Why some employees are quitting the 9-to-5 to be their own boss during the pandemic

Small Business

SINGAPORE — For Fiona Loh, juggling marketing, accounts, customer service and product development is all in a day’s work.

The 28-year-old swapped computers for cookies last year, when she quit her stable job as a technology product manager for a bank to run her own bakery business, Whiskdom.

“Every day I felt something nudging within me: What if, what if, what if?” Loh told CNBC.

And she’s not alone. Loh is one of a growing number of people leaving behind their 9-to-5 jobs to pursue their passion after the pandemic disrupted traditional industries and careers.

Rise of the pandemic entrepreneur

Last year, even as job security grew elusive for many, more than two in five (41%) employees were considering leaving their jobs to start their own business, according to a Singapore study from recruitment firm Randstad.

For self-taught baker Loh, the choice was clear.

I was working back-to-back between my day job and my night hustle — a good 20 hours a day.
Fiona Loh
founder, Whiskdom

When Singapore’s lockdown last year boosted appetite for home-baked goods, she saw an opportunity to quit the grind and take her Instagram side hustle up a notch.

In July 2020, with the pandemic rife, Loh left her salaried job to take Whiskdom full-time.

“I was working back-to-back between my day job and my night hustle — a good 20 hours a day,” she said. “There came this day where I sat there and I couldn’t think. My mind was so fatigued … I just felt I couldn’t continue.”

28-year-old Singaporean Fiona Loh quit her banking job during the pandemic to run her own bakery business.

By October, with demand surging for her molten brownies and levain-style cookies — and an 18-month waitlist to fulfil, the young founder relocated operations from her parents’ home to a commercial kitchen in central Singapore.

Stimulus opens the door for new businesses

Loh’s is a success story in a year in which many industries, particularly food and beverage and retail, were battered by the pandemic and resultant lockdowns.

But, according to Xiu Ru Lim, business lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic, the economic landscape through 2020 and 2021 has been accommodating for first-time business owners.

The government grants … provided opportunities for small business owners to look at starting out.
Xiu Ru Lim
lecturer, Singapore Polytechnic

“This could actually be an opportunity for a lot of businesses,” said Lim. “Around the globe, we can see a lot of new businesses being formed. Quite a number of those, while the statistics do not fully report it, are actually single business establishments.”

Indeed, in 2020, business closures actually fell while the number of new companies formed remained stable as the Singapore government — like many other developed nations — extended loans, grants and rental waivers to keep small businesses afloat.

Digital payments and other technologies have lowered the barriers to entry for many new business owners.

Meantime, the rapid adoption of technology during the period has opened the market for new businesses, Lim noted.

“The competition has levelled out a little bit,” she said. “With the government grants and incentives that actually encourage businesses to go digital, this has provided opportunities for small business owners to look at starting out.”

New generation of business leaders

Business ownership can take a huge personal and financial toll — and that remains a significant barrier preventing many other would-be business owners from realizing their goals, however.

Loh, for her part, received a government grant for her ovens but she had to fork out 50,000 Singapore dollars (around $37,500) in personal savings to fund the project. That put her wedding and home-buying dreams on hold, she said, adding that she has yet to match her previous salary.

When you go into entrepreneurship, you end up having to be everything … But, for myself, I really enjoy doing it.
Fiona Loh
founder, Whiskdom

“If I really wanted the money, I would have stayed in banking,” said Loh, noting that she now draws “a minimum sum” — enough to pay her daily living costs and insurance bills. The rest of the earnings have been reinvested into the business, hiring three full-time staff, including her 62-year-old father.

As a new employer with a growing business, Loh must now be even more careful planning her business for the future.

Estimates suggest that 20% of new businesses fail within their first two years, and 45% within five years — often due to poor market knowledge, expanding too quickly and lack of finances.

Still, the young entrepreneur insisted she won’t be clocking back into the office anytime soon.

“When you go into entrepreneurship, you end up having to be everything and you end up having to do everything on your own,” said Loh. “It’s very different from being employed. But, for myself, I really enjoy doing it.”

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