Q: As a person heading a fast-growing enterprise that is built on people, how would you define leadership?
A: In my view, a true leader is one who empowers everyone. They lead without being selective. That means your people will drive progress for you, even in your absence. That is true leadership. Lift them from where they are, motivate and inspire them to progress. And when you start practising it on a small scale, and then implement it on a larger scale – you will realize how the dynamics of productivity can change. Building leadership qualities really boils down to 4 Ps, the way I practice it. The first P is People. You must be interested to win relationships. You must be able to charm people. You have to develop people to achieve their benefits. At the same time, you have to keep them aligned to the business goals. The second P is Process. You must be interested to know how a certain thing is done, and the process of learning, executing and developing it. You can’t just express an idea, but must be committed to materialize it, and make it efficient for use. The third P is Progress. You must be interested in progression; the consistency of achievements on a regular basis, big or small. You may not be perfect, but progress will drive you to lead better. The last P is Power. You must be interested to do more, and climb up the rank, so that you can change intervention and create rules to lead easier.
Q: So will you call leadership a skill or something much beyond that? How did you handle that yourself?
A: Leadership is not just a skill; it is really about being interested in your people. Leadership is individualised, not a one-rule fits all formula. A leader takes pride to tailor the progression-path for each member. But doing that means extra homework in understanding the things that drive them. It could be flexibility of timings, supportive in educational developments or something else. You have to show a genuine dedication in their development, while giving them freedom to apply and implement that knowledge. Empowering people whilst supporting their growth encourages self-starters, which is good for business. When this becomes a habit, they independently take accountability of their deliverables, even when you are not there. People are your best asset. So charm them while empowering, so that your people choose you. I realised how challenging leadership can be after my company grew to six new countries from Singapore. So I want to lead people who want to grow under my wings, learn from my knowledge and progress with me. Not everyone will be ready for my kind of leadership, so I choose people who choose me. As simple as that!
So be supportive and offer help when you can. Your motivational push can make a big difference. Eventually you have to hire smart and experienced people to grow your company for you. So when you do, make sure you understand how to lead them right. They need to support your decisions, trust your direction and expect debates with their questions. So, a leader also has to constantly learn and improve to be ready for them. Make sure to update your grasp of the business, and be open to their opinions. As someone said, “You don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do, but for them to guide you how it’d be done”. Through the many years of hiring and firing people, I am always looking to improve my leadership skills. But at the same time, you’ll find some people just can’t be lead. They are naturally uninterested to learn, to progress and couldn’t care less on doing what they are expected to, forget doing beyond. People ask a lot what a company can give them, instead of asking what value they bring. So one also has to learn to tackle such employees, their behaviours, tantrums, tempers, dishonesty and negligence!
Q: Personal branding has taken many forms nowadays. What is your take on how to develop personal branding?
A: Most people think personal branding is about raising engagement, extending their reach and sharing their knowledge. We often check our last post to see the likes it is generating. We get addicted to this feeling, and lose the sense of awkwardness of posting for the world to read. But the true power of personal branding is not to make people react to your post out of curiosity or interest. The main intention is to enter someone’s life, and be their centre of influence. Each one of us is driven to achieve greater things for ourselves, only after we compare ourselves with someone else’s achievements. Each of us looks for leaders, mentors and influencers who can guide, lead, and direct us. No one would progress if they are not, directly or indirectly, in competition with someone. They would do it for themselves for they have seen how it works for another person. Now that person then becomes, their centre of influence by choice, not by payment. That is the way I see it.
Q: What is the secret mantra of your success as an entrepreneur?
A: I credit my success to my habit of being someone who doesn’t accept excuses. An individual’s performance comes from their desire to take up new opportunities, learn, improve and apply, not from the external factors. You succeed not because you are perfect, but because you evolve and adapt consistently. Pay attention to what you don’t know, not what you already knew. I had no clue how to run a global company, be a CEO or be a mother. Today, I am all that. I am able to do them not because I was perfect, but because I groomed myself to be better. I took up challenges as they came and I wouldn’t stop until I worked out how to ace that role. That’s not perfection, that’s progression. Each day, I try to be part of as many things I can. The businesses keep me busy, but I ensure I give time to educate and raise three children. I write books, and still go for my fitness class. You will be surprised what you can do if you don’t allow yourself to give excuses. My advice is to push your limits each day. That way, you will progress faster.
My secret for achieving progress also depends on the habit of how I should run my day. Everything in life works most efficiently when there is a structure in place. When I say structure, I don’t mean a rigid routine, but being clear on what you want to achieve that day and staying creative in between to execute that plan. Each day, give time to do things that monetize for you, time to do things that please you and time to do things that benefit you. What pleases you may not be the same thing that benefits you, what monetizes may not be the same thing that pleases you and what benefits you may not earn you money. But if you do too much of what pleases you but doesn’t monetize, you will financially struggle. If you do too much of monetization but not what benefits, you risk health chasing wealth. If you do too much of what benefits but does not please, you will be demotivated easily. Only when you practise this division, will you realize the productivity and motivation improvements it can create for your success!
Q: Every entrepreneur’s journey feels like a roller-coaster ride. How was yours?
A: Sometimes I wonder how I kept myself sane while building my companies through hiccups of cash flow and human resources, building an idea without capital funding, handling heartbreaks, disappointments, and all at the same time. Three years ago when SC Beauty Network Pte Ltd was just an idea, I had no money, no solid prototype, no employee and was alone working from home. That could have been demotivating to wake up to each morning. The road of an entrepreneur will start out bumpy, and then become rough. I took chances, made multiple turns and sometimes ended at a dead-end. Your role is of an accountant, planner, researcher, manufacturer, customer service and sales all rolled into one. You think someone will love your idea and fund you, but doesn’t. Your account depletes and you have to become thick-skinned to borrow money. You argue with people who ridicule your idea. You cut back on social gatherings. The people whom you need leave you. You struggle with the negative things said to you.
Moving from that phase to now when we are sitting with investors, I realize the one reason why all those things never managed to stop me was – purpose building. It is the intention to create an impact to the community that matters to me, that drives me. I’ll make it happen regardless of the challenge or whether I had the funds or not. The purpose made me happy that I had the chance to build something. I was happy of the small successes from the progress I made. I was happy on the hope that one day, it would really make a difference in people’s lives of whom I don’t know & from places I’ve never been. That sets my purpose. I have woken up each day with the same feeling. Think of it as a Lego house. You build a brick at a time. When it doesn’t fit, you lose the. Eventually you find the brick that fits and build the house. But this occurs in stages, a little progress each day. There are no short cuts. Every little progress each day means a lot, because it becomes the brick that you will need tomorrow to work on.
Q: You refer to progression. Could you elaborate what you mean by that? Is it career progression?
A: Progressive just doesn’t mean moving from a Bachelor to a PhD degree. It’s about being interested to learn from everything around you. It’s about upgrading your skills and knowledge in every aspect that develops your wisdom, character and performance, irrespective of whether you are remunerated for that or not. Paul, my CTO, and I try to be progressive. As front-runners of a company that’s fast growing into territories outside our comfort zone, we learn to work with people of other culture, understand better the legislation of doing business outside Singapore and want to be better leaders to understand the people we serve. When we entered Malaysia, we learnt Malay. When we deal with Chinese factories, we learnt Mandarin. When we were preparing to enter Indonesia – we got a tutor to teach us Bahasa for 3 months. Our business has set foot in Chennai, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Brunei, Singapore and Western Australia. As we grow into these countries, I believe in the importance to understand their language and culture. Sometimes I get invited to other offices and see how they operate. It’s important to learn from people who are more successful or progressive than you. Connect with them and realise how different the conversation is.
Q: An entrepreneur cannot always keep everyone happy. How does one cope with that?
A: Well, there will always be people who will not like you, who would go all out to break you. In my journey, I encountered many bad experiences including defamation and cyber bullying. I realised harbouring hatred would make me just like them, so I focused on just making sure I fix the problems they caused me and continue to progress. So for every time someone said something mean to you, stole an opportunity that was yours, did you wrong, made your life difficult, tarnished your reputation or defamed you – let it go. Keep letting go. Just because someone chose to hate me, doesn’t make me hate them back. You’ll realise how strong you are when you could forgive someone who wasn’t sorry, and accept an apology you never received. That’s actually a win.
Q: You are a prolific speaker at public forums globally, whilst managing your businesses. Why do you do that?
A: You know, no one can tell the truth about you more than you alone. No one can update more than you about your recent ventures, progress and achievements. No one can share your thoughts, emotions and feelings as much as you. Often, the printed content only talks of a single theme, and may not best represent you to the target people with whom you want to connect. But your knowledge, ideas and experiences can run much deeper than that. If you want the world to know about you, especially because you know you are made up of so much more – then speak and share with them yourself. If you wait for others to say all the things about you, then that may never happen. Your business depends on the strength of your personality, character and knowledge; so do not hesitate for a second to let the world know that you are worth all that. You’ll be surprised that you know more than you think!
Q: What, in your view, makes the ideal business plan for a start-up idea?
A: I have told these three points during my lectures to university students on how to prepare better when it comes to presenting to future investors, and planning well in terms of their business plans. The first is you do not need to invent a thing or product that no one has invented before. Second, your business need not impact the people globally or in a large scale. Last, your idea need not be original. It may have been done before, just executed better. A successful business is only 10% idea and 90% execution. All of us get new ideas every day – but are not able to execute even one. Planning is just as important, but it’s not just about planning for growth when every strategy works, rather planning for alternative methods to recover if those strategies fail.
Q: A key part of any entrepreneur’s life is the investor. What is your message to them?
A: As an investor myself, I understand some find it tough to gauge the circumstances entrepreneurs are in, unless they were one themselves. I know they will be concerned how funds are spent, but that’s a risk they take based on due diligence. Even if an entrepreneur takes in funding, it cannot guarantee that they won’t fail in some of their decisions. Company losses can be based on a lot of factors beyond the control of the founder. So if you are investing, don’t look for someone with a perfect track record but look for someone who has lived through a bad experience, but kept learning and kept going. Celebrate their progression, not expecting perfection.
Q: A challenge many entrepreneurs face after seeing some success is a resistance to change. What is your view?
A: We might resist change, but change is inevitable. In fact, change is sometimes necessary to wake our senses. We need change, so we can become better. We need change to make us see things we didn’t see before. We need change to try things we didn’t before. We need change to adopt new skills so we can stay progressive. It will take a big shift in the way you previously thought how things should be done. But there isn’t any other way. Letting go to the status quo is an emotional process, because you are stepping out of your comfort zone. You are now away from the environment you were used to. As they say, “The person who can survive is not the one with the most strength or intelligence, but the one who can adapt in any situations.”
Entrepreneurs thrive on the opportunity to create. As an entrepreneur – if my ideas did not work yesterday, today I will wake up to create something that will. If I had issues at work to manage, today I will find solutions. I learn from yesterday, but I don’t live in the past. I use what I learnt and mould tomorrow. Progression and the ability to create are what drive entrepreneurs. So when yesterday breaks me with my plans not working out, I don’t cry. I wake up next day, motivated to seize another day of opportunities. Worry less of the distant future, focus on the next 24 hours. Don’t waste today. Your decision will lead you up to where you want to be, or somewhere.
Q: A lot of entrepreneurs dislike bootstrapping. What is your view on this?
A: For many entrepreneurs, there are so many connections and resources available these days that your business can still progress a bit each day without the pump of bootstrapped funds. But you see, there are times the most amazing lessons are learnt not from the experience of something that has happened but from the experience of something you never had. Lack of something does not mean you are going back in progression; rather it means you have to discover your hidden potential and develop your most brilliant ideas to win. So if you are never struggling, please start to struggle to win big in future. Bootstrapping should not be your choice, it should be mandatory; because that is precisely the time when the most successful entrepreneurial habits are groomed.
Q: Data is encompassing every facet of our lives today? What is your take on this?
A: We are truly entering a data-driven economy. The value of data, i.e. knowing the profile and behaviour of your consumers, is now worth more than enticing someone to subscribe to your newsletter. Analysing that data is improving the decision making in marketing, creative campaigns, manufacturing, supply etc. Start-ups should invest in deeper analysis of data. The best part is that data is no longer something expensive to acquire. From as simple as a survey, provoking engagement on social media to obtain responses, study patterns through repeated orders, reviews and feedback, complaints, referrals, monitoring the trend through content circulated on social media – it’s no longer expensive for businesses to acquire, analyse and study those data for the progress of their business.
Q: Many wannabe entrepreneurs look at this as a get-rich-quick formula. What do you want to tell them?
A: Be attached to the experiences, not the materials. It is not important what you minted, rather who you became in the end. Everything in life that’s given to you can also be easily taken away from you. Forget materials, I lost a healthy son through stillbirth. That experience almost killed me. The lesson that constantly lingers is how important things like bonds, relationships, family are in our lives. At some point in your life, you may lose that house, car, high paying job, the company you built, your savings, etc. So make health your priority. Make memories with your children your priority. Make appreciation of your loved ones before they are gone your priority. Circumstances in life always change and plans may not turn out as you imagined. While you get rewarded with more things than you need, don’t get too carried away with it. That is life. It can shape you, build you or break you. So live it well. There is also a need to redefine your definition of success. All of us define success differently. We don’t start on the same line, not at the same time and do not progress at the same pace. Success isn’t built on a straight path. It is built in stages that can take you five steps ahead but two steps back. Every step may not be a win. It could also be a loss. But every step is a lesson, an experience, a new perspective for us to learn. These mistakes can greatly impact an entrepreneur – physically, mentally and emotionally. But they are the best learning tools for building success.
Q: Lastly, as a successful entrepreneur, when do you think is an ideal time for a person to start a business?
A: I cannot tell when, which day, which part of our life or at what age is the perfect time to build a business. There is no such thing. If you have an idea, and you’ve been toying with this idea for a while and you’ve developed some interest but not sure yet if it’s your true calling, experiment it anyway. Success is built over time. No one starts something and becomes a millionaire the next day. It takes consistent effort, time and funds to build something from nothing. Start on it anyway, and as you face the issues try to solve them – you will achieve small progressions in making that idea better than when you first started. Celebrate every progression and small achievements, because these are the real ingredients to overall success. Penalise yourself less for the mistakes, give compliments for your effort. Motivate yourself, and keep pushing on. The road can take you further than you ever imagined.
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Image Courtesy: All Images by Ms. Leza Parker