Let life be beautiful like summer flowers – Interview with a veteran banker-turned-entrepreneur-turned-banker

I met Summer just as autumn was leaving Hong Kong, if there ever was an autumn.

This is my favorite time of the year. On a good day, the cool air mixed with a beam of tranquil sunshine is just about enough to fool one’s nostrils into believing that the air is actually fresh and free of pollution. Festive decorations that always seem to appear much too early and from nowhere, indiscriminately remind passersby that the year, indeed yet another, is coming to an end.

To some souls in Central, unfortunately, the year is not the only thing that’s coming to an end. Recessions saw many “bodies” – a term often used to refer to junior bankers, being thrown onto the streets. “Finding a job” quickly found itself to be on top of many New Year’s resolutions, replacing the usual suspects such as “Finding love” and “Becoming a better person”.

At this time of self-reflection and in the midst of this mixed mood, I had the pleasure of talking to Summer. For those who have not had the pleasure, I would highly recommend it. Rarely do you find somebody with whom holding a conversation feels like a gentle stroll along a little unpaved road in the countryside, with mid-summer’s sun shining through the misty fog and leafs above. Fast paced life turned many people into aggressively fast talkers, always eager to leash out every single thought that comes to mind irrespective of what the audience is saying or doing. Talking to Summer is different, a calming, smooth and enriching experience. The mere fact that she did not check her phone or blackberry even once during our two-hour conversation was incredible.

ME: Great to see you today, so what kind of business did you do when you took a break from banking?

S: I left Investment Banking on October 1, 2007, after working for over two years as an analyst. One of the projects I did was helping a famous nation-wide company that makes hair products like shampoos. I was both inspired and a little surprised at how easy it was to make these products, so I wanted to give it a go myself! After 4 months of preparation, I opened a cosmetics shop called “MaxSummer” in the East Gate area in Shenzhen (equivalent of the Mongkok area in Hong Kong). We sell our own branded cosmetics products while providing free makeup tutorials to customers, and yes, some young girls come to the shop at around 5 or 6pm just to get a free makeup before their evening dates!

ME: Wow that must have been a big change! How did you like the experience?

S: Yeah it was very different, I was working harder than Investment Banking! We hired two staff and my mum was also helping out. The shop was open from 9:30am to 10pm and I was pretty much there all of the time. For the first two days after opening, hardly anybody came into the shop, and I was getting really worried. Maybe it was because of our high-end decoration that scared off the bargain-seeking customers, which constituted the majority of foot traffic in East Gate. Magically, as soon as I hang out a big “Discount” sign on the third day, customers started pouring in.

On the other hand, I was suddenly dealing with a whole different group of people, juggling between customers, staff, landlord, tax collectors and chengguan. East Gate area is not your typically Landmark orIFC, it’s a mass market shopping area for the local people. For example, my next door shop neighbor was surprised that my shop had an English name. People were shocked that I could talk to foreign customers in fluent English and one of the foreigners said to me:”you must have been an office lady before!”

ME: That sounds like a lot of fun, but also work and commitment. When you entered the business, did you plan to be in it for the long run?

S: I was actually very serious about this business and wanted to make a living out of it. Before I opened the shop, I travelled to Guangzhou several times to do market research, studying similar shops in shopping malls, and coming up with product and marketing strategies. It also took a lot of effort to cut through all the red-tape, get the necessary certificates in order to start operation. I wanted to try to build a real business out of it, definitely not just for fun or as a hobby to kill time.

ME: I understand you sold the business in the end after 4 months of operation, now looking back, would you consider it a success?

S: From a pure business prospective, I wouldn’t say it was a success. Although we did attract some interested parties who invited me to join their larger franchise. There were also customers taking photos of our shop because of its fashionable design. There were a few reasons why I decided not to continue with the business in the end:

First of all, I was disappointed and realized that the beautiful picture of entrepreneurship I painted in my head was too naïve. I knew too little of the real world before I started, and I didn’t like what I found out. People played a big factor. I all of a sudden had to deal with people that are from much more grassroots background, there was sometimes a lack of common language and some of them were rude. However, in order to do business, you had to deal with them. Then I kept asking myself, “why do I have to put up with it?” From friends in Shenzhen, I also heard stories of having to pay “protection-fees” to crime organizations and make under-the-table transactions to various stakeholders, I had to again ask myself, could I really deal with that in order to become successful.

Secondly, the commercial side wasn’t rosy. Making money from real businesses is much harder than getting paid a big check at the end of every month. After a while, you realize that even taking into account an aggressive expansion plan, it would still be many years before the business profit exceeds the opportunity cost. If you are a professional like a banker, your income level increases very steadily at a steep rate, whereas a real business often has to sustain a long period of much lower cash generation capability, hoping that one day you can really “make it” through an IPO. I have seen many successful businesses when doing banking, but now I realized that the successful ones are really the exception rather than the norm.

Last but not least, my parents worried about me even more than when I was being sleep deprived as a banker. It was harder work than before and my parents didn’t think it was sustainable.

ME: What are the lessons you learnt from this experience?

S: I feel that I matured a lot after 8 months of start up experience. My state of mind changed for the better. I realized that it’s not a good idea to start something you have completely no knowledge of and no advantage over others. I’m still very glad that I managed to execute my idea, which I’ve wanted to for a long time. No matter what the result is, at least I can say that I did it.

ME: Your courage is admirable indeed. Let’s move onto why you left banking in the first place?

S: It was a mixture of reasons, probably not dissimilar to what anyone else would say about a banking analyst’s life. I wasn’t getting the satisfaction from the job, it was not fun, not innovative, and I felt trapped and was in a constant battle with myself. The monetary reward did not make any difference. I have always been free spirited and would read entrepreneurial stories online all the time. I know that I wanted a different life and wanted it badly.

On the other hand, the banking job relieved me of any financial pressure and I had the capital to be able to start the business.

ME: I am intrigued that after all this, you decided to come back to banking. Why?

S: Sometimes you need to distant yourself from something in order to appreciate its beauty, just like in the case of startups, I had to get into it in order to see the ugly side of things.

After selling the shop, I thought very hard and explored other opportunities too. I realized that I actually don’t dislike banking itself, I never did. What I didn’t like was myself at the time, the state I was in, with an overhanging ambition to create my own business. Once I’ve tried and done that, a void in my heart was filled and once again, I was able to assess banking with a new and more objective prospective.

Now I actually really like my job! I joined a Chinese bank where I think the culture fits me much better. I was given a lot of responsibilities to do the things I enjoy. The entrepreneurial experience taught me a lot on how to deal with different type of people, which has proved to be invaluable experience at my current job.

ME: Congratulations. Do you have any advice for younger bankers who are thinking of doing the same thing?

S: It is very hard to give general advice, because it depends on each person’s character. If you asked me four years ago whether I would encourage people to choose startups over banking, I probably would have said “go for it” in a heartbeat. Now, I would say that you really need to think about it. But hey, some people really need to “do” to “believe”, like myself. An idea or a longing for something is like a hungry beast, the only solution is to feed it once and for all before you can have peace and move on.

ME: Thank you very much for your time.

My interview with Summer was quite timely, some people were beginning to question whether I was anti-banking and actually spend my nights secretly “occupying Central” in tents under the HSBC building. That is obviously not the case. Summer has shown that you can definitely find happiness, or whatever it is that you think is important in life, in banking. In fact, if you have the right state of mind, I believe you can find it doing pretty much anything. Banking or not banking, that is not the question.

People who love what they do are blessed. The hard part is finding out what you love doing. Getting to know yourself may be the most difficult thing in one’s life, yet we spent astonishingly little time practicing it. After following an already laid out path for too long and being detached from your true self, it is almost impossible to figure out what you want. No wonder when we hear Steve Jobs say “Stay hungry, stay foolish”, we panic. On one hand, we feel the “hunger”, on the other hand, we have utterly no idea what type of “food” we need to satisfy the hunger. We don’t even know if we are vegetarians or carnivores, because we don’t know ourselves. Summer told me that she sometimes takes very long walks in the park by herself, to be with herself and listen to her heart. Maybe that’s a suggestion.

I leave you, and this year, with this line below. Hope Summer’s life continue to blossom like a true summer flower.

“Let life be beautiful like summer flowers and death like autumn leaves. (生如夏花之绚烂,死如秋叶之静美)” —       Tagore (泰戈尔)

<The End>

Written on December 1, 2011 on behalf of www.life-after-banking.com. All Rights Reserved.

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