Flush all the b********t down!
I hate the word entrepreneurship because it carries a certain baggage and glamour that people can’t seem to cut through. Everyone sees the courage and the nuggets of success broadcast on Facebook and in press interviews but rarely the struggles and anxiety and disappointments. A few people have approached me asking me to write about my foray into entrepreneurship – now 15 years old – from my individual perspective, so here it is.
But before I dive in, a little background on me so you know where I’m coming from.
I started my business as a freelancer a year after graduating from the National University of Singapore. I was paid well as a part-time content editor with a dotcom while still an undergraduate but it folded up when I graduated. Subsequently I joined two other publishing houses with toxic working environments.
I was only 22 when I left the second place of employment in less than 12 months with no new job on the horizon. One particular editor’s office was a torture chamber made for breaking new writers; once too many times had I been unfortunate to witness my colleagues emerging from her room tearful and shaken. Apparently those who ate humble pie stuck around so I thought that keeping my head low and doing what I was told would save my job.
But apparently my stoic, matter-of-fact disposition did not sit well with her. The said editor instructed me to return to work on a Saturday morning only to sit me through a long *very personal* tirade that on hindsight, had more to do with the fact that I was young and female, and nothing to do with my grammar or spelling. She said that I was not cut out to be a writer and I should do something else. I conceded defeat and left the firm only to discover weeks later, not only were ALL the articles that I had submitted to her published practically ad verbatim, my byline had been conveniently dropped.
Soon afterwards, the said editor would assign me to write articles (without bylines no less) for the same publication through her proxy, an indifferent sub-editor that I couldn’t establish any rapport with no matter how I tried. I accepted this because I needed the money although the deadlines were ridiculous, ranging from 24 to 48 hours including re-writes depending on the subject matter and which stage of the menstrual cycle the editors were at. This went on for well over a year.
A friend called me one day saying that a restaurant in Robertson Quay needed some media coverage. I submitted a press release to my first new client after a few revisions and within a few days of its dissemination, I hosted Sharon Cheah from The Business Times for lunch and she granted me my first coverage: half a page with big photos and a reasonable review.
I had many more incidents of beginners’ luck following that first half-page, including a copywriting retainer with an advertising agency and a public relations firm involving well-recognised brands such Philips, Virgin, and Jaeger Le Coultre.
While peddling my heavy A3 portfolio of a handful of un-bylined lifestyle articles and media clippings, I knocked on the door of another F&B outlet along Circular Road. Three friends were renting the shophouse where the outlet was based. The first was a currency trader turned restaurateur whose business was based on the first floor, the second had an office for a financial planners’ trade publication on the top floor and the third was a one-man design agency based on the second floor.
The restaurateur-trader hired me for media relations on a per coverage basis and the one-man design agency offered to sub-let a cubbyhole space for $200 a month. I jumped at the offer. I now had somewhere to go where I could work without having to explain myself to anyone, especially my illiterate biological parents and my two elder sisters who joined the workforce promptly after completing their ‘A’ levels (the five of us lived in a three-room flat). My elder sisters had worked almost all their lives in retail for low wages and had just embarked on a long, slow climb to management.
I had wanted to climb the ranks in editorial; but after seeing first-hand how editors tend stay in their comfy positions for years and years and not retiring or moving, and fearing that I would end up working under tyrannical superiors again, I stopped going for job interviews.
It was 2002, and freelancing was unchartered territory for many. In 2003, I registered Bridges M&C Pte Ltd; five years later I registered Bridges Publishing Pte Ltd. Today I have seven good, pro-active and capable staff in Singapore and Malaysia and good, reasonable, well-paying clients who are not on a witch hunt.
But every single day is a lesson in excellence and survival.
What it takes to be an entrepreneur, according to me:
No 1: Anxiety WILL BE the norm
You must have the right personality (and for some people the right chemical imbalance) to be able to make this work. I have read many articles linking anxiety to entrepreneurship. Having been conceived in anxiety myself *, I’m not sure whether entrepreneurs tend to have pre-existing anxiety issues or whether anxiety is part of the entrepreneurial territory that one should tolerate, or both. But a certain amount of anxiety will be a constant in your life. While it may diminish when you *feel* you are doing well, it will always look for opportunities to rear its ugly head when things don’t go your way. While a certain amount of anxiety will stave off complacency and keeps you striving for excellence, too much of it can have an adverse effect your mental health. You must take care of yourself or you won’t be in a position to take care of business and the people who depend on it!
If you have committed to being an entrepreneur and feel constantly overwhelmed by anxiety, I suggest that you put in place a decompressing regimen (exercise, mediation) failing which you should seek out a regular therapist. I have a regular therapist and therapy has worked wonders for my mental health, overall productivity and relationships with people.
* When I was conceived, my biological parents were struggling to make ends meet and my mother carried me to full term knowing that I would be put up for adoption. My amniotic sac was made of adrenaline and cortisol!
No 2: Be well-versed with all the aspects of your business
Many new entrepreneurs tend to be very good at creating the product that they will sell, whether it is research, cake, soap, balance sheets or press releases but they tend to suck at the other aspects of the business that are equally important to make it work. In addition to creating quality products you must put in place a protocol or system for the sales and after-sales process, accounting, administration, etc. And unless you have the funds to hire people for these tasks, you are more than likely to have to undertake them yourself, so be familiar with these other aspects and take time to see how they work, even if you don’t like them. And if you have the funds to hire people you should delegate but not abdicate!
If you ask me if there are any aspects of the business that you as an entrepreneur and driver of your business ought to do and do reasonably well, it is sales, account servicing and creating a good quality product (cake, press releases, haircut, etc). If you suck at sales and account servicing, don’t be an entrepreneur no matter how good your product is. I’d encourage against hiring salesmen to front your products and services if you are not going to be on the sales team. There’s always the possibility the salesman might take your contacts and clients and ditch you for a higher salary or bigger firm. And if your clients don’t know you, they are unlikely to want to continue to work with you.
No 3: Be magnanimous
These two words I learnt from being on a pitching team for an advertising agency. Always be prepared to offer something of value to the right people who can help champion your business. It doesn’t have to take a lot of effort on your part; it could be introducing a valuable contact, or a free trial service or some counsel over lunchtime, and are to be dispensed as no-strings attached favours; you are not to expect anything in return! In my years of business I have planted many seeds this way and some of them do bear fruit and multiply down the line and some don’t, but it’s okay! If you make giving a part of your culture, people can see this in you and are more inclined to do you a favour sometime in future knowing that you will not take advantage of their good nature.
No 4: Know your niche and flaunt it
If you’re a small business you would understand the importance of creating your own niche. And the more barriers to entry the better! When I first started all I wanted to do was fashion, beauty and lifestyle clients because these are easy to write and sell. Thankfully I quickly realised that was probably what dozens of other freelancers were thinking and because there was a lot of competition, the contracts tended to be short, cheap but required tons of work to produce just an iota of positive return on investment (ROI) – and they are still this way today. I started improving the company’s turnover by leaps and bounds when I committed myself to a narrow niche of medical healthcare, trade events and the literary arts, better still if one or more overlap the other. I take pride in the ability to pick up technical knowledge which many people are not inclined to do.
No 5: Learn, learn, learn
And I don’t mean simply making your product better, but every process that can align your best strengths with the best sorts of jobs and clients in your and their best interests. These can include everything from having to organise an email blast more effectively to writing the script when approaching new clients or even writing the cover letter of your proposal. If there’s a better way to do something, consider it well and put it into practice regularly that it becomes part of your branding and every client can expect the same sort of care for every single thing that you deliver.