THE GRIT AND THE GLAM­OUR

A stan­dard route for se­cond and third gen­er­a­tion wealth was to in­clude a stint at an in­vest­ment bank. What if start-up ex­pe­ri­ence is ac­tu­ally bet­ter? Three en­trepreneurs share their sto­ries.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Feature - STORY CHRISTY CHOI

hat kind of prepa­ra­tion does it take to run a suc­cess­ful com­pany? Count­less books have been writ­ten on the sub­ject. Wealthy busi­ness­men and women, ea­ger to have their chil­dren take up po­si­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity in the fam­ily busi­ness, have fret­ted over it. For some, it is an MBA at a pres­ti­gious uni­ver­sity, fol­lowed by an ap­pren­tice­ship of sorts at the busi­ness, or per­haps a po­si­tion at a lead­ing bank.

But what about found­ing and run­ning a start-up en­ter­prise? Is this the way to train for an ever-chang­ing fu­ture?

“You don’t re­ally get full busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence most of the time if you’re work­ing for a big com­pany. It’s 20 years of do­ing the same thing, ev­ery damn day,” says Keith Rum­jahn founder of Coach­base, a Hong Kong-based start-up that de­vel­oped a dig­i­tal play­book and tools for sports coaches. Rum­jahn sees a holis­tic un­der­stand­ing of the busi­ness as key to run­ning a solid busi­ness, and work­ing in a start-up he says is a great way to learn how dif­fer­ent parts of an or­ga­ni­za­tion works.

“You touch so many things,” he says. “In­stead of hav­ing to wait for ap­proval, you have to be a self-starter.” Rum­jahn ad­mits his own bias to­ward the start-up life. “I think to be good at any­thing you need prac­tice – de­lib­er­ate prac­tice. So many peo­ple in busi­ness are so aca­demic.”

There are nu­mer­ous as­pects of start-up work that Rum­jahn thinks make the ex­pe­ri­ence a bet­ter sort of busi­ness train­ing. For starters, you meet a broader va­ri­ety of peo­ple that some­one plug­ging away in a cor­po­ra­tion might never do. “The mo­ment they know you’re the CEO, peo­ple want to talk to you,” he says. An­other is build­ing mo­men­tum: if you step into the top spot at a large com­pany, you only need keep it run­ning. With a small com­pany, you need to pivot, mo­ti­vate and main­tain vi­sion.

An­other key point is the dif­fer­ence be­tween founders, who have the

ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in cri­sis, and CEOS who step in. There is a lack of emo­tional at­tach­ment that Rum­jahn thinks leads to a lack of for­ti­tude. “A founder can han­dle a cri­sis. It takes a lot of emo­tional strength.”

He says this is also a pat­tern he sees with peo­ple who have a bank­ing and fi­nance back­ground. When things get too tough, they know that they can go back into bank­ing and fi­nance and be mak­ing money more com­fort­ably, though Rum­jahn also ad­mits that tra­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion in busi­ness might have helped him avoid some of the mis­takes he’s made in the past.

Ray Ho­ran, CEO of Hong Kong­based Regtech firm Emotics, is a se­rial en­tre­pre­neur and trained ac­coun­tant. As he started his own firms, he was al­ready fa­mil­iar with set­ting up a busi­ness and the lan­guage of cor­po­ra­tions.

“You’re not so afraid of it … sim­ple things like know­ing how to in­cor­po­rate a com­pany, know­ing how to set out a bud­get, how to forecast, what your burn rate is, how long you’ll last.”

The ac­count­ing pro­fes­sional was, by his telling, painful and not some­thing he would have stuck with. Yet, he also says that go­ing straight into found­ing a com­pany was not the best choice ei­ther, he says in ret­ro­spect. “My time would have been bet­ter spent in a start-up that’s slightly more es­tab­lished, with founders who had done it be­fore.”

At the other end of the spec­trum is Carl Wu. With nearly 14 years of ex­pe­ri­ence at the in­ter­na­tional bank UBS, and as a found­ing mem­ber of the Black­stone Group’s Asia op­er­a­tions, he had plenty of cor­po­rate train­ing ahead of his cur­rent role as co-founder of New Fron­tier, a ven­ture cap­i­tal firm.

“With­out the train­ing I had at Black­stone, I wouldn’t have been able to do what we’re do­ing now,” he says, cit­ing the abil­ity to learn about new com­pa­nies and in­dus­tries quickly and to fundraise. “Some­time last year, I knew very lit­tle about health­care, and now we have five health­care com­pa­nies across dif­fer­ent sec­tors,” he says. The health­care com­pany he says went from zero em­ploy­ees to 1000 in the space of around a year.

For Wu, he has no re­grets about jump­ing into the world of start-ups later on in his ca­reer.

“I think I’m the type that would be com­fort­able with more pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence, but there are some peo­ple who are very nat­u­ral in build­ing com­pa­nies from the ground up,” he said. “They prob­a­bly don’t fit well into pro­fes­sional or­gan­i­sa­tions and large or­gan­i­sa­tions.”

Wu agrees with Rum­jahn’s views that work­ing within the pa­ram­e­ters of an ex­ist­ing com­pany with re­sources is sub­stan­tially dif­fer­ent to work­ing in a start-up. “The ac­tions and de­ci­sions you make have im­pact… Mak­ing too many mis­takes tends to be fa­tal,” said Wu.

The ver­dict? There’s no one path or an­swer. Ex­pe­ri­ence in a large com­pany is help­ful if the com­pany al­lows you to get a chance to try your hand at a va­ri­ety of roles, but a start-up will cer­tainly test your met­tle and abil­ity to adapt and sur­vive. It may de­pend on whether the start-up ex­pe­ri­ence in­volves real boot­strap­ping – find­ing the cash to make a com­pany work with­out any out­side help.

Keith Rum­jahn, founder of Coach­base.

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