Sunday, 23 May 2021

Meet Nick and Wee, the duo giving a new lease of life to Singapore’s heritage businesses

At first glance, e-commerce brand Atlas Handcrafted looks just like any other luxury gourmet site – polished, brimming with artisanal products, and dressed in impeccable imagery.

Browse a little closer however, and you’ll soon find items listed that are more down-to-earth than you might imagine. Think you tiao (Chinese dough fritters), nonya kueh (Peranakan pastries) and nasi padang (Indonesian mixed rice) and you get the picture.

What’s happening here is that traditional artisans are being given a new digital lease of life through Atlas Handcrafted. The online store, started at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in Singapore in May 2020, is founded by friends Mak Sin Wee and Nicholas Lin (aka Nick).

Mak had been running his own jewellery and watch distribution company prior to this, while Lin most recently owned a chain of restaurants and bars. They both pivoted together into e-commerce last year, and now run Atlas Handcrafted full-time.

Mak Sin Wee and Nicholas Lin
Nicholas Lin (L) and Mak Sin Wee (R) each holding up a tray of their best-selling nonya kueh platter.

The duo launched the platform as a way to give heritage businesses and cottage industries such as kueh makers and balloon artists a marketplace to peddle their wares. But unlike a typical e-commerce portal, Atlas Handcrafted elevates and repackages items into avant garde, gift-worthy formats before selling them.

We chat with Mak and Lin to find out more about how such a business model is working out, the difficulties of starting a new venture during a pandemic, and the heart wrenching challenges they face when attempting to bring traditional businesses online.

How did Atlas Handcrafted come about?

Lin: Within our social circles, we overheard the hardships that many businesses had to experience because of the pandemic. But nothing hit harder than listening to an elderly couple whose main source of income was decimated after hotels stopped procuring nonya kuehs from them as there was no longer any demand for buffets.

We figured that if cottage industries like these are so badly affected, then there must be hundreds of other marginalised businesses being overlooked by the mainstream media. Both Wee and I have experience in tech and e-commerce, and we are avid photographers, so it came quite naturally to us to help suffering local artisans go online and thrive. We both took our S$600 Solidarity Payment given by the government, and with a total of S$1,200, we started

How did the business concept come about?

Lin: All we knew was we wanted to do good by helping elderly hawkers pivot online, and as days went by, we saw ourselves evolving into an online luxury gifting marketplace. It was an easy task given our work experiences and the whole project came together in less than two weeks. We’re always on the lookout for elderly vendors who need help. I just met a balloon artist uncle this year through our florist uncle. He had survived cancer and was a victim of surgery malpractice. We helped him pivot online, plus balloons are also a great addition to our gifting site. It’s just so rewarding to be able to help him grow his business. Moments like these keep us going.

Birthday Rainbow Balloons
Balloons sold on Atlas Handcrafted are sourced from a local elderly artist

Starting a business at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic must have been a unique challenge. Can you share more?

Lin: We are fortunate to have started during the pandemic. It was the calm during the Circuit Breaker that afforded us the time necessary to accumulate all our skill sets together to start Atlas Handcrafted. We have, through experience, learned the hardships of starting this unique business. Handling kueh is incredibly tricky and there was a steep learning curve to know exactly how to plate, cut, and arrange them. We often do the deliveries ourselves, and through this, we have also developed proper respect for our delivery partners. We are fast learners and can now say with confidence that we are skilled kueh handlers, digital transformers, concierge, delivery persons, designers, photographers, origami artists and copywriters!

Mak: During the pandemic, luxury apparel is the first thing people forfeit in order to save up for rainy days, so naturally my previous business slowed down. But coming from a fashion distribution background, I used that knowledge to run Atlas Handcrafted’s platters and hampers like a ready-to-eat collection based on seasons. I learned a lot of new skills, such as handling flowers by blooming them days ahead in time for a platter arrangement; a skill I picked up from our elderly florist uncle. The most rewarding part of this business comes when I have made my recipient’s day.

It has been a year since Atlas Handcrafted launched. How has business been like?

Mak: Our business has grown beyond our expectations. We started by tapping on our past network of socialites. I explained to them, ‘look, it’s a pandemic, no one will buy jewellery but everyone can buy a kueh platter with a beautiful floral arrangement.’ They all fancied the idea and supported me because of our cause to help heritage businesses that have no means of doing e-commerce.

We appeal to corporations as well. Our very first corporate order was by the Singapore Tourism Board, and soon, major fashion houses like Gucci and Marc Jacobs, as well as companies like Standard Chartered Bank, Omega Watches and Porsche followed suit and made orders to show affection for their well-heeled clients. These corporate orders are very fulfilling for me as the aunties and uncles who run cottage industries probably don’t have the acumen to negotiate these large orders. Thirty percent of our orders are actually from overseas and we have pre-orders as far as December 2021.

Atlas Nonya Kueh
Beautiful floral arrangements come with your order of kuehs

What is the process like helping small local businesses go online?

Lin: We work with artisans who don’t have marketing, technical, and design expertise. We have to elevate their craft and products to make them more marketable within the online space, and so we personally evaluate every single artisan before even considering them for our site. We pride ourselves on only curating the very best artisanal products on the market, so we sample, taste, and try out every single item to ensure that they meet our high standards.

We would then elevate each item to create a unique product for Atlas Handcrafted. Our products, despite being from local artisans, are one of a kind and cannot be found in the same format anywhere else. Once listed online we will help these artisans market each of their products to relevant markets. Every artisan on Atlas Handcrafted keeps 100% of the retail rate of their product, allowing them to continue with their craft without being shortchanged.

The options on Atlas Handcrafted are pretty broad. What is the common thread customers get when shopping with you?

Mak: When shopping with us, we know you are looking for gifts, so you can input your personalised messages and they come in aesthetically-pleasing greeting cards. We create avant garde platters to entice people too. Our kueh platters are extremely popular with the older age group, and our s’mores platter is really popular with kids and families. Our alcohol hampers are popular with law firms. Our boba milk hotpot is out of this world. It’s such a fun novelty item that people enjoy doing again and again at home. We try to offer imaginative platters to keep them coming back for more.

We have positioned ourselves as the go-to luxury gifting site. Ultimately, we command a hefty price tag for our platters and hampers knowing that we will go the extra mile, like I once did for a delivery of bagels as a surprise at 7am in the morning as instructed by our customer. When there is a luxury margin, we have wiggle room to meet our demanding customer’s wishes or upgrade them to a better substitute, so they know they are getting their money’s worth. I would say the magic formula is that you cannot put a price tag on love and concern.

Boba Milk Tea Hotpot
The Boba Milk Tea Hotpot is one of Atlas Handcrafted’s unique creations.

What’s next for Atlas Handcrafted?

Lin: As we are quickly becoming the premium destination for luxurious unique gifts in Singapore, we will continue to grow our collections and curate even more quality artisans that want to enter the market. We are also launching subscription services where we offer bespoke and unique monthly gifts for your loved ones. These include flowers, gourmet packages, wines, cocktails, surprise food hampers, and the list goes on.

Mak: One thing I do know is that my jewellery business will make a comeback as a category under Atlas Handcrafted, and it’ll compliment our online subscription services. Nick and I have the idea of curating gifts for couples too, and all the partner has to do is subscribe and submit all the necessary info such as anniversary dates, flower preference, colour preference, food allergy, and even ring size. We will then send a personalised gift each month on his or her behalf. This is where technology comes in, as there is a lot of coordination involved and you won’t want to send the same gift twice. For our fashionable platters division, we will be unveiling ngoh hiang (five spice pork rolls) platters and live crustacean seafood platters this summer.

SEE ALSO: Can Singapore Noodles contribute to the globalisation of local cuisine?

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