Start-up with balloon twist

“I want Elsa!”

“Spiderman, please!”

Excited children were yelling and pointing to their beloved cartoon characters shown on a catalogue at the booth of YM Balloon, a balloon twisting social enterprise, on a Sunday afternoon.

At the booth, three young people in their 20s were busy in bending balloons into different shapes in order to satisfy the overwhelming demand from youngsters surrounding them.

As a social enterprise, YM Balloon has hired a number of hearing-impaired people to train them the skills of balloon twisting.

“I enjoy twisting balloons to kids and bring fun to them,” said Eugene Sung, one of the balloon artists who was born hearing-impaired working at the booth.

YM Balloon is a start-up enterprise with the services of balloon twisting and event planning operated by Chinese YMCA of Hong Kong. It was set up in July 2015 with the funding from the Social Welfare Department’s Enhancing Employment of People with Disabilities through Small Enterprise Project.

Currently, there are four full-time employees working for the social enterprise, two of them are able-bodied while the other two are hearing-impaired. The social enterprise also engages with other hearing-impaired people by employing them as part-time staff when there are large scale events with more helpers needed.

With less than a year in operation, YM Balloon seeks to access more clients in various industries to get their brand known.

“We need to get more business for more revenues to employ more hearing-impaired people and enlighten them with a new life,” said Douglas Cheng, business development and account executive of the social enterprise.

“The greatest challenge for us is to look for new clients,” said Cheng. He said that the company was accumulating customers right now and would provide discounts to loyal clients.

The business scope of YM Balloon is very diverse, from balloon decoration at large scale events and parties, on-site balloon twisting at private functions to organising interest classes for primary and secondary school students to learn balloon twisting.

Cheng said the main business of the social enterprise was to cooperate with schools to organise balloon twisting classes. While there would be less school business during summer holidays, YM Balloon collaborates with YMCA community centres all around the city to offer interest classes.

“It is easier to manage the schedules with the classes at schools and community centres as they are planned in advance,” said Cheng.

Besides targeting students, Cheng said the social enterprise also offered services including organising family workshops in clubhouses, twisting balloons on demand at shopping malls and making balloon souvenirs for sale during weekends.

“The night time on weekdays can be spared for decorating the venues of annual dinner of business organisations,” said Cheng.

The rubber balloons used by YM Balloon are imported from the United States, rather than Mainland China. Though the cost of the raw materials is two times higher compared to those produced on the mainland, Cheng said it was worth using the U.S.-produced balloons.

“We strive for high quality for our products all the time,” said Cheng.

To further polish the employee’s balloon twisting skills, the social enterprise invites professional balloon twisting trainers to provide coaching for its staff, both part-time and full-time, from time to time.

“Our balloon twisting skills can be achieved at a higher level after the training, and we can be more competitive in the market with the acquisition of advanced techniques,” said Cheng.

The relationship between hearing-impaired and able-bodied colleagues at YM Balloon has been evolving throughout the past few months.

Cheng said they communicated with each other by a combination of speaking and writing in the very beginning. However, he said the communication was not so effective.

“Sometimes it is difficult to express ourselves lively with written text, and it uses up much time,” said Cheng. To facilitate the daily conversation between colleagues, he began learning sign language with his able-bodied colleague, To Ka Chun, a short while ago.

“Now we are able to talk with each other smoothly with the help of sign language, the hurdle has been cleared,” said To. “Sometimes our colleagues would laugh at our lousy sign language.”

Hearing-impaired Sung said that his personality had changed a lot since working at YM Balloon.
“I used to be very shy, but now I become more proactive and feel easier to express myself,” said Sung. “I also learnt to react quickly with the various demand from customers”.

As the social enterprise is approaching its first year anniversary, Cheng has a wish that he hopes to see at that time.

“I hope our business will reach breakeven,” said Cheng.

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