Republished with permission from Lady Boss Asia
Starting Smart – Veteran Businesswoman Betty Ashman’s 8 Tips For Aspiring Business Owners
Successful fair organiser Betty Ashman, with over 30 years of corporate and entrepreneurial experience behind her, shares the most important pointers for women dreaming to launch their own small businesses.
Nothing comes easy in the world of business, and Betty Ashman would be the first to tell you so. Today, she is the successful founder of 10-year-old company The Expat Fairs, which is responsible for livening up the small retail business scene and giving women a leg up in promoting their unique products and services.
The Hongkong-born MBA holder and former high-flying corporate executive was already living in Singapore for about six years, when in 2004, she seized the opportunity to enter the market of organising small-scale fairs. “I saw that many small business owners, especially women, were struggling to survive. I wanted to give a platform to these stay-at-home mothers and entrepreneurial women with a dream to not just launch and their own independent businesses, and reach out and connect to the right clientele. E-commerce was also taking off, so it was good timing for such fairs for online businesses to gain interaction with their customers.”
From her first-ever fair at the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club with about 30 stalls in 2004, to last year’s Christmas Fair at the Raffles Town Club with 142 stalls; from a one-woman show to a team of six staff; from just fairs to also organising self-help workshops, Betty has come a long way. Today, her database of business owners stands at more than 2,000, while that of consumers has hit 28,000.
Betty’s success isn’t unexpected; she has loads of experience. The mother-of-one set up her first business, a trading company, when she was only 21; was a former partner of lifestyle retail company Barang Barang; and boasts some 15 years of corporate experience working in major companies like Ikea. However, not everything was a bed of roses as she also had her fair share of hard knocks and was part of a failed business consultancy venture in China. Balancing work and family was also very difficult as well, especially getting the other half to understand the commitment it takes as an entrepreneur.
Currently, she is busy putting together her annual Christmas Fair, and her most interesting series of events yet called She Owns It, which is a large-scale womanpreneur-focused consumer fair and conference-forum, and a b2b tradefair, all organised jointly with Mums@Work. At the same time, she is finalising the details of the launch of her business coaching book, called Make It Happen: Seven Steps To Thrive. The go-getter shares her thoughts on how aspiring ladybosses and mum-preneurs could conquer the initial stages and challenges of launching their small businesses.
1. Get Help
Betty says it is normal for business owners to want to save costs and try to do everything, such as social media and online marketing by themselves. “They end up also being the administrators for all these various things and maybe they get 10 or 20 per cent more likes or views. However, that is not productive and you don’t get as good a result as hiring an expert to do it. If you want your business to excel, get help. Paying someone to do be in charge of such functions, or leveraging off a strategic partner for her services in return for what you can offer her, is not common in Asia yet, but it could be. Beyond business partnership, my advice to get help also applies to business coaching, practical help and even life-coaching.”
2. Be Open-minded and Learn From Your Lessons
Reaching out to other partners and collaborators is very common in business, and even those who have made it big still do that. So do not lose heart even if you get turned down. Don’t hesitate to approach others or doubt yourself. You may try several times, but the more you get turned down, the more it perfects your pitch – socially or in business. You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain in that way. Some really successful people initially got turned down hundreds of times before they found someone who believed in them.
3. Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff
While women tend to worry about the small things and like to be consultative, we must recognise that time is money and tough decisions must be made quickly. “There is always a trial and error process. If something doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter. Cut losses, regroup and move on. You also need to take calculated risks and have contingency plans; if you can’t tolerate risks, you shouldn’t be doing business.”
4. Find A Very Good Mentor
A mentor could put things into perspective for you. “I had a very good mentor, who was in the advertising and media industry. He went through bankruptcy but was still so positive and focused, starting other businesses. Successful people do not let failures affect their self-worth and bounce back very fast, and this can be seen even in multi-millionaires, who have fallen many times. This is something we all can learn from.”
5. Don’t Ignore Long-Term Goals
In business, you need to have short- and long-term goals, says Betty, but even if some long-term goals won’t help your bottom line now, they are still strategic and may need to be implemented immediately. “You have to be far-sighted and plant the seed first, as there is no guarantee whatever you do in the short term may be successful. Most start-ups face the J-curve at the beginning – it is always a struggle at the beginning, when you have to invest say in staff or equipment first, and could take six months to a year to see returns. This is especially in the service sector where you don’t have instant assets or intellectual property, which takes time to cultivate.”
6. Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Do not be afraid of your weaknesses and recognise your strengths, adds Betty, who suggests an aspiring business owner lists all of them out in order to find a way to improve on the weaknesses or leverage on the strengths. “Women are more nurturing, and better at team bonding and relationships. But you could be a creative soul who have many ideas and dare to execute them, but lack the financial expertise. If you don’t have certain skills set, find a partner to complement you.”
7. Networking Is Not Enough
Networking is essential, but for small business owners with limited time and resources, it could pose a big challenge. What’s important is for them to get represented in a marketplace, gain more interaction, win customers, and make strategic partnerships. “Some products sell themselves but the creator may not know how to market them, while some owners have fantastic personalities but their products need a little more oomph.”
8. Communication Is Key
“When you run alone, you can run very fast but the returns are very slow. But when you run as a team, you can run very far,” says Betty, who advises those working with partners to remember that it doesn’t matter whose decision it is, it only matters whether it is the right business decision. “It is human nature to have conflicts, and if there are no conflicts, that could mean there isn’t another unique perspective. It is how you handle the differences professionally.
“Sometimes, breaking up a business could result in a negative situation for everyone involved, as going alone will mean you don’t have economies of scale or lose out resource-wise. Instead, work out a way to approach things non-personally and look at ways to enhance unity. Sometimes, switching roles for a short period can help the partners understand the challenges each of them face and better appreciate their partners. However, if things have already turned sour, it may help to bring an experienced third party in to see things in a new light and help soothe out issues.”