Bright and vivacious, Rachel Chan has a spirit that hiring managers would adore. When we sat down for this interview on an early Friday afternoon, the Political Science undergraduate from NUS had just arrived from her last shift as an intern at Citizen Farm. She walked into the cafe all smiles, the mid-calf socks on her feet evidence of a morning spent at the farm.
I’d known Rachel for four years now, and the typically unglamorous life of farming was something most people who knew her (herself included) wouldn’t have imagined she’d get into. So I was curious to find out what led her to join Citizen Farm for 3 months and what she’s learnt from the experience.
Tell us about the startup you worked for and your role there.
I worked for Citizen Farm. They’re under EGC, which is the Edible Garden City. We’re an urban farm promoting food sustainability and farming, and we use different kinds of systems, like hydroponics, aquaponics, and also “old-school” gardening work. My role in that startup — well, I don’t have a clearly defined role, that’s one thing.
The corporate site refers to you as a ‘farmer’, doesn’t it?
Yeah, yeah! I’m a ‘farmer’, but I don’t just do that. We supply to a few bars and restaurants, like Open Farm Community and Smoke & Mirrors. So we’ll harvest the vegetables for them on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which I help out with, and then we do deliveries.
But I’m more vested in the Citizen Box, which is our vegetable subscription box. My role is more veered towards helping out in the operations. I take a lot of pictures — a lot of pictures — for promotion and to update the photo database. Sometimes I do copywriting, customer interaction, and market research… Primarily, my work is towards Citizen Box’s marketing.
When you applied for this internship, did you know that you would get into all of that, or were you applying for something in particular?
So the Head of Farmers, Darren, came down to NUS to give a lecture, and he was who I had gotten into contact with. He mentioned something about a Regional Farmers Forum, in which I could help out with during my internship. I thought that since it was related to my degree, I could join the company and help out in the planning procedure in the three months I would be there.
I was also interested in marketing and communications, so I thought that joining the farm would offer me a good opportunity to see how [laughs] — how you can turn something “dusty” and “disgusting” to most people into something aesthetically pleasing and fun.
Something that people want.
Approximately how many employees and interns did the startup have when you were with them?
There are a few different sectors, so I’m not sure about the total head count, but in Citizen Farm, there’s around 20 permanent staff. As for interns, I would say maybe three or four at any one time.
Do they all also have multiple roles?
Yeah, I think everyone’s roles kind of overlap. Technically, the farm has seven working days, so out of the seven days, majority of your time would be spent in one area. Everyone’s activated for harvesting on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sometimes, there’s some general upkeeping because, you know, there are weeds that keep coming back. But I would say everyone has a specialised role within the farm and that would constitute about 80 percent of their day to day tasks.
What was the most interesting project you were tasked with while working there?
I nearly did an interesting project.
[laughs] What does that mean?
They do encourage new ideas, but on the other hand, it’s very hard to roll out something if you don’t have something real concrete. It’s proposal after proposal, and you need to be very, very detailed. So projects I wanted to do were kind of halted.
My very last project that I wanted to carry out was to film a commercial shoot, but I didn’t exactly receive a lot of support for that because the farm is really busy with a lot of projects. Like right now, there’s the container project with Temasek Holdings. There isn’t time to sit down, chat about it, and really go in depth especially since there are a lot of things to attend to right now. But I’ll try to push for that project perhaps after my school term.
And I’m only an intern, as compared to permanent staff or the Head of Marketing. Actually, our Head of Marketing is all of Marketing. She’s just doing a one-man show.
So she’s the Head of Marketing but she’s the whole team.
Yes, that’s right! But she’s fantastic. Anyway yeah, I don’t think there were any huge projects I personally did.
Generally, what did you like to do then?
I mean, it was fun! I liked talking to the dogs. [laughs] I liked playing with the chickens, cutting the plants… It’s actually quite therapeutic to cut plants. I’m honestly grateful. Initially, I thought I would like taking photos or arranging the products, but it’s really crazy what goes behind taking just one photo. You have to think about how to prop the vegetables, keep the produce fresh and all that. I realised I wasn’t as into design as I thought, so I’d say the more hands-on duties like harvesting were what I really enjoyed.
And really, talking to people. Everyone at the farm is super different! Everyone comes from different walks of life and they have very different perspectives, so you learn a lot by talking to them.
What was the greatest difficulty you faced in carrying out your role?
Getting approvals. One instance was trying to change the style and utilisation of social media.
Didn’t they already have social media before that?
They did, but they weren’t using Instagram Stories, for instance. And I don’t think there was anyone looking at the business analytics within their Instagram either, so that was something I helped them out with.
The very first time I tried to take over the social media page, I wanted to make their feed a little more aesthetically pleasing. But I had to go through Head of Marketing and the Head of Citizen Box, and then the designer, another intern involved in design work, and another girl who was involved with our social media copywriting. So to seek an approval for one Instagram Story, I had to go through six to seven people!
But really, it’s because everyone’s opinion counts when you’re such a small team.
What did you like about the startup culture in contrast to a traditional company?
While I was working there, I was grateful that I was working in a smaller company. A lot of things were very hands-on, so they encourage you to share any of your ideas. They’ll always hear you out, and tell you, “Oh, that’s a really good idea.” In really big corporations, I don’t think they’d even ask for your opinion.
Especially if you’re an intern.
Right. You’d just go by whatever is established in the rules on how to do things. But in our farm, if you have a shortcut, go for it, because we have so much to complete. The more efficient you are, the better. In startups, you get to be creative. Though at the same time, it can be frustrating if your creativity is hindered by differing opinions or a lack of money.
So what do you think is an important quality for someone to have when you want to work in a company like that?
I would say being a “one-eighth filled cup”. You need to have your own thoughts, but you need a lot of space to be forbearing and forgiving towards others. You can’t let criticism make you unhappy. Because the company is so small! Who are you going to air your grievances to? You tell your colleague, and your colleague will tell the whole office. So you have to be very open-minded and persevere.
Have you ever considered starting up your own business?
Yeah, I have.
Do you still consider it?
If it’s possible, I would. I was telling Darren that one of the reasons I joined Citizen Farm was to see how a startup was run.
Because at that time, someone close to me was unemployed, and I realised there was this stigma in society when it comes to hiring people over 40. It’s very hard for them to find jobs again or to get the kind of pay that they used to earn when they were younger. So one of the things I wanted to do was set up a company — even better if it’s a social enterprise — where they hire older individuals. How can we compensate them for their skills and experience, even if we can’t guarantee them the $6-10k/month they might have earned before?
Do you know what kind of company it would be yet? Or is this kind of a philosophy or policy in place you already have in mind?
Yeah, that would be it. I don’t know what kind of company it’d be yet, because there’s a whole range of industries out there. This is something I’ll have to keep considering into the future.
What sort of advice would you have for someone who is going to start work at their very first startup?
Always keep positive. Because I was a 菜鸟 (cài ni very excited. Everyone was telling me, “Wah, your spirit is really good!” So definitely, having a happy spirit keeps you going. Try not to lose that spark. I mean, it’s a startup. There are many things that we need to learn as a company and that you need to learn as an individual. The learning goes both ways!
And never give up. Your ideas might keep getting rejected at first, but like how Thomas Edison didn’t succeed in inventing the lightbulb on his very first attempt but eventually managed to invent something that has now changed the world, you might one day have a brilliant idea that gets accepted.
As an employee, what advice do you have for startup founders on how to better their business?
For one, when you have meetings, really consider ideas. When you say you want to hear employee opinions and on-the-ground feedback, don’t just hear it and then immediately tell your employees how their alternatives won’t work. Really listen to them, write them down, and be less quick to dismiss them if you’re not usually the one on the ground. As a startup, you want to make your business sustainable, so you need to know what’s happening in every facet, and see what areas you can be more efficient in. Even little changes can contribute massively in the long run. A monthly review would be good too!
Deadlines are also extremely important. Some startups don’t have proper deadlines or solid targets in place. Small teams mean everyone’s friends and it felt as if it was “Own time own target ah!” But at the farm, I’ve learnt how important it is to plan to succeed and how deadlines are really useful to make sure we’re on the right track.
And also… see, some of our employees stay over in the farm. While they’re certainly not forced to do overtime, sometimes there is just so much work to do. They’re passionate, definitely; the whole farm is passionate. Still, employees need to have their time off and be paid for how much they dedicate to work. Perhaps there could be a policy where they have to take a day off within a week? [laughs]
That’s good advice. Do you have any other last words? Anything we haven’t touched on that you’d like to talk about?
I just want to mention that it’s really difficult to be a startup and to be a social enterprise, and I think the government should be more helpful in this aspect. Because social enterprises don’t just provide products and services, but also contribute social good.
And to end off, I have to say that the people I met at the farm were genuinely one of the best bunch I’ve ever met. They are such warm and down to earth people who taught me so many things about life, it’s unbelievable. I’m looking forward to working with them again at the end of this year.
Interested in working or volunteering for Citizen Farm? Take a look at their job openings here.
Worked in Citizen Farm and have a different perspective to share? Want to tell us your experience working at a different startup? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, reach us via our Facebook page or leave us a comment right here!
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