Business & Personal Adaptation in times of COVID-19 [TingTing-Chairwoman of IMAPAC]
The onset of COVID-19 affected everyone. Many entrepreneurial business have to pivot in order to adapt and meet new needs for types of products and services that consumers are seeking. In this blogpost, we have Ting Ting to share with us how her business was affected and her way adapting to this new 'normal'.
Ting Ting is the chairwoman of IMAPAC-imagine your impact and a mentor & angel investor of various startup companies. She has a passion for new business idea conceptualisation, innovative business models, strategy formulation, planning and realisation, tech commercialisation, and growing and training future business leaders. She started as a molecular and cell biologist, trying her hand at startups before entering the B2B business.
1) Hi Ting Ting, let's start off with you, sharing more about yourself, your passion and how did you get to what you are doing?
I started my first business when I was 12, selling accessories to school students in secondary school. I always wanted to do startups . Upon graduation from NUS, I did a PhD after publishing 1 to 2 research papers and that was when I decided that, that was not what I wanted to do. So I quit and went to shanghai to start a peer to peer manuscript editing service, bridging scientists from different fields (west and east) to help each other edit the papers for international publication.
But that business didn’t survive because my co-founders quit, so I came back, quit my PhD and joined a multinational B2B media company. I learnt what the business intelligence, market research and the cultural exhibition field is like. In 3 years, I’ve set up a multi-million dollar business unit with only 4 people, earning currently around 700k net profit per year with only 4 people in the team.
However, I always wondered, did I make it a success because of me or because of the company? Because I started the life science unit from ground 0. On one hand, I could become a managing director and continue to step up the corporate ladder, on the other hand, I could try the startup again.
I was 28, and I decided that if I don’t do it now, my life priorities are going to change. So I went to start my own, by initially doing something similar but in a different country, so that it’s not competitive to the company I used to work for. This business has now been 10 years, in fact, 4 years ago I resigned as CEO and hired a management team to run it.
After that, I started to focus on more mentoring startups, getting involved in incubators and travelling quite a lot, because after 5-6 years as a CEO and founder, it’s starting to get a little more monotonous, and after looking at how I’m going to conceptualise and realise new ideas, the only way I could do that is to keep distance and look at new things. So I’ve obviously invested in a few tech startups and even started a tech startup with a co-founder, but it didn’t survive after 6 months of the testing phase- the concept is probably too new, the market was not ready for it. However, I’ve learnt a lot in the last few years, investing in startups and so on.
2) Starting a business, you have to do everything yourself. And then a few years later, sustaining the business is another thing. What are the differences in starting one and sustaining one?
I think in the beginning when my co-founder and I were starting the 10 year old B2B media company, we only worked with each other and in a way worked for ourselves for the first 3 months, only then after that taking full-time staff and interns we do need people to make things work. Also, the business model and the existing clientele and relationship had formed, I had revenue for the business before I even really set up the business and delivered the first product.
The first product we already had close to 200k revenue, and by the end of the year we were already profitable, we could hire more people. Starting a business, in the beginning, is diving off the ledge and seeing what happens, sustaining the business is very much about how do you make it self sustaining and automatically run by other people other than you.
I think the biggest problem with a lot of entrepreneurs (I’m not sure if it’s a problem because if they enjoy it then it’s okay), they eventually start a business and then they’re running the business until 50 years later and they’re still the CEO and so on, very closely hands-on related. The problem with that is that if you control your business too much, and you don’t let it go to others and trust that other people know it better than you in some aspects, the business never really grows. I think it’s really important that startup founders are hands-on people, they should be able to make the first 100k and 200k by themselves. But the problem is, if a startup is only surviving because of the intelligence and expertise and connections and relationships of the founder, the business will never grow beyond 10 people.
I think if we want the business to grow and sustain and self-run and scale, we need to build processes, structures and develop leaders at low, mid and high-level tiers, and the best is to develop them in house. I’ve tried many different ways like hiring professional managers from MNCs, but they don’t culturally fit. It’s like they know how to run a multinational company, but they don’t know how to run a company in an SME setting. We found that the best leaders are the types that grow from the basic junior role after 5 years of knowing the business inside and out, and then we power them to give them the position that they can make decisions as well as the knowledge and support, incentivising them with share options.
If you want to scale, you have to let go.
3) Early this year when COVID-19 happened and everyone was affected. Since your business revolves around the B2B business conferences, you probably had to postpone or cancel right? What did you do in the circuit breaker to adapt to this new normal?
We have to pivot. We had probably most of our conferences postponed, the only one we had this year was in February before the situation got worse. The second one and third which was in Singapore because of the travel bans had to be postponed, and so we had to deal with a lot of issues whether we should credit to sponsors some events, whether to take it virtually, and some even had to be postponed. Our third and fourth quarter event, 75% of that was cancelled, completely 0 revenue.
March to May were the hottest months, we didn’t have any revenue come in but we had 100k going out every month. It was a very stressful time, at that time the emotional stress and turmoil caused a lot of sleepless nights to think about what to do. The problem with COVID is you don’t know when it’s going to end, and you hope it’ll end by June, and then you start losing hope and you need to start managing your employee’s emotions- salespeople get their high from closing sales, and if they don’t close any deals for 3 months then they’ll leave to do something else.
We quickly pivoted to do market research, digital marketing and virtual conferences- actually by end of this month we broke even, we recovered the losses by virtual conferences, and by next month we’ll be making a profit already for this year. The Market research business was actually something (maybe looking back was a blessing in disguise) we had been wanting to venture into for a long time, but we never actually put the resources and manpower on it- we always had too much work with regards to the conference business. So covid kind of forced us to have to face it, and that business started to take off, and that business will remain even after covid is gone, which would add additional at least 300k to half million at least to the business for now- it could grow into a million-dollar business on itself if we expand more into the future, put more resources on it.
This immediately increased our whole portfolio and it also trained quite a few of our team members to be able to adapt to crisis. Obviously, we also have employees who found it too stressful and had to leave, but so be it, these things happen. So we had to think creatively, for other products we also launched a serious webcast, sponsored by solution providers with end-users kind of speaking. For the webcast, we tried it and it works to a certain degree, but the issue is that the webcast is not profitable (even though it does generate revenue), but it’s a good experience to try- we at least know what it is. We also adopted a CRM system completely, we adopted paperless accounting, everything is online, we also took this time to improve our digital marketing, make it more automated- referral-based marketing technology and software, we also recently adopted a new virtual conference platform. These are things we focused on, as
You can only focus on the things you can control, not the things you can’t.
I also made a commitment to my team, I’m not going to fire anybody or lower anyone’s salary, with the basis that as long as the business is not going to make a loss in the last two years. This means I’m going to invest the profit from last year into this year, and we’ll be happy just to breakeven. This is how we protect our team to not lose jobs, as I know out there that 70% of people either have redacted salaries or hours or lose jobs and so on.
I run my business like they are my family, I believe in generosity, and I don’t need to earn so much money no matter the crisis- I think it’s more important my team keeps the job and they’re happy. Furthermore, 50% are foreigners, if they lose their job they have to go back to their country and that would be unthinkable. I think the things we did were successful the team is more united than before, and we even promoted someone to general manager, groomed someone from middle management and she’s proven to be amazing- I’m very lucky to have an awesome team.
4) You walk the talk and encourage your team to adapt to the situation and digitalise. One thing that you did was to start a Youtube channel during the circuit breaker, and right now Ting Ting has gained around 1.67k subscribers.
Given that most people were passively surfing the web for entertainment or learning, that was some courage you had to start the channel! Why did you start the channel and why on Youtube?
During Circuit Breaker, I had quite a few friends who owned yoga studios or wedding gown salons, basically business owners themselves. A lot of them obviously had their businesses hit, people can’t have weddings or go yoga, so they had to do some downsizing, F&B was affected as well. So they brainstormed with me, and we thought about how to do things differently. I realised some of the things I share with them are quite common.
There are two things. Firstly, business owners are suffering, if I can share how I pivoted and changed, because I think my business was down, like 90%, and their businesses were also affected too, and I just thought that I could share with more people on the videos, and I won’t have to repeat myself.
Secondly, I know quite a few people lost their jobs, and some of them decided to start their own company and people were utilising this crisis to start their own company. Hence, they may need some guidance and it would be nice to do that for them.
Starting a Youtube channel was also a personal challenge. I was a performance musician before and was an opera singer for 10 years on the side while doing my PhD, after I started my PhD I don’t have the time for it. I always knew that facing criticism in public is a big lesson for me, I think it’s a big lesson for everybody, you having to put your ego there and let people do whatever to you. You have to be strong, and I think it’s something you need to face.
I’m reaching a stage where I’m not getting defensive about it, just making peace with that. I thought that if I’m sharing something with people to benefit their lives, even if random people criticise me then so be it.
5) When you started, it was from ground 0 all again, how did you increase the outreach over time?
Usually, I share on Facebook and LinkedIn, also I run some Youtube advertisement, Google advertisement to promote the youtube content to reach out to a broader audience. I also think it’s the topic selection. I hired someone to look at my SEO, choosing the right topic and keywords, if those are what people are looking for, then you get a lot more people looking at it, it’s a learning journey.
Recently I made more videos on meditation with subliminal messages, a lot of people found that useful. Currently, I had like 1500 people watching that for my most recent one. But some of my other topics that were a bit more generic, it didn’t get a lot of hits. People kind of subscribe but then they don’t watch your videos, maybe the topic is not relevant to them. I think a lot of the views come from people who don’t subscribe but just search and see the video, which is interesting because it depends, a lot of people have different challenges at any time, how to lead or how to understand leadership psychology, how do you access a good idea from a bad one, when do you know it’s time to give up or when you’re feeling like giving up then what kind of things do you tell yourself, I don’t think everyone feels the same thing, so I’m just figuring out what would be the best topics and experimenting.
6) What was your biggest struggle as a female entrepreneur putting up content to people out there and talking business with people?
I don’t think that way. I think it’s how you think: Managing expectations is one thing, but feeling bad about yourself is another. I never feel bad about myself because I’m a female, so people are less willing to hear what I’m saying. I never had that mindset.
But I do manage people’s expectations. For instance, if I’m meeting Chinese clients, and at that time I was 28, I looked like a 5 year old! One thing I did was that my co-founder was a male and looked older than I did, and I have employees who look older than I do, so when we go out for meetings I didn’t call myself CEO or founder until my company reached 5 years. Initially, I called myself a business development manager, that’s what I do, I develop businesses.
When we go out, I’m the secretary or the business development and salesperson, they don’t know, that’s called managing expectations. But I’m not going to be dishonest about it. If they ask me if I’m part of the shareholders, I will be honest and say yes, I’m one of the shareholders. I wanted to portray and manage the expectations, because if I go there and make some really intelligent points, and if I’m only a secretary or business development manager, then it looks good on the company. I don’t have a big ego to sell myself as the CEO, it never works for the business. I think I’m a very practical person, being a female entrepreneur, especially meeting with the Chinese government, to talk about partnerships (I’m not saying China is racist or sexist), I’m saying that if you meet people 50 and older, they tend to have certain perceptions. I also noticed that American businessmen tend to have some stereotypes, but not that severe.
I’m using my business card as a business development manager anywhere. So I think as long as I’m not going there and saying ‘Hi I’m the CEO’, I think it’s okay. I don’t feel nobody is listening to me because of my gender, but I’m trying to manage expectations by my titles. I don’t want to create a situation where I go there and look like 15 years old, and the CEO says ‘Can I trust her? Can I buy and trust her deliverables? Will her employees be 7 years old?’ I don’t want that perception, it has nothing to do with my gender, I’m more worried if people question my abilities because of maybe my age or appearances.
You attract what you are. If you are someone worried that everyone’s going to cheat you, you see the worst in everyone, and you already assume people are going to judge you because you’re young or a female. But if you go out there with that perception and because you already think this way, you’ll attract exactly that. But if you go out as a business person and think “I’m also pretty good at this”, if they question you- you can just say ‘Yeah, but I have a lot of experience and confidence in the product you deliver.’
If you go in there and it’s not a problem for YOU, it’s not a problem for THEM.
7) What interested you to come aboard NUS Angel Ventures?
NUS is where I came from. Obviously, I have a special connection to my school. I think what you the NAV team are doing is quite interesting where they help ventures and cultivate startups budding from graduates. That’s majorly why I’m attracted, I would love to contribute back.
Thank you, TingTing, for taking time off to have this interview with us!
We are grateful to have you as an investor of NUS Angel Ventures. If anyone has any more follow up questions, feel free to connect with TingTing on LinkedIn and reach out to her!
If you have any other follow up questions, do email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch the full video interview here: https://lnkd.in/g6VUrvT
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