Tell us about your The Mustard Seed Workshop (TMSW) Established in April 2011, TMSW is a brand built from gifts made by members of disadvantaged communities around the world. We design, produce and distribute a wide assortment of products with three product collections: fine jewellery, lifestyle accessories and gourmet food items.
We provide gainful employment opportunities for members of disadvantaged communities, in order to help them to be financially independent and have a sustainable livelihood. We also provide marketing solutions, including labelling, branding, packaging, and distribution channels to expand the reach of these socially responsible products.
How many people are on your team?
We have two full-time staff, one part-time staff and two independent contractors in US. Our core team has expertise in finance and legal.
Is this your first start-up?
I have had many ideas in the past but unfortunately none of them really materialized into anything. So, yes, this is my first start-up.
Were you entrepreneurial growing-up?
I don’t think I really had an entrepreneurial mindset growing up. I was very quiet and submissive, and didn’t really ask a lot of ‘why’ or ‘what if’ questions. My father has had a few businesses in the past, but my parents are quite traditional in their mindset and they have always discouraged me from having my own business or start up. I believe that my entrepreneurial instincts and mindset has grown over time since the company’s inception. I have a lot of different ideas and ventures that I would like to explore in the near future. Food and water security in urbanized locations such as Hong Kong is one of them.
What were some of the biggest challenges in launching this business?
The nature of our business and our identity proved to be the biggest challenge. One of the prime difficulties was how novel the concept of social enterprise was back then. When I first launched this business, it was quite a foreign idea for most people here to set up a for-profit business that aims to solve poverty and social injustice issues. It is still a new concept now, but there are a lot more social enterprises today in comparison to the time I started developing the idea. I didn’t have many supportive voices. I often call myself a “triple whammy”: a female, an entrepreneur and an individual with a social objective.
Our business was often misunderstood and not taken seriously, especially by some of my peers, so I had to take extra initiative to reach out to mentors since the beginning (and even before inception) to seek support for building my business. Building the network around me has proved to be crucial in accelerating the development of the business. To date, I have mentors for business strategy, finance, luxury branding, legal and global strategy.
Tell us about the sustainable / charity components of your business.
Our company was incorporated with a focus on social values. Traditionally, those that tackle social justice issues are from the NGO and government sectors. However, we believe that businesses have a responsibility and power to create social changes and that profit generation does not need to be a zero-sum game.
The core value of our business is to empower through gainful employment opportunities and sustainable livelihood, rather than through financial aid. We believe that donation alone renders only small incremental solutions. This is why we work with our partner workshops, organisations that empower members of disadvantaged communities (e.g. women shelters, church programmes, co-ops). We currently partner with more than a dozen grass-root organisations or individuals that make handmade products, which empower members of disadvantaged communities around the world. We call them our ‘Partner Workshops’, as we believe in mutual empowerment and respect. We recognise that we, being in Hong Kong, are good at using our skills and knowledge for business growth, whereas our Partners are in a good position to work with disadvantaged communities. Both components are necessary for economic and social growth and our company is founded to bridge the need for a balanced, healthy and sustainable entity. Here is a mapof our global empowerment.
How are you promoting your business?
We promote mainly through social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and our website. We also approach media publications to feature on our story from time to time. You can find all our features even before inception here.
In the past, we have hosted tea parties and placed our products in bazaars and trade fairs. Being very active in knowledge sharing and advocacy, since 2011 we have shared in nearly 20 institutions, universities and government bodies to promote our business and our vision.
How are you getting ready for holiday sales season this year?
For the past two years, we release three sets of gourmet hampers (small, medium and large sizes) during the Christmas season. All of the food items are made by or empower members of disadvantaged communities. These include chocolates that empower rural areas in Ghana, premium tea that empower rural farmers in Shaaxi Province, cookies that empower individuals that suffer from mental disabilities and wine from South Africa that pays vine farmers fair and competitive wages.
This year is no exception. We will continue with our Christmas hampers, as we have had great response in the past from corporations and holiday shoppers alike. We will keep you posted on our latest promotion materials.
What are your biggest challenges?
Our business now has three and a half years of proven success and it is now at the stage where it is fit to enter into a new growing phase. Our vision has always been to become a globally recognised brand, one which produces high quality, socially responsible products that are competitively priced, well-made and beautifully packaged. We are exploring the option of growing into a social franchise.
Our current biggest challenge is to find the right collaborators and investors to bring us to that new level. Although more awareness has been drawn to impactful social investment, it takes time to scout a collaborator and investor that is long-term vision focused, instead of seeking for pure short-term financial gain.
Another area that has always been our blind-spot, but has proven to be increasingly important, is an ICT strategy for our business. Our current team lacks expertise in information and communications technology, and we really do need an all-encompassing strategy that targets both marketing and advertising for our products.
Tell us about a memorable experience running TMSW
The most memorable experience for me was when we secured our first corporate clients in Hong Kong and Singapore. As a social business, I didn’t envision having corporate clients and vendors. But, by the end of our first year, we secured our first global 5 star hotel brand in Macau, followed by their Hong Kong and Singaporean counterparts the following year. Our corporate client base grew quite rapidly over the next 2 years and it has been an exciting journey so far.
I have four mentors in the following key areas: Global Strategy, Retail and Luxury Branding, Legal and VC/PE background. They have helped us over the last three and a half years. One mentor in particular has been with me even before the inception of the business. He believed in me when no one else did and encouraged me when everyone else said that I should walk away. My mentors are part of my family now. We have a great relationship and I can update them and call them anytime to grab a coffee and to get advice and guidance when needed.
What advice would you give someone starting a new business?
Mentors are your secret weapon – I cannot stress enough how important mentors are in an entrepreneur growth. They help cover blind spots and areas of weakness. Take the time to put together a small pool of ‘grey haired mentors‘, people that you can trust and have good chemistry with. It is best to have mentors in different aspects of your business, for example, PR, business strategy, legal, etc.
Stay hungry to learn and stay humble – It‘s easy to develop an inflated ego, which makes it hard to receive criticisms on your business. It is vital that you keep your cool, especially when dealing with difficult situations. It’s also important to recognize that some people that may not agree with you!
Make time for loved ones – Don’t forget what is the most important in life when chasing your dreams. Family and loved ones should always come first, no matter how busy your schedule is as a entrepreneur. Make time and schedule them in your diary. Invest time into your relationships.
Pay it forward today – Pay forward your blessings, time, contacts, experience and knowledge and what others have given you. Don’t be afraid that others will succeed you or that you may be taken advantage of. There is a larger power in knowledge sharing, collaboration and giving away what you have, than in hoarding what you have to yourself.
Interview with Charlene Kotwall of The Mustard Seed Workshop Limited