Before I Was Boss: Furniture entrepreneur who 'cares too much'

PHOTO: Castlery

Singapore furniture store Castlery's co-founder Declan Ee, 35, has been let down more times in his life than he cares to count. More disappointingly, it's often by the people he trusts the most.

And for someone who describes himself as a "people-person", the setbacks hit him especially hard.

In his early 20s, a web and events company Ee had started with a friend nearly went bankrupt when "a certain person whom we trusted to collect the down payments (from vendors) suddenly disappeared".

In another incident when Castlery was still a fledgling company, he found out that a marketing employee had made off with customer contacts and product materials before quitting to join another competitor.

Both times, however, Ee and his partners managed to pull through, with the latter experience spurring them to "execute faster and better".

In an interview with AsiaOne, it's not dollars and cents, but people, family and relationships that come up a lot in the conversation with the "numbers man" of the home-grown brand.

He expresses how he "cares too much" about everything around him, although that may not actually be a bad thing.

The law graduate from University College London has had his fingers in many pies - from being in banking (he was with Lehman Brothers when the crash happened, he proffers), to helping out in his family's pest control business, and then his role managing the finances at Castlery.

But that's not all, he also has a music business (he writes and deejays) and does his own investments on the side. Talk about a varied portfolio.

Photo: Castlery

His journey to entrepreneurship began when he was still in NS, offering web solution services which expanded into an events business.

From there, his appetite for entrepreneurship exploded, after spending a number of years at Lehman and Japanese investment bank Nomura.

It was "a happy accident" that Ee first founded Castlery with a friend in 2013, who was sourcing for affordable yet stylish furniture for his new home then.

After making contacts with furniture factories in China and setting up a website, they celebrated their first order before realising "OK, now we've got to produce this," said Ee, laughing at the memory.

The business has since expanded to include a 40,000 sq ft warehouse and 10,000 sq ft showroom in Alexandra.

Lessons in business

In his almost 20 years of business, Ee cites people as being his biggest headache - which is ironical but also expected for someone like him.

Know what your core strengths are, and don't fight it, if not you'll waste too much time trying to be the good at everything.

-Ee, on entrepreneurship must-haves

The Raffles Institute alumnus also has one other experience early on in his life to thank for learning to handle the "emotional" setbacks he suffers in business and in life.

The theatre enthusiast was producing a local charity musical during his undergraduate days when the lead actress walked out on the production nine days before curtain call at the Esplanade.

He admits he was too idealistic then.

"I was 22, 23, and thought that I'm going to prove to the world, that if we work hard enough, the impossible can be accomplished, so I hired a full cast of amateur actors.

"And I was very hard on them because I knew the standard that was necessary, and of course all of them were like, this guy is 'siao', and finally, it cracked."

He managed to bounce back from potential disaster, roping in his actress-friend at the 11th hour and typing an email out at 3am the same night to all cast and crew, getting them to sign contracts to guarantee their commitment.

So stressful was the experience, he swore never to do it again, "because I was so depressed!" He said he came out of the experience with no friends, save for the lead actress he hired.

But the experience taught him two important lessons.

One is to give people more ownership of things, and not be a "dictator".

"I learnt alot about myself, what I'm good at, what I'm not good at…I was quite the dictator I think, but I think also because I cared so much about it. Maybe too much."

Another lesson the episode taught him, which he says budding entrepreneurs should take heed of, is the art of "letting things go" when things are not going your way.

"Nothing will be done to your standards, not because your standards are better, but because you have a certain way of doing things. Other people's way of doing things may not be like yours, but it may not be bad," Ee says.

Through his various partnerships and investments, the young entrepreneur also learnt the importance of knowing who you're going to bed with, business-wise at least.

What's the criteria for a business partner?

"You must be better than me in areas I'm not good at, so there's no clash. And in the areas I know I do well, you leave it to me, so we have that trust," said Ee.

But he stressed that before deciding to go into business, alone or with others, one should be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses first.

Nothing will be done to your standards, not because your standards are better, but because you have a certain way of doing things. Other people's way of doing things may not be like yours, but it may not be bad.

-Ee's advice on letting things go

"Working for someone doesn't mean you will be unhappy," said Ee, so you must "know your character" before deciding to throw yourself into a business.

He says: "Know what your core strengths are, and don't fight it, if not you'll waste too much time trying to be the good at everything."

So does he think everyone can be an entrepreneur? Again, the "C-word" comes up.

"It takes that thing you really care about to bring it out in you," to the point where you are constantly obsessing and trying to perfect that one thing.

"I think this personality is in everyone, you just have to find the thing you care about."

But it's this caring, he stresses, which makes would-be entrepreneurs successful.

He cites emotional blow-ups, people problems as common issues in business.

"Take it from me, I've done an MNC, a start-up, a family business, music... everything I did - it's the same kind of rubbish, just on a different scale. Only when you care, will you tolerate whatever crap comes your way," Ee says matter-of-factly.

What is success?

So for someone who cares a lot about people, it may not be surprising to learn that for Ee, success means being able to balance both his businesses and being a good family man.

If you make so much money your family hates you, I think it's no point.

- Ee, on what success is to him

When asked if he considers himself to be successful, Ee ruminates: "You forget that what truly matters is two things - family and consistency.

"If I neglect my kids because of everything else I did, I think I would have failed. So hopefully I can balance that out… and not be sucked into all my projects."

"So if you manage to consistently get five per cent returns per year financially and compound that over 40 years, you have a great track record financially, and if you can balance that with family, I think you're successful."

"But if you make so much money your family hates you, I think it's no point."

However, he recognises that he's luckier than most in having the freedom of choosing that balance. Ee tries to spend at least two and a half days a week bonding with his kids.

"I've been very blessed to have all this, I think a lot of it is luck. I've definitely worked hard, but I've also been luckier than a lot of people, so success is... I think I'll only judge it at the end of my life."