Year One (snippets)

Birds on Wire

This happened during my first year. Very often I get asked how many staff are there in the company.

Potential client, “How many staff do you have in your company?”

I’ll reply,”Currently, three.”

In my heart, I’ll be thinking, “Me, myself and I.” :p


I had installment plans for my products and services when I started. Another question I get asked by this particular client.

Another potential client, “How old is your company?”

I replied, “8 months now.”

Potential client, “Huh? How can I trust your company, it is so new?!”

I was like,”……”

How do you answer this question when your client’s company was even younger at only 2 months?

-__-“

Year One

Looking back. My first year was one of the hardest and it also holds the most painful memories.

When I started, I thought I had a good product. I thought it would be easy to introduce my product. I was an engineer. I was never a sales person. I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable in the new role. But I knew that in order to start my own business, I had to bravely step over the imaginery line and be thick-skin about it and become a sales person. Anyway, like all fresh entrepreneur, I had the utmost confidence in my product. I had the innocent exuberance. I was a dreamer. I innocently believed that it would be easy-going and I thought my product would rock the world Singapore!

Reality bites. Ouch!

After the initial euphoria of clinching one deal within the first day, I really thought I had it made. It was sheer beginner’s luck that a deal was clinched on the first day. This made the coming failures all the more harder to accept. Unbeknownst to me, the next deal will only come 7 months later and at a much discounted price. There was tremendous pressure to lower price after 7 months of drought and failures.

One of the most humiliating expereince came during my first month of doing my rounds of sale. First, I went to this shop whereby I know the boss was at the counter with his back towards me. I was courteous and made my intention known. I went up to the counter, introduced myself and wanted to pass him my name card. Throughout the conversation, he didn’t turn around or look at me. For the whole duration, I was talking to his back and he kept insisting that the boss is not in. Feeling embarrassed, I left my name card on the counter and thank him for his time before leaving the shop.

I don’t know why but I felt humiliated. I had to calm my nerves at a nearby park. I comforted myself and encouraged myself to continue.

The next shop was not any better. The shop owner was wearing a pair of black sunglasses. I again courteously introduced myself and indicated my intention. Without missing a beat, the shop assistant suddenly stood in front of me, and blocked me from her boss. Her body just kept moving forward that I had to backpedal and suddenly, I was out of the shop and the door just closed in front of me.

I was actually very traumatised by these two experiences that happened within the same day. I didn’t expect a fellow human being can treat another in such a callous manner. I was very distraught by the experience that I kept to myself for the whole month. I didn’t step out of my home for the whole month. I didn’t do any more sales. I just kept myself glued to the computer screen and pretending to be busy. It was so bad that my wife began to worry about me.

It took me a month before I came out from my shell. Till this day, I never forget the experience.

When I started, at the back of my mind, I knew I needed to conserve my financial resources (only $20k). Instead of having my own server, SingaporeBrides.com was started on a web farm. It was hosted in a US server with many other websites sharing the server. The savings were substantial. You are talking about $10 per month vs $1000 per month!

From the onset, I didn’t buy a car. I didn’t think I would need one. I’ll just take public transport like the buses and MRT. But some of the meetings were at locations not easily accessible by buses or MRT. For example, once I was meeting a potential client at The Regent Singapore. I alighted at the bus-stop in front of Far East Plaza and walked all the way to the hotel. I have to plan it such that I’ll arrive 20 minutes prior to the meeting so that I’ll have enough time to cool down and stop perspiring after the long walk carrying a 3kg laptop. I was still wearing long sleeves shirt, tie and pants. Even though due to the hip dot-com culture then, many people has ditched the tie but I felt that wearing a tie was a necessity as I wanted to show that I respected the client and appreciated the time given to me for the meeting.

There was another time when I had walked from Chinatown Point to Delphi Orchard.

If I had to have lunch outside, I would actually look for those non-airconditioned kopitiam cause I can still order a meal at $2 instead of the $3.50 at airconditioned food courts. If I needed a drink, I’ll actually buy a bottle of “Ice Mountain” distilled water caused it is the cheapest drink in the supermarkets. I would take a bottle from the display shelves because those in the fridge are more expensive by $0.10. Probably for the fridge’s electricity bills.

The first year was probably the toughest. It is also by statistics that 99% of startups will fail and give up. I remember wallowing in self-pity during the last night of the year 2000. The future looked so uncertain and bleak. The sense of hopelessness was very engulfing and self-defeating. While many people were happily partying, welcoming the new year, I dreaded it. All the singing and laughter ringed empty in the abyss of my heart. I didn’t know if I should give up but I didn’t know how. By sheer stubborness and pride, I didn’t want to give up. With a simple decision like that, I became the 1% of startups that survived the first year.

The Price of a Dream

If you are an executive earning $10k a month, you had a dream but you chose to give it up so you can keep earning $10k a month and more in future. That would be the price of your dream.

If you were a poly lecturer making $5k per month but you gave up the job to pursue your dream of being a volunteer to take care of stray cats at a much reduced income. However, you are happier and derived satisfaction from the volunteer work. That would be the price of your dream.

If you have a dream but currently you are working in a job to earn enough savings for you to realise your dream, even though you may or may not enjoy what you are doing now but that is the price you are willing to pay to realise your dream.

What is the price you are willing to pay for your dream? What was the price I paid for my dream?

I was an engineer making $40k a year. I risked it to develop a product which I thought would benefit and bring convenience to Singapore wedding couples. It took me 3 years before there was a sufficient revenue stream. So in terms of monetary value, the price I paid to pursue my dream was $120k. However, in actual fact, it may be more than that. Assuming a 30 years working lifespan with no increment, my economic value as an engineer would potentially be $1.2 million. If you were me, would you be willing to pay the price?

I was lucky. I wasn’t intelligent as I didn’t consider so many factors. I attribute it to the brashness of youth. I thought my idea was going to be a runaway success so I just ran (pun intended) with my idea. I was naive. On hindsight, it wasn’t such a bad thing.

Maybe I was also stupidly stubborn. I didn’t know when to give up. And I stupidly persevered for 3 years, so much so that I was almost unable to pay my bills. That was the price I was willing to pay.

After 12 years. Now. Looking back. Have I gained more or lost more? Does success have to be measured that way? I would rather choose to contemplate and be satisfied by what I’ve gained.

I’ve more time to spend with my family. I can spend more time with my wife. I’m able to see my children grow. I can be part of their childhood. I’m there for them when they need me. I can be more flexible with my time. Please do not be mistaken for a second that by doing your own thing, you have more freedom or more free time. On the contrary, you have less freedom and more stress as there is no moment when you are not worried about your venture. There isn’t a moment in time where you stop thinking how you can do better and how to outrun your competitors. I work longer hours. Many a times, I sleep for less than 6 hours.

It is also a fact that what I’ve achieved can be lost in a whim and through no fault of my own.

What made me do it then?

I just had to know. I just had to know for sure if I can make my idea work and realise my dream. I don’t want to regret for the rest of my life if someone had successfully implemented a similar idea and it wasn’t me. I don’t want to be plagued by what ifs? If I had tried and failed, at least I would be satisfied with the knowledge that I wasn’t the better person to make it work. In that sense, I’ve also realised my dream, even though it was a failed dream. But at least, I’ve dreamt. I’ve lived.

Do not blame Singapore or the people around you if you dare not live for your dream. Do not blame the society that it does not tolerate failures. The truth is that you don’t tolerate your own failure.

There is a price to every dream. The question is: Are you willing to pay the price?

You Can (Not) Do It

Many years ago when I just started working as an engineer, I had an opportunity to attend a seminar organised by Intel in Penang, which was also where their factory was located. The seminar was related to the introduction of a series of new chips which will be using ball-grid array (BGA) arrangement. The seminar was to let us know how the BGA packaged chips may impact our printed circuit assembly process. As my ex-company was a large customer of Intel, up to four engineers were invited to attend the seminar for free, with flight tickets and hotel lodging provided. The procurement engineer from our company had included my name as he felt that I should attend as one of my future new product will be using BGA devices. We were to fly in on Friday morning, with Intel plant tour and seminar the next day. We’ll be back on a Sunday flight. The only thing I needed to do was get approval from my manager. I thought it would be easy since my department did not have to pay a single cent for me to attend. Boy, was I wrong!

I met my boss at the factory floor with the machines nosily pounding chips onto printed circuit boards.

“Boss, there is an upcoming conference organised by Intel in two weeks time,” I said. “It is about the new ball grid array packaging technology. The procurement engineer has included my name for the seminar and it is free. Just need to get your approval for me to attend.”

“No.” He replied.

I was shocked.

“Boss, but it is about a new technology that we’ll be implementing on the assembly line, it is good that I can attend. Besides, it is free and we won’t need to budget for it.”

“No.” He said again. “Why do you want to go? This packaging technology is not related to our department. It is about how our completed PCAs will be packaged in a box and shiped. It is about packaging technology, which simply means, it is just about boxes.”

When did Intel start making boxes?

“Boss, I think you misunderstood. You can check with the procurement engineer and he can confirm that it is not about boxes.”

“No need. The engineer has already called me and I’ve already told him you won’t be going.”

“But boss, I really think I should go, it is related to my work.” I can feel my temper rising but I spoke with a controlled tone.

“No.”

“Fine. Then I’ll apply leave and attend the seminar. I’ll pay on my own.”

“No, you can’t do it.” He insisted.

“Why?”

“Because it has not been done before and I won’t allow it.”

A short shouting match ensued but it was drowned out by the assembly lines so no one overheard our ‘conversation’.

“Fine. Ok. I won’t go. Happy?” I stormed off.

Two weeks later, I applied leave knowing that my boss would have forgotten the exact dates of the seminar. As expected, he approved my leave. I bought my own flight tickets to Penang making sure that I am on the same flight with the other engineers of my company. I’ve arranged to ‘bunk’ in the room with a colleague whose boss of another department had approved his attending the seminar.

I was glad that I attended the conference. I learnt something that was related to my work. In fact, it gave me a better understanding and I was able to have a better appreciation of the problems related to BGAs in the later months when one of my new product started using BGA chip devices. In fact, I thought that the knowledge was important enough that I actually conducted a short and concise introductory course to my fellow engineers in my department – minus my boss, of course.

Ever since then, if I ever come across any arguement simply stating that “it cannot be done because it has not been done before”, it would really irk me.

Did I regret my decision? No. Did I break rules? Maybe.

Don’t ever let people convince you that you can’t do it because they can’t. Don’t limit your potential based on other peoples expectations. Realise your own potential. Believe in your dreams. You have yourself to answer to.

P.S. The title of this post was inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Special Employment Credit

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During this year’s budget report, when Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam touched on Special Employment Credit (SEC) and he mentioned about the enhancements, I was heartened to learn of the changes.

When I became the accidental boss, I had hoped to create a wonderful working conditions and environment for my staff. I mean, we spent most of our life working, if we don’t enjoy working, it would mean most of our life will be spent living miserably. Things I’ve introduced to make working more enjoyable: flexi hours, choice of working from home, off days on birthdays, child’s birthday, wedding anniversary etc. I also give my staff a lot of autonomy in the day-to-day operations.

All along, I’ve known my company’s operations are such that it is suitable for certain candidates who are graduates of special education. And fate would have it, I’ve employed a staff who graduated from special education.  It was all coincidental. The employment was simply based on the candidate’s technical knowledge and experience. That was all. I look past the candidate’s special education and was evaluated as I would any others. And my staff in fact, at times, performed above my expectations.

Sorry for the digression.

Anyway, this year, the SEC enhancements made were such that the SEC has been extended to cover younger workers (aged 50 years and below) who are graduates of the special education schools. The government’s objective was to encourage employers to hire them, so that more of them will be able to enter the workforce and remain independent.

I applaud the government’s effort and direction in making Singapore a more inclusive society. I’ve employed my staff as equals and I’ve already budgeted for their current salary. I did not employ my staff because of the SEC so I’ve decided to pass the company’s savings (SEC) to my staff instead.

Extension of Special Employment Credit (SEC)

To support employment of Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) who have graduated from VWO-run Special Education (SPED) schools, the SEC will be extended to employers who hire these graduates. The SEC for PWDs will be set at 16% of the employee’s monthly income, up to $240 per month.

Singapore Budget 2012

I hope more companies will do the same too. It is the combined effort of the government, employers and citizens to make our Singapore a more inclusive society.

Quietly, We Are 12

On one late night, while working and typing away on the PC, I suddenly realised that the birthday of SingaporeBrides.com went past without notice.  In fact, I’ve cleanly forgotten about it. SingaporeBrides.com was launched 12 years ago, on 1st of April. With such date, I thought it would be easy to be reminded. Someone pulls a prank on me and I would suddenly, “Aha! Today is SingaporeBrides.com’s birthday!”

Apparently, reality is weirder than fiction. :p

I sent an email to all my 12 staff and letting them know that we had become 12. (Yes, for those who noticed, we had added one more staff this year too.)

I forgot about the birthday not because I no longer view it as a milestone. No, it is still an important date. A year forward, is a year survived and I’ll always count my blessings. A year survived, is another year the company had provided for myself, my family, my staff and their family.  It is especially gratifying as it was a tumultuous 2011 and winter is coming.

Running a company is not easy and it is only going to get worse.  If you’ve noticed, the technological cycle and change have gotten quicker and shorter.  In two short years, with the introduction of the iPad, the netbook category was totally decimated by Apple. Similarly, the Wintel PC companies have no response to the market share gain by iPad and the sales of Wintel PC and laptops have languished. In two short years, giants like HP and Dell have been chopped off at the knee by the Apple sword in one clean strike.

These are the worries that keep me awake at night. For my company’s sake, I always have to be vigilant. I can’t allow my company to fall during my watch. I am responsible for my staff.

I forgot the birthday simply because we were all too busy. We had a company offsite meeting at the end of last year. We have been very focus in implementing the ideas and plans that we had from the meeting.

We became a GST registered company in 2010, not by choice but was mandatory by law. That’s because our company revenue had crept past the one million dollar mark.  In 2011, even under tough environment, we managed to keep our revenue passing the magical one million dollar mark.

I guess, from a one man show started 12 years ago to the current company with 12 staff, we do have much to cheer.

Happy Birthday, SingaporeBrides.com.

Like Father, Like Son

It’s been 12 years since my father had passed away. We went to Choa Chu Kang Cemetery this morning to 扫墓 (grave-sweeping).  In the first few years, my mum, my sister, my wife and myself, we would cater a cab for about 2 hours and visit the cemetery to perform the traditional rituals.  I have since bought my own car and now I would drive the family (including my two sons) for the annual ritual. Many things have changed during these 12 years. 可是, 我思念的心, 依然依旧。

Like most Chinese father and son relationship, we seldom talked. I know he loves me but there were always a quiet distance between us, just because we are father and son.

I always remember the photo with my dad in his wheelchair, holding up his champagne glass and shouting “Yum Seng” with all the guests at my wedding. His facial expression was beaming with pride and happiness. And I’ll always remember my mum and myself catching him stealing a sip after the “Yum Seng” shouting session. I remember my mum quietly letting dad finish stealing his sip. It was a special day.

I also remember my last breakfast with dad just a few days before he passed away. It was a weekend and I had an appointment that morning. My mum had asked me to join dad for breakfast at a coffee shop near our block. I’m glad that I did. My father’s speech was slurred as that was the after-effect of surving a bad stroke but we chatted.

I also remember whispering into his ears about my aspirations of becoming an entrepreneur and decision to start my own business when he was lying in a coma in the hospital. A few days later, my dad passed away.

Today. I’ve a successful business. When I started my business, I actually wondered if I had what it takes to become a businessman like my father. Although my results are not as impressive as my dad’s yet but I intend to live up to it.

My dad works 7 days a week and seldom had vacations or rest days. He was always busy. I never understood why when I was a kid. Now, I work 7 days a week and seldom have rest days and I understand why. He had been working hard to provide for the family as I am now.

My dad’s only relaxation was watching TV after he reaches home around 8pm. He would watch TV till near midnight before he sleeps. Me, I also relaxes by watching the box with a slight improvement…. Sometimes I would rent streaming videos from iTunes through Apple TV to watch. Heh!

My father has a fiery temper. I’ve that too. Fortunately, I’ve learnt to control that.

After my dad passed away, I began to see many of my dad’s traits in me. I never realised I’m so much of my father’s son. The quiet distance between dad and myself has narrowed through the years.

Dad, I hope you are proud of me.

I miss you.