SME Spotlight

Sisters share dress sense and show flair for business

Sisters Jolene (left), 25, and Lucinda Zhou, 27, at their pop-up store in Boufe, a cafe in Tanglin Road, on Monday. They founded online store Ohvola in 2007 after working together selling dresses from a pushcart. As they were still studying then, the
Sisters Jolene (left), 25, and Lucinda Zhou, 27, at their pop-up store in Boufe, a cafe in Tanglin Road, on Monday. They founded online store Ohvola in 2007 after working together selling dresses from a pushcart. As they were still studying then, they did most of the work for their online business at night, and also roped in their mother to pitch in by packing parcels.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

It can be a make-or-break situation when running a business with family, but sisters Lucinda and Jolene Zhou, founders and owners of online fashion boutique Ohvola, make it work. They tell Jacqueline Woo how they do it, in the third of a four-part series.

Q: How did you come to set up your own business?

Lucinda: It was started in 2007, when we were both still in school. I was new to the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) and had just joined the entrepreneur club. They offered a pushcart business initiative, which I took up, and the first thing that came to my mind was dresses.

So we started the business with capital of only $100 - it was a loan from our elder sister - and bought clothes from local suppliers to sell.

Jolene: We just wanted to earn some extra pocket money.

I was studying at Ngee Ann Polytechnic then, which was just next to SIM, so when Lucinda was having classes, I would go over to man the stall. And when I was having classes, she would take over.

EXPANSION PLANS

We want to roll out a few new clothing lines, such as those for bridesmaids and special occasions. We also plan to open our first flagship brick-and-mortar store, hopefully, somewhere in the central business district by the end of next year. The rent will likely be quite high, but we're moving away from casual fashion for students into more corporate wear, and that's our target market.

MS LUCINDA ZHOU, co-founder of Ohvola, on the online retailer's plans

Lucinda: We brought home $150 in the first week with the pushcart. But it was very time-consuming to man it while we were still attending school, so we thought, why not bring it online?

Ohvola went live online that same year in July. We didn't know where it was going but we just wanted to try.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in the early days?

Lucinda: One of them was striking a balance between school and work.

We had to go to school in the day, and at night we had to prep the website, attend to e-mail and pack the parcels. We even got our mother to help us with the packing. It ate into our sleep time, so we were tired during classes and it was really difficult to concentrate. Most of the time, I ended up thinking more about Ohvola than my studies.

But one good thing that came out of it was that I realised my passion wasn't in what I was studying at that time - banking and finance.

At the end of my second year, I left and took up fashion communications at LaSalle College of the Arts. There were people around me who thought I should have stayed and gotten a degree in banking and finance, but my parents were very supportive.

They just wanted me to be certain of what I was doing.

Q: In 2012, Ohvola moved from selling imported dresses to producing its own designs. How was it like making the transition?

Lucinda: At that time, online blogshops were coming up one after another. We wanted our clothes to be different and exclusive, so we decided to start our own line.

We went into China because the cost of manufacturing here was really too high. We were still new back then, we didn't know who to look for - it was a very trying period. The first ones we found had told us: "Yes, this can be done. Everything will be perfect."

Jolene: They showed us good samples, but when we collected the actual stock in big batches, there were issues with the workmanship.

Lucinda: We weren't able to return the goods as well because the clothes were already made. We ended up losing about $10,000.

Jolene: We also realised we shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket by sticking to just one particular factory, so we now work with a few reliable ones to be safe.

Q: So who handles which aspects of the business?

Jolene: I studied logistics management in school, so I handle the logistics side.

Lucinda: I deal with the marketing side and am more of the front-line person for the company.

As for the designing process - we do it together.

Q: What is it like working with your sister?

Lucinda: Because we are so close, our tastes and preferences can be quite similar, which means that decision-making isn't tough. Sometimes, we know what the other is thinking even without saying it.

Jolene: The best part of it is that we can be straightforward with our thoughts and ideas. We're very frank with each other, so when we fail to agree on something, we thrash it out. It's easier that way because we don't have to hide anything.

Lucinda: (These arguments) have got to the point where we stopped talking to each other before but, somehow, we'd start talking again the day after.

Jolene: Being sisters in the same company also means we talk about work 24/7. It's good because of the flexibility but, sometimes, it's not all that healthy because we cannot stop talking about work.

Q: What is the next step for Ohvola?

Lucinda: We want to roll out a few new clothing lines, such as those for bridesmaids and special occasions. We also plan to open our first flagship brick-and-mortar store, hopefully, somewhere in the central business district by the end of next year. The rent will likely be quite high, but we're moving away from casual fashion for students into more corporate wear, and that's our target market.

Q: What is it about fashion that you like and what keeps you going in this line?

Lucinda: Through fashion and dressing up, I get to experiment with various styles and discover myself along the way. Dressing up to what I love every day has this amazing ability to liven my mood as well.

Jolene: For me, dressing up is a fashion shout-out to how I'm feeling. I get to put on different personas on different days.

Seeing people wearing our clothes on the streets - it really gives us a sense of fulfilment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2015, with the headline 'Sisters share dress sense and show flair for business'. Print Edition | Subscribe