Shannon Toh and Quah Nian King(King) are the founders of Salty Customs, a B2B t-shirt supply and design company.
Shannon holds a Bachelor Degree in Accounting & Finance. His entrepreneurship journey began when he was 8 years old, selling scented eraser dust packed in paper to his classmates. In university, he won his first business competition which scored him a job offer from DiGi Malaysia. Whilst studying, Shannon also worked for Nike, helping the company to coordinate their shoe launches and its related events. At 23, Shannon co-founder SaltyCustoms in the study room of his parents after leaving his corporate accounting job in one of the Big 4 accounting firms in Malaysia. He is now the creative director of SaltyCustoms and the C.E.O of T33.COM.
King has a Bachelor Degree in Business Management, Finance and Marketing. At a tender age of 13, King has had his hands in an array of industries learning and growing from house to house odd-jobs to part time positions in restaurants and manufacturing plants. As the years went by and opportunities presented itself, he is no stranger to on-ground roadshows and event organizing. The experience and exposure came in handy in 2007, landing him a job with a Corporate Training Firm that specializes in Soft Skills training for MNCs. King says that: “Working with mentors and life coaches has thought me a lot about the human mind and people’s behaviour. I’ve been a student of the mind ever since”. Coupled with the Management degree, this growing knowledge has been the pillars that build the foundation and core values that King believes in: “It gives me a better insight into matters pertaining to work and one’s personal life; like we practice at work, Career growth and Personal growth has to come hand in hand and I’d like to be the advocate for that”.
Today the Asian Entrepreneur is fortunate to be joined by both co-founders as they give us a very insightful and critical look of their entrepreneurial journey.
In your own words, what exactly is SaltyCustoms and what makes it special?
Shannon: SaltyCustoms is a revolutionary service that help clients create amazing custom t-shirts for every company and lifestyle. We focus on 3 contributing factors that give clients the SaltyCustoms experience: Quality, Consultancy, Experience. We make the entire experience of ordering 10 pieces to 10,000 pieces a breeze. A lot is put into our customer experience, from the first inquiry, to the design process and the consultancy that takes place, helping customers plan different apparel ranges, print methods and even colour choices till the delivery stage where every piece is packed into our signature box cartons. SaltyCustoms “gets it”. The team consists of Apparel Consultants who are t-shirt fans and know all aspects that make a t-shirt awesome.
What led you guys to start SaltyCustoms?
Shannon: I have always been a huge fan of t-shirts since young. I wanted to start my own brand when I was in university but finding a great blank t-shirt to print on was impossible. Most of the t-shirts I found could not match up to the brands from the US. Feeling unsatisfied, I decided to tailor make my own cut and pick my own materials. It was when I wore my first t-shirt, I bravely set up a store at Youth’09 trade show where I sold 100 blank t-shirts in 3 days. That was when I realized that there was a market for supplying quality, great fitting blank t-shirts. I quit my job a few months later and the my journey began.
Would you say you planned it out initially?
Shannon: I didn’t really have a very structured plan. I took the plunge into entrepreneurship with a lot of guts and believing in the dream to make the best t-shirts, with enough savings to survive of course.
What sort of challenges did you guys face during startup?
Shannon:Money and discipline was a big challenge. When starting up, I had almost no capital and was reinvesting every buck made back into the business. I drew just enough salary to survive. Once we manage to hire staff, they had to be paid first. On bad months in the early days, my partner and I would give up our salaries to pay the staff first. They were more important than our money. No one realizes how hard it is to find the discipline to be your own boss, especially at a young age. We find ourselves procrastinating at a lot of tasks and it slows down operations. It really takes maturing and a kick in the ass from someone you respect to change yourself.
How did you guys overcome these challenges?
Shannon: Maturity and a reality check. As I mentioned, a real kick makes you realize that if you don’t buck up in these coming months, you’re going to close down. Also, my partner and I started reading the same business books that help us align easily and stay on the same page with many big decisions.
So how has it been like working on SaltyCustoms since?
Shannon: I think the wave has finally come and we’re riding it cautiously. We have grown tremendously in the past 2 years, both internally and externally. We’ve implemented real work flows and systems and are running the business like a big corporation. The work is serious but we also focus a lot on our company culture. There’s rarely any office politics and we’re all like a big family. We go out for movies, play sports, and support each other at work. I couldn’t have imagined a better working environment. The coolest part is our clients take notice of our culture & identity, we’re always staying true to our culture and that’s why clients love working with us.
From your experience, what can you tell us about the fashion industry in Malaysia?
Shannon: Malaysia is a tough market for fashion. I feel that there’s too much segregation in terms of culture and style. The majority of Malaysia is still at the state where price surpasses the importance of quality. It’s not very easy when you’re expected to delivery cheap and good products.
I take it that you think these challenges and difficulties don’t arise in Western markets, right?
Shannon: I wouldn’t say that but it’s a different set of challenges, I think. Local brands struggle with the division of the cultures, the mentality that Western brands are superior to local brands and also the size of our market is very small. However, in the West, they face more of “first world problem”. There are too many opportunities, the market is huge enough for tons of players. That creates a great deal of competition for fashion brands. On the flipside, it pushes brands to stay on top of their game.
So how is competition like in what you do?
King: I think being in the business of apparel supply, competition is stiff as there are many other reputable and distinguished tshirt and uniform manufacturers in the industry. We choose to believe that we differ by being able to serve as an apparel partner to our clients, offering solutions via apparel consultancy and high level apparel manufacturing to bring their products to a retail level for greater Returns of investment.
How have you ensured that the company remains innovative?
King: Well, the company started out as a 2 men team. Today there are 11 of us wackos working together seeking to amaze each and other every single day. The very reason that has moulded us, kept us motivated and positive throughout and it gives us the ability to bring out the best in each other; these characteristics shines through the work that we do enabling us to consult, deal and serve better while staying current and trendy. Furthermore, with the technical capacity of over 12 special print technologies and growing, custom cloth dyeing facilities and a capacity to produce over 30,000pcs of custom made apparels a month at a competitive price, we believe in our product.
In your opinion, what are some common problems that businesses face with regards to starting a shirt-brand in Malaysia?
King: From my experience, there are many sets of challenges that would be inevitable and to each their own when it comes to problems. The most common of them all would lie in the assessment of risks. Many a times, entrepreneurs find themselves faced with a heavy decision between having to invest whole heartedly into the business or to play it safe by testing the receptiveness of the market first. Due to very realistic barriers such as limitation of funds and lack of distribution platforms, should entrepreneurs decide with the latter, then they would end up paying more for a basic product with limited stocks in hand. Should one decide to go with the former, then initial start-up capital would be hefty and risks are a whole lot greater.
What are some important insights that you’ve learnt from working on SaltyCustoms?
King: Running a business is not always easy, in fact it could be frustrating beyond words at times but above it all, the satisfaction that I gain from working with talented people to produce high level products for our always appreciative clients and the learning that the we, the team go through collectively, makes it all worth it.
What makes an entrepreneur successful, in your opinion?
King: For an entrepreneur to be successful in his/her venture, one has to be highly motivated, highly energized, disciplined and ethical.
So do you guys have any advice for the fighting entrepreneurs out there?
Shannon: Surround yourself with likeminded people, ditch your negative friends if you have to.
King: Do what you love and what you love would follow.
What personal values drives you guys?
Shannon: Honesty, Staying humble, Keep learning, Dream big, Reward yourself.
King: I’ll hold true to this: “Treat others with respect and integrity; and the way you would like to be treated.” Also, growth and personal development, people becoming more than what they were before, the business undergoes an organic growing phase, the brand gains international recognition; these are the key factors that would keep me going.
What can we expect from SaltyCustoms in the future?
Shannon: We definitely want to make SaltyCustoms a household brand for custom t-shirts worldwide.
King:It took us 3 years to lay the foundation for SaltyCustoms. The journey has only just begun. We’ll see to it that SaltyCustoms is to be in every company and every lifestyle worlwide in the next 5 years. There definitely is room for the brand to grow and mature over this period of time. More development plans to be unveiled along the way. Sky is the limit!
Connect with Shannon & King and SaltyCustoms today:
Email: [email protected]