The tale of the teacher, the fire fighter, the flight attendant and the engineer who set up their own online business Homlab, selling unique home decoration items that can be found around the region. They started their business in 2015 and have kept it running for the past few years. Currently, they are in the midst of redesigning their website and restructuring the company.
What lessons has Farah Anwar learnt from running her own online business with her family?
A Singaporean in Brunei, Farah Anwar has been running her business Homlab for 2 years now. Farah is originally a teacher but had to stop working after moving with her husband, first to Kuala Lumpur and then to Brunei. She raises 3 kids, who are now 12, 10 and 8.
How it all began
When her brother in law, a fireman, suggested that he, Farah’s twin sister, plus Farah and her husband should start a business together, she was cautious but excited.
“My brother in law sat us down during one of our home visits. We had just bought an apartment, and so had he and my twin sister. We had loved the decorating phase, finding nice items to put in our home. It had given my brother in law inspiration for a business. He had prepared a presentation and obviously done his market research.”
Everything takes more time than you think
“We spent about one year preparing to open our business,” says Farah. “As none of us had prior experience owning a business, we had to start from scratch. Finding vendors, figuring out how to set up a website with an online store, photographing products, finding warehouse space, advertising via print and social media, were all new territory for us.
Our team quickly realized that success can be in the details. Suppliers wouldn’t respond to us if we emailed from our Gmail account, but took us seriously when we wrote from our Homlab website extension.”
From Idea to Store
Farah: “We were so ambitious, sourcing products and brands that were hard to find in Singapore. Items like rugs, special poufs, Moroccan items and well known Dutch brand Pol’s Potten. Initially we planned to focus on reselling rather than designing our own products, but we designed some of our larger furniture ourselves.
To our surprise, expats immediately warmed to our products, probably because we have a more Bohemian style. Local Singaporeans were initially more hesitant to buy. We are still trying to do research on that, it could be the pricing factor.“
Trial and Error
Despite building an online brand, we did also have a showroom in a warehouse for a while. This enabled our customers to view our products, especially the larger items. However, it required not just thousands of dollars in rent, but also manpower to open up the showroom. Manpower is one element which we were short of. Therefore, we now want to focus on better pictures and information on our website so that we have little to no appointments to view items physically. We are more looking at: Visit the website – Love the items – Precise details and photos – Checkout – Payment – Delivery!
Doing business with your family
Deciding whether or not it’s smart to start a business with family members, it depends on how strong your bond is, disagreements arise even among experts. This is the time we just need to take a risk. It is best to have a formal agreement written in black and white and signed by both parties to avoid disputes that may ruin your relationships.
As Homlab started out as a family business, we are very much determined to put our family ties above than anything else first, continues Farah, as the relationship is forever. It is important to be transparent with each other, to be able to ask each other for information without feeling a lack of trust. Finding the right balance takes a while.
Lessons learned about running an online business
Farah summarises the lessons she learned in the past 3 years as follows:
1) Learn, adjust and be determined
Farah and her colleagues had a steep learning curve on every aspect of running the business. The lessons led them to adjust plans and procedures while they were operating. Determination is also key, she says, as there will be times when it feels it isn’t worth the effort and stress.
2) The importance of research
When you enter into an online product based business, research is very important. Who are reliable suppliers, what payment methods should you offer, which platforms are there to offer your products on and how do you build a brand? Farah says a vendor can help a lot to get you started with these things, but their services do not come for free, it is an upfront investment.
3) Be in the same country as your partner and stock
Farah regularly flies back to Singapore for the business, a 2 hour trip. While it is not far, it is not ideal for running a business together, she says, not even an online one. Especially as her business partners also have other jobs, staying connected can be a challenge. Also, not being near the stock while managing social media, means that checking questions from customers is not always practical.
4) Customer service is key
Farah: In this internet age, customers are very demanding. Homlab is a small company and it is sometimes hard to keep up with those demands for immediate response, especially when you have kids or another job. You also need to factor in issues such as possible returns and refunds of items, as shipping may damage goods.
5) Find suppliers you can trust
Finding reliable suppliers is one of the main challenges according to Farah. Products may arrive broken or even not at all are some of the lessons Homlab learnt the hard way.
Many thanks for your time to do the interview Farah! The HomLab website is currently undergoing a major redesign, you can find it here afterwards.