Starting a business is not for the faint of heart. It takes passion, stubbornness and a whole lot of hard work. In fact, according to Forbes, 90% of startups fail.

What does it take to turn a business concept into reality and keep it running? SMU Snapshots had a chat with Isabel Lee, business student and co-founder of An Acai Affair to find out.

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Isabel Lee, SMU business student and co-founder of An Acai Affair

An Acai (pronounced ah-sah-ee) Affair is an acai specialty shop in Katong that was opened last December by Isabel and Anna Ng, second-year business students and now entrepreneurs.

The pair met during their first year at SMU, grew close over one too many acai dates and wanted to start a business together. They toyed with a couple of ideas before deciding to specialise in the healthy dessert – the prospect of eating acai for free everyday was a big plus point.

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The coconut bowl (left) and acai fruit bowl (right) at An Acai Affair

From the textbook to real life

Although Isabel has spent most of her school life taking on leadership roles and now piling on the business modules, nothing could have prepared her for starting her own business.

“There are a lot of things that, in theory we have learnt, but in real life are very different. There’s a lot of learning on the job. For example, we learn the basics of accounting but there are so many more things to factor in that we have to hire professional help. We also need to apply for licenses and government approval, all of which we are only discovering now through experience.”

The pair began conceptualisation in August and launched a few months later. Isabel acknowledges that it was a challenge to juggle both school and work – especially when final exams were just two weeks prior to the launch.

Starting ground up

To reduce expenses, almost everything was done in-house – interior design, government applications, liaising with contractors and coming up with marketing collateral. They even designed and drew their own wall mural, which is one of the shop’s most Instagrammable walls.

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Anna and Isabel in front of the shop’s hand-drawn wall mural

“We did all of this while school was happening and didn’t have any time to study. It was so tiring. After school, we would go down to the shop and meet the contractors. We did all the planning during class.”

When asked what drives her, Isabel answers without hesitation: “being different. Doing things that are unorthodox, and doing the things that I enjoy.” She cites her mum, who has run her own restaurant business for over a decade, as a source of support and inspiration.

Your perspectives shift

It has only been a year since idea conception and even more recently that the business was launched, but already Isabel’s outlook on life is changing as she learns new lessons every single day.

“I’ve grown a lot in terms of the way I see my priorities in life. I used to place so much emphasis on studies that I failed to see the other important things in life. Starting my own business has made me realise that there is more to life than a good GPA, and you can find meaning in other things – you have your family, friends and interests. It’s important to pursue your interests.”

It might seem like the road has been smooth-sailing for Isabel, but getting to where the business is today has taken a lot of mental strength, perseverance and hard work.

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Inside An Acai Affair at East Coast

“I’ve also learnt a lot more about the F&B industry. It’s a lot more challenging than I thought. Things can change overnight, new competition can enter the market easily and costs can go up with little notice. It’s a lot about dealing with unforeseen circumstances and always thinking of new ways to stay on top of the competition.”

Connect with people

Isabel’s leadership experience has also come in handy especially in the area of people management, which can be tricky when employees realise that their bosses are not much older than them. She has learnt to manage their concerns by really listening to them and establishing a relationship.

“One of the most important things is empathy. Being able to relate to people and have them relate to you makes it easier for respect to be gained, and for them to listen to what you have to say. That connection is key to showing that you care about them and that their opinions matter. That’s one of the things that makes a good leader.”

The other important quality of a leader is leading by example, which Isabel embodies through her hands-on approach to work.

“If you want people to behave in a certain way or do something, you have to do it yourself first. Be on the ground with them. It’s important to show that you’re putting in the effort too.”

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Isabel behind the counter preparing acai bowls

Just do it

Being a leader and running a business are not roles that Isabel instantly perfected overnight. But an eagerness to learn and unfaltering commitment guarantees success in all that she her sights on. Her advice for people – especially those who are around her age – who want to start their own business, is to start somewhere.

“You might be scared because you think you’re too young or inexperienced to do your own thing. Or perhaps you don’t think you have enough resources or support. Don’t allow yourself to be held back by your worries. Just start somewhere and give it a shot.”

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On one of the shop walls is an inspiring quote by Lewis Carroll

Isabel speaks from experience. To get An Acai Affair off the ground, she and her partner invested two months of rent deposit before consulting their parents. It was a huge gamble. It took a lot of convincing for Isabel’s parents to give in. Like most parents, studies came first.

To show their commitment and sincerity, Isabel drew up a detailed business proposal for her dad. This exercise also meant that Isabel had to ask herself the hard questions and really study the market. In proving her sincerity to her dad, she also proved to herself how serious she was about the business.

“Once you take the first step, everything will fall in place. You pray about it, talk to people about it and ask those around you for help. It just takes a first step. Also, Asian parents tend to be more conservative and prioritise studies. So, you have to show them that you are serious about what you want.”

Work with people you trust

A final piece of advice from Isabel is to find the right people to work with. She was fortunate in that her business partner was a good friend before all else, so it was relatively smooth working relationship.

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Happy co-founders at the shop’s booth at SMU open house

“We have our disagreements, but because of our friendship, we manage to talk it out and work around it. The core of the business is the partnership. If the partnership falls apart, then the business falls apart. It’s very important to find likeminded people whom you trust to work with.”

To find out more about the concoctions at An Acai Affair, check them out on Instagram and Facebook