There was once a frog that lived deep down in the bottom of a well. She never moved from her well, nor did she ever think to do so. She felt perfectly content in her seclusion, that is, until one day she looked up and saw the head of a large sea turtle peering into the well. “Who are you!?” asked the startled frog.
“I’m a Giant Sea Turtle, from the sea. It seems very stuffy down in that little well. Why don’t you come out? I’ll help you out if you like.”
“I simply don’t feel the need to.” replied the frog, “This place is paradise! I can do whatever I want here. I can jump around the well, sleep over there in the shade, sing, and if I get bored I can look up and check for the clouds that occasionally float by. This sir, is the most beautiful place in the world.”
“But its so small!” said the turtle. “Have you never seen the ocean?”
“The ocean? Never heard of it. Is it better than this well?”
“The ocean is incredible! No one knows how vast or deep it is. I could swim my whole life and never find its end. Life in the ocean is truly amazing and wonderful!”
The frog’s eyes widened in amazement. As she realized how narrow her vision was, she became sad and lowered her head.
The beginning of my story is somewhat similar to that poor little frog in the well. I come from a small town in a small country, where due the negative economic condition, most people are very depressed. Among these is my father. He was always discouraging me from any big idea I had, and excused this behavior by claiming it was his way to motivate me. From an early age I knew that this life was not for me. I was always attracted by the allure of big countries. My dream was to one day start my own company. Though my teacher often pointed me out as the worst student of the language in my class, I surprised everyone when I was offered a chance to study in China. It was finally time to leave my well.
I knew that to start a company you need some work experience in big companies. I finished schooling in China, and took a job in Beijing at a start-up company. This company failed; I learned that you never market your product before you actually have it. On the bright side, as a single woman in charge of HR, I was able to “abuse” my position; after a year of hunting for “job candidates” I hired the man of my life, who is now my fiancée and business partner.
The second company I worked at was a Chinese company – like a giant ball of cotton candy, this company looked fun, colorful & impressive, but had no substance. This wasn’t an obstacle – this company was very successful at selling its fluffy, saccharine illusion to people, which resulted in several large sales deals. The takeaway: your positioning is everything. Aligning yourself so that people see you as the answer to their subconscious needs is the most important factor in sales. My boss at this company was a former actor who was quick to teach me that as long as you can gain a customer’s trust and position your product to cater to their subconscious needs – you can sell anything.
While the lesson I learned was interesting, the company did not reflect my values. So I left and finally got a job with a corporation! I thought I was finally saved from the horrors you hear about working in Chinese companies….boy was I wrong! This was a foreign conglomerate with Chinese characteristics – every day was a game of hot potato played with responsibility. Top executives came to meetings with pre-made decisions, which affected employee morale. Here I learned about the importance of communication, or rather what happens when there isn’t any. I concluded that professionalism doesn’t apply in China. This conclusion gained further support when I discovered research that compared successful foreign and Chinese sales representatives. The research showed that foreign sales reps spend 80% of their time delivering professional product knowledge, while their Chinese counterparts spend 80% on their customer relationship or guanxi (a crucial term in Chinese culture). Only 20% of their time was spent delivering actual product information.
This whole time I was moonlighting as an English teacher. Strangely, this is the most positive work experience I’ve had in China. I was teaching adult students from different industries all at different levels of management and experience. As I was gaining my student’s trust, I was very fortunate to learn about the secrets of doing business in China in a pretty straightforward manner.
My contract with the corporation was about to expire. From early on I was told that the Talent Center of this company recognized my abilities and was keen to keep me. Despite the negatives, I could see myself working with this company in the long run. Then, suddenly, the HR staff started to play the hot potato game again – but this time with my future! My contract expired before anyone got stuck with being responsible for my case, and so I found myself looking for my 5th job in 3 years.
After all these years, I had learned so much about the culture, I spoke the language fluently, and had learned much about management, strategy, communication, responsibility, branding, sales, and marketing. I considered myself a very competent candidate to apply for a serious position with a serious company. No matter how qualified I thought I was, even after optimizing my resume to make it as tempting as possible to the people I wanted to hire me, for whatever reason, I was still not getting that call.
I did some research. As I did so I came to realize that the HR system is somewhat broken. Most of the big companies use computer software to sort out applications. The HR personnel have largely been replaced by machines searching for key-words in the resumes. Furthermore, I came to find that the headhunters in China also work along the same “guanxi” system that the sales people use. They maintain a talent pool, but only those candidates who have a close relationship with the headhunter enjoy the right to swim in that pool. The HR managers and the Headhunters served as tight filters and screens, often working against the company and talented candidates.
There I was, standing at a crossroads, very confused about my future, and on the wrong side of my twenties. I desperately wanted to have my own company, but I still felt I didn’t have all the knowledge and experience I needed to start. I was thirsty for knowledge and experience. None of the companies I worked for had given me enough responsibility to learn and grow. When you join a company, they first put you on the bench so you can watch other people playing the game. You are stuck in that position; you do one same thing for 2-3 years, only to get promoted to do another thing for 3 years. This process is repeated over and over, and by the time you feel you have learned enough, you’re fifty and exhausted. You don’t have the energy to do all the running around that it takes to start a company. I decided that I wouldn’t let HR departments and Headhunters decide my future. I decided to be an entrepreneur. It was less certain, offered even less stability, but I knew that during this period of time I would be free, and that the success or failure would depend on me. I had thought I had left my well when I left my country, but I really left the well when I decided to become an entrepreneur. Now I know that I’m really swimming in the ocean.