Lianne Ong is a Singaporean children’s author and the co-founder of Heartfelt Makan, a joint business she shares with her mother who is the craftswoman behind all the products that they sell.
Read on to find out how she successfully run a business with her mom and how they balance their mother-daughter relationship and business.
I am a children’s author and have written 13 children’s picture books to date. Together with my mother, who is in her 70s, we run a business called Heartfelt Makan, which makes Asian-themed felt food and accessories. I have two children, a boy (12) and a girl (7).
I am an only child so a lot of my childhood was spent reading and imagining as I didn’t have a playmate. My ambitions were ever changing from wanting to be an archaeologist to child psycholoist to museum curator. I don’t think I ever knew what I really wanted to be or how to get there, even in adult life.
I still like reading and imagining, and this has certainly informed my work as an author. I was painfully shy and not confident at all as a child. But now, I have to do public storytelling sessions, or conduct workshops. I have to face an audience of children, which to some, can be very scary. It still surprises me that I interact with an audience of children for work!
For both Heartfelt Makan and being an author by profession, it all happened very organically, very naturally. Neither were planned. It was more about thinking, ‘why not?’ , feeling like there was something I could contribute, and giving it a go.
When my daughter was a toddler, my mother sewed some felt playfood for her - felt dimsum, I believe it was. I showed it to my friends and they thought it was adorable. So I would make orders and gift it to my friends. Then it dawned on me one day that other people might be charmed enough to pay for this kind of felt food toys, especially if it was locally themed, since there are no local themed food toys for masak-masak in the market. My mother needed some convincing to put her work out in the marketplace. But we felt that in some small way, we were doing something to preserve Singapore’s food heritage. And so that is how Heartfelt Makan started.
Becoming a children’s author was also unplanned but inspired by my children as well. My first children’s story book, Maxilla, is a true story about my son. I wrote it to record the event, but chose to do it in a story book format, and asked a friend to illustrate it without having any grand plans for it. When a publisher decided to publish the book, I was very surprised. And that opened the doors to more opportunities. It’s been a roller coaster ride since.
Photo: Heartfelt Makan
I wrote my first book when my daughter was still an infant.
I started Heartfelt Makan with my mother when my daughter was in pre-school and my older child was in lower Primary. The few hours of time in the morning was when I tried to do as much work as possible.
Since I already had experience running an online business and managing social media accounts previously, we decided to set up an online store and ‘see how’. [Side note: I owned and ran a jewellery online store previously.]
Almost immediately. There aren’t many competitors in this niche market, and people admired the handiwork that went into creating realistic looking felt food. I think we also chanced upon a growing maker movement in Singapore, where crafting and artisanal skills are appreciated more and more. Soon we were collaborating with other businesses run by other mommies, and that’s how we grew.
Photo: Heartfelt Makan
Not much different from being her daughter :) Both of us enjoy admiring the work of other felt crafters, and we would do the same even if we didn’t run this business.
Mom sews, I bring it to market.
Same, same but different? Mom can’t tell me how to do some things… She doesn’t know what a “flatlay” is, or how to work her phone to get a nice photo. And I can’t tell her how to sew. She always complains that I think it’s “so easy” to sew this and that :) But she’s still my mother, and she still reminds me to do certain things that I may have forgotten!
It was based on our skillsets and interests. My mom and I have perfectly complementary skills. I do not sew, and she is not savvy with social media or building a website. But we do keep an eye on the each other’s area of work. When we are designing a new product, I will give my input on what will sell, and try to meet the needs of the market. Mom will give me input on what is feasible and practical, based on sewing design and the limitations of the materials we use.
We are on the same page mostly, when it comes to cutting costs for some things, or investing on other things we feel would make the product better. We are both practical and at times not sentimental, so we analyse what products to phase out based on sales. We do what makes sense for the business. Sometimes, we accept that some products are loss leaders and simply necessary to do, because it deserves a spot on our menu and it helps to draw customers.
Everyday is different. It really depends on whether we are launching a new product or completing an order for a customer. Mom is always sewing to ensure we have some ready stock. This is so that we can respond more quickly when orders come in. She has a system where she will prep products up to 70% completion, and when an order comes in, she will put on the finishing touches.
As for me, I try to do most of the work and errands in the mornings while the kids are at school. I prep social media posts, handle orders and shipments, maintain the website, or meet clients.
When the kids are home, I try to sit with them if they have homework and do my own work. This isn’t always the most productive time for me, so it has to be something I can do while multi-tasking.
Between Heartfelt Makan and writing, there is always something that needs to be done.
I’m not sure I’m that successful at it! There are days that I just go from activity to activity, depending on what is most pressing at the moment. Some days, it works out well, other days, I am stressed and not sure if I’m doing well in any of my roles. What helps is my two jobs are similar in many ways, with the key audience being children. I have a message that I want to put out, and I spin a story to tell it.
As a writer, I do need to have some alone time to write, think, plan and research. This is tricky to do when the children need you, so I do have to plan for it. A lot of research does take me out of my comfort zone to meet people and interview them, and I think this does help me become a better mom and wife because it makes my world richer.
I am a Christian, so I pray about whether I am doing the right thing. I seek advice or feedback from trusted friends.
When I’m not around when the kids are at home, I do worry about how they are spending their time. But my work is flexible, so I already have the privilege of being home most of the time, and doing the school runs.
The support and encouragement from our customers and friends! We’ve met lovely people as a result of this business.
We don’t have a long term plan. A lot of it is dependent on how long my mother wants to sew. This business is a labour of love. If it stops being fun or being worthwhile, we would probably stop the business. As a retiree who has worked all her life, she can decide what she wants to do with her time!
As for being an author, I hope to write for many more years!
Photo: Heartfelt Makan
It’s cliched but it’s true: if you don’t try, you’ll never know. But I wouldn’t say that gives you permission to plunge into anything and everything. Think carefully if what you’re about to embark on fits in with your value system.
It can be a lonely road, so do find help when you need it. Don’t try and shoulder everything alone.
On Instagram, you can always see our latest products at @heartfeltmakan and our online store is at www.heartfeltmakan.com.
My author account is at @filbertandfluff and my website is www.lianneong.sg.
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Rooting for you,