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Lessons from Asia’s Most Successful CEOs



Many people in the English speaking world are aware of the biographies and lessons of our great businesspeople—Steve Jobs, Rockefeller, Elon Musk. But many of us aren’t aware of their counterparts in Asia, which is a real shame. Asian businesses have been ascendant in recent years, surpassing even some of the West’s most successful businesses in power and influence. Who are the people leading these businesses and what do they have to teach us?

I’ve combed through the biographies of the executives of some of Asia’s most successful businesses, and compiled a few lessons to help you think like a CEO.

Process is everything


Executive to learn from: Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Motors

Sakichi Toyoda was the Japanese inventor who founded the automotive company that still bears his name. The Toyota Motor company not only revolutionized the automobile industry—disrupting the American-dominated industry in the 20th Century by offering well made cars at reasonable prices—but also the ways in which businesses analyze and improve their processes.

Under Toyoda’s guidance, his company developed many sophisticated process-improvement techniques that are still used by companies today. They came up with what is now known as the “5 Whys”, where you analyze a business problem by asking “why” five times, to figure out the root cause of that problem—and not just some underlying symptom.

Many of Toyoda’s techniques have been compiled into a system called Lean Manufacturing, which has been incredibly influential not only in manufacturing but also the world of software development. This system teaches us that standardizing business processes and constantly seeking to improve them is the foundation of any successful business.

Find a strong mentor


Executive to learn from: Jack Ma, founder of AliBaba

In 1999, Jack Ma founded Alibaba, an online marketplace that serves primarily the Chinese market, which some have described as the Chinese equivalent of Amazon. He is now one of the richest men in the world, and one of the most influential citizens in China.

But astronomical success in business was never a forgone conclusion for Ma. For many years he struggled to get a job, later spending a number of years as a humble instructor of English. One of the keys to his success was the help and support he received from one of his mentors, David Morley, an Australian man who spent some time in China. Morley struck up a correspondence when Ma was 12, which improved Ma’s English skills, and even helped Ma secure his first apartment in China.

The power of an effective mentor cannot be overstated. It was integral in the life of Jack Ma, as well as many other successful business leaders. If you don’t have one, get a mentor now! And if you don’t have a mentor to guide you, you can always get a coach to help you instead.

Be biased toward action


Executive to learn from: Mukesh Ambani

Mukesh Ambani routinely comes in first place in rankings of India’s richest citizens, and is managing director of Reliance Industries Limited, one of India’s richest companies.

A turning point in Ambani’s life course came while he was studying for an MBA at Stanford’s business school. While Stanford has one of the best business programs in the world, and most people would beg, borrow, or steal to get a degree from it, Ambani dropped out before he could finish his studies. He had a good reason to. He began working for his father to build Reliance into one of the most successful companies in the world.

The lesson we can draw from this is simple. No matter how good a school is or how good a credential looks on your resume, it will never be as good as a good business opportunity and concrete experience.

Be wary of your competition—Even when you’re at the top


Executive to learn from: Robin Li, CEO of Baidu

Like Alibaba, Baidu is one of China’s most successful internet businesses. The company has a stranglehold over the internet search field in China (not unlike Google’s position in the rest of the world.) Its CEO and founder, Robin Li, is a billionaire many times over.

These facts could make anyone complacent. But not Li. In recent interviews, he’s borderline paranoid about newer, more agile startups taking Baidu’s place in China’s internet landscape. He said:

“In regard to those (startups) you think are nothing and haven’t been paying attention to, your judgment might be wrong,” Mr. Li said. “They could be growing bigger and getting closer to your core business — and they might eventually subvert you.”

Knowing who your competition is and what they can do is a fundamental task of any business leader. Li understands this perhaps better than anyone—which is why he’s at the top of his field right now.

Failure is merely a stop on the way to success

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 23: Executive Chairman of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma speaks during the "Valuing What Matters" panal discussion during the third day of the Clinton Global Initiative's 10th Annual Meeting at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on September 23, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 23: Executive Chairman of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma speaks during the “Valuing What Matters” panal discussion during the third day of the Clinton Global Initiative’s 10th Annual Meeting at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on September 23, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Executive to learn from: Jack Ma

This last lesson comes once again from Jack Ma. His life is a study in how to overcome failures—to turn the indignation of rejection and losses into motivation to succeed.

Over and over again, Ma faced setbacks that impeded his path to becoming one of China’s leading business men. Before attending a university in China, Ma failed the Chinese university entrance exams three times—three times! —before finally passing.

After graduating from college, Ma applied to 30 jobs and was rejected by each and every one. 30 jobs! One of the jobs included a KFC, where apparently 24 people applied and, “Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy who wasn’t,” Ma said.

Every successful person knows that failure lines the path toward victory. Every door that closes reveals another, better path forward. What truly sets apart great, successful people from the rest is in how they deal with failure. Some people when encountering failure will despair, folding like a house of cards. But others learn lessons from failure and use those lessons to become a better person. Jack Ma seemed to learn this lesson early on, which is why he has had great success in business.

Callum Connects

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings



Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [email protected]

Twitter handle?

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:

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Women on Top in Tech – Pam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at 99Designs



(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.)

Pam Webber is Chief Marketing Officer at 99designs, where she heads up the global marketing team responsible for acquisition, through growth marketing and traditional marketing levers, and increasing lifetime value of customers. She is passionate about using data to derive customer insights and finding “aha moments” that impact strategic direction. Pam brings a host of first-hand startup marketing experiences as an e-commerce entrepreneur herself and as the first marketing leader for many fast-growing startups. Prior to joining 99designs, she founded weeDECOR, an e-commerce company selling custom wall decals for kids’ rooms. She also worked as an executive marketing consultant at notable startups including True&Co, an e-commerce startup specializing in women’s lingerie. Earlier in her career, Pam served in various business and marketing positions with eBay and its subsidiary, PayPal, Inc. A resident of San Francisco, Pam received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MBA from Harvard Business School. Pam is a notable guest speaker for Venture Beat, The Next Web, Lean Startup, and Growth Hacking Forum, as well as an industry expert regularly quoted in Inc., CIO, Business News Daily, CMSwire, Smart Hustle, DIY Marketer, and various podcast and radio shows. You can follow her on Twitter at @pamwebber_sf.

What makes you do what you do?
My dad always told me make sure you choose a job you like because you’ll be doing it for a long time. I took that advice to heart and as I explored various roles over my career, I always stopped to check whether I was happy going to work every day – or at least most days :). That has guided me to the career I have in marketing today. I’m genuinely excited to go to work every day. I get to create, to analyze, to see the impact of my work. It’s very fulfilling.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I had a penchant for numbers and it helped me stand out in my field. This penchant became even more powerful when the Internet and digital marketing started to explode. There was a great need for marketers whose skills could span both the creative and the analytic aspects of marketing. I capitalized on that growth by bringing unique insight to the companies I worked with, well-supported with thoughtful analysis.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?
I’m not sure this is relevant to my situation as I had been a marketing leader in various start-ups and companies. I took on the role at 99designs because I was excited by the global reach of the brand and the opportunity the company had to own the online design space. I especially liked the team as I felt they were good at heart.

The challenge I’ve faced in my time at 99designs is how do I evolve the team quickly and nimbly to address new challenges. The work we do now, is very different than the work we did a year ago and even the year before that. There is a fine line between staying focused on the goal ahead and being able to move quickly should that goal shift.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industry or did you look for one or how did that work?
There is no one I’ve sought out or worked with over my entire career as my “mentee” needs have changed so much over the years. There are many people who have helped me along the way. For example, one of my peers at eBay, who was quite experienced and skilled in marketing strategy and creative execution, taught me what was in a marketing plan and how to evaluate marketing assets. As I have risen to leadership positions over the years, I often reach out to similarly experienced colleagues for advice on how they handle situations.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
I learned early in my career that it rarely hurts to ask for advice. So that is what I have done. Additionally, there are people that are known to be quite helpful and build a reputation for giving back to others in advisory work. Michael Dearing, of Harrison Metal and ex-eBay, is one of those people. I, as well as countless others, have asked him for advice and guidance through the years and he does his best to oblige. Finding mentorship is about intuiting who in your universe might be willing and whether you are up for asking for help.

That being said, generally, I have found, if you are eager to learn and be guided, people will respond to the outreach.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I generally look for a good attitude and inherent “smarts”. A good attitude can encompass anything from being willing to take on many different types of challenges to working well amongst differing personalities and perspectives. Smarts can be seen through how well someone’s done in their “passion areas” (i.e. areas where they have a keen interest in pursuing).

I try to hire those types of people because in smaller, fast-growing companies like many of the ones I’ve worked in, it’s more often than not about hiring flexible people as things move and change fast.

Once those people are on my team, I try to keep them challenged and engaged by making sure they have varying responsibilities. If I can’t give them growth in their current job or in the current company, I encourage them to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. I’d rather have one of my stars leave for a better growth opportunity than keep them in a role where they might grow stale.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously support diversity. When I am hiring, I am constantly thinking about how to balance the team with as broad a range as possible of skill sets, perspectives, etc. to ensure we can take on whatever is thrown at us, or whatever we want to go after.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I’m going to assume a great leader in my industry to mean a marketing leader in a technology company. I think a great leader in this industry is not afraid to learn new tricks no matter their age – it’s the growth mindset you may have heard about. I have a friend who inspires me to do this – she purchased the Apple Watch as soon as it was available, and was one of the first people I knew to use the Nest heating/cooling system. She’s not an early adopter by most definitions, but she adopts the growth mindset. This is the mindset I, too, have sought to adopt. In my field of marketing, it most recently has meant learning about Growth Marketing and how to apply this methodology to enhance growth. Independent of your industry, I think a growth mindset serves you well.

Advice for others?
I have been at 99designs for 3.5 years. During that time we’ve invested in elevating the skills and quality of our designer community, we’ve rebranded to reflect this higher level of quality, and have improved the satisfaction of our customers. Our next phase of growth will come from better matching clients to the right designer and expanding the ability to work with a designer one-on-one. We have the best platform to find, collaborate, and pay professional designers who deliver high quality design at an affordable price, and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to deliver on that vision.

Pam Webber
Chief Marketing Officer of 99designs
Twitter: @pamwebber_sf

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