One is a creative type with a reputation as a suave manager in the nightlife business. The other, from a family of doctors, rebelled by taking the entrepreneurial route. With their easy confidence and suave eloquence, it would be easy to dismiss Jonathan Shen (right) and Chris Hwang (left) as rich kids who lucked out on a golden product idea: salted egg crisps.
In four years, they went from a two-man operation where Shen and Hwang hand-cooked everything at a rented kitchen facility, to a 150-strong company that sold over a million packets of snacks in 2018. Yet, while you crunch through their highly addictive offerings – like the original salted egg potato chips and a spicy mix of dehydrated mushrooms, fish skin crisps and dehydrated beancurd sheets coated in “mala” (Chinese for numbing heat) seasoning – contemplate the fact that the joy they bring to snackers around the world didn’t come without hardship.
The duo, spotlighted in the 2017 Forbes’ 30 under 30 list, might be in a happy place now (especially for Hwang, who was getting married days after our interview). But both had to claw themselves out of a rock bottom low to get here. The two ACS alumni and serial entrepreneurs met through mutual friends in 2012, and quickly found a kindred spirit in one another. When the seemingly golden opportunity to operate a nightclub for an influential lifestyle group came in late 2014, Shen – who had by then built up an impressive track record for killing club openings – roped Hwang in. The December 2014 opening of club Vice was hugely anticipated, but a legal dispute would lead to the premature closing of the venue just four months later, causing the duo to lose $300,000. This was not a small sum for the twenty-somethings: Hwang basically lost his inheritance, which he had convinced his parents to release in advance to start the business. For Shen, the eldest of three children brought up by a divorcee, it was a blow that took him many steps back from his goal of affording his mother’s retirement. But they weren’t about to let defeat have the last word.
“There wasn’t much joy during that period. But I recall purpose. When you are in your lowest of lows, purpose is what keeps you going. Mine was to be able to provide for my family,” says Shen. There was also a sense of indignation: “Everyone was telling me to go back to branding, get employed. But I had spent the last four or five years of my life doing business. It couldn’t end like this.”
The weight of the situation bore down on Shen to the point where he developed a stutter. “At that point in time, we weren’t seeking joy, just a better place to be,” analyses Hwang. “For some, the route might be to give it up and get a job; for others it might be to try again. Neither is a greater struggle than the other, but you have to choose the path that you can live with, and you learn to find joy in the pain of the struggle.” Within the same year, Shen hit on the idea of riding the salted-egg trend and incorporating the flavour into packaged snacks. The two decided to make another attempt to take the horns of the bull that had almost crushed them. And this time, they emerged victorious.
“When you reach a state of contentment, you strive for joy and you strive to share it,” opines Hwang. They do this by leveraging on their company as a platform to let individuals fulfill their potential. The two speak fondly of employees who’ve experienced personal growth during their time with the company. They gleefully talk about how they forbid staff to report to work when they are at the brink of a burnout, or push them to take time off to spend with their family, and proudly detail the efforts they put into understanding their staff as individuals. “It is a bit like a family here now. We have realised that to grow a business, we have to do it with people, and we have to care about them – you cannot care if you don’t know,” says Shen.
The joy of positively impacting people – be it their customers around the globe or those they work with – might be all of a faint buzz compared to the highs of sealing a big deal. Yet it is what Hwang and Shen seek today.
Sounding very much older than his 27 years, Hwang muses: “The ecstasy one feels clinching a deal or buying a shiny car might be great, but it fades. Small joys, however, build day by day – and with that, every day looks a bit brighter.”