Looking over the glistening sea under the golden sunshine, a small stone castle with short blue steeples stands proudly before teams of cheerful people gathering to build sand castles assisted by friendly volunteers in yellow tees…this is at East Coast Park by the way. And if you happened to pass by once upon a time, recalling this out-of-the-blue architecture and wondering whose house did it belong to, meet Alvin Lee, the founder of Castles Can Fly, a social enterprise that focuses on motivational self-discovery.
At first glance, It’s easy to assume that this is another one of those family-fun activity organisations. In fact, a majority of Castles Can Fly’s clients are from the corporate world who see the positive benefits of Alvin’s programs for their corporate training. “First, build castles in the air, then, build castles everywhere.” is the motto often reiterated by the former general manager of an electronics factory who weaves his turbulent experiences into his educational sandcastle programs.
He began inventing sand-castle construction materials with his own children, niece and nephews, without any prior sand-castle building experience. After multiple rejections from local toy companies, he ventured to the USA where his idea was pitched successfully to Eagle Affiliates. His invention won the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio award at the world’s largest toy fair, the New York Toy Fair and he has since been featured in major news programs locally and internationally, and has been invited to give motivational talks.
Cheerful, talkative and very straightforward in his beliefs, Alvin takes me through his extraordinary journey.
Before you started Castles Can Fly, did you have any prior experience in sand castle building?
Absolutely zero. Until the age of 35, I have walked the beach over a hundred times and never felt anything. That one time I felt something was because of my children. If I had no children, I would never have done what I am doing now and I would’ve lived a carefree life. That is why I keep preaching this same thing: All of us would not have done anything at all if not for our children. So my son, my niece and 3 nephews – we had fun just creating sand castle constructing tool prototypes and writing up a business plan.
You mentioned in previous interviews the difficulties of the initial stages to turn your dream into reality – 25 rejections and finally an investment from America. Singaporeans are said to be a pessimistic bunch. Do you think that mindset is starting to change?
No. Many people have asked me this same question. Singapore is just a small city. If I grew up in a small city somewhere in America for example, I still have to go to New York to make it big. I still have to go Hollywood if I want to become a great movie star, so on and so forth. In short, I have no bitterness though of course I was angry because they [the local companies who rejected me] could not see or understand my vision. And if people do not understand, I have to go somewhere to find someone who would. I’m not here to change their mindsets because I don’t blame them. If out of the 100 people, I can convert 10 – that’s all I want. I just want to find like-minded people.
What is the main purpose of your workshops and what are the misconceptions people have of them?
The main purpose is about the learning process. Children learn because adults learn. Many adults including principals and teachers tell me that it’s good for children, but I say it’s incorrect. Adults must participate too so that they can understand fully what my program is about. It’s not about brainless fun. I target on the mindful aspect of fun – planning, execution, communication. I’m not bothered if you’re in a team with members whom you like or dislike; what we want to see is that you produce results. People misunderstand that my activities are about teamwork, but it’s not. In fact, I ban the word “teamwork”, not that teamwork is unimportant, but because there are people who keep saying it but not do it, and those who do it, do not define “teamwork” adequately. We have corporate companies like Citibank and Standard Chartered, schools and youths, charities and organisations that participate in our workshops. I’m glad that we did not spend a single advertising budget, and we have many repeat customers.
Do families participate in your programs too?
Yes, though they make up a very small percentage of my clients due to a number of reasons: the hot sun and the feudalistic mentality of many Asian families that any hand that touches the soil is of low class. People who want to participate should ideally love the outdoors, love to do D.I.Y and are open to learn new things. My job is not to convert everyone to meet these criteria, but to let those who already meet such criteria to know that there is such a program.
What are some of the struggles you still face?
Trying to make people see and understand that they just have to be true to themselves. Some people invent some silly excuses like the filthy outdoors, the fear of drowning at sea, the possibility of rain, the inconvenient ending time etc. before even participating the program. If I can get 20 out of the 100 [who want to participate], I will focus on that 20. Our job is not to change the world, but to find and share with other like-minded people. People have commented that I’m not Singaporean because I do not think or talk like locals. I still get that today.
Must be quite tiring…
Good and bad. I take it as a compliment, but I also take it as “No”. I still eat the same local food. Going overseas did change my perception of things, but that’s because of after 25 rejections. If not for these 25 rejections, I would not have gone on. People have asked me why am I doing this silly project since I have an engineering MBA and so on. It’s frustrating. They don’t understand how much of engineering was put inside the creation of the sand castle building tools, that it convinced the US partner to invest US$1.5 million. I do not have much and I do a lot, yet there are people who have a lot but do nothing. It’s not what we have or our education or money status, but what we do with what we have.
What are some of the most memorable stories you have heard from those whose lives have changed after participating in your sand castle activities?
One 4-year-old participant who was very naughty suffered from autism and ADHD. Ever since she came down here with her father, she was so focused and enjoyed the sandcastle activities. Her father loved it too and found it to be a good distraction from her computer games. We also work with the MCYS, so I had a rebellious and negative youth who would scold his kind-hearted and hardworking mother in front of us. After completing the program with us, a few years later, he came down and I could not recognise him at first. His mother was with him, and had a large smile, telling me privately of how he is a better person now.
Any plans for expansion?
I have already expanded my licensees to Hong Kong, Penang, Brunei and Mauritius – all running without Alvin Lee. This proves one thing: without me, the business has a life of its own, in that it can multiply like an amoeba. I’m looking to expand into Sweden, Australia and Taiwan.
What advice can you give to aspiring local entrepreneurs?
Be true and be real to who you are, what you are, and just keep on going. Don’t focus on what other people are doing, or follow your friend or other people’s opinions, or be pressured into doing something so as to prove to others. The moment you want to prove anybody wrong, you are on the wrong side. You do it because you want to. I went to the US not because I wanted to prove anything, but because I didn’t want to let my children down, and maybe if nobody really wanted my idea, I needed to find an answer [on the other side of the world]. No point being thin-skinned and be scared of what other people think, yet upset the very person you see in the mirror everyday. You can’t change people around you anyway.
Do you think you have finally found your answer in life as a result of your journey?
No. I still have many things to do and discover. There is no end. The moment I find my answer, that’s it. There’s no more to go (laughs). Discovering and doing things keeps me going in life and remain true to myself.
After interviewing Alvin, I hopped on with my family to participate in their sand castle building activity and purchased the deluxe set ($50) with the complete sand castle building tools that include staircase, castle and roof moulds, hammer, flattener, cute medieval soldier figurines and flags. Assisted by a very helpful volunteer, we were taken through the proper way of sand castle building. You may roll your eyes thinking that it’s a pretty straight-forward process, yet despite my years of rough sand castle building, this workshop was far more detailed, with new skills that I was surprised to pick up like how to properly dislodge your castle without hurting its shape by knocking the sides of your mould with your hammer, or creating trees by dripping wet sand one layer at a time. Adopting Alvin’s advice to be true to yourself, the typically perfectionist me stepped back to let my son and husband freely express their creation without interference or criticism from another.
The end result of the castle was stunning, at least in the eyes of us first timers. The experience allowed each of us to discover our own hidden talents and respect each other’s desires without enforcing one’s dreams upon another.
Fun? Yes. Bonding? Absolutely. Laughter? Lots of it. What’s more, you come to learn about yourself and your team partners more than you realise.
To find out more about Castles Can Fly, visit http://www.castlescanfly.com or head down to the beach this weekend and experience yourself this joy!