After completing his mandatory military training in Singapore, Andrew Lim had a difficult decision to make.
Singaporean tradition and societal values dictated that he attend university and study for a ‘safe’ career option. Banking, finance, and law would all be par for the course.
But Andrew wasn’t excited by any of these pathways. Design was his passion and something that he had been fascinated with for a long time.
“The power that beautiful design has on peoples’ lives is great to see. It affects them and impacts their lives positively,” he explains.
“A Gucci or Hermes bag has a certain social status. And that’s mostly down to the power of branding and design; the effect it can have on our conscious selves is enormous.”
Needless to say, Lim took the path less travelled.
After completing his diploma in visual communication from Temasek Polytechnic, he proceeded to enroll in the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He completed his bachelor’s in fine arts and graphic design in 2008.
“[The School of Visual Arts] is an amazing institution, and if I could, I would do it all over again. My ex-lecturer and boss helped design the Motorola logo. There were also other lecturers who did other logos, including Michael Beirut, who did the Visa logo, and Paula Scher, who conceptualised the Citibank logo,” he adds.
Lim jumped on the opportunity to stay back in New York after graduation, working at an advertising and design agency. He waxes lyrical about his time there, pointing to the intensity and energy of the city as a key driver of success.
“You have to be at the top of your game, be extremely driven and motivated to make it in New York,” he maintains.
Learning in transition
The Singaporean Shopify expert says that staying in New York was never meant to be a long-term decision. He says most professionals treat the Big Apple as a city of transition, a place where they learn from the best and brightest around them but eventually move on to their hometowns or other places.
He lived in New York for four years, using his time there to watch plenty of Broadway shows, visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and engage in other projects that helped fuel his creative side.
He credits his former agency for his rigorous education and training as a designer.
“[It] was one of the best experiences of my life. The experience taught me that design isn’t just about inspiration, but also about experimenting and trying new things. We would try with hundreds, maybe thousands of iterations before picking one or two campaigns to show a client,”
That might surprise some people. However, his clients were industry heavyweights, including household names such as Dell, New Balance, NBC, and Johnson & Johnson. They demanded industry-leading work; otherwise they’d simply take their business elsewhere.
Lim was forced out of his comfort zone, but it was these formative experiences that sharply accelerated his design nous.
Moving back to the Lion State
After several years in New York, Lim yearned for a return to Singapore. He’d been away from his family for too long and he felt a void in his life. Plus, like other New Yorkers who move back home, he thought it was time to give back to the local community.
He was also inspired by his professors at his former university, the School of Visual Arts. He wished to teach at local colleges too and spread his design knowledge.
I ask him why he chose to start 360&5, his web design agency, in 2013 when the internet economy in Southeast Asia was still very nascent. Ecommerce in Singapore and the rest of the region is a fact of life now but he was certainly taking a risk six years ago.
He points to a pivot in societal attitudes in his home country and says there was an increasing number of Singaporeans who didn’t just want to work in finance or law. They’d rather follow their heart and do the things they wanted to do, even if it meant less pay. For some that might be opening a store or pursuing a passion project.
Starting a web development and branding studio would be a prescient move, one that would help cater to these trends. Plus Lim and his current business partner, JJ, would already refer potential clients to one another.
“I told [JJ], instead of referring jobs back and forth, why don’t we set up a company together? That would be more scalable. Otherwise we’d be just two freelancers working separately,” he explains.
At the same time, the enterprising duo were eager to transform design thinking in Singapore and beyond. Lim had lots of experience working with big brands and being front and center of cutting-edge design work. He felt local companies would benefit from his expertise in the industry.
“When you work with large companies, it’s typically a six- to 12-month-long project. There’s a rigorous process of researching, wireframing, and eventual concept. The design industry in Asia and Singapore don’t invest as much time doing the groundwork. They get into designing immediately. If you speak to businesses here, they want a logo out in four weeks,” he laughs.
Slowly but surely, businesses started to catch on and buy into his approach. For any new client that 360&5 takes on, the team has a comprehensive onboarding process where they analyse competitors and start research. There’s also ‘mood boarding’ which determines where the company is currently at and where they want to fit into the world.
“What differentiates us from other studios our size is that we spend a lot of time in crafting a strategy. It’s not just a case of ‘okay great concept let’s get it done and get it out of the shop’. We spend a lot of time with things like logos and websites. Ideally you want your logo to last forever, so we take utmost care to make sure that everything works well for an extended period of time.”
Working with Shopify
360&5’s trailblazing approach towards ecommerce in Singapore was rubber stamped by their elevation to Shopify expert status in 2016. They were the first such agency in Singapore, and it all came about during a collaboration between Singaporean telco Singtel and Shopify.
Lim’s partner, JJ, attended a local meetup where the ease and interoperability of Shopify was discussed at length. The partners were convinced that this would be the ecommerce platform of the future.
“A lot of our clients who were on other platforms would be worried every time they updated their backend or plugins, concerned that the site might crash or lose functionality. Shopify doesn’t have that problem at all because everything is centralised and secure,” notices Lim.
“We’ve been extremely happy with the high uptime rates as well as features like integrated payment gateways. The whole experience, the whole package and the simplicity of setting up an ecommerce shop makes Shopify a great product."
Grit and experience
All entrepreneurial journeys require a leap of faith and immense fortitude to make it work, and Lim has had to deal with his fair share of challenges too.
While I presume the biggest challenge for the Singaporean design whizz would have been his transition from the fast-paced Manhattan lifestyle to the fairly more conservative ways of doing business back home, Lim is quick to explain otherwise.
He says client education was of the utmost priority for him when starting 360&5. While a majority of agencies offered templated work or white label solutions, he was keen to buck the trend.
Businesses in Asia move quick, Lim explains, and they don’t want to spend months coming up with elaborate marketing strategies or engage in design research and thinking.
“That part of it was initially challenging, because you need to show clients the importance of how your website, your logo and brand will represent you for a long time. So you need to put in the time and effort to craft it as best as you can,” he adds.
For those looking to enter the ecommerce or design industry, Andrew believes it’s of paramount importance to not let your ego get in the way. Businesses are price sensitive and very few would be open to the idea of partnering with a younger company without a rockstar portfolio.
He says aspiring designers and developers shouldn’t let initial opportunities fly away, just because the pay might be lower than what they expect. Treat the project as a way to build credibility and trust; showcasing work which actually drove the sales needle is an excellent method of building your brand.
“When we first started our company we did several projects at ridiculously low prices,” he says. “But we understood that the clients were taking a risk on us too, and we wanted to repay their faith. It’s not just about landing that big job; small, incremental steps can also help you get there.”
“Keep networking, keep hustling, and it will pay off.”
Despite 360&5’s pedigree in Singapore, Lim isn’t about to lose any momentum. He’s looking at Shopify’s global community as a potential growth opportunity. With Shopify Marketplace, he wishes to boost his brand to all parts of the globe and already has clients in the U.S. and Hong Kong.
“We’re also taking on smaller jobs and projects, with the aim to build trust, establish rapport, and shore up relationships. We were initially just focused on Singapore, but that isn’t the case anymore,” he adds.