People of Swish - Kent Teo

People of Swish : Kent Teo

Swish | 18 May, 2023

Thanks for joining us for this interview, Kent. To kick things off, can you tell us more about yourself and the work you do at Invade?

Absolutely! My name is Kent Teo, and I’ve been running Invade, an experiential events agency for the past 13 years. Invade’s mission is to help emerging brands in the food and retail scene ‘pop up’ through the creative use of retail spaces.

Invade also plays a mediating role between close to 200 government agencies and landlords and almost 40,000 emerging brands. Since catering to all these stakeholders' individual needs is impossible, we've decided to focus instead on building an ecosystem capable of supporting these stakeholders as a whole.

What inspired you to become an entrepreneur, and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced when starting Invade?

Personal interest was a big motivator starting out. I really enjoy immersing myself in the local culture at night markets whenever I travel, and I thought it would be fun to try my hand organising one, which led to the first pop-up market organised during my university days back in 2010.

Pasar malams were also a big part of my childhood, and growing up, I’ve always wondered how we could expand upon the traditional night market concept into a platform for our local emerging brands to shine. This idea inspired many of our creative concepts and pop-up events you see today.

How do you come up with new ideas for your pop-up events and markets? Can you take us through your creative process?

Great question. For me, inspiration can take different shapes and forms, from talking to people while traveling to drawing inspiration from shows, TV dramas and books.

Creativity can also stem from working with a completely new partner, with a very recent example being our Artbox event, which we co-organised with SGAG this year. Working with SGAG was very enjoyable, as it allowed us to inject more colour into the pop-up style market we usually organise, transforming it into a creative festival filled with live entertainment and gameshow elements.

At the end of the day, creativity has to be in our DNA, but I also have this firm belief that ideas are cheap – execution matters more.

What do you think sets Invade apart from other event and retail companies in Singapore, and what do you think are the key factors that have contributed to your success?

I think Invade's success in Singapore's event and retail landscape can be attributed to several key factors. First and foremost, our focus has always been to build successful Intellectual Properties (IPs) around our product offerings. These IPs effectively serve as a moat that distinguish us from our competitors, allowing us to provide our audience with a service that is 'uniquely us'.

We’ve also identified that emerging brands are our biggest success drivers. To help meet the diverse requests of these emerging brands, such as lease periods and stall sizes, we’ve set up an online webpage to quickly collate these demands, allowing us to tailor our event arrangements to meet their requirements effectively.

Finally, investing in our team has also been a key aspect of our strategy. We deeply understand that the way we invest in our human capital directly impacts the execution of our business strategy. Hence, our team is trained to provide service excellence and fully support the needs of our event partners.

One of Invade’s flagship events is Artbox, the outdoor concept market that’s been crowned as one of the most popular pop-up markets in Singapore.  Can you tell us more about how you first came up with the concept for Artbox, and how this idea has evolved over the years?

At its core, Artbox is all about celebrating creativity. It's a consumer and lifestyle show focused on bringing the best of what Singapore’s brands have to offer to the masses, and allowing these brands to demonstrate their innovative products to a wide audience.

The simple yet powerful message of Artbox has remained consistent throughout the years, but we’ve also strived to evolve and adapt the Artbox concept to bring it more in line with the changing preferences of consumers and the innovative offerings of emerging brands. The one thing that stays consistent however is making sure that Artbox retains its core theme of celebrating creativity, which is what makes Artbox so unique and loved.

There’s nothing more challenging than running a large event, let alone many festivals within the same period. Out of curiosity, how big are your teams and how do you manage them?

Managing multiple festivals simultaneously can indeed be a challenging task, but our team is structured to optimally handle this workload. Currently, we have a close-knit team of approximately 30 full-time employees. In addition, we also bring onboard about 10 interns every quarter, as we believe fresh minds bring new perspectives and innovative ideas.

A crucial part of our management strategy is having a strong leadership team responsible for aligning the entire team towards the same direction. However, leadership at Invade is not just about steering the team; it's also about listening. We make an effort to be receptive to fresh ideas, as this promotes creative thinking within the team. This balance between clear direction and open-mindedness is, in my view, one of our key success factors. The synergy of strong leadership, team alignment, and innovative thinking allow us to successfully manage our teams and multiple events effectively and efficiently.

Besides organizing events and markets, Invade also owns MOX, a co-making space for creative businesses.  Can you share what motivated you to start this project, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

When I first embarked on my entrepreneurial journey, I experienced first-hand the challenges of negotiating with landlords, understanding deposit schemes, and other hurdles associated with securing a suitable operating space. These experiences led me to understand that start-ups could greatly benefit from a less burdensome process in procuring their first operating space. Thus, we launched MOX as a safe, community-driven office space, where creatives and entrepreneurs could come together, collaborate, and foster innovation.

MOX is also greatly influenced by the concept of the sharing economy, an idea popularized by platforms like Uber and Lyft. We noticed that creatives often need resources such as photography studios, 3D printers, and workshop rooms, but they don't necessarily need to own or use these resources all the time. By allowing these resources to be shared among its community members, MOX helps to cut costs and promotes efficiency and collaboration.

Overall, we hope that MOX will serve as an enabling platform that reduces barriers for emerging brands, facilitates collaboration, and fosters a community of innovation, all while promoting the concept of resource-sharing.

Invade is known for its innovative approach to retail, with one of your more unique creations being Slurping Good, the ‘first instant noodle-themed experience in Singapore'. Can you share any specific challenges you faced while introducing these new concepts to the market and how you managed to overcome them?

Bringing Slurping Good to the masses was indeed a challenging one, as it was initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, which required us to work around the restrictions on organizing traditional events. Our innovative solution was to create a 'ticketed activation,' which was essentially a retail experience celebrating the universally relatable instant noodle. Given the constraints, the concept was successful to an extent, attracting partnerships from established names like Nissin, Lazada, and Shin Ramyun. This endeavour offered us valuable insights into the market dynamics of sponsorships and ticketed events.

However, as we navigated this new concept, we also faced the challenge of striking a balance between visitor expectations and the ticket price we were charging, as we observed that the higher the ticket price, the higher the visitor expectations. Unfortunately, due to some misalignment in expectations, we’ve received a few negative reviews from this event. Despite this, we greatly appreciated the honest feedback and saw it as part of our learning journey.

Nevertheless, the event managed to draw in 12,000 visitors over a span of three months. Given the tumultuous period with continuous changes in COVID-19 regulations, we found this to be quite an accomplishment. The whole experience, while fraught with challenges, has been a valuable lesson in agility, creativity, and resilience.

In addition to Slurping Good, what other unique concepts or projects is Invade currently working on, and what can we expect to see from the company in the near future?

Invade is currently working on an array of exciting concepts and projects, all designed to bring unique experiences to our customers. In addition to Slurping Good, we are developing two more distinctive Intellectual Properties (IPs) that revolve around lifestyle and will take the form of consumer shows. These projects are expected to contribute to Singapore's vibrant event calendar, particularly in the later half of the year. During this time, the city will come to life with numerous events such as the F1 race, Token2049, and the Mid-Autumn festival. We aim to enrich this exciting itinerary and encourage both locals and visitors to stay around for the festivities.

Additionally, our reputation for innovation and unique concepts has attracted the attention of landlords in neighbouring cities such as Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong, and we've been invited to explore opportunities in these locations. In summary, the near future for Invade is packed with new and unique projects, as well as potential international collaborations. We are committed to constantly innovating and enhancing our offerings to provide our customers with memorable experiences while also exploring opportunities for growth beyond Singapore.

With the rise of e-commerce and social media (especially with the rising popularity of TikTok shops), how do you see the future of brick-and-mortar retail?

With platforms like TikTok gaining popularity, we're witnessing an evolution of the attention economy, where it’s increasingly important for businesses to compete for consumers’ attention, particularly in B2C arrangements. Attention becomes  a form of currency that, if well-earned, can lead to consumer buy-in. If a consumer appreciates and enjoys your content on TikTok, for example, they're more likely to support your products and endorse your brand.

When it comes to garnering customers’ attention, pop-up events also have an edge in allowing businesses to directly engage with their audience, and create a unique, immersive shopping experience that can't be replicated online. Pop-ups can be used strategically to bridge the gap between digital and physical retail, providing a platform where online success can translate into real-world foot traffic and vice versa.

I believe that the rise of e-commerce and social media doesn't signal the end of brick-and-mortar retail, but rather represents an exciting challenge and opportunity infusing it with new life. It's about finding the right balance and synergy between the physical and digital retail spheres. The strategic use of these tools can not only ensure survival but also drive growth in the retail sector.

Can you share any tips or advice for aspiring entrepreneurs who are interested in getting into the retail or event industries?

Starting and running a business in any industry is a journey that requires more than just a passion; it demands a deep determination and a strong mental capacity to handle the challenges that come along the way. In the retail and event industries, this reality is no different.

If you're an aspiring entrepreneur, one key piece of advice would be to prepare yourself for the inevitable criticism and feedback you’ll receive. As you turn your hobby into your livelihood, you essentially put yourself up for judgement. For example, if you enjoy taking photographs and have cultivated a significant following on Instagram, you might consider launching a photography business. However, the transition from hobbyist to professional necessitates that you're ready to receive and constructively handle critiques from your customers.

This leads into the next important point – mental capacity. Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster ride filled with ups and downs. The highs can be exhilarating, but the lows can be stressful and challenging. It's crucial to be mentally prepared to navigate these tumultuous waters. Your passion may be the engine driving your entrepreneurial journey, but your mental resilience is the anchor that will keep you steady during storms.

In this light, it's vital to remember why you started your entrepreneurial journey in the first place. Hold on to your initial motivations and let them guide you through difficult times. In other words, stick to your 'why'.

Finally, if you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

If I had the chance to go back in time and give my younger self a piece of advice, it would be to exercise extreme caution when considering going into business with close friends or loved ones. The idea might seem appealing initially, due to the comfort and familiarity, but the personal dynamics involved make it inherently complex.

Working closely with those you share personal relationships with necessitates defining roles and responsibilities with clear precision. It's important to remember that in any business, there has to be a decision-making hierarchy, someone who has the final say in critical situations. Contrary to what some might believe, there's no such thing as a perfect 50/50 split or fully shared decision-making in these scenarios. Decisions have to be made, and not everyone will agree all the time. The stakes are much higher and situations become more sensitive when your business partner is a family member or a close friend. Therefore, always tread carefully in such situations.

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