Wildcard and Maxi Coffee Bar represent that little ten minute respite that you have in the day for a little cup of comfort. Behind every perfect cup of coffee is a thoughtful long-term plan crafted by founder Denise Lum and her co-founder – including her investments to bolster her cashflow needs.
A loud crash of fresh beans poured into the grinder of a coffee machine. The hiss of the milk steamer. The focused, loving swirl of milk into a coffee cup. A barista’s smile to cap it all off.
Amid the hustle and bustle of a hectic city, there is comfort from the familiar sounds of a coffee-making process — one that is orchestrated and looped on repeat to bring you a fresh brew every time, and a moment of respite.
Maxi Coffee Bar, run by its founder Denise Lum, was set up to represent that moment in a busy life, that gentle pause. A former corporate lawyer, Denise turned her caffeine addiction into a business venture, quitting her job and starting Maxi in 2018. The 34-year-old now has a second F&B venture called Wildcard.
“The act of drinking a cup of coffee for many, including myself in my previous career, is that little ten minute respite that you have in the day, that little cup of comfort, that little getaway,” says Denise.
“I enjoy hospitality. I enjoy creating meaningful but also repeatable daily experiences for people. That's why I chose coffee — that is my language for hospitality.”
“I'm planning the next steps or ten steps ahead for both my businesses — seeing where we will go in the next year, but also in five years time.”
It is a language that demands perfection in spite of the daily variables. The small alfresco coffee bar at Ann Siang Hill is at the mercy of the weather, the ever-changing trends of preferences and tastes, and the usual operational grind.
A perfect cup of coffee
“Many unpredictable elements come into play. At the same time, it's all about consistency. It's all about delivering that same perfect, delicious cup of coffee,” says Denise.
Denise started the business with the sobering comfort that she would start small, so if it fails, she could “fail fairly quietly”. But the steps taken to prepare for and shape up the business were intentional and thought through. She took pains to understand every aspect of the business — from the payroll to the accounts to the ordering of supplies.
“Once I was able to have a fairly firm understanding of each aspect, then I was confident to move on and scale. Growth was very measured at each step of the way,” says Denise.
"Coffee — that is my language for hospitality.”
It’s been five years since Maxi was started. The cosy cafe — named after her pet dog — has survived through a founder’s early trepidation and then, a global pandemic. Riding on that success, she channelled her returns from Maxi into Wildcard, a coffee and wine bar at Furama RiverFront.
“I'm very much a planner. So I'm planning the next steps or ten steps ahead for both my businesses — seeing where we will go in the next year, but also in five years time.”
There are lessons she picked on fairly early in her entrepreneurial journey. Denise recalls how she did not take a salary for the first few months, dipping into her savings to get Maxi off the ground.
“Not paying myself a salary was probably not the most financially prudent thing to do,” she says. “Ultimately at a certain stage you also have to be fair to yourself and give a fair reflection of the running costs of the business.”
To better manage the cashflow of the business, she also sees value in exploring Endowus’ cash management solutions. “We have pretty slim margins in this business, and the prospect of being able to grow it by an extra 2 to 3 percent is extremely appealing,” says Denise.
As an entrepreneur, she is also chuffed to invest through a low-cost platform such as Endowus. “The process of signing up and using the app has been very smooth thus far.”
Growing a pot of capital
The all-consuming aspects of the business also means there is very little time as well to plan her personal finances. Yet Denise appreciates the value of investing over the long term, because she’s seen how her own mum benefited from doing so.
"Set your goal and just leave your money in safer hands. It gives me a lot of peace of mind, and freedom to focus on my priorities in life, especially in running and growing my businesses."
“My mum stopped working when she had me. That was actually in her early twenties. And despite not having a stable job since then, with measured, consistent and steady investments through the years, she's actually managed to grow that small pot of capital she had at that point,” she says. “I see that as quite an inspirational example.”
With Endowus, Denise has been able to easily find investing options that cater to her risk profile, and intends to grow her pot of capital by building up passive income — just as her mum did.
“You can pretty much choose to set your goal and just leave your money in safer hands. It gives me a lot of peace of mind, and freedom to focus on my priorities in life, especially in running and growing my businesses,” says Denise.
“If I had listened to my mother's advice, I would have started investing my CPF (Central Provident Fund) savings a lot earlier, which I have not. So I've lost a little bit of time. If I were to follow in her footsteps and make her proud, I probably should start investing it right now.”
The entrepreneurship journey has been a fulfilling one thus far, with her career pivot providing her with “a little window” into her customers’ lives. She quips that she sees her regulars more often than she sees some of her family and friends — a connection that is a very precious moment that she invests in with the regulars.
“The ultimate dream is to open my own little hotel. And of course, if money was no object, to use the hospitality experiences that we create to give back to and involve different and less fortunate communities,” she says.
“And to make a good cup of coffee for everyone in this world.”
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