Tue, Jan 27, 2009
The Straits Times
Giving teen entrepreneurs an early start

By Debbie Yong and Huang Huifen

[Above: Screencap of Ms Cindy Chng's eco-travel site]

Energetic, full of ideas and eager to be their own boss, Singapore's teen entrepreneurs now have another reason to turn their vision into reality.

With the amended Civil Law and Bankruptcy Bills passed by Parliament last Monday, anyone aged 18 or older can now start and run a business.

Previously, aspiring entrepreneurs had to be 21 years old, the age when someone is legally considered an adult. Now, anyone who is 18 and above can act as a director of companies, form companies or limited liability partnerships and enter into business contracts, including land leases not exceeding three years.

The changes are a welcome move to those who are already raring to go.

Ms Cindy Chng, 19, a director of Eco-travel, a company that organises nature appreciation and environmental learning trips to South-east Asian destinations, started preparing to get her own firm registered the day she heard the news.

'Having my own company will grant me greater autonomy and control over its operations,' said the first-year business student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Eco-travel is registered as a subsidiary of Eco Singapore, a non-profit social enterprise.

Eco Singapore president Wilson Ang, 26, Ms Chng's business partner, agrees: 'Young people will have more ownership and responsibility if the business is registered in their names.'

Most teen entrepreneurs currently turn to the Internet - creating blog shops and eBay stores or offering Web services - or set up stalls at flea markets and bazaars. Those who want to make their businesses official often do so by proxy: They register their companies under their parents' names.

Ms Janice Tan, the 20-year-old owner of Zsofi, a tapas bar in Little India, wished the changes had come sooner.

When she started her business in August 2007, she had to register her company under her father's name. But even that proved complicated because her father had to juggle her business' legal paperwork and his own day job.

'I feel bad as my father is not supposed to be doing this, as it is my job,' said Ms Tan, who is in her second year of communication studies in NTU.

Mr Donovan Auyong, 19, also had to register a photography and media company under his mother's name when he realised his clients - a large electronics firm and a supermarket - could make out his pay cheque only to a company and not an individual.

He is a final-year fashion communication student at Lasalle College of the Arts.

'The old law did not completely stop young people from starting a business. It just made it more bureaucratic and cumbersome,' said Professor Wong Poh Kam, director of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Entrepreneurship Centre.

The centre, started in 2001, offers workshops and business clinics on entrepreneurship and runs an incubator programme that provides seed funding and mentorships to NUS students and graduates.

Most polytechnics, some junior colleges, and even secondary schools, have got into the act of incorporating entrepreneurship classes into their curriculum.

Like all three local universities, Temasek Polytechnic and Republic Polytechnic also have dedicated centres for entrepreneurship to provide guidance for young bosses.

Businessman Justin Lee, 27, thinks 18 is 'an ideal time to start a business', as most would have several months free while waiting to enter university or the army.

'Registering my business was the first thing I wanted to do the day I turned 21,' recalled Mr Lee, who started out as a freelance website designer when he was 14.

He now owns three companies that offer services such as software design, events organising and helping foreign technology start-ups relocate here. Operating in both Singapore and Jakarta, his firms have 20 full-time staff in total.

The youth are becoming more entrepreneurial because rapid changes in technologies have created opportunities for innovation, said Professor Desai Narasimhalu, the director of Singapore Management University's Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

He also observed that with parents being more affluent and educated these days, youngsters may find it easier to get their support in pursuing alternative careers.

But Mr Nicholas Chan, 30, the executive director of Azione Capital, which provides seed funding and mentoring for technology start-ups, advised caution against rashly rushing into binding contracts.

'Some youths genuinely want to create something for themselves but many, being young and lacking in life experiences, can easily be distracted from their work when faced with school stress and relationship or friendship problems,' he warned.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 25, 2008.

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