Interview with Marilyn Chew, Founder at Eterate.co
Marilyn runs Eterate, a calligraphy workshop and design company. During an internship at a tech company in New York City, she had an opportunity to first try her hand at hand-lettering for a cafe. Now she works with notable clientele like DKNY, Clinique, Google, P&G and more.
1. What made you decide to get into your current line of work?
In 2015, I interned in New York City under the NUS Overseas College program. While I was in NYC, I attended various art and calligraphy workshops during my free time. After attending a workshop at maman, a cafe in SoHo, Manhattan, the owner, Elisa Marshall, requested for me to handwrite all the menu signboards.
When I returned to Singapore, I started receiving request to hold a calligraphy workshop. Initially I was hesitant due to a lack of confidence. With the encouragement from my friends and family, I took the first step. I began teaching my friends and family while improving my teaching materials and skills.
After I started freelancing in Singapore, my passion project turned into a profitable business when Skin Inc, a Singapore beauty company saw my work through one of my student’s social media account and reached out to me. Through my first ‘live calligraphy’ event, word spread online and I got to work with many amazing clients including NUS, SK-II and Michael Kors. In the start of 2017, I moved back to New York City to pursue a marketing career while increasing Eterate’s exposure in the US.
2. Why did you decide to do it?
I was in school when everything happened. I worked hard and spent long hours on the opportunities that come my way. As an undergraduate, I was able to freely explore what I wanted to do with the business without the fear of failing.
After graduating, I decided to explore new territory in the working world outside of Singapore. Having my first career overseas allowed me to learn more about what is required in a business and more about myself through the daily challenges I faced in the Big Apple.
At the same, I believe in pursuing other parts of my identity through my passions and the things I enjoy. I love all things creative, and modern calligraphy is one of them! I wanted to pursue a career and have a side hustle which I take very seriously.
3. What was your greatest challenge getting into Eterate? What did you have to give up?
Time management was my greatest challenge.
Balancing a business while I was in school was difficult, especially so when I am not willing to compromise on the output of my work.
I had to sacrifice sleep and time spent with my loved ones. While I am on-site at events/ teaching/ meeting clients and sponsors, I can’t reply to emails or give attention to those texting. After a long day in school, I’ll usually have to spend late nights replying emails and social messages.
Most of the events I appear at are usually held on the weekends, so as you can probably imagine my typical week looks something like: 5 days school, 2 days calligraphy event. This repeated weekly.
There are certain things you might need to give up during the course of pursuing your own business or passions, I won’t say it’s been easy, but I have no regrets.
4. How are you marketing your business/getting, clients for your calligraphy events and calligraphy workshop?
Almost everything has been organic since Eterate started.
I focus heavily on providing quality in the work that I do and sincerely provide a unique service.
I did not write a business plan before starting out my first project. I designed a business card and created a website and an Instagram page. Those are my main forms of marketing when I first started. I’d recommend having a point-of-reference where you can direct people to, it could be a website or social page. This makes it easier for others to refer you and for you to have a one-stop source for information about your business.
People might not require my service immediately, but having access to my portfolio online will give them a better idea of the services I provide.
In my site and Instagram page, I’d share photographs from the events I did. I found that not only did it help me get discovered by new prospects, it also added credibility to my business when people had a visual picture of what I actually delivered.
In addition, I also displayed business cards during my on-site events. Another thing was that being on-site really let me build personal connections with the visitors at the event. They remember how I made them feel and I guess that is one of the reasons why I am on the top of mind when they require design and modern calligraphy services.
Often, I get connected with potential clients through referrals and word of mouth. It’s not something I can actively control, but I make it a point to ask satisfied clients after delivering.
In summary, I’d attribute the work I’ve gotten so far to a few things:
a) Focus on connecting with your customers through the product, that way you don’t have to connect with them through your ads. In my case I get to interact with them personally and not just through digital. This can make all the difference. In the end, clients don’t just buy for the output, they are buying you as an individual.
b) Be daring to put yourself out there. If I didn’t actively promote my business early on when I had no clients or few clients, without a doubt I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunities that I had till date. There will be mounting pressure to perform because it seems like everyone is watching, but you need to trust in your product and not short-sell yourself. When you just start out, you’ll have to be your full-time marketer. Don’t be boastful, but at the same time, don’t be shy about it.
5. What has been your greatest lesson so far since starting Eterate?
Running this company has opened doors to meeting many inspiring and motivated individuals. I believe that my greatest takeaway so far is that you need to constantly learn, and the fastest way to do that is by immersing yourself among other talented people.
In my line of work, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and liaise with marketing directors, sponsored partners and of course teach students hungry to learn. You’d be surprised that once your social circle expands, you tend to grow as an individual simply because you learn from their personal experiences and stories vicariously.
Meeting Elisa in New York catalyzed Eterate, and the people I’ve met and have been able to impact through Eterate has shaped me even more. I am not the same person as I was 3 years ago as a result. Basically, learn from others, your teachers, your students because the more open you are to the abundance of knowledge around you, the faster you grow.
6. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It might not work for everyone, but for me it was: Saying “Yes” even when you feel you aren’t ready and then working really hard to prepare for it.
Because of the uniqueness of every project that comes my way, there will be instances where the event calls for something I’ve never done before. For example, a different canvas, a different crowd, or even a different writing medium. I accept the task and then over-prepare prior to the event as scary as it may be.
So far, it’s been working out great!. I get to learn plenty from the preparation and subsequently expand my range of services. The adage: ‘Ready.Fire.Aim’ really encapsulates this well.
7. If you had to offer a piece of advice to someone that had zero experience or connections getting into business, what would you say?
a) Put your work out there and take action.
As mentioned earlier, nobody is going to promote you better than yourself in the beginning. You need to put in the work to reap the fruit, there are no two ways around this.
I started by sharing my work and projects on my personal Facebook page. I wanted to use the platform to share my learning experiences and remember how I felt about the projects I was pursuing. I think enthusiasm is contagious and hence, people started approaching me for commissioned pieces, workshops and linked me up with companies in need of the service because of the love and passion I have for calligraphy.
When things started to move, I created a website using Squarespace and a public instagram business account. When a public (Instagram) account is created, friends can share with their friends and strangers can come across your profile through the right hashtag. It can be powerful.
b)Step out of your comfort zone and seek help.
No man is an island, similarly you might not know everything right now that you need to know and that’s okay. Let someone more experienced guide you, there is no shame and in fact people will respect you more for it.
Send cold emails to people whom you look up to and ask them to meet with you. You would be surprised how having zero experience or connections might turn out to be an advantage. The point is to figure out a way because everyone starts at zero and then the number will only go up from there. You need to get past your comfort zone to make progress.
8. What have you started trying this year that has been working well for your business?
The initial phase of my business focused largely on live calligraphy. This year, I focused on sharing my techniques and knowledge via calligraphy workshops and classes. I got to work with two Singapore universities through word of mouth and recommendations from my students.
One of my students sit on the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) student committee and approached me to conduct a workshop after attending my private workshop. When I shared on social media that the workshop for SIT was happening, my junior from NUS approached me to conduct a workshop at my alma mater as well. You could say that it’s kind of a ‘domino effect’. If I kept quiet about it, I might not have gotten the second job!
I usually teach workshops in smaller form, but I decided to expand my scope and taught larger forms of workshops at NUS and SIT. I wanted to better prepare myself for my experience in New York. Knowing that a full-time job will require a lot more commitment, I wanted to be efficient with time and teach larger form of workshops when I am in New York. You realize that scaling becomes a priority after you begin to slowly master the skill you offer. If I can impact more people, why not?
9. What is one book you would recommend that every new business owner or freelancer be reading?
I would have to pick The Creative Entrepreneur by Isa Maria Seminega. My cousin, Erika Tay, founder of Erikartoon recommended it to me when I first started doing this. It is a very easy read that gives you a peek into the baby steps you can take to launch your freelance career. Highly recommend it to all readers on FreelanceFuel!
I would also like to recommend a podcast! It is called 5 to 9 Collective by my friend, Tina Yip. It is a podcast for the side hustle generation. I thought this might be pretty applicable for the audience visiting this website.
10. What have you just learnt recently that just blew you away?
I am reading John Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership. My CMO, Jackson in the tech company I am working at currently recommended it. I’m half way through the book and it certainly did change my perspective on how one can both serve and lead. It allowed me to identify the different types of leaders which in turn allow me to cope and adapt. When you come to the realization that everyone is different, you learn to deal with them slightly differently as well.
11. What are 3-4 tools (digital or offline) that you feel everyone should know about?
I heavily depend on, Asana, Evernote, MixMax and Google Calendar.
Asana – to plan my personal and work task. It aims to replace reminder list, to do list and reduce communication via email internally within the team.
Evernote – to organise my documents. I like to organise my documents into different notebooks. The tagging function also allow me to search for the right document on the go. It is mobile friendly and has a password function which is great!
Mixmax – to schedule, automate and track my emails. Useful when following up with proposals or just to save time.
Google Cal – to plan my schedule. I usually plan my day the night before so I get to maximize the day without having to think of “what’s next”. It also provide me with a goal to achieve by the end of every day. This accumulates and I get to look back on how my time was spent.
12. How can people connect with you?
I love emails – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Website + Instagram: @eterate.co
I go by @chewmarilyn on almost all my social channels.
This interview is part of our Expert Interview series where we endeavor to interview entrepreneurs or successful freelancers with interesting and useful stories/lessons on starting and running a business.