My name is Dave, I used to work for Fred

I didn’t get enough sleep the night before. I was hungry, and the auditorium was freezing. Someone was dozing off in front of me. This preacher was as dull as a blank A4 paper. At least we could fold origami with paper.

My wife dragged me there. She reckoned it was good for me to hear some encouraging words that morning. The topic was interesting: “Among The Wolves We Work”. I have to admit it could be a very interesting sermon if not because of that old-traditional-slow-to-speak preacher.

Anyhow, as my mind drifted to another time, I heard a voice in my head (not God’s voice). It was the voice of my customer. I remember distinctly how he said something along the line of: “Sorry we still have enough stocks.” Yeah, he somehow had enough stocks for months. I realised eventually that they purchased their stocks from someone else. What I didn’t realise was who this “someone else” was.

It was “Dave”, our ex-staff. He founded his own company after he left us. And apparently proceeded to steal our customers. He had burnt the bridge.

Dave did a brief stint with me for 6 months. He was our sales rep. A very ambitious young man. Before that Dave had his own lawnmowing business. He was somewhat lazy but cunning as a snake. Hey, that was one of the creatures the preacher was talking about: snake.

A prominent voice suddenly thundered from the stage: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as harmless as doves.”

Ok, take it easy. Who are these wolves you are talking about? And are you calling us snakes?

As expected my mind decided to take another trip to the past. This time it was our kitchen board meeting. My wife and I were discussing how to retaliate against this attack from our ex-sales rep. We figured he did not have the buying power and logistic means. So as long as we could drop our price and reduce minimum quantity, it was basically check-mate for Dave.

And that was precisely what we did.

We dropped our price significantly, and we reduced the minimum quantity from five boxes to just one. It worked like a charm. Our customers realised their grief mistakes and returned gracefully to our care.

Take that Mr Steal-Customers-From-Previous-Boss!

My wife elbowed me.

“Did you doze off again?” she whispered.
“No,” I said, not-so-convincingly.
“This is the good part, pay attention.”
“I am.”

She was right, I kind of figured out what the sermon was all about after that. Basically, this world is full of wolves, and we need to be shrewd like snakes. The part I didn’t get yet was the dove. Why do we need to be harmless as doves? Well, at least I learnt something that morning. Watch out world, the snake within me is coming out to bite all of you wolves.

I did meet with Dave after our little price war saga. I tried to have a civilised conversation about it. Interestingly, he told me it was ok because it was just business. I was not sure if he was drunk or on drugs.

Wasn’t I the one who supposed to say that?

He stole from me, and he said it was ok?

Anyway, I didn’t want to pursue it. We said our goodbyes.

The words on the street were Dave couldn’t cope on his own and struggling to make ends meet.

Everyone in the auditorium suddenly stood up. Oh, time to sing the final hymn.

***

“Fred, how are you doing?” Tim, our old preacher, came to say hi.
“Good, everything is good,” I said.
“I heard you had few issues with your ex-staff?”
“O yeah, did my wife fill you in on that?”
“Yes she did, she also sent me here to talk to you,” Tim smiled.
“Actually Tim, I do have a question,” I said.
“Yes, fire away.”
“You know how you talk about Wolves, Snake, Doves, and Sheep?”
“Yes.”
“I understand the part about wolves and snakes,” I said. “But what’s the thing about being harmless as a dove?”
“Well, it is straightforward really,” Tim said.
“Tell me,” I said impatiently.
“Being harmless is for your own good.”
“So people won’t retaliate?”
“That’s one, but there’s another,” Tim said. “How do you think you will end up inside if you keep causing harms to other people?”
“Oh I see, I will become a bitter, back-stabbing, revenge-seeking person, with no friends.”
“That’s it.”

***

I did meet with Dave one more time after that. His business deteriorated to the point that he didn’t have a warehouse or any kind of storage places for his stocks. Everything from pick up to delivery was run from his car. I did wonder if he also slept in there, judging from the number of pizza boxes I spotted on the rear seat.

Anyway, we had a chat.

He lost few more customers and apparently decided to burn a couple more bridges with some suppliers. The way he was going, he would have nothing to sell in no time. He had to stop acting like a big bad wolf and causing issues left, right and front.

Anyway, I didn’t offer help considering how bad he burned me last time. So I wished him the best and waved bye-bye.

You know what, maybe that old preacher was right.

We are in the dog-eat-dog world. It is crucial to be shrewd like snakes.

But I realised now it doesn’t matter how shrewd we are, no one achieves success on his own. And who would want to work with someone who would stab you in the back?

Who would cause harm to your business?

Ironically, in the dog-eat-dog world of business, we are to be harmless too. And only then we could build our reliable and secure network of support.

I am glad my wife dragged me to the church that morning.

***

“Be careful the bridges you’re willing to burn when trying to get ahead. You never know when you’ll need a friend again.”

My Wife Knows Everything, and So Do I

“So how much does a bundle weigh?”, Peter asked.
“20kg,” I replied.
“That is too heavy!”, he said.
“Well, your boss said the maximum weight is 25kg, so we are still under.”

Peter was a driver for a courier company that we contracted to deliver all of our products around the city. He was pretty healthy for his age, around 60 at that time. Nevertheless, he did throw a complaint or two about the weight of our parcels.

Our warehouse staff was rather young, in his 20s, so he did most of the heavy lifting. He never complained though. We were lucky to have such a compliant worker. Although sometimes I caught him checking his Facebook account at work. He did put in the hard yard, so I turned a blind eye.

In the meantime, my wife couldn’t stop complaining.

She always found something, somewhere, to criticise on. Who cared if the floor was not swept yet? Or if the rubbish bins were not emptied? We were busy making money. We did not have time for all of those little things.

We had everything under control between me and our warehouse guy, Tom. So the last thing we needed was a headache from a clean-freak wife. Don’t get me wrong. I loved her deeply. But regarding my business, there were just three people: me, myself, and I. There was no one else. I did it all.

Business was picking up. Our customers couldn’t get enough of our products. Everything was flying off the door. The warehouse was as busy as Tokyo central train station. I was contemplating whether to get new staff or not.

Well, until such time when Tom rang at 8am that morning.

“Hi Fred, I am sorry, but I need to leave by 11am today,” Tom said.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“It’s a little bit awkward to explain,” he replied.
“Alright, that’s fine,” I said. “I am coming shortly anyway.”

I had butterflies in my stomach. Something was not right.

The following day Tom came to work. He worked hard as usual. Peter, the courier driver, threw some complaints again about the weight of the parcels.

“Hah, weak little old man,” I thought to myself. “I could lift those parcels easily.”

***

My coffee was too hot that morning. I was just holding my cup in the warehouse, waiting for Tom to arrive. He was unusually late that day.

“Tom, you are finally here,” I said to him as he came through the door.
“Ah, yes, I am here,” he seemed somewhat flustered.
“Ready for work?” I asked.
“Umm, before that.”
“Yes?”
“I have something for you,” Tom handed me an envelope. “This is my resignation letter.”

And that’s how I finally knew where Tom went a few weeks ago when he had to leave at 11am. He went to an interview at another company.

***

I didn’t have the time to get a new staff straight away. So for the following few weeks, I worked extra hours in the warehouse. It was like an exercise anyway, I said to myself, trying to justify it.

Peter still said the same thing about our parcels, that they were too heavy. Of course, I didn’t pay any attention to it. If he couldn’t lift them, I would do it for him. And so I did, loading all the parcels from our trolley to his truck.

My body started to feel the pain from lifting all of those heavy parcels. In particular my back. I guess I wasn’t as strong as I wanted to be. There were times when my back froze in the morning. It stiffened up like a block of ice.

“Maybe Peter is right about the way we handle these parcels,” I thought to myself.

We did interview few people to replace Tom, but we didn’t feel right about any of them. It was not an easy job, what Tom was doing. I wanted to make sure we got the right person.

In the meantime, I kept plodding along.

The back pain got worse. It was a regular thing to get a stiff back in the morning. I couldn’t care less though, we had work to do.

“Hi Peter,” I said.
“Fred, you are here again,” Peter said.
“Yeah, we haven’t found a new warehouse guy.”
“O well, at least you’re still young.”
“Well, not really, but I can lift these up for you.”

And as soon as I picked up the last parcel, I felt a knife jabbed in my back.

I felt on my knees. I could still feel the knife. The sharp pain shot deeper into my middle back. By then I felt my back almost collapsed. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak.

Peter closed his truck door not realising what happened. He drove away, leaving me on the warehouse floor.

I waited for a few minutes before trying to stand up. I felt a sharp pain every time I tried to move. I finally pulled myself up. I walked towards my office holding on to everything I could find.

“Hunny, I think I hurt my back,” I called my wife.
“What do you mean you hurt your back?” my wife replied.
“I was lifting this parcel, and I felt severe pain in my back.”
“What? Are you ok?” she started to panic.
“Not really, I could hardly walk.”
“Ok, don’t move, I’m coming now.”

***

My wife took me to a Physiotherapy.

It was a disc-injury.

The gel in-between my spinal bones was pressed so hard that it was swollen and hurting the nerves around it.

The Physiotherapist said it would take at least a few weeks before I could start working again. And he specifically told me not to do any heavy-lifting. He said if it happened again the damage could be permanent.

I couldn’t believe it. I lost a good employee. Then I lost my back. I lost everything.

“I could help in the warehouse,” my wife suddenly said.
“You?”, I said in disbelief.
“Yeah, I can lift those parcels too.”
“They are too heavy.”
“I’ll figure out a way.”

My wife ended up helping around in the warehouse for the next few weeks. I was recovering slowly while she worked hard. And she did figure out a better way to lift the parcels. She used the forklift. I never knew why we did not think of it before. I felt stupid trying to handle all those parcels by hand.

A forklift, of course!

So basically, she packed the goods and then put them on a pallet. Sometimes she used two pallets when the day was busy. She would then used a forklift to raise the pallets so Peter could just push them onto his truck easily. What a great idea! I have to say, she was a better warehouse worker than the previous guy.

You know what, all her complaints about floor and bins. It meant nothing now. She was the one that held me up when I needed help the most. She was the one that came to the rescue when there was no one else. And she was the one that put up with me and my massive ego.

I never knew how weak I was. I never knew how much I needed someone to support me when I got myself in trouble.

I thought I could do it all.

I couldn’t.

I realised that in this business journey of mine, I don’t have to go it alone. In fact, I cannot go it alone.

I need support.

I needed it then, and I still do now.

***

“While good support is essential, during difficult times, it is non-negotiable.”

The Cavalry From Above

“So remember son, stick with your business for as long as possible. Because in business, boom and bust come in waves. This is not something you can control. If you stick around long enough, eventually, you will get your golden era. You just need to be ready when it hits you.”

That was what my dad said to me around 12 years ago. He had been in business for more than 30 years, so I thought it was great advice. Until of course I came to my senses and realised being an entrepreneur is all about being able to control my own destiny. I mean who has time to wait for this ‘golden era’? He was in business for decades, and we still lived in a modest 3 bedrooms house. Surely he would have come across his ‘golden era’ already?

***

Back in 2009, we were importing rags from a Canadian company. It was high-quality rags where the raw materials were collected from local charities around the country. They were not the cheapest, but we had been dealing with them for years, and they were always professional and reliable. Other suppliers tried to get our business, albeit we were never interested. We were one of the most prominent rags dealers in our state back then. We were small, but we were fierce.

There was a guy, Paul, who came few times to purchase our rags. He was an importer too, but he never said much about it to us. Mind due, his primary business was not in import. He told us about his plan though, going to Pakistan and India to search for new suppliers.

The Canadian company that we dealt with only worked in US dollars. Which meant being an Australian company we had to be careful with the currency exchange. Few percents off could mean few thousand dollars loss. I even established a foreign exchange account with a local financial institution to improve my overall exchange rate.

The strategy was to purchase US dollar when AUD dollar was stronger and put it into the forex account. At one time we accumulated more US dollar in the forex account than our own business account.

You can see how risky this currency exchange stuff was.

We managed the business pretty well. It started from one container every three months, then every two months, and in 2009 it was one container per month. We had a few of them on order at any one time. All because it took approximately two months from the time we put the order in until we received them in Perth.

I said to my wife that we were selling rags like peanuts. They just flew off the door. Looking at the way we were growing, we would reach our first ever $1 million sales that year, all from rags alone.

But of course, fantastic results did not come without its own risk.

You see, I never thought it would come to that. I prepared everything, trying to control every little area of my business. I had enough US dollar in our forex account to purchase two containers. Never did I know that AUD dollar would decide to plunge itself against US dollar and stayed at the bottom, for a long time.

But it happened. AUD dollar fell from a high 97c to a US dollar to a mere 61c in only a few short weeks.

We used up all of our US dollars to purchase two containers. And then things got worse because AUD dollar dropped even further to 50c. We did not have any choice but to pay the next order based on the weak AUD dollar. We tried to increase our price, but at that rate, unless we raised the price by 80-100%, we were still at a loss. An increase that much would only give our competitors an incredible window of opportunity to steal our customers.

The market would react, and the price would correct itself but not until another few months at least. We didn’t have the luxury of time. Our modest price increase was nothing compared to the profit we lost to the weak AUD dollar. We were running out of cash, very very quickly.

We lost at least twenty thousand dollars per container at that time. And we had a few of them on order. At the end of the day, we decided to cancel everything unless they were already on the sea. As a result, unless we started to purchase from our competitor, within one month, we would have nothing to sell. Our $1 million sales target were reduced to $0 within five months of AUD collapse.

***

I was sitting in my office trying to get my head around this dire situation. I could not believe only five months ago we were doing so well. Now we just had a little bit of stock left, maybe enough for few weeks.

I tried to think my way out of this, but my brain just couldn’t get into gear. I called everyone I knew to get advice from. Unfortunately, AUD dollar did not collapse against US dollar very often. In fact, it was one of the rare moments that it happened, and even more unusual because it stayed at the bottom for an extended period of time. It almost like AUD dollar found its happy place at the bottom.

One of the guys that I called said he never saw this happened before and this guy was a furniture importer for ten years before he became a pastor. I felt somewhat unlucky after that conversation.

My closest friend reckoned I should update my resume because the end was near. We didn’t talk much to one another after that.

And then I realised. This was beyond me.

This was out of my control.

OMG, my dad was right. Boom and bust came in waves. I was never in control. All these time I was just lucky.

The time finally came for me to face the worst in my journey as a businessman.

***

“Fred,” Paul suddenly appeared through my office door.
“Hi Paul,” I waved to him.
“How’re things mate?”
“Good,” I said, trying to hide my apparent stress.
“Remember I told you about sourcing rags from Pakistan?”
“Yes.”
“I did. I went there and had dinner with rags suppliers.”
“Wow, that was great.”
“Yes, one of them decided to make me their sole distributor for Perth.”
“Sounds like a great deal.”
“Which is why I am here now,” Paul sounded a bit nervous. “Well, are you interested in getting rags from me?”
“What sort of price are we talking about Paul?”
“Look, I know I am new with all these, but the quality is very high you wouldn’t believe it,” Paul replied.
“Yes, but at what price?” I was getting impatient.

And I swear to you if I could record the next five minutes conversation I would play it every day until such time that it was time for me to meet my creator.

“Fred, the price is excellent,” Paul smiled.

And it was. The price that Paul said was 20% less than the cost of rags we paid to the Canadian company when AUD dollar was strong. I couldn’t believe my luck. Paul appeared just at the right time with the right product, and the right price (better even).

There must be something or someone up there helping me out.

I was screaming in my head: “Look, if there is an intelligent higher being up there, thank you, thank you, thank you. Although next time, please don’t wait until the very last moment before sending the cavalry. A slightly faster help would be great.”

Our business was saved from disaster. Paul had been an excellent supplier. He was always ready to help. His company grew multiple times afterwards. I guess AUD dollar collapse meant he could sweep struggling rags dealers like me within a short few months. Now that I think about it again, it was a brilliant move by him. Well, I couldn’t complain. He did save my company.

And for us, we are back on track.

I am done trying to control everything. I know I have to be ready for incoming boom and bust. But deep inside my heart, I know someone is looking after me.

Somehow, I thought about you, dad.

 

 

I Was Blind, But Now I See

You know that feeling when you could not do the simplest thing in the world like putting the correct address? Well, guess what, we had three returns this week, all due to the same mistake: wrong address. The worst thing was, of course, it was all my fault.

I didn’t normally do this. It was not in my nature to make mistakes.

They used to call me ‘the machine’ back in Dog Swamp Distribution. I was so good even my supervisor started to doubt himself.

There was something wrong somewhere. I knew I needed to fix it. We could not afford customers missing their goods all the time because of my stupid mistakes.

“Hello?” I answered the phone.
“Hi, is this Fred’s Industrial Supplies?” the voice from the other end said.
“Yes, hi John,” I replied, recognising the voice straight away.
“Fred, how have you been?” he said.

John didn’t normally say “how have you been”, so something was wrong (again), must be my lucky day.

“Look, we have just decided,” John said.
“Decided .. yes?” I said nervously.
“O look, I feel bad, honestly, but we have decided to use another supplier,” John finally said. “I felt like I had to tell you directly.”

My senses were frozen. I wanted to say something but all I could gather in my head was silence. It was cold, dark, and just silent. I felt nauseous. I felt sick.

John was my biggest customer. His company contributed about 30% of our revenue. His departure was a major shock to me. Well, to be honest, it was not like he didn’t give us any warning. He had been telling us how we should review our pricing. I didn’t think it was that serious. I guess I was wrong. But I couldn’t be wrong, I knew what our competitors were selling at and we matched them, we matched everything.

“John, are you serious?” I said. “Can we talk about it?”
“We have talked about it, Fred,” John said. “You just didn’t listen.”

I was disappointed and angry. That was the moment when I decided that I couldn’t rely on my existing customers. I had to do something. These ungrateful people just kept disappointing me. I gave them the best services ever, the best prices, and the best of everything. And still, they went behind my back and left for useless competitors.

I kept myself composed and said my final words to John.

“Alright John, I get it. Well, let me know if you change your mind then.”

I made a commitment to myself that I would work harder than ever to get better customers. I would not let this incident destroy me. It was time for me to shine. At least that was what I had in mind.

I spent the following months trying everything I could think of to promote our products. I did land new customers. Some of them were pretty good customers too. I knew I could do it. There was nothing stopping me now.

But still, none of them was as good as John. These customers were ‘smallish’. They were like insects, while John was like a whale.

I tried harder. I went around door knocking. I called up potential customers for meetings. I mailed hundreds of sales materials. I faxed promos to everyone I knew would be interested. I did everything I could think of. I landed few more customers, but they were all ‘smallish’. All of them combined were still nothing compared to John’s purchases.

And in the meantime since John’s departure, we sank deeper into financial trouble. Losing 30% of revenue was not an easy matter. I cut cost everywhere I could think of. We even started to turn off the air conditioning during the day to save electricity. We let go everyone except Sam our loyal delivery driver. He agreed to take a pay cut to help us a little bit.

We were desperate. We were on the brink of bankruptcy.

There were times when I didn’t want to go to sleep because I knew I would wake up in the morning to face my nightmare all over again.

I would drive to work contemplating whether I should keep driving or going back home.

“Fred, this is Sam,” Sam my driver called me.
“Yes, Sam?” I said.
“I’m so sorry, I know you don’t want to hear this,” he said.
“What is it?” I said. My heart started to beat faster.
“I have been in an accident,” Sam replied. “I am ok but the van was damaged, badly.”

I felt the cold again, this time I could feel it creeping into my bones. I felt like a dark cloud was hovering around me. I could not say anything. I was just staring at the traffic.

“Fred, I am so sorry,” Sam said. “I will help to pay for the damages. I know things haven’t been easy for you.”

I didn’t say anything. Sam hung up the phone. It wasn’t his fault but he felt guilty nevertheless. He did end up paying for the insurance excess though. He resigned immediately afterwards.

We were out of whack for few weeks while the van was fixed. I ended up using our family car for delivery. We were lucky because we had a big family car. So we managed to fit quite a good volume of items into it.

My wife joined forces to mind the phone while I went around doing deliveries. She was very good with the phone. It was in her nature to build conversations. I had to say, I never knew she was that good.

Due to my activities with delivery, I got to meet with a lot of our existing customers. I didn’t use to talk to them because I was too busy trying to get new customers. This gave me refreshed perspectives.

My customers never said it but I could see they appreciated my efforts to stay afloat. Some of them even offered me cold drinks on hot days. I began to build great relationships with them. I never knew they were such a good bunch of people. I always thought of them as ‘smallish’ customers that I couldn’t care less. Boy, I was wrong. I was so wrong.

I guess there were a lot of things I didn’t know about them.

I began to really care for them, walking the extra miles when they needed help. There were times when I would do express delivery within the hour if I knew they needed the goods urgently. Some other time I would drop my prices heavily because I knew they also had difficulties with their own businesses. I thought it was important if we could weather the storm together.

My customers started to support me more. They gave me more business and they referred me to their friends. I could not thank them enough for their generosity.

John never came back to us, but we survived.

I looked at myself differently now. I thought I was so good that I could never make mistakes. Well, I did, a lot of them. I just didn’t realise it. I thought I was above my customers. In reality, I was beneath them. They were the ones who supported me during tough times.

They were the ones who gave me a second chance.

When that phone rang a few months ago, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe how unlucky I was. I was wrong. It turned out to be the luckiest day of my life. It was the day my life was about to change. What I thought was the lowest point in my life turned out to be the highest point.

I went through hell to see heaven.

But it was worth it.

I was blind, but now I see.