Most of us aspire to do our own thing, do it well and make a difference. But it’s extremely rare to reach a level of success and impact that “inspires” dozens of copycat businesses in your own city, and reflects changing attitudes in society. It’s the type of success story you might read in Inc.
My friend Eric Yin runs two cafes here in Taipei: Moooon River Cafe & Books in Neihu and Moooon Spring Cafe & Play in Dazhi. He left his career in advertising and brand consulting to do the job full-time. The first, Moooon River, opened in January 2011 as a traditional cafe with a library theme. But the second cafe, Moooon Spring, has managed to capture how Taiwan’s new generation of young families is parenting, and living, differently.
I’m really excited to share this interview. Eric shares his experience starting and running the cafes. He talks about the approach he and his friends took to make sure what they were doing was unique and special. And he proves that in business and in life, having a different point of view can be your biggest competitive advantage.
[UPDATE: Eric closed Moooon Spring in early 2016. He’s already launched his next project.]
Hey Eric! What inspired you to start your businesses?
In the beginning, it was as simple as several friends getting together to invest in a business outside of our jobs. At the time, a couple of the partners were working in the Neihu Science Park where over 100,000 white-collar workers come to work every day. But there was not a single place to buy books. Although there were over 50 cafes (including six Starbucks) within a five-block radius, they had turned into public meeting rooms for salespeople instead. We thought there should be a place for people to slow down, read and be inspired, reflect and think.
So we had the idea of a cafe plus mini bookstore. We wanted to make it feel different enough that when people come in they would feel they’ve entered a different mood and pace, so they could temporarily get out of the fast-paced work mode. With the theme around reading, we modeled the decoration to the style of classic western libraries. Also with the help from friends in the publishing industry we were able to quickly become a bookstore too.
How did you come up with the name, Moooon River?
Honestly, we were struggling to come up with a name that could represent the concept without being too literal. It was an evening at my house and the radio was on, and it started playing the classic song “Moon River” and it all came together. The image of moonlight being reflected on the water also reflected the inspiration that people feel when they read. We knew registration and internet search would be hard because too many results would be about the song, so we decided to give it a little twist and used four “o”s. Just like the long “oooo” sound from the song.
What about your second cafe, Moooon Spring?
After about two years, we had a group of loyal customers who really got the concept and appreciated what we offered so we started talking about a second cafe. Moooon River was generally quiet due to its library atmosphere, it really wasn’t a friendly place for customers with young children. At the time I had just become a parent, and began to realize how challenging it is to dine out with a young child. That’s when the idea of a “sister” cafe serving a different customer segment came to place. In this case, the segment would be parents with children under six.
Since this cafe would be a sister cafe to Moooon River, we wanted to stick with the name “Moooon”. Finally, we chose Spring, which is also a body of water, only smaller and more lively. Just like children. We carried over the reading theme from Moooon River, added more picture books and parenting books, and designed playing areas where kids can play while parents eat or chat.
Moooon Spring opened in November 2013. It was the very first “parenting cafe” in Taipei. Why do you think it’s become so popular?
When we started, we all had day jobs so we chose the concept of our business from the angle of, “what do we want to do?” rather than, “what should we do to make the most money?” This is the opposite of what most Taiwanese businesses do.
Most Taiwanese businesses reverse-engineer what’s already successful in the marketplace and create the same thing, only cheaper. So they derail more easily when facing adversity or short-term challenges. I think that’s what made us different. While we don’t have as high table turnover as other restaurants/cafes have, we have been able to build a customer base that I believe will keep coming back.
For Moooon Spring specifically, I was unhappy with the mainstream Taiwanese education system (long hours of studying and memorizing that turns kids into test-taking robots), so we designed the play areas around different interests such as painting, music and imagination. This lets parents see how happy and interested their children are when engaged in such activities. Then maybe, there could be a tiny chance parents would encourage their kids to explore different interests and be all that they could be.
How did that influence the design and branding of your cafes?
I think the key is having a vision that leads my business decisions and staying confident that by doing so, customers and profit will come. With my brand and advertising background, I knew that in the long-term, it’s the concept and content that truly connects our business to our customers. Moooon Spring’s logo is an airship representing the exploration of interests, and the in-store menu is an navigational map. Our slogan is the Albert Einstein quote: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.” It really sums up our belief.
Also, our visual identity is less childish by design. We purposely designed the cafe to feel like a cozy environment for adults, so hard-working parents wouldn’t feel they were working overtime on the weekends by accompanying their kids to what would feel like a kindergarten environment. Likewise in marketing materials such as posters and our Facebook page, we share our thoughts, beliefs and inspiring stories. Not just promotional messages.
In the end, it all comes back to communicating in every way we can what the Moooon Spring brand and concept is about. I believe this is what most customers are paying for when they choose to support us.
It seems very few local businesses pay attention to their brand development. What was the process like for you?
The entire process from first engaging with the designer to finished design took about two months. The designer I worked with for both cafes is Amy Chang. I had a first meeting with Amy and we went over the brief to make sure she understood what I was aiming for. Then in about three weeks, she came back with the first set of design concepts, trying to capture and visualize what was in the brief.
In the case of Moooon Spring, basically it was the concept of imagination and adventure, but in a more mature and classic tone. We narrowed down the concepts to two that we felt had the best potential. Then in the third round, we basically chose the concept, and Amy followed up with final refinements.
For my part, I wrote a very clear creative brief that served as the parameters we used to evaluate the design work. From my experience, I know one key challenge in any design project is the gap between the client not seeing whatever he/she asked for, while the designer feeling he/she had done what was asked for. In a way, a clear brief serves as the defined acceptable standard for both parties. Just as a speed limit of 50 is used to evaluate if the driver is speeding on a particular road: the driver knows not to drive faster than that and the police knows when the law is broken. That’s why the creative brief has to be as precise as possible.
You were a brand strategist in your previous career. What finally made you decide to leave your full-time job?
I think the trigger was two-fold. First, was the desire for better sense of achievement. While I was happy with my previous career, the work felt distant because of the nature of working in business services. So it was tempting to switch to my own consumer-facing business where my work, good or bad, can directly influence the end result. The second was the fact that after two years of operating Moooon River, the feedback we got from customers was really encouraging. To the point where all of the partners felt we really had to do something with the momentum.
What’s a challenge in your industry that’s surprised you?
As Moooon Spring was the first of its kind to the marketplace, I knew there would be competitors that would try to copy what we did. I wasn’t too worried as I assumed they would copy the play areas and hardware, but they couldn’t copy the content and our brand. So far this has been mostly true.
However what has been unexpected, is the rate that “parenting cafes” have been growing. When Moooon Spring started in late 2013 there were fewer than 10 in the Greater Taipei area that could be loosely defined in this category (most were just cafes with some old toys in the corner). Now less than two years later, there are more than 50.
The problem with this is there is a concrete number of young parents with children under six, and they only eat three meals a day. General consumers who are not in this group wouldn’t set foot in a parenting cafe because it’s so specific. It’s almost like a vegan wouldn’t eat at a steakhouse unless they’re among a large party and have to.
These days you run two cafes, and have two small kids. (Miss Felicia shown above with her dad.) What does a typical day look like for you?
My work day typically starts at 8am, when I try to read for 30 minutes to an hour at Starbucks. The cafes open at 11am so we usually have meetings at 9am then employees can get back to their posts. In the restaurant/cafe business we usually eat late lunches.
Afternoons vary every day. I might be in the office doing administrative and executive work, or hanging out in either cafe observing customers and engaging with colleagues, or visiting an Eslite bookstore or leading some creative brainstorming sessions. I try to go home by 6pm so I can have dinner with my family.
Where do you go for inspiration?
I spend a lot of my time at Starbucks. But as more and more of them have become so crowded and noisy, sometimes I would wander around Taipei for independent coffee shops instead. I try to read more Western content than local content. The one magazine I read every month is Fast Company.
What do you have planned for the future?
We are exploring different things. The one thing I’m sure of is that whatever we do from now should be consistent with what we have done, and be different and disruptive. It will have a mission, and make a positive impact on its industry and on society.
With our experience in the parenting industry, we feel there is a lot more that can be done with parenting products. The parenting industry in Taiwan had barely evolved until recently, which is really a reflection of how the general take on raising and educating kids has changed. So while there are fewer babies being born, more attention is being paid to these newborns.
Thank you, Eric!
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