Kelvin Kalay: An Entrepreneur by DNA.

Is successful entrepreneurship nature or nurture? With the Guru Project, I have had the opportunity to have met many successful business owners. I always wondered if entrepreneurship is nature or nurture. When I met Mr Kelvin Kalay and he narrated his life story to me, it was evident that this man had entrepreneurship in his dna. The way his mind spots an opportunity and the way he works. He shares with us on his latest preneur, a simple idea that does solve a real problem in a proper way.

Tell us more about your journey in business
My father used to sell Puttu mayam on bicycle back in 1950s when he came to Singapore. Subsequently, he  went into the food business. He was working with his village folks in one of the restaurants along serangoon road.
Eventually, he started out on his own. Manomani Villas. It was along Serangoon Road. My father was managing the business. Between his brother and him, took turns to run the business. They faced some difficulties due to manpower issues and decided to change.

We went from running a restaurant to running stall at a coffeeshop at Norris Road. It was very famous,  and extremely popular among the locals and his village friends. I used to start making idli with my father at 5 am . I will burn my hand, my father will ask me to press on. It was very hard. It was the same food everyday, Idli, thosai,vadai. Banana leaf set meals, Kodal (intestines) curry,  and sardine among 20 other dishes. We just kept going. I learnt things from a very young age. It was very good business for many years till  the owner wanted to sell the property.
New Shop in 1994

My father then opened a business for me in 1994 when I was 24 years old. I wanted to enter the food business since young. It was in my blood. I've been used to working for my father, he had a lot of trust in me. The restaurant was at dunlop street. From 1994-2000, I was running the business and I opened one more in Serangoon Road. For 4 years. I had 2 restaurants in Little India until 2000.
We donated our First Day's Sales amounting to about $2700 to SINDA

The Government policy with regard to manpower was changing. It was getting difficult to get staff. After a while, I had no choice but to give up.

What happened thereafter?
I remained in the industry but decided to work within my limitations. I took on a project to sell food to foreign workers on Sundays at Sungei Road. We sold briyani, thayir saatham (curd rice), puli saatham (tamarind rice), coffee, tee etc. It picked up very well. This was just once a week but due to the massive crowds, we easily made thousands a day. From the period 2000 to 2006.

That project did not last for long due to non renewal of the contract. I moved on to supply Indian sweets (ladoo, Jilebi etc ) to the restaurants in Little India. But, I could not sustain that. In 2006, I finally decided to exit the food industry and embark on real estate.

How did your father feel when you left the food business?
Naturally, my father was very upset. He wanted me to continue. It was his passion and something that runs in the family. I was the only one among my siblings who had a knack in it. He understood the manpower difficulties.

But, my father and I have a 50 year age gap difference. The generation gap was there. It was sometimes hard to understand each other. A lot of miscommunitcation would arise. He knows I'm hardworking and he knows I have a lot of passion for this and want to run the business. But there was a lot of communication breakdown between us. He was working till his 70s at our restuarants etc. He passed away in 2009.

So, Why property?
My entire life was in Little India. I knew the area very well and I knew many people who were business owners, landlords and tenants. It was just natural for me too recognise an opportunity and make something out of it.

How did you move from property to Handyman services? It seems unrelated.

Actually, I forgot to add that I was also supplying vegetable during my time in property. I'm the kind of a person who doesn't like to sit down. I love to keep moving so I always end up multi-tasking. So for about 2-3 years, I would distribute vegetables to restaurants in Little India. That ended when the influx of foreign talents started entering the market and their prices were almost impossible to compete with. So that ended in 2009.

Back to your question, while i was a property agent, I learnt more about the problems that  tenants face. Rooftop problems, plumbing, electrical, simple fixing jobs, remodelling works, painting . A lot of issues. That was when I started to understand more about property.  Finding a property and matching it to a tenant barely scratches the surface. Its the management of the tenant that is bulk of the work.

Complaints from tenants, complaints from landlords. So I asked myself, why not help fix this problem? I  started a handyman service in 2012.

How was the transition from property to handyman?
I started “Mr Brown handyman.”

Firstly, there was a demand for handyman services. A lot of contractors, do an initial renovation package and with little time for minor things, they don't have time to come back and when you call a handyman, the costs is very high and there are very limited handyman in the market. If you search, you would see around 40-50 handymen in the market and the cost are very high.

So we moved into the market. It was easy to penetrate and we were handling everything from head to toe. Rooftop, to ceiling problems, partition wall, electrical, plumbing, fittings in the house, flooring.
We were handling basically everything and it was a great learning experience for me. It was a completely different ballgame. From food to vegetable selling to property and now this. I'm very adaptable. Along with this business, i was also managing some properties in little india. Some of which are property maintenance earning a small fee for each unit.

Eventually I gave up my handyman business in 2016 because of levy issues. When I started, it was $350 per worker. It eventually went up as high as $950. The costs of running the business was just too high and not worth it.

So the contractors, sub contractors, workers, everybody was getting paid. I am running around the whole day from 8 am to 9pm and not making profit out of this. So I gave up in 2016.

How did the idea for DIY ENRICH come about?
This business came about due to past experiences with tenants and house owners, through agencies and I was doing handyman. Everyone seemed to have the common complain that the contractor was charging too much. Some contractors would even charge for transport for consultation even before they start on any work. In this line, the home owner is often desperate and needs to get his problem fixed. They are often at the short end of the stick. Back in the 80s we used to have our next door uncle to fix it. These uncles are no more.

I thought to myself, why not teach the basic skills so that they can teach their children and pass it on to somebody. They can do for their next door neighbours and get paid. A lot of prisoners after they get released, they are not sure on what to do with very limited skills. So this is like a career switch for some, an eye opener. They might just decide that wall painting suits and just learn the skill. 

Because this is not just for a beginner level? You can also teach them to an extent where it becomes a craft?

Correct. Once they find something that suits them, they can take up a course in WSQ. Skills future, they are offering courses like that. Pursue a certificate and diploma and be a business owner one day There are thousands of skilled craftsman earning 10k with just basic ‘N’ level certificate.
Normally a business starts with a problem that you want to solve. You on the other hand are disrupting the market. The handymen in the market will be extremely unhappy with you. 
They are. Certain things such as CCTV and all, I'll just show them the basic controls but in terms of configuration, the specialist will have to come in. At the same time, for electrical - if the whole house trips and overloads, or if you need to do rewiring, the specialist must come in. It's just a basic part. For example, if a pipe breaks, the contractor has to come down and do it, but for taps - its DIY while waiting.

Train kids and young adults how to be cost effective, safety awareness, savings on household bills..

One time investment to save lifetime savings on handyman services, skills can be passed on.
  • DIY Lab – learn from making mistakes here not at your home. Its every Home owners’ needs for the future with takehome goodies of self made wood works
  • DIY ENRICH simply educates the customer so that nobody gets unfairly ripped off. Having a customer who knows the basics will only ensure that the handyman does his job properly.The price quoted will be easily accepted.
  • Ultimately, I want to craft a handyman in every house. Nurture a skill that will never die.
  • Target participants - those wanting to do a career switch, housewives wanting to cut cost of hiring handyman, Awareness of safety and cost of repair, DIY fanatics, students 16 years and above for fun activity/school holiday programs.

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