Whenever I am asked “Who is my mentor? Or from whom do I get knowledge to learn business from? Or who’ve guided me in running my businesses and grow them?” – people are expecting me to say a name – or two (or quote famous coaches). But to be honest, I do not really have a mentor. Well, let me rephrase that, everyone I know is sort of a mentor to me. Before you start to wonder the kind of mentor I am seeking guidance, and if they have high qualifications or great track records or sell hundreds of workshops or write numerous best sellers – no, that is not my kind of mentor.
A mentor to me, is someone who can teach me something or impact me greatly by their actual experience that actually influence the way I used to do things – directly or indirectly. If I had wanted to learn just knowledge, I read books, articles or attend courses with trainers. But to know how I can or should grow my business, I need guidance from real life experiences from people who’ve run businesses. No matter what their businesses can be, whether they’ve succeeded or failed.
My definition of mentor, and who they are.
I believe every single of us are both learners and educators. Each of us have unique experiences, that we go through and that is something valuable for someone else to learn from. And over the years, I’ve implemented many changes including forming a good structure within my business to grow it and be surprised, these strategies are guided from tips I’ve picked up through random conversations from random people on a random day.
There is not enough time to go through a lot of experiences in our lifetime, so learning from our own and from others adds on to our wisdom and knowledge naturally.
I realised I have grown and matured so much through their experiences.
We have experiences that we go through everyday, but that is all we have. So imagine, to be able to learn from other people experiences – we are tapping into other people’s lessons that they’ve learnt and know the ways on how to do things, because they tried and failed first. We are at the privilege of gaining wisdom and knowledge, without actually going through their experiences. I started a corporate company without much experience how a corporate company run, I raised capital funding and understanding what investors seek without any experience dealing with investors let alone knowing where to find them, I set up my human resources structure without working with people before. But that was possible, because I heard the stories of many other business people who lead teams, run corporate companies and raised capital funding. They shared their stories, and in my mind, I was constantly recording notes of the important points they shared. And sometimes their subject sparked my interest, that I went on to research more on the topic to learn in depth and then apply in business to see a different results.
THE INVESTMENT BANKER
In 2016, I was at a crossroads. I had some trouble with HR misconduct and that loss was a lot to bear, considering we are still pretty much bootstrapped. So I knew, if I had to raise capital funding, I still have to invest in new team members. The HR issue is still fresh in my mind and I have not recovered emotionally and financially from the hiccup, I was deeply concerned with the talent pool in Singapore I’m about to re-invest and if I were to encounter the same issues again.
I sat for dinner with an investment banker one day. He was holding a high position in the bank and my intention, initially was to understand how investment banking works from the perspective of the business (applicant) and how will the process works. He ended up telling me a story of himself. Apparently, over the last 7 years while he was holding his corporate job, he started a side company that does management consulting. When I met him, he was serving his last month at work when he finally decide to pursue his management consulting business full time.
What’s interesting about this story is that, while he was still working in a top notch bank as a VP of sales – his ‘side’ company grew and has a total of 130 employees full time, spread over 7 countries. This guy is not even working full time on his ‘side’ business so WTH? I am already struggling with one company. He did not meant to mentor me, but his story eventually lead me to these two take aways that night.
Seek outside your comfort zone.
Just because I am based in Singapore and know the regulations for hiring best here, does not mean I should not consider finding right employees outside. He told me in Singapore he only has 3 employees, for two reasons – it’s an expensive investment to hire locally, and the talent pool is limited. I have just let go 22 employees in Singapore back in 2016, so I started 2017 with looking at overseas talent. I created an in house system to track people’s work from remote locations, and I recruited employees based overseas who are talented and hungry. Since then, I’ve never hired locally and my managers & directors are based outside of Singapore.
Groom other leaders and let them take ownership.
I’ve been very particular with profit sharing or equity sharing, because I have not really met anyone who would be as dedicated as me. I can see my C-Levels putting in a lot of effort, and they’ve been with me for years so eventually, I would be willing to allocate shares ownership to keep them in their roles, motivated to lead their teams. He taught me, that in order to let people run and grow my company in my absence – let loyal people know they have a chance to be a part of what I built. He did just that, the first 4 people he hired were sales driven and they were given equity of what he started and they worked hard (full time) to made it a 130 people company today. He said, people who are willing to invest in your passion to tirelessly grow your company and fix every problem, deserve ownership. They’ve been working like they owned the business, and you want to keep them that way.
THE MANAGING DIRECTOR WHO IS NEVER ON THE PAYROLL
I met another friend, who just recently got promoted from Sales Manager to Managing Director of a mattress company head quartered in Belgium. He has been in the company for the last 10 years, and as the MD stepped down – it’s natural for the business to reward him the position for his loyalty and competency. He is also a Singapore PR, from Belgium and is very much integrated with the local scene to better manage the local employees. He travels a lot for business, often which he extended extra time to catch up with family back home or spend holidays. I was curious to find out at how flexible his company is, so I probe to ask questions how does the company work, and why he has what it seems like endless benefit and freedom as a Managing Director?
He told me the story that he is never on the company payroll. When he first started a sales job in the business, he was just 23 with lack of work experience but wanting to be in Singapore, and is dedicated to start his career. He offered to the business his position as a contractual sales person, who would invest time to bring sales to the company – but keeping his freedom to how he works. He got the job since there is zero capital injection from the business, and he performed well in sales and the company pays a commission to his sole proprietor company by which he decide his own salary to be paid. He continued to do well, that eventually he outdo all the full time sales people in the company to escalate his way through to becoming a Managing Director. His services is so highly valued, that it did not matter what his terms are as long as the business continues to stay on profit and sustain the human resources. So now, the company still pays to his company by which he takes a salary he decided that saves him on personal tax.
People who are willing to invest give back more value than people who are invested in.
He reminded me to keep in mind, that people who are willing to invest in your business are the ones who will find you sales no matter what. And so I’ve implemented the Global Partnership program allowing anyone to ‘invest’ or sign up as our exclusive partner for the different countries, to run and represent our brand for that country. The same way, the Belgian head office contracted him. So my company grows into new territories because of global partners who believed in our brand enough to invest and grow it with us. They are worthy of the partnership, more than to invest in hiring people in countries I’ve never been. Due to that implementation, we’ve duplicated our technology and have managing directors (partners) in more than 17 countries. That later leads to the value of our company, and allow us to trade shares of higher value.
THE EX BOSS I’VE STOPPED HATING
When I was 19 and fresh in securing my first corporate job, though I was a drop out, is my role as Marketing Executive in a local logistics company. The industry actually won my interest over but the boss I had, was a pain. I would not go so much into the reasons why I hated him back then (keep in mind, I was 19) but have grown to appreciate the experiences he gave me, much later on.
One day, after returning from my annual leave, my boss buzzed my phone and requested me to see him in his room. Upon entering, he asked me to make a cup of coffee and I dreadfully did it, whining to myself that that is secretarial work and not mine. I opened a 3-in-1 instant packet coffee, pour hot water and send it to his room. He told me to sat down while he scrutinise the coffee I made – complaining it looked non appealing to drink, and it tasted disgusting. He then instructed me, to re-do the coffee and to learnt the skill of making good coffee from the accountant. Being the rebel I was at 19, I was sarcastic to tell him that he might as well ask her to do it instead of me.
Five minutes later, I was in the pantry and the accountant lady took some time to teach me on how to make a good coffee. She added some external creamer, and stirred while hot water is poured. I came back to my boss’ office, and handed him his second mug. I was still upset at how my time is wasted, to ‘perfectionize’ a task I’m actually not paid for to do. And while he sipped that coffee, he told me.
Never question the opportunity to learn something new, even if it brings no instant monetary benefit.
Learning new skills should always be an ongoing process, especially when the opportunity rises to learn it. That skills may be handy years later, and it would make sense then. But regardless even if it doesn’t, there is no loss to knowing how things are done. Having more skills is always better, and time will pass anyway – what better way to add on my list of skills. He went on to asked “If the only key to win a million dollar contract, is making good coffee when the client visit so they feel welcomed – would you want to do the best coffee?” We often feel that we need to justify the reason why we do something, before we do something or doing our best at something.
Since then, I’ve stopped questioning the things he asked me to do. Once he told me to write a MOU for a client, and without any guidance – I had to spend late nights reading past MOUs to understand the document I’ve about to draft. I eventually did (and did a few more) and became an expert in it, that years later when I started to run my own business – I’ve drafted my own agreements and allowed me to work with more people. That skill I learnt, when I did not have to but I did, because my boss gave me the opportunity. Now, it saved me a lot of legal fees, with just my legal mandate needing to run through it to confirm it’s good for use.
I could have gone on with a longer list, because there are far too many people who’ve guided me in my business journey – putting aside, whether they realised it or not. Their experience or the experience they’ve given me, changed my perspective on how things are done and I’ve applied into my business directly. I monitored the changes it brings, and I am thankful for that tip I’ve picked up in these random conversations.
Look for ‘gold’ in more places.
The popular saying says “Do not put your eggs in one basket”. My advice is do not be too focused on the one or two mentors, you’ve engaged to guide you because on top of what they coached you on, still be open to what you can learn from everyone else you are about to meet. Knowledge is power – I kid you not. For the many times, I feel failure is nearing, the only thing that truly saved me is knowledge. Knowledge to raise capital, win relationships, execute more business and expand globally. It was knowledge that will save you from troubles, and it’s not always in a book, a school or from a famous idol.
It is found in places you’d least expect, from people you may meet only once, and from conversations that is not even related to business in the first place.
Open your mind, to new possibilities and new source of information, always. Learn from your mistakes, and learn from other people’ mistakes.
Ask me again who are my mentors? My mentor is everyone of you.