5 Mistakes I Made in Year One of Running a Small Business in a Foreign Land
My Singapore-based small business, Tangram Lab, recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. The idea for Tangram Lab was conceived shortly after launching this blog in 2009, when I’d emerged from the corporate cocoon fearful, raw, and relatively certain that I wouldn’t ever be flying back to it again. During this period, I was also immersed in rewriting a graduate thesis for the sixth time, researching doctoral programs, and volunteering at a few charities in New York— a period of dignified avoidance culminating in the realization that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my stint on Earth. Although I was probably too young to be disenchanted with the opportunities life offered and too old to be pondering what I wanted to be when I grew up, that’s exactly where I found myself. Looking back, the recession probably didn’t help matters.
Over the course of a very dark week or so, I directed my free hours into designing “the perfect job at the perfect place which doesn’t currently exist and under the assumption that the human species has transcended its gauche and detestable obsession with money instead operating under a scheme weighing an individual’s positive and negative contributions to society.” Or something like that. The result of this exercise was Tangram Lab, an idea I nervously tried to sell to a few well-meaning smart folks, most of whom looked at me with a special kind of pity and said, “umm, I’m not sure what you have here is a business. How will you eat?” Sadly, the etchings of Tangram Lab were concealed within a puke green folder and shoved into a filing cabinet. I went back to the business of trying to Google my future.
In the summer of 2010, my husband and I moved from New York to Singapore after he accepted a job that would require us to relocate. Contrary to my own expectations, I soon found myself relegated to the status of “Dependent,” exempted from the vast majority of job openings, and looked upon as merely a stay at home foreigner wife. As someone who had been entirely self-sufficient since the age of seventeen, I viewed a potential opportunity as a minor devastation to both the ego and the spirit. My choices seemed to boil down to a few: 1) I could join the legions of well-heeled expat ladies who lunch, minus the haute couture and social club memberships, 2) I could enroll in seminary school, secure an apprenticeship with an urban farmer, or pen international true crime books under a saucy pseudonym, all of which I considered, or 3) I could start my own business. Tangram Lab leapt out of the puke green folder, reshaped itself to fit inside all of the appropriate boxes, and ended up on a bureaucrat’s desk.
To be clear, Tangram Lab was not originally structured as a traditional for-profit business. In fact, other than being modeled on the basic characteristics of a social enterprise, I have not come across any entity like it in terms of offerings and overall goals, which I devised to span over a period of decades, as opposed to one or three or five years. I see it as a lifelong labor of love that will change form as it naturally evolves. However, Tangram Lab’s main function- to work on the periphery of seven dissimilar yet interconnected subjects (a Tangram is a Chinese puzzle made up of seven pieces and means “seven boards of skill,” by the way) will not change. Seeding Tangram Lab in the soil of a highly structured country has presented its own challenges. While some might say that the first year has been a successful one (I got a handful of clients right off the bat, I made some money, I worked on cool projects, yadda yadda yadda), I’ve made an incredible number of mistakes and by my own standards, the first year was largely a loss. Here’s why:
1. I allowed a new environment’s financial expectations to compromise my original vision for the business.
Singapore is a capitalist mixed economy and the third wealthiest nation in the world. While people from all over the globe are clamoring to move here for work, Singaporean nationals have expressed their displeasure about the influx of foreign talent. Minimum income requirements for foreign talent have become more stringent and foreign entrepreneurs without permanent residency status must list a regular monthly salary on documentation they submit for approval to work here, even if they are opening their own company. I immediately felt financial pressure beyond my own basic needs after receiving business approval. This was exactly the opposite of how I should have been thinking about Tangram Lab, and I ended up accepting projects that did not align with the vision and goals of the business while working myself into the ground. To outsiders, I was succeeding by generating revenue and expanding my client base. By my own assessment, I was compromising the vision I had for Tangram Lab and began to resent the work. I ended up becoming depressed because of this.
2. I failed to promote my business and share my ideas in a new market.
Singapore is said to have one of the most evolved social media markets in the world and I just happen to have a lot of things I’d like to share, so it’s no wonder that I haven’t set up a Tangram Lab Facebook page or logged on to Twitter in about a year. That’s right, since launching the business my use of social media has decreased a thousand-fold, my blogging activities have stopped, and my participation at conferences and networking events has been a bit pathetic. Why? First, nearly all business for the year came through recommendations and word of mouth, so I didn’t feel an immediate need to engage in marketing. Second, I was burning the candle at both ends by accepting all work that came my way. Third, by the time strangers began sharing their lunches with me via Instagram, I became completely burned out on social media and disenchanted with the idea of self- promotion. The whole social media enchilada has never truly appealed to me on a grand scale. To be honest, I’d much rather be running in the park or petting the doggies at the local SPCA or tangibly sharing lunch with a real human being in the flesh than tweeting something along the lines of, “look at me! Look what I’m doing! Check me out!” I’m over it. Therefore, I viewed today’s marketing activities as a way to use up free time rather than just another (important) component of doing business.
3. Rules, rules, rules! I didn’t stay on top of all the rules and procedures associated with operating a business in a new country.
A few months ago, my employment pass (or lack thereof) was updated when my husband accepted a new job. Several days later, I received a notice in the mail stating that the Letter of Consent allowing me to work for my own company had been canceled due to this new pass classification. As soon as I’d found out that our passes were going to be changed, I should have marched down to the Ministry of Manpower to find out if and how this would impact my own employment and company. Instead, I failed to see a connection between the two and therefore had to wrap up all of my business activities until a new Letter of Consent was approved- which would take approximately six weeks. This was a devastating blow, but in hindsight, it was also rather serendipitous since I had lost the original direction of my business and desperately needed some peace and quiet to reevaluate where I was going with it. Some good news has since arrived in terms of my employment pass- I am now a Singapore Permanent Resident!
4. I didn’t turn to the locals for help (or anyone, for that matter).
If there is one thing I could have used this year beyond capital or space or time, it is HELP. I could have used help figuring out what types of grants and assistance are available to me as an entrepreneur, but I never sought out that information beyond a quick check on the Internet. I think, as a foreigner, I felt like I’d be looked upon unfavorably for not arriving with bags of cash and infinite wisdom. I could have used help from the small local social enterprise community in honing my business model, but I felt that they probably wouldn’t have the time based on my initial interactions with social entrepreneurs when I first moved to Singapore. I probably should have hired an intern or staff member instead of scrambling for contractors or taking on all of the work myself. I should have tapped into my extended network for subject matter expertise and potential partnership, but I figured I would wait until the business concept felt more secure, whatever that means. This has more to do with my own warped perceptions of self-reliance than anything else, but I know that if I’m going to make a dent, I’m going to need a lot of help.
5. I began taking a poisonous sociocultural concept to heart.
Anyone who has spent time in China is familiar with the term “face” and the myriad challenges that come with the maintenance of “face.” In Singapore, a country comprised primarily of ethnic Chinese who share many of Mainland China’s traditions and perceptions including face, another similar concept also exists that adds an additional layer of pressure. Kiasu, a Hokkien term which literally means “fear of losing” is an ingrained aspect of society in Singapore, where failure is still seen to many as unacceptable even as the country endeavors to become the Silicon Valley of the East. For a foreigner living on a tiny island the scrutiny can appear to be magnified, especially when it comes to eschewing the path of conformity for one that remains untested. Falsely believing that I was no longer allowed to fail had the effect of turning me into a very quiet basket case, if only for a moment. Thomas Edison once said, “I’ve not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” With this in mind, kiasu remains a foreign concept to me and I’m still plugging along.
I could easily fill this blog post with fifty, or even a hundred, business mistakes I made over the course of the year. However, these five jumped out at me as the most applicable to the brave souls who are venturing into entrepreneurship on foreign soil. While I’ve identified potential fixes and workarounds for all of the above, I’m still not sure where Tangram Lab is going or if it will succeed in its original form. I’m not sure it even makes sense to most people and I still don’t know if it’s replicable, scalable, or economically sustainable. However, over the course of wandering without a compass or map, I’ve intuited that the only way I’m going to find any sense of value in my own life is if the work I do lends itself to building a future that is more loving, healthy and sane. I’m sure that will sound hippie and airy-fairy and even preposterous to some people, but when you take a look at the world we live in now, why would you ever want to do anything else?
I aim to get back to blogging semi-regularly. I’ll try to keep you posted on how the business is evolving here on this site, as well as any learnings, adventures and innovations I uncover along the way. Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments, please share!