Desmond Ng doesn’t like things easy. After four years of working with his father and sister at Fifty-Eight Capital, he kicked himself out of the family company and home because “there was hardly an ounce of stress”.

His frustration stemmed from believing he was living a lie. “I had been telling myself that I was doing something with my life just because I was going to an office every day, but I never felt exposed to the real world there. It was a sheltered space.”

He asked for the real deal and he got it. As the loving owner of a golden retriever, he took an interest in PetCubes, a local company that makes fresh, human-grade meals for dogs and cats, and became a “quasi-silent partner” in 2018. He didn’t have to deal with the nuts and bolts of the business then and simply offered the occasional pointer for less critical things like packaging redesign. But all that changed last February when unforeseen circumstances suddenly dumped Ng in the driver’s seat. He bought over the company and took over as CEO.

“It was scary. I had no experience at running a business so I floored it for the first six months. I had to learn procurement, customer service, shipping, Covid-19-related supply chain issues, and staff and retailer management. There were times when I wanted to drop this whole thing, throw my phone away and disappear because I couldn’t take it anymore. But that’s the life of an entrepreneur.”

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As is the case for all entrepreneurs who manage to push through the pain, it’s the mission that drives him. “I believe we are what we eat and the same is true for pets. Our pet food is a lot more expensive than kibble. But if your pet comes down with a chronic illness due to poor nutrition and requires a tremendously expensive trip to the vet every two days, that will be even more financially and emotionally painful.”

PetCubes wants to serve the bracket of pet owners who believe their furballs deserve better than the same dry food every meal of the day but are too busy to prepare fresh food regularly. It’s a convenience that doesn’t come at the cost of quality. PetCubes products are formulated by wildlife nutritionist Dr Francis Cabana, who is responsible for the meals of the 10,000-plus animals at the Singapore Zoo.

Quality isn’t the brand’s only competitive edge. “The barrier to entry for this kind of business isn’t high,” notes Ng. “You can start this with a nice Instagram account, website, packaging and a small kitchen. A lot of our competitors are just two to three guys producing small batches in an artisanal style with limited distribution.” While Ng’s team is also lean at just eight people, he invested in a bigger 370 sq m facility in Kaki Bukit last year, which allows the brand to produce over 10 tonnes of food and stock its 28 SKUs at 14 Pet Lovers Centre outlets and several more pet supplies stores.

As CEO, Ng may have to pay attention to the numbers now, but he will never see this as anything other than an emotional business. “We are selling trust and happiness, so I want to build more human connection,” he emphasises. It’s why he still insists on responding to customers directly through social media channels and WhatsApp. “We’re still at a stage where I can do that and I want to maintain this for as long as I can. I’m a pet owner, too, so I’m obsessed with putting myself in the customers’ shoes. I feel genuine care for them and their pets.”

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Besides animals, Desmond Ng’s other passion is his motorcycle.

One of Ng’s challenges now is to have his staff feel the same way. “I’m always telling them that everything they do inside the factory has repercussions outside of it, so if someone’s pet starts to thrive because of the food they make, they will feel a tremendous sense of achievement. Apart from salaries, I’m trying to give them a sense of purpose,” he says.

Ng admits that there is still a laundry list of things to do before he takes PetCubes beyond our shores, and he hopes to achieve that in two years. “I don’t want PetCubes to be just another small Singaporean start-up that eventually fades away. I want us to be a solid option – a local brand Singaporeans can be proud of.”