There are some parallels to be drawn between starting a business and travelling. Some prefer to plan ahead, while others would rather go with the flow.
Even though I don’t know any business owners who have succeeded by doing the latter, there is one who has.
Arnault Castel is not a planner. Unlike most businessmen who’ve spent time drafting up well thought out business plans, Castel threw caution to the wind and opened up multi-label concept store, kapok, on a whim in 2006. “I just decided to open a store! With no planning, not even a business plan,” he reveals. The business has now expanded with eight outlets in Hong Kong and one in Singapore.
What’s ironic about Castel’s lack of planning is that he went to business school in his native France, and graduated with a joint degree in Strategic Management and French Literature. 10 minutes into our conversation, it becomes obvious that he’s an atypical businessman.
While most business owners can appear uptight, Castel is exuberant, with a warm openness and willingness to tell me about his journey.
Castel has lived almost half his life in Hong Kong. He moved to Hong Kong in 1996 for a job in the banking industry right after graduation, at the age of 22, and never left.
“To be honest, banking was not my dream job,” he says. He left his job after spending five years establishing his career in the industry, for a role as Managing Director of Lomography Asia.
When asked about his dream job, the Frenchman breaks into a sheepish grin. “It’s always been related to opening a shop. I come from a small village in France and the store is a place where you buy and sell products, but it’s also a social place where you meet friends,” he tells me.
“I love candy so when I was a kid, I wanted to open a candy store,” the 42-year-old exclaims with childlike enthusiasm. “Actually, I still have this dream. I hope I can make it one day.”
He travels often. But when in Hong Kong, he’s frequently on the shop floor. He’s also hands-on with visual merchandising and curating the products on display.
10 years of retail experience has helped him develop a keen eye for aesthetics. “I’ve always wanted to be surrounded by beautiful things. Just practical things are not enough,” he tells me. “Our world can be tough and the environment can be aggressive so it’s nice to have some beauty always around.”
“It’s not about taste, the more you see, the more you discover. The first time I went to showrooms, I had no idea about the quality or the cut of the material. Now when I travel, I’ll ask people where’s a cool shop in the city and I’ll go and spy.”
Without giving himself too much credit, he attributes his success to luck. But given his decades of experience, surely, business acumen is something that comes naturally to him by now, even if he’s unaware of it.
MAKING A CHOICE
“I met some people who were running the Lomography company, and they said, ‘We want to expand in Asia’. I jumped at the opportunity. If you work in banking or high paying jobs, the more you wait, the more difficult it is to switch because you’re used to the lifestyle of making lots of money. Now I have some friends who are still in banking, they say, ‘Oh your job must be so fun.’ But it’s a choice. Of course, I don’t make that much money, but it’s more interesting. After five years, I thought if I continued, maybe I’ll be doing that for the rest of my life and I will regret.”
“While I was still working with Moleskine, I looked for an office. We were just two staff so it was tiny. One friend showed me a flower shop which closed down. It’s a ground floor space in a very small street. It could be nice for my office so I took that space. We stayed in that space for 2 years. I had no experience in retail so it was really quite tough but also quite exciting. kapok started as a side hobby but I got really really invested. It didn’t feel like work anymore. I was waking up like, ‘Okay let’s go to the store!’ It’s good to find the passion. I know I changed jobs quite a lot and the story is not a straight line but I found what I really like so I’m going to stick to it.”
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RETAIL
“A lot of brands I work with are very small, with small teams. It’s become more than just a vendor and buyer relationship. We become friends. Retail has got everything: The branding, marketing, organising events and parties. The visual part is also quite interesting, and the psychology of it –– moving the products around; talking to the customers without being too pushy. I go to some stores and sometimes the staff either completely ignores me or follows me around like I’m going to steal something, so we have to show that we are available, but if the customer wants to be by themselves, we leave them alone.”
FIGURING IT OUT
“When you do something you don’t have experience in, of course you need learn, but I ended up doing things a bit differently. Some people say that’s not the usual way but it’s not my choice, it’s because I just don’t know the usual way. Why I started it was because I like shopping in the sense that I like discovering new brands and new products. When I travel, I always end up finding new stores and discovering new brands. I realised I never shopped in Hong Kong because it was all mega brands, mega malls, fast fashion or luxury back then. I thought, if I’m like that, then maybe there are more people like me.
When kapok started gaining a following, we organised parties every month. The space is big so we started to do art exhibitions. A lot of the press helped me also. Journalists are always curious about new things; they don’t wanna talk about the same brands over and over again so when there’s something new, they were really helpful.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING BUSINESS PARTNERS
“At the beginning I was by myself. It wasn’t on a busy street and I didn’t have to pay a high rent, but sometimes I didn’t meet anyone for a day so I was like “Ahh I made a huge mistake!” but luckily my good friend told me to hang on and be stronger. After a while I joined up with two business partners and we’re all doing different things. They do distribution and wholesale, I do retail. When you’re in doubt, it’s good to have a sounding board. It’s more like moral support when sometimes I feel something is not working but they do something differently. It’s good to find someone who likes different things than you do. I don’t like to manage systems and logistics but some people like that. Finding a complementary business partner helped me a lot.”
DANGER IN SAFETY
“When you start this kind of business, if you run everything by numbers, you’ll become too safe. For us, becoming safe is very dangerous because people want excitement; they want new things. It’s a difficult balance to have, but you need both. When I was in business school, our first class was accounting and it was incredibly boring, but after I started the shop, I realised it is very helpful.
Even though I’ve been running the shop for 10 years, if I see someone on the street with a kapok paperbag, I get excited every single time. I love the brand and I want it to be successful. To be successful, we need to have an idea of the customer and the taste but also we need to look at numbers. Retail is difficult, the rents are high, we need a lot of staff so it’s not a get rich quick business. If I didn’t have all these analytical skills, I wouldn’t have survived.”
If you run everything by numbers, you’ll become too safe.
“I like cities that have a lot of multi-brand shops, I’d rather people shop at multi-brand shops than Vuitton or Chanel or Zara. For me, those are the competition.”
ON FRENCH MULTI-LABEL STORE, COLETTE
“Colette for French people is quite funny. For us, it’s a bit like like Tour Eiffel; it’s more like a tourist attraction. A lot of people from overseas or outside of Paris go there. My mum went because she read so much about it in magazines and she was like, ‘It’s so small!’ Sarah, the owner of Colette, was very brave because she created something that didn’t exist. She picked things based on her taste and what she thinks is cool. She’s incredibly hardworking, she goes to a lot of parties but she takes notes of what people are wearing so she’s always on. When she started it 15 years ago, it was quite interesting.”
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SINGAPORE AND HONG KONG
“It’s a big mistake to say countries in Asia are all the same. If you spend one week in Singapore or Hong Kong, it’s quite different. The tastes, the things they care about, how they decide to buy or not buy.
Hong Kong is a very social place. People meet all the time but they never invite each other to their homes. They always meet in restaurants. Of course when they meet people, they wanna look good. It’s like building a little cocoon; have a nice wallet and a nice bag.
In Singapore, people invite each other to their homes a little bit more so I put more home decorations and accessories in the store. The weather being what it is, and people being more casual, it’s not so smart to have a wide range of clothes.
I would say the customers in Hong Kong are very impulse driven. If they like the design or you tell a little bit of story and they get excited, they’ll buy it. In Singapore, people are a bit more practical. They will ask a lot of details about what will happen if they use a product a certain way, how to take care of it. My staff in Singapore will ask my staff in Hong Kong, ‘Do you know about this?’ and they were like ‘No, no one ever asked us.'”
DREAM BIG, START SMALL
“Start small. Of course it’s good to dream big but start small so you don’t have a lot of costs. The first year, many things would go wrong on a small scale, you’re safe and you can survive and learn. The first couple of years is a learning phase, if you have a small cost, you’re fine, you can always grow later on. If you start too big, then you become too stressed, you cannot function anymore.
Try to be a contrarian. Do the opposite of what people are doing. If you’re small and you do something too similar to others, why would people go to you instead of the big guys who are more established? These guys have been doing it for 10 years and doing it much better. If you do something different, if people like what you do, they don’t have a choice but to go to you. When you start a business in a conventional way, there will always be someone better, with more experience. Do something a bit weird.”
3 HONG KONG TRAVEL TIPS BY ARNAULT CASTEL
- My neighbourhood is very nice. It’s called Tai Hang. It’s a lot of low rise but it’s got the village feel. Maybe some tourists don’t go there but it’s a bit of old school Hong Kong.
- The dim sum: There’s a new restaurant called Mott32, the char siew is amazing. When people visit, I always bring them there.
- Hong Kong can be very noisy so people should find a way to slow down. The best way to do that is to take the tram, not the subway. It’s the best way to see the city.
kapok’s store locations can be found here.