by Ben Ho (Singapore)
Looking back on the past 13 weeks of this course (MGMT 324: Technical Entrepreneurship), I cannot think of any other course in SMU that I have taken which requires me to make so many mistakes on a frequent basis to do well. So if ever you think that your one who’s prone to making mistakes, but want to learn about entrepreneurship, look for Prof Pamela Lim. She’d even throw in an extra package where you learn about life, and about yourself as well. Because that was what I got; and now I am an expert, who according to Niels Bohr, is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.
Although I took the course to learn how to invest, I am thankful that I eventually took the ‘entrepreneur’ path, and have since learnt 3 very important lessons:
1) Trust and be trusted
2) Do it yourself
3) Be hated
Trust and be trusted:
Throughout the entire 13weeks, there were many occasions where we had to split the work up and do our individual parts so that we could finish the big tasks in time. Those occasions can be very trying at times because we only had 3 people, as compared to others which had 5-6 people, and it was at such occasions that you have to trust your team to pull through on the things they promised. It was also very important for myself to be trusted and to deliver the things I myself promised. That meant that I had to pull all-nighters sometimes, or set aside my other priorities to finish the things required for my team.
Our team also learnt the importance of credibility. Our business hinged on the fact that we could deliver credibility and good results to our clients, but it was very difficult to do so unless your clients trusted you. This seemed to be the case for alot of other teams as well. It taught me to be humble and sincere, and really to win over each person one at a time. You should not see them as clients/ money-making cashcows to milk, but more like a friend with a need whom you can help with your expertise. Your ‘clients’ need to know YOU as a person before they can trust you as a company; in a sense you as a person are a brand as well, and everything you do, how you dress and speak, would reflect you and the bigger brand you represent (be it your company/ your school/ your family etc).
Do it yourself:
There were so many times when our business was stuck because we did not have the expertise to carry it out. One of the most important things I learnt was to have the skills to do it yourself so that things could move forward. What that also implied was the need to always pick up new skills when there was a deficiency so that you could do it yourself. But looking back, it was a good problem to have as I have definitely gained more experiences and skills through a hands-on approach and this exposure which I have gained will never be taken away from me.
I first heard this from the keynote speaker at a NTU’s graduation address, but I only fully understood it when I ran my own business. Essentially, you had to be hated by everyone because you are doing something so different that people are not used to.
This was especially the case when I tried to share my idea with some of my older friends and family. They were especially critical of the business, and I faced rejection on a very frequent basis. However, those rejections only made me a stronger person. Firstly, I have learnt how to detach myself emotionally when they are giving comments and this has helped me be more objective in my discussions in other projects. I have also learnt how to accept their criticism and comments to improve my project (in fact, the fact that they even bother to criticise means that they still care for you enough to bother use cogntive resources on your project). Most importantly, I have learnt how to have ownership over my own ideas, and I found myself thinking about my business quite a far bit. This has translated to me being more focused and driven in my other pursuits in life.
However, through the course of learning, I also felt that there were two things which could have been improved. Firstly, I do not think that the textbook was very relevant (in fact, Prof Pamela’s sharing was a lot better all the time) because the textbook only focused on getting a company IPO-ed. I did not think that was essentially the only way for a company to be successful, and have seen many SMEs thrive without having to go IPO.
The textbook, along with the other academic demands of the course, distracted us sometimes from the main focus of our business – but that is a warning of what’s ahead in a business, where other committments and distractions will always try to pry you away from the business and it takes discipline and tenacity to stick to your vision.
Next, I thought that due to the short timing of the course, normal procedures in a business which would usually take months to years to gestate and develop was actually accelerated so that we could see the symptoms faster. For eg, a thorough analysis of your target market, marketing strategies and even product development should be developed slowly but surely over 2-3mths, but due to the time constraints of this course, it was done in 2weeks instead. What potential students need to do instead, is to be prepared for the long haul (often even AFTER the course has ended) so that they reap the full benefit of the course, since the foundations will be set very strongly for you to make mistakes and learn.
Lastly, this entire course has been an emotional one for me as well. While we have definitely learnt lessons on how to start a business, and the skills required, it did not touch on why we should start a business and its effects on others if it should fail. People always only focus on the successes, but they do not pay attention to the many which have failed. My family have endured the effects of such a failed business, when my father quit his well-paying job and started a business (no doubt with the hope of more money and a better life for us). However what resulted was a childhood where my father was always busy trying to get his business to survive, and where we had to make sacrifices and scrimped so that we wont be an extra financial burden. More importantly, my father became emotionally tied to the company, and his perception of himself being a success/failure was dependent on the success/failure of his business, and it led to a long struggle for himself as well.
It has since left me with a phobia of starting my own business if I should have a family, and I think this course could also deal with the ethical and social effects on what entrepreneurship can do, and to really identify the personal costs incurred. While this is a painful sharing for me, I am still a champion of the benefits of this course, not only for what I learnt, but also for me to understand what my father went through; his difficulties, joys when the business did well, and sadness when he faced countless rejections.
This course is at the crux about the human; not about business plans, or models, or even the product. It is about a human need, a human passion, and a human touch. Ending off with a quote:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises left to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep,
and miles to go before I sleep. – Robert Frost.