First Step: Starting your own business

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About 1 month ago, I decided that I would start a business, in addition to my day job. Fortunately, my day job provides me with relatively predictable schedule, a few free evening hours, and a (mostly) clear weekend. Entrepreneurship has always ranked high on my bucket list. Plus, I’m still relatively young and have no major responsibilities, so why not? But the key question was “How?”. How do you take that first step to start a business?

 

Light Bulb Moment #1: You are the average of 5 people you spend the most time with.

 To change yourself, you must change others around you. Outside of my spouse, I spend most of my waking hours with co-workers, who generally seem overworked and / or disgruntled with their cubicle job. As a first step, my environment had to change. If I wanted to be an entrepreneur, then I need to spend time with entrepreneurs. But where do you find these people?

I spent the next few weeks signing up for every single entrepreneur-esque Meetup event you can imagine. I wanted to meet people who would inspire me, mentor me, and maybe even start a business with me.

However, my first meetup event was a complete disaster. I felt like the ugly, pimply, new girl in high school who would eat lunch in toilet stalls. Nobody wanted to talk to me; and nobody remembered me. Upon reflection, it’s no wonder this happened. I would introduce myself as such: “HI. I work at a large company in strategy and marketing. I’m here because I want to start a business, but I’m not sure what kind yet.”…followed up a big, goofy yet quizzical grin.

Shoot…I wouldn’t even want to talk to myself. On top of that, the only business card I had on hand was my corporate name card, so I had to hand out a card from a giant company to people that frown upon the cubicle types. Ouch…

But then it struck me…

 

Light Bulb Moment #2: Re-Brand Yourself

 At these networking events where there are countless entrepreneurs and wannabe entrepreneurs, you need to stand out like a peacock in a sea of pigeons. A random corporate cog in the wheel with no idea what she wants to do next is not a good brand to have. For my next entrepreneur networking event, I decided to create a new brand. After floating around a few ideas, I decided to pick one and focus.

New identity: I am the Founder and CEO of an education crowdfunding startup. (How much cooler does that sound?)

At the next networking event, the new personal brand worked wonders. Several people approached me and wanted to talk about potential collaborations. I even had someone offer to design my non-existent website. People volunteered to mentor me. It’s remarkable! Between the first and second networking event, the only change was my introduction, but that made all the difference in the world.

 

Light Bulb Moment #3: Follow-up or FAIL

 One wise entrepreneur said this to me (and a bunch of wannabe / newbie entrepreneurs). It has stuck with me ever since then. After each event, I followed up with almost every single person who I snagged a business card from. I would send them a short (but nice) follow-up email, reminding them of who I am. And then, I would connect with them on LinkedIn. Even if it’s someone with a seemingly unrelated interest, you would be surprised at how useful it is to follow up.

At this point, I was just a self-proclaimed founder of a non-existent startup. I still needed to create an entire business. At one of the events, I met a guy who ran his own dating consulting service. Very unrelated, right? Well, I met him up for coffee on a whim, and he not only walked me through basic steps on how to set up my own company email address but also linked me with a few potential customers. WHAT?!? Crazy…

 

I’m still taking it one step at a time and one day at a time, but it’s AH-MAZING how a small change in self-perception and environment can give you the right push to start your own gig. Stay tuned as the journey continues…

 

 

Why is work life balance a women’s issue?

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The last time I checked, children are produced by their mother and father. Women have children, and so do men. But why is work life balance usually framed as a women’s issue?

In one of my previous companies, flexible work arrangements were available. Great! How progressive! But it was available only for women. Also, I was recently invited to a seminar to discuss women’s leadership and work life balance. However, all invitees were women.

Let us not forget one of the most successful books on women’s leadership in recent times: Lean In. I admire the author, Sheryl Sandberg, greatly. In fact, she was even my business school commencement speaker. Again, the focus of this book is what women should and can do to rise to leadership positions while balancing work with life.

It seems like we’ve created a gender-based bubble around work life balance. Women talking about what women should do to improve women’s work life balance so we have more women in leadership. This is a pretty lonely conversation.

So, where in the world are the men??? 

Because men have children too, these fathers should have work life balance issues as well. Well, according to this HBS study, many men simply don’t see it as an issue. Society has always casted men as the breadwinner, so if a guy has to work more, then he’s just doing what he’s supposed to be doing. In fact, by working longer and earning more, he is providing a better future for his children.

But men are changing. Men today and tomorrow seem to care more about spending time with their offspring. Since women are now sharing the bread winning responsibility, men are starting to share more of the care-taking responsibility. This isn’t just some feminist cry to turn men into diaper changing machines. This is just good for people. I’d even argue that this is just good for society. A US national survey indicates that more involved fathers are with their children, the children not only have better academic performance but they also have less risk of delinquency.

Until society and companies broaden the work life balance discussion to women and men, it will be difficult for men to spend more time as fathers and for women to spend more time climbing the corporate ladder.

Career Lessons from Kim Kardashian

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Kim Kardashian and her husband-to-be / baby daddy Kanye West just landed on the cover of Vogue magazine (U.S. edition), which is supposed to the world’s most influential fashion magazine. Back in 2007, I thought her fame would fizzle out after 15 minutes, but it seems that it’s only strengthened over time. Now, the girl who used to arrange attention-hungry socialite Paris Hilton‘s closet has reached the pinnacle of fame.

According to Forbes, Kim Kardashian’s net worth is estimated at $10 million in 2013. From a sketchy sex tape to a business and media empire, you have to admit that Kim Kardashian has had one heck of a career trajectory with plenty of ups and downs.

What are some career lessons we can learn from her rise to a business mogul?

1. Who you know matters 

Kim Kardashian first garnered media attention by hanging out with famous people. As Paris Hilton’s close friend and personal stylist, they were often spotted and photographed together. She also briefly dated former boy band crooner Nick Lachey (when he was still relatively famous) as well as quasi-famous singer Ray J.

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While it’s quite unclear how exactly the Kardashians got their own show, reports suggest Kathy Lee Gifford, who is Kris Jenner’s long-time friend, and / or Ryan Seacrest knew the family and thought they were quirky enough to deserve their own show. Whatever the actual story was, famous people with good connections were involved.

Therefore, your connections and the strength of their connections matter tremendously. Whether you want to be a reality TV show star, a C-suite member, or a billion dollar start-up founder, knowing the right people is one of the most important things you can do to build a successful career.

 

2. Turn lemons into lemonade

This is probably Kim Kardashian’s biggest strength. Having a private home video leaked for the world to see is probably every person’s worst nightmare. Instead of hiding in a hole (which would be my natural reaction), she milked every ounce out of that limelight. She immediately signed up for a reality TV show and a Playboy cover. In fact, she changed the narrative. Instead of having the world focus only on the trashy nature of a sex tape, she opened the doors to her family, showing the world her other dimensions as a sister and a daughter.

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Whenever we may face a bump in our career, it’s important to look at all angles to see how you can turn an impossibly bad situation into a good one. If you’re fired, then will this finally gives you a push to start your own business? If you have an awful manager, then can you learn how to be a good one?

 

3.  Be vulnerable

Humans are social animals. We are hard wired to connect to each other. Being vulnerable, we admit that we are imperfect and that we have weaknesses. We drop our shield and open a door for others to connect. People want to connect with, help, and like others that show their vulnerable sides.

While Kim Kardashian lives the life of the rich and famous, she let’s the world see her vulnerable sides as well. For someone that has a team of hair and make-up experts, she often walks around paparazzi-infested L.A. with no make-up. On her reality show, she openly cries (in a less-than-beautiful way). People like that. People like to see her in good times and bad. It makes people feel like they know her and that she is approachable. Perhaps that’s why she’s a tabloid obsession for so many years.

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At work, it’s important to understand and admit your limitations. I don’t mean list all of your weaknesses to your colleagues. In a situation when you can’t get the information or can’t learn quickly, you need to ask for help. This will not only help you accomplish your task better and faster, but also allow you to learn more effectively. Another bonus is that it forms a stronger connection with someone else, building your network.

 

4. Build a strong personal brand

In addition to a hit TV show, the Kardashians have their own clothing line, make-up collection, boutique clothing stores, fragrances, fitness videos, and more! They have managed to build an empire around the Kardashian name. They’ve done so by becoming masters of media. They are everywhere all the time, keeping their brand relevant and top of mind. Kim Kardashian has over 20 million Twitter followers and 13 million Instagram followers.

They’ve also learned from past lessons. In the beginning, they endorsed almost everything under the sun from alcohol to diet pills, diluting their brand and credibility. Now, they seem to have found their niche and focused their business endeavors on beauty and fashion.

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Self-promotion at work is a necessary evil. People will not consider you for new opportunities or exciting projects unless you promote the good work that you’ve already done. You not only need to be top of mind for managers, but you also should build a reputation for a particular skill / expertise. When a senior manager thinks she really needs somebody to get a particular job done well (e.g., run a marketing campaign or start a new business), then your name should be one of her first thoughts.

 

5. Take chances

The Kardashians have a multi-million dollar empire because they saw opportunities and took them. Some worked out (e.g., her fragrance) and some didn’t (e.g., her song “Jam”).

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The lesson here is the more calculated risk you take, the higher your likelihood is to succeed. You basically won’t know until you try. The next time at work, sign up for a new project, work with someone new, or just think differently. If you try and fail, then try again and do things differently.

Entrepreneurs: Born or Made?

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If you’re asking whether you should become an entrepreneur, then probably shouldn’t become one.

This was the view of a serial entrepreneur I was chatting with recently. For her, entrepreneurs are born. They are born with an innate restlessness to create. Even if they are in a big, corporate job, they may have one or several side gigs. In our brief conversation, I realized she not only ran a for-profit consulting business, but she also started a non-profit organization and was trying to start a restaurant. When does she get time to sleep (and put on make-up)?

She makes a valid case. If you don’t have an incessant internal drive to start and own your own business, an undeterred sense of optimism, and rock solid persistence, then it’s very difficult to succeed. Entrepreneurship is a lonely journey filled with countless naysayers and unforeseen obstacles.

In this BBC article, a British entrepreneur and business coach even presents a subjective pie chart of entrepreneurship that it’s “70% born, 10% nurture, and 20% trainable.”

I find that a bit hard to swallow. How does entrepreneurship belong to a chosen group of people with special genes? Working with smallholder farmers and small businesses in emerging markets, entrepreneurship is often the result of circumstance. If a large employer is not present in your town / village, then you create your own jobs. If you’re frustrated with how things operate in your life, then you can create your own solution.

Professor / Entrepreneurship Expert Shane Scott shows that it’s not as clear cut. His team of researchers conducted studies on the entrepreneurial activities of 870 pairs of identical twins and concluded that entrepreneurs are 40% born and 60% made.

What does that even mean? Does that mean if you don’t have all the “entrepreneurship genes”, then you can train yourself on the deficient qualities? Does that mean some people may have a higher propensity to succeed at entrepreneurship, but others can achieve the same results with some hard work and training?

Whatever the magic formula is on whether entrepreneurs are born and made, I do think all successful entrepreneurs share a few qualities, which some you may be born with, some you can learn, and some you should just force yourself to have.

Work on your passionJeff Bezos, CEO of AMAZON, introduces new Kindle Fire HD Family and Kindle Paper white during the AMAZON press conference on September 06, 2012 in Santa Monica, California.  AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR        (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages)

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Never give upquote-i-m-convinced-that-about-half-of-what-separates-the-successful-entrepreneurs-from-the-steve-jobs-283988

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Why it’s awesome to be a 30 year-old professional

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When I entered the workforce right after college, my age was a constant source of insecurity. Especially in management consulting, I probably looked ridiculous. At 23, I would be tasked to advise 50 year-olds on how they should run their billion dollar business while I had just learned what a balance sheet was. During my first week at work, an executive asked me exactly how many years of work experience I have, and I almost fainted. I didn’t want to admit that I was a newborn employee and probably useless at that point, but my company was still charging you hundreds of dollars per hour for my time. 

Today, I’m a 30 year-old professional. While I still don’t have decades of experience under my belt, I do have some battle scars. And sure, being a 30 year-old professional has its own set of issues as well. Ok, if you haven’t already made it on Forbe’s 30 under 30 list at this point, then you’ll probably never make it. Or, sure, by 30, Steve Jobs had already started Apple Computers, which transformed the world.

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Or, by 23, Jennifer Lawrence has already won at an Oscar and has been nominated for two more.

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But before you start drowning yourself in self-pity, it’s okay. There are also several famous and successful people that started finding success at 30, such as Julia Child, Jon Hamm, or Harrison Ford.

So I’d like to dedicate this post to celebrating why it’s wonderful to be a 30 year-old professional.

1. You’ve gotten to know yourself better 

By 30, you have a better understanding of your likes and dislikes. You hate micro-managing bosses. You should leave office happy hours after 2 drinks. You love a job with some international travel. You minimize the dislikes and maximize the likes to have a more enjoyable time at work and in life.

2. You have some street creds

You are no longer a newborn in the workforce. You’ve built a monster financial model; you’ve presented in front of important people; you’ve launched a new project. Whatever it is you’ve been there and done that, and you can speak about it from experience. All these experiences have created and shaped your wisdom. Yes, you are older, and you are just a bit wiser.

3. You can sense and cut through bullsh*t

One of the best perks about being a 30 year-old professional is your ability sniff out BS from a mile away. At 23, when a manager asked me to submit work by the end of the day, my first response was “Yes. Will do” to all requests. And then I would proceed to slave away until deep into the night, even if it was for something quite trivial. Now, if someone asks me for work by the end of the day, my first response is “Is this truly important and urgent?”. If yes, then I’ll put in the work. If not, then you save yourself some unnecessary sleepless nights. Learning when and how to push back has been incredibly valuable.

4. You are not broke

You’re a 30 year-old professional and not a broke college grad. You’ve managed to save some money and upgrade your lifestyle. You no longer wear cheap suits, which have been passed down from your overweight uncle. You can afford clothes that fit and look nice. You don’t need to milk that expense account or binge on free office food. You can afford your own. In fact, you can afford to go to a nice restaurant and recommend some to your co-workers. You seem more polished and cultured at this age.

5. Your network is more powerful

Networks are the lifeblood of business. It’s all about who you know and what they know. When I just graduated from college, most of my friends were broke college grads, trying desperately not to get fired in their first jobs at the bottom of the totem pole. Now, at 30, my network includes people that have launched and scale successful businesses, corporate vice presidents, big shot investors, surgeons, and high-flying lawyers. It’s amazing how a few years can make a huge difference not only in your professional development but also that of your network’s.

6. You still have so much to look forward to! 

You’re 30 and not a dinosaur!  You know enough to not put up with silly things, but you are young enough to learn new things. You can develop new skills, insights, and experiences to accomplish more. You have time to fail and get back up…many times. You have so much more potential to unlock and contribute, and that’s why being a 30-year old professional is nothing short of awesome.

For those of you in your late 20’s, I’d highly encourage you to read actress Olivia Wilde’s advice on turning 30. It’s hilarious and fun. Enjoy!

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How to boost your confidence at work

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This past week, I was invited to join a senior management meeting on behalf of my boss. Normally, this would be a great opportunity to gain exposure to leaders way above my pay grade.

However, I knew this meeting was going to be terribly uncomfortable. I not only had to present bad news, but also my team had made certain business decisions that some meeting members opposed.  

On top of that, only people with 20+ years of work experience were attending the meeting, and then there was me…who is less than 2 years out of business school. I could envision boss’s boss’s bosses throwing darts at me while I stand on top of the meeting room table wearing nothing but a giant diaper. A proud moment indeed…

With an uphill battle to fight, I needed a quick shot of confidence to overcome my nerves and stand by my team’s position.

Here are some ways I tried to zap confidence into myself.

1. Know your stuff: Nobody likes to be caught with their pants down. In the days leading to the meeting, I sharpened my message, anticipated potential questions, and gathered the necessary data / analysis to support my stance. The key is to look prepared and like you know what you’re talking about.

2. Dress to impress: We are all superficial creatures. We tend to make snap judgments of others based on the way they look. He, with the untucked shirt and disheveled hair, looks like he just woke up. She, with the short and tight skirt, looks like she’s fond of a certain kind of attention. At work, the key is to look sharp. Whether your workplace dress code is business formal, business casual, or just casual, make sure you look impeccable…much like Miranda Kerr and James Bond below.

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3. Give yourself a pep talk: Talking to yourself can seem a bit loony, but giving yourself a pep talk can be quite effective. Remind yourself of your strengths and accomplishments. Use these reminders to justify why you deserve a seat at the meeting room table (or a job position or even a date with someone).

4. Power pose: In her popular TedTalk, Harvard Business School professor, Amy Cuddy discusses how our body language not only influence how others see us but also how we see ourselves. By simply changing our pose for 2 minutes, we can feel significantly more confident. Check out the pose spectrum…

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5. Smile! When we are nervous, the last thing we want to do is smile. More often, we put on a frown and furrow our brows while trying to curl ourselves into a fetal position. However, studies indicate that we can actually become happier by smiling (rather just smile because we are happy). Next time you find yourself filled with nerves, just smile and you will feel happier and more relaxed.

Long Work Hours: Perception and Consequences

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I’m no stranger to long work hours. When I was a management consultant, my life was work. I was either working or resting to work. A day ended when I would physically collapse on my laptop. I left consulting because I knew that lifestyle was not only unsustainable but would also shorten my lifespan.

In an industry (aka. non-consulting) job, I struggle to strike the right balance. Am I working too little? Am I working too much? What time should I leave work? Should I take my laptop home?

In consulting, you had very tight deadlines, so you knew you had to finish a piece of work within a few weeks / months. When the project is finished, you’re done and on to the next one. However, in an industry job, you may have some projects and urgent deadlines, but for the most part the work is business as usual. At any given time, there is always work to do.

Sadly, determining the right amount of working hours is more than just about doing your job. It is about branding yourself. I sit next to a guy that I like to call the Hour Police. He comments on the comings and goings of our co-workers. “How is this guy identified as a high potential talent? He leaves work every day at 6:30pm.” or “She arrives at 9:30am and leaves at 6pm every day. She doesn’t seem very motivated.”. 

For the Hour Police and perhaps others, your work hours are a reflection of how diligent and ambitious you are and maybe even how good you are at your job. A 2010 research shows that many managers have this attitude. The more you work, the better you are perceived, and the more bragging rights you have. Yes. You’re a hero for working all those hours.

However, let’s examine the other side of the coin. The Hour Police himself works every from 8am to 9pm. I’ve heard others ponder: “Does he really need to work 13-hour days? Is he just working longer and not necessarily smarter?” or “Does he live in the office? When does he ever spend time with his wife?”.

Given his 65 to 70 hour work-weeks, the Hour Police is perceived as inefficient, unproductive, and even uncaring. This Economist article seems to suggest that working less may mean we’re more productive. After all, as the graph below demonstrates, the less hours worked per person, the higher their GDP per hours work, meaning the higher their productivity. Correlation? Causation? Unsure, but it does show that Germans work less than the Greeks, and we know which one has the more productive economy.

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Also, from a longer-term perspective, longer hours may cause you to be perceived negatively in other ways. As research on white collar workers shows, working long hours can double your odds of depression, and of course being overworked leads to greater stress levels. When you’re stressed and / or depressed, you’re less likely to seem on top of your game. You may bark at your co-workers, dress sloppily, and even develop creepy-looking, stress-induced eye twitches (yup…been there).

Perceptions aside, studies also show that spending long hours at the office can actually kill you. You have a 40 to 80% greater chance of getting heart disease. If accelerated death is the cost, then you better make sure your work and its rewards would be worth it.

Therefore, it seems that the Goldilocks approach may be the most appropriate. Don’t work too much, don’t work too little. Work enough that’s just right.