Starting a biz with friends or family can always be a double-edged sword. More often than not, friction turns the relationship sour. But if done correctly and with the right ingredients, it can be a partnership that overcomes any obstacle - and when it comes to the business of making coffee, these two 25-year-olds have found the perfect blend.
Meet Leon Tham and Shing, the "bros" behind Brash Boys Coffee, located at Neuros, One North. Friends since secondary school, they always wanted to run something of their own. The secret of their successful alliance: "We don't take things too seriously - we are two clowns who started up a cafe-circus!" says Shing. This means bantering with customers (many of whom have become their friends), and going "live" on TikTok daily.
We speak to Shing about how TikTok "live" has brought in the customers (even from overseas!), and unintentionally naming their business after a, um, porn site.
I guess it's us in certain ways: the word "brash". Plus, we are young and boys, you know? And because the abbreviation "BBC" is kind of funny as well. We were like, "Hey, the abbreviation funny, bro".
Also, this is damn stupid: So, after we registered the company and were looking for domain names, I did a search and came across brashboys.com - which turned out to be a porn site! We really didn't know! (Laughs) That's why I say we are clowns. We didn't check. We were just like, "Eh bro, let's just do this." Then end up, it's a porn site.
From friends to "brothers" and then business partners. How did it all fall into place?
We've been friends since secondary school. We started out playing computer games with each other. Then after that, we just kept in touch. When we were in our early 20s, we got more intrigued with business, and we found that we were quite aligned in certain views. So we thought that starting a business together wouldn't be such a bad idea.
The initial idea was to open cafes beside gyms - get your caffeine fix before a workout, that kind of thing, and because I liked going to the gym and Leon used to be a barista before this. We kind of had a plan, but we didn't really know how to execute it. So we viewed places [available for rent] first. We kind of knew the concept, but not everything was set in stone.
When we came to this place in Buona Vista, we got pressured by the property agent, I think because of inexperience. He was like, "Oh, the offer very good. You should sign. This outlet and all the outlets are almost taken up, so left this one. Y’all want to sign the lease soon, or at least send an offer?" So after a bit of toing and froing, we signed the lease without really knowing what was next. From then on, it's been like a rolling stone. We learn on the go.
From the looks of things, your partnership is espresso-ly good. What's the secret to this perfect blend of business and friendship?
Leon is more organised. He was the one who kept a checklist on Notion of what to do - and that kept us [on track]. If you wanna talk about numbers, that's definitely Leon’s side. He's in Year 3 at NUS, studying business analytics. But I would say that he is already doing this full-time, because although he's only here three days a week, he has a lot of back-end stuff that he has to do since he's the guy in charge of the accounts and everything.
I didn't get a degree and I wanted to try my hand at business. When I was young, I never wanted to be like, an astronaut or a doctor. But businessmen always intrigued me.
Do you self-confessed "clowns" ever get serious? Has there ever been friction at work?
I think we can both be serious when we have to be lah. At the end of the day, it's really not that serious. We always do things together - simple things like getting restock from suppliers. It's like, whoever remembers it will just do it. If you take everything too seriously, like, "Eh bro, why you never do this or never do that?" then it makes it very hard to work with each other - a lot of friction.
There will definitely be friction. When we just started working together, there was some friction. After that, we figured that there's no point in that. We realigned ourselves with what we wanted out of this, then we realised that the small things would really not affect that at all. Some things you just let go. Short term, okay, maybe like, wah damn sian. But if you look long term, then these things won't matter.
To me, it is not about fair or not fair. Because when we started this business, it wasn't about being 50-50. It's really 100-100. It's a give-your-all kind of thing. It's really about give and take, and about communication.
The minimalist space gives a cool vibe and is also cost-saving. | IMAGE: NG KAI
Sounds like you guys got dropped into the deep end sia. How did you make it work?
We did the math and we worked things out, but we didn't really finalise every single thing before we went into it - like where we were going to get the plates from, who we were gonna look for to do the reno, and all the logistics. We didn't know any of that beforehand. We had to learn and we had to ask.
For the whole concept and the look of the cafe, we decided to go with a minimalistic and more industrial look because we wanted to save costs. We just swiped on Pinterest and bookmarked ideas. Then we were like, "Oh, this is nice. This goes with this."
As for the equipment and everything else, we sourced them through Carousell. We bought second-hand fridges and stuff. And on Carousell, a lot of the time, people know other people. They're like, "Oh, my friend's cafe closed down. They have this, you wanna take a look? They wanna clear."
We also have friends who opened other businesses, so we asked them, "Oh, where do you get this? Where do you get that?" Then they would pass us contacts, and from those contacts, we looked around. It was very hands-on for us, we really had to learn everything from scratch.
Any funny first-day-of-business stories?
On the first day of operation, we didn't have hot-cup lids for takeaway orders. Actually, we had the shipment in very early but we didn't check it. They were the wrong size so we couldn't use them. We also clowning because we just assumed!
And we didn't have an ice scoop! What we did was we used a milk pitcher to scoop the ice instead. You would think that it's common sense, but then you just don't think about it until you're in that moment and you're like, "How am I gonna scoop the ice?"
What's the backstory of your TikTok "live"?
It started out as something I did for fun. It was the second week of business and things were damn slow because we just opened. So I just looked at Leon and told him, "Bro, I go 'live'." So for those few hours, the only thing I did was just stare into the camera. People came into the 'live' and just said hi. Then I started doing it every day, because on that first day alone, two people actually came down from TikTok.
At first there was no set schedule. I just did it when I wanted to do it. Then after that, I realised that there is this window when there aren't a lot of customers. So now I go 'live' on TikTok Mondays to Fridays, 10am to 12pm.
Some people come all the way down from Simei just to come and drink a cup of coffee. If they mention they're from TikTok, I will always try my best to talk to them.
TikTok also pushes my "live" overseas, so we get a lot of international viewers. One customer was visiting from KL, and he was like, "Oh, I saw you on TikTok 'live'. So I decided to come down." There are people that say they are coming down to Singapore soon from the States, and they want to come and try our coffee!
There are people that tell me, "Just seeing you on 'live' makes my day that much better." They come in and tell me about their day - I just listen, and if they for advice, I try to provide it. I always tell people, if anything is up, drop me a DM, and maybe I can help you. Some even tell me life-changing things like they have liver failure, and how I make their day a bit better.
Ok final question, let's make it a fun one: your last drink on Earth?
Brash Boys Coffee's oat milk iced latte. I think same for Leon. On our social media, that's all we talk about. Because our iced oat milk latte is very easy to drink. We have a lot of people that come down and say they don't like to drink coffee, but they enjoy the iced oat milk latte as it's not too overpowering. It's a very balanced drink.
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