This is part of the Successful Businesses Interview Series, where I feature successful businesses that are making a difference in others’ lives.
The eighth and last interview in our Successful Businesses Interview Series features Brownice, the vegan ice cream like no other. Brownice is the first vegan ice cream brand in Singapore and is well known among the local veg*n community.
I love Brownice. It’s my favorite ice cream. When I decided to turn vegan, I was totally okay with not having ice cream for the rest of my life. Then my veg*n friends kept telling me about Brownice, a vegan brand ice cream which tastes just like normal ice cream, if not better.
I thought “Okay”, but didn’t think much about it. After all, if I’m already okay with not eating ice cream at all, it doesn’t matter if vegan ice cream exists out there. I’m just not going to have ice cream. As simple as that.
One day (sometime March 2011), I finally got to try Brownice while I was out with some vegetarian friends. Boy was I amazed. It tasted just as nice, if not better, than regular dairy ice cream. (IMO, it’s far better than dairy ice cream – the taste of cow’s milk turns me off now that I’m vegan.) I finally understood what my friends were raving about. It’s that good!
Fast forward a couple of months later, when I started the Successful Businesses Interview Series. I brainstormed on a list of businesses to feature for the series, and reached out to Brownice as it had touched my life. From there, I got to know Denise (Lim), owner and creator of the amazing ice cream. We met up for dinner one day, instantly connected, and today we’re great friends!
Even though Denise and I haven’t known each other for long (in terms of length of time), I felt like she’s an “old soul”, like someone I’ve known for a while and can say anything to, and she’d be able to know where I’m coming from. Both of us come from dissimilar backgrounds yet share so many similar beliefs, which make for great conversation. Our first meetup was filled with thought-provoking conversation, where we openly shared our thoughts and our views on life with one another.
Denise has gone all out to make vegan ice cream that’s not only tasty, but also healthier. Brownice is a healthier option compared to conventional ice cream. Apart from not using dairy or eggs, it does not use artificial flavoring and colouring, is low fat, all-natural and is made with organic brown rice, fruits and nuts. As a bonus – Because of the natural and healthier ingredients used, the ice cream tends to be lower in calories compared to its dairy counterparts.
Denise’s vision is to create healthier desserts for vegans and non-vegans alike. She once came across a child who was lactose-intolerant and couldn’t have any ice cream (not the conventional kind anyway; and not when almost all mainstream ice cream uses dairy). Her world changed she saw him happily enjoying her vegan ice cream. From then on, she strove to create the best vegan delights so that everyone in the world can enjoy his/her cake and ice cream too.
Denise creates all the ice cream herself, using her own recipe. Today, she has created over 20 flavors, with about 10 of the flavors being mainstays. I’m always in awe of chefs/cooks, because it’s an art to whip up dishes/meals that taste better than the sum of their parts. For the same reason, I’m amazed by Denise and how she creates such amazing, mouth-watering ice cream, without conventional, commercial ingredients.
Brownice, Dann’s Daily and Delcie’s Desserts strike a chord in me in that I can taste the organic quality in the food, and the warmth of the creators’ hearts when I consume their creations. It’s not like mass manufactured products, which taste empty and bland. IMO, it takes true creativity, talent and passion to create ice cream that tastes so great.
My favorite Brownice flavor by far is peanut butter caramel. French chocolate is second, followed by hazelnut. :drool:
Brownice ice cream. Flavors here: Green tea and Tropicana (Mixture of fruits). Unfortunately, there’s no picture of Peanut butter caramel. If it helps, it’s cream colored with caramel mixed into the ice cream. Heavenly. ♥
Strawberry, Tropicana, Green Tea
Denise also creates ice cream cakes on a made-to-order basis. The above is her mud pie creation – Mudvelicious. It consists of 3 layers: Brown rice crisp at the bottom, followed by a thick layer of French chocolate, and a layer of Hazelnut chocolate. The mud pie is topped off with dark chocolate syrup and sprinkled with almond nuts. I had it a few weeks ago. It was delicious! :drool:
The very kind, warm-hearted Denise and me!
Denise started making her self-made vegan ice cream 2 years ago, about June 2009. As she gradually built up a cult-following to her ice cream, she eventually named it Brownice in Jul ’10. The rest became history.
I now present to you, Denise Lim, founder and owner of Brownice Ice Cream:
Q1) Tell us more about you Denise – Who are you and what are your passions in life?
I’m Denise Lim, 33 this year, founder and owner of Brownice.
I have always loved desserts, this passion for desserts started since young and it has not stopped till today. I would have ice-cream almost daily when I was little. And as my affection for desserts grow with age, I started experimenting with vegan desserts, especially when I realized there are many people who are lactose-intolerant and can’t have their piece of cake and ice-cream! We need to sweeten our lives as much as we spice them up!
I am essentially a homely person, I love staying home to read and experiment with new dessert recipes. Before Brownice, I worked as an engineer for 5 years after my graduation from NUS in Electrical Engineering. I adore animals so my life’s always filled with at least one, and they gave me really good company (they still do!) especially when I am the only child.
(Celes: Denise really loves animals – she shared with me pictures of her 2 bunnies, which are the loveliest and most adorable creatures I’ve ever seen (alongside Brooklyn ♥)! Denise has hamsters as well, and often speaks of them affectionately as part of her family.)
Q2) What is Brownice and who do you target?
Many tasty treats are never healthy – they’re either high in fat, sugar, artificial ingredients or all of the above. Brownice provides healthier, guilt-free, low-fat delights to people who want better options. My target audience is everyone. Even when we insist on having our ice-cream vegan, free from artificial flavourings, additives etc, it does not mean we should compromise on the taste.
Q3) When did you first start your company?
Jul 2010. Since we started, till now, we have experienced a healthy 70% growth in revenue. The increasing demand in alternative food and desserts has certainly helped. So has the awareness we have been receiving, whether through word-of-mouth or events and media, as well as pure hard work.
(Celes: Jul ’10 is considered the official start date for the company as it was when the ice cream was given its name, Brownice. Before that, Denise has long been practicing her craft and selling ice cream to a growing base of satisfied customers via a friend’s organic shop, since about Dec ’09. The 70% growth is its sales today (Jun ’11) relative to Jul ’10, so that’s quite a huge jump in just 11 months!)
Q4) You studied engineering in NUS and worked in engineering for 5 years. What made you decide to quit your engineering job at the fifth year?
That was my first job and I remember wondering if it would be my only job. Things were going well, too comfortably well. I had good bosses, fun colleagues and in fact, I had a promotion to ‘senior engineer’.
The promotion set me thinking about my future and the prospects of climbing the corporate ladder didn’t exactly thrill me. I was (still am) a workaholic. I figured since I spend most of my time working, I should do something I really love. So I left, for fear that the job sets me in such comfortable state that I dare not leave. I wanted to experience more, before I can discover my real passion.
Q5) What did you do after you quit your engineering job?
I joined an American MNC dealing with industrial tape as a business development manager for Asia Pacific. But traveling and business weren’t my calling. I was so drained I left without a job, and wanted to spend some time to ‘discover my passion‘. I dabbled with art and teaching after I left.
I would say teaching did become my passion. My students gave me precious memories I wouldn’t give up for anything. However, it became very comfortable too and I craved for personal growth. I started learning many things from knitting (yup, the woolly stuff), to food and nutrition (I took a part-time course), to baking and cooking.
Q6) How did you first come up with the idea for Brownice?
In Jul ’09, I was working full-time in an International School as a teacher. At that time, my friend set up a bakery shop. I began to work there on a part-time basis over the weekends, baking and making desserts, while still teaching full-time. This allowed me to pursue my passion in baking and desserts.
As time passed, I got to meet many people with lactose intolerance, so I started creating desserts which these people could enjoy too, and it was very encouraging to receive positive response from those who had tried. It was very motivating and that kind of satisfaction was just beyond words.
A particular incident really changed me when I met a child who was lactose-intolerant and could not enjoy most desserts and had never tried an ice-cream, so I was even more determined to create more vegan desserts, especially ice-cream. When I saw how happy the child was, enjoying his ice-cream, that marked a turning point for me.
(Celes: This marked the point where the niche for Brownice was carved, where Denise identified the unmet consumer need for vegan-friendly, healthier desserts. She was only able to arrive at this point by first pursuing her passion in desserts.
It was the same for Delcie too, who discovered her niche in creating vegan desserts after pursuing her passion in bakery. Likewise for Derek, who discovered CD Baby after first acting on his instinct to sell his music, then helping his friends sell theirs. As with Carol, who founded Citrusox because she was acting on her entrepreneurial instincts.
Inspiration doesn’t come to you just by sitting around and waiting for it to hit you; it only makes it way to people who are already acting and pursuing their path. Is there something you’re interested to pursue but you’re holding back on? If so, perhaps you should start acting on that first, even in the littlest of ways, vs. waiting for inspiration to strike. Because the latter only happens after the former is in place, and not the other way round.)
Q7) After you came up with the idea, how did you get started? Please walk us through what the first 1 year of your journey was like.
I started selling my vegan ice cream at my friend’s store around Dec ’09, as they had an NEA-approved kitchen (Celes: NEA = National Environmental Agency. In Singapore, you need to have an NEA-approved kitchen to sell food items.) As I saw more demand, I adjourned to take part in events, weekend markets and farmer’s market. I must say, word-of-mouth helps a great deal.
For the first few months, things were taking off slowly and steadily as I did not seek opportunities aggressively. I was more focused in perfecting the ice-cream and creating more flavors.
On Jun ’10, I took part at a bazaar at Orchard Central weekend market and sold my ice cream there. It was after the bazaar that I tasted sweet success. The response was really good, so I decided to quit both my full-time teaching job and my part-time job at my friend’s organic shop and work on my business full-time.
Jul ’10 was the date we named the ice-cream Brownice. But we officially launched the Brownice brand (which included marketing materials, shop decor) in stages. Being a humble start-up, we didn’t have a big official launch like a party or open-house.
(Celes: Brownice had built its audience base before it was even officially launched with its brand name and shop space in Jul ’10. It broke even 6 months after it was launched in Jul ’10 - Similar to Dann’s, Citrusox and Udders. The rest was history.
The most important thing about starting your business is to create your product and get it out there to the consumers. As other business owners in the interview series and I have repeatedly alluded to, there’s no need to overthink the process of starting your business. All it does is just prevent others from benefiting from your work. How fair are you being to them?)
Q8) How long did it take (after starting) before you experienced the first signs of success? What were those signs of success?
About 7 months after I first began selling my ice cream at my friend’s store – During the Orchard bazaar in Jun ’10. As for signs of success, there was a sudden surge of demand and orders.
Q9) At which point did you know with certainty that it had taken off?
After the success Brownice experienced from Orchard Central weekend market, many corporate organizations called to enquire about our vegan ice-cream and invited us to their offices, and we have customers who will go all out to promote our vegan ice-cream to their friends, colleagues and family members. They are really our best publicity, and we appreciate their kind gesture very much.
(Celes: Like the other businesses in the interview series, the point where Denise knew that Brownice had taken off was when she received requests from all fronts. If you start getting more demand than you can handle, you know for sure you’re on the right track. Keep working in that direction.)
Q10) What would you say are the biggest drivers of your success today?
Love. Passion. Excitement. In this modern world, many feel stressed going to work, but I look forward to start a new chapter everyday, the excitement of changing people’s mindset of ‘healthier desserts will not taste good’ just spurs me on to more and better creations. I love the challenge of debunking the myth of healthier desserts do not taste good.
(Celes: Work without passion is meaningless. Whoever says that work is not meant to be enjoyable is full of cr*p. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then what’s the whole point of it all? Remember, it’s not about passion or money – it’s passion AND money.)
Q11) Looking back, what were the biggest obstacles you faced in your entrepreneurship journey to date? How did you overcome them?
1) Insufficient human traffic at first shop space. My first shop space (in Jul ’10) did not garner sufficient human traffic to sustain a healthy business, that was quite an obstacle.
How it was addressed: That did not deter me from moving forward. I started taking steps of reaching out to people through other means such as taking part in bazaars, weekend markets etc.
2) Neglecting branding and business planning. I was so into ice-cream making, I focused all my energy into perfecting the ice-cream and . That was a big lesson for me.
When we first started selling vegan ice-cream at the organic shop, there was no name (not to mention branding) and packaging was a transparent plastic cup (leftover salad dressing holders in the shop). At Orchard Central, we must have looked equally clueless, with a plain white freezer. We were provided with a table and had no idea what to do with it. So we put lots of soft toys, and people thought we were selling toys… :|
How it was addressed: My friends have helped me a lot in these aspects, they saw the ‘problem’ and lent a helping hand. In the shop, my colleague, Jaye, was literally the walking and talking advertisement. She passionately told EVERY customer about the ice-cream, offered samples, typed the ingredients list, collected feedback and so on. If we say the ice-cream is made with love, then she has certainly conveyed this love to the customers. I drew a lot of strength from her belief in me.
At Orchard Central, my friend/volunteer worker, Ruzhan, who is an engineer, sold the ice-cream with so much enthusiasm, he surprised both himself and me. I remember he told me after the first day of selling, that he never knew he could sell. It didn’t matter how our booth looked, because passers-by would see his big smile and enthusiasm in offering samples. Most people could not resist his sincerity and many would buy after sampling.
Passion and Sincerity kept Brownice going in our early days.
Q12) What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in this journey?
This journey has certainly honed my skills in business management. Even till today, I have not stopped learning about running a business of my own. Everyday, I learn something new. When I first started, I was focusing primarily on making ice-cream and did not look too much into the business aspect. But as the brand and business grow, I have to start being aware of the business aspects of Brownice, including public relations and marketing.
(Celes: I think Denise did a fantastic job in caring for Brownice as a business. Rather than handle all aspects of business management herself, she focused on what she does best, which is the creation of the product – ice cream, and engaged specialist agencies to handle other aspects of the business, such as branding and PR/advertising. Nothing wrong though if you choose to handle all aspects of your business internally – there are pros/cons for each path and it’s really up to what you’re most comfortable with.)
Q13) For someone who is starting a new business for the first time, what are the top 3 things you’ll advise him to do/focus on, and why?
1) Take time to perfect the product. Get as much feedback as you can and work on it. Be confident enough to know negative feedback on the product is not reflective of your abilities. Just because you made a cake that didn’t turn out well doesn’t make you a poor baker. This confidence will allow customers to give you their honest feedback, without fearing they’ll hurt your feelings.
2) Since you’re reading PE, you probably embrace learning and self-improvement, so I guess I don’t have to elaborate. I’ll still list it because it’s really my personal mantra. ”Open your mind and learn everyday.”
3) Work hard. If you need convincing, read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Chapter 2 – The 10,000 hour rule. Hard work has many names: Passion, dedication, sincerity, thoughfulness, good service, efficiency, leading by example…
I’d like to state specific things like finding the right location etc. But these are not applicable to everyone. It then dawned on me that every business is different and every owner will have his/her lessons to learn. The consistent thing is, if we keep an open and humble mind, we’ll learn what we need to. And if we keep that perseverance going, we’ll get there.
Q14) What’s next in your plans?
I would like to expand so that more people get to enjoy vegan ice-cream without guilt! This involves ’parking’ more Brownice kiosks to make ourselves more accessible to everyone and creating more guilt-free vegan indulgence.
Special thanks to Denise for this interview! Denise is the founder and owner of Brownice, the amazing vegan ice cream that’s low-fat, all-natural and free of artificial flavouring and coloring. To find out more about Brownice, visit www.Brownice.com.
This is part of the Successful Businesses Interview Series, where I feature successful businesses that are making a difference in others’ lives.
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