Article 3 – To be or not to be… an entrepreneur

by Tan Thiam Hock

My big aunt once told me that I should be very proud of myself because I built a business from nothing.

I told her I would have gladly exchanged places with my cousins who went straight into their big family business upon graduation and became major corporate players by the age of 30. I spent 10 years of my life looking aimlessly for that one Big Idea that will instantaneously transform my business life. I never did find one.

The Big Idea is a myth. It is the figment of a wannabe entrepreneur’s imagination. More so in the current world where there is stiff competition in every single business that you can think of. Tell me which Malaysian tycoon made his zillions legally from that one big idea that swept the world? None. Did I mention legally? None.

The low cost carrier model was based on a very successful Ryan Air in Europe but AirAsia took the opportunity and adapted it to the Asian airspace successfully. Astro brought in pay-TV which started 15 years earlier in the United States. YTL had a lucrative first bite at being an independent power producer when the opportunity arose, but again privatised utilities were nothing new.

For any successful entrepreneur, it has always been about having a keen nose to smell an opportunity and that is what separates the men from the boys. Nowadays they called it Blue Ocean strategy, or something like that …

Compare the big picture I just painted with the email I received from “No Idea” who asked me what business he should go into? Honest to goodness, I have no idea. And if you don’t have any either, then you should stay employed until that one Big Idea comes along or your nose starts twitching … vigorously.

But Jean1′ wrote beautifully and at the end of her very long story, I discovered she became an entrepreneur because she had this hunger to succeed. It was not so much for the money but it was about doing more and being more. Huh? I did say it was long.

Meanwhile, a veteran advertising man who calls himself Long (true name) tells me how he still has mornings without breakfast as he struggles for business and how hunger keeps him real. It was a good pitch but I told him, unfortunately, that I already have an agency for Silkygirl. Still, for the great story told, he deserves the nasi lemak that I sent over yesterday morning.

Food aside, having the hunger to succeed should be a key ingredient in every wannabe entrepreneur’s survival menu. The younger entrepreneurs will tell and re-tell their sob stories of earlier days when they could not stretch their credit cards anymore and how they survived on Maggi mee everyday. The older ones worry in silence about the oncoming double-dip recession and the inevitable cash flow crunch. Should he dip into his children’s education fund or should he retrench some of his loyal staff who have been with him for years?

The fear of failure increases the hunger to succeed as the consequence of failure is unimaginable.

I still shudder at the thought of 350 staff looking at me with wooden bowls in their hands at the end of every month and I have to fill it to the brim of their expectations so that they can then feed another four mouths at home.

That’s called responsibility. As a businessman, you are responsible to your staff, your suppliers and your customers. And as my wife just reminded me, to your family too.

If you still want to be an entrepreneur despite my negatively painted scenarios, then right timing is everything. The right time is when a good opportunity presents itself.

Good as in a great idea, a sustainable business model, sufficient capital, immediate sales, sufficient reserves for family upkeep, a secured first project that pays, familiarity with business, high margins, big potential market size, minimum or weak competition, proven new trend, etc.

If you can say yes to 80% of the above then quickly plunge into the business.

If you can only say yes to 20%, then it cannot be a good opportunity which means timing is all wrong and you should wait for another opportunity to come along.

To the young hot shots, I hope you notice that I did not list down horrible bosses, comparative low pay and long hours as reasons to be on your own.

Azhar told me he has not got a contract in four months and he only has reserves for another three months. He has no choice but to call on his old contacts from his ex-company for help. Will he succeed?

For experienced and senior employees coming out on your own, just remember your influence and popularity are tied to your last chair/position. You will find out who your true friends are pretty quickly.

You will succeed if you are able to offer superior skills/knowledge or you are able to differentiate your services/products that meet the market’s requirements.

As I graduate into retirement status next year, my secretary is worried she might be without a job as I am expecting 90% less invitations to events. My wife is horrified that she will have more of grumpy’ me but hey… I am living in the real world.

But I will definitely miss the free golf games, durian parties and sumptuous dinners… unless this column becomes really popular. Nahhh… another reality check prevails.

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