Uzen Tan is the co-founder of Nineteen95 and FrothTea. Having started his entrepreneurial journey pre-university, Uzen has spoken about youth entrepreneurship at many events. He advocates youth to follow their dreams, no matter how daunting it may seem. His brands started off small, but the novel idea of mobile drinks carts & catering has made him and his co-founder, Julian Lim, a pioneer in the beverages industry.
Many young people dream of turning their hobbies into entrepreneurial opportunities. It’s not an uncommon dream, especially as most of us are often inclined to follow our passions and build on them. It’s a whole other story when the practicality of it sets in. With pressure from family and a daunting business scene packed with experienced, older adults, budding entrepreneurs usually end up turning to the security of traditional 9-to-5 jobs. That’s what Uzen Tan’s parents encouraged him to do too. Worrying about the risks of unstable businesses and capital losses, they spurred Uzen to let go of his dream of mobile beverages catering, and to focus on finding a stable job instead.
At the start of Uzen’s business venture, his parents were not concerned. It was a good hobby for a student to have, after all. He could then join the “proper” workforce. The sentiments of doubt and worry only started to show after his graduation.
“It’s the demotivating words of family members that made us strive harder to try and prove them wrong,” Uzen explains.
Uzen pioneered the concept of a mobile coffee cart and event live stations with Nineteen95 in 2017, and later ventured into a similar service for Bubble Tea with FrothTea. Eventually, he was able to demonstrate the worth of investing his time and effort into both his brands to his family, at least pre-Covid.
The pandemic has not stopped his team though. They are committed to innovate and adapt through these trying times with initiatives from selling their drinks in packaged bottles to hosting coffee workshops. According to Uzen, what sets them apart is the fact that “that they’re able to provide one-person workshops that many competitors can’t.” Being able to combine both his loves for teaching and coffee in his business expansion plan is a joy for him.
I thought it was interesting that Uzen decided to start multiple beverages businesses in a country with a competitive and cut-throat F&B industry. Uzen was quick to explain how he and his childhood friend, Julian Lim, came up with the idea. “When we started our business, we were in the last few months of our National Service (NS). As huge coffee enthusiasts, we’d thought it was time to do something with what we’d been talking about for years at that point of time.” He continues to explain how novel mobile catering was in 2017 when they started, “It was a low-risk business model with little start-up capital required, low barriers to entry, and little competition.”
When I ask him about some of the biggest challenges he’s faced as a young entrepreneur, he tells me that the lack of experience was glaring. “We didn’t know how workplaces functioned, nor did we know how to negotiate with suppliers.” It’s easy to be taken advantage of as a young entrepreneur, because you might not know the best way of doing things — and no one would tell you. “They don’t take you seriously. A lot of the time, you just need to gather the bravado to ask and negotiate like you’re a big business owner.”
Fake it till you make it, indeed.
As a matter of fact, his cherished businesses have allowed Uzen to gain a repertoire of skills. “I’ve picked up a lot in the areas of digital software and technology. I learnt surface-level IT in polytechnic, but because of my businesses I could explore and self-learn hard skills.” He built his websites on his own, and is now proficient in using Adobe’s softwares.
More than hard skills, however, “it’s important to be agile in the events industry.” Noting that soft skills are just as crucial, he’s careful in pointing out the rigour, “Things change in the blink of an eye in the events industry. You have to learn to be very resourceful and adaptable.”
At this point, a small remark he made earlier is something I can’t ignore anymore. It’s incredible to me that anyone would start a business (or two) with a close friend. After what they say about mixing professional and personal lives, how do Uzen and Julian draw the lines between their friendship and businesses? Uzen is honest about it. “You just have to treat your business like a marriage. There’s always ups and downs, but you work things out because your business is your baby. You can’t give up on your baby.”
To future and budding entrepreneurs, he advises, “The winning formula for a successful business is to engage in something you are definitely skilled in, but you must also have interest in it.” He emphasizes that being competent and having an interest are not the same thing; it’s essential to have both. “Learn about yourself and about the skills, experiences, and interests that you have. Then find a business model that encompasses all of it, before you evaluate your capital and estimate how much risk you can afford.”
Starting your own business is a risky game, but with Uzen’s story you can tell that it’s worth it. Uzen speaks of both his brands with a glimmer in his eye, and it’s easy for anyone to see the love he has for the growth and success of both Nineteen95 and FrothTea. Uzen and Julian’s brainchild is proof that young entrepreneurs don’t need access to a large capital to realise their dreams — just some bravado and a little risk analysis.