At the absolute bottom of Singapore-based event venue aggregator We Are Spaces‘ existence, founder and director Sharon Paul wondered if it was a great idea in the first place to plunge headlong into a startup right after university.
Unlike other fresh graduates, Paul did not have to worry about university debt due to a scholarship. But like other young entrepreneurs, she lacked career experience, a deep network, and industry expertise.
Spaces sounds good on paper. It solves a real problem: event planners are in a tizzy about the sheer volume and variety of venues. So, having a one-stop platform through which users can filter, scout, and contact venue owners sounds like a no-brainer.
The theme is tried-and-tested: find an industry mired in opacity and inefficiency, and create a place to bring all the players together.
However, there were a few problems with execution. Since each event is highly customized and has specific requirements, it meant that users will still need to visit the venue to suss out its suitability. That meant that while Spaces can provide referrals, it has less control over closing sales.
Getting traction was also hard initially. For the first six months of its existence, the startup was unable to function like a product company. Sharon says:
The website was really just a front, and no one was really using it. We had to bring in customers on our own, and direct them to venue owners.
As pressures mounted, doubts surfaced within the team. Morale sank. Sharon questioned her ability to lead a startup — it’s much harder than managing a school project. While the team remained committed and trusted one another, the founders wondered if a career in the web and mobile space was what they really wanted.
“We found it challenging to find a team that will chiong with us. It boils down to youngsters and their career aspirations, and whether you’re able to find employees that are aligned with what you’re doing.”
Complicating matters was the fact that they all had job offers while working on their idea. Sharon entertained the thought of working on it part-time while she juggles a regular job. Her mum rubbished that notion.
She told me, ‘if you take up the job, I’ll be very disappointed!’
While parents are typically optimized for security and not risk, Sharon’s family is a different breed. Her mother used to run a HR consultancy business that failed due to bad partnerships. The family currently owns a tutoring center.
It was her mother who encouraged her to jump into the startup world right after graduation, and it was the hands-on, emotional support her family provided that ultimately kept her in it.
Starting in April this year, she sat down with her daughter once a week, asking questions about her motivations and assessing if her personality was well-suited to entrepreneurship. She even got one of Paul’s sisters to join in the counseling sessions.
My sister asked me to think about which choice would make me regret more right now.
Things have taken a turn since then despite the departure of one of the co-founders. On the backs of S$50,000 ($40,000) in seed funding from Singapore startup incubator FocusTech and government funding scheme iJAM, as well as a part-time technical co-founder and four interns, Spaces has generated over S$1.5 million ($1.2 million) in leads for venue owners. A percentage of that translates to actual sales, out of which the company takes a ten percent cut.
Spaces has also attracted interest from an undisclosed investor who sees potential in the idea and wants to take it further.
Sharon is ruminating where to take her startup next. She’s also working on refining the Spaces website by introducing better filters that improve the relevance of referrals.
But whatever she decides to do next, she can count on her family’s support.
See more interviews in our Female Entrepreneurship series:
(Editing by Josh Horwitz and Paul Bischoff)