by Winston Lim (Singapore)
My entrepreneurial journey began when I was only 19. At that time, I met a group of friends who shared a similar goal of starting a café. Together, we set out to establish such a business.
All of us had neither prior experience in any form of business nor any formal education in starting one. Our saving grace was that we had the contacts for suppliers and equipment, a relatively good location, and lots of passion.
Our start-up process was relatively easy. Together, we formed a Private Limited, had a form of shareholders agreement to divide our roles within ourselves, while stating our respective share ownership and injection into the business.
As I was under-aged at that time, I got a family member to become my proxy in the business.
Within the team, I was the youngest and least experienced member, so I basically followed the direction of my other partners. We basically rushed into the business without a compelling vision or long term plan. Our only goal was to build a system that we might franchise in the future. Other than that, it was pure passion what was driving the team.
The café lasted almost two years. During the first year, our biggest mistake was to fully staff the café with managers and staff. We had started with spare cash but that was quickly depleted. It was only at this point that we realized that we needed better financial projections. We also realized that we needed to review our cost structure as we had overestimated our initial sales by a big margin.
Change was needed and I mainly contributed by physically running the café after we had to fire our existing managers to cut cost and hire only a few staff to lower cost. Shortly, we broke even. But we still needed to cover the bad debt that we had accumulated. It was a really challenge maintaining different suppliers and debtors. The lesson ‘cashflow is king’ was learnt firsthand when we had to clear our debt while staying afloat.
Towards the end of our second year, we were able to clear our debts, but the team was already disheartened and burnt out. We had lost our focus as we lacked a clear leader from the start. Shortly, we liquated the company and each went our separate paths on amiable terms. The experience of being in a start-up was nevertheless rewarding and inspiring.
Upon entering SMU, I have joined various ideas pitching sessions and went for a few rounds of iJAM funding in 2007. I got to experience various forms of seeking funding and learnt the importance of a business plan and idea pitching (selling yourself). Due to my stubborn and positive nature, I always bounce back up after every discouragement or negative feedback from others. However, I felt that a formal course to learn about entrepreneurship was nevertheless needed.
When one of our school lecturers, Professor Pamela Lim, decided to offer this class, Technological Entrepreneurship, I signed up for the class as this would offer me to learn formally on the knots of starting a business. Her background includes being a Venture Capitalist, successful entrepreneur (bringing a start-up from Idea to IPO stage) and clinching various entrepreneurial awards. Her guidance and wisdom greatly aided my personal growth.
As part of the class, we were also required to pursue a business that was technologically inclined. Learning from my previous experience, my group pursued a very big vision, to be the ‘Amazon of e-books’. Our business idea then went through various transformation of business model and target segment. We really focused on our feasibility study as we wanted to create a legend.
Although the course has ended, we have evolved our business model radically from how we have started. Now, we are more confident of our value proposition and are currently approaching various sources of funding.
This course has taught us the skills and knowledge that we need as aspiring entrepreneurs. Among the most important lessons that we have learnt, they are firsthand tips and lessons on approaching VCs, sharing our business ideas, importance of a team, idea pitching (importance of a teaser), various ways to protect your start-up and even corporate governance mechanisms.
This course is strongly recommended to any aspiring entrepreneur within SMU. This is because the ropes would be taught, the mentor would be available, the class would be fun but would you take up the challenge? And join us on this journey of entrepreneurship. This is the path least traveled, but the most rewarding as well.