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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.


What Kills A Startup



1 – Being inflexible and not actively seeking or using customer feedback

Ignoring your users is a tried and true way to fail. Yes that sounds obvious but this was the #1 reason given for failure amongst the 32 startup failure post-mortems we analyzed. Tunnel vision and not gathering user feedback are fatal flaws for most startups. For instance, ecrowds, a web content management system company, said that “ We spent way too much time building it for ourselves and not getting feedback from prospects — it’s easy to get tunnel vision. I’d recommend not going more than two or three months from the initial start to getting in the hands of prospects that are truly objective.”

2 – Building a solution looking for a problem, i.e., not targeting a “market need”

Choosing to tackle problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need was often cited as a reason for failure. Sure, you can build an app and see if it will stick, but knowing there is a market need upfront is a good thing. “Companies should tackle market problems not technical problems” according to the BricaBox founder. One of the main reasons BricaBox failed was because it was solving a technical problem. The founder states that, “While it’s good to scratch itches, it’s best to scratch those you share with the greater market. If you want to solve a technical problem, get a group together and do it as open source.”

3 – Not the right team

A diverse team with different skill sets was often cited as being critical to the success of a starti[ company. Failure post-mortems often lamented that “I wish we had a CTO from the start, or wished that the startup had “a founder that loved the business aspect of things”. In some cases, the founding team wished they had more checks and balances. As Nouncers founder stated, “This brings me back to the underlying problem I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made.” Wesabe founder also stated that he was the sole and quite stubborn decision maker for much of the enterprises life, and therefore he can blame no one but himself for the failures of Wesabe. Team deficiencies were given as a reason for startup failure almost 1/3 of the time.

4 – Poor Marketing

Knowing your target audience and knowing how to get their attention and convert them to leads and ultimately customers is one of the most important skills of a successful business. Yet, in almost 30% of failures, ineffective marketing was a primary cause of failure. Oftentimes, the inability to market was a function of founders who liked to code or build product but who didn’t relish the idea of promoting the product. The folks at Devver highlighted the need to find someone who enjoys creating and finding distribution channels and developing business relationship for the company as a key need that startups should ensure they fill.

5 – Ran out of cash

Money and time are finite and need to be allocated judiciously. The question of how should you spend your money was a frequent conundrum and reason for failure cited by failed startups. The decision on whether to spend significantly upfront to get the product off the group or develop gradually over time is a tough act to balance. The team at YouCastr cited money problems as the reason for failure but went on to highlight other reasons for shutting down vs. trying to raise more money writing:

The single biggest reason we are closing down (a common one) is running out of cash. Despite putting the company in an EXTREMELY lean position, generating revenue, and holding out as long as we could, we didn’t have the cash to keep going. The next few reasons shed more light as to why we chose to shut down instead of finding more cash.

The old saw was that more companies were killed by poor cashflow than anything else, but factors 1, 2 and 4 probably are the main contributing factors to that problem. No cash, no flow. The issue No 3 – the team – is interesting, as if I take that comment ” I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made” and think about some of the founders and startup CEOs I know, I can safely say that the main way that any decision was made was by agreeing with them – it was “my way or the highway”. I don’t therefore “buy” the team argument, I more buy the willingness of the key decision makers to change when things are not working (aka “pivoting” – point 9).


About the Author

This article was produced by Broadsight. Broadsight is an attempt to build a business not just to consult to the emerging Broadband Media / Quadruple Play / Web 2.0 world, but to be structured according to its open principles. see more.

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Callum Connects

Jasmine Tan, Director of Stone Amperor



Jasmine saves her clients time and effort when doing kitchen fit outs with her biz Stone Amperor.

What’s your story?
I started working in the industry in 2003. I was in a marble and granite supplier company for 5 years. Even though I left the company, I still had customers calling me for my services. I referred them back to my previous company but they refused to because they loved the fast response service that I offered. I realised that customers do look at prices, however most of them prefer quality over quantity. Thus I have decided to establish a sole proprietor company also known as 78 Degrees which later rebranded as Stone Amperor in 2014.

What excites you most about your industry?
The kitchen countertop industry is a very confusing market. There are many brands, materials and prices to choose from. What excites me the most is my ability to help clients choose the best materials and brands within their budgets, whilst saving them time and effort.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I have been in Asia all my life and I love Asia. No matter where you go there is no place like home.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
I love Singapore. This is because Singapore has always been a stable country and it is great for doing business. However as it is a small country, it can be really competitive. I believe that if just do your best and give your best to your customers, you can overcome this.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Take actions. Learn and improve continuously. An idea without action is just a dream.” This was really good advice that I received from my partner.

Who inspires you?
A very down to earth billionaire from Malaysia, Robert Kuok

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Property is the foundation of every business.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Own instead of renting property for my business.

How do you unwind?
I enjoy going shopping, watching movies and hanging out with friends. I am quite a simple being.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I love going to Taiwan as I love the culture there. Everyone is so polite and the weather is great.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Sun Tzu, Art of war

Shameless plug for your business:
Perfect top, Perfect price, Perfect life from Stone Amperor

How can people connect with you?
Email me at [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’.

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