WHEN Lee Sin Hui decided to rekindle her love of art, she never imagined it would lead to a successful online business.
Speaking to theSun by phone, the 20-year-old Kuching-based university student revealed how things began for her.
“Both my parents are engineers, so I don’t really know where I got my (love of art) from,” she said.
“But my younger sister and I have a talent for drawing.”
Lee attended drawing classes at age 10 and enjoyed the experience very much, but decided to stop after a few years to focus on her exams.
Last March, she was set to attend university in Kuala Lumpur to study global supply chain management, but had to defer that due to the movement control order.
So, she decided to take up drawing again, creating an Instagram account (@the.art.by.lee) to share her artwork. She currently balances her time between drawing and her studies, which she began in August last year.
“I think my art skills have (gotten better) since I started my account,” she said.
“Because I had stopped (drawing) for so long, I didn’t think my skills were good. But since then, I have really improved.”
She was also able to complete a long postponed art project.
“A few years back, I bought a plain tote bag from Taobao, and I always wanted to draw on it because I wanted something unique and personalised.
“But that was also my SPM year, so I did not have time to draw, and also I was afraid that I would get it wrong. But after starting my account, that became the first bag that I drew on, and when I posted it on Instagram, I got some good feedback from my friends.”
Her friends indicated that they would be interested in purchasing items with her drawings on them, and two months after starting her account, Lee decided to begin accepting commissions for her art.
“I (always) had a dream that people out there would be using (something with) my creation. But I never really thought it would ever come true.”
Since then, Lee has produced specially-commissioned art on tote bags, mobile phone cases, T-shirts, shoes and mirrors, among other items. Thanks to the support of her friends, followers and word-of-mouth, she has managed to build a successful small-scale online business.
“At the same time, there were Instagram platforms that highlighted small businesses, and that also really helped to promote my business,” she said.
It takes her anywhere from a few hours to a few days to finish a commission.
“Sometimes, if it’s a bigger project, it can take up to a month,” Lee said.
“But I always try to finish an order before the due date.”
Her year-long experience has given her plenty of insight into the joys and challenges of running a business. One of the biggest issues has been getting supplies on time.
“Up to now, I still face issues with supplies that are stuck at the warehouse for a very long time.
“But there are other issues as well. The Instagram algorithm makes it hard for new people to reach my page, so I used to be very affected by the number of followers and likes I got. But I reminded myself that the number of followers or likes doesn’t determine the loyalty of the customers that I have.”
She has also dealt with customers who would ask for discounts instead of negotiating for something to suit their budget.
“I try to make them understand (not to do that) because everything is hand-drawn,” she said.
“And some people keep wanting to make corrections and amendments, but are not willing to pay for the extra effort. And there are others who don’t appreciate my work, or who treat me like a ‘working slave’.”
But Lee tries to take these situations as an opportunity to learn, and to improve herself.
Her favourite commissions are those for pets, particularly dogs and cats. She admits that her least favourite projects are human portraits, as people can get very fussy about them.
“I try not to accept commissions for portraits if people cannot accept the terms and conditions I set for them.”
Asked if she had any advice for others looking to start their own online business, she said: “It’s okay to start small. Like, when you create your (Instagram) account, you start with a few followers and then you build from there.
“And don’t ever undervalue your work. It’s okay to set a price that you deserve, rather than underpricing your work in order to hit the budget of your customers. If they are willing to pay the amount that you fix, that indicates the value of your work.”