Driven by the passion for scooter business

PHOTO: Driven by the passion for scooter business

MARK Yeow, 24, has long scars that testify to his passion for scooter riding - despite road accidents that left gashes needing multiple stitches. But in the last two years, he has gained the battle scars of doing business too - in none other than scooter tuning and repairs.

Scooter Narcotics is still up and running today with a monthly turnover of $20,000 to $35,000, defying setbacks such as Mr Yeow's brushes with the law, getting his family evicted from their residence, and struggling to rebuild a tainted reputation in the local scooter community.

The idea of entering into a scooter-related business had in fact come as a surprise to Mr Yeow himself, who left school at 16 and has worked in sales and real estate since. "I've always wanted to set up my own business, but never imagined myself to be in this industry. I thought maybe a bistro, or something generic, just selling stuff," he says.

He had hit a rough patch in life, facing a relationship problem and feeling directionless, when a friend asked over ramen: "Why don't you just start a scooter business?"

"I thought that was crazy, but the very next day I set up a Facebook page for the company and decided to start selling parts," he says. The scooter enthusiast had been racing since 17. "My mum has asked me to give up several times, but that's something I just cannot do. Riding is freedom," he says.

She soon had more reasons to hope he would give up both riding and his new business.

With just $800, Mr Yeow started buying scooter parts from local suppliers, negotiating with those he had gotten to know as a customer and persuading them to offer him favourable prices without having to buy in bulk.

That worked for awhile, and he soon decided to branch into offering basic repairs and servicing of scooters - on the premises of the landed property his family was renting then. "We had several complaints because of the noise and it was considered illegal soliciting of business, but I really loved what I was doing and wanted to continue." The family was soon given a month's notice to leave the place.

"After we got chased out, my family was really furious. Ties between myself and my two elder brothers were so bad. I told myself I had to take responsibility for it," says Mr Yeow. The family moved into a condominium and he was tasked with paying half the rent.

"I could not keep up with the payments, so I really had to broaden my sales network," he says. Early marketing tactics included forcing himself to copy and paste links to his website every day from 8pm to 1am. "I told myself I had to paste 300 links in scooter forums every night," he says.

In dogged pursuit of business growth, Mr Yeow also began taking on scooter repair jobs in the condo's carpark. Again, complaints followed swiftly. He realised that a proper workshop was needed.

But a B2 industrial space, which caters for repairs of automotives, proved difficult to find too. It took two moves - once out of a B1 industrial space and the second after the landlord decided to end the lease after five months - before he found his current space a year ago.

"My landlord now allows me to conduct business till late at night, midnight, 1am," he says. Business hours do not start till 11am, a perk of being his own boss. And while he struggled to work long hours as a real estate agent previously, he now finds himself gladly working on bodywork customisation late into the night.

That passion also meant closing the door to external funding. "I wasn't actively looking for investors because I am very emotional about my business and didn't want to share it," he says.

So when he needed $25,000 to start ordering parts from abroad, he accumulated capital from sales, persuading customers to pre-order parts and rolling over money to generate more income. "I told myself that I should work harder and gave myself a quota and target to hit every day. By the end of two months, we raised $25,000 and I went to Germany to order the parts."

Apart from providing basic repair services, Scooter Narcotics also does chrome and gold plating on scooters and customised laser cuttings on the bodywork of scooters.

There are regulations governing vehicle modifications, and the Land Transport Authority publishes guidelines on vehicle modifications that are not allowed (air horns, engine capacity, tinting of vehicle lamps), ones that are (in-vehicle entertainment and GPS systems, car seats) and ones which require approval (engines, exhaust systems and transmissions).

Mr Yeow acknowledges that some of the modifications Scooter Narcotics offers, such as stripping scooter handlebars of their outer covering for the streetstyle vibe, fall in a grey zone. "Some customers pass the inspections, some don't. We pre-empt them of course, but they still buy because it looks good. We sell a want, not a need," he says.

Scooters - which unlike motorcycles are automatic and can be distinguished by the floorboard on which riders place their feet - are gaining popularity in Singapore, says Mr Yeow. Gilera scooters alone number 2,000 in Singapore today, he says. Which implies a growing market for parts, repairs and modifications.

His customers are between 24 and 30 years old. The 24-28 year olds spend the most, with some splashing out "a good 12 grand on modifications". That was in fact the inspiration for the company's name: the fact that riders' appetites for more modifications are not unlike addictions which "Scooter Narcotics" satisfies, says Mr Yeow.

Even within this niche market, competition has risen. There were four firms offering similar services and parts when he started out in 2010. There are now seven, not including competition from parallel importers.

One of his competitors Mr Yeow considers is his "si fu", or master. "I really begged him. Every day, I would pester him to teach me one or two things. I would video every single step he does on an engine and learn how to do it on my own," he says. Learning how to work on engines took him a year and a half.

But that informal apprenticeship could not prevent a number of poorly done jobs which led to complaints and hateful reviews that got him banned from local scooter forums. "I felt like giving up, but then, these bad times teach you not to be complacent in business. It was a very good lesson for me to learn," he says.

That determination also has much to do with his mother, whom he cites as his motivation and inspiration. After her divorce, she raised all three sons on her own. "I didn't have many things when I was younger, we were quite poor. I spent a lot of money, didn't think about my future, but I think experience and the hurdles in life have shaped the way I am today," says Mr Yeow.

He is keenly aware that if he quits the business to take on paid employment, he would draw a salary of no more than $1,600. "I actually tried to pick up my diploma but gave it up half-way, I realised I couldn't study. But I accumulate my knowledge in other ways, and I guess the way I speak today is because of what I read - books, a lot of newspapers," he says.

Plans for expansion are fast unfolding. Mr Yeow now hires a mechanic and a part-time despatch rider. An online store, set up in response to enquiries from abroad, will be launched in February or March, and Scooter Narcotics will open a workshop in Damansara, Malaysia selling second-hand parts.

He aims to secure sole distributorship rights for foreign brands, one of several other specific goals: a 1,600-square-feet workshop with three jacks to lift up bikes and two levels - one as an office from which to sell scooters.

"I want to be a specialist in selling scooters only, not motorcylces, and I want at least five staff," says Mr Yeow. His dream is for the business to be able to run while he's away. "I hope that one day, I'll be able to take my mother to travel round the world, to places she wants to go but hasn't been," he says.