Daryl Chew of Nail Deck Dishes On 8 Years In The Nail Polish Business
Catch a glimpse of Nail Deck’s instagram and you might just find yourself lost in a rabbit hole of hypnotic nail colour mixing videos and cool collaborations. But it is on his instagram stories that Daryl Chew, the founder of Nail Deck, really shines. There, he reveals what goes on behind the scenes and openly shares stories of his rollercoaster journey in the nail polish business. Most excitingly, he has began selling ‘grab-bags’ - sets of nail polishes, mostly customised creations that didn’t make the cut. These nail polish rejects, which once would have been relegated to the confines of some forgotten drawer, are in hot demand. Often, they sell out within minutes - trust me, I’ve tried to get some myself. But as the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And his polishes are no doubt some of the best on the market.
On meeting Daryl, it’s easy to see why Nail Deck has evolved to become one of Singapore’s coolest nail polish brands. Always down to sharing ideas and working together, Daryl Chew embodies everything that a 21st century nail polish brand founder should be: fresh, socially-conscious, community-centric and personal. So personal in fact, that he sometimes even crowdsources the naming of his polishes. This is typically met with unbridled enthusiasm, with fans throwing out punchy names like Razzmic Berry for a glitter-packed shade with galaxy purple undertones and Triple Berry Smoothie for an acai-inspired shade with subtle gold flecks. When I told him I was looking for office space, he immediately offered a corner of his office. I ask him if I can write about him being “a male in a female dominated industry”. He smiles sheepishly, telling me that he “gets that question a lot”.
I get the sense that he is tired of being seen as a mere curiosity - a male founder in a female-dominated industry. Rather, he wants the quality of his polishes to speak for themselves. At Boutique Fairs early this year, I visited his booth, buying a Teh Terik inspired nail polish from his Hawker Culture Collection. Besides customising nail polish colours, he also launches special collections. A proud Singaporean, he has come up with sets like Hawker Culture that truly celebrate what it means to be a local entrepreneur. Till date, it’s one of the best polishes I own.
It's been 8 years since you started Nail Deck - tell us about your journey and how you started.
It all started in 2011 with an opportunity to bring a US brand of nail polish into Singapore as a distributor. From there I started supplying to salons and online stores, while expanding my portfolio to 15 brands. I then went on to open 3 push-carts in NUS, SMU and SIM. But in 2015, I saw the world shifting in two clear directions. In one direction, I saw that personalisation was the future of the beauty industry. And in another direction, I saw the increasing demand for non-toxic and clean formulations. I sought to find a brand that could meet these two criteria but could not find any. So I decided that Nail Deck should do it, and our team spent the next 1.5 years developing our own formulations and production capabilities to suit these two needs.
Along the way though, I am ashamed to admit I lost my way. I became focused on raising external investments for the company and did not manage the day-to-day of the business properly. In the end, we ran out of cash before any external investment deals were closed; and I had to let the whole team go.
However just when it seemed like there was no hope left, a big corporate client deal I had been chasing for the last year finally materialised and kept the company afloat. Since then, the last 2.5 years have been spent rebuilding the business up from scratch and today we are fortunately back stronger than ever with an ever increasing base of loyal and happy customers.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
I’m usually in office by 6.30am creating new colours and producing orders. From 9am to 11.30am, I do business development work and customer management. I then head for lunch and spend the rest of the day packing orders, editing pictures and videos for Instagram and my website, and in meetings.
What's the most rewarding part of your job? And the most difficult?
Because I’m a small business owner with no external stakeholders, I pretty much get to make all the final decisions in my business. This freedom allows me to place my customers’ needs and wants at the highest priority; and also ensures that I provide the best level of product quality and service. In turn, my customers support my business which then allows me to support my family. And it’s this cycle of doing meaningful and fulfilling work that makes it all so rewarding. The most difficult part is dealing with self-doubt and the constant fear that everything will just fall apart one day.
Nail Deck is known for creating amazing custom colours - what's the most interesting custom colour request you've ever gotten?
A colour to match her tan leather Everlane shoes!
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself?
Firstly, be patient. There’s no such thing as a get rich quick plan. Secondly, understand yourself better. What kind of business do I really want to run - a VC-funded, scalable high-growth startup or small, passionate business? Lastly, it’s good to plan for the long run, but don’t forget that the short run needs your attention too.
What's next for Nail Deck?
We’re definitely working towards providing more personalisation options for our customers. For the last few years, we’ve been focusing mostly on colour customisation but there’s actually so much more we can offer - from different formulas like water-based formulas, gels and wraps to different bottle shapes and volumes, brush thicknesses and lengths, and even different smells and textures!
Lastly, who is Daryl Chew when he's not the founder of Nail Deck or answering interview questions about being a “male in a female-dominated industry”?
When I’m not the founder of Nail Deck, I’m the Chief Clown Officer to my 3 year old son, husband to the love of my life, and aspiring Ironman athlete.