7 lessons for entrepreneurs from Asia’s most successful

How to become a trailblazer in business? Entrepreneurs can take their cue from these 7 lessons shared by Asia's best

SHARING LESSONS. They share the lessons they learned on the way to the top. From L-R, top to bottom: Anna Meloto-Wilk, Sheila Marcelo, Tony Tan Caktiong, Vincent Lao, Winston Damarillo, Diane Wang, Dato Banatao and Cher Wong. Photos by Lala Rimando and Katherine Visconti

MANILA, Philippines – All businesses start small, but what makes or breaks them depends largely on the entrepreneur behind them. 

At the APEC SME Summit on Sunday, January 20, prominent entrepreneurs in Asia who have made it big locally and globally shared how they found new ways of doing things and fulfill their potential to become trailblazers. 

(Click here for Rappler’s live blog of the APEC SME Summit.)


Here are 7 key lessons the speakers shared during the summit:

1. Passion is key

Keeping the passion to pursue the business even through numerous challenges stood out as a common trait among the summit speakers. Cher Wang, the chair of Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC Corp. and microchip maker VIA group, stressed how she banked on this to stay the course even when there were bumps. 

Wang shared that, when she was just starting, she designed computer chips in her living room and lugged around the fragile computer chips she made while commuting. She eventually pursued her dream of creating a device that would act as a phone, a computer, a calculator. 

HTC’s rise to the top ranks of the smartphone sector has led Forbes to name Wang, a billionaire, as one of the world’s most powerful women. HTC has also been hailed as the “pride of Taiwan” for being the first from the country to establish an international brand and beat Finnish phone maker Nokia to become the world’s 3rd largest mobile phone maker by market value.

2. Learn from mistakes

Tony Tan Caktiong, the visionary behind every child’s fast food craving, Jollibee, shared that mistakes are inevitably part of the process to achieve “big dreams.”

“If you dream big and put your dreams into action you will inevitably make mistakes. But don’t be scared to make mistakes. Just be quick in realizing the mistake and correcting them as best and as fast as you can. Learn from each mistake and it will not be a waste of your time,” shared the man behind the homegrown food giant. 

Caktiong said the brands that they started but failed to grow included Mary’s Chicken and Copenhagen ice cream. Lots of research went into these brands but the products that were eventually launched were far from what was originally tested.

These flops, however, did not deter the group from moving on. Jollibee is now a multinational with over 2,000 stores in various locations in the Philippines, China, and the United States. 

Vincent Lo, the founder and chairman of Hong Kong-based firm construction company Shui On Group, said he, too, committed mistakes. These include making an investment in an amusement park in mainland China just because there was no existing amusement park. “They have a lot of other alternatives as the economy is growing and developing,” he noted.

There was another mistake: he was managing the business long-distance. “Every society is so different. You cannot really make decisions thousands of miles away. You need to know your customers and what they really want and how you can serve them best.” He learned his lesson, and now spends more time in mainland China so that he can keep up to date with the rapidly changing market.

3. Don’t be a bystander

Both Caktiong and Lo also shared how previous decisions became their their turning point.    

Caktiong shared how his team decided to pursue the transformation of the business, which started as a small ice cream store in 1975, even when they learned that global fastfood giant McDonalds was about to enter the Philippines. Several friends told him to back out since it would be difficult to outdo McDonalds.

“This was a moment of truth for us. If I had not [persisted], I would have sold out the business right then and I would not be standing in front you of today. I might just be flipping burgers for you-know-who,” Caktiong said, referring to McDonalds.

Lo, on the other hand, said his efforts to go against what is popular paid off when he embarked on a real estate project with the Hong Kong government at a time when the market was depressed. 

When Lo wanted to preserve traditional architectural styles through Xintiandi, a major shopping and entertainment hub in Shanghai, nobody wanted to lend him US$175 million. Everybody thought he was crazy. 

But he pushed on, invested time and effort, until Xintiandi became a new landmark for Shanghai in China. This also thrust the Shui On Group into the limelight. 

“You have to learn to create opportunities for yourself and you have to be able to grab hold of the opportunities. Most importantly you have to do it with passion,” Lo stressed. 

4. Invest in education 

Education is the most important ingredient in becoming an entrepreneur, stressed Diosdado “Dado” Banatao, the managing partner of semiconductor firm Tallwood Venture Capital and a Filipino engineering genius. 

A Silicon Valley visionary, Banatao highlighted how a good education can be a springboard to a good career or to greater success in life. Banatao, who has a well-known rags-to-riches story among entrepreneurs, considered school his first challenge in life.

Banatao, the son of a rice farmer and housekeeper, grew up in a farming town in Cagayan Valley Province, and used to walk barefoot to school. He eventually graduated cum laude with an Electrical Engineering degree from Mapua University and obtained a Masters in Computer Science at Stanford University.

While he was in the US, he combined his academic stripes with passion, innovative spirit, and a competitive drive to outdo others. He initially worked with leading-edge technology companies before putting up his own ventures.   

Winston Damarillo, the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of cloud management firm Morphlabs said that, while getting an education is key, carrying on those values after graduation is as important. He shared that when his family’s business encountered financial troubles, his parents never gave up and continued to send him to De La Salle. 

He carried the values he learned from school and stood by them even when he, too, met challenges along the way. He intially wanted to work for giant companies which didn’t want to hire him, like Intel and IBM. He continued making software and set up several major IT companies, including Gluecode Software, which IBM eventually acquired. 

Recounting how his group withstood challenges, he shared, “If I can’t work with Intel through my diploma, I will create my own software and bring it to them.” He believed in open source. 

5. Believe in Pinoys

Damarillo also shared his frustrations, including doubting whether Filipinos can think out-of-the-box. 

He said there was a time when he described himself as Chinese instead of Filipino, but he has since been proven wrong. One of his ventures with Banatao, Hack2Hatch, invests in and mentors budding Filipino entrepreneurs.

“We put up Hack2Hatch and we’re seeing something that’s now a phenomenon…I’m really excited about whats happening in the Philippines.” Damarillo added that mentoring reinspires him. 

He said Filipinos have a high emotional quotient (EQ) and are “great in designing. If you combine that with tech, we have a great opportunity…When you’re creating software, 99% of your ingredient is human capital.”

Anna Meloto-Wilk, co-founder and president of Gandang Kalikasan Inc., the maker of Human Nature, an all-natural Philippine-made bath and beauty line, echoed Damarillo’s insights into her countrymen.

“The Filipino has the potential to be world-class. We just need to guide them in all the technical and operational details to be able to stabilize and sustain these start-up businesses,” she shared.

With an investment in a management system that tracks how the business operates, her and her sister’s venture grew from a small business out of organic bath and beauty products into one that is now conquering local and global markets.

The business also provides livelihood opportunities to poor communities where they buy indigenous raw materials used for their products. 

6. Be brave

Sheila Marcelo, the founder and CEO of www.care.com, shared how the difficulty of juggling her studies, starting a family, and managing a home in the US when she was 20 made her realize there was poor access to care is in her host country.

In the Philippines, it was easy with readily available househelpers – something frowned upon abroad. But she wanted to change that. She did through technology. 

Marcelo revolutionized the way people obtain access to healthcare through the online caregiver recruitment agency, www.care.com. With the technology in place, the information that reached her about the Philippines being a big source of caregivers in the world, only made the business more appealing to her. 

“Some people ask me ‘why weren’t you here 20 years ago,’ most of it is because of technology. How many people were comfortable going online to use this service? Care[.com] was not ready then. We weren’t as comfortable trying to find care for our loved ones,” Marcelo said. 

Technology really helped change the world and Diane Wang, the founder of DHGate.com, experienced that first hand. She said DHGate has seen countless e-commerce transactions in more than 200 countries worldwide. 

Through e-commerce, Wang said, small and medium enterprises can find a greater leverage in growing their businesses. Many SMEs are doing better business now with e-commerce and more are expected to join in. 

“E-commerce is already empowering SMEs everyday. It’s not the future, it’s here today,” Wang said. 

7. Have a big heart

Jaime Aristitle B. Alip, the founder and Managing Director of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development Mutually Reinforcing Institutions (CARD MRI), and Ismawan Bambang, founder and chair of Bina Swadaya in Indonesia, proudly said they are in the business of poverty alleviation. 

Alip said he started CARD with P20 and a typewriter. Nobody wanted to help him turn his vision of putting up a bank for the poor a reality simply because it went against conventional wisdom. 

That did not stop him from pursuing his dream. In 2010, he started to extend microfinance services to women who, he said, are more likely to use the funds for family and entrepreneurial needs. 

This formula worked. Repayment was high at 99.35%. As of November 2012, CARD has assisted 1.8 million and insured 7.8 million Filipinos. 

“My business is poverty eradication. It’s inter-generational. It take 5 years to bring them out of poverty and a further 5 to 7 years to establish themselves fully out of poverty,” Alip said. “Our secret? We only give loans for women.”

It is the same story for Bambang who heads one of the largest NGOs in Indonesia. Bambang said helping microenterprises in Indonesia, which comprise 92.04% of businesses, was not easy especially if only a handful of people come together to help. 

“If you do everything by yourself, you wont make any impact. But if you do things with others, the impact will be beyond your expectation,” Bambang said. – Rappler.com


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