Despite three failed business ventures, Ethel Neo’s heart for having her own business did not stop beating. She and her husband Peter share how God brought them to their award-winning businesses and how they learned to trust Him in work and family.
City Harvest Church members Ethel Neo and Peter Lau have two flourishing businesses under their belt: Éclat by Oui, a diamond simulant jewellery brand, and Chu Collagen, a range of collagen broth and related products retailing in NTUC Fairprice supermarkets. Late last year, they were awarded the 2022 Start Up Award at the Spirit of Enterprise Awards.
It may surprise some that the couple has experienced rapid success in the last five short years, but as the couple reveals, this success really was many years in the making. Since Peter and Ethel started dating 13 years ago, Ethel, who was 18 years old at the time, already possessed an inclination to build a business of her own.
“It was really God’s timing,” says Peter. “Before Éclat and Chu Collagen came about, Ethel experienced failure in her first three businesses.”
FAILURE AS STEPPING STONES
The daughter and oldest child of filmmaker Jack Neo and his wife Irene, Ethel dipped her toes into the world of business as a student selling stick-on bras online. Before long, she winded up the business because the market was too competitive and her products were not unique enough.
While in university in Melbourne, Australia, she and a partner decided to set up a blog shop in Australia. Blog shops were booming in Singapore at the time, and the pair sought to capture the Australian market, but found that the concept did not catch on Down Under.
“So to clear stock, we brought our products in a luggage bag to Camberwell Market,” Ethel recalls. “But each time at the flea market, we would sell a maximum of five pieces only.”
Undeterred where many others would have given up ever trying to run a business, Ethel kicked off her third venture with a friend when she returned to Singapore: Oui, a gown rental business. Oui proved to be a difficult business, mainly due to the inventory-heavy nature of the industry and the cost of dry cleaning the gowns. That business too, wounded up.
After graduating from University, Ethel moved into the next season of her life, in which the neuroscience graduate took up private tutoring, which she did for the next four years.
While she was doing well as a tutor, yet, there was a nagging question at the back of her head if this was really where God wanted her to be for the long haul.
A GOD IDEA SPARKED BY A NEARLY-LOST ENGAGEMENT RING
God had plans to give Ethel a future and a hope, and it came in the most unexpected way.
Once, Ethel nearly lost her engagement ring while travelling overseas. This sparked in her an idea for a “holiday ring”, diamond jewellery she could wear when she travelled but not live in fear of losing it. She went shopping but did not find one she liked. The idea of creating a range of jewellery using simulated diamonds came to her—they share similar gemological characteristics to natural diamonds but are chemically different.
That became the impetus to set Éclat into motion. She says, “I felt there was this push inside me to just do it. This was not an overnight decision, but a lingering feeling that I could not get rid of for the next six months. I felt it was God prompting me to start something.”
The School of Theology graduate decided to give her fourth business idea a go, upon the encouragement of her family. Éclat by Oui became her first business success—its name is an ode to her failed gown shop, a reminder of a “no” that re-emerged as a “yes” when God came into her business.
Peter and Ethel were wed in 2016, and Éclat was born in 2017. Business grew so much Peter found himself helping his wife with the back end operations while juggling his full-time job.
“It came to the point where Ethel said, ‘You can quit your job already, just join me.’ But of course, I needed to calculate our finances to see if this business could sustain us and cover our current financial needs,” Peter remembers.
That they ended up being partners both in life and business, he says that it was not a decision they made from the start, but something that happened gradually.
“We could not see it at that point but when we looked back, we saw that God had paved the way for this partnership to happen,” he marvels. In his earlier years, Peter had attended many courses in digital marketing that allowed him to contribute significant, especially at the nascent phase of Éclat.
“While we might have chosen each other as business partners out of convenience, we have come to realise that we complement each other well,” Ethel points out. “Peter is a very organised and structured person, while I am the one with a lot of creativity.”
However, it took a few years before husband and wife arrived at balance and compromise in their work. “There were many arguments—initially we did not know where to draw the line, when to stop talking about business. After a season, it got a lot better as we learnt to trust each other. Now, Peter lets me make the decisions for anything related to the aesthetic or branding. He will give his opinions, but I will make the final decision,” Ethel says. The same applies to Peter and the financial aspect of the business.
Even in their biggest project to date — that of raising their two sons, Flynn, 5, and Austin, 2, the delegation of roles in the area of discipline is clear. “Before my first son, Flynn, was born, Peter would declare the popular saying based on Proverbs 13:24, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
Ethel laughs, recalling that when the time actually came to discipline Flynn, Peter could not bear to do so. He would give their son a gentle tap on the palm, such that the child would willingly put out his hand if Peter were to “discipline” him.
“So whenever Flynn is mischievous, Peter will say, ‘Don’t do this or I will tell Mommy to cane you!’”
TRUSTING GOD IN BUSINESS AND FAMILY
It has been a faith journey for the couple in learning to trust God for their businesses. “Before any major campaigns or decisions we make for our businesses, we always take the time to pray,” Peter shares. “It gives us a sense of assurance that God will show us the way. While we may not get the answer immediately, we find that the circumstances end up revealing what the ‘God Option’ is.”
The year after Flynn was born, in 2019, Peter and Ethel started exploring locations for a physical store for Éclat. While Éclat’s store is now located at 313 @ Somerset, the business had begun as an online store. “This place we are at now, it was a space no one wanted,” says Ethel. “Our neighbours told us the tenant turnover was very high for that unit, and that the feng shui was not good.”
Being Christians, Peter and Ethel were undeterred by what they were told, and decided to trust God instead, dedicating their decision to Him in prayer.
“One day, as I was coming down the escalator to visit the potential shop space, I had a vision of a large hand hovering above the shop space,” Ethel shares. “It was a vision that God’s hand was upon this, and so we took that step. [Because of its history] the rental for that unit was cheaper too!”
Peter says, “God always exceeds our expectations, more than we can ask for. We are just simply humbled by His blessing.”
For Ethel, it has been a gradual shift from what she felt was “head knowledge” in what it meant to trust God to a true conviction that the Lord would provide for them.
“I have learnt not to underestimate God,” Ethel admits. In her role as the creative of the business, she would talk to God and confide in Him that she needed more creative ideas in her marketing. Yet, there was a small voice inside her that doubted the creativity of God. “I was thinking that God’s ideas would be too holy, too boring.”
Two weeks after she had that thought, which was near the Christmas season, God spoke to Ethel as she was by herself watching some Christmas content: “Did you say I was boring? Don’t you know the whole world celebrates my birthday, the most beautiful time of the year?”
Ethel burst out laughing as she surrendered her past doubts of God’s ability to inspire her in her work. “At that moment, I really kowtow’d to Him. I was so sorry I ever thought that. God is really the best at marketing! He really knows how to market His own birthday such that all around the world, both Christians and non-Christians celebrate Christmas. That encounter was a deep conviction from the bottom of my soul that He is a creative God.”
The journey has been far from easy and underscoring their success is the willingness to sacrifice. “Sacrifice is the most important thing, the highest calling of an entrepreneur,” says Peter. “You have to be willing to give up your personal time, your hobbies, or even time with your children or parents.”
“Your hobby must be your business or it will be very 辛苦 (difficult),” Ethel added.
They recall one Valentine’s Day both ended up being on the night shift for Éclat. “Our staff did not work because they all went out to pak tor (date),” they laugh. While, for the Laus, their sacrifices have well paid off, this is an important consideration for all aspiring entrepreneurs.
Ethel concludes, “Peter and I are just ‘lucky’, in a sense, that we are able to do this together.”