Few ups, many downs for entrepreneurs

So you want to launch your own business … be prepared for an emotional roller coaster of exhilaration, disappointment and stress

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 10:24am

Many are bitten by the start-up bug in Hong Kong, aka the "world's freest economy". The town celebrates successful entrepreneurs with a fervour people in other cities reserve for film and pop stars.

But should you decide to throw off the shackles of salaried work and launch your own business, be warned - the experience will be exhausting and stressful, and you will never, ever feel like you have accomplished your goals. Instead, you will be overwhelmed by obstacles and stalked by a fear of failure.

That, at least, is the message of three entrepreneurs.

Lisa Cheng held an enviable role as marketing manager for cosmetics giant L'Oreal. But the entrepreneurial bug bit when she noticed a gap in the women's lingerie market. There was affordable but bland Marks & Spencer underwear on one end and luxurious lines such as La Perla at Lane Crawford. But there was little in between.

Her lingerie shop Sheer took about a year from concept to fruition and was fraught with obstacles. She had to deal with three months of construction when her landlord began renovating the building containing her shop, which meant customers were blasted by the sound of drilling. Meanwhile, some foreign brands refused to supply her.

"Foreign suppliers were worried that because it's a Hong Kong business, which to them is the same as China, that I would take the designs and copy it. Convincing them that they could trust working with me took a lot of effort and some of them still turned me down," says Cheng.

Others were thrown by her petite stature and youthful looks. "My contractors are big burly men and they're taking orders from someone who looks like a little girl. But the minute I open my mouth, they know I mean business. 'I say, This is unacceptable. Why is it like this? I asked for something else. I have all the emails and photographs.' They understand they can't take advantage of me," says Cheng.

Max Traverse, with four other partners, set up the city's first tiki bar, Honi Honi, in November last year. To fit the Polynesian theme he needed items not normally available in Hong Kong.

"In the lead-up to the opening, we were missing something here, missing something there. A lot of the things we had to import because they weren't available in Hong Kong. The rum didn't come on time because it takes three months on a boat, the tiki mugs came two days before we opened, the long straws came 10 days after we opened."

Traverse scouted 10 locations over four months before settling on Wellington Street. On top of all this, there were whispers of mafia interests. Through it all, he has struggled to find good employees. He has a dozen full-time staff crafting 6,000 cocktails a month and is looking for more.

"A tiki bar has never been done in Hong Kong so you really have to train them. They are mostly young staff who have never worked properly before. It's getting better in Hong Kong because there are now bartending schools but hospitality is still not seen as a serious career."

Lara Jefferies, who opened her boutique public relations agency, Plug, says staffing was a key issue for her, too. To distinguish her service in a saturated market, she needed to find the right people. Jefferies has a team of six but it took some time to attract talent.

"People like to work with a global prestigious company but luckily I was able to find people who could see the opportunities in working for a small business," she says.

Over the past six years, Jefferies has put everything into her business, often working weekends. "It does take its toll mentally," she says. "It is very tempting to work every hour that you can because there is never enough time. If there isn't someone there to make you stop, you won't."

Entrepreneurs often describe the process of opening one's business as a roller coaster. The glee from achieving a hard-won goal is often followed by a series of disappointments. For example, Cheng had a high moment after talks with a high-end mall to open a second store.

"The mall approached me first, which is unheard of in Hong Kong. The leasing agent is a customer and she loves our store," says Cheng. "We had a great meeting and I was really able to win the management over. I left feeling so excited and happy. But the months after the summer were bad in terms of sales. It was a wake-up call to how volatile markets can be."

Having one's own business is not "up and down", says Cheng but more like "up and then down, down, down. The ups are few and far between".

Business owners feel that, whatever they've achieved, it's not enough.

Even after landing large international accounts like Nespresso, Chow Tai Fook, and Tumi, Jefferies says she's never felt an 'I've made it' moment. "The moment you start feeling satisfied, that's when you start to slip. You need to be constantly improving. Definitely celebrate the wins but you can't become complacent."

Cheng says: "You've got to have the drive and dedication. Nothing satisfies me."