We started a business during the pandemic. Here’s what we learnt.

SPONSORED POST: This article is part of a greater conversation of the National Youth Council’s pre-Budget 2021 discussions, Our Two Cents.

This article focuses primarily on businesses, but other topics covered during the pre-Budget 2021 discussions included tackling climate change, reopening Singapore safely from Covid-19 and protecting vulnerable groups.


If you’ve been following us since 2019, you’d know that The Woke Salaryman first started its life as a side hustle. This is no longer the case. With our blog growing faster than we expected, we decided to take the chance to try to run it full time as a business in 2020.

For the next six months after that, we ran the operation from our homes. In December, we got an office, and in February, we hired two staff members, officially making us employers.

The journey from employee to self-employed, to employer has opened up our eyes to things we never understood or realised. This is very much a new experience for us.

With that in mind, we thought we would journal down some of our reflections during this transition.

Some of these we wish we could see when we were employees; but as the saying goes, it is only when the student is ready does the master appear.

Caveat: We’re far from the most qualified business owners – we’ve only done this full-time for less than a year, so there’s probably a lot more for us to learn.

The main difference between self-employed vs employers

It can be hard to grasp the subtle difference between self-employed vs being an employer. On paper, they seem similar. Both work for themselves. Both might experience irregular income. Both have irregular working hours.

As someone who’s been both a freelance writer and in the digital media business, the major difference I feel is this:

A self-employed person is:

  • Only responsible for themselves, and hence has lower risk
  • Is limited to the same 24 hours of work everyone gets

An employer:

  • Is responsible for employees, and hence has higher risk
  • Gains extra hours per day through use of their employees

The financial risks you take on when you’re a business

When you are an employee, you give up the potential to earn more money for the stability and security of a salaried job. In contrast, business owners take on bigger risks to earn more money.

Here’s an example: if an employee who earns $4,000 loses their job, they lose:

  • $4,000 of income.

However, if a business doesn’t make any profit that month, the business owner effectively has a lot more to lose, including:

  • The total combined salaries of their employees
  • Fixed costs such as rent, equipment, electricity
  • Income of their own

For reference: Assuming you’re a small business with four employees, and pay each employee $4,000, that’s $16,000 a month, or $192,000 a year.

That means during months without income, businesses can burn through cash incredibly quickly.  Which probably explains why many businesses were badly hit during COVID-19 (and probably why some SME bosses are so kiamsiap).

Running a business won’t be ‘more slack’

Way before TWS, we once toyed with the idea of starting a business to avoid working long hours and free up more spare time. Turns out, we’re not alone. Plenty of people have approached us with this notion of ‘quitting their jobs and starting a business for an easier life.’

In our experience, this could not be further from the truth. Running a business means you need to take ultimate responsibility.  We say ultimate because while there are people in between who you can hire, the owner eventually is most affected.

As new business owners, we found ourselves doing more work than we ever did when we were employed. We worked longer hours, spent less time with our loved ones and felt more stress than we’ve ever had as employees.

But don’t get us wrong, we’re not whining. While in the past we had to do work we didn’t necessarily believe in – i.e promoting the latest condo launch in Singapore – running our own thing has allowed us to focus more on work we actually find meaningful and impactful.

You don’t start a business to do less work, you start one to do more on your own terms.

Consider the trade-offs

One thing that we’re also hyper-aware about is all the things we might be doing if we didn’t start a business. This is referred to as opportunity cost.

Here’s how you can think about it:

Could you have been promoted if you stayed in your stable but comfortable job? Did you turn down a job interview at the next-up-and-coming company? Leaving a corporate role can disrupt any momentum you might have had before.

Also, if your business is the kind that is slightly more capital intensive, it is also worth thinking about what your capital could have been used for instead of starting your business.

For example, the five-year return on a passive index fund such as CSPX is 106%. That means if you had $100,000 in 2016, you should at least have $206,000 for your business to have beaten the results of passive investing.

Stock you invested in $100,000 Your investment today
CSPX (S&P500 tracker) $206,000
Google $266,000
Nike $222,000
Tesla $1,209,048

Personal finance can help you run a business

Personal finance is a lot like running yourself as if you were a private business, and vice versa. Some parallels I’ve observed:

  • Emergency savings is like your company’s cash reserves, determining how long each can survive in the event of no income.
  • Your monthly expenditure is a lot like a company’s negative cash flow. The average person tries to save money by cooking from home, or having less bubble tea. A business may decide to ‘keep the team lean’ to cut costs.
  • Diversification of income. Your side hustling is a lot like a company trying to grow alternative models of revenue (i.e AirAsia going into food delivery).
  • Upskilling and personal branding is a lot like improving your products/branding/services so you can charge more for them (i.e how Apple charges you a premium for their iPhones)
  • Investing for an individual means giving your money to companies for growth. In business, you pour money into the business by hiring people and equipment that will hopefully generate more profits for you.

My takeaway is that despite the narrative out there trying to paint entrepreneurs as a whole different species, employees and employers aren’t that different after all.

The main difference between Personal Finance and running a business? In my humble opinion, it is that most businesses exist to make a profit, and that drives them to take on higher risk.

In contrast, for most people, money is just a means to an end – so we don’t put money as the biggest priority (and that’s okay).

Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, but it helps to think like an entrepreneur

In the age of high-growth tech startups, entrepreneurship is quite glorified. You might even see a few articles saying that people who start businesses are superior to their salaried brethren.

Our suggestion is that you should take that with a pinch of salt.  No one should feel bad for pursuing gainful employment.

However, even if you intend to remain an employee forever, it’ll help to understand how business owners might think or operate.

Why? Because if you want to take on managerial positions in any organisation, you’ll have to think beyond a micro-perspective.

Look, we’re not saying having a micro-perspective is bad. More like, adding a macro perspective allows you to understand the (sometimes confusing) decisions made by your bosses.

When your bosses see that you understand the challenges and trade-offs they have to make, they will also be more inclined to see your opinions as more informed and valuable. In turn, that can help any negotiations you might have with them.

Good employers understand their employees’ needs. And good employees understand their employer’s challenges.

Make no mistake, empathy is a two-way street.

Stay Woke, Salaryman


If you want to start a business, here’s some grants:

Make no mistake, for every company that’s thriving during COVID-19, there are many more that have quietly shuttered.

When businesses shut down, the jobs they have provided also go with them – this was a concern raised by youth in the pre-budget conversations NYC held.

To help local businesses (and the job security of Singaporeans), the government has introduced several initiatives to help both people and businesses tide through this period. If you’re an employer or employee, here are some initiatives that might help you out.

Jobs Growth Incentive. For full time jobs. The government will pay 25% to 50% of salary when someone hires Singaporeans. Duration ranges from 12 to 18 months.

Note: Personally, this is the one that we found the most helpful. We used this initiative to make our first two hires, and found it useful because it really helped with our cash flow situation.

Jobs Support Scheme:  Employers get payouts to help offset local employees’ wages. The government co-funds a proportion of the first $4,600 monthly wages paid to each local employee. It’s been extended to September 2021 for select firms.

Wage Credit Scheme: Government co-funds 15% of an employee’s wage increase, with a wage ceiling at $5,000. The scheme began in 2015 and has been extended till 2021.


If you’re an employee-to-be, here’s some grants as well:

SGUnited Traineeships: This is most relevant for fresh graduates and younger adults. Traineeships are new in SG, but you can think of them as somewhere in between an internship and a full time job. The Government pays 80% of the traineeship allowance, and businesses get an extra person to help them out.

Note: We have heard of companies making trainees do tedious jobs with no learning value under the guise of SGUnited Traineeships. IMO if you are an employer, you should only apply for this if you have a legitimate need for a trainee.

SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programmes: This is like SGUnited Traineeships but for older people. The government also pays 80% of the allowance.


A message from our sponsor

Running a country is often different from running a business, but there are many similarities as well.

Making trade-offs is one of them. As a country with limited resources (and budget), Singapore has many of these to make.

Earlier this year, 170 youths joined Minister of State Alvin Tan and Minister Indranee Rajah at Our Two Cents, a pre-Budget 2021 conversation.

Based on quadratic voting, the topics youths cared about most  – apart from keeping businesses alive – were: Supporting our Vulnerable Groups, Ensuring a Safe Reopening, Building New Strategies for the Future Economy and Preparing for Climate Change.

Check out the infographics below for a visual snapshot of Minister of State Alvin Tan and Minister Indranee Rajah’s opening and closing remarks:

To tune into these conversations, click here.

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