Article from Business Times, 14 June 2011
Published June 14, 2011
Lessons from East Coast Park
Observations during a long walk reveal many useful tips for SME owners in running a business well
By PAUL HENG
SINCE last December, I have grown fond of doing weekly brisk walks in East Coast Park. It all started when I wanted to challenge myself to do something outside my comfort zone before the year ran out, something to stretch myself. I then decided to try walking the entire length of East Coast Parkway - about 10km. Until then, my normal routine was to do an hour's cardio exercise in the gym - 30 minutes on the treadmill and the rest on the stationary bicycle, at least twice a week.
So, one cool weekday, I left the office around 4pm and started my brisk walk from the carpark at Fort Road. There was a conscious effort to clock my timing for this maiden attempt. My son Shaun, who is a triathlete, estimated that I would complete the 10km walk in about 90 minutes. To my pleasant surprise and absolute delight, I stopped the stopwatch a minute shy of 90 minutes. I was elated, to say the least - what a wonderful personal achievement to close the calendar year.
What had started out as a 'try-once' effort became a weekly affair. The switch from the aircon gym to the open - to have the sun and sea breeze accompanying me on the weekly walks - was simply shiok!
The icing on the cake were the many scenes - some picture-perfect - that I could witness along the stretch of the East Coast during my walks. On one afternoon, I witnessed a kid swinging his toy golf stick like a pro, complete with a professional-looking post-swing pose.
Since a couple of months ago, I have been doing my weekly walks on either a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, between 12 noon and 2pm; yup, I know it sounds crazy to some of you but I simply love the blazing sun - after every walk, I feel like a newly charged-up sun-powered battery.
|It's always good for an SME owner to have a mentor give necessary guidance during the early months of the business
Here's a sampling of the East Coast Park happenings I've witnessed that could potentially be applied to SME businesses :
- When starting out on your own business, go slow - whether you're attempting entrepreneurship for the first time or you're an old hand. It is good to have passion, raw energy and the insuppressible zest to go full steam ahead; yes, don't look back once you have started, but do try to temper these traits with a fair degree of caution. Entering the business world is akin to stepping into a minefield: wrong step, and you will become a statistic on the business casualty list.
I see the similarity here in children learning how to ride a two-wheel bicycle in East Coast Park. They have to be confident in balancing the bicycle and, at the same time, not be overly eager to ride too fast. Usually there will be an adult watching over the young child - akin to the SME owner having a mentor to provide the necessary guidance during the initial months of the business. This is not always possible but, in my opinion, highly desirable.
- As I progress on my brisk walk, I occasionally find the motivation to break into a light jog - I find this totally exhilarating. In my younger days, I used to drive to the Kallang Stadium after work and run 10 laps on a couple of days each week. Gosh, I really missed this; after a lower back injury and on doctor's orders, I had to switch from running to brisk walking and swimming. I am not too good with the latter, hence I ended up doing mostly brisk walking for my much-needed heart exercise.
It is wise to grow a new business at a steady pace. However, there will be times when you have to break into a jog - or maybe even a sprint - to take advantage of changing business conditions, for example. If you do not do this, you will miss the opportunity, which may not come again - for a long time, or even at all.
- Those of us who are fond of fast cars but can't afford one here in Singapore - or, if we do have one, find it challenging locating stretches of road to drive our fast car fast - will probably know this place in the East Coast where you can race your sports car really fast; your toy sports car, I mean. This is my next pit-stop - and I typically stop for a bit - to not just view the racing spectacle in front of me, but also to listen to the engines roaring away; there's enough sight and sound stimulation to send my adrenalin level rising a couple of notches.
Another lesson: sometimes sprinting is not good enough in business. We have to have the resources to be prepared to break into a race, and to be able to race well. The owners of these (expensive) toy race cars have not only to charge up their car batteries but also have enough fuel in the car to last the entire race. The similarity? Business owners need to have adequate cash reserves and resources stored and on standby to be utilised when a business opportunity presents itself.
Changes in legislation, opening up of new markets, the withdrawal of a competitor, etc - these are likely scenarios which you would want to capitalise on and be able to compete more vigorously in the race.
- Care for the less-abled. Continuing my walk, I see families descending in droves on the waterfront to spend their weekend afternoons there, young and old in tow. Such simple pleasures of life, family members spending time together - eating, swimming, chatting, laughing, taking pictures, and simply enjoying one another's company.
If you look hard enough, you will not fail to see the odd wheelchair or two - an uncle or aunty sitting on it - being pushed to and from the carpark to the beach. The weather is invariably skin-burning during that time of the day, and while some of us would definitely prefer to curl up in bed, aircon on full blast, reading our favourite book or watching the latest DVD movie, there are others who have no qualms about putting up with perspiration-drenched, sticky T-shirts to push a relative on a wheelchair so they can also enjoy the outing.
As busy as we may be managing the business, it would be nice to also make time to care for the less advantaged in society. Do this because you want to do it, to 'give back' to the society that has allowed you to operate your business - not because it is the politically correct thing to do. Did I hear you say you have just started out and do not have the means to 'give back'? Well, every bit counts, and it does not always have to be signing a big cheque.
- Adapt to the local culture and way of doing business. If you plan to venture outside Singapore, or if you have already done so, be very aware that the ways of doing business in a foreign land are likely to be quite different from what we are used to here. If you choose to do business in a particular country, be prepared to blend in and adapt to the local way of doing business. Never, ever be so naive as to think that you can go against local norms - you are very likely to fail then. The caveat that I hasten to add is that I am not talking about basic core values and principles - for example, bribing your way to get things done, or to do business with a local partner. Of course, we have to continue to keep our values of integrity and honesty. No business is ever going to be worth doing if it contradicts these basic values.
I am talking about other business practices - for example, building relationships over a meal in Japan. The Japanese do not take it too well if you start talking about business the moment you sit down - if you do this, by the time you realise your mistake, it may already be way too late to salvage the relationship. I see this played out when I witness (evidently) foreign cyclists shouting at other cyclists - mainly children cycling on small bikes, couples riding on two-person bikes, and families cycling on one of those three-wheel bikes built for more than two adults - to get out of the way of their speeding bikes.
Here's some feedback for you from a Singaporean: your behaviour does not augur well for you as an individual, nor does it speak well of the country you come from. If cyclists tend to speed in your country and you are used to this, and you further choose not to adapt to the way we cycle in East Coast Park - well, too bad for you. Simply exercise another option: take the next plane out and return to where you came from; we really can do without rude and abusive foreigners here in Singapore. And, by the way, our excellent world-beating airport is also in the east.
The writer is founder and executive coach of NeXT Corporate Coaching Services