5/2016 – Lessons about integrity, humility and honesty from my mentor
by Tan Thiam Hock
Saturday, 2 April 2016
ON the first day of Chinese New Year, as my seventh aunt hands me an ang pow, she told me my articles are not interesting to read anymore. Ouch… What a start to the year of the Monkey!
Maybe I was getting too predictable, rehashing old ideas. Staying out of political jokes could be another reason. After all, readers get bored easily if I keep writing about entrepreneurship.
So after a nice break, I have decided to reinvent myself. Maybe start a “Dear Mentor” column, something like a “Dear Thelma” column which has been a favourite column in this newspaper for as long as I can remember. I probably would not have to think so hard to overcome the dreaded writer’s block every time I sit in front of my iPad. Always searching for that one elusive brilliant spark of an idea.
In fact life as an entrepreneur would have been much easier for me if I had access to a mentor back in 1985 when I started my first trading business. I struggled through the first 10 years of my entrepreneurial journey without a proper understanding of business models and value chains. My understanding of distribution channels was restricted to my dealings with the retail stores and pounding the pavements all over the country with veteran salesmen.
But life was also much simpler then. National distribution of goods via a network of wholesalers and direct coverage of supermarkets and pharmacies by our own sales team. Prudent management in credit control and collections while managing warehouses with minimum pilferage. Straight forward and uncomplicated.
To be honest, looking back I did have some mentoring from my partners and business associates. My main partner Ang taught me about business ethics and the importance of integrity, humility and honesty. He would share stories of past successes in his many businesses. In his subtle manner, he would encourage me to dream big.
Another partner, Benny taught me the importance of gross margins in a trading business. And he explained to me via the performance of the company’s profit and loss account and the balance sheet. Volume is meaningless without quality margins.
These were valuable lessons that stayed with me till today.
But not all advice and experiences with partners were good. I have had my fair share of difficult partners with anti-clockwise attitude. I promised myself that I will not practise what I have learnt from them. Like bullying minority partners. Like trying to outwit your partners at every turn and every decision. Like you owe them a living.
So I close up all the partnerships bar one. Then I started all over again. Back to bootstrapping days of startups with one staff and one product. But I was happy and 10 years wiser. And I could build a sustainable business model fairly quickly based on lessons learnt from good mentors and personal experiences.
There is nothing more valuable for a young startup than access to rich experience and insightful mentoring. It is more important than pure financing.
Of course it will be ideal if you can rope in a financier who is also an experienced businessman. Someone who understands you, someone who can hold your hand and guide you through the uncertain journey of a startup.
A short cut to an instant viable business model that has the flexibility to pivot around road blocks and pot holes.
After talking to many young startups recently, I have come to the conclusion that most of the young entrepreneurs have perfected the art of valuation.
Imaginary potentials coupled with self-inflated egos equals unrealistic valuations. Until they start facing headwinds and road blocks at every turn. Reality sets in. Confidence wane as optimism turns to worry. Looks like a tough ride ahead.
Given a choice of setting a high valuation that attracts only pure financing partners or attracting a mentor partner with a fair valuation, what would your choice be? Which option gives you a better chance of success? Which partner will help you validate your business ideas, contribute useful tips and teach you how to read a balance sheet?
In view of the fast paced world that we lived in the present, experience combined with youthful exuberance would seem like the ideal partnership. Mind you, the old will struggle to keep up with these speedy Gonzales in the new digital world.
The youth of today is twice as smart if compared with the youth of 30 years ago. Maybe it is the milk powder, perhaps they have better opportunities to see the world but for whatever the reasons, I have to admit that I have much to learn from them.
If only they understand that humility forms the foundation of a great personality and integrity is reputation in another word, then we have the making of a great businessman in motion.
What is lacking, they have to acquire through their experiences as they journey through an increasingly complicated world. As long as they dare to dream, the old can comfortably slide into the background knowing that their future will be in better hands and smarter minds.
Notwithstanding my admiration of the younger generation, old business geezers like you and I should readily share our experience with them as and when there is demand.
Much as I hate to watch young entrepreneurs waste their time and resources chasing after hopeless projects, I am equally disappointed to see experienced corporate and business leaders not willing to share their expertise and their time with our future leaders.
Meanwhile I am in need of a mentor myself. A mentor who can help energise my column before the next Chinese New Year.
It would be great if you readers could write to firstname.lastname@example.org and give us your opinion as to whether I should convert this column to a “Dear Mentor” column starting next week.
Kindly be forthright even if it means the end of a short-lived writing career for an old geezer.