The Man That Wrote The Book On Being A Real Entrepreneur

This is an article about the interview that we did with a very special guest, who came from Dubai. His name is John Lincoln, the author of “Connect the Dots.” He is also the vice president of a large corporation that is currently based in the United Arab Emirates. He has been around the business world and has had his share of ups and downs with business as well.

David:   Welcome John.

John:     Thank you very much David for having me here today. It’s my pleasure.

David:   I really appreciate your joining us. I found your details quite intriguing and I certainly wanted to interview you for quite a while now, especially about your book, “Connect the Dots.” It certainly is something I believe our listeners can certainly benefit from. Firstly, can I ask you how you started out as an entrepreneur and a business leader?

John:     You know… I’ve been very fortunate. I was born in Malaysia, and I moved to the US where I started my career as a telecommunications professional. In the late 1990’s, I saw an opportunity to start a business in Japan, where I was based in one of my assignments. I started an e-learning business, and it failed, but I learned many things from it. Along the way, I also had the chance to advise smaller business entrepreneurs, both formally and informally. I always noticed that most small businesses are more opportunistic than strategic. I learned both from the corporate world and from observing small to medium businesses in developing and emerging economies in many markets.

David:   You mentioned about the entrepreneurialship in Japan, and you opened a company that didn’t do too well. Can you talk about that please?

John:     Sure. When I was based in Japan, I realized that many Japanese really want to learn how to speak English. It was the start of the internet boom in those days, and I thought that I could offer them English language lessons using the internet as key enabler. The reason being that, many Japanese, as you are all aware of, commute everyday from home to work and most of them will go to English language school right after work, in the evenings or late at night, and they pay about $60/hour. I thought that there is an opportunity to offer them English language lessons on the internet. That’s the reason why I started this business. You can offer language lessons through the internet. So I had a hybrid model where I had a call centre full of American teachers sitting there, coaching lessons, and students can call in and try the lessons and different sorts of coaching. And that was my business model at that time. The business didn’t take off because I had roughly underestimated one key factor. The internet at that time was dependent mainly on the phone line, and the phone lines in Japan at that time didn’t exactly have great service. It didn’t take off as much as I expected. I closed the business eventually and the second guy who followed after me, well, I guess it’s a billion-dollar business today. In this case the early bird didn’t get the worm and the second one got it.

David:   Was the primary reason why it fell was because the market research wasn’t done properly or the tools to be used was not researched?

John:     Not really. There were multiple reasons. One of the key reasons was that it was probably a bit too early in my time because internet service was dependent on the phone line, it was still a measured rate of service in Japan, and it was not a flat rate like in many developing economies today. The second reason is that I probably should not have tried to do a consumer model. Rather, I should have gone on to a b to b model, a business to business model whereby instead of developing all 150 lessons in one go, I probably should have done five or ten lessons, hired a couple of econ managers, tried and sell it to the corporations, and slowly build up on them. I had a very ambitious plan at that time which was just conceived a little bit early on.

David:   Okay, but I must admit though that you’ve been pretty courageous about jumping in and trying something brand new. That’s very open-thinking.

John:     Yes. It involved two countries, you know. The development is down in the states and the call centre with the teachers was launched in Osaka, Japan. Of course I had some Japanese partners. I never attempted to do it myself. On hindsight, it really probably was a stupid idea at the time.

David:   Well, everyone’s got 20/20 vision in hindsight, don’t they?

John:     Yes. Hindsight is 20/20.

David:   I suppose what I’m getting at is that you could’ve stepped out and tried something new. Does your book really explain or connect the dots for young entrepreneurs today to actually help them move forward and try something different like this if they’ve got great big ideas?

John:     Yes, I’m hopeful that it will do that. One of the reasons is that I specifically introduced the book in my first chapter. On the last chapter, it’s a very personal story, the dots that I did not connect, you know. But more on that, the book actually tries to attempt to address this topic that are not normally covered in business books or in smaller or medium sized business advice books. In my first chapter, I titled it as, “Before you take the bull by the horns, know your exit.” For example, how do you entice and tempt your customers to sin? This means that before you design your proposition, you can use the seven cardinal sins. Or for example, how do you engage in a price war? Most small to medium businesses think that engaging in a price war means just matching prices or cutting down your prices, which is absolutely not sustainable for small or medium businesses. Another topic that I have is how to market to women and why marketing for women is very critical. You know, topics like these are not addressed normally in large companies because they can afford a bevy of consultants and they pay professionals. Most small businesses don’t have this sort of view. They might see an opportunity and try and make the best out of it, so that’s why I wrote this book.

David:   It really sounds like you’re trying to get into the head or the mindset of the target customer as well.

John:     Yes, indeed. In fact, if you just take a simple business like a retail outfit or a restaurant, it’s quite simple to run. Everybody can understand that it’s a straightforward business. It’s the simple fact of hiring people or a manager. Most people think that the managers just run the operation and so forth, but I do believe that beyond the basic skills of some people that are required for any function, this thing known as emotional intelligence is required as well. If you don’t have the emotional intelligence, you can’t connect with people, you can’t manage and motivate your team, and then a vicious cycle sets in. The team is not motivated and the customers are not happy. There’s another chapter on capacity, why you don’t look at averages and many people below capacity. You can’t say you just need two people who will come on lunchtime. You can’t even sell to customers.

David:   I think that’s probably the difference. If you have structured it well in the book to explain differences between success and absolute value, well, obviously you’re certainly pushing the wheelbarrow right.

John:     Yes. What I’m trying to say in my book is that each aspect really has to pull through. For example, I spoke about hiring. Most people hire and require some basic qualifications they might look for, experiences and stuff like that. But there are ways that you can interview the person. I have a belief that in any company, small or large, very few people make the biggest difference. So, yes I can hire people with very high emotional intelligence, and what do I mean by that? You need a person who’s practical, not whimsical, not pessimistic, and not too optimistic. You need somebody who is assertive in a positive way, somebody flexible, because in business things change. Flexibility is key. You need somebody who has a high keen awareness of their own emotional reaction to stuff, the right temperament is required. Last but not least, you need somebody with the right level of empathy, because, after all, we are humans and we need to be able to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes and connect with people. As humans, these are some attributes that small businesses don’t think about. Of course, some of the very charismatic businessmen know it and they do a wonderful business doing that. But when you hire people, there are ways to look for that.

David:   Yes, absolutely. I think one of the major things or key aspects that you’re talking about here is relationships with people. I’ve noticed that in a lot of successful businesses, if you can’t connect with people, then you’re really just up there as a front person.

John:     That’s one aspect from the employees’ side. For example, if you’re marketing to women, many people could think or make a marketing strategy for women. But it’s not true at all. Generally speaking, women have a more keen sense of awareness than men. For example, everybody likes their place to be clean, but the matter means more to women, and women are more forgiving as well. They will give you a second chance, but you have to be honest. The other thing is that women are better networkers. Women’s friendships are more deep and lasting, and when a woman recommends another woman, you can be sure it is solid. So, imagine the positive effects the business will have if you market to women in the right way.

David:   That’s really good stuff because you’re not just into the shallow and insignificant things. You’re going deep and trying to find an emotional connection, and that’s really good. So you could really apply that then to any small business, like a lawnmower shop, or right through a multinational outfit. You cut to the chase very, very well. If you know your customer is a woman on a demographic of 25, I suppose you could use it to your advantage.

John:     Yes, thank you for saying that. In fact, the book is applicable to anybody. If somebody’s looking for a large business or somebody is running a small business, the only reason I provisioned the book as though it is for small businesses is because many business books feature large businesses.

David:   Well it makes more sense, I suppose. Firstly, people who think on a smaller scale look up to the trustworthy people once they’ve made a connection. So if I’m a small business owner and I want to step out and do something different, then the point in your book would obviously help me move forward and start thinking outside of the general box. If you’re doing this business and everyone is doing this, would your book help me think about things, or is there something I could offer at a different angle?

John:     Most small businesses, you know, I have utmost respect for them. They put capital, they employ people, and they work very hard to make the business succeed. I don’t mean to belittle what they are already doing, and many of them are already doing many things. For example, just some insights that you might not have, let’s talk about hiring and emotional intelligence. Most people do not think about them. I mean, who thinks about these things when starting a business? It seems paradoxical. Another example is the thing that I talked to you about enticing and tempting your customers to sin the seven cardinal sins. When you look at the proposition for promotion, you can ask yourself, “how do I address that sloth in that person, or the greed or the lust part of it? What can I do?” Or when you talk about engaging in a price war and other topics, like, “how did you direct marketing, or why averages don’t mean anything, or why procedures and policies matter?” Stuff like that is in the book. You don’t have to read from beginning to end. You can pick a chapter that’s most appropriate for them. That’s why it’s called the playbook.

David:   Well it sounds more like a roadmap for someone who just wants to find success.

John:     Yes, I hope so. That was my hope.

David:   John this is really good stuff. Generally, if I could sum up, what you were trying to say is about your success value, especially in Japan and how you had used that to your advantage. I heard a saying a while ago, and that is, “In business, plan to fail and plan to fail fast because the more you fail, the quicker you get to success.” So you’ve obviously used that right through as well because you’ve moved forward from that point of view.

John:     Yes, I absolutely agree with you David, and it’s not easy for many people. When you pop into business, everything freezes for you in your life and suddenly it’s not easy. You said it correctly you know, because most small business owners are mostly connected to the business, they don’t let go. It probably might be very wise for them to let go and not wait until the very last minute when they had to because the cash has run dry. That may not be smart, but at the same time, to be fair, there are few who held on to it and made it. They would have to change the business model and commercial models into something more appropriate.

David:   Well that makes a lot more sense, actually. Here’s a pointed question, I suppose. What advice would you give to someone, especially young entrepreneurs now, who has got this brilliant idea, whatever it might be, and they want to just go jump in to the pool and start swimming, so to speak? How would you differ that from someone who’s already got an existing business and they want to find out what they’re sort of doing wrong?

John:     That’s an excellent question David. I should’ve addressed that in my book. By the way, you framed that question for a young entrepreneur who’s just coming on board? The first thing that I would ask that person is what is the incremental value of the business proposition that he/she brought to the market? Almost certainly, most small businesses that start out do not have an intellectual property that nobody else has. If you’re planning a retail outlet or a technology company, what is that one thing that differentiates it, that one thing that’s really certain?

David:   Like USP.

John:     Yes, absolutely. Unique Selling Proposition is normally a word that’s often abused and people don’t internalize it, but hopefully you can put the three words in. It’s not truly unique in a sense and there’s a place to check the uniqueness of the very proposition. The second thing is then you need a cash scheme. First and foremost, you need to have the planning to get the cash. I always say plan, plan, and plan, nothing else matters. You need to plan all contingencies. Once you have the plan, you need to know your resources or funding and there’s a lot on that list. Always keep in mind that cash is king. So many small investors then think that business value is millions of dollars, but because probably of the low quality of execution, it meant nothing and they hold on to their shares and don’t give it to others. In a minute, people make a big mistake and they should be aware that cash is king. These are some of the things I would tell a young, would-be entrepreneur for a person who has an established business. I would encourage them to look at people who make a difference and it’s not just a phrase that people commonly use in a larger corporation. In a small business, people do matter and the leaders and managers do matter because if you have a bad leader, the vicious cycle sets in. If employees are not satisfied, the customers aren’t too and it affects the bottom line. I would encourage them to think about simple things like policies, procedures, and stuff that small businesses are not really good at. I would encourage them to think about the existing proposition and look at it from the customer journey. People don’t just look at it as a product. The traditional marketing of a product, like, there is a product, there is a price, there is a promotion, and I am going to sell it via traditional marketing. It is the customers’ journey, from the time the customer gets to know your products. How does the customer walk in to buy, how does the customer uses your product or service, and how does the customer pay for it?

David:   It sounds like it’s really not about the products then. It’s really about the end-user solution and a solution to their problem.

John:     Indeed it is the experience that calls the customer from a journey through your business.

David:   Well, that makes so much sense. It really does. I can certainly look around and look at the ones around. Certainly in our area they are always flourishing, and even in a really tough market, that they want to leap forward because they have made it about the customer by keeping them happy.

John:     Absolutely. That’s why I said there are two things. The first thing is that they’re doing something that’s much differentiated from their competition. The second thing is that they look at the proposition in totality and that includes the customer experience so that the customers keep coming back and you’ve got to accentuate that.

David:   That’s very good advice. Is there something that we could leave our listeners with, in terms of what you would say to a young entrepreneur who is gung ho about starting something, but we probably believe he’s going way too fast? What would be the main ingredient which he is lacking if he’s going too fast?

John:     First and foremost, I would commend him/her for taking that risk to embark on something, but I think it would probably rely on planning. It is one thing that’s really critical. Don’t do it in the opportunistic way because they’re very short-lived and they’re very painful, so I would advise somebody to plan, plan, plan, and think of the incremental value proposition that you can add to the market. It’s very critical.

David:   Okay, well, that’s really good actually, because it really shows that planning is probably the most important thing and then secondly, ask as many questions as you can from the customer point of view. That’s really, really, good.

John:     Yes, it is, and most people who start businesses had no one on them because that’s pretty understandable, but when you do it forcefully on a multiscenario strategy setting view, they should sort of brainstorm these people to play the devil’s advocate. It gives the idea, you know, so they can define the proposition a bit better. That would be my advice for them.

David:   Okay. So, finally what are your thoughts on mentors, if you get a good mentor to help you do this and do that?

John:     That’s a great question David. It’s not a simple question that meets the eye. Mentoring in the traditional sense is a great idea for any young start up, but in my opinion, what start ups really need is access to business. Most large companies that are buyers of small businesses and products do not buy from small businesses because they do not have the credibility or financial standing. They should get mentors who can get them access to business, more than advising on how to run the business. It’s always good to get advice and there’s always a lot of value to that. It is much higher valued if that mentor can bring to a starter some access to businesses.

David:   Well, that makes so much sense actually, it really does. Well, thank you so much for sharing that wealth of knowledge. It really opened my eyes as well actually. So where can we actually find your book and grab a copy?

John:     Thanks David. I really enjoyed speaking to you. The book is available online on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. I believe it’s also available in Sony Ereader. Connect the dots is a very famous and commonly used term for playbook, so you might want to put, Connect The Dots by John Lincoln when you’re looking for the book. I hope the readers and your followers will enjoy this.

David:   No doubt they will. It sounds like it’s certainly a road map to success, especially for anyone in business, whether you’re starting up or already in a business. I really appreciate this John.

John:     Thank you very much David for your time. I really enjoyed my conversation with you and hope to speak to you again soon.

David:   Yes, so for those who want to get in contact with John, grab your copy and we’ll go from there. Thanks very much!

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