Even older thots

Stories worth celebrating over

There were still a couple of hours to go before the dawn of Hari Raya. The soothing sound of rain falling on the zinc roof above me coupled with the roosters’ rendition of popular Raya tunes emerging from the surrounding trees kept me company.

As I uncomfortably discovered that over-indulgence of beef rendang, lemang and spicy satay sauce doesn’t go well with sleep, I was thankful for the 34 Raya greeting SMSes awaiting my reply, including one from a Datuk that came with a charming poem and appreciation of my regular jottings through this column – indirectly reminding me of this issue’s deadline regardless of festivity celebrations!

Amid unfamiliar limbs and snoring bodies spread all around me on the kampung house’s living room, I found myself reflecting – and scribbling in near darkness on the ensuing inspiration – of the many heart-warming tales shared by fellow Malaysians on the multi-cultural diversity of our adored home aired recently over Astro’s MyStory channel.

Most of these short homemade videos were entertaining and puts a smile on our faces; many were pleasantly creative; some sang better than the rest; a few seemed exceedingly focused on themselves rather than on their stories; and my personal favourite, students of a Malaysian deaf and mute school ‘singing’ the Negaraku national anthem.

However and whatever way the stories were told, the message was unmistakable; we have come through and will continue to strive on as a unified nation. Yet, a nation does not just comprise of individuals, but of spirited entrepreneurs as well.

Entrepreneurship, while still a long way to go for perfection and global dominance, has always played an integral part in the country’s growth. While the more prominent ones have cemented their names across business fraternities such as automobiles, airline services, sugar production, banking and finance, hospitality, telecommunications, and property development, there is an endless flow of less conspicuous individuals who have played an important role in our nation’s journey as well.

As we celebrated our first officially declared National Day holiday on September 16, we look over our shoulders and see how over the years our own lesser known but equally important entrepreneurs have inaudibly and almost unseen been pushing the country and its population forward. Their stories should be told and their achievements to be celebrated.

Over the last two years since the inception of this newspaper, the editorial team at MALAYSIA SME™ has been exactly doing that. As many of these business owners may be inept at video making or are public relations-savvy enough to share their stories with the rest of the country, our journalists were relentless (or could be the fear of facing the editor without coming back with the story) in getting themselves into these entrepreneurs’ once shrouded world.

They have uncovered and coaxed the entrepreneurs to share their success, dreams and even humbled as these inspiring individuals occasionally relive their tearful challenges. From the one who one sits unnoticed at the corner keeping us safe from fire hazards, another who prepares our children with innovative educational tools, to the young man who designs safe playground equipments for our children, there are many fascinating tales for us to read about and priceless experiences to learn from.

Seeing that Malaysians are often easy targets for a good story – MALAYSIA SME™ will be publishing a coffee table publication portraying these SME founders and their entrepreneurial tales. Without giving too much away, the special collector’s edition is a compilation of inspiring stories on the personalities behind these locally born and bred SMEs. More than just telling a story, it’s also about giving readers a glimpse into what’s possible and hopefully to inspire the whole nation to greater entrepreneurial successes.

By now, the roosters were already crooning next to my ears and the beefy smell of rendang coming from the kitchen meant I was not going to get any sleep for the remainder of the morning. Hari Raya was finally here and soon the whole family will be gathered around the creaking swing on nenek’s kampung house’s patio exchanging stories. While I’ve often excused myself from those all-time favourite topics of horror and local celebrity gossips, this year I’m all ready with plenty of intriguing enterprising SME folktales of my own.

Being tastily profitable

It was an extended weekend; the wife’s away for the week; and the cat’s food dispenser is programmed to make sure he does not jump out of the four-storey window from starvation.

This seemed the perfect backdrop for me to get out of the house to resolve another one of my long list of predicaments: “Why is everyone always selling the same foodstuff as the rest of their fellow traders at the Ramadan bazaars?”

For many years now, I’ve always wondered why was it that bazaars around the city end up serving up the same dishes – ayam percik, grilled fish, satay, bubur lambuk, roti john, roti jala, mee soto, nasi briyani and nasi lemak kukus.

Don’t get me wrong, I love many of these offerings, but at the same time, I’m secretly yearning for something more than the same popiah, murtabak and the assortment of traditional Malay kuihs that I have each year.

“Why were there no one selling fish and chips, baked potatoes, and ice-cream waffles?”
“Why not be different from what the rest are already selling at the same venue?”

With my inbuilt GPS switched on, I set out to answer those questions determined to know how those that did dare to be different were faring in these bazaars. First stop was the Kepong area. The first 15 stalls were as expected displaying the customary delights. Just as I was about to lose hope and head to the next destination, I spotted a moderate queue of people up ahead.

As there was no overhanging banner describing what they were selling, I asked the man at the end of the queue what he was lining up for. He replied, “The best omelette in town.”

The couple behind the stall, looking in their early 30s, were frantically cooking onion and sausage omelettes. That’s it. No rice or other accompaniments. Just pure and simple sliced onions with minced chicken sausage fried with an egg omelette.

After trying it later, while I cannot agree with the man’s claim, as I’ve tasted better egg omelettes, it was a pleasant change of menu. I managed to sneak in a quick query to the cook and learned that they sell an average of 300 each day. Priced at RM3.50, the couple takes home RM1,050 daily. Impressive day at the office I would say.

My next stop was the Kota Damansara neighbourhood. There were three smaller but equally crowded bazaars. While I came out empty handed from the first two, the last one dished out a refreshing surprise.
Salleh easily stood out from the crowd, as he was the most vociferous trader in that particular bazaar.

The ponytailed student and his brother prepared ice-blended fruit juices for their lingering customers. They wanted to be different from the other drink stalls on that site promoting the familiar air mata kucing, rose syrup, cincau, sugar cane and soya bean drinks.

While Salleh refused to disclose their sales volume, a stroll around the location showed me that their stall was evidently doing much better than other beverage operators. Being different definitely paid off for them.

From The Star e-card

My last stop was the Kampung Sungai Kayu Ara bazaar. After slogging it out for a parking spot that was almost a kilometre away, the next 20 minutes was a disappointment in terms of the objective of my visit… until I reached an unassuming booth with two lines of people willingly waiting in front of it.

It may look plain, but the makcik’s deep-fried mushrooms were delicious! She was the only one I came across selling this throughout my evening’s visit to all those bazaars. Her equally bare chocolate pancakes, while nowhere near as good as my wife’s favourite Paddington’s Pancakes, was also a welcomed change to the regular apam balik.

Makcik doesn’t talk much, but she revealed that the she’s doing okay. Judging from the multiple gold bracelets on both her wrists, I would deduce she’s doing more than just okay.

Back in the quieter surroundings of home and enjoying the fruits of my adventure, I was at least feeling a wee bit contented that there were those that dared to be different, and evidently being rewarded for it.
Yet, this satisfaction was quickly blanketed by the fact that there are not more entrepreneurs out there who are willing to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

In line with the plethora of 1Malaysia activities, it would be great to one day see an Indian selling Indian rojak and noisily grinding out ais batu campur, Chinese preparing halal Hokkien mee, and an Eurasian baking Portuguese egg-tarts at these Ramadan bazaars.

You think finding a chocolate strawberry fondue fountain at next year’s Ramadan bazaar is too much to ask for? Selamat Hari Raya to all Malaysians!

Peddling on through the pain

Malek, whom I have gotten to know quite well over the last ten months through our daily gym sessions, have not been his usual bubbly self in recent weeks. Thinking perhaps he was still coming to terms of his beloved Liverpool’s failure to make it to Champions League next season, I had not asked him about this until a few days later.

After a gut-wrenching RPM cycling class, I sauntered over to the owner of a travel agency to find out more about his seemingly dreary outlook. With distinct sadness in his voice he told me that he was in the midst of folding his business venture.

Malek’s decade-old travel agency has not been doing well over the last two years. Online ticketing services, budget airlines that reaches out to travellers directly, hotels that offer discounts for online reservations, and even Google Maps has made it effortless for travellers to plan everything themselves.

Even as I shared some ideas on how he could stay relevant, I myself was not overly convinced of his long-term sustainability, as the advent of the internet have unmistakably affected his services.  Over the years, this newspaper has been an earnest advocator of profitable SMEs and award-winning entrepreneurs. From keropok makers to internationally renowned flooring manufacturers, we have showcased Malaysian individuals who have successfully turned their dreams into reality.

But, for every one of these stories, there are also many business endeavours that have failed to take off or were forced to close down. Malek, like my others before him and many after, believed in his idea; saw the opportunity; endured the journey; and faced the outcome. The difference now is whether he will continue to believe in his dreams and set out to take another crack at being an entrepreneur again.

At a recent technology business conference, a fellow speaker had revealed that he had attempted to build a profitable venture not once or twice but seven times. He’s on his eighth and seems to be doing better this time around. The serial IT entrepreneur spoke about how in Malaysia there is still a stigma of sorts when it comes to discussing business failures, and how it was unlike in the US and in Europe where investors see failures as being associated with experiences gained.

Basketball legend Michael Jordan, who was deemed not good enough for his high school basketball team, once said: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Perhaps some may argue that getting a basketball in the hoop is far different from running a business; there are no expansion plans to work out, budgeting and planning to inscribe, sourcing for working capital and staffs to manage.

They also insist that industry data showed that almost 30% of SMEs close within the first year. Some claim 90% of SMEs will fail in the first five years. As these failure rates remain argumentative, what these numbers don’t show is the determination and drive displayed by many to keep on going in their quest to succeed.

Harland David Sanders, or better known as Colonel Sanders, went through a failed legal practice, an unsuccessful motel, forced to sell his restaurant, and had his secret Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe rejected 1,009 times before finding one that accepted it. Today, it is a US$500 million business empire. Thomas Monaghan started DomiNick’s with his brother when he was 23-years-old. It faced closure in a few years time before a fire resulted in huge financial losses for the partners. By 1970, the business had incurred a US$1.5 million debt, one hundred lawsuits and fifteen hundred creditors. Yet, today, Domino’s Pizza has over 1,000 stores all over the globe.

Both are just some of the many success stories that would hopefully keep Malek going in his pursuit of business success. Just like in Under the Tuscan Sun where Diane Lane plays a writer who unexpectedly buys a villa in Italy, our wishes at times come true in unexpected ways. Or perhaps, offering free fried chicken and pizzas in his tour packages would do the trick!

Saying ‘I Do’ to technology

“May I have your phone number?” queried the wide-eyed twenty-something lass behind the sales counter.

Finally it happened! After 30 plus years of yearning for a girl to ask for my phone number, I thought that the day would never arrive. Okay, so it was just her innocently asking for it to enter into the shop’s customer relationship management software. Still, technically I was at long last asked for my number.

Once I’ve lost the grin on my face and recovered my composure, I learned that her company kept track of their customer’s phone number to include in their monthly promotions via SMS. The salesgirl said they would also soon be introducing an iPhone application for similar purposes.

Understandable move when you consider the globally increasing smartphone sales alongside the fact that we are nation with more mobile phone subscribers than people – Malaysia currently has 30.3 million mobile subscribers and is expected to achieve 45 million mobile subscribers by 2014.

As more husbands are hooked to their BlackBerries (or Blueberries) and boyfriends kept busy on their iPhones, their partners are kept occupied by these retailers’ timely and handy marketing messages.

“These days, it’s like you married the man together with his phone!” commented a fellow media friend on a recent working trip to Singapore. Funny indeed especially when you picture a ‘Yellow Man’ standing in between the bride and her bridegroom exchanging vows at the altar.

My momentous tearjerker phone number-request incident is merely an example of how businesses have changed the way they do business today. In times whereby society, especially the younger generation, interact with computers and electronic gadgets more than they with their fellow homo sapiens, entrepreneurs wishing to remain relevant have no choice but leverage on these emerging technologies.

There is a friendly local taxi owner-cum-driver around the Kuala Lumpur area that had installed a GPS device in his 15-year-old cab in order to improve his efficiency and increase his ability to reach more passengers. I was twittered on this.

I only hope he and his colleagues don’t start thinking about organising another boycott to petition for increased taxi fares due to cost of adopting technology.

Just last week, a youthful public relations acquaintance decided to start her own mobile advertising business. She is confident that with the increasing usage of mobile devices for features such as price comparison and discount coupons, there will be a demand for SME retailers to advertise their products and services though this platform.

Broadcast media around the world, including The Oprah Show, have significantly reduced production cost as they utilise Skype to conduct interviews and news coverage from all around the world. No need for camera crews to be sent over to where the spokesperson and personality is accompanied by an entourage of make-up artists.

Then there is this 20-year veteran Malaysian publisher I met recently at the MALAYSIA SME ™ Congress who shared with me his idea to expand his conventional print-based business into e-books publishing.

Despite his initial apprehension, the traditionalist recognises that the phenomenal emergence of Apple’s iPad tablet computer would soon change the global publishing landscape and the way books are read.

Instead of slouching over stained coffee cups and engulfed in cigarette smoke while criticising about difficult times in an antiquated coffee shop, he’s busy meeting up with IT executives keen to work with him on the project.

Earlier this year, I wrote in this column, and later twittered, about a fellow gym member’s descending travel agency business due to the escalating technology evolving around his industry.

He has since invested in a web-based reservation system for his company and ventured into social media to promote his business, including having a Facebook page that has already attracted about 350 fans. The entrepreneur seemed to be smiling again these days at the gym.

All of the above exemplify the need for businesses and entrepreneurs to embrace technology in order to sustain their presence. If you are amongst those that are worried about the country’s 81% decline in foreign direct investments, then all the more reason for your business to stay connected.

As for me, I’m just happy that many more salesgirls would be asking for my phone number!


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