Two's Company With Dennis Tay And Amanda

Who says Singapore designs don't sell?

Design store Naiise's dream of championing home-grown talents has borne fruit

In 2012, Mr Dennis Tay, then a final- year entrepreneur major at the Singapore Institute of Management-RMIT University, hatched a plan to bring good design to the masses.

He believed that well-designed products should be "for everyone, for every day" and that good design is democratic rather than dictated by hefty price tags, big brand names and countries of origin.

Driven by this simple conviction, he launched the multi-label design store Naiise in 2013 with $3,000. The online shop sold original designs of everything from furniture to fashion to stationery, produced by both Singapore and international designers, and priced between $10 and $300.

Last year, the three-year-old company earned more than $1 million and spawned five brick-and-mortar outlets, including a 6,500 sq ft flagship store at Central mall in Clarke Quay.

For shoppers, Naiise appeals with its wide and easily likeable selection of products that are fun, fresh, functional and fashionable. They reach for plush pillows shaped like the popular old-school iced gem biscuits and stationery with tongue-in- cheek Singlish phrases such as "Kena Arrowed" on a to-do notepad.

Also a hit are its gourmet food items such as nut butters and flavoured tea. But neither Mr Tay nor Naiise's buying and marketing director Amanda Eng, who is his wife, consider themselves design experts.

Ms Amanda Eng and Mr Dennis Tay in a wedding photograph with their pets, an Alaskan Malamute and husky. PHOTO: COURTESY OF AMANDA ENG AND DENNIS TAY

His education in design came from sleek technology products by brands such as Apple. Mr Tay, 31, says: "There's so much value in the design of its products that regular people like myself, who aren't design-trained or in the industry, could enjoy them."

Ms Eng, 31, is similarly candid. She says: "Before I joined Naiise, I was not exposed to the Singapore maker scene. I even looked down on Singapore stuff. I thought I would never wear a shirt designed or made by a Singapore company."

What propelled Naiise's fortunes - spelled the way "nice" is pronounced in Singlish - and made converts out of sceptics such as Ms Eng was Mr Tay's canny observation of the design scene and his desire to do good.

He co-founded a creative agency in 2009 with three Singaporean graduates of the prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

On the side, his partners designed eye-catching, functional items, including a gramophone that plays music from an attached CD player, for themselves.

Mr Tay, who ran his own events company for about two years before that, says earnestly: "These were award-winning designers, yet they said there was no market for their work. They wanted to create things, but didn't want to get involved in (selling their products).

"At the same time, the consumer market was heavily dominated by big brands. I felt that there was a gap between what people thought of design and what designers needed to do to get their designs seen, and I wanted to bridge that."

The partners went their separate ways in 2010 due to differences among them, but that itch to do something design-related stayed with him.

In his last six months at university, he came up with the plan for Naiise and launched the one-man start-up from his bedroom in his parents' home, an HDB maisonette in Bukit Batok. His father is a remisier and his mother is a retired primary school teacher. He has an older brother who sells audio equipment.

He taught himself to create the website and cold-called brands to get them to list their products on it.

The website also had a section for home-grown designs.

He says: "I wanted to help the smaller guys - emerging Singapore creators who were doing good work. When local brands are placed next to the big guys, it helps to elevate their standing."

Singaporean Shane Low, 33, co-founder and designer of doob Bean Bags, was among the first brands to stock with Naiise. He says he did so because he liked Mr Tay's pitch about giving Singapore design a platform and he was humble.

He says: "As Naiise grew, it became an authority on what was good design. Being stocked on Naiise was seen as an endorsement of our brand."

Still, there were some like Ms Eng, a business administration graduate from the National University of Singapore, who had their initial reservations.

She says: "I had my opinions about the things that Dennis should have been bringing in. But what I thought wouldn't sell ended up doing well."

A decorative nightlight featuring superhero motifs, which she thought was kitschy, for example, turned out to be a bestseller.

Parents of young children loved it especially because it uses LED lights, which keeps it cool and safe for children to touch. The light is also affixed to the wall with an adhesive and requires no drilling.

With Mr Tay proving his business chops and Naiise making $30,000 in its first year, Ms Eng decided to quit her job as the marketing director of fashion e-tailer Zalora Singapore to join Naiise.

A turning point for the store came in 2014 when it held a three-month pop-up in People's Park Complex. It allowed shoppers to see its products in person and take home something immediately.

It held another four pop-ups that year in locations such as an industrial space in King George's Avenue and in the atrium of Orchard Central mall.

The number of customers grew and Naiise became a 10-person team by the end of 2014. The business also moved into a 1,100 sq ft warehouse-cum-office in Ubi Road.

Yet, even as the company expanded, the couple stuck to a simple, egalitarian business model where the monthly revenue is shared among all staff, including the two of them. This means each person's pay cheque is determined largely by how much Naiise makes in that month, as well as factors such as his performance and seniority in the company. Naiise gets a 45 per cent cut from the products it sells.

Mr Tay says: "We structured it this way so Naiise remains sustainable in the long run. Our employees understand that if we don't make money or spend money we don't have, everyone doesn't make money."

He opted, however, to not draw a salary until last year while Ms Eng took home a nominal sum of $500 each month in 2014. They ploughed their earnings back into Naiise and lived off their savings.

Because of their business model, every employee is invested in the well-being of the company and mindful of keeping costs down. For example, when Mr Tay suggested spending $30,000 to install air- conditioners at their stuffy Ubi Road office, the team - mostly young people in their 20s - said no. To cool down, they stood in the building's air- conditioned corridors.

Last year, its annual revenue was five times that of the previous year. In a good month, staff earn between $4,000 and $8,000 each. In slower months, it ranges from $2,000 to $4,000.

Ms Chong Li Bing, 27, who edits the Naiise blog and earned just $400 in her first month as an employee in 2014, says: "I believe that Naiise is making a difference to the design scene and it's fun working with like-minded people. That keeps you going even when you don't have a good month."

Naiise is now a 30-strong team. It recently moved into a two-storey office in Tagore Industrial Avenue.

Looking ahead, the couple plan to open two to three stores this year and may launch a collaborative line of products in the future.

Mr Tay says: "Ultimately, I want Naiise to have products that people will care about and whose design helps better their lives."

Dennis on Amanda

Supportive spouse

For Mr Dennis Tay, founder of the multi-label design store Naiise, Ms Amanda Eng is his "complementary half" both in life and work.

She is his wife and the company's buying and marketing director, the detail-oriented doer who realises his vision. He says: "I'll negotiate deals such as finding a good place to open a store. Once I've signed the contracts, I'll pass them to her. She'll get down to business with the marketing and operations teams."

He says she immerses herself so fully in the work that she is not easily distracted. "An intern might call for her attention 10 times and she won't hear him."

The couple married last November and are staying at a rented apartment in Cavenagh Road until their Build-To-Order flat is ready.

They met as students at Anderson Junior College. In 2012, he found out on Facebook that she is a fellow dog-owner - he has a husky, she has an Alaskan Malamute - and approached her to set up a play date for their pets.

They hit it off and began dating a month before he launched Naiise. A year later, she gave up a stable pay cheque to join Naiise full-time, with the support of her advertising consultant father and housewife mother. Her younger brother is an architect and younger sister, a pastry chef.

Mr Tay says: "Amanda understands that I love what I'm doing and she's supported me through it all."

Amanda on Dennis

Dreamer with ambition

She calls him a dreamer, the antithesis to her practical ways.

But Ms Amanda Eng, wife and business partner of Mr Dennis Tay, says his foresight is why their multi-label design store Naiise has grown so quickly.

The buying and marketing director of Naiise says he "has a lot of ideas and ambition".

She adds: "I get irritated sometimes because he's very dreamy, but I think it's important for start-ups to have a leader who can dream."

Not only is he a visionary boss, but he is also a mentor and friend to staff. He takes an interest in their personal lives, even staying up late to talk to them about their problems.

She adds that he is not one to lay down the law when an employee makes a mistake, preferring to give the person a chance to learn from the error and pick himself up.

She says jokingly that his nice-guy nature has sometimes made her out to be the "bad cop" since she is the one to crack the whip on team performance and is more focused on the bottom line. "Dennis is a good boss who spends a lot of time mentoring individuals in the team, which I'm not so good at. I don't get involved in the mushy parts."

She adds that they have never fought at work despite being in each other's space all the time. "The way we work is a good split of (duties and) what it takes to run a good company."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2016, with the headline 'Dreamer with ambition Who says Singapore designs don't sell? Two's Company With Dennis Tay And Amanda Eng Dennis on Amanda Amanda on Dennis Supportive spouse'. Print Edition | Subscribe