(Photo: Kelvin Chng)

Terence Neo, design director of local interior design firm eightytwo, shares about his career and journey towards building a portfolio for himself.

After working in various architectural and contractor companies, Mr Neo took to a colleague's idea to start a practice together.

A newcomer in a viciously competitive industry, the company laboured to differentiate itself from other interior design firms. But from prior job experience, Mr Neo saw a gap in the market he sought to bridge.

He said: "Most homeowners either went to places which gave them half-past-six work for a low price or they went to overly expensive places. I wanted to balance that out so my clients could enjoy the best of both worlds."

That meant quality, customised service at a reasonable price.

"Every project is individualised painstakingly with careful attention to detail. It is unlike the 'rubber stamp' business model where projects are cloned, which gives them a much faster turnaround time."

eightytwo's design: Have a look at this apartment home at Phoenix Road

However, the partners struggled to find clients who would give their newly formed company a chance.

Mr Neo recounted: "Back then, clients would walk in and request to see our portfolio… And I would respond: 'Would you be my first portfolio…?' Nobody was willing to give us that first project."

Having spent too much money on renovating the new office from the get-go, the company struggled to stay afloat. Things took a turn for the worse when the company's second shareholder made an exit six months into the venture.

"That was the toughest period. It was hard for me to accept his departure because he was part of the reason we started in the first place. He just walked out when he realised that it was not going to be easy."

The company continued in financial hardship for the next two years. With clients turning them away and employees leaving, they were "bleeding money every day", he said.

In the past, he used to turn down clients with a smaller budget, such as newlyweds who wanted work done for their flats or do minor renovations for their rented apartments.

eightytwo's design: Take a look at this three-bedroom condo unit at Sunset Way 

Mr Neo said: "I used to think that I was curating (my portfolio) and had wanted to market ourselves as a boutique agency. But because of how small we are, we need to take on such projects to keep overheads low."

Plagued with financial woes, the company reached a tipping point when bankruptcy loomed.

But his wife firmly believed the company needed more time for people to believe in their work and encouraged him to take the plunge. She offered to pitch in S$20,000 to keep the company going.

With her support, he took a leap of faith and was more determined than ever to make it work.

With a renewed perspective, he opened the company to a broader range of clients and was more mindful of his finances. Slowly but surely, business began to pick up.

eightytwo's design: Here's Terence's own home

On eightytwo's concept for design, Mr Neo said: "We build homes, not houses."

He explained: "Homes are where people live in, so we have to care about the day-to-day aspects. It's very easy to get carried away in creative design, but we don't want to push boundaries just because we like something.

"It's so much tougher to be considerate and think of something that will be timeless in the next five to 10 years."

So, eightytwo has adopted a muted, airy and minimalistic design strategy as its main attraction.

He also cautioned home owners against designing their houses like cafes. "Trends come and go, but houses have to stay timeless. We've been trying to educate our clients to keep things sustainable as functionality is so much more important."

Adapted from, and written by Wong Shiying for The Business Times