From job hopper to business owner: An entrepreneur’s winding path to success
Image taken from Doyenne.sg.
Ever felt lost and unsure of your future direction? You’re not the only one.
You may not believe it because of how successful she is today, but Stephanie Phua, founder of social media agency Duo Studio, also felt lost upon graduating from university.
It’s even harder to believe that she was ever unsure of what career path to take because she is a Mass Communication graduate – a degree that’s highly relevant to her current field of work.
But the 33-year-old whose company works with brands such as F&N, Pan Pacific Hotels Group, Kao Singapore, MINI, Suntec City and many more shared that the road wasn’t always so clear-cut.
A ROAD TO… NOWHERE?
Stephanie recounted that she never felt she belonged to any of the usual tracks – journalism, marketing, broadcast and research – that a Mass Communication student can specialise in.
“I didn’t know what to do, or what my identity was even after I graduated from university.”
Facing a quarter-life crisis, she took a two-year break after graduation to teach dance while doing some part-time copywriting on the side.
Stephanie even went on a three-month graphic designing course in Melbourne – but that didn’t quite work out either.
“By one’s late 20s, success equals to you progressing to management or senior management, having a fiancé and a BTO on the way. I had none,” she pointed out.
“Meanwhile, many of my peers who had entered prominent media-related workplaces like agencies, newspapers, networks and government bodies had already climbed up the ranks.”
Stephanie elaborated: “It seemed like everyone knew what they wanted to do while I was still dabbling in different things.
“That really didn’t help with my self-esteem because I was earning an entry-level salary with every job I had to start afresh.”
“By one’s late 20s, success equals to you progressing to management or senior management, having a fiancé and a BTO on the way. I had none,”
Additionally, what added to the pressure was her family background.
Stephanie’s parents were both the first in their families to enter university. Her dad was a doctor-turned-businessman while her mum climbed up the ranks as a banker.
Many of their acquaintances in their social circles fell within the typical definitions of success.
“While everyone could ‘humblebrag’ about their kids, I felt bad that my parents didn’t have much to say about my career choices,” Stephanie admitted, describing herself as an anomaly in family gatherings.
“It felt terrible, especially because my parents went down the normal route of success too.”
It wouldn’t be until she was 27 years old that her path became clearer.
THE TURNING POINT
One thing that Stephanie continued doing even during her gap year was blogging. The self-professed social media enthusiast has over 10,000 photos on her Instagram account as her way of documenting memories.
On one occasion, she had blogged about a back-alley café and titled it with a clickbait headline: “The most hidden café you’ll find in Singapore”
Within two days, the webpage’s traffic shot up to about a couple thousand views.
Around the time, Stephanie also managed to raise funds for the survivors of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami through social media, putting together a performance with her dancer friends.
Within three weeks, they raised tens of thousands of dollars.
These two incidents proved to Stephanie that content marketing had power and could impact lives and businesses. It compelled her to find a career in this direction.
So she went back into the advertising industry and subsequently left to freelance with a friend which eventually became the company we know today – Duo Studio.
But starting a company isn’t easy either. In fact, due to bad management experiences in her previous company, Stephanie wasn’t keen on being a boss herself.
“It sounds silly, but it got to a point where I started feeling resentful for all the jobs that were coming in,” Stephanie explained. “While I really loved the challenge of it, I know that I couldn’t handle it alone.
“And I didn’t want to hire because that was the whole point of freelancing – I didn’t want to deal with people.”
She continued: “I felt overwhelmed like, ‘Why did you give me so many opportunities, but I cannot take them on, God?’”
In response, God spoke to her through a sermon. It was about the account of Jesus stepping into Peter’s boat.
Many of us know know the story – Peter had been fishing the whole day to no avail when Jesus told him to cast the net down again. And suddenly, Peter pulled up such a big load of fish that the boat started sinking.
“That’s me right now. My boat is sinking,” Stephanie thought back then. But that was when Peter called the other fishermen over to share the fish.
And for the first time in her life, Stephanie received a revelation that was applicable to her own life.
“The blessings are not for me to horde for myself, it’s for me to share, to hire people and to share,” she said.
“If I was blessed enough to receive this as a gift from God, I better do my part to steward it well. I’m under no one else but God. I have no excuse not to steward it well.”
WHEN THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD
And so, despite her reluctance, she began to hire and grow her team. From hiring to firing, delegating to managing, it was all very new to Stephanie and a steep learning curve for her.
“We’ve only been in existence for five years. If I talk about each year, it’s drastically different,” she revealed.
“In year one, it was just two of us. There are not many people to be accountable to – just each other.
“Our next iteration was four to six people. It forced me to grow as a manager. I had to learn how to delegate tasks and manage my resources more efficiently. Administratively, we had to learn about HR and CPF.”
In her third year, Stephanie stepped into the capacity of a director and had to learn how to set and communicate direction to the team.
“You can only get clarity if you are clear on your own personal values,” she learned. “If you don’t set these things as a leader, it will trickle down to the rest of your team.
In 2020, Stephanie found that she had to grow quickly as she needed to learn crisis management and how to communicate down the chain due to COVID-19.
“It’s so unpredictable and unprecedented, I’m at the end of myself again,” she recounted. “Every time something changes, I have to get clarity quickly and be able to communicate that.”
But what helped her through the difficult moments was the discipline to go to God every time she feels lost or negative about something.
“The first time I had to fire someone, I was very stressed. I prayed very hard, saying, ‘God, can you give me a blueprint?’” she recalled.
She didn’t want someone to leave feeling worthless, believing that letting someone go well is part of stewardship as well.
God responded and gave her clear instructions on how to start and end the conversation. Stephanie even managed to pray with the person before he left.
But just because God is with her in this partnership, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have to put in hard work. In fact, to equip herself to be a better leader, she pushed herself to grow in her weaknesses.
One of the biggest struggles Stephanie faced while leading a team was the ability to communicate well.
To overcome this challenge, she took on a role as a TV presenter in a documentary called Start-Up, interviewing entrepreneurs across Asia.
Besides training herself to communicate clearly and succinctly, the role also helped feed her vision of growing her business in Southeast Asia.
In 2020, she expanded her team, bringing Duo Studio’s operations into Malaysia.
Stephanie even signed up as an instructor at General Assembly, an online learning platform, to train herself to be a teacher so that she’s better equipped to teach her team.
THE JOURNEY THUS FAR
Looking back, Stephanie admitted that her journey wasn’t easy but it was worth it.
“My prospects didn’t look great given the traditional definitions of success: I didn’t do well in school, I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue, and I was job hopping too often,” she confessed.
But while the definition of success in Singapore is very one-track, she believes that everyone’s paths are different. And at 33, she now knows that those winding roads were part of her growth process.
Her encouragement for others who are still in the midst of finding their way is to stay true to their course and keep trying.
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.
“A good friend once told me to ‘learn to enjoy the journey’,” she reflected. “It was tough, but in hindsight, I wouldn’t have traded my experiences for anything because God set me up for what I’m doing now which requires an in-depth understanding of all the different skills needed to run the business.”
Most importantly, Stephanie’s encouragement was to keep in step with God: “While I can come up with a plan to make everything better, I know that a lot of it is out of my control.”
After all, it’s like that verse in Proverbs: In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.
THINK + TALK
- Have you ever faced a time in your life where you simply had no direction?
- Looking back, can you see how God was leading you in that period?
- The next time you have a big decision to make, what are some practical ways you can place God as the boss of that process?