A Humble Ramen Is What I Need For My Business

My wife, our two kids and I were starving after a long afternoon of shopping on Takeshita street market in Harajuku, Tokyo. As tourists, we had no clues whatsoever where to eat.

We turned to Google, our reliable unofficial tour guide. Google map showed several options for the best places to eat ramen in town. There was one with fantastic reviews albeit it was a bit far from Takeshita street.

So we walked, and walked, and walked, but for some reason, we could not find this place.

Bummer!

Getting a bit desperate we were ready to walk into a 7-Eleven shop to grab a couple of pre-packaged meal boxes.

And that was when a smallish ramen place caught our eyes. It looked like it was squeezed in-between two buildings.

We decided to give it a try.

“Just One Type of Ramen”

We realised there were limited type of ramens. There were only four of them. Inside there was a machine for ordering and payment. Each of us chose a different type of ramen. Mine was called a winter special with chillies, yummy.

It is different, unique, and most importantly it caters for certain diners who keep coming back for more.

“Ahh welcome, welcome,” the owner (and head chef) said with a big smile.

The owner was amicable. His name was Jun. We called him ‘Uncle Jun’. He prepared the foods swiftly and within 15 minutes we were enjoying great tasting ramens.

“Uncle Jun, can I ask you a question?” I asked.

“Ahh of course, of course,” he replied.

“Why do you only have four types of ramen?”

Uncle Jun smiled and fixed his headband. “Ahhh good question. You see, ramen is a simple dish. It mainly comprises of noodle, broth, flavouring, and toppings (egg, meat, onion, etc.). There are not many types of ramens we can do with such a small number of core ingredients.”

“Ok, but surely you can make more than four types?” I was not satisfied with his answers.

“I like your enthusiasm but let me tell you a secret. In this place, there is only one type of ramen.” He smiled as his eyes twinkled. “I put four on the machine, so people have choices. In reality, they are just slightly different combinations of the core ingredients.”

“Only one?” I wondered even more.

“Yes.”

Uncle Jun realised my confusion. “My motto is: ‘Focus before Quality’. We only have limited resources at our disposals. If I try to have a big range of ramens, then we will not be able to cope. So instead I focus all my efforts into one exceptional dish. It is different, unique, and most importantly it caters for certain diners who keep coming back for more.”

“Your ramen is delicious indeed. The noodle is springy and tasty. And wow, I have never tasted such a delicate combination of pork and soy sauce.” I slurped the broth with delight.

“Hmm .. maybe I should try to focus all of my efforts into one special service or product too,” I was thinking in my head. “I also have limited resources like uncle Jun.”

“Sweet Spot for Special Customers”

“Uncle Jun, can I ask one more question?” I said.

“Yes of course, what do you want to know?” Uncle Jun replied.

“Umm, I realise some ramen places use machines to take orders, including yours,” I said. “Isn’t it better to take orders yourself?”

It is about making sure that our unique ramen is consistently perfect for certain diners. All they have to do is come and eat.

Uncle Jun smiled again. “You are very observant. The main purpose of using a machine is to eliminate mundane tasks so I can focus more on making great tasting ramen.” He stopped a bit to catch his breath. “You see, taking orders is more than just taking notes. It also involves handling cash which can be deceptively time-consuming. Using a machine eliminate all the extra tasks.”

“But what if customers want extra salt, a different type of noodles or more meat?”

“Ahhh, yes, yes, some ramen places do give those options. For us, it is about making sure that our unique ramen is consistently perfect for certain diners. All they have to do is come and eat. Trust me, when you have achieved that ‘sweet spot’ for your customers, they will come back again and again. No need for extra meat or salt.”

“How do you figure out this ‘sweet spot’?”

“It will take a while with a lot of trials and errors but be persistent. And above all, always do it with love for your customers. Never stop asking them for feedback and suggestion. Ultimately, their satisfaction is your success.”

“I never thought about this. Maybe I should find this ‘sweet spot’ too for my own customers.” I was again thinking in my head. “What a great idea, the sweet spot for special customers.”

“Seasonal Ramens for Special Experiences”

“I have one more thing to tell you,” Uncle Jun said to me.

”Great, tell me, tell me,” I was too eager to learn more.

”There is an addition to the sweet spot.”

”There is?”

”Yup I call it the ‘Seasonal Spot’.”

”Ok, please tell me more.”

”Well, the basic idea is to create a special type of ramen with a certain season.” Uncle Jun poured green tea to my cup. “Think of it as a sweet spot with a theme for your customers. Got it?”

”Not really.”

”For example, now it is winter, and I offer spicy ramen with Japanese chillies. That is the one you are eating now.”

”Oooh I have the seasonal spot ramen,” I said smiling.

”They taste the same as our unique ramen, only spicier. The whole idea is to add certain interesting elements without sacrificing the uniqueness of your products. And then use it as a seasonal promotion.”

”And what is the purpose of doing that?”

”So your customers have something to talk about every season. They are your best marketers. You need to give them reasons to tell their friends about your products. Talking about the same thing for a whole year is boring. But talking about a different thing every season is not. The product is the same, just altered slightly for effect.”

“Wow, that is an excellent idea.”

“I am glad you like it.”

“I should be doing something like this,” I thought to myself. “It’s true, my customers are my best marketer, and they need help in spreading the words.”

We were all delighted with Uncle Jun’s ramens. My kids and I practically fought for every last bit of noodles and pork meat. My wife was sitting quietly while guarding her bowl of ramen.

“Thank you, Uncle Jun,” I said to him. “It was ‘oishii’.”

(oishii = really good-tasting)

“Arigatou,” my kids said to uncle Jun.

“Arigatou gozaimashita, Uncle Jun,” my wife also said.

“Ahhh no problem, no problem, come back anytime,” Uncle Jun said with a big smile.

“What great lessons from a humble bowl of ramen,” my thought was swirling again in my head. “Focus before Quality, Sweet Spot, and Seasonal Spot. I will remember these lessons every time I eat a bowl of ramen.”


As previously published in The Ascent: A Humble Ramen Is What I Need For My Business.

What To Do When You’re Backed Into A Corner (5 Strategic Keys to Capitalise on During Desperate Times)

Once upon a time, I had a vision of business victory. I drew a straight timeline of my (forecasted) success on a blank A4 paper.

That’s it, a straight line.

Never did I know that my visionary picture was not complete without various corners of setbacks. The simple straight line transformed itself into many chaotic abstract paths.

While success is what we desire, often a desperate situation precedes a great leap ahead. Just like pulling a catapult’s sling for a powerful shot, a painful stretch prepares for a strong comeback.

In this article, we will look at five strategic keys. I call these the ‘CoRNNR’ (read: corner) strategy for it is useful when we are backed into a corner.

The first three keys form the necessary elements. The fourth key is the most challenging one, and the final fifth key is the glue that will hold everything together.

CoRNNR strategy is being laser focused during a tough situation, for a powerful comeback. Coincidentally, setbacks, failures and crises provide fertile ground to discover, develop and strengthen our cornered business.

After all, a cornered army is a dangerous one.

“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” — Sun Tzu

Core Strength

Pressures force us to switch on our survival instinct. We need to become our best selves to endure hardships. There is no time to muck around.

About a decade ago, we acquired our first business in mining industrial wholesaling. We supplied safety gears and industrial strength chemicals to workshops and factories.

Our business was operating in a highly competitive market with notoriously low margins. A few years into the business, several national players entered the market and started stealing some of our significant customers using aggressive pricing tactics.

It was a typical scenario of a small business getting bullied and squashed by large corporations. We were losing customers. We knew we had to compete differently from the major players to survive the onslaught.

And so we started to look at what we could do that our big competitors couldn’t.

It was undeniable that our smallish size meant we were more flexible and we could respond faster to our customer’s needs. Our large competitors had to comply with complicated operational procedures. We didn’t.

We then found out that a small number of engineering workshops around our area were not too concerned about prices. Instead, they preferred to work with vendors who could guarantee fast delivery of supplies when required. It was something our big, fat competitors had troubles fulfilling.

Upon this realization, we started to build our business around a simple strategy. It was the assurance of quality supplies with a fast delivery turnaround. We could do that because we were small, flexible, local, and highly motivated.

It became our core strength.

We found our unique competitive advantage, and it opened up a whole new opportunity for us. Our large competitors backed us into a corner, unknowingly positioned us at a unique vantage point. It enabled us to see how we could compete on our terms in a crowded market.

Key #1: Find a core strength that allows you to compete differently from your competitors.

Resources at Max

During the onslaught period, when the big players stole our vital customers, we suffered a severe cash flow problem. This situation got worse when the mining industry crashed at around the same time. Most of our customers were operating in the mining industry.

It was a double whammy.

The cash flow issue pushed us to become meticulous spenders. We learnt that we paid too much for several services such as broadband, landline, and mobile phones. We also found out that a lot of work our staffs were doing could be outsourced or automated (it’s cheaper that way).

It was amazing how much cash was bleeding through areas we could either switch to a different provider or stop altogether. We liked this exercise so much we decided to do it regularly. It was a responsible, well-thought cost-cutting.

Desperate times hurt businesses. Cash bleeds through different outlets. A regular cost-cutting exercise would keep our resources shipshape at maximum capacity and best return.

Key #2: Make sure your limited resources work as hard as possible for your strong comeback.

Niche Domination

So we knew how to compete differently, and our resources worked super hard to fuel our survival. It’s time to revisit the customers.

We had to let go of some customers who did not require the value we offered through our services. They were casualties of the price war.

We tried to focus our efforts and resources on a select group of premium customers (premium for us). We were confident that when we became good at something, we would naturally grow.

So we kept our eyes fixed on the chosen ones (read: customers).

What we didn’t realize back then was we stumbled upon a niche. A niche perfectly placed for our little business. In a nutshell, we matched what we could do best with the needs of a small corner of the market. It was not a big slice, but it was growing, slow but sure.

Difficult times propelled us forward through a unique path we would not find otherwise. We discovered a niche market big enough for us yet small enough to dominate. We knew we could compete comfortably against the big players because we found this niche through our unique competitive advantage.

Key #3: Use your core strength and revitalized resources to dominate your niche.

Nurture the Efficiency Seed

Our previous strategic keys can be summed up into “utilizing resources at maximum capacity to service a niche market that is a perfect fit for our unique core strength”. The final result is a highly focused, well-oiled, efficient business. The first three keys will integrate into one.

There is one small challenge, though. We can only build efficiency over time through patience and consistency. In short, it takes time, blood, sweat, and tears to perfect the efficiency engine.

It is, in essence, sowing and nurturing a seed; I call this the ‘efficiency seed’. This seed is the culmination of the previous strategic keys.

Nurturing efficiency is the most challenging part of CoRNNR strategy because we need to let go of everything else that does not contribute to servicing our niche customers. And that includes other potential customers, products, suppliers, and so on. We have to fight the temptation to try out different things. We must focus on what we can do best within the niche market that we have chosen utilizing our limited resources to the max.

Nevertheless, we will start to doubt ourselves.

But remember, we sow seeds in dark places, in obscurity where it is often cold and lonely. And it takes time to nurture them before they germinate and grow roots.

Similarly, we discover these strategic keys during tough circumstances. For only during desperate times that our perspective changes, forcing us to see pathways we would not consider before. People might misunderstand you and even mock you for your new focus, but it is important to keep playing to your strength and keep moving forward.

The next and crucial final key will help tie everything together in a beautiful little bow.

Key #4: You only become the best in your chosen niche market through focus, patience, consistency, and persistence.

Resilience to Prevail

Tough times demand resilience. We need to make a conscious effort to focus and power through. Resilience is the substance that holds everything together.

Resilience was there when large corporations squashed us. It was present when we scrambled through a cash flow problem. And it held us up when we decided to focus on servicing a small number of engineering workshops, leading to the discovery of our niche market.

Think of it as a mental muscle that strengthens your spirit whenever you feel defeated. Use it when it is difficult to take the next step. Use it also when certain people are trying to pull you down. And finally, use it when you are confused and lonely.

Now, the final twist to the CoRNNR strategy.

How do we develop our resilience muscle?

Well, there is no short cut. We can only develop resilience through desperate times.

Just like physical muscles, resilience muscle grows when it is stretched under heavy pressures. You can see how useful CoRNNR strategy is when we are backed into a corner. Because not only our perspective changes during difficult moments, our resilience also grows.

CoRNNR strategy is a full circle. It begins when the going gets tough and only when the going gets tough do we get to grow with it.

Key #5: Harsh circumstances build resilience, embrace these times for it is the precious resilience that will hold yourself (and your business) together.


Just to recap:

Key #1: Core Strength
Key #2: Resources at Max
Key #3: Niche Domination
Key #4: Nurture the Efficiency Seed
Key #5: Resilience to Prevail

I hope these five keys have been helpful.

Keep the momentum going and keep going strong.

“When you are backed into a corner, you can give up or you can use that corner as a stepping stone.” — Fredy Namdin

As published in The Startup: What To Do When You’re Backed Into A Corner

Overnight Success: Merit, Grit, or Luck (or is it Magic?)

How often do we see those overnight successes only to find out that their ‘overnights’ spanned over decades? We don’t really see the years of hard work behind it. The media couldn’t be bothered either. After all, overnight success does sound better than ten years of blood, sweat and tears.

These instant success stories (often stem from ‘one brilliant idea’) create the illusion of .. well .. instant successes.

“If only we can find that one idea; only one idea and we’ll be rich.”

Merit (the quality of being particularly good or worthy)

When I started my business I thought I was ready (not really, maybe 70% ready). I did spend a few years in university learning about business (sort of). And I did have some experiences in a business analysis role.

So I embarked on this business-journey, and it was not at all how I imagined it would be.

My vision was ‘Walmart Contender In Two Years’. My reality was ‘Work Hard For Years And Still No Guarantee Of Walmart Level Success Whatsoever’.

There was a big difference between running a business and learning it in university (or from behind a business analyst desk). Interestingly, for us, it was not about the complexity of running it. I guess we were lucky enough to have acquired a simple-to-run business.

It was the uncertainty and the constant worry that got into me. I reckoned my blood pressure shot up because of these ongoing business-heart-attacks.

There was no assurance that we would meet the sales target for the month or in anything at all. Often, we revised our yearly plan and budget within a few weeks into the year. Don’t get me wrong. Those plan and budget were crucial. They gave us the goal and the general strategy to get there. But we had to keep adjusting, fine-tuning and evolving.

My so-called merit only took me so far in the midst of uncertainty in the business world where they were so many unknowns. Anything could go wrong any day, and vice versa. It was like someone ‘up there’ was turning the ’lucky tap’ on and off at random.

Life to me is defined by uncertainty. Uncertainty is the state in which we live, and there is no way to outfox it. (Thomas H. Cook)

Grit (courage and resolve)

When you have a young family, any decision is never straight forward. I wanted to quit the business, but I never did.

There was the anxiety, the worry, and the stress.

But there was also certain flexibility in running my own business. I could bring home some work, divert the phone, work from my little van, etc. I could pretty much organise it around my young family.

My family became my motivation. And hence I found the courage to continue. I found the seed of my grit.

Now, I did not magically have the superpower to push through all of the challenges, obstacles and dementors in business (still don’t). There was no magic wand to cast a powerful ’patronum’ spell.

It was just as ordinary as any person would have it.

This so-called grit started as a simple decision to keep going. It then grew into something rather substantial, something I could feel, something I knew existed in my heart. It became a mental muscle. There were times when my gritty-muscle needed rest to recuperate. There were other times when it pushed me further than I thought I could.

Nowadays, my simple motto is to do the next thing, and the next thing, and the next one, one by one. Trust me. It gets easier as the years pass. My blood pressure is still pretty high, but I have learnt to live with it (with a daily medicine).

Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint. (Angela Duckworth)

Luck (success or failure brought by chance rather than through one’s actions)

Have you ever seen successful people and thought about how lucky those people were? They struck gold. And then more gold, and more.

Me, on the other hand. There were so many times I came across opportunities only to see them flying away. If just I had the resources to capitalise on them.

In the end, I realised it was not ‘luck’ that I needed. It was always about making the most out of luck (not luck itself). And one way to do it right is by having all three: Merit+Grit+Luck (or MGL — read: muggle).

Muggle (a non-magical person)

We don’t have magical abilities. We are just everyday people who work hard and learn hard along the way. And if we do that long enough (gritty-muscle at work here), we will start to notice golden opportunities floating around us.

The crucial part is to turn them into successful results before our competitors do. And this is when our merit comes into play. It is the time when we get to make use of our skills, experiences, networks, and so on.

Within this small golden window is when we seize the opportunity and capitalise on ‘luck’.

My dad gave me a piece of excellent advice about business. He told me that in any industry golden eras come and go like waves. For me to experience a golden era and ride the market boom that comes with it, I need to be an excellent player in it.

Many great companies were built in decades. They look like ‘overnight successes’ because often we focus too much on the short time they struck gold. We don’t see the decades they spent persevering through immense challenges and obstacles, perfecting their crafts, fine-tuning their methods, evolving themselves.

They were just ordinary ‘muggles’ with the courage to go through life and business. They waited patiently for the golden opportunity so they could strike when the time was right and capitalise on luck to the fullest.

And so could we.

Good luck is when opportunity meets preparation, while bad luck is when lack of preparation meets reality. (Eliyahu Goldratt)


As published in The Ascent: Overnight Success: Merit, Grit, or Luck?

The Hidden Price of Entrepreneurship

What is one of the most common characteristics amongst business owners? Is it ‘hustle’? Or ‘street smart’? Or ‘charisma’?

Well they have all of that, with different degrees of sophistication.

What about ‘drive’, ‘passion’, ‘hard work’?

Yeah these too.

Now there is one thing you and I have not thought a lot. And most of us would not readily admit it. This particular characteristic is commonly shared amongst business owners.

This is the dark side of entrepreneurship.

It’s ‘anxiety’.

Entrepreneurship does not come without its price. It is a constant battle in your head, constant worry and constant stress. Business is the ultimate sport, not physical nor intellectual. It is the ultimate 24/7 mental sport.

And it is mentally draining (very).

When we work with struggling business owners, we don’t just turnaround their business. We also turnaround the person. These owners are the ones who need to wake up the following morning to face their nightmare all over again. It doesn’t matter how good our turnaround strategy is, without them in their right mind nothing good will happen.

Have you bled throughout your entrepreneurial journey? Have you got your battle scars? We all have, and these marks, these scars, they are to forever remain within us. They have affected us, shaped us, turned us into who we are. Are we sane? Are we normal? Are we mentally strong? Or are we depressed, stressed, burnout?

Anxiety is real – that is the hidden price of entrepreneurship that no one is talking about.

Please remember that you are not alone. Find a support group, talk to someone. Admit that you feel weak and you feel anxious. In fact, talk to anyone, maybe those that you meet at coffee shop (or bus stop). Just being able to tell someone else will ease the pain – trust me.

Get another person to be your accountability partner. You need someone else to watch over you.

Do not go it alone.

 

Startup Illusion

Starting a business can put someone’s mind into overdrive. It will then either shut him down or propel him forward. The euphoric moment will last as long as financial resources have not dried yet. With enough funding, the startup party can sometimes last for years. It is only after investors start demanding (sometimes not so) reasonable returns that the party turns into a big reality check. The dreams have dissipated into thin air, and cloud of judgement descending onto earth.

Party is over.

That’s the hard truth of starting a business. It will get worse before it gets better (if it does get better). Starting a business is like eating a box of chocolate – mixed with some not so edible foods. You never know what you’re going to get but the only way to find out is if you keep eating. In business we never know what tomorrow will hold, it can be a disastrous day or a day when we beat all sales record. The only way to find out is if we wake up in the morning and go to work. The only way to eat the good chocolate is if we keep eating the bad ones.

Some people are addicted to starting businesses. They have brilliant ideas, get the funding,  and off they go with an exciting venture. They don’t however stay long enough to feel the downturn, the heartbreak, the never-ending pressure, and the struggle. When things go south, they are the first ones to pack up their bags and go – some of which utilise bankruptcy regulation to move on.

Some people however, are born to build businesses. Not only that they will start their businesses themselves but they will also see to it that their ventures are successful before they move on. If things go south, they will be the last people in the company to pack their bags. Some might take part-time jobs to help with the cash flow.

There is one distinct difference between real entrepreneurs and wannabes – perseverance.

The startup illusion might be alluring but the hard reality is not as glamorous. Starting a business is hard work, it requires sheer mental strengths more than mere intellects or skills. Building a business is about getting up in the morning, go to work not knowing what will happen that day, persevere throughout the day, and then do it again the next morning.

“Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.” –Elon Musk

Finding Fire

For mere mortals life is nothing but a short passage way. Massive global collection of information only shorten the memories of those who went before us. In this short time we have on earth we speed through life almost like it is not worth our time to live it.

Or maybe we are too afraid to live our lives differently. We are afraid of what people would think. Maybe we have let others to live our lives for us.

At the end of our lives what would be our biggest regrets?

What is it that we couldn’t forgive ourselves should we fail to accomplish it?

What are we here for?

The fire that used to burn inside, maybe we should find it again. It was the moment when time stood still, when we disappeared, absorbed into ourselves. It was the moment when we knew what we were supposed to do.

It is too late, some might say.

It is never too late.

The fire that burns is worth a lifetime of searching – even if it only burns for a while. A lifetime of coldness turns into a breath of warmth, and then you’d know that you’ve done what you should be doing all this time.

What does your heart tell you?

What keeps you awake at night?

What give you goosebumps like you are on top of the world?

What is your fire?

Maybe we could stop our busy lives and ponder for a while.

Maybe life is worth our precious time on earth to live it the way it should be lived.

 

“You are never too old to set another goal, or to dream a new dream.” C.S. Lewis

Delusional Weaknesses

The time will come for those who keep saying the ‘impossible things’ to come forward and admit their insecurity. These are the ones who keep saying, “It’s impossible”. These are the same people who figure out deep meaningful excuses and convince themselves of the impossible-to-climb walls.

What about those ‘impossible’ situations?

This begs one simple question. Is the situation impossible, or our perception of the situation, or our focus on the situation?

The first two cases are quite simply, easy to solve. If a particular situation is impossible then we just have to admit it. It is quite frankly, just not worth fighting. If however, it is our perception that insists on the impossibility, then we can be sure that it is in fact possible. And hence, we can continue on fighting.

Quite often a situation possesses both factors. There are certain areas where it is impossible for us to do anything about, but there are certain areas where it is possible for us to tackle.

A quick example is someone who plays chess. When it is his turn to move, he is faced with many possible action steps. Some of which might send his king to the grave while others can move his queen forward to victory. There will be instances where he is cornered and all his moves will spell doom. However, this situation rarely happens unless off course he is very unlucky, or his opponent is very good.

Life is much more complex than a game of chess and it is very difficult to determine if we have any moves left or not. Before we make the ultimate decision that we are cornered and our every moves will result in disaster, shouldn’t we take a hard look at our situation and figure out another way to move our pawns?

Once we have made our mind that our end is definite, our efforts for sure will end.

When we say we can do the impossibles, we are not delusional. We simply refuse to defeat ourselves. Have you ever thought that those who refuse to try and keep saying ‘it’s impossible’ are delusional?

Why would we spell doom to ourselves?

Are we focusing on the situation or just on the impossibles?

Maybe if we only just focus on the possibles, on the things that we can do right now.

If we just do what we can do, then before we know it we’ll be doing things that are difficult, and finally we’ll be doing the impossibles.