On Your Own

The writer is an entrepreneur who hopes to share his experience and insights with readers who want to take that giant leap into business but are not sure if they should.

Category: On Your Own

2/2018 – Give Cuba a ‘cuba’, it’s well worth it

Cuba Cuba. In Malay language, it means trying trying, really trying, and if put in the form of a a question, it means would you like to try?

Cuba CUBA. Try Cuba, the country. Which I have just done.

CUBA cuba. Cuba, the country is really trying. While the younger generation are trying to get out of the communist/socialist state- controlled economic malaise, the older generation are reasonably happy that the state still provides 4kg of rice and 2kg of sugar (1kg white, 1kg brown) free on a monthly basis via redeemable coupons.

Lazaro Ricardo Gonzalez Ribeiro, our tour guide, majored in English literature at the University of Havana, which is the only university in Cuba but with many branch campuses across the island. Ricardo was named after Saint Lazarus, father Gonzalez and mother Ribeiro. Quite a mouthful so I called him Ronaldo instead. No, he is not the dark tall muscular Cuban man that the ladies are crazy about.

Ricardo is actually a nice, unassuming, helpful and eloquent man. Always philosophical about life, he is both pragmatic and hopeful.

He speaks perfect English and he studied Shakespeare, Caribbean and American literature.

Ricardo is extremely proud of the Cuban education system where it has produced the best medical students and the whole population receives a minimum of 12 years of education from kindergarten at age five right through to our equivalent Form 5. So they export doctors instead of maids.

The problem with Cuba is that is has very few industries and almost everyone works for the state or the state enterprise.

Its top exports are raw sugar, rolled tobacco – cigars, refined petroleum, hard liquor – rum and nickel mattes. Cuba imports most of its food, especially poultry and milk concentrates.

The country’s main foreign exchange earners are tourism and worker’s remittances from overseas.

Not to mention the population of over two million Cubans in Miami, Florida (which is just about 100 miles away by speedboat) who send money back to their families on a regular basis.

Compared to our population of 32 million (plus or minus a few million of legal and illegal naturalised immigrants), Cuba has a population of 11.6 million and it’s shrinking since there is a continuous exodus of emigrants from the country. In 2015, their total exports amount to only US$1.5bil which is puny compared to our Prime Minister Office’s budget of US$4bil alone.

There are two official currencies in Cuba – Cuban convertible Peso (CUC) and Cuban Peso (CUP). One CUC is equivalent to 25 CUP. One CUC is pegged against one US dollar but since the US has a continuous trade embargo on Cuba, you are advised to bring euros and sterling pounds as there is a 10% discount on US dollars.

My Maybank Visa credit cards could not be used and only CIMB MasterCard could function. We assumed Visa (via USA?) is barred and only Mastercard is allowed. No point talking about American Express Card.

There are also two economies in Cuba – actual and parallel economy.

The CUP economy and the CUC economy. CUP is a state-run economy, where salaries and cost of goods are kept artificially low whereas the CUC economy is reflective of the imported inflation on cost of living.

Since imports are five times more than their exports, the state uses the tourism (plus workers’ remittance) forex to finance the national trade deficit.

There are hardly any big entrepreneurs in Cuba. You are allowed to own a single business. Full stop. If you own a restaurant, you are not allowed to run another business, like own another pub.

The transition from a state-run economy to an entrepreneur-driven economy like China will be tough for the Castro dynasty to adopt. Opening up the economy has been slow and befuddling, maybe they should bring in some consultants and investors from China, their Communist compatriot.

Andreas Vogiatzakis, my travelling mate, was excited about the advertising and media space in Cuba.

Except for a few Che Guevara small billboards along some roads, he was already placing imaginary 20’ by 40’ billboards along certain vantage points in Havana city. Since the Internet is limited to hotels and certain homes, maybe our newspaper publishers might want to consider relocating their state of the art printing plants to Cuba.

Peter Tham, my other travelling mate, feels the country’s tourism industry has potential.

I think the agricultural industry is in need of poultry-breeding for import substitution of meats and milk. So much agri-based potential, like what Malaysia was 40 years ago.

The biggest obstacle to entrepreneurs is the state-run economy where the government wants to control everything. Rolled tobacco is probably the best run industry in Cuba.

The tobacco plantations are privately and state-run. Each plantation has to follow strict guidelines on what they can grow and how they should grow it.

For privately run plantations, they have to sell 90% of their tobacco leaves to the state enterprise who will then store and allocate to about 28 factories to produce cigars for all their Cuban brands.

Cuban factories export an estimated 100 million of their best cigars to the world market via state enterprise Habanos SA which has some foreign shareholders since its inception.

These foreign shareholders, like Imperial Tobacco from UK, its existing partner, offers supply chain and brand management expertise.

Local consumption of cheap cigars are three times the export quantities so the tobacco manufacturing industry has tremendous potential and offers much needed employment to the local population.

But entrepreneurial competitors from Nicaragua and Dominican Republic are catching up fast.

Fuelled by the needs of the US market, these two countries have been improving their quality by leaps and bounds over the years.

The premium pricing policy for Cuban cigars is actually very well managed and its main threats are from fake cigars and online sales.

The country’s potential growth will eventually come from the opening up of the US market.

But first the Cubans have to worry about Trump, who does not smoke cigars.

But his son-in-law does.

So maybe there’s hope for the Cuban people.

We really enjoyed our visit to Cuba. The people are genuinely nice, easy and laid-back. Just like us 40 years ago. Cuba CUBA. Viva Cuba!

Published: https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2018/02/03/give-cuba-a-cuba-its-well-worth-it/


1/2018 – Hope is eternal

Saturday, 27 Jan 2018

Every new year, we raise our hopes that this year will be a better year.

For our business, our health and our bonuses.

Parents hope that their children will continue to pass all their exams and have a trouble free year in school and at home.

For cancer patients, your whole life revolves around hope.

Hopefully, this chemo treatment will get rid of cancer once and for all, alternative non-chemo treatments might just work for you, change of diet might just cure you blah blah blah.

You feel hopeful when your cancer count is down after treatment or you fall into despair and a sense of hopelessness when your treatment does not work.

Always hoping for a new miracle drug or an alternative treatment that works, many new cancer patients dilly dally, wait and see, seek many medical opinions and still end up more confused than ever.

In the meantime, the cancer cells are growing and multiplying inside your body.

Uncertainty and indecision kills.

Whatever action that you have decided, just do it. Just remember you are dealing with a growing problem and time is of the essence.

Each cancer case is unique to the individual, different response to different drugs, different degree of aggressive cells, the permutations are just too many and complex to understand.

The oncologist practised learned guesswork daily and according to conventional wisdom, practice makes perfect, so treatment decisions become more accurate and predictable as the oncologist gain experience over the years.

I work well with my oncologist. She involves me in the guesswork and we hope together.

I have survived four full years since I was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer in 2014.

To celebrate, I just did two ablation procedures in London over the last two weeks, zapping three new active tumours in my liver and lung.

I have had a total of 17 ablation procedures done over the last four years. So who’s counting?

To continue with my celebration, I am now on the plane from Amsterdam to Havana with my three cigar buddies and the four of us are going to smoke ourselves silly with the best of the best cigars in the world.

Andreas V, the self proclaimed president of our Cigar Club is hopeful that Cuba will be what he has imagined as he is a big fan of the late President Fidel Castro.

He has been talking about this dream trip for the last four years. I hope he will not be disappointed.

My wife and daughter still frown upon my cigar-smoking and they are not convinced at all with my reasoning that at this stage of my cancer life, there is absolutely no difference that consumption of red meat, liquor and cigars will make any difference to my medical condition or cancer activities.

I hope that when I eventually go away, it will be with a smile on my face and a cigar in my hand. I am still figuring out on a continuous supply chain of cigars for my afterlife, if any.

Entrepreneurs are hopeful people.

Dreamers eventually turn into pragmatista.

The level of hopefulness will depend on the stage and type of their journey.

There are many startups which have not been able to raise any seed funds from family, friends or Venture Capital.

Hopes crushed before take-off.

Probably because the proposed business model was not viable and will never make any money.

It is important that young startups stay grounded and not raise your hopes too high just because you and your friends think you have a great idea.

The fallout rate is just too hopelessly high so do not add to this statistics.

Entrepreneurs who have survived the early years have now become more pragmatic than hopeful.

Their dreams and aspirations slightly altered now that they are facing the reality of survival and sustainability.

Each year, they have to look at specific strategies – hope to survive this year, maybe can make some money year, make or break year or looks like a bumper year ahead.

Faint hopes to fat hopes.

Life is tough.

Most entrepreneurs struggle for the best part of their life just to own a house, put food on the table for the family and hope to provide the best education for their children.

Only 10% of all entrepreneurs are reasonably successful, managing to build up a nest egg of investment portfolio to have a fairly comfortable retirement.

The 1% super high achievers that you read about every other day do not need to hope anymore. They have made it.

Everyday of our lives, we wake up in the morning and hope that we will have a good day ahead.

For terminally ill patients, they hope they will wake up the next morning.

For politicians, they hope that come election time, their constituents would have forgotten what they have promised them five years ago.

Appealing to nice natured Malaysians, politicians will ask for forgiveness once every five years and hope that a nice ang pow might just make you forget the pain they have caused. We hope they would just go away and never come back.

The elite politicians have lost touch with the hopes and aspirations of the people they serve.

Millions of citizens work hard daily to survive and feed their families. Life is hard enough without the need for this political push for racial divide and religious segregation.

Sometimes it seems like a hopeless irreversible slide into a dark pit. Is there hope?

Anyway, looks like all sales people have to reset their sales target to zero again. No worries, you have 12 months to make good what you have promised yourself and your company. Always hope for the best and may the bonuses be with you soon. And to my fellow cancer patients, stay hopeful and positive.

Stay strong!

Published: https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2018/01/27/hope-is-eternal/

24/2017 – One for the road

Saturday, 30 Dec 2017

ONE more drink before you go. One more journey till the end of the road.

One last story yet to be told. One last battle till you finally fold.

To my friends who have lost their loved ones to the big C this year, time will heal your pain. Cherish the lovely memories of your journey once travelled, embrace the joy of having loved and being loved.

Look forward with hope to a new journey with your children, for the road ahead is long and winding for the young. One more responsibility, one for the road.

To my friends or your spouse who is fighting the big C, never give up hope. Never give in to self pity. Strengthen your resolve. Fight one battle at a time. You are never fighting alone and never on your own. Gather strength from your family and friends.

Travelling together will make the journey more bearable and less painful. Enjoy your favourite food, get your daily dosage of laughter and joy, a smile a day keeps the big C away. One more happy memory, one for the road.

To the people of this country who is fighting the bad C, not a cure in sight. Stage 4 Corruption is like cancer spread from head to toe. Surgeons gave up hope, police not a hope, AG is a dope, GE raise some hope. Leader is a joke, rakyat gets the poke. One more plead to rule, who cares, one for the road.

To the leaders who are fighting against time, cheating on their mind. Never ever enough, no dastardly scheme is considered tough. Missing money and missing land, missing memory that is the plan. One more scheme, Felda is the cream. Another one for the road.

To the leaders who use race and religion to perpetuate their own existence, please remember there is a constitution. We are multi-racial and multi-faith, so stop being racial and single faith. If you love the country more than you love yourself, then make a U-turn or remove yourself. Your (next) one for the road might just be your final road to perdition.

Business come, business go, young startups only want to grow. Land grab here, land grab there, spending investor’s money, nobody cares. Losing left, losing right, do up the numbers to make it right.

Cash flow low, runway down, investors feel like a money clown. Potential good, future bright, give me more cash it will be alright. (Last) one for the road.

Business up, business down, everyday the CEO frowns. Google here, Facebook there, taking all our business from everywhere. Revenue down, morale down, looks like a VSS another round. Pivot here, pivot there, looks like old business can’t go anywhere. Outlook poor, future bleak, unless you transform into a digital geek. One more try the CEO cried, the board of directors dare not reply. One for the road, for old times sake.

GST up, prices will be down, that’s what we have been told by financial clowns. GDP up, local businesses down, non-economist wears a frown. Salaries flat, food prices up looks like next year cannot afford the pub. Guess no more “one for the road”.

2017 came and went. A bruised and patched up Humpty Dumpty still sitting on the fence.

2018 could turn out to be the most important GE of our times. So come out and vote.

One for the road. To prosperity. To secularity. To multi-ethnicity. To Malaysia.

Happy New Year everybody!

Published (with some edits): https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/12/30/one-for-the-road

23/2017 – Dealing with digital disruption

Saturday, 9 Dec 2017

EVERY time my son speaks, I have to listen very carefully. My poor brain is working overtime trying to catch his speed of thought while my eyes is speed reading his lips as my ears fail to keep up with his speedy speech. Young smart people nowadays thinks fast and speaks faster.

Perfect recipe for a communication breakdown between a father and son.

We are definitely on a different wavelength or speed of sound as Coldplay (the band) aptly describes.

So you can imagine how much I enjoyed talking separately to two seasoned entrepreneurs over dinner the last two nights. One younger than me by two years and the other older than me by 11 years.

It was not just the well rounded reasoning based on past experiences that was said to me, it was the way that it was delivered.

Deliberate, each word carefully chosen and presented in a calm tone that was soothing to my ears, the occasional pause giving breathing space for my brain to process and validate the idea or context of the discussion.

The main difference in communication between the young and older generation is the gap of patience.

From the ambitious youthful exuberance of impatience to the seemingly unhurried and deliberate patience of a successful entrepreneur.

It is a big gap that can only be narrowed through the passage of time.

On the same argument, young entrepreneurs having a higher failure as compared to a seasoned entrepreneur is all due to a gap of experience.

One can argue that if the young entrepreneur is not given a chance to fail, then how can he or she gain experience?

However the current failure rate of over 90% of all new startups is a cause for concern, causing a massive wastage of expensive capital and loss of talented youthful years to unproductive ventures.

On the other side of the coin, we have established businesses and industries being disrupted by new business models driven by digital and technological advancement.

Seasoned entrepreneurs and experienced corporate managers have seen these disruptive changes coming for some years but they have not been able to find a solution to stem the tide of change coming their way.

These leaders suffer from a gap of ability to make wholesale changes to their existing business models.

Reinvent or perish into the twilight zone.

When your know that your existing business model is going to be totally disrupted by new digital competitors, how should you react to such threats?

If you are running a licensed taxi company, what can you do to reverse the loss of drivers converting to Uber and Grab? If your print newspaper is losing advertising revenue to digital search engines like Google and social network platforms like Facebook despite your offering of print and digital content, how can you convert your business revenue model from advertising to subscription?

Do you know what to do? And if you do, how to do it? If you or your top managers do not have the ability to take the company into the new digital unknown, are you willing to step aside and allow these young digital wizards to lead your company into the future?

The experience gained from your past activities is of less relevance in predicting the future of the digital world.

Narrowing of gap in ability to deal with digital disruption will need a management team that is inclusive of both the young and the old.

Blend of feel with experience, change combined with control and youthful courage mixed with down to earth humility. Bridging the gap in ability means utilising the skill sets of the experienced with the behavioural understanding of the youthful millennials.

For companies facing headwinds in digital disruption, what is the average age of your board of directors?

If your directors’ average age is above 60 years old, chances of restructuring the business model is slim and remote.

This company will fade into the unknown as the forces of disruption will completely overwhelmed the existing business.

The attitude of “protecting what we have and let’s wait and see” will be the main cause of the downfall of the company.

Even an uncommitted feeble attempt of trying out a partial strategy in the digital world is not sufficient to withstand the onslaught of the new competitors.

Insufficient ability to change and adapt is due to the lack of understanding of how the future markets behave.

As such the owners of such companies must have the courage to be decisive and forward looking.

Bring in the millennials and let them lead your company into the new digital future.

At best, your company have a fighting chance. At worst, your company will go down fighting in a blaze of glory. At least, you have tried your best.

Besides digital disruption, the world is facing seismic shifts in many industries. From renewable energy alternatives to battery operated cars to self-driving cars to robotics, the fourth industrial revolution will see massive restructuring of industries and economies.

The new machine age requires new abilities and speedier adaptability from entrepreneurs and corporate leaders.

I am just lucky that I will not live to see all these seismic changes as I do not have the ability nor the patience to adapt and conform to the new millennium.

Since the millennials like my son do not need my experience nor my deliberate advice, I will gladly retire now to enjoy the fruits of my labour.

Leisurely chats with my learned friends over a nice glass of wine and dinner will be a nice way to bridge the gap of boredom in between the loneliness of retirement.

Published: https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/12/09/dealing-with-digital-disruption/#ACDvwxpdJ7lqhkwY.99

22/2017 – Are you a Zhuge Liang or Sima Yi?

Saturday, 25 Nov 2017


Epic battle: A scene from the epic TV series Three Kingdoms that was screened on Astro Zhi Zun HD.

THREE days ago, I had an interesting lunch meeting with the top executives (all younger than me) from Astro and BFM and discovered to my horror, they consider me as an “old” generation type of person.

Maybe because I had problem keeping up with their conversation on the future of new digital media or maybe because of my current interest in learning from the past to understand the present. It was difficult for me to translate The Three Kingdoms into digital bite size conversation for this younger generation while enjoying a Chinese lunch over a round table.

In The Three Kingdoms novel, many war strategies that were employed came from the scholars who studied The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Master Sun) which was supposedly written some 500 years before them.

The Art of War remains the most influential strategy text for the last 2000 years and it had an influence on Eastern and Western military thinking, business tactics and strategies etc.

The most interesting characters in the saga of The Three Kingdoms were Zhuge Liang (aka Kong Ming) and Sima Yi (aka Zhongda). They were the most brilliant military strategists of that era and they were on opposite sides of the two strongest kingdoms. Both were of the opinion that whoever wins the war will eventually conquer the rest of ancient China.

Zhuge Liang from Shu attacked the northern Wei for six long years hoping to eliminate the tyrants and restore the Han dynasty but he died trying and his dream was unfulfilled.

Zhuge Liang would only serve a Lord / Master who has a noble cause and in Lu Bei, an imperial uncle to the young Emperor of Han dynasty, he found his true master whom he served with distinction and unwavering loyalty, trying to restore the Han dynasty to its glorious past. Beside his brilliant military strategies, Zhuge Liang was also a capable administrator and advisor to Lu Bei. Some of his famous quotes are still relevant advice to political, military and business leaders of today

“An enlightened ruler does not worry about people not knowing him; he worries about not knowing people.”

How true. Political leaders that does not understand the plight of the common people will lose their support at the end. High cost of living and the inability to own a roof over their heads are major grouses of the poor electorate. When real income do not grow and average income is low, imposing GST is a foolish act of political suicide.

When Lu Bei conquered the Riverland territory, Zhuge Liang advised him that no tax be imposed on the local farmers for two years as the local farms were suffering from bad drought and poor economic conditions. This act of benevolence won over the local population who supported his future military excursions with provisions from their bountiful years.

A business leader who sits in his corporate office all the time will never understand the plight of his foot soldiers in the economic battlefield. A sales team facing difficult buyers, a brand team having reduced budgets facing a fierce competitor with a bottomless pit of funds, an increased sales target during an economic downturn, staff having personal problems are just some of the common unconcerns of flawed leaders who managed by numbers and who do not walk with his team. A demoralised team with a clueless leader is easily defeated in battle.

“Good generals select intelligent officers, thoughtful advisors and brave subordinates. They oversee their troops like a tiger with wings”.

Selection of intelligent leaders is so important whether in politics, military or corporations. If you wonder why the business tycoons are so successful, they have surrounded themselves with loyal and smart generals who hire the smartest managers to work for them. If you are amazed at how Singapore, a small island with no natural resources has grown to become a first world nation within 50 years, it is because the late Lee Kwan Yew appoints intelligent politicians to his cabinet and hires the smartest people to manage his civil service.

Zhou Yu, the military commandant of the Southlands was another arch enemy of Zhuge Liang and he advised his Lord:

“He who wins people, prospers; he who loses them fails. Your present plan should seek humans of high aims and farseeing views, and you can establish yourself firmly”.

Lee Kwan Yew probably read this quote 60 years ago.

Sima Yi though equally brilliant like Zhuge Liang, he was the complete opposite in character and ambitions. He only wanted to serve Cao Cao, the most powerful warlord amongst the three and he bided his time to be called into service. He had to become tutor to Cao Cao’s two sons before he had the opportunity to be included into the inner circle of advisors. And when Cao Cao died, Sima Yi served Cao Pi, eldest son of Cao Cao as the top advisor and helped Cao Pi to usurp the last Han Emperor.

As he was not trusted by Cao Cao, Cao Pi and the powerful Cao clan, Sima Yi had to hide his ambitions and lie low all the time. Not to be seen as a threat, his patience and cunning skills of deception kept him alive. He was only given command of the Wei military when his military skills were needed to counter the constant attack by Zhuge Liang. In the novel, Sima Yi was portrayed as a villainous figure who pretends to be loyal and dedicated subject while secretly planning to concentrate power in his hands and pave the way for his descendants to usurp the throne one day. As stated in historical records, his grandson, Sima Yan (Emperor Wu) usurped the throne from Cao Huan and established the Jin Dynasty (265-420).

Another historian from Tang Dynasty had described Sima Yi as appearing to be generous and magnanimous on the outside while being distrustful and jealous on the inside. Sima Yi was suspicious, calculative, manipulative and adept in politics.

2000 years later, the characters of mankind has not changed much. While it is difficult to find Zhuge Liangs, we have many Sima Yi amongst our current species of politicians. How many Sima Yi characters have you encountered in your business life? If you subscribe to Zhuge Liang ideals of righteousness, loyalty and integrity, would you achieve your ambitions in your career or business ventures? Or will you lose all your battles to Sima Yi and perish before him?

Sima Yi’s most famous quote:

“There are five possible operations for any army. If you can fight, fight; if you cannot fight, defend; if you cannot defend, flee; if you cannot flee, surrender; if you cannot surrender, die”.

Whether you are in politics or in business, always review your position realistically. There is no shame in taking the right action depending on your strength or weaknesses. If you have a fighting chance to win the battle, then fight. If your opponent is stronger, defend and wait for the opportunity to strike back. If you have lost the ability to defend, flee while you still have the resources to do so. Surrender (give up) only when all the odds are against you so that you can live to fight another day. To die is not a voluntary action. Being killed (wiped out) is the consequence of a complete failure. Taking practical actions at the right moment can save you from death so stay calm and persevere like Sima Yi.

To close this final article on Three Kingdom, I leave you with more quotes from Zhuge Liang:

On leadership – “First organise the inner, then organize the outer….first organize the great, then organize the small. First organize yourself then organize others.”

On marketing – “Do the unexpected, attack the unprepared.”

On competition – “The loss of any army is always caused by underestimating the enemy. Therefore gather information and watch the enemy carefully.”

On failure – “What loss is there in dignity, what worry is there of failure?”

On self survival, by Cao Cao – “I’d rather betray the world than let the world betray me.”

To the younger generation, if the character of mankind has not changed much in the last 2000 years, what hope have you that it will change in the next 1000 years?

Published: https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/11/25/are-you-a-zhuge-liang-or-sima-yi/

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