A look into The Glasshouse: Barista boss Josh Liew’s recipe for success
Josh Liew (middle in white), with the Glasshouse team. All photos courtesy of Glasshouse, taken from their Instagram and Facebook pages.
If you’re a coffee lover, then the name The Glasshouse might not be unfamiliar to you. Having started out in a pop-up cargo container in CHIJMES three years ago, the popular coffee bar has since grown to have its own unit there with a devoted following amassed. Behind the insta-worthy sheen of this success story, however, lie humble origins — we sat down with Glasshouse boss Josh Liew (33) for his recipe for success.
I fell in love with coffee when I was in Melbourne doing my business degree. I remember my first flat white in Melbourne. I finished it within a minute. It was just so good.
Along the way, I asked God: “God what do you want me to do in life?” And I felt God speak to me through a book that I bought which read: “A Christian businessman is an element of change within his company and his community.”
So I knew at the back of my mind that I would one day own a business.
“All these school fees, sending you overseas and you’re gonna be a kopi boy!”
After graduation, however, I worked for a bank and hated it. That was when I decided that I was going into the F&B industry, so I decided to stay in Melbourne to learn more.
I learnt that while I’m passionate about coffee, I love business even more. It intrigues me to see why five cafés side-by-side in a street in Melbourne do well and only one doesn’t. They’re doing the same thing, so why? I got really interested.
At first, my parents weren’t very supportive. They were like, “All these school fees, sending you overseas and you’re gonna be a kopi boy!”
But I told my mom, “Mum, think ‘business’! I need to learn the craft to do business next time!”
They were agreeable after I said that, so they let me stay.
It was hard at first because of social stigma. I started working at Starbucks because they are one of the more successful big brands around the world.
That was where my old colleagues from the bank bumped into me.
That made things tough, but I remembered this quote by Bill Gates: “Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: They called it opportunity.”
And as I reflected on that, I just had a shift in mindset.
But it was still hard, especially when you face discouragement from your loved ones.
My sister – she had great intentions, she loves me a lot – said to me one day, “So how long do you wanna play in Australia? I’m just worried by the time you come back, will you be able to climb the corporate ladder?”
I started crying. I said, “Jie, if I’m playing, I won’t be doing this. I’ll be risking so much.”
So I continued on my path. Two years later, my visa was up and I had to leave Melbourne.
I was so tired and discouraged to a point that I would cry on my own: “God, I thought you called me to Melbourne, why can’t I get a job, why can’t I get a visa? I thought You called and You would provide, and You would give me the resources?”
But God never responded to my questions, so I headed back to Singapore.
I kept praying and eventually, I understood why I was never meant to stay there.
I needed to go to Melbourne to encounter Planetshakers Church, a church I had found and rooted myself in while I was there.
While I was there, I served in the café in church and I got to learn how to make coffee there. Their supplier had free classes so I also attended free coffee classes.
And then, when I came back to Singapore, they actually linked me up with their sister brand and I got a job in Common Man Coffee Roasters.
From floor barista to public relations to production team to sales role — I did them all. Towards the end, they started to send me overseas, and I became the regional sales person.
God just kept opening doors.
Then, three years ago, one of my ex-partners got wind that CHIJMES wanted to expand their business plans.
CHIJMES has always been known for drinking, clubs, music, alcohol and restaurants, but never a daytime place. So they wanted to introduce some café themes.
They built temporary containers and because they thought it would be temporary, they didn’t want us to be paying for anything. So they paid for the works, the carpentry, the furniture, the lights, the floor – everything.
All we needed to do was to bring the brewing machine in. So we started the business with a very low capital.
We were also very lucky to have some famous food bloggers talked about us, and that really kicked us up. Within a few weeks we were thinking this could actually work!
However, after three months, the authorities told us we we could not actually be there because the land was not registered for business.
But because we had already signed a contract with CHIJMES for a year, they actually let us have one of their four empty units.
We’ve been there ever since.
The first spot was so basic and minimal. Just white paint and basic furniture. People were like “Wah so minimalist, we love it” but the truth is, I didn’t have money to buy furniture. All we did was to put plants in.
My church was really supportive too. They kept bringing people, and because my pastor brought other pastors here, the other pastors started to have meetings with their people here!
It was just great. I was so grateful.
To me, this business belongs to God. It was very clear from the start that we’re just stewards of God’s resources and I’m grateful that we can be used.
God really protected us even through COVID-19. I believe that He helped us, with all the funds we received from the government. I managed to keep all my staff, in fact my staff count doubled across the year across the last two months actually, which was great.
3 TIPS FOR ENTREPRENEURS
1. Seek God and wait
To be very blunt, not everyone is called to be a business owner. I don’t want to sugarcoat it for you. Therefore, I would say seek God and wait.
People get their calling at different ages. I feel that God doesn’t give us everything in one lump. We cannot handle it. Our mental process and our ego will kill us before we get there.
So how do you find where your calling is? Generally, you should be pretty good in that area. People sometimes don’t get it, and you try to explain and they still don’t get it.
But if you have an advantage and just get it, then you know that this might be your area. If you’re passionate about it, even better. If not, it’s fine. You can still work on skillsets.
2. Work hard and work smart
Even though there is a gifting, there needs to be a mastering of the gifting. So you cannot rest on your laurels, you need to put in the hours. If not how would you stand out?
A big lesson I learnt in Melbourne about my journey is integrity. Will I do it the same way when nobody is looking at me? Will I clean the underside of the rubbish bin and the sink when my boss is not looking?
Because it is in these moments that our character is moulded and built.
Preparation meets opportunity.
If money is the main reason why you cannot do your business, I would say money is the easiest hurdle to solve because people can invest in you and immediately the problem is solved.
Like I always say, preparation meets opportunity. Let’s say I give you $100,000 to start a business, are you ready to start now?
People always say, “I’m passionate about coffee.” Great. What are you doing now about coffee? Are you reading a book? Are you doing an experiment? Are you drinking coffee? No? Then you’re not passionate about it. Don’t bother.
I would also advise people to go and work for others to understand their structure and their system. My father always told me this: every mistake you make is going to cost you money.
Buying the wrong furniture, the wrong gelato machine, buying from the wrong supplier, renting the wrong shop… Every decision you make will cost you money. How much money do you have to spare?
In Melbourne, I didn’t just take a full-time job at one café. I took three part-time jobs at three start-ups so that I could know what problems start-ups have.
And then I had question after question. How much coffee you use, what you need to spend on, what’s the average cost… I asked questions again and again.
They would say, “Can you go and find out yourself? I am sick of all your questions.” But I wanted to know.
So work for people and spend their money instead. Should I use this POS machine? No. Should I use this iPad? No. Should I use this cashier? No.
And then you slowly become familiar with things like these. But you have to be very intentional about it.
3. Don’t be swayed by others
Lastly, do not go out wanting to be someone else. Do something that is uniquely you. Be authentic like that. Don’t come out and pretend to be someone else.
I think that is the trouble for youth because they are always living in the fear of what am I not doing right?
My advice? Be the best version of yourself.
THINK + TALK
- What are your strengths and gifts?
- What would you do if someone handed you $100,000?
- What is one practical way you can begin honing your strength or passion for God’s glory?