Discover the entrepreneur in you (Part 4): Tenacity – a highly useful quality


There is a popular game in arcades where moles will pop out of holes on the game machine.  You have to hit it hard to knock the mole down. No matter how fast you hit, there will be more moles popping their heads out smiling at you.

A die-hard entrepreneur is like the moles. The entrepreneur gets knocked around with problems and failures. Yet he/she keeps popping up, refusing to surrender to the hard knocks of life.

We often glorify the success of entrepreneurs. Some have an easier route while some have it real tough to achieve success. Even for those on the easier route, there will always  be challenges that will confront and even threaten while on the road to success.

We remember Sim Wong Hoo for his Sound Blaster success. How many of us know that was not his first venture? His first was the Cubic, a multilingual, multimedia computing machine that was too costly to build and did not sell well (http://www.avinashblog.com/2011_02_26_archive.html). I am old enough to remember seeing them briefly in the computer shops when I was buying my first PC.

From that costly failed venture, Sim and his partners decided that sound card was the way to go. They uprooted themselves to make-or-break in the USA. Even so, selling the sound cards in the early days was a tremendous challenge that required persistency in the face of rejections (http://www.daretofail.com/article.php?adi=88&pageno=2).

A remarkable story is that of Lim Tow Yong. He founded the Emporium Group Holdings in the 1960s and built it to a $300 million annual revenue business. Then, crippled by the recession of the mid-80s and by competition, he became a bankrupt at the age of 72. Refusing to give up even at such an old age, Lim started all over again. He went back into the retail business in Sabah, Labuan and Brunei. Ten years later, he sold his 17 stores and supermarkets for $4.2 million, making him a millionaire all over again! (http://www.askmelah.com/82-year-old-comeback-kid/)

In my earlier posts, I shared about being turned down three times by the polytechnic prior to starting ASKnLearn. We eventually succeeded because we had the inventor of the software on our side, who was unwilling to work with the other suitors. Our persistence also played a part in convincing the polytechnic that we had the determination to succeed.

Securing clients proved difficult in the face of free software offered by many dotcom companies that had also started around the same time as us. I recall going to my alma matar where I was then actively serving in. The decision maker was my former teacher and I thought it would be easy to seal the deal. He showed me the offers he had received from 2 other big start-ups to use their software, one which he cited was chaired by Mr Koh Boon Hwee and another by a public listed firm, both totally free. He said there were many dotcom companies looking for him. How would he know if ours was not another “me-too” (a reference to companies with non-unique business ideas in the internet era) that would not survive?

I went away empty-handed. After all the euphoria of the past 6 months getting the business organised, incubated and finally started, I suddenly felt the weight of being an entrepreneur that day. My wife and I had put our savings into this. We left our full-time jobs and signed an agreement to put additional investment money into the business should it run out of capital in the first 2 years.  We had three young children. Securing real business was not as easy as we had envisaged in our many revisions of the business plan. We had not anticipated the flood of competition that came up.

It was late in the afternoon that day, as I drove home empty-handed after the rejection. I drove by Victoria Junior College and felt I had to turn in to make a try to secure at least a deal for that day to make up for the earlier disappointment. After asking around, I got to see the Head of Department for IT.

He listened patiently to my presentation and then made me an offer. The college had already selected a partner for its Fast Track@School implementation, a programme whereby IDA co-funded selected pilot schools to develop broadband content and systems. By coincident, the college had just received a reply from IDA that day asking for revision to their original proposal for greater clarity. He challenged me to come up with a totally new proposal within 2 days. If it was better than what he had, he would resubmit with ours.

I loved the challenge. It presented a ray of hope. I worked the whole night and next day on it. The college submitted ours and it went through without questions. Much later, he told me he was impressed with our speed, understanding of their requirements and determination that he decided to go with us.

The project started us on the track of developing complex multimedia simulations for mathematics and science. We did not even know how to build it when we started off. We figured out along the way by trial and error, selecting various part-time developers until we found what worked.

The college referred us to Raffles Institution, also on the IDA Fast Track programme. We secured that deal as well. One referral led to another and we accumulated more projects on the way until we built up enough confidence to invest further in developing more content of our own.

What started out as disappointment in losing what I had considered as a sure-win deal became a good break into a new area of content development with top schools that helped established our branding. Failure can turn into success if we do not drown ourselves in disappointment but use the failure to spur ourselves to try harder to succeed.

Despite the occasional successes we had in the initial 3 years, we have had many more rejections. If we were rejected by a prospective client or investor, we just move on to try harder to find the next one. It was common to be rejected, not just by clients and investors. One of our first employees chose to pay out his contract and told me the company had no future. Once, I made a job offer to a top graduate of a polytechnic. He told me that he did not want to waste his time with a small company like ours.

We were running out of funds after 3 consecutive years of losses due to high development costs. I wanted to secure more capital from shareholders through a rights issue to avoid having to retrench. The exercise turned out to be a failure. None wanted to invest more. I had the paintful task of telling various managers and some junior staff that we could not keep them. We closed down the two segments of the business. The restructuring helped us tide over until we broke-even our operations on the fourth year and became profitable thereafter.

I consider myself fortunate compared to what other entrepreneurs had to go through.  I found this list of 50 famously successful people who had failed initially (http://www.onlinecollege.org/2010/02/16/50-famously-successful-people-who-failed-at-first/).  That included Bill Gates and Paul Allen whose first venture was not Microsoft but Traf-O-Data and Colonel Sanders who had a hard time selling his chickens.  His famous secret chicken recipe was rejected 1,009 times before a restaurant in Utah accepted it and partnered him to form “Kentucky Fried Chicken”.

If you are determined to succeed, never let failures get you down. Constantly learn from failures and preserve on. This tenacity will serve you well.

Watch this blog for more upcoming articles on entrepreneurship!

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2 comments on “Discover the entrepreneur in you (Part 4): Tenacity – a highly useful quality

  1. JJ,

    Very inspirational article indeed ! I need to read more of such posts to lift up my sagging spirits. Times have not been good for me lately! Keep writing such good quality articles! After seeing you put so much effort in your business, just feel wasted that eventually you let go!

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