Earlier this year I launched travel tech startup Tineri, my third business venture in Southeast Asia (in 2009 I set up a tour operator business in Vietnam, and in 2015 I founded Representasia, a Bangkok-based travel/hospitality tech reseller). Each venture has brought successes and failures, laughter and tears, joy and pain, and zero regrets. And a lot more grey hair than I had when I started out.
So as entrepreneurship is as much about learning as it is earning (certainly in the early stages you’ll learn a lot more than you earn), here are five very valuable lessons I’ve learned from running my Southeast Asia businesses…
1. You Have to Read People Quickly
As an entrepreneur, you meet all kinds of people. Some – most, probably – are supportive and want to help you, either for mutual financial gain or, in surprisingly many cases, out of pure altruism. Others want to make money out of you, either legitimately or by nefarious means (and I’ve encountered rather too many of the latter, particularly amongst Bangkok’s ageing expat community). And there are those who, for reasons best known to themselves, just want to waste your time – like the potential investor who strung us along with big promises for several months in 2015-16 only to eventually offer us a sum that would barely cover a couple of months’ office rent.
The problem is, when you first meet people – and you’ll meet a lot of people – you have no idea which category they’re going to fall into, so one of the most important things to learn is how to read people. Are they honest? Is their background and experience everything they say it is? Why are they really interested in working with you? You can do a bit of “due diligence” by asking mutual acquaintances and using LinkedIn, and when it comes to investors/partners you should, but ultimately you need to develop a sixth sense when meeting new people – which is even harder when running a business overseas, when you are dealing with people from various different cultures!
2. You Need to Manage the Highs & Lows
A few months back a friend of mine shared this image on Facebook:
This really is what it’s like, although I’d replace the word “Day” with “Hour”! One minute you’re buzzing because you’ve had a verbal OK from a potential investor; the next you’re down in the dumps because there’s a major bug in your software; the next you’re up again because a big potential client has just contacted you; then it’s despair again when that investor’s verbal OK becomes a written NO.
The trick, to paraphrase Kipling, is to meet with triumph and disaster and treat them both the same, by accepting that you’re going to encounter plenty of both. Don’t get overexcited by the highs – as I mentioned above, there are a lot of timewasters & bullshitters around; and don’t get too depressed by the lows – they’re inevitable, they’re an opportunity to learn, and they mean that progress is being made.
When times get really tough, as they almost certainly will, and the lure of a monthly salary becomes tempting, you need to remember why you started your business in the first place. Maybe you hated your last job; maybe you are pursuing a long-held dream; maybe you just wanted more control over your time. For me, starting Tineri after 3 years in a thoroughly frustrating job, it was about managing my own time and not having to be micromanaged by people for whom I had no respect, and that’s what I try and remember every time I’m having one of those bad days!
3. Don’t Expect Passion
One of the most overused words in recruitment is “passion”. Everyone wants employees who are “passionate” about what they do – in fact, it now seems to be an expectation. But please, a little perspective here. As an entrepreneur, you cannot expect your employees to be as passionate and committed to your idea as you are. Think about your passion for your business idea, and then compare it to how you felt about your last 9-5 job, and you’ll see what I mean.
You can try to encourage and foster passion by leading and inspiring your team, and if you do find people who are as committed to your idea as you are, then that’s fantastic. But expecting it from the start can only lead to disappointment and frustration for both parties. And let’s face it, not all roles require passion anyway. Sometimes you’ll need people to do boring or unappealing jobs – data entry, cold calling, complaint handling. And if someone tells you they are passionate about data entry, they’re either lying, or they’re very, very odd indeed.
But whilst you can’t expect passion, you can expect commitment, loyalty, enthusiasm and hard work, and, in Southeast Asia at least, you foster those by creating a good team environment – most Thais and Vietnamese like to work in big friendly teams who work, lunch and socialise together, for a boss who treats them with respect, values their ideas, and pays them accordingly, and who knows when to have a laugh and when to crack the whip. People will quit – often without telling you in advance – for the most apparently trivial of reasons or the smallest pay rise, so you need to use that sixth sense to read who’s happy and who isn’t. Obviously that is a very reductive summary of a very complex subject, but it’s a start.
4. Turn Business Partners into Friends – Not the Other Way Around
We’ve all seen it happen countless times. Some friends start a business together, and then within months, they’re not friends any more. I started my tour operator business in Vietnam with my wife, who became my ex-wife within 18 months. I started Representasia with a friend I’d known for nearly a decade; that relationship ended within months after he ****CENSORED FOR LEGAL REASONS!***. I might think it was just me if there weren’t numerous other examples out there.
Turning a friendship into a business partnership means totally pivoting the relationship from one which is based on having fun, sharing common leisure interests or just getting on well, into one based on mutual dependency, trust and, again, hard work. Traits that might be endearing in a friend can be liabilities in a business partner.
So it’s better to work the opposite way around – identify suitable business partners from outside your social circle, and work with them. If the chemistry is right, you’ll become friends anyway. I met Alan, my current partner, just a few months before we went into business; within a year I was flying to Japan for his birthday party, and we regularly go for after-work beers to discuss both work and non-work issues. The relationship works because it is built on what we both bring to the business, rather than supporting the same football team or attending the same university 30 years ago.
5. Use Your Local Ecosystem
Every country or city has its own startup/business ecosystem, whether it’s networking events, Meetup groups, incubators/accelerators, coworking spaces etc. And you need to use it. Cosmopolitan cities like Bangkok and Saigon, full of expats and open-minded, ambitious locals, are particularly fertile in this regard, and often you’ll come home from a networking event with a list of potential clients, partners, investors or employees.
These ecosystems also serve as support networks, whether it’s for finding freelance developers, getting flyers designed/printed, sharing space at trade shows, or just the simple and essential opportunity to share experiences over a beer. When I look at the key relationships I have developed for Tineri, most have come via this kind of networking, and whilst the WWW has made it easier than ever to communicate with people all over the planet, it’s often these local connections that prove to be the most significant.
So those are five of the most important lessons I’ve learned since I embarked on the life of an entrepreneur in Southeast Asia. They won’t guarantee success or turn your tiny startup into a unicorn overnight (or at all!), but they might just help make doing business in this wonderful, maddening, relaxing and chaotic part of the world just that little bit easier.
This post was written by Tim Russell. Tim is founder & CEO of travel tech startup Tineri. Originally from the UK, he has been in the tourism industry since 1992. He has been in Southeast Asia since 2003 when he moved to Ho Chi Minh City. After almost a decade in Vietnam, where he founded his own tour operator business, he moved to Thailand in 2012 and founded Tineri in early 2016.