“Do not become the person you dislike”

On Saturday 5th December, I attended the inaugural Lean In Malaysia Summit. For many years I have been part of Young Corporate Malaysians (YCM) where we too organised summits. With that in mind, I know the challenge of organising a summit of big speakers and I must say, I was very impressed with Lean In. From the format of the opening sessions (no seats, TED style), I was impressed with the combination of the speakers’ charisma, the format and the quality of the participants where the energy of the summit was well retained throughout the day.

The speakers were great and speaking on the topic of women empowerment, all raised very valid points which made great points for reflection, especially for men.

One of the points that I felt worth discussing was a point raised by Raja Teh Maimunah, which was “Do not become the person you dislike.”

This point may sound like common sense but unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to succumb to this trap given the environment.

I recall speaking to my colleagues who handle clients from private companies and authority bodies on unreasonable demands. Stories that came out include how a breakfast meeting arrange for 2 people had the client inviting his whole department forcing my colleague to pay for them, another was how when my colleague visited the client, the client announced to the department “Ok kontraktor dah sampai, bolehlah dia top-up Touch N Go kita” (“Ok the contractor is here, now he can top up our Touch N Go cards for us”). A more common one was how clients who are invited to workshop (read: going to the workshop is part of their work), can demand business class travels and 5-star hotel rooms as ransom to not going.

One thing that fascinates me is how people think and how people, over a course of time, can change in their thinking and behaviour. Naturally, I asked my colleague, what triggers such an extortionist mindset? My colleagues unanimously agree on this point: it’s what their bosses do and it becomes validation for them.

I believe fresh graduates new to the workforce are impressionable and the younger generation have a default strong sense of justice and what is right and what is wrong. However, when one enters an organisation and remains for a long time, the values of the company (both positive and negative), what is perceived to be acceptable, overwrites one’s own values. Here, the fresh graduates and younger staff see the act of bullying contractors for personal gain as a perk of a senior position. Even if they may think this to be a dirty thing to do when they were younger, when promoted to positions that be, they tell themselves “my bosses did it and everybody is doing it anyway, when am I going to reap this benefit?”

While the above is about professional conduct, another point worth mentioning is on religious observation. A colleague told me how in his early days of working in a non-Muslim majority company, because he feared justifying long lunch for fear of being thought lazy and incompetent, he simply did not go to Friday prayers, which in hindsight, he regretted.

I personally believe that the workforce should not force you to change your beliefs. There are many underhanded values in the professional world today and if the young professionals turn out to be just like the past generation, what hope is there for all of us? If you look at your bosses and you cannot see yourself becoming like them in their professional conduct, you know it’s not the right place to grow and it’s about time you think of leaving.

 

 

 

6 things I have learnt after 6 months as an F&B entrepreneur

Twelve months ago I was working a corporate job, working in the CEO’s office of a large organization based in Johor Bahru. It was then that I decided to venture into F&B by opening my first café, Double A Café. When the café opened six months ago, it was timely and opportune for me to leave my corporate job and I did so.

I was formerly a management consultant who later transitioned into the oil & gas / real estate industry managing from the CEO’s office. I believe in hard work, proactivity and high performance. At the same time, I believe in humility, empathy and doing the right things the right way. Given what I believe, as a food entrepreneur for 6 months, I have learnt much – about the industry, about the social situation in Malaysia, about jealousy, about friends and most importantly, about myself. The following are the six I want to share.

  1. The F&B business are filled with people generous with advice

When I started my business, I approached it like how I approach my work in the corporate world. All aspects of the job needs to be identified so we may manage risk. I started my business not knowing many things –  I didn’t know how contracting work works, I didn’t know different types of wood, I didn’t know what a greasetrap was and hey, I didn’t know how to cook. I had friends who have friends in F&B and I was pleasantly surprised how the café fraternity in KL and JB are generous with their advice. (To those who want F&B advice, you can come see me at Double A :D)

 

  1. Don’t let business affect friendships

In starting a business, it is tempting to take comfort in the fact that you have friends here and there who you may rely on. Friends who may be your customers and friends who may be your suppliers. One of the things I have known about money, even before I started this venture, is that money can destroy friendship, maybe even change that friendship into unnecessary feeling of hate and anger. You may learn that your friend who becomes your customer is a consistently fussy and complaining customer. You may learn that your friend who is your supplier may choose not to supply to you anymore because it is not convenient for him. When you are in business and you are stress about managing costs and maximizing profits, things like this may make you feel bitter about your friendship. Take a step back and I tell you this: your friendship matters more than such squabbles, just because they are your friends does not mean they need to support your business. It is not their job to make your rich.

 

  1. The reality of F&B – our national leaders need to do better with cost of living

As a former corporate person who was interested in current affairs, discussion on how the economy is poor, how income levels are poor and how the poor is poor is common. All this is done amongst groups of people who are paid well above urban poverty level and these concepts we discuss about, have no face – we actually know no individuals who fit this bill. We talk about ‘urban poor’ but we actually know no one who is an urban poor who we interact with intimately on a daily basis. Being an employer in the F&B world, I was taken aback by F&B industry standards on pay, how low the salaries are and what they are to poverty levels. As my staff explains to me the realities of their lives, the hardship they have to accept to be their life, part of me is angry and disappointed with our national leaders for not managing cost of living better.

 

Examples would be recent policies – GST, toll revision, public transport price hike. All done while income levels stay stagnant. The salary they earn is worth less as they can buy less things and what it means is the poor gets poorer.

 

  1. People: Hire everybody on probation and put everybody on contract

People are not your best assets. People in the right positions are. Even though budget is tight and timing is crucial, putting together a team that is aligned towards your vision is and should be your priority. When I interview people, I always set my expectations upfront. I tell them that I want them to be happy at work, passionate about F&B, show initiative and proactive. Truth is, just because you clarify expectations upfront and just because they say “yes sir, I can be all that”, it doesn’t mean they will be. Also, never ever give people a higher starting salary thinking that they will be more motivated to work – it doesn’t last and eventually they will just be costly. People who are a right fit will ease your stress and those who are not, will drain the team’s motivation and affect your establishment’s ambience and for a shop that depends on customer service, that is crippling. Firing of course, is a difficult process – mentally for both you and your staff. My advice is, start everybody on probation (long, like 3 months) and hire staff on contract.

 

  1. Starting a business requires great optimism

I started this business using money that I saved and there wasn’t much float or working capital left when the business is launched. I was fortunate as the business was launched to a great success. Traffic was good and we received great attention from the Instagram community and mainstream media. However, over 6 months, it wasn’t all that rosy. Some days are slow to a point where you wonder if your competitors are stealing your customer and some days are so slow you wonder if your projections to break even is realistic. I learnt that you need to teach yourself to be optimistic (if you already are, be more optimistic) and you should always remind yourself of the enthuasism you had when you decided to start this project of passion.

 

  1. If this business venture is meant to be a side project, get a manager on Day 1

Before I started my venture, I read an article about succeeding in F&B start-ups. One of which is the need to have a few co-founders. Having a few co-founders means you can be assured that motivation among manpower is always high and depending on how each are empowered, decisions can be done fast. I started my venture knowing this and knowing that I do not have the luxury of having multiple co-founders. Its just my wife and I. We also started this venture knowing that we would eventually go back to full time corporate work.

 

As people with no experience in F&B, we figured processes ourselves (e.g. how cash box, floats and accounting works) and we manage all ad-hoc emergencies ourselves, from not having enough milk to suppliers not delivering on time. I took 5 months off work and my wife took 1 month off work to get this venture started. It is stressful. There’s a lot to figure out and some things you would only know work after rolling it out and making mistakes. My advise would be to hire a manager with experience running an F&B outlet from Day 1. While this may sound like a costly option, I sincerely believe this option works best. It works with the seniority complex among staff (i.e. I’ve been here longer, I know more), it works at freeing up your time and it works at enabling you use your time strategically – instead of calling up the milk man, you can call your leads on a potential collaboration.

 

Ultimately, I have learnt a lot over these 6 months and these are only some that I feel worth sharing. Like many things that involves your passion, my last advice is simple. If you are already thinking it, do your feasibility study and if it works out ok in your head, go ahead and do it.

 

Professionalism

I recently went on holiday which meant I actually had time to watch TV. I found myself watching “The Great Food Truck Race Season 2” – it’s a reality TV show about 3-man team food trucks and like many reality TV shows, it’s a competition with a mix of flamboyant and passionate contestants. At the end of the episode, one team was eliminated. 

When the eliminated team was decided upon, the host said “I’m sorry you guys had to be eliminated, we will definitely remember you for your professionalism”.

What the host said made me reflect back on how I remember my bosses, colleagues and ponder how people remember me. True enough, the point that is most memorable about anyone in the working world, regardless of industry, white collar or blue collar, is their professionalism. We all have colleagues who are always late, always slow at doing their work, always coming up with excuses and similarly, we have colleagues and bosses who are always early to work, super efficient and a problem solver with a can-do attitude. All these speaks of their professionalism. 

Of course, some people simply do not care how others remember them professionally and allow themselves to lead mediocre unfulfilling lives. But I’m sure you are not one of those. So how do you think your colleagues, past and present, remember you? 

   
   

Manage Your Boss

I’ve been in positions where I report to people and I’ve been in positions where people report to me. I’ve been an employee and now I’m an employer. I believe one of the most important skill that people need to learn is to manage your boss.

Surprisingly, I have observed that this skill does not come naturally to many people, resulting in mismatch in expectation and workplace tension with the boss thinking the staff is incompetent and the staff thinking the boss is unreasonable.

On an academic point of view, I recommend young executives to read Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself. Even better, read the HBR 10 Must Read The Essentials. On a practical point of view, with specific examples, you basically need to know what your reporting superior values. A good manager should communicate his expectation to his subordinate. Regardless, a good subordinate should always clarify expectations with his manager (this is where you can exceed expectations). Does your manager value punctuality, timely updates immediately after meetings via Whatsapp, or does he value innovative ideas in making operations more efficient.

Some may think that a good manager would expect all this of a subordinate but in actual fact, some are valued more above others. For example, if you have a boss that doesn’t really care what time you come in to work but expects you to update him or the team via Whatsapp after every meeting on the outcome, should you come in at 8am every day but do not update him or your team chat group, there is a high probability that he thinks you are incompetent. Another example would be if your manager (and the management) are in process of limiting capital expenditure until profitability rises, should you continuously give ideas that additional purchases would make operations better, there is a high probability that your manager thinks you are yapping and detrimental to the team. Instead, you should focus on asset efficiency and communicate to your boss how assets can be made more efficient. 

It is your job to find out what your manager values and if it’s not made explicit, go ask him.

The A-Team in Malaysia flag colours

Run Before You Walk

Tony Stark said to Jarvis in the first Iron Man movie, “sometimes, you have to learn to run before you learn how to walk”.

That’s how I would describe my experience with my kitchen.

When I started my cafe, I know of coffee and a sense of what makes a good business. A risk it was but since I knew the A-Z of my product, the risk is something I could digest. My kitchen is different. You see, I don’t cook at home (in fact, I don’t cook anywhere) and I’ve never renovated for a kitchen. While I could possibly sit down, talk to people and learn about how commercial cooking is done, understand its processes, it would have delayed my launch. It wouldn’t have been “think big, start small, move fast”.

Adding to the list of things I’m constantly thankful for, I’m thankful to have met great people and friends in my consultants, Chef Anuar and Didie. Together they helped Alia and I understand the kitchen, it’s flow, what makes a good menu and launch it. Our kitchen was launched on 22 July and after one month of operations, things are Alhamdullilah great. The lesson here is that when you start a venture, there will be a million unknowns and you should not let you fear of the unknown prevent you from doing what you know.

And now that I have a kitchen, maybe my approach to my cooking skill too shall be “to run before I can walk”. With my limited knowledge on how to cook, perhaps the first thing I should learn to cook is steak.

Because why not.


  

Rethinking Drama Melayu

I had a great first day Raya, with lots of:

Family. Fun. Food.

Great conversations were all round, and the most notable was that on drama Melayu . My cousin-in-laws and I were discussing about drama Melayu: who we thought were the pretty actresses (don’t worry, my wife was in the discussion so she approves), who are the handsome actors (my wife’s answer is an actor who is not that handsome pun), silly lines and crazy plots.

From the line “Abang dah balik?” when the husband has just arrived to “Abang dah makan?” when the husband is eating, we were poking fun at the silliness of it all. Then one by one all these silliness were slowly validated – how between us we know people who ask their husband/in-laws “Abang dah balik?” to how we know of people who are in business who arrange marriage their daughters as a business deal to merge companies or worse, bosses and colleagues who are engaged in extramarital affairs.

To me, drama series are so addictive because they are believable to different segments of the community – they are hence a window to seeing societal problems. Drama series are also powerful medium to convey intrinsic messages – people who watch drama series often believe the societal scenario shown and reinforce and revalidate their beliefs. If this is true, I believe instead of showing plots such as poor families being cheated by rich families, this Datuk gaduh with that Datuk and daughters being married off, I believe positive messaging should be enforced.

Plot messaging for drama melayu should me more strategic, to showcase a certain government policy or to reinforce certain positive behaviour amongst the Malay communities (the key demographic of drama Melayu). My ideas, as an example of showcasing policy, would be if the government is trying to encourage human capital migration to Iskandar Region, they should have a drama series showcasing the Iskandar lifestyle (imagine settings where the rich live at Puteri Harbour, working in Singapore or owning businesses in JB). As for reinforcement of positive behaviour, have TV series that showcase the virtues of hard work, honesty, integrity. A drama setting revolving around sports is best, or please, have a better police TV series than Gerak Khas. (On that note, remember Jaguh Jaguh in the 90s?) As an additional note, comic readers would recall how Japanese comic books are excellent at using media to reinforce youth mindset.

What do you think? Is this a better proposition than the story of how rich people squander and cheat poor people only to have the poor person’s fortune changing suddenly to exact revenge? If you make being rich so undesirable (because of course, all rich people are bad), what’s the incentive to work hard to have more money?

Lessons from the Story of Prophet Daud

Ramadan this year is my first year fasting back in KL, after two years spent in Johor Bahru. One of the distinct change in lifestyle that I have to reacquaint myself to is the constant predicament of getting stuck in traffic jam – the traffic is either bad or very bad. 

To make full use of my time and my Ramadan since I have to be stuck driving, I decided to listen to the series of videos by Mufti Menk titled Stories of the Prophets. We Muslims believe the Quran was sent to mankind as guidance and Allah SWT, as the owner of communication and understanding, tell us stories of the prophets as there is a perennial lesson to be learnt. 

As Malay Muslims, many of us grow up acquainted with stories of the prophets, may it be through our sekolah agama classes or as told by our elders. As with many things in life, I’m a firm advocate that one should revisit the things one experience as a child. This way, not only are you able to reaffirm your understanding of the subject, you are also able to revisit your childhood. With that said, the stories of the prophets above are stories which I knew, albeit in abridged form and indeed it was refreshing relearning these stories. 

One story which struck a chord with me was the story of Prophet Daud. 

Most of us know the story of Daud (David) and Jalut (Goliath), how the young Daud overpowered the towering Jalut. In the Quran, Allah spoke of how he was blessed with power and abilities. 

Allah made him an able warrior, a King, able to speak to the birds and animals and able to shape metal with his bare hands. As a leader of men, Prophet Daud was also an excellent judge.

“Be patient over what they say and remember Our servant, David, the possessor of strength; Indeed he was one who repeatedly turned back to Allah” (Quran 38:17)

“And we strengthened his kingdom and gave him wisdom and discernment in speech” (Quran 38:20)

O David! Verily! We have placed you as a successor on earth, so judge you between men in truth and justice. And follow not your desire for it will mislead you from the Path of Allah. Verily! Those who wander astray from the Path of Allah shall have a severe torment, because they forgot the Day of Reckoning. (Quran 38:21-26).

Beyond it all, despite the power and wealth, Prophet Daud was an excellent worshipper. In the Quran, it is mentioned that when he engages in tasbeeh, the birds assembled with him to engage in tasbeeh. (Quran 38:19)

“The most beloved fasting to Allah was the fasting of the Prophet Daud, who used to fast alternate days. And the most beloved prayer to Allah was the prayer of Daud, who used to sleep the first half of the night, and pray for one third of it and again sleep for a sixth of it.'” (Sahih Al-Bukhari).

Personally to me, the story of Prophet Daud is a reminder that you should not allow wealth, power and success to blind you, to clothe you in arrogance and hubris. The wealth and power you accumulate in this world is incomparably small compared to the wealth, power and abilities of Prophet Daud and yet, Prophet Daud is a man that is ever conscious that all these worldly possessions belong to Allah and constantly engages in prayer for the remembrance of Allah. 

It is my personal belief that the two best qualities any man can have is patience (sabar) and gratefulness (shukur). Give thanks and be grateful. I end with a beautiful reminder from Allah on his promise to mankind:

“And remember when your Lord proclaimed, “If you are grateful, I will surely increase you; but if you deny, indeed, My punishment is severe”” – Surah Ibrahim, Ayat 7