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Entrepreneurs aren’t making money. The system is broken.

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If you think your business is worth millions but no one will buy it, is it actually worth anything?

There is something very fundamentally broken with the entrepreneur / small business model. What that means, is that if you are a ‘successful’ small business owner you will probably never be fully rewarded for the time, money and heartache that you have poured into your business. Surely the lack of sleep and the fact you remortgaged your house to keep the business going has got to be worth millions, hasn’t it?

In fact, while every day your employees, suppliers, landlords and a whole ecosystem of partner companies extract value from your business. You, as a founder, would have made more money in the last decade if you had just worked your way up the corporate ladder. Depressing isn’t it?

The trouble lies with the way value is exchanged. Your business may very well be worth millions to the economy and society, but unless you can convince someone to part with some cash for shares of that business, it is actually worth very little to you.

Back in the good old days, the answer was simple, grow the business, list it on a stock exchange, the founder finally gets to pocket some cash, the company gets an infusion of capital to help it scale and everyone’s a winner. Can’t make it to the main market? Well there is probably a secondary market happy to take your fees.

Yet somewhere along the way, this ultimate ambition of getting listed started to lose it’s allure. In the last 20 years public listings have halved. Last year there were less listings then at the height of the global financial crisis.

There are 2 key drivers to this.

The first is the process, the second is the outcome.

1. Process

The process of getting listed is excruciating for entrepreneurs. Most Investment Banks concur that the average listing will take you 18 months, cost you in the region of $3m+ and will tie up your senior team for at least the last 12 months before you list.

James Freeman, the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee summed it up very astutely ‘It seems like a way of living in hell without dying’

He’s not wrong. And so he decided not to list.

2. Outcome

And then there is the result. Get listed and while you do suddenly find yourself with an asset you can trade you have entered a completely alien world and are now at the beck and call of thousands of investors who believe that owning a share of your stock gives them the right to question your every decision. In fact, you will soon find the people that question your decisions the loudest often don’t even own your stock.

Those that do own your stock are generally playing a very very different game from the one that you are playing. As an entrepreneur you have spent the last decade of your life making decisions around how you can create more value for others. Your team, your clients, your partners. All the things that you needed to do to build the company and in almost every case the results that you saw from these decisions took years. Yet suddenly you are faced with an army of investors who may buy and sell your stock dozens of times within a single day! The vast majority of your shareholders are traders, they don’t care about long term value they want to make money when the shares go up and when the shares go down. And if that means spreading false rumours on the Internet then so be it.

Yet for all that the market has many flaws, in many cases it is still the best option for finally releasing some liquidity and ‘unlocking’ the value that you know is in your business.

A new way to solve these problems

Fortunately for us, where there are problems there are opportunities and where there are opportunities, entrepreneurs inevitably follow. Here is a quick look at 3 of the solutions being put forward to help entrepreneurs get liquid.

Chamath Palihapitiya, a US based VC investor has listed an empty shell company on to the New York Stock Exchange and is offering it up to companies to let them ‘reverse in’. In effect being acquired by the shell to give them all of the benefits of a listing but without the pain and cost of the process. His target is the multitude of tech Unicorns ($1B+ valuation) that are flush with investor capital and so don’t need the headaches associated with traditional listing but would like to reward staff, founders and early investors.

Eric Ries (he of Lean Startup fame) is not just trying to hack the system like Chamath, he is actually trying to reinvent the whole market place. He is building his own marketplace called LTSE (Long Term Stock Exchange) and one of the tenants of his new system is that the longer you own stock, the more rights you are granted. Hence founders keep control and day traders can do what they like but have less sway over the company direction.

You will notice that the first two of these options come out of Silicon Valley, but if you are like the vast majority of small business owners you will have also realised that whilst Silicon Valley is great for disruption and buzzwords, most of what goes on over there has very little impact on you, your business or anyone you know.

The third option I’m going to talk about did not come out of Silicon Valley, is not aimed at Unicorns and doesn’t need a whole new exchange to make it work.

Concept of Agglomeration.

Similar in concept to Chamath’s model, an ‘Agglomeration’ is a listed vehicle exclusively for the use of other companies to allow them to get the benefits of listing. However, in this case the target companies are small to mid size across any sector. These are solid, debt free, profitable companies run by industry leaders. The founders swap their private stock for public stock and then carry on running the business as they were. They get all of the advantages of a PLC with none of the time and costs associated with a traditional listing.

The best way to think of this is to think of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. A holding company that owns many others but doesn’t interfere in the running of each.

While it has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur there are still some huge hurdles to overcome. The vast majority of government and media attention is not on those companies that have figured out how to solve problems and create value in the world, but on those that are in the glamourous world of ‘startups’. A weird parallel-dimension where fundamentals such as generating revenue, profit and cashflow play second fiddle to finding an investor to bankroll you. Yet eventually, some good businesses will emerge from there and before long the founders will look around and realise that they too might have a business worth millions on paper and yet have nothing to pay school fees with.

The capital markets may be broken but they are the best we have right now for rewarding entrepreneurs and allowing investors to benefit from scaling businesses.

All innovation in this area is to be applauded. Anything that can serve to reconnect entrepreneurs and changemakers with the liquidity needed to both inspire and fuel their ambitions is a good thing. We would then, finally, have a system that truly rewards those that take the risk and create the value in our society.

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Daphne Ng, CEO of JEDTrade

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Daphne Ng is the CEO of JEDTrade, a blockchain technology company focused on trade, supply chain, and financial inclusion projects in ASEAN. She is also the Scretary-General at ACCESS and Exco. of Singapore Fintech Association

What makes you do what you do?
I was introduced to blockchain technology in 2016 after I left my corporate banking career after 10 years. It was my mentor who first got me interested in this technology, which I then went on to delve further into, on its potential applications in the lending and trade finance space – domains where I came from.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Being in the space for 2 years and actively involved in the ecosystem, I was able to bring on the projects, network and a good degree of thought leadership in this vertical. Early on in the startup journey, our team faced many challenges. And to me, the key to rising above failures are two essential factors – resilience and support. While resilience is innate, I received a lot of help be it in terms of connections or advice. ‘Nobody succeeds without help’ rings very true for me.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
From the start, I focused on my domain expertise in trade finance and the application construct of how blockchain and DLT can be applied to these use cases. Also, my strategy from the start was to build a technology company made up of 80% tech and engineers, which is also our key competitive advantage today. At the end of the day, deliverables are about strategy and execution, which includes building and leading an ‘A’ team.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I have many mentors, which includes our company advisors (all of whom are well-known in this industry) and mostly informal mentors I meet via my connections, and on various occasions and circumstances. Creating opportunities also means putting myself in the right place, at the right time. And in my case, these were mostly organic and genuine friendships formed from the initial connection.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
To me, a match in values is very important. It also takes humility to ask for help and be willing to listen to advice, which is important in order for mentorships to be successful – be it formal or informal.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I love this question! I am passionate about building strong teams and helping my people grow. I abide by the 3Rs when identifying talents: resourcefulness, resilience and right values. And then I invest in the ‘potential’ and this means giving them room to lead, make decisions and take risks.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
My support of diverse talents, skillsets and characters can be seen in the make-up of our core team – all helming specific roles and each bringing their own value to the table. We need the sum of all parts to build a great company.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
Great leaders emerge in times of failures and challenges, never abandoning the team, and always putting the team’s interests before her own. And I consciously live by these mottos every day.

Advice for others?
My advice to other entrepreneurs: be resolute and dare to be different. If you are going to follow others, then you will end up on the same path as them. No right or wrong; but I would rather chart my own path. This June, we are officially launching our blockchain project, Jupiter Chain (www.jupiterchain.tech), which have garnered much interest in the industry, even before we made it public. We believe this project is the epitome of marrying innovation with practical implementation, and we want to be the first to truly operationalize blockchain for our ecosystem projects in this region.


If you’d like to get in touch with Daphne Ng, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daphne-ng-%E9%BB%84%E7%91%9E%E7%8E%B2/

To learn more about JEDTrade, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Jace Koh, Founder of U Ventures

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Jace Koh believes cash flow is the lifeblood of your business. Understanding it will enhance your ability to run and manage your business.

What’s your story?
My name is Jace Koh and I am the Founder of U Ventures. I’ve always been inclined towards investment and entrepreneurship. I’ve played a hand in starting businesses across these industries – professional services, cloud integration, software and music. I believe that succeeding in business is tough, but that’s what makes the rewards even sweeter.

What excites you most about your industry?
Everything excites me. These are my beliefs:

  • Why is accounting important?
    The accounting department is the heart. Cash flow is like blood stream, it pumps blood to various parts of the body like cash flow is pumped to various departments and/or functions in a business. It is vital to the life and death of the business.
  • Is accounting boring?
    Accountants are artists too. They paint the numbers the way they want them to be.
  • What makes a good accountant?
    A good accountant can tell you a story about the business by looking at the numbers.
  • Why is budgeting and projection important?
    Accountants are like fortune tellers, they can predict the numbers and if you wish to understand your business and make informed decisions, feel free to speak to our friendly consultants to secure a meeting.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore, and here’s where I want to be.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore is my favourite city. We have great legal systems in place, good security and people with integrity. Most importantly, we have a government that fosters a good environment for doing business. I recently went for a cultural exchange programme in Hong Kong to learn more about their startups. I found out that the Hong Kong government generally only supports local business owners in terms of grants. They’ve recently been more lenient and changed the eligibility to include all businesses that have at least 50% local shareholding. But comparing that to Singapore, the government only requires a 30% local shareholding to obtain government support. In the early days of starting a business, all the support you can get is precious. It’s great that we have a government that understands that.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best time ever to plant a tree was 10 years ago as the tree would have grown so big to provide you with shelter and all. When is the next best time to plant a tree? It is today. Because in 10 years time, the tree would have grown big enough to provide you shelter and all.

Who inspires you?
Jack Ma. His journey to success is one of the most inspiring as it proves that with determination and great foresight, even the poorest can turn their lives around. I personally relate to his story a lot, and this is my favourite quote from him, “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I’ve faced multiple rejections throughout my business journey, and recently came across a fact on Jack Ma about how he was once rejected for 32 different jobs. It resonated very deeply and taught me the importance of tenacity, especially during tough times.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. I live a life with no regrets. Everything I do, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, happy or sad, and regardless of outcome, it’s a lesson with something to take away.

How do you unwind?
I love to pamper myself through retail therapy and going for spas. I also make a conscious effort to take time off work to have a break outside to unwind as well as to uncloud my mind. This moment of reflection from time to time helps me see more clearly on how I can improve myself.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Taiwan! Good food with no language barriers and the people are great!

Everyone in business should read this book:
I don’t really read books. Mostly, I learn from my daily life and interactions with hundreds of other business owners. To me, people tell the most interesting stories.

Shameless plug for your business:
We’re not just corporate secretaries, we’re “business doctors.”
U Ventures is a Xero certified advisory firm that goes beyond traditional accounting services to provide solutions for your business. You can reach us on our website: http://uventures.com.sg/

How can people connect with you?
Converse to connect. You can reach me via email at [email protected] or alternatively, on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacekoh/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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