Inconvenient questions for entrepreneurs during Chinese New Year

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It’s that time of the year again! You grit your teeth and force a smile while The Relatives assail you with questions about every aspect of your life, as they chew on ba kwa (a meat product similar to jerky). BLOCK71 Singapore speaks to four of its resident entrepreneurs on their experiences handling inconvenient questions from their kin on the start-up life.

Erik Cheong, one of the co-founders of Park N Parcel

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The two most common reaction by relatives will be “Shocked” and “Puzzled”. Relatives that are shocked, are usually PMETs themselves. The first question that comes to their mind is “Are you being retrenched?”. This is followed by giving me advice on the challenges of running a business in Singapore (such as high operating costs, high failure rate, long working hours with low salary etc). They will often end up suggesting that I commit lesser effort to my start up and look for a stable job, because is more practical in terms of financials.

Relatives that are puzzled, are usually uncles and aunties that have already retired. “Start-up and Technopreneur” are unfamiliar terms to them; the first question that comes to their mind is “ What is a start-up? “. Uncle and Auntie relatives are only familiar with traditional jobs such as being a lawyer, banker, accountant etc. They can’t be blamed because most of them are less tech-savvy and connected, particularly the silver generation.

When I start sharing about what Park N Parcel does, their “Shocked & Puzzled” reaction initially gave me mixed feelings about what I am doing. I love entrepreneurship but don’t want to be looked down upon or classified as being different from the norm.

Firstly, I am upset because my relatives do not understand the importance of innovation, especially in this fast moving world. On another hand, I feel glad to be part of the pioneer start-ups in the ecosystem at BLOCK 71 Singapore. To give my relatives a better understanding, usually I will show them my office and the start-up community. I educate them about the support that start-ups receive from the various government-linked entities. Additionally, I show them growth-related statistics of the start-up ecosystem over the years.

The incident made me realise that the life of a startup founder versus working in a corporation is totally different. Working at a corporation, there are many benefits such as stability, a steady stream of income and allowing staff to develop a very specific skill set. Corporations are more structured and if you like growing vertically in your department, they are definitely the right place for you, which most Singaporeans prefer.

Start-ups are the younger, more erratic cousin of the corporate. It is extremely hard for co-founders like myself to cut the times between work and personal life, and most entrepreneurs have this mindset of “work hard & play hard”.

When working in a start-up, your possibilities are endless and you can learn a lot on your own. Sometimes, the learning curve can be very steep. Most of the time, you handle multiple tasks and they might all change unexpectedly.

Lastly, as a start-up, it’s a bit harder to gain recognition, we do not become recognised brands instantly. It might take years until people/relatives to acknowledge your start-up and identify your brand more readily.

Joseph Ling, CEO of Vouch

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I come from a a very open minded family. Since young, my mother always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. More importantly, she trusted that I would make decisions that were well thought out and commit to them. You could say that a big reason why I chose to start-up was because she always pushed me to pursue my dreams.

Coincidentally, my extended family and relatives are really open too. Two of my cousins have founded and are running their own startups. A few more are waiting for the right opportunity to do so. So I’ve only ever experienced acceptance when telling my relatives that I’ve started up.

I think what’s more interesting is when they ask about how my startup is doing. By nature of the uncertainty inherent in starting up, we’ve pivoted a few times and its sometimes difficult to explain that our business model /product may have changed significantly. I used to think that often-times when relatives ask these sort of questions, they do so out of courtesy and not because they are genuinely interested (probably because that’s what I do occasionally haha), so I usually give a brief answer and ask about them instead. I’ve come to realise since that this isn’t always true.

In the few times that I’ve explained what my start-up does and why what we’re doing now is different from what we did previously, relatives have taken an interest and have, on a few occasions, helped me make connections with people that eventually helped me. And this doesn’t just apply to relatives, but friends in general, especially if I also show interest in what they are doing too.

So I guess the moral of the story is — don’t be shy, just explain why.

Jason Lim, CEO of Stendard

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The responses from my relatives are something like “Wah are you sure? I think it’s very risky, since you now have a family. Perhaps it’s good that whatever you do now, you should try to align your skill sets to what a corporate might need, so you can join them anytime when you don’t succeed?”

Here, I know this conversation will go nowhere because that’s just a difference in mindset. So I usually will just nod my head and change the topic! “Oh, I will consider that. But instead of thinking what if I don’t succeed, I prefer to spend my energy on how to make things work out! You got any contacts that is interested in our software? Maybe can recommend?”

Most Singaporeans are still quite risk averse and it’s difficult to change this mindset in the near term. As always, we just need more success stories to convince and we hope the next few generations of Singaporeans can be more enterprising like our forefathers! :)congratulating me and I still keep that note on my desk for inspiration.

Akira Hirakawa, CEO of Red Dot Drone

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*Not Chinese New Year but Shinnekai (a Japanese tradition for welcoming the New Year) for Akira

Most of my relatives have a good reaction to my reply. As I’m in a startup in a foreign country now (Singapore) and they know it is not easy to live and set up a startup overseas, they just encourage me. Because I can’t meet them often in Japan (I meet them around once a year), they worry and ask many things about my current situation such as my daily life, financial situation etc.

I usually say I will do my best when my parents, relatives and friends encourage me. I have had negative reactions about setting up a startup from friends before, for example, “Why are you setting up a startup? It will fail.” But even if the reaction is negative, I don’t feel sad or get angry — it’s a waste of my time to react. And if the reaction is constructive criticism, that is a wake-up call for me to realise risks, which I might be missing. So, I might take it into consideration.

Are you an entrepreneur working on a cool product and looking for more than just a co-working space ? Do apply for a hotdesk here and become part of the exciting community that we offer at BLOCK71 Singapore.

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NUS Enterprise nurtures entrepreneurial talents with global mindsets, while advancing innovation and entrepreneurship at Asia’s leading university.

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