Kendama is more than just a hobby for Lee, founder of homegrown brand Cereal Kendama. PHOTO: JERLIN HUANG
Two years ago, after realising that only one store in Singapore stocked his favourite traditional Japanese toy, Jonathan Lee decided to do something about the dismal kendama market here.
This inspired Cereal Kendama, a local kendama brand that Lee started along with four friends. With a vision of getting kendama to be as ubiquitous as the breakfast staple, the five-man team played a key role in making the sport popular here in early 2015. From designing and selling their own line of kendamas, they also hosted events – dubbed “jams” – for the local community.
“Our main goal was to get kendamas to be as accessible as possible. The faster we did that, the faster people could pick it up, the faster the kendama community would grow,” said Lee, a 25-year-old student at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.
“Our main goal was to get kendamas to be as accessible as possible. The faster we did that, the faster people could pick it up, the faster the kendama community would grow.”
Lee’s foray into kendama began in 2014 when childhood friend and current business partner, Elliot Tan, introduced him to it one weekend.
Cereal Kendama was founded six months later when Lee was in his second year at WKWSCI, which meant that he had to split his time between school and work. In his third year, he continued to do the same despite having to complete his Final Year Project – which he chose to start on a year before his peers so he could graduate in 3.5 years instead of the usual four.
“I would have project meetings until 8 p.m., and start writing copies and designing images once I’m back home. On the weekends, the guys would come over to my place to do inventory updates. Since most of them were only free at night, we’d usually finish stocking around 2 a.m. the next morning,” he said.
Despite being entrepreneurial rookies, Lee and his team managed to get past their inexperience by delegating duties according to their individual strengths. He realised that each co-founder had a unique skill set that complemented that of the others, which helped keep their business up and running.
“Elliot takes care of public relations since he’s already involved in the YouTube scene. The rest of us basically did what our studies taught us.”
At the height of its popularity, Cereal Kendama gained over 1,000 Instagram followers in three days, and saw turnouts of up to 300 participants for each of their events.
“We actually capped one of our jams at 128 participants, but 250 people came. It was a mess because we rented an indoor space, and people were just spilling out of it. So for subsequent events, we had to hire security.”
Up till September this year, Cereal Kendama had been distributing their signature kendamas in six HAKO outlets – a store where people rent lockers to sell merchandise – across Singapore, but this has since been discontinued. The team has no plans to extend their leases, as there were not enough sales in-store to make it “worth their while.”
“Let’s be real - kendama’s a fad. The thing about fads is that the product lifecycle plateaus out, and it reaches a point where you’re not generating enough revenue to make it your career,” said Lee.
“I’ll definitely join an agency after I’m done with my internship, and everyone else at Cereal Kendama will be getting full-time jobs. We’ll still be making and selling our kendamas at events, just not at the level we’re doing right now.”
Despite this, Lee does not regret turning his passion into action two years ago.
“Without the company, I would never have had the experiences I had."