30-year-old Cassandra Riene Tan wears many hats. Aside from a running a business space rental platform, Bitsy Space, volunteering female-driven social enterprises at CRIB and hosting for SheWorx SG, she is now also the co-founder of Botany, a brand-new cafe along Robertson Quay that opened its doors in April.
Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Cassandra had cut her teeth at global creative agencies, managing high-profile clients such as BMW, Marina Bay Sands and M1. In 2017, she co-founded Dazzling Café at Orchard Gateway with her cousins Julie Tan and Serene Tan.
These days, the businesswoman, who calls herself a huge advocate for female empowerment and social entrepreneurship, is lends her voice as an active participant at SheWorx and CRIB, and the NTUC U Start-up Leaders Group, where she leads multiple talks on pertinent topics like education in Singapore.
Most recently, the mother-of-two is keeping busy with the launch of Botany, which offers locally sourced, farm-to-table dishes infused with well-loved local flavours (otah chips, anyone?) to cater to the varied palates of meat eaters and wellness enthusiasts alike. The brains behind the business, Cassandra spearheaded all aspects of the establishment – from dining concept to decor to recipes.
What made you decide to strike out with your own business?
I’ve always wanted to start my own business since young and have tried a few mini ventures growing up. I guess it was really when I hit my mid-twenties that I felt an urgency to strike out and run my own business while I still have the energy. At the same time, I also identified problems that I really wanted to solve. So I launched a tech start-up Bitsy Global that connects business owners to short-term spaces, which later led to other business opportunities such as event space styling, event activation and paper manufacturing.
How has your experience in global creative agencies shaped the way you approach and handle your businesses now?
I think the ability to multitask and thrive under intense pressure and timelines in creative agencies have helped me to cope with the demands of being an entrepreneur and running multiple businesses at the same time. The interpersonal skill sets honed as an account director have also helped me to navigate between the various profiles of people we need to work with in my F&B and manufacturing businesses.
You are involved in a host of organisations and projects ranging from your newly-opened restaurant Botany to your business space rental platform, Bitsy Global. How do you divide your time among all these commitments?
I have almost zero social life, most of my friends are also the same people whom I work with in either my businesses or pro bono projects. I work about 14 hours a day and I prioritise whatever that is most urgent to complete first.
I spend about six hours a day on-ground at Botany talking to customers and training staff, another four hours replying emails and sorting out issues on the manufacturing business, the last four hours running errands or doing administrative work. It is really difficult to give an exact breakdown of my time and I often joke with my friends that my capacity is 300% and not 100%.
Right now it’s 150% Botany, 100% manufacturing and 50% other miscellaneous projects I get involved in. As Botany stabilises, I hope to reduce my involvement and focus more on manufacturing and expansion plans.
How has the way you approach and manage your business now evolved over the years?
I used to take things very personally when I first started out. If something went wrong or didn’t work out, I’d dwell on it longer in the past and have a lot of self-reproach. Now I have developed more trust and assurance that sometimes when things don’t work out, it may be for the better and I have faith that everything will fall into place in the end as long we keep finding solutions.
My management style has changed as well – I previously held the expectation that all employees are here to stay for a long time, like courtship to marriage right away. However, now I’ve learned to treat all new employees like new dating candidates where both parties are still figuring the partnership out before we make things exclusive.
You mentioned Botany as your passion project. What drives you to see it through? What is your vision for the establishment?
The strong belief that our society still seeks personal connections. I personally find everything too commercialised these days and I want to go against the flow and create something more “human”.
Botany is more than a restaurant to me, it is a venue that I want to create for communities and people to come together in person. The social element and tasty home-cooked meals are my key priorities for Botany, so that we can create a second home for our customers.
What was one major turning point in your career?
I think there were two major turning points. One was when I reached director level in the ad agency and realised that the rat race never stopped and many people stayed on just because the job has become a comfort zone. I’ll often hear of seniors wanting to venture but they never did. I was afraid of becoming too comfortable and never getting out to do something else – so I did.
The second turning point was when I began to dread managing the boutique marketing agency which was a spin-off from Bitsy’s platform; I was getting burned out and mentally drained. We grew too rapidly within a year – from one to seven full-timers and I also made some major hiring mistakes. I faced a lot of pressure to continue as there was attention on my success and it would look like I’ve failed if I just stopped. I got past that and decided that my happiness and mental wellbeing was more important than what people thought of me.
Has there been a moment in your career where you witnessed the impact of your work on others?
Yes! It is very heartwarming when small business owners and entrepreneurs come and thank me personally for the pop-ups or events that I organised, saying it had helped them in promoting their businesses and causes.
My team at Bitsy co-organised The Pilot Project with *Scape in June 2018, which was a three-day pop-up featuring 20 local brands with founders that are under 30. We created the entire space and collaborated with local musicians and Yoga Movement to create content for the event.
#thepilotproject has officially kicked off!!! We are here at @scape from 22-24 June 2018, from 11am-10pm! Come down and support our local brands! There’s food, shopping and good tunes ✨ • #ThePilotProject #somerset #vscocam #popup #event #eventsg #discoversg #singaporeinsiders #singaporephotographer #singaporecity #exploresg #food #retail #music #singapore
It was one of the best events *Scape has had in years, and a few of the participating founders approached me saying that it was the best pop-up they’ve participated in. They later joined me in other pro-bono pop-ups and I really appreciate the support.
Did you or would you ever consider other career options?
All the time! I am sure a lot of entrepreneurs feel the same – there are always problems we want to provide effective solutions to, or opportunities for us to make a difference in something. I always need to remind myself and my entrepreneur friends to stay focused.
You are also a strong advocate of female empowerment, volunteering at CRIB and hosting for SheWorx SG. What do you think are the aspirations of the modern woman and what are some challenges she faces?
I think the aspirations of a modern female is to be seen as capable, strong yet still seen as feminine at the same time.
The gender bias is still prevalent especially in male-led industries despite Singapore being a developed city. In the beginning, I got mansplained to a lot when running a tech start-up, as people just assume females just don’t know as much about tech as compared to their male counterparts. Right now we also have a paper manufacturing business which is a male-dominated industry, so we do get male clients who try pull a fast one or make unreasonable requests just because they think females are softer and easier to push.
Celebrating female empowerment at #cribball2018. Behind every successful female is a tribe of successful females who have her back. Entrepreneurship is lonely — and even more so for females in Asia where there’s still many biases and expectations on the roles we should play..from being ladyboss and being Wife and mother. It is so important to surround ourselves with like-minded people as they become your support system and your inspiration in times of doubts⭐️✨
What are some of the challenges you face with your ventures and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge for me is hiring good talent and manpower! It is difficult to find locals who are willing to put in the hours in a tech start-up or F&B business. I think forming a support group and community with other entrepreneurs really helped, as we will pass on contacts whom we may not find suitable for ourselves but may be a good fit for others.
What other ventures do you see yourself in, in the future?
For now, I am focused on F&B, paper manufacturing and trading. The plan is to bring in my mom’s traditional noodle house from Bangkok next year, and I also hope to have the freedom to transition into doing pro-bono charity work within 10 years. I am passionate about helping less privileged children and single mums as I feel that given the correct foundations and resources, they can grow to become good citizens and give back to the society.
What is one career advice you hold close to you even now?
Give value before asking for any.