Issue 116 | Jan-Mar 2019

Honest to Goodness

Co-founders of honestbee, Mr Isaac Timothy Tay (Engineering ’06) and  Mr Jonathan Low (Engineering ’13), share their entrepreneurial journey and future plans, and tell us why 
change is the only constant in today’s economy.




Mr Jonathan Low and Mr Isaac Timothy Tay are (together with Mr Joel Sng) the co-founders of honestbee, an online grocery and food delivery service founded in 2015, that has since branched out to include a concierge service, a parcel delivery service for B2B clients and most recently a physical retail space, habitat by honestbee. 

Seated at an outdoor table, picking at his salad while intently scrolling through his phone, the lanky, bespectacled figure in a plaid shirt looks like just any other tech guy. This is Mr Jonathan Low, the 31 year-old NUS alumnus who is part of the trio that created the success story that is honestbee. He is calm as Christmas morning — despite being vice president for engineering for a company that has reportedly attracted US$46m from a pool of international investors since its launch in 2015. 

In contrast is 37 year-old Mr Isaac Tay, fellow co-founder and VP of Special Projects for the company. Dressed smartly in a fitted linen shirt paired with well-worn sneakers, he walks with urgency, talks in rapid-fire fashion, and is as ready to go as a wound-up spring. “We are very different,” says Mr Tay with a chuckle. “In University, Jon was a very good student, whereas I had a part-time job and spent more time outside of school than in it!”

A New Normal

Their NUS experience aside, the two men have another thing in common: both have a flair for performing. Mr Tay was a founder of local improvisational comedy troupe The Latecomers, and still does stand-up comedy these days; whereas Mr Low is a self-taught magician who appeared on a local television series M for Magic pulling coins out of an iPad screen. Funny that he should be getting everybody to be paying money through the screen of their smartphones at their latest venture habitat by honestbee. 

Termed “NewGen Retail” by the company, the supermarket and food hall is a trendy marketspace with a lofty ceiling, lots of natural light, and lots of Instagrammable nooks. But beyond the back-to-basics façade is a high-tech heart. You will need a QR code from the honestbee app to enter, and in this completely cashless environment, you will need to link your credit card to the app and pay through honestbee’s mobile payment wallet. To top it all, robots will scan and pack your groceries at what is touted as the world’s first fully-automated collection point. “It is often said that e-commerce will kill off brick-and-mortar businesses. However, the physical shop still provides something that e-commerce does not — the experiential part of shopping. habitat by honestbee was set up to demonstrate how we believe brick-and-mortar retail should shape towards,” says Mr Low of the concept, which he says will “ be replicated in other markets across Asia. honestbee currently has a presence in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Japan. “We are barely scratching the surface of marrying on- and offline retail experiences,” says Mr Low. “The company is still rooted in retail technology, but we use that to work with, and empower partners to build stores of the future.”

Keep on moving 

Problems are what keep us up at night, but the challenge to solve them is also what makes us jump out of the bed each morning.

Mr Isaac Timothy Tay

Given the rapid developments in business and technology today, both men have come to accept that change is the only constant. “Just to cite an example: back when we first started, the ‘sharing economy’ is a big term. Today, it is not as relevant,” says Mr Low. “I would say that keeping a step ahead is really important, which is why we started habitat, because we see it as something unique that we can forge ahead in the region with.” 

Both Mr Low and Mr Tay also stress the importance of thinking regional, given Singapore’s small market. This expansion strategy compounds the challenges for the team. Apart from having to figure out the nuances of the different markets, Mr Tay points out that they also have to compete with international companies. “If you look at the acquisitions and joint ventures made in recent years, it is clear that Southeast Asia has become a place of interest for international entities,” he shares. “Competing with the big guys is challenging because they move fast — and we need to move just as fast, if not faster!”

But beyond all this, starting honestbee has been a journey of self-discovery for the duo. “Over the last four years, we have come to realise that the key thing is knowing how to manage yourself,” says Mr Tay. “It is not just about managing your time but also your emotions, and mental and physical energy. Let’s say you worked all-nighters all week and did not get proper rest. At the Monday town hall, you face your staff — who are all recharged over the weekend and ready to go — and react the wrong way to something small simply because you are fatigued. That spoils the mood for everyone. This individual wellness could actually be the most important thing in the success of a business.”

Common ground

Common groundMr Tay and Mr Low are NUS alumni who benefited either directly or indirectly from the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) Programme — where participants take entrepreneurship courses at partner universities or do an internship at a high-tech start-up. Though he himself did not attend the NOC programme, Mr Tay was introduced to like-minded peers who did, and was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in the process. Mr Low, who did attend the NOC, also credits the NUS University Scholars Programme (USP) for giving him more exposure. “USP and NOC allowed me to develop a way of critical thinking that has shaped the way I approach problems,” says Mr Low. He adds that the open environment at NUS has allowed him to freely consult faculty members, who offered their advice, and also linked him up with alumni. “Some might think that I have a special perspective as an entrepreneur. However, my take on things is usually an assimilated view of what I’ve learnt from those around me.”
“I realise is that it is necessary to have some form of personal time. I see it as a time to refresh and get new ideas, because to solve new problems you need new input,” says Mr Tay. So while honestbee was created so that users could spend less time on mundane chores like grocery shopping, and more on meaningful time with their loved ones, Mr Tay’s idea of constructive downtime is, ironically, checking out supermarkets with his wife. “It allows me to spend time with my family, yet feeds back into my personal growth!” Mr Low agrees that spending time with the family is important, for their support is critical. “Some days, my wife would be asleep by the time I get home. I am lucky that she is very supportive of what I do.”

These days, their support also comes from their extended family. “Chinese New Year gatherings have changed! Previously, our relatives would ask ‘when are you going to get a job?’ — because they didn’t see the value in being entrepreneurs. But now, they ask us about job openings in the company!” says Mr Tay. Yet ultimately, what keeps them going is an individual passion: the engineer’s innate desire to problem-solve. As Mr Tay puts it: “Problems are what keep us up at night, but the challenge to solve them is also what makes us jump out of the bed each morning.” 

A 60,000 sq ft retail space, habitat by honestbee, stocks some 20,000 products ranging from dry goods to fresh produce. 

Its robotic check-out system handles around 300 customers per hour.

The space also features 15 food stalls that serve everything from salads and pancakes to bento sets.

Text By Koh Yuen Lin. Photo By Ealbert Ho

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