Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

My Wonderful, Futile Search

A Reluctant Entrepreneur

Kat was on the other side of the bar.  She smiled as she engaged herself in conversation with the others gathered there.  I vigorously shook the cocktail shaker.  The sound of ice hitting metal rang out across the small bar; all heads turned toward me with alacrity normally reserved for gunshots.  I strained the shaker’s colourful contents into the glass.  While all other eyes were mesmerized by the dance of the alcohol as it sashayed into the glass, Kat’s eyes were on me.  This was the fifth original cocktail I had created with the intent to give to the proprietor for free, and though she was still smiling, the glimmer in her eyes belied her thoughts.  It said, “By Gods are you going to hear it later.”

evil eyes  A hundred of these couldn’t save me

I did.

It was a tirade I had heard before, “Why don’t you sell X skill instead of giving it away?!”  Yet another in a series of individuals very upset with me, quite possibly because they had read far too much Rand and not enough Rousseau.  This time it was different though.  This time it was coming from her.  My best friend, this impatient, driven woman who at the same time is quite possibly the most understanding and loving person I have ever met.  Though in not so few words, the base question was this: “Why aren’t you using your talent to make sure both of us have a better life?”  Many people had argued that I capitalize on my skills before, but not until now had I heard it and interpreted it like this.

white-golden-retriever-puppy-53914-mMaybe it was because she used those sad puppy dog eyes.

               Helen had a face that could launch a thousand ships, but only Katerina can make a hard-core anarchist consider starting a business.

I am burdened by many knowledges and skills.  In thirty years’ time I have experienced and been exposed to more than some people venture to deal with over the course of their lives (I’m also very humble).  I have lived abroad on multiple occasions; seen at least 35 of the contiguous US states; speak English, Mandarin Chinese, and French, along with a smattering of Ancient Greek and Macedonian (thanks Kat!); I can play three musical instruments; am incredibly well read by English language standards; have engaged myself in multiple sciences from an early age, starting with Geology and moving on to Biology, then to Developmental Neuropsychology and Linguistics.  I am well versed in history and folklore.  My family history is well known to me and I can trace some branches back to somewhere around 900 AD.  I have managed a band, know both fencing and archery, and have taught myself to use numerous production soft-wares starting from the Adobe Suite, and ranging on into music production programmes, and even into 3d rendering and animation.  My father was a computer programmer and I have been able to punch in basic code since I was five.  I know exactly how your phone works.  I spent close to 6 months in Iraq helping Special Forces track down terrorists that I suspect to this day were more than likely innocent.  I have logged over 200 hundred flight hours as military aircrew, an experience which only reaffirmed my positions that 1) There is no such thing as benevolent government, and 2) as a person brought up in a more-or-less English household, I do not belong in the US.  I digress.  I can cook very well (Cajun is my specialty), and I may have forgotten more cocktails than some bartenders ever learn over the course of their careers.  I can, and have brewed as well.  I have lit a fire on a frozen lake in the middle of winter and kept it going for nearly 20 minutes.  I have learned that I am handy with a rifle, but dangerous with a pistol.  At one point in my life I was also an ordained minister in my faith (hyperlink here).  Once I even managed to watch the Star Wars Prequels without wanting to kill Jar Jar Binks.

jar jarOkay, that last one was a lie. Let’s get that bastard.

        As crazy as all this may sound, it’s all true.  I’ve done all of this and more (except for the Jar-Jar thing).  There is only one thing I’ve consistently wanted to do with my life however, and that is draw cartoons.  I’ve been drawing cartoons since I was six and it has never left me.  I am fascinated by cartoons and animation.  They consume me.  When I was eight, my biological clock was attuned to the time that Inspector Gadget came on.

gadgetGo, Go Gadget Obsession!

So when the message that I should finally try to capitalize on all these experience finally reached me after Kat’s berratio….speech, it was only natural that I place the focus on cartoons.  I wasn’t ready for animation, but I could draw a single shot cartoon like nobody’s business.

Hell-Far-Side-2Except for Gary Larson, that was his business.

I had many friends suggest prior to Kat’s plea that I use my cartooning skills to make shirts, but it had little appeal to me until she said it.  Money had no appeal to me, until she said it.  Because she to me, is the best friend that little boy who spent his life moving around always wanted, the friend you get to keep.  That is worth all the money in the world.  Let’s start a T-shirt company.

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Yes, but Why T-shirts?

Vali was behind the bar.  He had just poured out a fifth original cocktail and once again, everyone was in awe.  He was able to instantly think up five, unique, mind-blowing cocktail recipes, and he just gave them to the owner… for free.

money_business_art

Pictured: money he’s missing out on.

The question kept running through my mind, “When will he stop giving out his unique  talents and skills as if they were something that everyone else on earth possessed?”  cartoons_superheroe

      He was going to add more detail, but I yelled at him to stop fooling around and get some real work done.

The thought that the man of my life possessed such unique talents, but still seemed so devoid of ambition frustrated the hell out of me. This time I told him “You must wake up and do something with your potential, instead of giving it away for free!”  I laughingly went on ; “If you don’t I will capitalize on each and every of your talents, and turn you into my personal ATM!”

money cow

                                    Or you could say: “My Money Cow”

A few days later, he told me that he was thinking to turn his cartooning skills toward making a unique T-shirt brand and thereby achieve global domination. buy my T-shirts                                          I guess he pictured it like this.

I felt relieved, it sounded a little crazy (especially that part about the T-shirts), but he had finally started thinking about business. I liked the idea a lot and told him that I was willing to give him my support (I’ve regretted saying this many times since).  In my mind we are the “perfect match”  he is a very creative artist, and I know how to exploit him.   I digress, we complement each others’ skills well.  His strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa.   I lose my patience, he finds it.  He loses his keys, I find them.  I’m insanely practical, he’s practically insane.  It works.

compromise_pickles

                             Besides, someone’s gotta open those pickles.

Yet another one of my goals which I will touch on in depth later is to move into consulting.  What I felt I lacked however was some business experience and personal success. Naturally, I thought that if I can manage our T-shirt brand and make it famous, then the people will take notice and trust me – that’s the best advertising I could ever get.

alba_ moon_writing

          That or some of that sweet, sweet Moon advertising space.

All these years of endless frustration resulting from working for Chinese companies that were preaching professionalism, but in reality showed none. Companies where nobody cared about the personal and professional development of the employees, put an idea into my head.   We started  a T-shirt business for our first entrepreneurship effort, with a great vision to create a fun brand and making a name for ourselves in China,  and giving others the opportunity to join in on the fun. I  wanted to set an example in management for young people to learn by. I want to  motivate and help them to realize their own potential independent from the trap that is the modern corporate world. What if I could build my perfect company? What if I could create a place where employees will learn and develop, and be motivated to work?   I already had the perfect test subject, but getting my fiancé to cooperate was more of a chore than I bargained for….

stubborn_mule

                                             “Hi, I’m your new cartoonist!”

Next week:  How to Train Your Artist!  A handling and obedience manual for all managers!

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A Frog in a Well

Kat

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.

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