Entrepeneurship lessons from the movie “Jobs”

Yesterday I watched the movie Jobs. It was about Steve Jobs and his story with Apple Inc.

It wasn’t exactly an exciting movie in terms of drama or action. However, I felt there are some interesting lessons for entrepreneurs, wanna-be entrepreneurs and people trying to understand successful entrepreneurs (including policymakers). So I decided to summarise into the observations below. Of course, Steve Jobs is not your ordinary entrepreneur. After all, Apple became the most valuable company on earth last year. Still, he shared some common characteristics with other entrepreneurs.

1. Entrepreneurs smell out opportunities. Jobs was at Wozniak’s house when he spotted the motherboard that Wozniak had built. He enquired and sensed it could be something big. He convinced Wozniak to take it to a pitching session at Stanford University to promote the idea. Out of that primitive motherboard eventually came the Apple II computer.

There are often opportunities everyone. Some opportunities are in the form of everyday news. An entrepreneur hears of news of say some problem, and could sense perhaps he could make a business out of it if he/she could create a cost effective solution to the problem. Or the entrepreneur could see some new inventions in their primitive state and match it to market needs and trends. It is part intuition and part discipline. Intuition because there is often no clear way to identify opportunities and you have to figure how to connect disjointed dots together. Discipline because one must keep looking and reminding oneself to look for opportunities. But to many others, news is just news. Raw inventions are just raw inventions. Nothing else. Many people will look at the same piece of information but only some can make things happen with that piece of information.

2. Entrepreneurs sell. Steve was not the one with the engineering ability. He sold the idea to Wozniak to leave HP and make his original invention big. He sold the motherboard (as first version of Apple) to the owner of Byte Computer shop. He convinced others to work for him in his garage. He convinced early investor Mike to fund the venture. And of course the world has seeen how well Jobs could sell his ideas. True-bred entrepreneurs never stop selling, whenever he/she smells an opportunity to do so. And when you sell, keep the message concise. Master that elevator pitch. You often need to sell your idea in a minute to get any chance of attracting further attention from your audience.

3. Entrepreneurs are resilient. The idea was new and the business unproven. The first sales pitch at Stanford University was quite a failure though it resulted in a small break with the owner of Byte computer shop. The first version, just a raw motherboard was not well received by Byte Computer. So they decided the next version must be a complete set, neatly assembled into a small compact casing. He was told it was impossible to make the power unit small enough, silent enough and cool enough to fit into the casing. He pursued leads and eventually found an engineer who could make it.

The movie showed Jobs making hundreds (or thousands) of calls to Venture Capitalists (VCs) to get the funding. That’s a pretty familiar scene for most start-up entrepreneurs. You will get rejected lots of times, whether it is pitching for funds or trying to sell your products. Get over each rejection, learn why and look forward to the next pitch. Never wallow in the rejections. Use them as lessons on how to make better pitch or adjust your business plans or products. Look forward. The first investor, Mike came because Jobs had pestered Mike’s friend so hard that he told Mike to do him a favour and just go see what the deal was about.

4. Great entrepreneurs inspire confidence. It is hard to get people to buy in to your ideas or products when they are raw. True entrepreneurship is like creating a beautiful picture out of a blank piece of paper. You try to make things happen out of nothing. It is hard for others to buy into your vision with nothing much to show. Why would a shrewd investor like Mike invest US$90,000 plus extend a loan of (I think) US$250,000 to Apple Inc. when it was just a garage set-up without a ready product. What makes investors and customers buy in to ideas when they are still raw? Often, it is the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs who believe deeply in their vision exuberate the confidence that is almost contagious.

5. Start-up entrepreneurs are driven by passion. A reason why great entrepreneurs can inspire confidence is because they are themselves driven by passion. Once they are locked onto a idea they passionately believe in, they can live, eat, sleep and dream about that idea and they pursue it until it come to fruition. That passion is evident in their tone as they speak of their ideas and products. And the more they immerse themselves in an idea, new creative thoughts on how to improve on the idea can come from just about anywhere, even when taking a shower or when driving or when they are about to fall asleep. In the movie, we saw how Jobs went about relentlessly trying to perfect the motherboard that Wozniak first made. He also went about determined to make the perfect typeface for their word processor, to make Lisa the ideal computer, to create Macintosh into the dream product that he could not do for Lisa and to keep his products simple yet elegant. Jobs was so over consumed with his passion that he was often unforgiving to staff who failed to share the same passion.

If we hope to inspire a new generation of creative entrepreneurs, we will need to give our youth space to pursue their passion. If we want to start them young, the space to explore ideas must be allowed even while they are in school. Parents need to also understand their children and give them the space to explore.

6. Entrepreneurs are doers. They make things happen. Jobs was certainly driven to make his ideas come alive by pushing everyone towards a common target. Even after being axed from his own company, he went on to start NeXT Computer and Pixar. He was constantly making things happen.

I once read an excellent interview with Bill Gates when he was then the richest man on earth. He was asked how he became the richest man. He said, “First, I was at the right place at the right time. Second, I had the vision. Third and most important, I took action.” Gates certainly grew up in exciting times. The personal computer industry was starting to boom. But so were several billion other people who were in the world at the same time. Gates had the vision that software would power the PCs and there was a gap in the market for this. I am reminded of a friend whom several years ago after reading a news report of a booming new business, said he thought of that idea a few years back. I asked him, “So what did you do about that idea?” My friend is still a professional manager in a large local company today. Gates went on to act on his vision. So did Jobs and many other entrepreneurs.

Sometimes I meet people who tell me they have some wonderful big ideas that will change the world. Some are so secretive about their ideas. I would tell them ideas are cheap. Execution is key. Operationalize your idea and be prepared to sweat it out.

7. Entrepreneurs are often rebels. Jobs was definitely one. He quit Reeds College to explore what else life could offer him. He couldn’t fit into the culture of Atari even though he successfully met the challenge to  produce the game his boss had wanted. He was often restless and pushing out new ideas. This may not be true of all entrepreneurs but it is often true of those that thrive on innovation. They generally don’t like rules. Rules and norms wear them down.

This is where I feel it gets hard for us to emulate the type of start-up successes that happen so often in USA with our existing culture. We are quite bound by rules and are conditioned to opt for the secure path. Our education system tend to focus on the examinations. There is little room for students to creatively explore ideas. Those that do well academically are sucked into a system of being professional managers. The risks and stigma of failure are high in our culture. Operating costs are high.

Having said that, I do see more young and restless ones dabbling with business ideas. Some jumped into business right after graduating or even before completing their studies. Hopefully our education system can take more effort to cultivate creative exploration by students.

8. Entrepreneurs don’t work alone. As bright and capable as anyone can be, you need a team if you are to grow your business from an idea into a product, and from a product into a scalable business. Often, businesses fail along the way because a good idea need not necessary become a good product without the right team to work on it. A good product will need a team to market, support and constantly innovate. Jobs had Wozniak, the bright engineer as co-founder. He rounded up people to work when the first order came in. He needed another engineer to create the power supply unit that fitted what he wanted. And as Apple Inc. grew, he had to create a structure to manage thousands of employees. The entrepreneur can be the visionary to draw people in but in order for any business to grow, an effective team must be organised.

Of course, the movie also showed some dark sides of Jobs’ life. He was intolerant and brutal, even to those close to him. I rather not comment on these aspects as everyone has weaknesses, and I am not certain how much of what was shown were dramatized to make into a movie. This post is not to glorify Jobs as well. As one who had walked the start-up path before, I identified with the journey Jobs went through, though of course mine is nowhere as dramatic. Still, the lessons are pretty much common for those who choose to take such a path. So while the movie is not spectacular in terms of drama or action, catch it if you want a peek into the mind of a start-up entrepreneur.

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My thoughts on National Day Rally 2013

Great Expectations

National Day Rally (NDR) 2013 was much anticipated by many. It followed a year-long nation-wide conversation, termed as Our Singapore Conversation (OSC). OSC was announced at the previous year’s National Day Rally. Then, PM Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the need to use the exercise for the nation to ask itself “fundamental questions” and to seek Singapore’s future directions. PAP Members of Parliament and OSC committee members had joined in the call that there should be no sacred cows in the review. MP Inderjit Singh urged the government to be willing to make radical changes. He said that “If the committee comes out with incremental changes which are not significant, we would have wasted our time with this exercise.”

The public was let in on sneak previews of what would come out in the run-up to NDR 2013. Public expectations were high. I was awaiting eagerly to hear what the impending changes to education would be. This is an area I had championed for change even before I had entered politics.

Changes to Education

Four changes were announced that night in education:

(1) Reserving 40 places for primary one admission for those with no connections to the school,

(2) Removing PSLE T-Score, with results being reported in bands like in the O and A-levels,

(3) Secondary 1 students will be allowed to take a subject at a higher level if they have done well in that subject at PSLE, and

(4) Broadening of Direct School Admission categories for selection of secondary schools.

These changes were said to be made in order to move education into a more holistic form, to move away from an over-emphasis on examinations and to put focus to learning. This is something the Workers’ Party had been calling for as well (pages 30-33 of the 2011 manifesto).

The right topics were touched on, but I had expected more. The anticipation was built up through the year-long exercise with the promise that there would be no sacred cows The steps taken in education seem incremental to me. They are nevertheless steps in the direction I wish to see.

On primary one admission, I was told 40 is about the typical number of places left in some popular schools currently after those with connections were admitted. In a way, it would check a slow decline to zero places if nothing else was done. People who could afford to would still shift house to be near to popular schools. Grassroots leaders and parent volunteers gaining priority will still exist. Some schools will still be more popular than others. The yearly rush for primary 1 places in perceived better schools will still be there. We may still hear of stories like what the Prime Minister told of the mother who shifted home four times to get her child to be in her preferred school.

PSLE remains the sacred cow. T-score is removed but will pressure drop? Will parents continue to take leave to coach students for the PSLE? Will tuition business continue to flourish? Details were scant last night. We were told that it will take several years for the changes to take place. MOE will announce more details over time. I suspect the PSLE results will still largely determine the academic stream and the type of secondary schools students go to. How much would have changed to the pressure at PSLE?

No much details were released about the DSA process. The challenge will be how we can make the implementation fair. Primary schools will need to be pushed and equipped to cultivate students with character, resilience and drive and to find ways to substantiate these values so that secondary schools can make better selection. Secondary schools must be prepared to accept students with qualities other than academic abilities and to find ways to develop them differently. How prepared will our existing top schools be to change their current practices?

I had hoped to see bolder moves. One is to have several primary to secondary through-train schools which I had called for several times in the past. Other MPs such as Laurence Lien and Denise Phua have also called for this. I think there can be scope to have several of such schools for parents who are prepared for their children to go through a 10-year holistic development at the hands of educators who also believe in this cause. We can leave out the existing top schools so that we do not allow people to shortcut the system to put their children into top secondary schools. Then only those who truly believe in having 10 years of continuous development in a single school can opt for this.

A issue that was not touched on is class size. I think the current class size of 40 (30 for Primary 1 and 2) is too big. It leaves weaker students with insufficient attention from teachers. Many students felt it necessary to go for tuition to catch up. In the process to make every school a good school, MOE could work on reducing class size. For a start, that can be reduced for all primary school levels. With smaller class sizes, teachers can better handle each student and work on developing the individuals holistically, all part of being a good school.

Ultimately, all the pressure that is currently in our school system is because some schools are perceived to be better and some academic streams are desired, while some are to be avoided. We can never make all schools the same, but we can narrow the gap. More resources and autonomy could be given to neighbourhood schools to bridge the gap. The way we celebrate success as a society has to be changed too.

A shift for the betterment of Singaporeans?

The Straits Times today has an article by Ms Chua Mui Hoong entitled, “Seizing back the political initiative.” Ms Chua said that for the first time since GE2011, she had the sense that PAP is seizing back the initiative after relentless hammering by citizens on many policies. To her, the previously ‘welfare-allergic’ PAP has started a new mid-term election pledge wrapped with a lover’s promise: “You are not alone, the State (with all its resources) is by your side.”

Some of the policy changes announced such as in healthcare seem to be more radical shifts as what Ms Chua had described. If it was indeed so that the ruling party has shifted policies to the betterment of the people, it is something Singaporeans can be happy about. I joined the Workers’ Party in 2011 because I identified with its cause to champion for a more caring and inclusive Singapore. I hope to see the commitments made by the Prime Minister being realised through concrete implementations. As long as Singaporeans benefit, this can only be good for everyone.

Many Stories, One Singapore – Happy 48th National Day

Two messages caught my attention this National Day.

The first was the Prime Minister’s National Day Message yesterday. He spoke of a new chapter to be written in the Singapore story, a chapter that will progress on a road different from that which we had travelled previously. He spoke of a Singapore where everyone will always have a stake in, one that will become possible when we stand as one united people, and not divided by race, social class, or political faction.

The second was at the national day parade. It was a message about a Singapore that is made up of many stories but all leading towards the story of one Singapore.

As I watched the many little stories that the performers put across, as well as the snippets of stories on the big screen, I was reminded of my own story.

Two and a half years ago, I decided to continue the story of my life from that point onwards in blue. I stepped out of my comfort zone and took the plunge into politics in GE2011. It was a step taken with the belief that there are different stories that each of us wants to write. It does not make one less Singaporean or less loyal to our country if our views differ from that of the government’s.

I recently visited a country that underwent an unexpected change of government. At last month’s general election, Bhutan’s former opposition went from 2 seats out of 47 previously to 32 out of 47. I had the chance to see the handover of power, with the swearing in of the new ministers and all MPs while I was there. What struck me was an orderly transition of power. The political parties and the people accepted the choices made at the ballot boxes and the handover was smooth. The new government could go about its business and write the next chapter of the country’s story the way they feel they must. Five years later, it will be for the people to judge the government’s performance and decide again.

I sincerely hope the National Day message of one united people, not divided by race, social class, or political faction will hold true. As it is, opposition MPs are not made into grassroots advisors. The People’s Association, which is given substantial ground resources and whose mission is “to build and bridge communities in achieving one people, one Singapore” works only with the ruling party. It certainly does not gel with the concept of unifying the country regardless of political faction nor does it respect the wishes of the constituents who had chosen their MPs. It leaves opposition MPs to form their alternative grassroots communities whilst deprived of government funding support to serve the community that elected them.

The Blue Team in red for the nation's 48th birthday

The Blue Team in red for the nation’s 48th birthday

The recent MDA regulatory framework had also caused an uproar amongst the blogging and internet communities. It has cast a shadow over earlier moves by the government to loosen up on its engagement with citizens.

Proudly wearing our age for Singapore's 48th National Day

With Chairman Sylvia Lim, proudly wearing our age for Singapore’s 48th National Day

We were told that Singapore is now embarking on a new chapter of her story. 48 years after our independence, we should be growing into a more matured society able to handle divergent views, more capable of handling people with their own stories to write, stories that may not necessary agree with the views of the government but are nevertheless part of the stories that can move Singapore forward.

My birthday wish for Singapore in this new chapter is therefore one in which regardless of political factions and views, we will be matured in moving forward as one united people, fairly respecting the wishes of the people. Happy 48th National Day.