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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.

Callum Connects

Joelle Ung, Founder of Treasure Unity

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Joelle’s entrepreneurial journey has been an interesting one, leading her to the world of network marketing, enabling her to help other entrepreneurs succeed.

What’s your story?
The sense of wanting to make an impact, of needing to add value to ‘something,’ be it focused on business or peoples’ lives, has led me, through many failures, to where I am now, the food and beverage manufacturing industry. My entrepreneurial journey began as a wedding planner. Then, having tasted initial success, my desire to find meaningful business mentors brought me to the world of network marketing.
Having benefited from the teachings of my mentor, plus the time I spent growing up as the daughter of a great father, I realised that the urge to ‘pay it forward,’ by mentoring future entrepreneurs and helping my colleagues, other entrepreneurs to succeed, had become a personal mission.
The Honest Living Program, owned by my current company, Treasure Unity, is a realisation of that dream. The program opens up learning opportunities for women under duress, underprivileged women and single mothers. It provides a platform from which I am able to teach, imparting people skills and the art of presentation through the day-to-day program. It is absolutely free.

What excites you most about your industry?
To be able to keep adding values to others. On stage or off, it doesn’t matter. I enjoy every call I receive, every appointment that is set up, every individual I have met, and have yet to meet. There is only one agenda, and that is to add value to the person I am speaking to.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Having lived in Singapore and Malaysia for the past 39 years, my heart is impacting the people in Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Because of the people who live there, and because there are no barriers to communication for me.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Don’t make any decision out of confusion, disappointment or anger. Decisions should always be made with a restful heart.

Who inspires you?
Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
My husband is an ‘overcomer’ who had a near fatal stroke 18 years ago. He lost the ability to practice his dream career as a medical doctor, yet he chose to be a prisoner of hope rather than be a prisoner within his body, and he has never indulged in self-pity.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Lately, I have learned to be still when an opponent strikes at me. It works! You do not need to immediately rebut an opponent. He, or she, will most probably be waiting for a reaction. When they don’t get one, when you remain still and unmoved, you become unpredictable. They do not know your next move.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have sought advice from more wise counsellors before making major decisions, especially if finance or investments were involved.

How do you unwind?
Sometimes I like to take a short getaway or, on a daily basis, I read bible verses that I find uplifting.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Penang. It is close to home and you can get a premium service at an affordable cost. Also, I can pack light, and it is easy to find anything and everything there.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Like a Virgin, by Richard Branson

Shameless plug for your business:
Become an irresistible woman with substance! We will bring out your natural leadership skills through the Honest Living Program.

How can people connect with you?
They can connect with me by email [email protected], through WhatsApp 92300071, or they can call me on my mobile.

Twitter handle?
My twitter account is inactive. @ungjoelle @treasureunity

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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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Dr. Vivienne Ming, Co-Founder and Executive Chair at Socos Labs

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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.)

Dr. Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur, technologist, and an author. She co-founded Socos, her fourth company, where she combines machine learning, cognitive neuroscience, and economics to maximize life outcomes in education and the workplace. Vivienne is also a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, where she pursues her research in neuroprosthetics. In her free time, Vivienne has developed a predictive model of diabetes to better manage the glucose levels of her diabetic son and systems to predict manic episodes in bipolar suffers. In 2013, she was named one of 10 Women to Watch in Tech by Inc. Magazine.

What makes you do what you do?
I grew up reading far too much science fiction. It always seemed not like an escape, but like a guide to a better world that we could build. When I ran into challenges later in my life and learned how easy it is for a high potential life to slip through the cracks, it was that love of science fiction that kept me thinking that something better was possible. I found a purpose in that failure that drove me to earn my PhD in neuroscience and machine learning so that I could build the worlds that I used to read about.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I have worked in several different industries. As an academic, I had a rather shocking amount of success as a graduate student with papers published in top journals and I went on to appointments at Stanford and Berkeley. Then, I started all over again when I founded an education company. When the company rose to prominence and I was giving keynotes at major education conferences, I left that behind to develop technologies for talent acquisition, healthcare, and anything and everything that made better people. My path to success was always forged by me solving problems, with a lot help from simple dumb luck.

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)?
After founding a number of technology companies, I decided I wanted to take what I learned and share it with as many people as possible. I wanted to have an impact on global policy. Based on advice from colleagues and friends, I founded Socos Labs, a think tank that uses machine learning, economics, and behavior research to explore human potential. Socos Labs experiments with whole new visions of work, education, innovation and inclusive economies to inform more human-centered policy.

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’ve been influenced and supported by a great many people in my life, but I cannot say that I’ve ever had a mentor or even a hero that acted as a guide for my career. I’m not belittling the value of great mentorships (my own research argues for its impact), but rather it’s equally important to recognize that a career isn’t a formulaic movie plot with predefined roles.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
My work is about making better people and helping people grow. It has always been very important to me to give people a chance who might not otherwise have the same opportunity elsewhere. I have built companies where people who don’t have traditional credentials can come and work on projects that make a difference in people’s lives. The only component I’m really looking for is potential.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
Supporting diversity is both a mission of Socos Labs and a key part of nearly every company with which I am involved. I sit on the board of companies that foster diversity and I’ve founded companies to find strategies to reduce bias in the hiring process. Creative diversity is crucial to run any high performance organization. My research show that companies should build teams in which everyone brings different, complementary strengths to the table, and diverse life experience is one of the greatest sources of those strengths.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I suspect there are many ways to be a great leader. My personal approach is perhaps naively simple: do good work and share it with the world. I am sure there are more sophisticated and effective ways to gain attention and build high-performance organizations, but my approach (which I heartily advocate for anyone else) is to focus fanatically on what you’re trying to achieve, your purpose, and find or simply create the means for your work to reach other people.

Advice for others?
Seek out problems that are so messy other people have given up on them.

That is exactly where I want to be and what my new think tank, Socos Labs, aims to explore. We partner with companies and NGOs that share in our mission and help advance a new understanding about education, workforce, health, innovation, inclusion, and so much more. Along the way I’ve learned enough to write a couple of books, How to Robot-Proof Your Kids and The Tax on Being Different, which will be out later this year. In both I discuss how we can begin to untangle many of these big messy global problems.


If you’d like to get in touch with Dr. Vivienne Ming, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vivienneming/

To learn more about Socos Labs, please click here.

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