, we started to wonder if what we were doing was sustainable. We were acquiring customers in a very aggressive way – like offering a free box for every two boxes ordered – but it was negative economics.
There were other problems and we were tired. The three aunties have been with us from the beginning, so I found alternative employment for them at a place which actually paid more. I even took them there. They thought about it, but told me they didn’t want the job.
The next day, one of them offered us some funds to help us set up a proper facility. That was a turning point and although our business always had the “doing good” element, we decided it had to focus on a social mission.
Today, the three aunties are shareholders and also supervisors in our packing facility.
Who or what else has inspired you to stay the course?
The people who have joined the business as employees or partners one way or another. They have chosen to trust us and give us their nine-to-five every day for the past five years to work on this dream.
Stubbornness, strategy, stupidity or serendipity? Which is responsible for BoxGreen’s success?
A better word for stupidity might be naivete and with that, a mix of serendipity. We continue to learn new things (and make mistakes) every day and have great people who believe selling nuts can change the world.
Do you think you have a messiah complex? Do you think you’re saving the world?
Not at all. I don’t claim to know it all… but I do believe I am in control of my actions and they can be used in a force for good.
Knowing what you do now, what would you tell Walter Oh in 2014, as he was about to quit his job?
It is not going to be as smooth-sailing as you imagined. You can probably achieve what you have set out to do in half the time if you learn to let go earlier and move on when you realise you made a bad decision.
Entrepreneur, husband, son: which role is the most difficult?
You missed out father. I would say father and son.
Being a father helps to put things into perspective – that you live life only once and time doesn’t turn back. Seeing my daughter grow up is the best thing that has happened in my life. It is also hardest being a father because there is guilt that you will never be able to spend enough time with her because of all your other commitments.
I realise now how much my parents have sacrificed for me to make me who I am, so yes, I am still learning to be a better father and son.