My Journey from Failure to CEO
Turning crucibles into leadership gold
First, some background: I come from a business family; my father was the managing director of our family firm, a manufacturer of high-temperature ceramics servicing the pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent, UK.
After my A-levels, I spent some time working in the family business, where I had my first entrepreneurial experience setting up a new section of the company servicing small pottery manufacturers. This proved to be a success, with a 60% profit margin employing three people.
I also learned how to hand-make pottery, and picked up a HGV (Heavy Goods Vehicle) driving licence which meant I could drive very large vehicles: a lucrative job.
I decided to go to university, and funded my studies through HGV driving and making and selling handmade stoneware pottery on a small scale, which gave me a second income.
Having completed my first degree in Philosophy and Theology at Nottingham University, I wanted to pursue further studies, and continued my driving and pottery sales to earn my income and pay my fees. It was a great model and I thoroughly enjoyed the first four years of study towards my PhD.
My first painful or crucible moment came when I decided to drop the driving and pursue making pottery as my primary source of income. I’d succeeded in selling items to friends, relatives and fellow students, and much preferred making pottery to the driving, which is a pretty rough job.
I talked to a retailer near my place in Nottingham and they agreed to take my stoneware on a sale-or-return basis.
I got to work and spent a happy summer making dozens of items ready to sell in the autumn running up to Christmas. I took the pottery to the shop and looked forward to the money rolling in.
After a month, I had only sold one item. I visited other retailers, only to find that the market was already saturated and they had trouble selling any items at all, and what they did sell was clearly of a higher standard than my own, produced by people with ceramics degrees and had been making pottery professionally, for years.
Always start with the market. It doesn’t matter if you believe in what you do, or if you enjoy doing it; the question is, will anyone buy it?
It was a pretty devastating experience. I had invested the savings I had managed to accumulate over the previous four years in making the pottery, and now I had boxes of stuff that I couldn’t sell.
I went back to my studies in the autumn, driving long hours to try and recuperate my losses whilst also trying to write for my PhD. It was a very tough time.
What did I learn? Always start with the market. It doesn’t matter if you believe in what you do, or if you enjoy doing it; the question is, will anyone buy it?
I did do some market research, but it turned out I should have talked to a lot more retailers before taking the important step of investing my time and money in making something that in fact, very few people wanted. I never forgot that lesson.
My second challenging moment happened the following year, and was a direct result of the first one. Since I had very little money, I had to work much harder to keep my head above water and had no chance to take a break.
After nearly five years of study, my PhD was well behind schedule and I was starting to burn out. I ignored the signs that I needed to take a break, relentlessly pursuing either my research and writing or the driving, with no let-up.
The following summer, things came to a head. I remember the moment very clearly. I’d been working extra hard to try and build up some savings to take the financial pressure off, and was feeling exhausted.
I came back to my place one Saturday afternoon and checked my bank account; there was just £27 left when I’d expected it to be about £200. It turned out that a payment for tax had been deducted automatically which, more-or-less, cleared out my savings.
I was totally exhausted and dispirited. This time I recognised the danger signals. I went to stay with my parents and took an extended break.
After three months, I was back on my feet and ready to resume my studies. I took a different job and submitted my PhD in August 1999, for which I was awarded an unconditional pass: the first time in 20 years the department had had this. My thesis was published the following year.
This experience taught me that I’m a human being, and have limits which I must respect. Most people can run flat out for a while, but sooner or later it catches up with you, and you burn out. I never forgot that lesson, and always ensure I take one day a week off (usually Sunday), and have regular holidays. I’ve never been in that position since.
My final crucible moment was quite recent, when it came to setting up my company Trident Integrity Solutions Sdn. Bhd. I had developed a very successful programme under the local chapter of a global NGO, which combined social objectives with commercial consultancy. For various reasons, we couldn’t carry on with the consultancy side, which was our source of income.
Have courage. If you’ve done your research, prepared well, and there is a high likelihood that you will succeed, pursue your dream.
This left me with a dilemma: should I take a regular job, or carry on doing the work independently? This time, I took the step I learnt from my first crucible moment and checked the market.
It turned out that there was a clear demand for our expertise, and therefore going ahead with our own company was likely to work. I discussed it with my wife and my staff, and we all agreed we should try, and so stepped out in faith.
Since then, I’m pleased to say that my business has taken off and we have established ourselves as the leading company for anti-corruption systems both in Malaysia and internationally.
What did I learn? Have courage. If you’ve done your research, prepared well, and there is a high likelihood that you will succeed, pursue your dream.
Certainly, you get plenty of ups and downs, but at the end of the day it’s worth it. And surely that’s what life is all about.