With $ 200,000 in debt, $ 2.43 in his bank account, and a baby on the way, Brien Chua had to choose between a steady job in finance or taking a leap of faith in business nine years ago. .
Today, the 40-year-old is CEO of leading online housewares brand Houze Storage Inspirations and is no longer in the red. But his success did not come easily, he tells AsiaOne in a Zoom interview.
From quitting his promising banking job the same day his mother was fired to find that he and his wife were waiting just days after accepting a business opportunity in Shanghai, it’s like life was playing a cruel joke on Brien.
But instead of collapsing under the pressure, the father-of-two told us all he could do was “suck it up.”
“There was a solution. I just had to get it right. There was no choice.”
Give up stability to pursue entrepreneurial dreams
With most of his family working in the financial industry, studying accounting and finance in college seemed like the natural fit for Brien.
But despite getting jobs at United Overseas Bank, and later at Standard Chartered, he says he “just needed so much more”.
He therefore quit his job in 2008 to fly to China, then still considered a “rising” in the business world, Brien tells us.
Thinking back to the scene as he broke the news to his parents, Brien laughs as he tells us that his parents were initially “very, very angry”.
“I was sitting in the car and [my dad] was like, ‘Did you know your mom got laid off today?’
“I said, ‘Okay, did you know I quit my job today?’ And there was a very long silence. “
Fortunately, his parents finally returned and they supported him through the ups and downs of his career, he shares.
“My wife was pregnant in Singapore and there was nothing I could do”
His desire to start his own business also came with risks – a few years after quitting his job, Brien started and closed four businesses.
One of them, a Chinese donut franchise, left him with a debt of about $ 200,000. But he was able to cash in and settle in Singapore with his wife of Chinese descent, Demi Ye, 36.
Brien then considered returning to the bank, but his job search was unsuccessful. In the end, he decided to give the company another chance and go to Shanghai to accept a job opportunity in a frozen yogurt company.
Just days after accepting the job offer, an unexpected twist happened: Demi was pregnant.
Like many first-time parents, he was “so happy, but also very stressed,” he says.
With the arrival of his son, he thought about quitting his job and staying in Singapore, but his wife – whom he calls his pillar of support – dissuaded him.
“She said, ‘Look, Brien, you’ve been looking for a job for so long already and haven’t found anything. So why not? Go first.'”
With his wife staying in Singapore, Brien started working in Shanghai, doing her best to return as often as possible.
Still, it was one of the most difficult times for the couple.
“At night I’ll be there crying and homesick. My wife was pregnant in Singapore and there was nothing I could do.”
Brien admits he’s turned to alcohol and smoking to cope. Meanwhile, Demi, who was adjusting to living with her parents and dealing with pregnancy-related hormonal changes, was even suicidal at times, he shared.
“Looking back we got through it but it wasn’t easy.”
Juggling between career and fatherhood
Towards the end of Demi’s pregnancy in 2012, Brien decided he had to return to Singapore for good.
Still in debt at the time, he joined Chinese plastic houseware maker Citylong, helping them establish their presence in Singapore from scratch.
But even as Citylife, the company’s home goods brand, grew, Brien still faced financial problems – both because of his trade debts in what he calls his “best days.” more dangerous ”and a newborn.
“How did I manage to get out of it financially?” It was debt after debt after debt, ”he told us bluntly. “My first child’s powdered milk was paid for with borrowed money. Our house was paid for with borrowed money.”
He became even more hungry for success, but there were compromises.
“At every event, every rehearsal and performance of kindergarten, I was always on the phone,” admits Brien. “I was there physically, but mentally I was elsewhere.”
Even if he had promised his kids that he would try to quit work sooner, he would end up coming home at 8:30 p.m. on good days and after 10 p.m. on normal days.
The turning point came when he sold his Citylong shares in 2017 and took a hiatus of a few months to rethink what he wanted to do with his life, he says.
“In 2012, I had two children – one was my business and the other was my son.”
Comparing Citylong to a child who had been “sent for adoption,” he says he had an eye opener.
“Here I have my kid who spent those five years with me, I didn’t give him anything. And then it became very clear.”
Thinking back to those five years, it still hurts, says Brien.
“I feel so sad. Like, what was I doing? Yes, money is important. Having a successful career is important. But you don’t want to be that guy where you are rich, you have great house but your son is rebellious.
When he launched his own brand of Houze storage solutions, he vowed to make family time a higher priority.
And luckily for Brien, his foresight in establishing Houze’s online presence on e-commerce platforms such as Shopee paid off when Covid-19 struck. With more and more people buying home items online, Houze has seen a 100% increase in business in some months, he says.
The business became profitable in the midst of the pandemic and he was even able to write off his debts.
Now, with Demi as the company’s deputy general manager and Brien taking care of the strategic side of things, he’s found a better balance with his nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter.
He’s the one who sends his children to school and picks them up, he says. And he makes sure to spend time swimming and biking with the kids on the weekends, no matter how busy he is.
The devoted father doesn’t even care when his son invades his bed, he laughs.
“I’m very happy. He can kick me, hit me at night, but quality time is very important.”