Local SME (small or medium-sized enterprise) JE Handcrafts Co. Limited,
a handcraft workshop company, finds its business has followed the same ups and downs as the local economy in recent years. The company founder, Jasmina Leong, tells Business Daily that in order to stay competitive
and create sustainability in the cultural and creative industries,
the key is to continue to improve your skillset and knowledge in the industry, as well as offering unique products that stand out from the competition

When did you set up your company?
My company started offering handcraft workshops in 2012. At that time there were only a few places in Macau offering these kinds of workshops – teaching how to create handmade products. The local cultural and creative industry had not started at that time and in the beginning, I started running workshops part-time for six months. Later I started my business full-time and my company first began by running silver clay workshops.

Why did you want to open a business like this?
I learnt how to make some handcrafts myself before setting up my own company. I went to Hong Kong to make handcrafts, as it is close to Macau, then later went to Japan to take more lessons. After learning all the different handcrafts myself, I had an idea of how to teach people my handcraft making skills. Especially at that time, Macau did not have much of these kinds of workshops available.

How did you go about finding a shop location?
I found it difficult to find the right location for my business. From the beginning, I actually rented out some places at my friends’ stores in order to run my workshops. One of the main reasons is the expensive rental fees in Macau. But I was lucky that I met a good landlord and was able to rent two units in the Fu Lun Building on Rua do Campo.

How have the changes in the economy affected your business?
From 2012 and 2015 I had more students joining my workshops as the city’s economy was quite good. However, last year, I saw a significant drop in student enrollment due to the economic downturn in the previous year.
In terms of total numbers for enrollment, the same private workshops saw a decrease of 70 per cent year-on-year in 2016. However, other workshops, organized for other private companies, generally increased last year. So the difference can help to balance out the losses occurring from the private workshops I ran last year.

Do you have other ways to attract more students?
I am going to open workshops that partner with the city’s Continuing Education Subsidy Scheme this year and have registered my company as a learning center.
I hope joining the Continuing Education Subsidy Scheme can attract more people to join. Another reason for joining is that there are many other similar companies which have joined the Scheme, creating competition for my company, so I need to be part of it.

Do you think lowering workshop prices is an effective way to stay competitive?
I don’t plan to reduce workshop prices because it will create a negative impact on the industry. However, I will offer more discounts when more students are joining the workshop together.

How do you stay competitive?
I have noticed that my students are always keen to learn more difficult skills from different workshops. In the beginning, I offered workshops that only taught you how to make one easy item. And I have noticed my students can accept new ideas easily and quickly. Therefore, if my company does the same things for one to two years, they will quickly get bored and it may also not be sustainable for my business in the long term. As a result, it is important to introduce new products or workshops, from silver gift-making to embossed flower gifts, and so on, to diversify my product range. So I try to offer something new and different that others don’t offer in Macau.

How do you diversify your business?
When I introduce new products for the workshops, I need to think about the level of difficulty in learning how to make such items. I don’t want to teach something that is way too easy to learn and people can make by themselves after only taking one session. I want to set up workshops that require some time and skills to complete. So I started to offer more difficult workshops for people who want to learn difficult handcraft making skills.

What other things are you doing differently from others in the industry?
I face competition in the industry. Since there are more and more young people like me who have also started small from doing it part-time as amateurs, and are now engaged on a full-time basis. The only advantage for me is that I started early, in 2012, so many people already know of my company. One important thing to keep us competitive is by adding more new products. For instance, I travel overseas to join competitions to win awards in order to stay ahead of the crowd in the industry. I went to Japan for a competition. Also, going to international conferences can help me gain important knowledge and skills, which I cannot gain in Macau.

Do more difficult workshops make your business more profitable?
From a business point of view, it is more profitable to offer more skilled workshops that require you not only to join for one session, but on an ongoing basis, with more difficult skills required in order to do it.

What’s your customer demographic?
I run workshops from Mondays to Fridays. Most of my students are working people so they come to join my workshops after work. I want them to feel relaxed after work at my workshops, as most of my workshops run usually for one session. In general, my students are aged around 25 to 45 and tend to be female.
On the weekends, I run workshops for organizations and institutions. Some private companies also ask us to run workshops for their employees’ team-building activities, as this has become a trend recently in the city. I also have Hong Kong and mainland tourists coming to join my workshops for one session because they have told me they could not find this kind of workshop in Hong Kong and the mainland.

How do you attract more students to join your workshop?
I have set up a customer database so I can send them emails for any updates about workshops coming up. Usually I have customers who can come to join one or two sessions per year.

Is your business affected by festive seasons?
During festive seasons I tend to have more male students joining my workshops as they want to hand-make something for their loved ones, especially for the silver clay workshop.
During the summer holidays, I have less people joining the workshops and so I started to offer family workshops. During the low seasons I offer workshops to other non- profit organizations and private companies in the city. But during the festive seasons we focus more on running private workshops. For instance, I run workshops for couples on Valentine’s Day.

Do your customers see pricing as an important factor when deciding whether to join workshops?
If the others do not have what I offer, my students don’t really see pricing as an important factor in deciding to join my workshops. Indeed, they would rather pay more for what is unique and special. The key is to differentiate my products so my customers will not compare them to others, especially when they can compare the same things with different prices, so they will go for cheaper one.

What’s your impression of the current cultural and creative industry in the city?
My business is in the culture and creative industry and [I can see that] it is not a popular market here. Locals here tend to choose to buy overseas products rather than local brands as they think that the overseas products are better, even if they are more expensive. This local consumer behavior is really my challenge, but this buying perception needs time to change. Therefore, I choose to do things that are unique in the city. Also, the local environment is not good or lacks promotion of the industry in the city. Local entrepreneurs need to work hard to build up their own brands.

Do you only offer workshops as your major business?
I also sell our handmade products in my shop located in the Village Mall.
In addition to that, I receive orders from my customers for tailor-made gifts. But of course, the most profitable part of my business is still running workshops.
Also, I have noticed that people like to make their own products and put their own personality into what they are making, so as to be unique.
People like to give out handmade gifts to their friends and loved ones rather than buying items straight from gift shops. It is more personal and special for them.

How do you continue to upgrade your handcraft-making skills?
I went to South Korea recently to learn how to make handcrafted candles, and I am planning to offer a new workshop for this. Because of the language barrier in South Korea I hired a translator there. I want to bring this new product to Macau, as it is unique and can diversify choices of different workshops for my customers. I always keep myself up-to-date with the latest information on the Internet in the handcrafted gift industry overseas. I also do research myself on how I can get unique products and how I can learn to make them. I plan to introduce at least two products each year.

Do you find it hard to source materials for your workshops?
It is hard to buy the materials for running my workshops, as I cannot get any of the materials in Macau. I have suppliers from Japan, the U.S. and South Korea. It is especially [difficult] if you are sourcing materials from small suppliers overseas, as they don’t even know where Macau is located. For instance, last time I wanted to buy some tools from the U.S. and have them sent to Macau for the workshops, but the supplier decided not to ship here.

Do you find it difficult to find employees?
I find it hard to hire people who can help me to run my workshops full-time.
I hope I can find more full-time teachers as I am going to launch more large-sized workshops this year. Currently, only I and another full-time teacher are running the workshops.

How do you market your company?
I promote my workshops mainly through social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. However, word-of-mouth marketing is also very effective. In the future, I will create a short film to promote my company.

Do you think the government provides enough support for local SMEs?
The city’s cultural and creative industries still need more support from the government. It took me nine months to get a license to run my business. It was such a time-consuming procedure to deal with and I don’t understand why it needs to take such a long time to get it done. The information from the government is not always transparent. It would be better if the government could make all kinds of application procedures easier for local SMEs and especially for new start-ups. For instance, I was targeting to launch workshops for which my students can use their allowance from the Continuing Education Subsidy Scheme this year, but the government still has not informed me of the day the new Scheme will start this year. As a result, I have had to postpone my plan.

What are your future business plans?
I have a new project coming up this year. I will launch a series of handmade gifts targeting mothers and their babies, as previously I ran a workshop that taught gift-making for new mothers to remind them of their newborns. And I have noticed that mothers are willing to spend more money on their children. So I will focus more on creating family-related gifts this year. The reason I want to do this is because I launched this kind of gift making workshop before and it filled up very quickly. In addition, I am also planning to launch a new product line selling handmade silver products with my company branding. Further plans would be selling my products to the city’s gaming operators in order to expand my current client network.

JE Handcrafts Co. Ltd. was established in 2012 and offers handcraft workshops in the city. Located on Rua do Campo, the group’s retail space is located inside the Village Mall at the Broadway Centre Building and sells handicrafts. The company also provides workshops to organizations and institutions in the city.