Visakan Veerasamy is in the business of having fun.
The millennial Singaporean entrepreneur doesn’t strike you as the sort of person who lives and breathes the hustle that the startup era holds dear. I’m speaking to him via Skype; our call, scheduled for noon, was suggested because I thought he’d be in the middle of a busy work day and could perhaps take out an hour right before a hurried lunch.
“I just woke up,” laughs Visa as we begin our conversation.
In a society that prides itself on an almost ubiquitous Protestant work ethic, Visa’s approach seems radically out of place, bordering on aberration. But him and his co-founder, Desmond, didn’t get to where they are today by surrendering to expectations. Their styles are contrarian — a trait that’s served them well as they built Statement, their t-shirt company, over the past several years.
Statement started, quite literally, from idle meandering on social media. Visa, who says he was “quite politically active”, and “used to sharing whatever’s on my mind”, took to Facebook like a duck to water. While his peers shared humblebrags, selfies, and vacation updates, Visa saw it as an opportunity to poke fun at political realities and everyday life in Singapore.
His memes elicited a wave of feedback; some found it hilarious while others were a bit taken aback, perhaps not used to such discourse in the public eye. But one thing was clear: his posts weren’t going away anytime soon.
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“I’ve always been active on the internet,” says Visa. “I’ve had a website since I was 5 — even before social media I read a lot on sites, participated in communities and forums. One of my first experiences with online purchases was via [virtual pet community] Neopets where you could have your own store. That was fun.”
“My parents ran their own business [...] it’s always been natural for me to sell stuff, put it in the public domain. As a teenager I sold concert tickets, CDs. I wouldn’t say I was super professional about it, but it always felt natural.”
From Memes to Money
As the memes grew, so did the buzz around them. People in Visa’s circle started asking if they were available for sale in some capacity. As Visa veered towards printing tshirts, he was approached by his current business partner, Desmond, who specialized in things like typography and design. That helped immensely — both brought complementary strengths to the table and were able to get the business off the ground.
Statement’s done well for a pretty niche category. It sells mostly white t-shirts with captions emblazoned on them and a smaller selection of tote bags. In 2016, just four years after quietly starting operations, it had already earned over S$100,000 in revenue, received several media mentions, and been approached by tshirt resellers for stocking in their stores.The most intriguing part? It was a side hustle for both.
“After finishing military service in 2012, I thought about doing Statement more but I didn’t want it to be my plan A. I didn’t feel qualified enough because there was more to learn and I thought I could do that from a more established working environment,” says Visa.
But that shouldn’t discard the effort both Visa and Desmond put in the early days. It was obvious to both that Statement could only become a sustainable venture if it resonated with ordinary Singaporeans, and not just those in their personal circles.
The fun-loving, creative individuals visited hawker centres to solicit orders, spoke with printers, and asked for help from tons of people in order to build a leaner business.
They focused on getting the basics right. Visa says it was “essential for them to have as little anxiety as possible,” and hence never fell into the trap of overthinking or overanalyzing. He is of the opinion that most aspiring entrepreneurs today are obsessed today with things like the company name and website with a tendency of sweating the small stuff. He believes these things are secondary; what the customer looks at is the end product — first-time business owners should launch as soon as possible and pivot based on feedback, rather than trying to attain perfection from day one.
“My worldview is that business is intrinsically stressful. Many things can go wrong; once we had our supplier shut down during Chinese New Year and we lost a lot of orders, but it’s important to have a good humor about it. Treat everything as a learning experience,” adds Visa.
Despite Visa’s seemingly casual attitude towards running his business, he does admit that his early approach of relying on manual processes to track orders and inventory levels wasn’t the best method. Some orders would slip through the cracks and the team would only find out after complaints from an irate customer.
Initially, the team ran their business primarily on Google Sheets and Analytics with some additional marketing software like MailChimp thrown into the mix. They moved to Shopify after growing tired of the disparate, manual ways. Visa says there was some hesitation, mainly because it was painful transitioning from mostly free ways of doing things to a paid product, but it’s a decision that has served them well since.
Running Statement on Shopify has trumped hosting it on the likes of Carousell, Lazada, and Shopee; Visa says it’s because the “user experience is better than anything else out there.”
“People sometimes overlook that time is an overhead for your business, just like rent and salaries. A tool like Shopify is worth paying for because it removes this whole layer of paperwork; when you’re just starting off [the paperwork] doesn’t matter, but as you add customers it starts to pile up,” he says.
Other tools that Visa uses for his business are Conversio, Shipstation, and Waveapp. Unlike traditional ecommerce businesses, Statement hasn’t invested a lot of cash in marketing strategies. It did the basics; email marketing, blog posts, and referral campaigns, but hasn’t burnt through large sums of money to acquire customers. Virality and word-of-mouth have been their trump card.
I press him to think about his journey less traveled; was there ever a seminal moment that paved the way to Statement’s popularity?
“It’s mischief I guess, I do whatever I think is interesting and funny,” laughs Visa.
But rather than liken the growth of Statement to one ‘Eureka’ moment, Visa prefers to talk about consistent, incremental steps. He says the timing of his memes certainly helped, in 2012 Singaporeans had just started to debate the concept of a national identity and his Singlish puns were embraced. If he had posted that in, let’s say 1995, it’s likely that he would have been heckled and dismissed as a lowlife.
“I don’t want to take too much credit [for success]. We were positioned at the right place, at the right time,” he explains.
Visa repeats his advice to young entrepreneurs at various moments throughout our chat. Be comfortable with failure to the point of expecting and embracing it is a recurring theme. Constantly look to have fun and seek enjoyment in your work is another. And never, ever shy away from asking for help or advice.
-Written by Osman Husain