What I Have Learned from 50 Female Founders from Thailand and the Philippines
A year ago I started interviewing and featuring one female founder a week from either Thailand or the Philippines on my Connecting Founders website. My goal was to capture their “secret sauce”, how they built and managed their businesses, and share their lessons learnt to inspire others–people who are just starting out as well as established entrepreneurs. Regardless of how long you have been in business, there are always good days and bad days and reading or listening to someone else that has gone through similar things or that has an inspiring story can be tremendously energizing and remind us why we do what we do, even if everything seems to go wrong that day.
I have featured 50 businesses by self-made women entrepreneurs, which employ close to 2100 people in these two countries. And while I hope I did inspire other women along the way, there is no doubt that the person that most benefitted from this is me. I have been greatly inspired by their journeys, motivated by their determination, and humbled by their resilience and business acumen. No matter how exhausted and sleep deprived I walked into many of these interviews, I found myself completely mesmerized and suddenly re-energized every time they began sharing their journeys.
They are women that come from all walks of life and work across a variety of sectors. Some come from business families, while some are the pioneer entrepreneurs in their families. Some run small businesses, some head large companies with hundreds of employees. All of them have taught me valuable lessons and shared honest portraits of what it takes to be an entrepreneur and why they do what they do. Theirs are tales of passion, grit and resilience.
I am immensely grateful for their trust and having been able to capture their advice, and in response would like to reflect on and share ten of the key lessons about starting a business that I learnt from these women.
1. Follow your passion and what you are good at, but make sure you also make money.
Perhaps the number one piece of advice given to me by the entrepreneurs I interviewed: do what you love. The advice is practical–when you start your own business you will be working 24/7, with few breaks or holidays, you are going to be living and breathing your product, so you need to be passionate about what you’re doing to make the workload easier. For some of the entrepreneurs, it was about turning a hobby into a business, for others it was about creating a product that from personal experience they felt was missing, and some of the entrepreneurs were driven by a social or environmental cause. Whatever spurs you to start your own business, make sure it’s something you feel strongly about and that it’s a passion that is sustainable. Kamolchat (Fa) Juangroongraungkit, founder of luxury baby product and accessories company Evoli put it simply as “do something that makes you happy.”
But as great as it is to follow your dreams, you also need to be practical: a business isn’t sustainable if you aren’t making money. You don’t have to be motivated by vast profits, but you do have to be able to put food on the table. Many entrepreneurs leave stable jobs with good incomes and invest their savings in their new venture and there is no turning back from that. You will need to approach your business knowing how much you are willing to risk and for how long. If at that point you do not see results, you might need to move on.
2. Be ready to work your tail off
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the life of an entrepreneur is easy. The media often glamorizes them: we often hear about their successes but much less about their failures, the sleepless nights and the sheer number of hours that went into making their product a success. As great as it is to be your own boss, it is not an easy ride and not everyone can do it. “If you own your own business, there is no way around working your tail off”, told me Liz Fuentes, owner of Lizzie Latte in Manila. You have to work hard, and realistically your chances of proper work-free breaks and holidays are slim to none. You will have to live and breathe your business in order for it to be a success, and it will be difficult. Which is why passion is important, because it will make it easier.
“Dream big and work hard for it” is the advice that Annaliza Laxamana of Modern Ads & Promo gives to budding entrepreneurs.
3. Plan as much as you can but expect disruptions.
Starting a business from scratch is a scary thing, and the easiest way to do it is to have a plan of action. Do as much research as possible, figure out your business model and know what you need to make it work. You will need to plan, in advance, what resources you will need, how many people need to get involved, how much time it will take, where you will be selling and who you will be selling to. You need to be as prepared as you can be, so nothing comes as a shock.
Keep in mind however that you will never be able to prepare for every eventuality and there will come a time when you just have to take the plunge. Especially if you have yet to start your business: as much as you might want to be completely prepared before you launch, that will not be possible, “you always have things to learn but you can’t wait until you know everything. You keep learning all the time so you have to set a date and start” (custom wedding dress designer Nhoo Matthews).
4. Start small and dream your own definition of big.
In the words of Nanta Tangudtaisak, founder of jewelry brand Anyallerie, “think big but start small”. You will never be completely prepared to start your own business, but starting small and growing your business at your own pace will allow you to learn as you go along. From conducting the interviews, I learnt that we have a tendency to be overly cautious when it comes to expanding our businesses, and many of the women I spoke to said that if they had the chance to do it all again they would have expanded faster and been less conservative in their decision making. Yes, be cautious, and yes, take calculated risks, but expand your business at a pace that you feel comfortable with, whatever that means for you. It’s your own definition of “Dream Big”.
5. Be bold and don’t be afraid to fail.
Let’s emphasize it again. It is important that you take risks in order to grow. There is no way around it. Business will never be risk-free and over thinking your decisions could end up complicating things and holding you and your business back. You also have to stand by the decisions you make, because if you doubt yourself, the people around you will feel it and start to doubt you as well. You will only be successful in taking risks if you are clear with yourself about why you are doing it and what the goals are.
Inevitably not all the risks you take will pan out, and you have to see these failures as an opportunity to learn. Starting your business will not be easy or straightforward, you will encounter bumps in the road, but you have to learn to pick yourself up and keep going. Vivian Ke Story, founder of Story Seoul, advises, “The mindset should be that you can’t give up. Even if you are discouraged you have to keep going.” Your options when encountering failure are either to give up or to learn from it and get better. It’s most likely that things will not turn out how you had planned, however you need to approach your business as if there is always a solution to every problem you encounter. If you are passionate about your business you need to keep going. In the words of Nathanaporn Euawanthanakhun of April’s Bakery, “keep doing it if that’s what you love. You don’t know how long it will take for you to be successful”.
6. Follow your gut but listen to feedback.
One of the questions I asked during the interviews was what advice the women would have appreciated having at the beginning when they first started their businesses, and most said that it would be to trust their instinct more.
If this is your first foray into starting a business, you will understandably want to seek the help and advice of experts. But it’s important to learn to trust yourself. If you have done your research into your market, your product, your target consumer, you need to have faith in your knowledge and your gut when it comes to making decisions. It’s not so easy though because it is also really important to listen to advice, and seek the opinions and guidance of others. Sound boarding your ideas is a great way of improving your products, as other people will be able to approach your ideas from a different perspective. Your product will be made stronger for it.
It’s a very tricky balance and definitely an art more than a science. “If you are too proud and don’t listen to anyone, you might go in the wrong direction. If you listen too much to others, you can lose your brand identity”, said Chatkeo Srisuwan (Moss) of Mosstories. When people give you advice you need to gauge where they’re coming from because not all advice is good. So again, learn to trust yourself and follow your instinct.
But how do you know that your instinct is correct? “You don’t,” said Paveena Angsuvat McLean, co-founder and CEO of Abode, “but through experience you’ll learn what you are doing and you’ve got to go with your gut feeling”.
7. Know your target audience and find your wolf pack.
You need to have a very clear target consumer and you need to know them like the back of your hand – who they are, what they need, and what they will expect from you and your product. As great as it would be to have mass appeal, that’s not feasible: pitch to too large of a group and your product and brand will not have a strong enough identity to make it. You cannot appeal to everyone so pick a target that want your product, that have the purchasing power, and also cannot get your product elsewhere. “Find your wolf pack”, said Lauren Yates of Ponytail Journal. Targeting this market is how you will build your brand, but it will take a long time. This is also where the need to be flexible comes in: you need to keep up to date with market trends. Things will change, and what your customers expect of you will change over time. You need to know them well enough that you can preempt this and change your product accordingly to keep them coming back for more.
8. Be honest to your customers–your message should be based on product truth.
In order for your business to be a success you need to have a very strong product to start with. “Our motto is to only produce something that we would buy ourselves”, said Chalita Hongsakul of sportswear company Waking Bee. You need to offer a quality product that you fully support and would buy into yourself because how can you expect people to feel enthusiastic about a product if you don’t feel it yourself?
You also need to be able to meet the expectations of your customers, so be honest about your product and don’t overpromise. Don’t give unrealistic expectations to customers who will only end up dissatisfied with your product. You need to ensure that you are getting the repeat business you need to sustain your company. Attracting new customers is fantastic but your priority should be ensuring that your pre-existing customers are well treated, content, and will continue to do business with you. It will be much easier for you to meet targets if you know that you can rely on pre-existing customers to continue to buy.
9. Surround yourself with a team that complements your strengths and delegate.
As you start to expand your business you will need to bring staff onto your team. You will probably find relinquishing control very difficult, but you have to remember that as much as you might want to handle every task yourself, you cannot actually do it all on your own. The idea is to hire in areas where your skills are lacking, so you need to take a long hard look at yourself and examine your strengths and weaknesses. Regina Jacinto-Barrientos, co-founder and managing partner of PJS Law relates, “at the beginning [the growth of my business] was a complete failure because I had always thought that to get things done I needed to do things myself. It worked when we were just 5, 10, 15, but when we started growing it was not possible anymore. And the first thing is that you have to admit that you need help. And you need to trust the people that are willing to help you. It’s very, very hard but it brings different perspectives.” It will be very difficult for you to focus on the bigger picture when you are preoccupied with the smaller aspects of running a business. That is precisely why you hire people, so trust them to do their job. But also if people aren’t pulling their weight, do not be afraid to let them go.
10. Be kind but firm–be a nurturing leader.
Tying into learning how to trust your staff and delegate, you’re also going to need to figure out what kind of boss you want to be. You will need to strike a balance between being strict and being approachable, and what you want to achieve is a friendly workplace where your staff feel invested in the future of your business. You might find it difficult to be firm with your staff, so it’s important to set ground rules so that no one takes advantage of you, but these rules also need to be flexible so that people enjoy working for you and your company.
You also need to nurture the skills of your team, and perhaps the best way to do this is to lead by example. “Don’t expect your staff to give 100% unless you do it yourself first. Roll up your sleeves and work with them, show them that you can actually do those things not just ask them to do it” (Nicky Surapaitoon, Country Manager for TAPP). Demonstrating by example allows you to guide your team, but also by demonstrating your passion for the business, you are encouraging that same passion in your team.
And to conclude, one of my very favorite quotes:
“Act like a tiger even though you are just a cat”