Webinars and Zoom calls have now become a defacto way of life. Therefore, it should have been no surprise that Zoom launched its events marketplace last week, which involves allowing people to buy tickets for online events. I see this as a first part of a bigger plan that involves a gradual cannibalization of market share from companies such as EventBrite and XING, as well as a potential game changer for other industries such as education.
Event registration and management are incredibly commoditized processes and highly competitive on pricing. While it is relatively easy for Zoom to move into ticketing, the learning curve would be much steeper for companies such as Eventbrite and XING to acquire and successfully integrate good video conferencing / webinar capabilities.
The possibilities for Zoom going forward will be interesting:
Ticketing & Events (launch of On Zoom). Will this cannibalize market share from Eventbrite/XING?
Education (similar to Blackboard, Coursera and Masterclass). Is there a longer-term play at online learning and will this remain sustainable after recovery?
Telehealth. Should Zoom make a huge move into telehealth or continue to function as the reliable connector between telehealth companies and their customers?
Home electronics. Should they move into home appliances and electronics since video calls are going to be a huge part of our lives going forward? Check out Norwegian start up Neat.
In each of these scenarios, the question that Zoom needs to answer is whether it makes more commercial sense to (i) acquire capabilities in this area or (ii) better off playing the role of a technology enabler to their customers (and incumbents).
This is how most employees sees their business:
He lives from paycheck to paycheck with the constant fear of retrenchment as he progresses up the corporate ladder. He is concerned only with his salary, the amount of increment at the end of the year, the size of his bonus and the number of leave days.
This is how an entrepreneur sees the business.
Not only is he aware - strategically - about the cost structure of his business, but also motivated to be creative and innovative so as to maximize his profits.
Four years into trudging and bruising, I retraced my steps and got myself thinking about what makes an entrepreneur, a business owner, a founder, and what drives them to do the stuff they do.
Most people go into a new venture for the money. Some do it for the publicity. The media does a successful job of dramatizing those who start a business or raise their own fund. In fact, to me, it should always be about the money. I'm not being a mercenary, it's just more commercial. Unless you are operating a charity or social enterprise, starting a new business should always be about maximizing profits. Companies are sometimes willing to provide incentives and discounts to key customers or early takers at the expense of profits. This is fully understandable. That discount is an intangible marketing and relationship building cost - the company expects that goodwill to pay off in the future.
There's a lot of fun in building a business. But beyond the fun and the congratulatory notes from supportive friends, I sometimes wonder if people really know what they are getting into?
I caught up with a friend recently and shared with him what I'd been up to the last few weeks and months. Despite all the gloom around travel restrictions and crimping of dealflow, etc, I was sanguine and I got him enthusiastic about what we've been doing, the multiple platforms we have, the result of our hard work over the years, translating to tangible and "pursue-able" opportunities. He'd loved to be part of the "action".
I really don't think people really appreciate or know, first-hand, the pain and struggles experienced by being a business owner.
The pain of having to put up cash for operating overheads, do payrolls, pay for expenses, source for new revenue, execute, and yet, all at the same time, not having to draw a salary for yourself.
So many choose to see only the rosy side.
And because they see only what they want to see, they tend to be ignorant of what it really takes to operate a business and crystallize those nice sounding opportunities.
I am not trying to be a wet blanket. Neither am I belittling our achievements over the past 4 years, nor am I trying to discourage people from pursuing a dream of starting up. But the struggles undertaken by someone on the path of entrepreneurship cannot be adequately described through conversations, the sharing of anecdotes in webinars, or inspiring commencement speeches and classroom workshops.
Some years back, I'd closed a huge cross border M&A deal. Because of its size and complexity, it drew the attention of senior management, and as a result, I got an accelerated promotion (I think).
More than just the vote of confidence at the workplace, the project gave me breadth to exercise a great deal of autonomy throughout the negotiation process. Although fairly junior at that point in time, I was effectively thrown into the deep end of the pool to learn on the job.
I ran negotiations with various stakeholders in the project, piloted the financial model between two contesting bidders and coordinated the work streams between the stakeholders and lawyers. It wasn't a perfect process: I mucked up some of the translation at some of the meetings between the parties, ran into impasses at negotiations where I felt helpless, and broke some parts of the financial model.
Bankers who work on similar multi-million M&A and IPO deals often wear these similar deal creds like a badge of honour when they speak to their peer or at interviews. Some of them unfortunately become arrogant and get carried away by the false impression that they are highly sought after professionals just simply because they were on the deal team. I loosely coin this the 'hero mentality'.
It is also this misplaced sense of glory and pride that makes bankers arrogant. The hero mentality also leads many disgruntled employees from large organizations into starting their own business, falling flat on their faces and realizing later that it is not that easy after all.
When you are running a deal in an enterprise, your clients see you as the face of the institution you are working for. Most of them deal with you because of where you work, and not for the hero you think you are. Don't give yourself more credit other than the fact that you think you know what you are doing.
When you are operating your own advisory firm, your clients work with you because of who you are personally. You no longer wear the brand of a global institution. You have a significantly smaller reach and network. No one in the market knows you unless you have a personal dealing with them. The strength and extent of these networks are often smaller and weaker than what you think they are.
Assembling an M&A deal takes more than just execution. Beyond financial models and info memos, there are "hidden" work streams involving years of investing into relationships. Most clients will not deal with directly with you or pay you at a commensurate level working for a large financial institution. For them, the credibility and the branding of engaging with an internationally recognised firm is what they paid for.
So if you think that you did a lot of work in executing that M&A deal and deserve more credit than the organization employing you, think again - you probably would not be able to pull it off without leveraging on the global network and brand that is on your name card.
Adding it all up, it looks like the net result between staying as an employee and starting a new business, making profits and then eventually selling it for a buttload of cash could ultimately be the same. Perhaps one key difference there is that: While you can almost certainly live as an employee with a fixed income for most part of your life, there is no guarantee you can exit your business profitably as an entrepreneur.
That being said, the life skills you acquire from being a business owner is starkly different from an employee.
How does one define success in entrepreneurship? Can someone be considered a successful entrepreneur even when you are flat broke? Is the goal always to achieve a billion dollar valuation on your business? Is size the definitive metric for measuring entrepreneurial success?
One weekend afternoon, we visited a cafe nearby. The store was full and as a result, we had to wait behind the glass doors at the entrance. When a staff finally came up to us, all he did was beckon at the sign that was hung at the door, saying "FULL HOUSE". No greetings, no words of "sorry we are full, please wait." He just went "tap-tap-tap" on the sign at the glass door and walked away. We left.
At Starbucks, I almost always see tables with dirty cups, wet tables and used serviettes. The tables typically remain uncleared for a long time until a customer comes along looking for a seat. In one incident, I was even told that tissue paper costs $0.30 when I asked for the tables to be cleaned before I sat down. And when it is getting late, many times, the staff would often rearrange the chairs and tables loudly, sending a subtle unwelcoming message to all their customers: "Get out, we are closed".
On another weekday evening, I made a reservation at a fairly busy restaurant. The guy taking the reservations told me it was probably going to be at least a 15-minute wait and took down my number to call me when he got a table. Seeing that it was really crowded, we decided to take a walk around nearby and give him the benefit of time, coming back 30 minutes later. And when we showed up, he said rather triumphantly and self-conceitedly, "See, I told you, 15-minutes". I wasn't expecting to be seated but I guess a better respond would be, "Sorry, we are really packed today and I promise to try my best."
Last week, I was browsing online for a set of Marshall speakers. I stumbled upon the website of a distributor, found the product catalogue, as well as their email contact. I decided to write and ask for the stock availability before making the trip down to the outlet. However, all I got back from the business development manager was an email reply to enquire directly from their website. I ended up getting those speakers elsewhere.
Maybe it’s just me and I'm particular about the little things or we are just held hostage by poor service and there’s pretty much nothing that we can do about it.
Singapore has no resources, limited land and a limited indigenous workforce. But what we lack in physical commodities, we make up for in service. For many years, we have pride ourselves in being the epitome of a world-class service-oriented economy. We constantly promote our quality onboard our flagship airline. We rave about having the best airport in the world, and by all measurable terms, we claim to provide top-notch service in everything we do. Every foreigner who visits Singapore tells me it's a clean place, people are nice and good, etc.
This had been my impression way back until 2004 when I made my first trip alone overseas and stayed in China for a year.
I realized that good service exists in many cities in Asia. It is not unique only in developed cities but even in the emerging ones, not just in their airports but it percolates through every segment of the economy, big and small.
But why is our service deteriorating? I can only narrow this down to the fact that those in the services and non-PMET industries generally don't enjoy what they do.
A zero-sum culture.
From my conversations with friends, co-workers and clients, I get the impression that many companies in Singapore have a somewhat 'zero-sum' business culture, i.e. For an employer, once a deal has been made to hire someone, the company has a selfish interest to squeeze as much as they can out from the employee. This means lowballing salaries, scrimping on travel and employee benefits, and even pushing staff to work beyond stipulated hours.
What do employees do in turn? They find every possible means to skive, cut corners and slack off. Everyone lives paycheck to paycheck, look forward to Fridays and hate the Monday blues. They stop loving what they do and stop enjoying going to work. It just becomes a job, doing it just for the money. This percolates across the value chain in the business ecosystem. Clients often try to "suck dry" their vendors / suppliers, milking them as much time as possible.
There's no more professional decency, no mutual respect for personal time and resources, just emotionless transactional exchanges. After many years, this behaviour morphs into a toxic environment whereby two parties in any business transaction will always seek to take advantage of the other.
I'm not saying that all companies are like that. But the relentless and fast pursuit for profits today can be a dangerous thing at the expense of culture.
From laying the tarmac on the road, sweeping the sidewalks, making coffee behind the counters, to people pushing papers in the offices - every job is still a job. How do we instill a healthy respect and a sense of pride for the people who do what they do regardless of rank and file?