This is the second in our series SINGAPORE START-UP STORIES. Stay tuned for more insightful interviews with successful female entrepreneurs!


Heng Ying Ying – better known as just Ying – is the owner of The Nail Artelier, a fine art nail studio that is one of the top in Singapore. Ying has been getting a lot of attention for her unique designs, especially her ability to paint life-like detailed renderings of cats, dogs and rabbits on such a small canvas – the fingernail. 

Singapore business women success entrepreneur ying the nail artelier YING
Image: Ying for Arbutus Of Passion and Imagination timepieces

Recently Arbutus, the watch brand, partnered with Ying for its Arbutus “Of Passion & Imagination” Timepiece collection where she painted her signature animals – a cat grasping at a star and a rabbit in a burrow – on 44mm diameter watch dials. The collection is available at Tangs and each watch is priced at $1,800 (before GST), with all sales from the proceeds going to The Rice Company Ltd, for the arts education of talented children and youth from underprivileged families.

Ying shares with us what inspires her unique designs, as well as what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur in Singapore. 

Tell us how you got into nail art.
Going to the nail salon for a mani/pedi with nail art had been a monthly ritual for me ever since I was 19 but since the nail art scene was pretty undeveloped back then, I eventually ran out of design options. So, about seven years ago, I started doing my own nails, turning to the Internet for design inspirations, then did nail art for friends and at flea markets during my free time on weekends. That was when I realised that doing nail art for others made me even happier than when I was doing it for myself. 

At that revelation, I enrolled in a part-time professional nail technology diploma course. At some point in time, my hobby looked to be a viable career option and that’s when I decided to take a leap of faith with my partner Jenrine and open a dedicated nail art studio focusing on the latest nail art trends and education, and equipped with quality nail products, technology and technicians.

You used to be a teacher…what made you take the jump to become an entrepreneur?
I loved teaching, but my husband and I had plans to move to the USA to be with his family, so I left the teaching service first with the intention of taking a break and preparing for our move. As fate would have it, I ended up opening The Nail Artelier with Jenrine instead. As for the USA, who knows? I might take The Nail Artelier global!

How do you come up with ideas for such creative and intricate designs – what inspires you?
My customers usually have a rough idea of what they want and bring with them specific paintings, drawings or prints that they would like to emulate on their nails. I will then throw in suggestions on the colour scheme or mix in other designs after discussion on what can be cropped, simplified or otherwise changed to look better on nails. A few of my clientele opt for omakase nail art – they give me free rein to do anything I want, but I always make sure to ask if there are specific colours they want me to work with, or designs that are off limits. These are usually my long-time clients, and I have a rough sense of their style and preferences, so I can usually put together something that I know they’ll like. 

Singapore business women success entrepreneur ying the nail artelier WATCH
Image: Ying for Arbutus Of Passion and Imagination timepieces

What lessons have you learnt as an entrepreneur?
Plenty! It’s a big switch from being an employee to being responsible for the entire company, including your own employees. Instead of taking orders, I now give orders, and because of that, I’ve learnt to look at the big picture when planning ahead, and to delegate effectively so that things get done on time. Every day, in every way, I find myself learning a little more about how to get things done better.
I’m also in charge of marketing and promotions, so I’ve learnt to leverage on social media as well as to work with other companies on promotions and joint marketing programmes. It’s a constant challenge seeking new partnerships and coming up with innovative ideas.

How do you stay ahead of the competition?

I think our competitive advantage is quality – I travel frequently to Taiwan and Japan, where the nail industry is more vibrant, for upgrading and for trade fairs. Our emphasis on quality means that we don’t rush through our services – our staff spend their time to provide quality care and this shows in the work that they do. We also stay abreast of the latest pop culture trends, not just nail art trends. For instance, when we saw how Sanrio’s character Gudetama was gaining popularity, we created a week-long event with Gudetama designs at a promotional price. We even brought in Gudetama Gachapon balls and commissioned desserts in Gudetama designs for sale. I think everyone had a lot of fun squealing over their nails and the Gudetama merchandise!

What has been your biggest challenge, as an entrepreneur in Singapore?
The cost of doing business is a huge barrier to entrepreneurship. Rental and renovation costs are exorbitant, and so are foreign worker levy rates. It’s not easy to find skilled local staff with the discipline and right attitude to work in the nail industry!

What do you think are the qualities that every successful entrepreneur has?
Foresight, organisational and people management skills, the discipline to see things through, and then, when unexpected problems arise, the tenacity and problem-solving skills to handle them!

What advice would you give to women in Singapore who are thinking of becoming entrepreneurs?
You have to be willing to get your hands dirty and to work hard. Being a boss means you often have to work harder than you did as an employee because the company is your baby and you want only the best for it, with the limited resources that you may have. My partner and I had to wear many hats, especially at the beginning, because we simply didn’t have the budget to hire people to do the work for us. 

It helps to have connections. If you’re looking to start a business on the cheap, leveraging on your connections is essential to cutting costs. It also helps if you can play an active role in your business, such as by manning the cashier or being part of the service staff. We’re both trained and qualified professional nail artists, so we can always step in to work extra days when there’s a manpower crunch. Being around also means you can monitor staff engagement and morale, and observe how you can improve your systems and processes.

Stay tuned for more inspiring stories about female entrepreneurs based in Singapore and read our first story in the SINGAPORE START-UP SERIES about Stephanie Chai from The Luxe Nomad. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out our stories about the HER WORLD WOMEN OF THE YEAR and YOUNG WOMEN ACHIEVERS, and discover this year’s winners: Meet your Her World Woman of the Year and Young Woman Achiever 2016!