Huijia Phua is developing Project Skillseed, a career literacy marketplace for youths. China was an obvious market, so she set aside shame, gatecrashed a trade mission and learned how to hustle like the locals.
As a born and bred Singaporean, recently returned to Singapore after four fruitful years in the US, it was an opportunity to observe and adjust to very different cultures: in this guest post, Huijia shares five lessons that she learned.
Even though I was still refining my business idea, and was over a month past the registration deadline, I managed to gatecrash a program for established start-ups wanting to venture to China. I booked my trip even before my brain had a chance to register what I was doing. The obligatory question “What the heck am I doing again?” only floated up when I was already on the plane and halfway to China.
iStart had a structured mentoring and pitching program, but since I was there in everyone’s faces I was kindly invited to join a registered group and meet their mentors. I also attended all the formal dinners and conferences and so got to meet some pretty amazing people and fellow entrepreneurs, some of whom I’m going to collaborate with for my project. Sometimes it is good to be action-oriented!
Lesson 1: Forget Face
I’m Asian, female and Teochew. Teochew females are supposed to be shy and submissive, at least in a family context. So my upbringing was bound to see me struggle with face issues along my entrepreneurial journey because Lean Start-up method requires you to get out of the building and talk to customers – continuously. You have to be prepared for criticisms at every step. So I’m learning not to take negative comments personally and to overcome my innate fear of making mistakes. It’s not easy, but I have kept trying.
I think face is even more critical to people of high status. For example, I’ve talked to fellow Asian wanna-be entrepreneurs with status such as Ivy League degrees who can’t bear to try something out for fear of being embarrassed if it fails. It’s difficult, but we have to imagine that we have NOTHING to lose. Even if we do get embarrassed (and I have been, many times!), those moments will pass. No one remembers our mistakes forever. And even if they do – so what?
I remember stuttering a lot during my initial days of customer development because I felt so much pressure as I tried to impress. Now, I feel that it’s better to be honest with my interviewees. I tell them upfront that I’m trying to learn from their sharing and that I don’t know all the answers. I tell them that I still have a long way to go and appreciate any help I can get. I’m pleasantly surprised how supportive and encouraging people can be.
I went to China convinced that I had a great product. I came back with that notion rather eroded. BUT (and it’s a very big ‘but’) after taking time to talk to potential customers and listening to them complain for hours, I came up with a completely new concept that my potential customers are excited about, and are happy to support. I am even more passionate about this new idea than the old project, even though the previous project had more traction.
Lesson 2: Love Your Ideas Then Let Them Go
It’s natural to want to rebut someone when they criticize your concept. I’ve been though feeling a little upset and disheartened. But I’ve also learned that every comment, whether negative or positive, will help to evolve my ideas.
If a few people don’t think it’s a problem – that’s fine. It helps determine who my early adopters are. Now, I don’t try to ‘convert’ them like a overzealous preacher. Because if it ain’t broke – why am I fixing it?
I’ve found that being defensive doesn’t help. It cuts the conversation short and turns my potential customers off. Which is very bad. I constantly remind myself to be thankful and grateful to everyone who has taken the time to speak with me. Even those who aren’t as supportive.
Sometimes as founders we can be very possessive of our ideas. It’s understandable, because we put a lot of sweat, blood and tears into our projects, not to mention a ton of caffeine from various Coffee Beans/Starbucks around the island. But we are creating a business here.
At the end of the day, we do NEED to sell something that customers want (a ‘must-have’ solution). It can be a humbling, even soul-sapping experience when we have to do a pivot, but I believe it is better to do this early than spend years of effort and money into creating something that is going to fail.
Yes, it is my ‘baby’. But I can have more babies.
Lesson 3: Keep Your Mind So Open That An Elephant Can Fall In
I didn’t plan on interviewing my first potential ‘customer’. In fact, I was actually set on presenting a demo of my previous project to him when our conversation completely derailed.
P, an esteemed educator, started ranting about a major problem he was facing. You know it’s a major problem when you hear phrases like “It’s chaos!” and “There’s no [insert solution] like that out there right now”.
Hearing that, I had a choice – I could either gently but firmly guide him back to my objectives, or let him continue.
I let him continue. And that conversation inspired Project Skillseed, which P continues to support fervently and to which he has introduced five other people to so far.
To keep a long story short – if my potential customers start complaining about something else – I’ve learned to let them inspire new ideas.
Lesson 4: Innovation is introducing new ideas, not creating them
Innovations don’t have to be totally new, so long as they are new to the customer.
There’s often an accusation levied by Westerners that Chinese people copy rather than create. But it depends on how you view creativity. There are certainly a lot more clones in China than elsewhere, but I think there is some creativity involved in adapting a solution to fit a certain environment and culture. That’s why some Americanized services and products fail in China – they try to impose the same solution on a vastly different group of consumers.
That said, I think there is a changing trend in China. I was at a Start-up conference sometime ago and met with Chinese entrepreneurs who have some pretty innovative businesses that are not just knock-offs. There is a growing interest – and pride – in creating something unique. Anyway, as experts would say: “Ideas are cheap. Execution is key.”. 5 million other people around the world probably have the same idea as you do. If the Chinese can take an idea, roll it out and achieve more success than others – then I say kudos to them!
Lesson 5: Get To Know People
Finally, I’ve learned that Americans can be very open to cold calls and sudden requests for interviews. I believe that’s because of the stronger mentoring culture and the fact that hierarchy and ‘face’ is not as important.
More traditional Asian cultures appreciate me building some sort of relationship before they feel willing to share their insights. That’s especially true if I am trying to connect with an individual of status. What is admired as ‘self-confidence’ in a Western culture can be perceived as disrespect and rudeness in an Asian one. I’ve actually been reprimanded when I wrote an Asian CEO directly (not by the CEO, but by one of her associates who told me “Don’t do that again!”
I’ve found that Americans and Americanized individuals can be refreshingly candid. They prefer if you get to the point. For example, when I conduct interviews, they want me to just ask my questions and get it over with. For my Asian interviewees, however, I tend to make a lot more small talk before gently nudging the conversation towards my objectives. I have to factor in more time for interviews as a result.
It’s easy to be presumptuous and think that customer interviews might be complete in a week or so, blasting out a few generic emails and hoping that everyone will respond enthusiastically. That may work for mainstream products but I have learned that services which impact people’s lives in a deeper way (such as education, child-related services, or healthcare), it’s important to get to know the person, and for the person to get to know me, before I request an interview.
A well-known fact about the Chinese is that they value relationships – a lot. They call it Guanxi. I don’t have a ton of experience in this area of business transactions, but I will pass on the advice I have been given:
- Depending on the industry you’re in, you’ll need to be prepared to do quite a bit of entertaining/drinking. Apparently a lot of deals get sealed over drinks, mahjong or a round of golf. Be gentle but firm if you can’t or don’t want to do certain activities. Outright rejections may offend your business associates.
- SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. This is a sign that you’re sincere in wanting to conduct business with them.
- Gifts are appreciated. It is not perceived as bribery. Send gifts during holidays/occasion to their families. It’s a way of keeping in touch and saying: “I appreciate your business and our relationship”.