Where have all the bosses gone?

I've had dreams of opening my own cafe or bistro...cum music store...
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

I've had dreams of opening my own cafe or bistro...cum music store...cum music school. But, I soon gave up that dream when I realized it would require significant investment and guts to start a new business from scratch--money which I didn't have, and guts which I didn't have enough of...and still don't.

It ain't easy setting up your own shop, and even tougher trying to survive the cutthroat business world of dog eat dog. Over the years, I've seen several companies keel over and fold, including firms founded by friends and industry contacts. I simply can't imagine putting myself in a situation where I have to worry about not being able to support my parents--and dog--if the roller-coaster ride of business maneuvering and strategizing meets a deadly end.

But, at the APEC SME (small and midsize enterprise) Summit here this week, Alibaba's CEO and chairman Jack Ma gave such a rousing keynote address about daring to take that first step, I almost felt guilty about lacking the courage to give entrepreneurship a try.

The animated Ma reminded that even big companies were once small startups, and that "small is beautiful" because you can move and change the business faster to better meet evolving market demands.

China-born Ma founded Alibaba.com in 1999, eventually growing the business-to-business marketplace site to one that serves over 45 million registered users from more than 240 countries and regions. The Group, which has five subsidiaries including Alibaba.com and China Yahoo, currently employs 17,000 people in over 50 cities including Greater China, Japan, the U.S. and Korea.

When it went public in November 2007, Alibaba.com was the second-largest Internet IPO in history, outsold only by Google.

While now one of the bigger boys, Ma revered the appeal of being an SME, urging aspiring entrepreneurs to rely on themselves and not depend on banks or governments to fulfill their dreams of running their own shop.

It's not about having the biggest machines or best equipment, he said. It's about daring to dream and believing that your business can succeed. "Never lose hope. Never give up your dream," he urged.

Ma joins other delegates at the APEC SME Summit in stressing the importance of small enterprise to local economies.

In his keynote address at the conference, Singapore's Minister of State for Trade and Industry and Manpower Lee Yi Shyan said SMEs in APEC nations account for 90 percent of all businesses and employ up to 60 percent of the total workforce. They generate half of their economy's GDP but make up only 30 percent of total exports.

In Singapore, SMBs account for 99 percent of the country's enterprise community and employs 60 percent of the local workforce, according to government agency Spring.

But, accolades or otherwise, few today still want to face the risk and take the plunge. Their worries aren't unfounded. Tech Podium guest blogger NUS Enterprise CEO Lily Chan noted that the majority of startups cease operations within their first five years.

She said there are many reasons why startups fail, including lack of competitive differentiator and excessive market competition.

So why have so many crashed when college dropouts the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell, managed to find phenomenal success?

Some may argue that these famous technopreneurs founded their companies at a time when high-tech innovation was in its infancy, and anyone who had anything new to sell would find commercial success.

Yes, it may be true that young entrepreneurs today face a more crowded, competitive landscape and have to deal with tougher business conditions. But, they now have something their forefathers never had: cutting-edge technology, which they can apply to create their market differentiator.

Aspiring businesspeople today also have the luxury of looking back and picking up tips from predecessors that succeeded, and learning crucial lessons from those that failed.

A column this week in CNN.com noted that much can be learnt from Israel, which has more tech companies listed on Nasdaq than any country outside the United States, as well as Europe, Japan, Korea, India and China combined. Israel also pulls the most venture capital investments per capita globally--300 times more than India, 80 times more than China and 2.5 times more than America.

The columnists, one of whom is an investor of young Israeli companies, explained that the country's success story in building a strong tech startup ecosystem isn't about its ability to nurture smart people. Instead, they credited much of Israel's achievement here to its military training, which stresses teamwork and teaches the art of improvisation to complete missions with insufficient resources, as well as how to deal with adversity.

"The tendency to tinker, question and improvise that often begins in the military leads to a particular Israeli specialty: technological 'mashups'. Israel leads the world in medical device patents, partly because when Israelis discover a technology, they can't help considering applications to solve unrelated problems."

The authors also attributed other key factors including Israel's openness to new immigrants, who are natural risk takers, its conservative banking practices and high transparency, and its success in building a culture that encourages young people to improve and question established business models.

These, the columnists believe, have enabled Israel become "the world's most innovative startup economy".

Above all, though, to be a successful entrepreneur, I believe we also need to learn to accept even failure as a valuable business experience and pick ourselves up from the floor and try again.

Someone asked me once if he had wasted his time running his own business, only to close it down some five years later and return as an employee of the corporate rat race. Many would perceive this a shameful failure, he said, to have to relinquish his status as a boss and become an employee again.

But, why should he, I asked. He had taken up a job that paid almost as much as he was earning from running his small business, and the offer had come from a client he had served from his business dealings--without which, the job would never have come his way in the first place.

And which employer wouldn't want to hire a worker who understands the importance of meeting the bottomline, and who also has the experience and knowledge of running a business?

It takes great courage to take the risk and start your own shop, and even greater courage and humility to know when it's time to fold.

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