When Debra Tay was 29, she made a life-changing decision to quit her high-paying investment banking job to study interior design in Australia. The founder of Cycling Bears had always had a creative streak, and had even dabbled in F&B businesses while she was in banking: One of them included a bar at Boat Quay, which she set up with some colleagues.
“It was on the third floor of a shophouse on Circular Road. We were open for business four days a week, where my partners and I would go there after work to run the bar and also have drinks with friends and colleagues. We didn’t have enough savings yet to set up the bar as we had only been working for one year, so one of the proudest moments was when I was able to negotiate with the landlords for them to pay for the renovations and supply some of the furniture, if we paid double the market rate for rent. They actually agreed, and we made all our capital back in 2 months. It was great because we had so much fun running the business together!” she says.
When she could not find purpose in her job anymore, she made the hard call and moved to Australia. There, her penchant for numbers and her eye for spotting opportunities held her in good stead: She started buying and flipping properties, making a tidy profit. Post-graduation, she spotted another opportunity, this time ironically back in the industry she had left. She fell back into banking after noticing that UHNWI Chinese banking clients were underserved because locals didn’t speak the language. She used her language skills to create her own job profile, proving to be so successful that her bank sent her back to Singapore to grow the business.
Now, she leads the UNHWI business at a leading multinational bank. Even though Debra initially left banking to find her “purpose”, she reiterates that she’s much happier in the industry now, having found her niche in dealing with UHNWI families on succession planning and their philanthropic endeavours.
However, that entrepreneurial spirit was never quite extinguished. Recently Debra and her partner Tudi Guillamot established Cycling Bears, a wellness-focused boutique that integrates luxury fitness equipment seamlessly into your home decor. Merging her experience in finance with her expertise in interior design, Cycling Bears offers equipment such as dumb bells, yoga mats, exercise benches and more that look good enough to be part of your home decor, so you no longer have to “hide” them away when they’re not in use.
We speak to Debra and dig into her journey as a banker and an entrepreneur, the realities of making mid-career switches, and what failure means to her.
Tell us about the Cycling Bears — what is it, and what inspired you to start the business?
Cycling Bears is the first luxury fitness equipment provider in Singapore to offer bespoke services. We work with clients to design their fitness space in their home, office, hotel, private club or yacht. Cycling Bears distributes a beautiful range of equipment from well known luxury fitness brands like Ciclotte, PENT, NoHrd, Enigma and WaterRower, which are smart, functional, beautiful, customisable and sustainable.
For me, the two things that I am really passionate about are wellness and design. In my day job as a banker, I often meet people who live in beautiful homes, but I noticed that their home gyms are always hidden away or looked out of place. That’s when the interior designer in me identified the market gap and felt the need to design aesthetically pleasing fitness spaces to fill with equally desirable equipment. That was how Cycling Bears was born.
You were formerly an investment banker, and decided to study interior design at the age of 29. What made you take that decision?
I have always loved designing homes. When I was working in Hong Kong, I bought a really old apartment, did it up and flipped it for a nice profit. I thought to myself then that perhaps this was something I could do more of!
I was quite good with designing homes and enjoyed doing it – apart from flipping properties, I redecorated often and even helped a few friends with their home. I decided to study interior design to further pursue this passion.
Also at that time, after being in investment banking for about 10 years, I faced the great global financial crisis of 2008. Although I was not impacted by it, and it paid well, I felt empty and found it difficult to reconcile that some people were still making good money trading, while many other people were losing their homes. So it was the perfect time for me to move to Australia and study interior design.
Were you scared? What gave you the courage to take that step?
It is quite nerve racking to know that you would not be getting an income anymore. There is a great sense of security waking up every day knowing that your bank account would be topped up again on the 25th of the month and I was worried about regretting my decision.
Then just before we left Hong Kong [where I was living at that time], there were the devastating Black Friday fires that swept through Victoria, Australia and I almost changed my mind about it.
I was 29 at the time, and perhaps it was the thought of turning 30 that gave me immense strength. I guess I was more afraid of being stuck in a rut and not loving what I did, than being worried about not having an income. I wanted to be more impactful with my life. The banker in me sat down and worked out the sums, using different permutations. I figured out that I had enough savings to survive for at least a year without an income and that gave me the confidence to move to Australia.
Looking back, do you think it was a good decision? What did you learn about yourself?
Many people in finance who knew me back then would have said it was a poor decision because within a month after I left, the lady who replaced me closed a deal that I had been working on for months, and got such a large commission cheque, that she too left the bank shortly after.
To me though, it was definitely a good decision because although I became financially poorer, my life was richer. I have always believed in giving your best in something you are passionate about. I got to study interior design, renovate several homes in Australia and also travel around the country with my dog! My life was very full and I felt that I was growing and creating impact and I was very happy – you can’t put a value on that.
Two things I learned about myself from this decision. I realised from that experience that I truly enjoy learning new things – I believe in lifelong learning. I also realised that while I enjoy beautiful things and creature comforts, I could also be very happy with very little. Some of my happiest days were simply lying on the grass in the park having a picnic, or taking the dogs to the beach.
But even while you were in investment banking, you had dabbled in different businesses: tell us about those businesses. Why did you decide to put on two hats at that time? What were some of your proudest moments in that journey?
While having a day job in investment banking, I opened a bar, Hideout, in 2002 with two other partners when I was 22 years old.
In 2004, I was relocated to Shanghai, China, and saw these unique bags made out of cigar boxes. I decided to import them to Singapore to sell them because it was something completely new to Singaporeans.
Apart from these, I was always on the lookout for new ventures to partake with my colleagues, because most of us needed a sense of excitement outside of work. I had also opened a yakitori bar and sushi bar amongst other businesses.
What, according to you, was a decision that failed? What did you learn from that failure?
I wouldn’t call it a failure, but more of not meeting the end goal I initially set. Take UrbanSproutz, a recent venture that I just closed and sold, for example. When the business first started out, I envisioned us setting up hyper-local urban farms all over Singapore. However, obstacles came into our way, and we had to pivot and change our mindset instead; a different end goal does not equate to failure as long as you learn from the experience.
How do your previous entrepreneurial experiences help you in running Cycling Bears today?
With every start-up, I learn heaps and also meet a lot of new people from different industries. This has helped me to quickly identify what my strengths are, what I enjoy doing, what I am good at and what skillsets I need to bring in quickly to make Cycling Bears successful.
I learned not to be embarrassed to ask for help, and to always ask for feedback early on.
The previous entrepreneurial experiences have also taught me how to manage my time extremely efficiently, especially when I have a full-time and highly demanding job already!
What is one advice you live by?
Just go for it and do not overthink. Try out the approach you believe in and shape your idea along the way by getting critical feedback from the people who matter.
What’s one thing you will never do again (in terms of running a business)?
I would never rush into starting a business with someone that I do not know very well again. I am a very passionate person, and can sometimes let my excitement get the better of me. When I am excited and passionate about an idea, I tend to dive head in very quickly. What’s probably more important is the planning phase, ensuring that you have a strategy in place and the right people onboard.
Even when investing into start-ups, I take a lot of time now to understand the founder and key management team – the people are much more important to the success of a business, rather than the idea itself. Because one can be very good at talking about an idea, but without a solid execution plan, success may also remain an idea.
What have been the biggest challenges in your journey thus far, and how did you overcome them?
It takes a while to help consumers realise that we should buy longer lasting items because it makes more sense financially in the long term, and also because it is much more sustainable in today’s age of fast fashion. With easy access on the internet to Taobao or Shopee for cheaply produced products, and sports megastores with cheaper mass produced fitness equipment, this is definitely our biggest challenge thus far.
However, instead of trying to educate the masses, we focus on working with clients who appreciate craftsmanship and see value in paying a premium for handcrafted one-of-a-kind products. Whenever someone visits our showroom and sees the products in person, they can admire the craftsmanship and compare the quality versus a low price product, and they are more often than not convinced.