BANDAR SERI  BEGAWAN – When the skill-sharing platform BenchLab launched in April, founder Wan Nurul Naszeerah says it was born out of her frustration over the lack of things to do on a weekend.

Fast-forward five months, and the startup has now staged over 100 workshops for curious minds wanting to learn new skills and take part in creative activities.

“When I first came back to Brunei after studying the US, I was looking for things to do over the weekend but there were limited choices,” said the Yale graduate.

Wan saw a gap in the market — she wanted to create a community space where people with niche skills, such as basket-weaving or fashion illustration, could teach their craft to a wider audience and earn some side income along the way.

But how BenchLab differs from online teaching platforms, such as Udemy or Skillshare, is that it gives participants a physical space to learn and interact with instructors.

Students participate in an art workshop organised by BenchLab. Photo: Courtesy of BenchLab

The 28-year-old said the initial plan was to offer courses in contemporary skills that are popular and trending, such as modern calligraphy or makeup artistry. But BenchLab soon shifted focus to include workshops that highlight Brunei culture and traditional skills such as silat (a Malay martial art) or basket-weaving.

“In a way, we were trying to not just follow trends from around the world, but we wanted to also revive traditions that we have in Brunei.”

Wan noted that her team is still trying to gauge the local market and understand what interests their audience and what doesn’t.

So far, the startup has registered 60 instructors and attracted more than 300 students, with people coming from as far afield as Miri to take part in the workshops.

“Our target [audience includes] young professionals, those who are still exploring what they like and are passionate about, as well as those who just want to learn a new hobby,” she said.

A crocheting workshop. Photo: Courtesy of BenchLab

BenchLab works on a profit-sharing model with its instructors, charging customers anywhere from $20 to $200 per person, depending on the complexity and resources required by the course.

Wan acknowledged that while the price point might be high for some students, the company is considering ways to make the platform more inclusive.

“We want to tap into the student community and we’ve received suggestions asking us to consider offering student rates.

“Hopefully in the future we can come up with some kind of collaboration with local schools. BenchLab can play an active part in their growth in terms of co-curriculum activities.” 

The company began offering workshops for children last June, after they saw demand from parents looking for weekend activities for their children.

“It was really an eye opening experience, because we didn’t think that having workshops for kids would be our target initially,” she said, adding that the popular courses for children have been creative writing and drawing.

BenchLab’s character drawing course was among the first few workshops BenchLab offered for children. Photo: Courtesy of BenchLab

The next step

BenchLab has set its sights beyond Brunei, with ambition to tap into the Sarawak and Sabah markets within the next year.

The startup currently has a team of eight part-time employees to help run the business, but expanding past the sultanate’s borders will require more human capital.

“It is hard to find people who believe in the same passion and dream. Luck has a lot to do with it,” Wan said.

“The toughest months for us were the first two months when we conducted our first workshops. There were definitely a lot of sleepless nights.”

The company is also eyeing a collaboration with local travel agents, providing a potential avenue for tourists to experience and learn new skills as part of their trip to Brunei.

But Wan said they also want to give back to the community. In November, BenchLab will kickstart an upskilling programme for underprivileged women to help them earn a living.

“I was raised in a difficult childhood by an immigrant mother and a then-stateless father who had a low education and limited marketable skills,” she said.

“[It] reduced their employability and chance to climb the social ladder. I’m moved to expand BenchLab into upskilling the underprivileged because in most cases, they are not empowered with marketable skills to be self-sustainable.”

This article was updated at 12.33am on September 22, 2018 to reflect the addition of a quote in the final paragraph.