Connect with us


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



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.


Women on Top in Tech – Dawn Dickson, Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. and Founder of Flat Out of Heels



(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.)

Dawn Dickson is the Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. (formerly Solutions Vending, Inc.), the company behind PopCom Kiosks and the PopCom API, which provides a software solution to make vending machines more intelligent. She created the company after her own struggles to find vending machines that could sell her roll-up flat products, Flat Out of Heels, at high-traffic areas like airports.  She was awarded First place in the PowerMoves NOLA Big Break pitch Competition and second place in the 2016 SBA Innovate Her Challenge.

What makes you do what you do? 
I love solving big problems and working with amazing people to get it done.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
After working in the vending industry for three years selling Flat Out of Heels in vending machines in airports and nightclubs, I was frustrated with the lack of data I was able to collect from my hardware. I also wanted more engaging and interactive experiences for my customers and after speaking with several retailers they felt the same way. That is when I decided to focus on PopCom and developing a software solution to solve the data problem in self-service retail.

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)? 
The fact that I am not the usual, leadership demographic is the main reason why I was up for the challenge. The industry is in need of a change and I believe someone with a unique and different perspective and experience is needed. I look forward to collaborating with the industry leaders and veterans to build a product that everyone loves and finds value in.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I am involved in several different industries and sectors – retail, self-service retail, hardware, software…so I have to learn a lot of information quickly.  There are several people that I look up to, follow their career, and seek advice from. I was fortunate to be able to participate in some of the country’s top accelerator and entrepreneurship development programs, including Techstars, Canopy Boulder, and the BIxel Exchange – the mentorship and network I gained from these programs has been invaluable and very instrumental in our progress.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent? 
I have learned that spotting talent takes time, it takes patience, and building relationships with people and networks to meet new people, most of my connections come from introductions. I focus on finding the right fit for the company culture, there is a lot of great talent out there, but the culture is different, I want us to be on the same wavelength. I am fortunate to have met some great people through the programs I was in that came on as mentors, advisors, and eventually full time team members. I take time to get to know my team individually and understand what their personal goals and ambitions are, ask them what their dream job looks like, understand their needs so they can be happy at work and be fulfilled. I believe in self-care and making mental health a priority, if a person is good within themselves they radiate positivity and are more productive.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I am a black woman so I am diversity. Naturally, we attract people we can relate to and have things in common, so I found that my team was heavily female and my diversity initiative was finding more men…when I thought about it I found it funny. Now I have a balanced team of men and women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives which is exciting.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb? 
To be a great leader you have to be a team player, my rule is I never ask someone to do something that I would not do myself. I also have a rule to give the team the freedom and flexibility to work when and how they are most productive. That means some of us working different hours and being in the office different days, but happy team builds the dream!

Advice for others?
My advice is never give up if you believe in it. I started my company selling shoes in vending machines in 2011, it took me 7 years, a few failed hardware attempts, and many people telling me it would not work because the market was not ready. I was patient and what I believed would happen is happening. In May PopCom is bringing the PopShop to market, a next gen smart vending machine to sell and sample products. Our API will be ready in July and for the first time vending machine and kiosk owners can understand their conversion rates and have the level of data and analytics available that eCommerce stores have, but better. It has been a long journey and I feel it is just getting started, but I am only here because I never gave up.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dawn Dickson, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about PopCom, please click here.

Continue Reading

Callum Connects

Elaine Zhou, Co-Founder of China Women Equipping Center



Elaine went on a journey of self discovery and once she knew her true self she could be successful in her own business.

What’s your story?
I am very proud of where I came from and I am grateful for where I am living and working today. Singapore is my adopted home and it is my aim to always contribute to and serve this country and its people.
Twelve years ago, I moved to Singapore for an internship opportunity. I was twenty one years old and I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t understand the culture or the customs. Everything was new and strange to me. Everything was difficult, but my parents had tremendous faith in me.
My parents have worked diligently on the family farm to raise us and send us to college. My parents had a huge influence on me. The important things I learnt from them are to love, to never give up, to be a hard worker and to have a can-do attitude. These are the qualities that I embrace in my daily life.

What excites you most about your industry?
We offer more than just training. Our business is a resource to be leveraged for transformation, improved teamwork, leadership behaviours, communication skills, relationship skills, coaching skills and increased job satisfaction and productivity.
Our passion and purpose is to help people grow as leaders and to create tremendous results by serving others well. We take people to daring destinations, beyond their imagination.
My greatest joy is to see people grow, change and transform and live a purposeful life; this is what motivates me to do more and do it well.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in China and I have spent all my adult and professional life in Singapore.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore and China.
Singapore is a very sophisticated and systematic country. It is a structured and highly efficient business environment and people are generally nice and honest. Also, the convenience and diverse culture is a great advantage for people who want to settle down there, no matter if they are from the East or West. You always feel at home in Singapore.
I also like China because of its fast growth. The population and the market is here. However, it takes time to settle in because of the language barrier and the very different traditional culture. But you will also find it is very interesting and you’ll want to learn more about China. The people are nice if you know them well. It is always about relationship first and business second, and when you are in a business meeting, you really have to master the skill of “reading the air.” It is a skill to let people know and understand you; your values, your background, why you think in that way or why you do or do not do certain things. Doing business in China is like swimming in the ocean; it is an abundant ocean and it is full of risks. Always know your values and stay true to yourself and make decisions close to your heart. It will help you see things more clearly and get things done in a way that doesn’t violate your values.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Be yourself, Elaine.” That is the best advice I have ever received. It was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. It was also the moment I truly and honestly looked within myself. I realized that when I am being my true self, and not trying to be someone else, I am able to connect with people instantly in a genuine and authentic way. It is a great feeling.

Who inspires you?
There are so many people who encourage me, lift me up and challenge me everyday. My mentor, John Maxwell who helped me discover my purpose in life; Michael Griffin, for his passion for Christ which is contagious and Wayne Dyer, my spiritual mentor who passed away in 2016. Also, people who are living with a purpose and striving everyday for their dream, they really inspire me. My clients, mentees and students. When I see that joy and peace in them, that inspires me to do more and do well. My team inspire me, especially when they said, “Elaine, I joined the business because of you.” They inspire me to make it work for the team and the business because it is beyond my own self interest. I am grateful for having so many people in my life who inspire me.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
China is a big country, we all know that, and it is also an internet giant. Recently on a team meeting, one of the directors who manages a successful beauty business, shared with us, that everybody is on the internet, especially on WeChat. People are obsessed with online communities – for ordering food, getting taxis, forging relationships, connections and friends. Almost anything and everything can get done online. But right now, there is a new trend; more and more people want the “offline” experience. It usually takes one to two hours from one place to another in Beijing, but people want to make the effort to have a real connection with other people, to attend networks, seminars, workshops and business meetings.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I started my first business when I was 24 years old, it failed. One year later, I started my second business and after a year and a half, I closed down the operation. After several painful experiences and two failed businesses, I started to look within myself, and seriously and intentionally invested in my personal growth at the age of 28. If I could turn back time, I wish I could have grown a lot earlier. I strongly believe that the level of our success is determined by the level of our self growth and we are always learning, everyday. But I also understand it is not the only way to live. I also consciously and intentionally try to live in the now. It is a beautiful and great way to live. In fact, I am grateful for what I have gone through; the pains, setbacks and challenges in my earlier life.

How do you unwind?
I like to stay connected with nature. For example, taking a walk barefoot on the grass and smelling the roses on the street. Having a beer or coffee along the riverside with friends; reading a good book; hunting for nice restaurants; swimming or running.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand – nice beaches, food and people.
Bali – fantastic beaches and food, great people.
Malaysia – Nice food and people, particularly Langkawi, Penang and KK.
Of course Singapore, it is always a place dear to my heart. It’s my home.
There are a lot of other interesting places in China which I am still exploring.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill
The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Tao Te Ching: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life by Wayne Dyer
Developing the Leaders Within You by John C.Maxwell
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
These are some of the books that truly transformed my thinking and shaped my values.
I used to read a lot of different types of books, from sales, marketing, branding and management to different business models. I found it is really hard to master all of it and I was not optimizing my own strengths.
Entrepreneurship is a skill to be learnt. But it is really important to recognize what we are good at and what we are not so good at. We can not be everything.
Entrepreneurship is a journey of self-discovery and soul searching. It is all about learning and striving. We should try and always remember why we started our business in the first place.

Shameless plug for your business:
The China Women Equipping Center, is something both my team are I are very proud. We have put our hearts and souls into it, to help women in China grow and transform. As a developing country and with the rise of China, people are not lacking in money, everywhere is full of opportunity, but the challenge is the civilizations, values and faith. In fact the Chinese government puts a lot of effort into improving and shaping the international image to ensure it is making progress. But people are still facing a lot of pressure, especially women.
One of our business partners who is runs traditional Chinese medicine retail stores, shared that 80% of his patients are female, and the reason they are coming to see him are anxiety and depression.
Our China Women Equipping Center creates a safe and comfortable environment for women to help build their values and characters. My local team and I are very passionate about our mission and purpose. Beijing is our headquarters in China. We are planning to take three to six months to establish our business in Beijing and grow and expand to other major cities in China after that.

How can people connect with you?

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:
Download free copies of his books here:

Continue Reading