Article 2 – Sharing the hard lessons

by Tan Thiam Hock

I am safe. No news means good news. No instructions yet from the Star Publications CEO to discontinue this weekly column. I had copied the zillions (actually, about 20) supporting emails to him and his editor on my maiden column in StarBizWeek last week. Did I mention the hundreds of SMSes, emails and Facebooks posts I received from long-lost family members and friends accompanied by good wishes and a surprised remark: “Didn’t know you can write?”

Ruben wrote that Malaysia needs more entrepreneurs but more importantly, those who do it for the right reasons. People venture into business for various reasons, most of which seem right at that point in time. There are also entrepreneur wannabes who don’t quite have a good reason nor a clue on how to start a business but they do it nevertheless. Then there are employees who feel they are better than their bosses and are solely responsible for all the profits. So, why not venture out on their own?

But that’s not to say going into business on your own is a walk in the park. Entrepreneur Rahimah says there’s significant pressure to meet and manage employee expectations, particularly during an economic downturn. The only upside, she says, is the cost of living and salaries. That’s also when entrepreneurs may wish they were employees all over again.

I greatly admire failed entrepreneurs who bounce back and return as employees. The need to put food on the table for the family far outweighs an individual’s ego.

I would like to dedicate one of my future columns to failed entrepreneurs. If you have a story to share with me on your actual experiences or viewpoints, please do. It would serve as a valuable lesson for entrepreneur wannabes. Who knows, we could prevent heartbreak by sharing our miseries.

If you choose to be an entrepreneur, your reasons to take the plunge may differ based on several factor; age and life experiences can be defining factors. Just like marriage, you need to be persistent in your courtship. Pre-marital involvement is when you are young and carefree without family commitments. If you’re lucky, your marriage into business may already be pre-arranged by your parents. Divorce sets in when you decide to leave your employment and start afresh on your own. In the twilight years, you look for ways to keep busy when your kids leave the coop.

Tan Sri Vincent Tan persistently wrote to McDonalds for many years before he transformed himself from an insurance agent into the “burger king of Malaysia.” The millions he made initially were reinvested many times over, and in my book, he is Malaysia’s Top Serial Entrepreneur. Nobody, in my memory, has bought, sold, re-bought and re-sold more companies than Tan.

“Pre-marital” entrepreneurs are typically young graduates who fall in love with the idea of being in business. At that raw age, all opportunities appear good. That was how it was for me. My humble background had nurtured the drive in me to have my own business and make zillions. I jumped at the first opportunity at the age of 24-plus to start my first trading company and I spent the next five years all at sea due to inexperience and immaturity.

Fortunately, some deals worked out and I made my first million at 33. I started out selling razor blades and 26 years later, am selling lipsticks for a living. Not much progress in terms of building this massive business conglomerate that I had earlier envisioned. But my little brand has made many cheer-leading schoolgirls happy and many women beautiful at affordable prices. Silkygirl might not be as big as Windows and Facebook, but it is comforting to know that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, like me, were pre-marital entrepreneurs. The main difference is that they are Harvard dropouts, while I graduated from University Malaya and proudly so.

“Pre-arranged” entrepreneurs are usually overseas graduates who return home and are faced with the tough choice of joining the family business. It is easier to decide if your Dad owns Genting, IOI, Berjaya, YTL, Naza, IGB, Westport, etc. There are many pre-arranged entrepreneurs who have grown their family businesses many times over because they are better educated than their old men, and they have bigger and more qualified teams of managers to support them. But are they better entrepreneurs than their dads?

I have many friends who earn six- to seven-figure annual salaries with all the corporate perks, who never once thought of going into their own business. That is, until they come face to face with a new boss … from “hell.” And more often than not, it always happens when you are past 45. You know, “been there, done that” and suddenly this know-it-all monsieur decides that you are past your sell date.

So, you may end up considering a corporate divorce and at the same time getting into your own business, especially when alternative employment is limited and unattractive. At this point, certain regrets may creep in; you wish you had planned better much earlier or made some part-time investment in properties or businesses with friends.

There is no law to forbid you from being a part-time investor just because you are happy being a full-time employee. But you need to be disciplined and invest from a very young age instead of spending extravagantly on holidays and the cool must-haves and must-dos. And you need to have a survival plan just in case.

Twilight entrepreneurs are normally retirees who want to keep themselves busy. My advice is to keep your investment low so that you do not suffer too much upon exit, as the reason to exit may just be around the corner. Just last night, The Star’s group chief editor advised that my columns can be compiled into a book (like his) and I went to sleep dreaming of my lucrative post-retirement syndicated columns and best-sellers on amazon.com. Then I woke up. It’s again time for a reality check.

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