INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
Business Reinvention during a Pandemic and Beyond
We talked to Chuanwei Foo of Straits Virtual Office, a Singapore’s leading virtual office solution provider and here is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Chuanwei Foo: COVID has changed both work and personal life for me. I used to travel up to 2 weeks per month but that has come down to zero. With more time on hand, I am able to spend more time with my family and friends with safe distancing measures and the number of people capped. I have also sought professional upgrading during this time so I embarked on a specialist diploma in data science which I am due to complete in a few months’ time.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Straits Virtual Office.
Chuanwei Foo:I started my first web design company when I was 25 years old (15 years ago) and we were very successful for the first year. We expanded aggressively by getting a 2 level office with good space for chilling and dining, etc. Turned out to be a costly mistake! When the industry hit a downturn, we were gridlocked huge rental contracts and were unable to trim out costs in time. My partners on the other hand have been using other virtual office addresses for their businesses for a long time so they are familiar with the services.
How does Straits Virtual Office innovate?
Chuanwei Foo: Combining all our experiences, we knew there was a market gap for affordable yet premium addresses. Most virtual office providers in Singapore come with a meeting room facility which is usually empty most of the time but the rent of that empty space is charged out to the customers anyway! We sought to cut the frills and only went with the basics, addressing only the core of the customers’ needs – which is a premium address at an affordable price. Our service does not come with a meeting room facility but customers can choose to rent by the hour from our partner. We also streamlined and relaunched our website to provide customers with a seamless purchase process. So we have a service that is modern yet basic.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Chuanwei Foo: Naturally, the business took a hit when the Singapore government announced a circuit breaker (lockdown). Our office had to close and we couldn’t serve our customers but our costs continued to mount amidst the crisis. Being small and nimble, we quickly decentralized most of our processes and was able to continue functioning with reduced operations. We are thankful that the Singapore government also rolled out a series of measures to ease rental and manpower costs during this difficult period. We survived the most difficult period and our revenue has since recovered to pre Covid levels.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Chuanwei Foo: I have a small team of independent and mature colleagues. Everyone understood that they have to work lesser hours during the pandemic due to reduced workload resulting from the office closure and took home lesser pay. We took it in our stride and there was no unhappiness as everyone knew we were in it together. It was a make it or break it moment for the team. The team was mature and could be trusted to work independently from home. Remote working, however, requires significant technology upgrades and knowledge so the technology enablement of staff was something we weren’t prepared for. It should therefore be part and parcel of every team’s staff development plan.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Chuanwei Foo: We stayed in touch with our clients throughout the lockdown via mailers and our website updates. During the pandemic, we also noticed clients wanting to reduce their costs to stay afloat. We explored complementary services to startups and negotiated preferred rates that our members can take advantage of in order to lower their costs.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Chuanwei Foo: Yes. The government had a variety of support grants including rental rebates and the JSS (job support scheme). We were beneficiaries of both and it was definitely crucial in keeping our business as well as many others afloat.
Your final thoughts?
Chuanwei Foo: We built our business meant for entrepreneurs who wanted to bootstrap and succeed. It remains so as our main mission today. The pandemic has however brought about a new wave – big companies who used to have offices have now given up their leases, asked their team to work from home and take up virtual office addresses. The requirements of the big companies are however different from small businesses and Straits Virtual Office needs to evolve new offerings to help the big businesses set up a new virtual ecosystem.
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