If you’ve ever dabbled in Singapore’s event scene, then you’ve no doubt been to one of Sunshine Nation’s happenings. This unique lifestyle brand was established in 2012 by Alexander Linnerth and Bernhard Schwarz, and has gone on to become a spectacular homegrown sensation offering unique concepts that bring people together over good beats, fun themes, and a spirit of adventure. We sat down with Alex to get the lowdown on the story behind the brand and what we can expect next from this dynamic duo.
Urban Journey: How did you and Bernhard meet?
Alexander Linnerth: About eight years back I was doing an exchange programme in Hong Kong and at the same time Bernhard was doing an exchange programme in Japan. During that time we made friends with two French guys who were also studying abroad and knew each other from back in France. They were planning a holiday on Boracay in the Philippines and invited each of us along. It’s funny because when I first met Bernhard, I didn’t know he was Austrian because we were speaking in English to each other. It took about 10 minutes before we were both like, “You’re from Austria?”
UJ: What moved you to Singapore?
AL: After Bernhard and I finished our exchange programmes, we both went back to Austria to write our Masters theses. Bernhard started working for Apple and I decided to go backpacking through Asia because I had fallen in love with the region. The goal for me was to go back to Hong Kong and search for a job, but three months into my trip, I got malaria in Indonesia and had to go to Singapore for treatment. I was only supposed to be here for three days, but I liked it so much that I decided to stay. After about a month I got a job doing sales and business development for a company doing interior design.
UJ: How did Sunshine Nation come about?
AL: When I went back to Austria for Christmas, I caught up with Bernhard for drinks. I told him I wanted to start something lifestyle based in Singapore because I saw a lot of potential. At that time, the electronic music scene was almost non-existent here. Bernhard said he missed the dynamics of Asia and wanted to go back as well, so we said, “Why not do something?” I didn’t know him all that well, but the chemistry seemed good. We both woke up hungover the next day, but were still onboard and decided to meet again and brainstorm a business plan and ideas. From the start, the idea was to create a lifestyle community.
UJ: How did you come up with the name Sunshine Nation?
AL: We started by thinking about what we wanted our community to represent. We knew we wanted it to be positive, not pretentious, and premium. So we started writing down key words on a piece of paper like ‘community’, ‘smile’, ‘happy’, ‘sunshine’, etc. Eventually we arrived at Sunshine Nation. I still have that piece of paper.
UJ: What were the early days like?
AL: We knew we needed a unique concept that would stand out, so we kicked off with a sailing concept in Thailand that was inspired by The Yacht Week in Europe. We really didn’t know much about sailing, but we met with yacht charters and explained that we wanted to combine sailing with DJs and dinners in the evening. At first it was hard to get people onboard, but eventually we found a partner who understood our vision and The Sail Spin was born.
A week after we launched, a group of Norwegian guys booked the entire boat, and we thought, “Oh my god. This thing is going to work so well.” But we were overexcited. After that there were no more bookings, so we knew we had to push it. We figured the best thing to do was organise events in Singapore to advertise our product. Our first event was called Nautical Night at a bar, and the theme was for everyone to dress up like sailors. The response was amazing, and it really helped generate bookings for the boat trips.
UJ: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
AL: The first challenge was getting somebody to believe in our idea. We had to go to a lot of networking and entrepreneurial events to present our business and ideas before we found someone to help kickstart The Sail Spin. The second challenge was making it work. That first year we managed to establish our brand, but it wasn’t sustainable. Our salaries were low, the costs were high, and it was just exhausting. It’s hard when you put so much heart and soul into a brand and concept and it just doesn’t work. We kept finding excuses to do the boat trips, but eventually we realised that we had let go and move forward, so we shifted focus to what was working, and that was the events in Singapore.
UJ: What was the turning point for Sunshine Nation?
AL: Garden Beats was a game changer for us. We had already been booking electronic music artists and establishing close ties with them and their agents, and we drew on that to organise Garden Beats. It was a bit chaotic, but it worked out because the festival was a huge success. It was actually profitable right from the 1st edition and it proved that we could bring people in and throw a successful, large scale event. From there we started signing contracts and making long-term partnerships with various venues.
The lifestyle side of it grew organically after that. We developed a travel concept called The Island Takeover where we take over a resort for the weekend and offer music, yoga, and outdoor adventures We also do brand activation for clients where we create unique experiences that help connect brands with consumers, and about a month ago we started offering specialised event supplies like stretch-tents, DJ equipment, and sound systems for our corporate clients.
UJ: What are the dynamics like between you and Bernhard?
AL: I think it’s changed over time. At the beginning we were more or less two strangers starting a company together. I think that’s a good way to start a business because you’re basing it on the fact that you think it can work, not because you’re best buddies. We actually became friends through the business because we went through so much together. For example, in the beginning we didn’t have much money, so we shared a common room and even slept in the same bed for like half a year. These things really bring you together.
Now we have so much going on and see each other every day, so we don’t have the luxury of saying, “How was your weekend?” It’s more like, “What needs to be done?” That being said, we’re still on good terms like we were when we started. I think the most important thing is the mutual respect we have for each other. As long as that is there, I know we can go through anything and I think we have a long business partnership ahead.
UJ: What’s a day in the life for you?
AL: My day is usually split into a number of different areas, but mainly I focus on lifestyle side of things like running the marketing and comms behind our Sunshine Nation events and making sure our products are well-prepared. Berhnard’s focus is more on the agency side and look after our corporate retainer clients. Then we split the tasks with the restaurant (Don Ho) and the event supply business.
UJ: Have you been able to find a work-life balance?
AL: I think it’s come and gone in phases. At the beginning there was none because we were working from home, so the kitchen table was our office. Also, with the lifestyle business you often mix up your personal life with your business life. The events are fun because your friends are there and you’re having a good time, but at the end of the day it’s also your business right?
When things picked up and we finally got a small team together and could start outsourcing things, then we started taking weekends off and had a bit more balance. That lasted for about two years. Now with so many projects on the go, that balance has kind of been lost again. The good thing though, is that as long as you really enjoy your projects, the clients you work for, and the concepts you do, it still doesn’t really feel like work.
UJ: Besides Don Ho, where will we find you on the weekends?
AL: I love to travel if I can. Singapore is amazing, but if you have the chance to leave once a month, I think that’s the best way to distance yourself a bit from the bubble. It’s good to see new things, meet new people, and be in an environment that’s less sterile and more wild and adventurous. If I can’t travel, then you’ll find me doing sports, having dinner at a friend’s house, or heading to unique event concepts like a fun street party or cool exhibition at the Arts & Science Museum.
UJ: Who are your favourite DJs, and will you bring them here?
AL: Music-wise I listen to everything from classical music to rock n roll, electronic music, opera, and disco-funk. In terms of who we bring in, we always bring in DJs we enjoy listening to, especially artists who are up-and-coming; not because we know they’re going to sell tickets, but because we want to give them a platform to reach out to different people with their music. It’s also a question of budget. I love ACDC for example and would love to bring them to Singapore, but it’s about what’s in the scope. I think it’s really about finding a good balance between what people will enjoy, what we enjoy, and what fits into the concept.
UJ: So give us the scoop. What’s next for Sunshine Nation and Garden Beats?
AL” For Sunshine Nation in general we’re looking to grow our agency business further by taking on more retainer clients. We’re also expanding our event supply offering. And for Garden Beats, we’ve always been very electro based, but next year we’re looking at expanding the music genre a bit more into things like indie and R&B. We’ll never be the ones bringing in the super famous big-name artists because we want to be a bit more niche, so we’ve been talking to some exciting up-and-coming artists who already have a good following, but are still in need of being discovered.