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Monday, February 20, 2017

Entreprenuers Need to Keep Learning too!

This is an article i wrote for the CFE which was published on Channelnewsasia. Below is the unedited version.


A key thing that I discovered through my personal experiences and from my fellow entrepreneurs is that entrepreneurship is a learning journey, and many successful business owners embrace continuous learning as a way of life.

The founding team and I built JobsCentral, over 14 years from 2001 to 2014, into a leading regional job portal generating multi-million dollar profits and employing 150 full time staff. During this period, I had evolved from a hands-on, multi-tasking founder into a strategic and metric-focused CEO. I was also privileged to have made friends with many fellow entrepreneurs through organisations like Entrepreneurs Organization and ACE.

I strongly believe that having a positive attitude towards lifelong learning, coupled with a long-term, obsessive focus on business are attributes that separates successful entrepreneurs from the rest.

The most apparent way to learn is to ‘learn by doing’. Many entrepreneurs picked up skills to build, to market and to sell a great product via on-the-job lessons every day. We all make mistakes. But we always try to iterate and improve for the next round. This can be applied beyond business to many areas such as people and self-management.

When we first started JobsCentral, staff were managed with an iron fist and the management team ended up micro managing. This resulted in our first sales team leaving the company en masse. From that painful experience, we learned to manage by focusing on clear objectives and balancing between micro-managing and giving autonomy to the staff.

This incident also gave us an opportunity to learn how to better manage ourselves. Some introspection is required to prevent us from repeating the same mistakes. However, many entrepreneurs with large egos find it hard to admit to their wrongdoings.

What we found important is for business owners not take criticism personally and to always refer to metrics to develop solutions.  For example, during the ‘group buying’ craze, we were sure that a ‘pay-per-course sign up model’ a.k.a. the ‘Groupon model’ would be very scalable. But after 6 months, indicators such as sales figures and usage metrics highlighted that traditional direct advertising models were more effective. In this situation, we admitted our mistake openly and switched our tack.

For entrepreneurs, on-the-job training and learning from mistakes will naturally be the longest and most painful way to learn. A faster and more effective way would be to learn from competitors, experienced hires and fellow entrepreneurs.

Many mistakes could have been avoided if there had been upfront consultation with or reference to books by people who have been there and done that.

The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) ecosystem is a great example  where knowledge gets spread rapidly via sharing sessions, media and online communication tools. I remember hosting visits for internet-based companies which wanted to understand how JobsCentral had built its strong consumer brand. Learning from our experiences helped these entrepreneurs build confidence and certainty in their marketing plans. Likewise, JobsCentral was able to negotiate a fair sale deal back in 2011, after seeking feedback from experienced entrepreneurs who had bought and sold businesses..

This sharing is not even across other sectors. Singaporean firms typically refrain from sharing information. While there is intense competition and secrecy among companies in the same sectors, there is nothing stopping entrepreneurs from sharing openly with non-competitive peers and helping each other grow.

I have personally found great satisfaction in playing a small role in helping fellow entrepreneurs build their businesses. Also, as Singaporean entrepreneurs, we must recognise that we need to operate on a regional and global stage to grow. So while we compete among ourselves domestically, we need to be mindful that we are also going up against overseas players.  It would be fantastic if we had open platforms for sharing and learning within our business community, to uplift the industries here – for instance, through our Trade Associations.

If we are able to learn from our mistakes, as well as the knowledge and experiences of fellow entrepreneurs, chances are that we will build a strong business.  However, to truly build a great business, more needs to be done.

For example, entrepreneurs need to understand and appreciate industry-specific processes and know-how, to be able to envision the future and achieve their goals. Our last 2 years in CareerBuilder was about transforming a global job portal into a HR Software-As-A-Service (SAAS) business.  Our management in the USA was able to observe next generation software companies like SalesForce and Zendesk and realised we would be better off in the long-term if we establish the direction to transform our company into a HR SAAS player. This insight was synthesized from studying SAAS trends and coupling that with in-house knowledge and current strengths in market positioning.

Each entrepreneur needs to find the most effective way to learn. I learn best by reading widely and talking to fellow entrepreneurs. The latter approach requires putting in effort to network and get to know people.  Organisations like Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), Business Leaders Alumni Club (BLAC), and Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) are great platforms to support this. It does take some experience to figure out who and what to ask. 

Another effective way of learning for me is to read business/economy-centric newspapers, quality business cases and books written by successful entrepreneurs or functional experts. Besides acquiring information from these publications, entreprenuers need to also adopt a habit of self-reflection to apply our learning to ourselves and our businesses.

As entrepreneurs, we are always asking our employees to keep learning  and to improve themselves. Lets  also  walk the talk and take some time to reflect and embrace continuous entrepreneurial learning, too. This means reflecting on our mistakes, learning from peers, understanding our industry and having an curiosity about the world. There is always something new to learn!

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