Monday, September 25, 2006

Starting a Business Anyone?

Having worked for years in an economic agency, one does sometimes get the itch to go and try something and take the plunge into entrepreneurship. After all, it is easy to catch the bug from inspirational entrepreneurs who have braved the winds and seven seas and taken all kinds of risks to be where they are today. You get to learn about what makes them tick, the problems and issues that they face, as well as the way in which they solve problems. Often, these bosses amaze me with their sheer grit, tenacity, and "never-say-die" spirit.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, I haven't quite got the nerve to venture out although I have been trading ideas with friends for the longest time. The reason is that I love what I am currently doing, and do not see the need to go out there and fly my own flag so to speak.

Public service has changed significantly, and it now encourages us to be social entrepreneurs within the government sector. Innovation, daring-to-do, and thinking out-of-the-box are now values that public servants should embrace. Of course, these are subject to certain limits to safeguard public funds and prevent abuse. After all, we are accountable to the public at large. Taking foolhardy "bet-the-house" risks isn't quite the same as experimenting with new approaches in a calculated fashion.

While I am pretty happy where I am, my wife is currently exploring doing something with a friend who has been based in Vietnam for more than 15 years. The idea is to bring in low-cost but finely crafted Vietnamese handicrafts and products like lacquer ware, vases, handbags, accessories, and customised corporate gifts. While we are aware that this isn't something entirely new, we sense that there may be some hidden opportunities and niches out there.

As we did our market research, surfed the web, and asked around, we realise that starting out isn't as hunky dory as what its made out to be. There are many issues to contend with. For example, collecting payment from customers, doing quality checks on suppliers, confirming shipping dates and modes, creating catalogues, watching cash flow, and so on. We also need to be mindful of the current business and trading laws of the land, export and import regulations, security and insurance.

Of course, treading too much on the ground of caution may mean that a business venture is doomed for failure from day one. Being too "kiasu" also stifles the spirit of risk taking and results in "analysis paralysis" - an affliction that many arm chair theorists (like myself) occasionally suffer from. However, I believe that if you want to succeed in anything, you have to at least do some homework and ensure that the odds are weighted in your favour.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

All Things Singaporean

This week has been particularly exciting though exhausting for me, as me and my team were tasked with organising the launch event for Singapore: The Encyclopedia as well as to ensure that publicity for the colossal tome was forthcoming. I think this must be one of the most monumental projects I have ever undertaken, and I am glad to have a chance to witness history in the making.

In my view, what strikes me as the most important significance of this book is that it piques and stimulates interest amongst Singaporeans in their own country. The more you know about Singapore - the good, bad and ugly side of it - the more you will learn to love it. Sometimes head knowledge does translate to heart knowledge. Of course, familiarity may also breed contempt. ;-)

OK, the specs about the book are impressive - 640 pages, 2500 over entries, 2,400 photographs, maps and illustrations, half a million words, and 3.2 kg (exactly like a new born!). The book has 231 contributors who read like a who's who in Singapore's academic and scholarly circles. It also has a distinguished editorial advisory board led by Professor Tommy Koh.

However, I think the most fascinating aspect of this tome is the collection of all kinds of trivia which you are unlikely to read about. For example, do you know that the Padres were the first Singapore band featured on BBC World Radio? Or that a Singaporean was the first person to put Tamil on the Internet? We also have more than 60 mammals in Singapore, including cute ones like the Dugong and Pink Dolphins..

It will be interesting to see how the responses from the public will be. As it is, there is already talk that we may go into a second print run soon, and that there are quite a few mistakes being spotted so far. Well, I believe encyclopedias should not just be tomes that collect dust, but living and breathing documents that evolve with time. I do hope in future that a web-based or CD Rom version would be in the offing though, as that is the best way to reach the web-savvy masses.

Speaking of which, should we put up an entry on wikipedia about Singapore: The Encyclopedia?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Social Entrepreneurship and Activism

The past month or so has been exhausting though thrilling for me, with the demands at work climbing to a feverish high and at the same time breaking new ground. I have seen many things happen which I would never have thought possible before, and I can sense that the entire public service is moving into a brand new direction that is more bold (perhaps) than anything it has ventured before.

All I can say at this moment is that we are now looking at giving voices, personalities, and empowerment to the tens of thousands of faceless civil servants who have been working hard behind the scenes to keep the Singapore machinery well-oiled and efficient. It will also be exploring a radical paradigm shift in the whole business of public communication.

I don't know if you have read the book Cluetrain Manifesto by Doc Searls and a couple of other chaps. The idea behind it is that people are talking - in coffeeshops, in taxis, in bedrooms, in offices and everywhere else - and how crucially important it is for corporations (and I would add public sector organisations) to be plugged into the conversation. In other words, we need to play the same game, by their rules (and not ours), in order to truly understand what's happening out there.

There is another concept which I am sure most of you are familiar with - Buzz Marketing - which is first popularised by the book Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. The idea behind that is to look at how you can make all your customers - or in this case employees - advocates for your business. There will certainly be some who are connectors, ie the social butterflies who have wide networks of contacts and act as the hubs of human networks. There will be some who are mavens, ie the gurus and knowledgeable people who are trusted points of reference. There will also be salesmen, who are known for their charisma, negotiation power and ability to convince.

In a way, it is a kind of social entrepreneurialism in the public service. Whereas in the past, control has been held tightly at the core, the powers that be now recognise that there is a need to relinquish part of that. This may encourage more spontaneity, more activism, and more enthusiasm amongst public servants who want to make a difference and speak out for what they believe in. Every public employee can then be an entrepreneur, voicing out his or her views, championing a cause and a belief backed by his or her parent organisation, and spreading the word to his or her network of contacts.

What are your views of such an idea? Will it work? Where would be the loopholes?