Getting started isn’t easy, especially when no one believes in your idea. I had the pleasure of interviewing Wan, founder of BenchLab.co. She shared so much about this disbelief that everyone had in her idea, and how she pushed through to bring BenchLab to the household name in her country when it comes to learning a new skill over the weekend.
Listen to the Episode below:
In this episode, you’ll hear about:
- Starting a business from an idea that no one believed in
- Believing in marketing as a means to get business
- Working on your business with emotions or heart
What do you think?
I’d love to know what you think of this episode. Do you plan on leaving your full-time job soon to start your business? If so, where are you now in that plan? Share with me in the comments below!
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Thank you so much for listening!
Welcome to Fempreneur Secrets where business secrets are revealed. Today we have with us the founder of BenchLab, Wan Nurul.
So BenchLab is a skills sharing platform that is based in Brunei and I think it’s a very unique structure that we’d like to discuss it either. So we have my dear friend here, Wan will be talking about this. So thank you for coming to the show, Wan.
Thank you for having me. It’s a big honor.
Tell me a little bit more about BenchLab and why you started this.
BenchLab started out of my frustration with regards to the ways we spend on weekends in Brunei, especially. It has a unique ecosystem, but for us, locals, it’s very limited things we can do on weekends, aka attending someone’s wedding, there’s family function, watch a movie. So not really something that I want to envision myself spending the rest of my weekend.
So I asked myself what was different from then that when I was in college and grad school in the US for six years and the difference between that and when I am in Brunei?
So the real difference is that options for me to actually meet new people who are as interested as I am in certain things or topics in life.
I saw a lot of opportunities to do so by attending workshops and not boring symposium type, but more of creative skills. I decided that maybe I should explore my creative side so I went into fashion design workshops and whatnot.
So I started off with a shoe design workshop for thirteen weekends. It was fun it was a lot of commitment, but it was good because, in a way, I would be looking forward to my weekend learning the next step in making my own pair of stiletto heels.
What I love the most about that kind of workshop is that it’s the chemistry that happens between instructor and students and amongst the students themselves, and that’s what I wish to emulate in Brunei. And I’m sure that a lot of places out there (not just Brunei) who don’t have this kind of skill-sharing platform, we get to also meet people and share skills.
There are a lot of talented people, actually. A lot of them, a lot of creatives, but there’s not necessarily any one single platform where you can actually look for the right creative and just say, “Hey, can I teach you this?”
People who actually organize workshops are doing it … who were doing independently back then, they have different difficulties.
Some of them are facing marketing problem because they’re good at teaching or whether they are really good at, but they don’t really know how to reach out to the right people or they just don’t have time.
They’re like full-timers working for maybe the government private companies, on weekends they wanted to teach, but they just can’t handle the administration behind it.
So I saw this as an opportunity: 1, is because I was bored! Second is, there is a need for it both from the instructor and students perspective.
I tend to call them the curious, people who want to learn and the skilled, people want to teach.
So I saw problems for both of these groups coming from zero business background, I decided to sign myself up for this bootcamp where I got to meet other people who are actually quite established in Brunei.
It was quite intimidating at first, to be honest —“Am I going to even make it through?”
I was competing with about 20 other startups. How did I even know where to categorize venture that this?
At that time it was just a somewhat vague idea and a concept that Bruneians could not accept.
There was a steep learning curve. I have a full-time job and at night, every evening, I’d be dedicating myself to either working on my own or actually attending classes with them.
We have homework assignment, things were really going by so fast. At some point, it was really hard for me to just move on. I mean, just carry on and just fight till the end.
I got mentored. We were lucky enough to meet people, mostly from Indonesia. People from Go-Jek, and some of the unique, big names from Indonesia. That was a great opportunity.
It got me thinking about BenchLab more than just a place for people to just learn new things. We made it to the top 3
BenchLab isn’t totally unique. Seeing people who are doing similar things trying to fulfil the same objective, resolving the same issues but at the same time, they’re different and probably have established much, much earlier than us in Brunei.
I get to learn a lot things that I didn’t see. I wasn’t sure — there’s just three of us working every weekend trying to host workshops after workshops, after workshops, trying to look for talented to connect to talent, so we just went on.
We were like, “This is going to work out.” And he (Wan’s partner) just said, “Just start. there’s no perfect timing.”
So we just went on with it and Alhamdulilah (Thank God), our first several classes were mostly full classes.
So we knew that it’s there, it’s been accepted by a certain number of people, but we want more, we want the 90%, 80% of people in Brunei to understand what this is about.
Since then we have grown so much. I love to see that there are more opportunities, especially in times of community empowerment. We want BenchLab to not only become a culture but also to be really involved, to be taking part in community empowerment as well.
So I think that’s a very noble concept you have like supporting underprivileged, marginalized communities and helping them to get ahead in life — because at the end of the day, how people are stuck in poverty is actually because it’s a cycle. And if you are not able to break that cycle, you’ll stay there.
And so let’s talk about the landscape in Brunei. How is a landscape in Brunei like that pretty much inspired you to match the skilled ones with the one seeking knowledge?
The rate of unemployment (in Brunei) is really high. And this is becoming more true in the past few years.
People coming from a background that used to be masters. Everyone struggling to be employed, to get a job. So more and more people thinking about how can I be self-employed? How can I make money? How do I at least earn something of something I can do?
So that’s something that I realize has become more and more important. The way I see it is that people tend to also undermine themselves.
They’re good at something, but maybe it is the skill that they, I mean, something that they’re interested in teaching or learning. It’s still at a beginner level.
That’s why we are also trying to get our workshops not only for people who just want to try but also to develop themselves further than just a beginner level. We want to help them we want them to know that you don’t have to attend a formal education program.
You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to maybe get at least diploma degree to prove yourself, you’re capable of doing something.
So just take a class, take a workshop, meet this other skilled person who can probably mentor you one day, and then perhaps people who you meet as students of the same workshop are your potential partners or collaborators.
This is the way to go for people to not be so highly dependent on the government or the private sector to provide jobs for them. I think now it’s about time for them to also rise and just create a job.
Create a job that is much better than just waiting for some offer and you can create a job that you actually enjoy. It also helps with the economy overnight.
So has their life and state of their business improved ever since?
So there are two types of skilled instructors that we have:
ONE is people who are actually independent artists.
So once they have actually started teaching with BenchLab, they gain a few things.
First is brand exposure. People get to know them better because our goal is not just to sell the skills but also to sell the instructor. So their brand exposure has substantially improved.
And the second thing is they gain more confidence. Teaching is not something that comes naturally, it’s through experience.
Having said that, we also realize that it’s only with experience that people actually become better.
For us, our policy is that we would not discriminate people, to say that, “Oh, you could never teach.”
We give opportunity, given that a person has some level of confidence doesn’t have to be a super experienced instructor, but as long as there’s confidence and some substantial level of knowledge and expertise in this field, we’re happy.
We’re happy to hear reviews from people that they have gained confidence as well.
Third, they also come up with collaborations.
I understand from one of the workshops that we had, it was a Tudung designing workshop, basically Hijab designing workshop.
After the class, the student — this student was actually also an artist, watercolour artist. What happened was that collaboration happened, magic happens —and that’s exactly what I wanted. So after that workshop, they actually came up with your own product.
That’s really nice. I think at the end of it all, when you create adventure like this, is full of heart.
If you compare women entrepreneurs with male entrepreneurs:
Male entrepreneurs are focused on getting the product right and getting it out into the market.
But women entrepreneurs are focused on changing the world and making things better. And then at the same time, trying to see how they can make this business part of their reality. So business owners who are female tend to point their business in that direction.
And you have done the same as well. Do you think that?
I mean, I don’t know if I represented the entire woman community, but I really think there’s a lot of feelings in this. There’s a lot I put a lot of emotions into it.
Although they say run a business you’d have to be logical not emotional. But I think that in some ways it’s not quite true.
Had my emotions not been there, I wouldn’t want to fight for the people who need jobs, we need side incomes on weekends, who need to learn something without costing them like thousands of dollars which is needed to upgrade the CV or something.
Emotions were there to actually help me fight on and have sleepless nights and be okay with it still the next day.
So you mentioned earlier that it wasn’t an accepted idea when you first started. How did you break that mindset and shifted the mindset of Bruneians to accept this?
We understand from our first few workshops, that the people who understand this best are young people who have especially travelled abroad or studied abroad. So they were exposed to this idea way before.
I did an interview on the radio, we accepted the offer from a local radio station and it was basically just explaining what BenchLab was about. We had an advertisement commercial after that.
And then we had a lot of questions. They were like, “What do you do?” The questions that I never receive while I was in the boot camp because everyone seems to get it —except for the first time, people thought I was a car workshop when I said “workshop”.
Had to like twist and (said), “Okay, it’s actually like a class where you have people learning a new skill in an environment that is not classroom not formal.”
So yeah, we had to deal with this like these really basic questions. And so I don’t blame them for not understanding this whole concept of skill-sharing.
Second, of course, we also had our social media. That’s our most powerful tool to explain what we actually are.
We will have videos, have pictures and now we integrate Brunei Malay (language) into our ads, especially on Instagram stories because we want to make it very personal for the locals.
Of course, our main language of doing the business still in English but we still want them to feel included. This is not something only for the educated or the English speaking community of Brunei, this is for everyone.
In fact, our instructors — not all of them are able to speak in fluent English. And that’s the beauty of it.
I think the reason that this works is because of recommendation from instructors, the recommendation from students who have experienced how Benchlab runs its workshops through word of mouth.
I think that’s how we eventually got more people to understand and I’m really grateful. I’ve never imagined having such a substantial number of followers now we actually know and have had conventionally.
Is it 100% organic right now?
We do spend money on ads since day one. I wasn’t familiar with the whole Instagram or Facebook marketing.
The first time, it was pretty much purely print forces. I’m heavy on the creative side of things. I invested maybe too much.
I designed this whole poster like, “Okay, this has to be different from every other poster in Brunei. It has to be bright, it has to be orange and it has to be minimal.” A
nd I had this whole concept in my head and my partner said, “Okay, whatever. You’re the creative one.”
I told him, “We have to print it in high quality.”
“Because we have to show that we are able to produce a certain quality.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best move.
Yeah, it was a waste of money. In fact, what was the deal was actually social media and word of mouth. That’s true from our experience.
And I’m sure some instructors also come from social media as well. So in that aspect, what is the percentage of spending on pure ads versus the students coming only from word of mouth, which is one social media?
I dare to say that it’s mostly through ads, based on the conversations I’ve had from the students that just pop up into workshops and be like, “Oh, I heard from you guys from Instagram.” Mostly Instagram.
We try to link to Facebook. We do but nobody seems to say, “I found you on Facebook.” I have no idea why.
Maybe people who found us on Facebook were not the kind of people that were looking for us.
If there was one thing that you wish someone would have told you about running the business, what would it be?
I wish someone would have just told me that you can’t solve everything.
So it has to be a focused one. The pickier you are with your objectives, the clearer you are; I guess the more content you will feel to understand to actually accept that you’re not everyone’s cup of tea.
That’s a really good business. And I really hope and wish that it will go far.
Thank you. That’s a goal.
So what’s your future plan for BenchLab?
We really want to be online. We realized that in this digital era, I can’t just make Benchlab one on one thing, although I believe in it so much, because, in Brunei, that is the best way to do it.
Now, me being me, I have a soft spot for culture and not just promoting culture. I feel that every country has a unique way of telling the story through culture. And the only way we can be totally immersed is once countries culture is to actually try to learn, pick up a new skill from that culture. So yeah, that’s something that I hope BenchLab will grow into.
Thank you so much, Wan, for making your time here. I know it wasn’t an easy journey to be here today on our show.
It’s okay. I really appreciate it very much.
So keep learning and keep believing in yourself because the world needs an inspiration just like you and I’ll see you in the next episode.
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Till the next episode, This is Huda — Empowering Women Through Business.