Editor’s Note:  The inspiring piece was written by Kenneth Chan, Hong Kong-based serial entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Gates2Asia.com, a service designed to help overseas SME to buy items directly from Asia suppliers at low cost.

“What do you wish you knew before starting your first business??”

That’s a question I have been asked quite a lot and through my various life stages, I have to admit that the answer has evolved and matured.

When I started my first business, I was fearless and quite cocky.  I had an attitude of, “I know this business as well as anyone.  And I’m not restrained by what has been done in the past but defined by what can be done in the future.”  But more importantly, I had a strong sense of what needed to be done and I was going to drive it.

That was back in 1999 and I was in my early 30’s and full of confidence and enthusiasm. There was no way that I could be wrong, because I would not let it be wrong.

As anyone with knowledge of that time, it was just prior to the dot-com crash of the early 2000’s and there was an air of dot-com entrepreneurialism permeating the global trade winds.

My “can’t fail” business, aptly named Gates2China Direct, was an internet business that allowed SME’s to buy products directly from low cost Asia suppliers. We designed, manufactured and warehoused our products in China and Hong Kong.  Our key premises were low order quantity (as little as 6 pcs per product) and ship to anywhere in the world within 7-10 days. Within days of launching at a large USA trade show, we had hundreds of orders. We were ecstatic as everything pointed to G2C becoming a stand out success.

Now remember, this was the first dot-com boom and we tried to take advantage of internet efficiencies. However we soon discovered that our client base was not comfortable in using the internet to transact and pay for the orders. Instead we received hundreds of orders by fax, phone calls, emails and even snail mail.  More importantly, we were overwhelmed with the amount of small orders as we failed to upgrade our users to order bigger volumes.  This created huge logistics nightmare as we had to pick the items from our warehouse, pack for each individual customer and ensure that we met our 7-10 day delivery commitment.

So while the business premise ultimately failed, I learned a lot and it was the start of a long journey for me into the world of the entrepreneur.

I have listed some of the lessons I have learned over the past 13 years as a serial entrepreneur.  I know the list and experiences will be different for each entrepreneur but I am quite confident in these lessons – lessons that “I wish I knew before starting my own business.”

1. Perseverance:  Entrepreneurial life is a life full of ups and downs and there will be times that the pressure seems unbearable.  Always keep in mind that this is will all be worthwhile in a few years time.

2.  One of my early life mentors stressed to me, “People who risk nothing – has nothing.  They can never learn, change, grow or live.  The greatest risk is not taking one as dreams are built from taking some risk.”

That said, I have learned that it’s not the risk that should concern people but how to manage risk. Managing risk is what entrepreneurs do every day.

3. With pressures and risks always comes doubt. Entrepreneurs learn to live with doubt.  It is one of the greatest tools of an entrepreneur because doubt forces you to test, breakdown, be critical and rebuild your premises.

4. Walt Disney had a saying that he used which I have always remembered “the way to start something, is to stop talking and start doing” This is kind of how I have tried to live my life as I realized early in life that I had a lot of dreams and ideas but none of this meant anything unless I do something about it and start to execute on them.

5. When you work for yourself, you realize that it does not matter how long you spend on something; only that it gets done.

One of my partners who is a highly respected and well known techie in North America always reminds me, “the first iteration will most likely be inevitably wrong; you will make much less than normal for a while; titles mean nothing, and everything always takes twice as long as expected; if at all!”

6. If you gain some successes, take some money off the table while you can.

The tendency (especially for the younger me) was to always “double down” when you gain some successes. While money in itself is not what motivates me, everyone needs it to survive and it’s wise to stuff some winnings under the mattress when you can.

7. Friends and family are the most important people in your life.

“Without their help, you could not cope with the pressures you face.

Without their support, you could not take the risks you take

And without their encouragement, you could not confront the doubts that await.”

So what has changed over the years?

“What do you wish you knew before starting your first business??” 

I have realized that entrepreneurial skills are honed through the years, by simply putting them into practice. Unbridled confidence is often a sign of someone who is young and long on enthusiasm but maybe lacking the complete package. Seasoned entrepreneurs base their confidence on their experiences. And confidence does not always come from being right but in many cases confidence comes from “not fearing being wrong.”

I’m not done yet (I have this new business called Gates2Asia now; and I am involved with other ventures as an advisor and investor) as I love the entrepreneurial life and I love the challenges and tribulations it offers. It may not be the life for everybody, but for the brave souls who do embark on an entrepreneurial journey, I wish you the very best in your ventures.

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13 Comments

  1. great insights – i tried the entrepreneurial path in the past and it was quite the emotional roller coaster – had I had some of these guidelines I probably would’ve done better

  2. An entrepreneur (i/ˌɒntrəprəˈnɜr/) is an owner or manager of a business enterprise who makes money through risk and initiative.[1][note 1] The term was originally a loanword fromFrench and was first defined by the Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon. Entrepreneur in English is a term applied to a person who is willing to help launch a new venture or enterprise and accept full responsibility for the outcome. Jean-Baptiste Say, a French economist, is believed to have coined the word “entrepreneur” in the 19th century – he defined an entrepreneur as “one who undertakes an enterprise, especially a contractor, acting as intermediatory between capital and labour”.[note 2]

  3. Serial entrepreneur
    A serial entrepreneur is one who continuously comes up with new ideas and starts new businesses.[5] In the media, the serial entrepreneur is represented as possessing a higher propensity for risk, innovation and achievement.[6]

  4. A lifestyle entrepreneur may decide to become self-employed in order to achieve greater personal freedom, more family time and more time working on projects or business goals that inspire them. A lifestyle entrepreneur may combine a hobby with a profession or they may specifically decide not to expand their business in order to remain in control of their venture. Common goals held by the lifestyle entrepreneur include earning a living doing something that they love, earning a living in a way that facilitates self-employment, achieving a good work/life balance and owning a business without shareholders.

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  7. Ken certainly shows how resilience and clear vision can help shape both his life and those around him. I am sure his vision will prove to be played out in a successful arena.

  8. as an entrepreneur myself – Ken’s insights really resonate with me – sounds like he has been through the ups and downs of running a business and those lessons have made him a stronger businessman – right attitude, aptitude and experience.  It’s clear that other entrepreneurs could learn a thing or two from him.

  9. I remember even back in your younger days, you were sought out by a major televison program “Frontline”

    on your expertise in international trade from the grass roots perspective. You have always been a person who’s opinion has always been sought after in the development of various projects because of you natural god given talent for vision and direction in the development of many projects. I thank you for your counsel for various projects that I have been involved in my friend.

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