So, You Want To be An Entrepreneur?

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I became an entrepreneur later in life than most, but I must have had the seeds of entrepreneurialism within me for some time. Once given encouragement, my entrepreneurial instincts took complete control. I didn’t start my first company until I was in my 40s, but once I went down that road, I never looked back. For the past 20 years, I haven’t worked for a company where I wasn’t the founder or co-founder.

After graduating from the Harvard Business School, I went to New York City and entered the staid world of investment banking. Admittedly, working for nearly 20 years at a large Wall Street firm like Paine Webber would hardly seem to be a promising start to an entrepreneurial career. As I discovered, though, there are entrepreneurial aspects to investment banking, and that must have been what attracted me to the profession in the first place.

Looking back on my Wall Street career, I realize that what I liked most was winning new business for the firm, which of course requires a knack for selling. Good investment bankers are those who can bring in new clients, and a good entrepreneur, above all, has to be a good salesman. Potential investors, customers and employees all need to be sold on the merits of a new company. Who better to do the selling than the originator of the idea?

I also realize now that my most memorable days in investment banking were the times when I was building something. In the early 1980s, it was Paine Webber’s real estate group, which I built to be one of the most important parts of investment banking. Later in the decade, it was building and leading the entire investment banking division.

As satisfying as my investment banking career was, though, it taught me a few things about myself. Through it all, I learned that I didn’t particularly like the idea of working for someone else and following the well-established set of rules that are part and parcel of any large organization. I didn’t like being told what I could and couldn’t do, and I also knew that I was perfectly prepared to live with the consequences of my own actions.

Those important self-realizations are what started me down the entrepreneurial road. It began with a leveraged buyout firm in New York that I started with one of my investment banking clients, and then quickly moved to Hong Kong. There, I co-founded an investment firm to take advantage of Asia’s future role as the major economic force in the 21st century.

The hardcore part of my entrepreneurial career began, though, when I first discovered China. Soon after my 1991 arrival in Hong Kong, it became clear to me that China was, in fact, the growth engine that was driving the entire Asian region.

Determined to make my mark, I made my first trip to China in September 1992, completely unprepared to do business in the country. I hadn’t learned much about China as an American Studies major at Yale, didn’t know a soul in the country, and couldn’t speak the language. Yet, I became a believer in the future growth of China and managed to gradually figure things out.

One of my early insights was that China would soon become one of the largest automotive markets in the world, a view that would lead to the founding of ASIMCO Technologies in early 1994. Over the course of the next 15 years, building ASIMCO into one of the major players in China’s automotive industry was my sole passion.

I’m very proud of the fact that ASIMCO gained a reputation for developing local management and was twice named one of the “10 Best Employers in China” in surveys conducted by prominent news and human resource organizations. I’m also proud of the fact that China Auto News saw fit in 2008 to name me one of “30 Outstanding Entrepreneurs in China’s Auto Components Industry over the 30 Years of Economic Reform,” the only foreigner to make the list.

My most recent business, JFP Holdings, is a Beijing based company that was established in 2009. My goal quite simply is to capitalize on the tremendous growth in China’s capital markets that will dominate the news over the next 15 to 20 years. JFP Holdings provides a platform that not only leverages my 20 years on Wall Street, but also leverages my 20 years of experience building and running major businesses in China.

That’s enough about me. What about you? Are you thinking of starting your own business? If so, here are a few suggestions.

First and foremost, think very carefully about whether you really want to be an entrepreneur in the first place.

No matter how great your idea might seem to be, it will take an enormous amount of work and persistence to make it a success. There will be countless ups and downs, and there will be times when you will question whether starting your own business was really worth the sacrifices you are sure to make. To get through those hard times, you will need all the courage you can muster.

Before I began the journey that ultimately took me to China, I told myself that no matter how difficult it might
become, there was no turning back. China is undoubtedly one of the most difficult places in the world to do business, and it was even harder in the 1990s when ASIMCO was born. Some of the happiest days of my life were the days I spent with ASIMCO, but the most trying days of my life were also spent there.

Secondly, you need to realize that being an entrepreneur and working for yourself is addictive. Once you go down that path, it’s difficult to get back into the mainstream job market. Fortunately, I didn’t particularly like working for a large organization that wasn’t my own, so that didn’t present too much of a problem for me.

Third, before taking the entrepreneurial route, you must also do a careful assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. When I came to China, I knew nothing about the country and couldn’t speak the language. Those were my weaknesses. However, I knew how to raise capital, build an organization and garner the resources needed to build a company. Those were my advantages. The companies that I have started in China take advantage of my strengths, and I have learned how to leverage the strengths of others around me to offset my weaknesses.

Fourth, if you believe you have what it takes and are still determined to go ahead, you will need a good idea or concept for your business—ideally, something that is unique and different—and then you will need to develop a well thought out strategy.

This is important. A unique product or service and a well grounded strategy can overcome the inevitable mistakes that will be made in execution. If your company has a “me too” product or service, or a strategy that is not well conceived, execution had better be flawless, which is nearly impossible, particularly in a place like China. Building an automotive components business in China was a fresh new idea that proved to be well ahead of a major trend. That is one of the key reasons for ASIMCO’s staying power.

Finally, if at all possible, develop a strategy that doesn’t require a great deal of capital upfront. Once you take even one dollar from an investor, you have a boss, so never take the step of bringing in investors lightly.

Sometimes, of course, it can’t be helped. The automotive components industry, for example, is a capital-intensive business, so investors were needed—it was the only way to build the business. If your business also requires capital, recognize that dealing with shareholders will add an entirely new dimension to your life as an entrepreneur.

Having had the luxury of working at two completely different types of careers—one in corporate America and one as an entrepreneur—I can speak to both. The safety and security of working for a large, well established company has its advantages, but if you also have the seeds of entrepreneurialism within you, there’s nothing like having a business that you can call your own.

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