Our second All Hands Taiwan event was another remarkable success. For those who missed it, here is a distilled blog account of the main topics that were discussed (see the photos here!). We will be publishing a summary blog post along with audio after every event. For a quick reminder who the panelists were for this event, check out this blog post. And if you would like to listen to the whole event, you can do so here:
Setting Up a Business – Well Begun is Half Done
When do you know that you are ready to start your own business?
Answer: You are never fully ready, and you need not expect to have the business all figured out when you start.
For all three panellists, the easiest part of starting was actually leaping into the deep end. It is not about being an expert and foreseeing every obstacle on the path to being your own boss, but about being confident in taking that first plunge with support from your friends, partners, and mentors. As Solene mentioned, starting a business is not about flipping the switch from working for a boss to ‘being your own boss’; you must be patient and embrace the first few steps of transition. Even Solene herself is financially reliant on teaching French to cover all bases and this in turn supports her passion for her urban gardening projects at Concrete Garden.
Although cliché, starting with the right frame of mind is key. For the panellists, the business does not have to be an established success right away – try to avoid day-dreaming about that ideal successful start because you will inevitably fall short of it. Reconfigure your thinking away from the common corporate binary of a ‘business’ as success and failure, to thinking as a thing to be grown through gradual evolution of trial and error. Jun reiterated that the errors and lost money from her earlier failed (or not so successful) F&B ventures were the experiences that prepared her for future projects.
How about the dry stuff of registering a business in Taiwan?
As a non-native Mandarin speaker, Paul found the task of starting a business in Taiwan daunting – registering the business, setting up a company bank account, what the business was liable for, taxes, notarising documents, bookkeeping, and other bureaucratic stuff. Although dull and mind-numbing, these processes are key to start a business. If you not want to spend months trawling through it, it is important to hire an accountant or at least seek professional advice. Jun hired an accountant to register her businesses and quotes varied from as high as NT$120,000 down to NT$10,000 (make sure you ask around so that you do not get ripped off). Alternately, you can take use Google Translate and do it yourself, just as Paul did. Although a bit of a headache, Paul saved an estimated NT$30,000 and managed to register the business within three weeks. * (Disclaimer: Paul had an APRC at that stage that made the process a lot smoother.)
It goes without saying that starting a business brings a fair amount of financial risk. Before you take the plunge you need to know your numbers and make calculations about how much capital is needed to start, how much capital is needed to sustain the business for those first few months, and the capital needed for a safety net if it all falls through. Knowing your numbers and thinking about the revenue/profit you would like to make adds a whole new dynamic and motivation to the start of running your business, Jun noted. But do not overthink it when it comes to calculating short-term costs as it is key that you do not lose sight of the long-term goal. Financial planning ensures that you do not become jaded by taking the short-term financial hits and dreading the next bill and invoice. Think like an investor by visualising the end goal in terms of profit and revenue. Make the goal realistic and in reach: do not tell yourself that you will be a millionaire in 2 years. Once the financial goal is visualised, you can work backwards, and it becomes easier to plan the steps to reach that goal. This process can assist in understanding how big your venue needs to be, how big your workspace should be, how large a team or management you need etc.
Sustaining the Business – Muddling Through
Dealing with daily obstacles is intrinsic to owning a business. From the start of Concrete Garden, Solene saw obstacles akin to jigsaw puzzles to solve. Urban gardening is a challenge that Solene is passionate about and she takes time to learn plant names and gardening techniques in French, English, and Chinese. Lack of environmental awareness in the urban population is not a problem unique to Taiwan, but most urban populations in the world. It is super hard to educate people about the environmental importance of plants above and beyond the aesthetic value of looking nice. The biggest challenge so far for Solene has been communication: the discomfort of pronouncing Chinese tones, seeing puzzled faces of students when she is trying to say nitrogen (氮) or some other necessary element.
As foreigners in Taipei, cultural gaps are obviously palpable. But after some time, Solene got used to this discomfort and became more playful with her teaching. Similarly, for Paul to make his product profitable (corporate English training) he had to have the patience to adjust to the Taiwanese market gradually – some corporate HR departments saw the value of his services but some did not. The key takeaway here is not to view such obstacles in a negative light but to view it as a chance to master the situation; to gain confidence in your own craft. The end-goal of dealing with a problem does not necessarily have to be the solution: you do not lose anything by trying to solve a puzzle.
Once you have grown the company with employees, it really helps if you know how to work every role. Here Jun’s experience is extremely apt: she knows every front of house role as waiter, barman, and manager as well as back of house sous chef, pot washer, dessert maker and head chef. This anecdote can be extended as an analogy for other businesses with a large team: you need to understand each role in the company inside out. Not only will you be able to practically fill in for somebody if an employee is off sick, but by appreciating what is needed at every level you will appreciate what it means to be an employee in that role. Nonetheless this does not mean that you should be a micro-manager or a control-freak, just that you should know the necessary parts of your business inside out in order to make operations smoother. This also makes you a successful manager as you know what challenges your staff face. For Jun it was a challenge to control her freedom and creativity as a boss. Naturally, she had to balance the power and freedom of doing what the heck she wanted: taking random days off and turning up to work late with the discipline and professionalism she needed from her staff.
If you are fortunate enough, it can be advantageous to have a partner to start the business with. Paul admits that with the time and energy he puts into his company, managing a business with a partner is akin to managing a romantic relationship. Knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, having someone to bounce ideas off of, and offering a different perspective is essential for the partnership and business to thrive.
In summary, there is limited value in hearing the success/failure stories of people who have done it before. Sure, there are important bits of advice that you can absorb from people’s anecdotes. Gain some confidence by feeling knowledgeable about the potential pitfalls, but your path to starting a business is your own. Figure out the work that makes you get out of bed in the morning, and then be confident in making your own mistakes as part of the process of evolving your business. Evolution only comes from trial and error.