If you were to tell me 10 years ago, shortly after I had graduated from college that I would someday be starting my own business, I would have laughed and said, “There’s no way. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
I was a recent graduate from Pacific Lutheran University with a general business degree and had just finished my collegiate basketball experience. I wanted to explore different entry-level job opportunities as well as pursue my childhood dream of playing professional basketball in Asia.
How interesting life pans out – growing up in Pullman, Wash. as a Chinese-American in a predominantly white society and knowing very little about Asian culture (with the exception of my family) to starting a marketing and advertising agency dedicated to assisting companies and organizations in reaching the Asian American and other multicultural markets. I would never have imagined that I would be serving in such a capacity.
So how did it all come about? In a nutshell, the following were several key lessons learned when starting my own business. This is not necessarily the only way to get it done, but may be helpful tidbits to think about when taking the leap.
1. Work hard, gain experience and build credibility.
Before starting my Asian advertising agency, I began my career in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District as a marketing specialist for the Business Improvement Area (BIA) with a primary focus on producing annual events, cultivating sponsorships and promoting the neighborhood as a major cultural tourist destination. The job often called for 60+ hour weeks and time spent in the community on evenings and weekends. But I’m grateful for those working (and learning) experiences because it was my foundation of knowledge, awareness and understanding of the many different API communities and cultures present in King County and beyond – extremely useful to my trade today.
2. Understand your market and how you can add value.
I can still remember the day that I decided that I wanted to start my own business. I had been thinking about my work and impact at the BIA along with the valuable experience gained. During this time, I was just invited to attend a Diversity Career workshop at the Starbucks corporate headquarters. The keynote speaker was the new Vice President of Global Diversity at Starbucks, May Snowden, and she presented an astounding visual of our rapidly changing demographic landscape and how Starbucks needed to poise itself to be able to attract the talent from the tremendous growth of minorities in the workforce of the future. As I was driving home, a thought clicked in my mind, “Hey – why can’t I start an Asian marketing company helping companies like Starbucks reach this growing population?”
It began with an idea but an idea by itself is simply not enough. I spent a solid five months developing a business plan, brainstorming on a brand name, planning out the company mission, researching the market place and trying to figure out how my company could add value to any client. There were only a handful of advertising firms focused on the Asian niche segment – none of which were in the Pacific Northwest. With few barriers to entry into market place, T.D. Wang Advertising Group was born.
3. Ask and learn from a mentor.
There are a ton details to consider when starting a business – everything from how you want to set up your company’s legal formation to business licenses to accounting to marketing and business development. The best advice that I can give you is to take the opportunity to learn from other entrepreneurs that have done it before you and how they succeeded. I could have saved myself countless hours if I would have reached out to mentors earlier who have built their businesses and brands through experience. Learning by trial and error is certainly another way to do it, though sometimes (as in my case), it can be time consuming and costly.
4. Have passion in what you do.
No matter whatever it is that you do – whether you are starting your own business or working the regular 8 to 5, having passion for what you do will ultimately help you get through the many challenges within the work. This is so very true in the world of entrepreneurship. I recall putting in 100-hour working weeks during the first two years of T.D. Wang to establish our company’s infrastructure and trying to build the business. There were many instances where I could have easily have called it quits. However, I remained consistent in my passion for serving the API community which really helped me through the tough times. True conviction to why you are starting your business will allow you to remain focused amidst the many roadblocks that will come ahead.
5. Surround yourself with a strong team.
Seldom can one do it all by themselves. I was fortunate to have a strong and close knit group of team members that worked tirelessly to help T.D. Wang grow. The start-up environment can be fun and exciting, but there’s also very little process and a lot of work to put those pieces into place. Establishing a strong core team that has individually unique talents were critical to building company brand and reputation.
6. Be flexible.
Most often, companies that set out to do something originally had to change their plans (or “diversify” as they’d like to call it within the industry) at some point in time within their company history. The same could be said for us. When I originally had started the business, I imagined that we would be strictly an Asian-American advertising agency offering only creative and media services to clients. Since then, we have done this but also everything from event planning to market research to community outreach and education to underserved populations. Fulfilling a need in the market place or adding value isn’t always drawn up at the beginning through a business plan, so be open-minded and flexible – it could end up being your biggest success.
7. Do not be afraid of failing.
Starting a business can be a daunting challenge but it’s not as bad as one would think. According to a study in Monthly Labor Review, “two-thirds of new employer establishments survive at least two years, 44 percent survive at least four years, and 31 percent survive at least seven years.” Though I’m still a relative “newbie” to the game (five years) I can say that I still worry about how things will work out. I still encounter failures to this day. However, the failures have provided a learning process from which to grow and so far we have found a way to adapt, survive and succeed. Regardless of the future of T.D. Wang, the risk of going off on my own has been a rewarding one both personally and professionally. Though it’s not my childhood hoop dream, I’ve been enjoying the new “American dream” just fine.