Eric Lam, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Amdon Group, shares profound insights from his decades of experience being an entrepreneur.

Some time back, I was asked to share my thoughts with a group of students on what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, and I wrote the following 6 words on the board:

  1. Poverty
  2. Humiliation
  3. Dependency
  4. Failure
  5. Loneliness
  6. Sun

I remember telling the audience not to pay too much attention to the successes of some entrepreneurs that the mass media feature all too often, because these are not representative of what it’s like to run a business. There is nothing romantic about being an entrepreneur, and I wondered why there are schools that even think that starting a business is an imperative rite of passage for any student who is graduating from a tertiary institution.

Entrepreneurs are misfits in society in my opinion–we can’t seem to work with people in a team, and we have such a crazy belief to solve some problems in society that we are prepared to stake it all to realise that belief. Some of us make it, but most of us don’t even come close.

So my six words broadly translate to what I have learned in my last 20 years as an entrepreneur:

1. Poverty

I learned the value of money when I eventually became poor; and so, I learned to save. And the more we save, the wealthier we get.

2. Humiliation

I (and many of our colleagues) have been humiliated in one way or another; and because I probably have been humiliated the most in the company (by would-be investors, customers, business associates etc), I learned the value of dignity. And so, I learned to treat people, especially my colleagues, in a dignified and respectful way, yet expecting nothing less than the best of our efforts for a just wage.

At Amdon, educational qualifications matter less than ability; where we work matters less than how much we deliver on the job. I have seen first-hand and been inspired by many of our colleagues who, despite being considered less qualified than their peers in the same role at other firms, have flourished so much more than those same peers.

3. Dependency

I used to think that I should be the smartest person in the room and didn’t listen enough, which led to Failure. Now I know all too well that to succeed, we need to do it TOGETHER, that the smartest person in the room can never and should never be me, and that the honest and passionate views of our team matter.

As a growing company in the EduTech space, we raise funds from investors, and the choice of investors becomes really important–not everyone with money to invest is useful, and I have learned this the hard way. Investors ask important questions about the company’s plans for growth, and this is their right. But those who offer constructive advice and go further to put forth their resources like network and contacts will go a lot further with us than those who just put in money, sit back and ask lots of questions all the time about where the company is heading to get their money back.

The more we depend on each other, the more value we create. So, I have learned to choose who we depend on these days.

4. Failure

This really sucks, especially for a person like me, who likes to play (a game) to win; and so, when I lose, it really hurts. But with this comes wisdom of choice. Let me be clear: I hate to fail. But some of my best traits as a business leader today have come from experiencing such failures, taking hard looks at my actions and decisions, getting up and getting on.

I have since learned that nothing we do the first time ever works. In fact, any first-time launch of a product is meant for us to put out ideas in concrete form out there and find out what needs to be changed, improved, removed or added in order to make people like it.

A product launch is our way of learning more of what the market really needs–no amount of focus groups can give us the insight on what the customer really wants, as compared to an honest conversation with the customer, and no amount of positive market survey results can beat an actual sale. And unless we can frame our failures as successes in learning more to help us pivot the right way forward, failure on its own can be very paralyzing.

5. Loneliness

This isn’t a bad word, and by my own definition, it’s actually quite positive–no one should ever take the responsibility for a failure other than the guy at the top. I have learned that when the Company runs out of money, the CEO should be the only one to take a pay cut, and when that’s not enough, he should freeze his pay, and if that too isn’t enough, then take on a loan–and doing all these while finding ways to grow and fund the company so it can take care of its employees.

Our staff give us their future; the least we can do is to be responsible for it.

6. The SUN

I was once asked by a group of MBA students if I have ever thought of giving up—I was then in a panel of entrepreneurs who shared their experiences with these bright-eyed individuals with dreams of striking it out on their own. My entrepreneur-peers all shared that thoughts of giving up never came to their minds or they wouldn’t have been able to sustain their businesses and live their dreams. I had a somewhat different take, and my answer was simply:

“Thought of or felt like giving up? Every other day! But what I feel and what I decide are very different things!”

I went on to share a rule in our company:

We are all allowed to be sad, to cry and to grief whenever we lose a deal–that’s a right we have earned since we have lost something that belonged to us. BUT we can only do so for one night. As the sun sets, we lament and grief. As we sleep in the night, we heal. And as the sun rises the following day, we get up to the new opportunities that will present themselves before us in this bright new day, and we go hunting. Again.

Thus, I have learned to embrace the Sun, as it sets and rises.

When I was done speaking, one student asked me, “If being an entrepreneur is as hard as you have described, why do you still do it?”

To which I answered:

“You know, when you find a problem in the world that only you seem to have noticed at that point in time, and you know in your gut that it’s a real problem when many naysayers tried to put you down. The day when you managed to solve that problem and proved to yourself that you weren’t wrong in the first place … that feeling is priceless.

That’s why I am doing what I am doing.”

Almost 20 years … the company went from its humble roots in my bedroom to now more than 80 staff strong, spanning offices in 5 countries.

And we are just starting …

Eric Lam, Founder & CEO, The Amdon Group
Eric Lam, Founder & CEO, The Amdon Group

Eric Lam is the Founder and CEO of Amdon Consulting Pte Ltd, which currently has more than 80 employees across its Singapore, US, Taiwan, Philippines and Myanmar offices.

Eric led the company to train more than 7,000 educators worldwide in the practice of inquiry-based pedagogies and assessment methodologies.

In 2014, he led the team at Amdon to design and develop internal coaching digital content for SPRING’s officers and business advisors. In the K-12 space, he has also co-­‐authored more than 10 Secondary Science textbooks for use in Singapore and worldwide.

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