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Emily Chan

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Robert Burns' first daughter was Elizabeth. Her story and the five descendants Scottish lives are recorded here with the Bard's message today as ever in need. Al Quida li..  
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by Emily Chan   
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Last edited: Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Posted: Tuesday, November 24, 2009

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Having just finished writing the book on what I learnt during my two years at Harvard Business School (HBS), I cannot help but start thinking what about life after HBS?


Having just finished writing the book on what I learnt during my two years at Harvard Business School (HBS), I cannot help but start thinking – what about life after HBS?

The first thing that comes to mind on life after HBS is the reunion. HBS organizes alumni to reunite in Boston in five-year intervals after graduation. I attended my tenth year reunion last year which started evening of May 29th and finished with breakfast on June 1st. As usual, over the course of these two and a half days, distinguished professors gave power-point presentations on leading edge research results in between long luncheons, frequent tea breaks, and gala dinners.

It cost over HK$50,000 for air-ticket and expenses, forty hours of torture by some old and rude flight attendants, and many nights of jetlag to go to this sixty hour reunion. So my friends all ask me the same question – was it worth it all the way from Hong Kong? The answer is most definitely yes.

HBS is really about two things: networking and research wisdom. I find both better at the reunion than when I was studying at HBS. At the tenth year reunion, most of my classmates were in their thirties rather than their twenties. Instead of the arrogance and “I can take on the world” mentality we had when we were studying at HBS, the attitude was much more humble. Before HBS, life was about getting into HBS. During HBS, life was about getting ready for after HBS. But ten years after HBS, many have found that the world is more complex than we would like – divorces, cancers, children, deaths in the family, or even career failures have pulled some of us down from cloud nine back to earth.

One of the saddest stories was Carlos (name disguised), a very good friend to my husband (my husband also graduated from HBS 1998) and me. I still remember the Carlos we met at HBS – handsome, long curly brown hair, cheerful, friendly, physically fit, PhD in East Asian Civilizations…He is now married with two young kids, lives in California, and is CEO to the largest media post-production company in the world. He was spending summer 2007 in Europe with the family. He was running in Regent’s Park in London when he had a sudden abdominal pain. He was later diagnosed with liver cancer. He had surgery and is now in remission with treatment of an experimental drug. He was supposed to be at the reunion but did not show up. Rumor is that he has only a few months to live (though he has denied it when my husband communicated with him over email.) His profile is very rare for this disease and the doctors could not explain how someone like him might have gotten sick. Facing this sudden change, Carlos’ words to my husband were: “Shit happens, right?”

Another person noticeably missing at the reunion was my friend Joss (name also disguised). At HBS, Joss was the opposite of Carlos. Joss is older than most of us, was a navy seal before HBS (I do not know much about navy seals in real life…but in the movies, they carry big knives and they kill without mercy), and looked very serious most of the time. HBS was not easy for Joss as he had relatively limited business background and was quite a bit older than the crowd. After HBS, his daughter was diagnosed with autism. Last time I heard, Joss has quit his high-flying business job, something he has worked so hard for, just so that the family could relocate to an area that can support his daughter’s therapy.

These stories have given the HBS glamour a big dose of humility. There were still a lot of glorious successes at the reunion– a guy made so much money in his last venture that he decided to take four years off and his single biggest challenge then was to plan the most luxurious boys’ trip to the Olympics; a guy started a baby shoe business which is now distributed through over 2,700 outlets in the U.S.; two brothers (both HBS 1998 graduates) franchised a restaurant business and got the biggest sports stars as their investors; a guy became the Finance Minister in South America, and so on. But as the years go by, I have found that the HBS confidence is beginning to be more grounded, anchored by the diffidence that none of these would mean anything when “shit happens.”

Besides the networking, I also like the format of wisdom impartment at the reunion much better. HBS is well-known for its case method. This means while attending HBS, I did not have any professor lecture. Instead, we would read a case before class (a case is usually about 10 to 20 pages long, describing a real life situation with major issues to be resolved.) During class, the professor would lead a student discussion by asking a series of questions. The rationale of the case method is that in business, there is no one right answer. It is the thinking process that is important. In my application to HBS, I declared myself as the firmest believer of the case method. But in reality, I often wish there were a mix of cases and lectures. Cases are about doing the thinking as a group. They take a longer time, there are always people speaking just to hear their own voice, and it is often difficult to distill the key takeaways amongst the many comments made during the discussion. Lectures are about having professors already done the thinking and I just have to agree or disagree. Lectures are more concise, more direct, and less work for the students.

Lucky for me, what we did not get while attending HBS, we can get at the reunion. Faculty presentations are an integral part of each reunion. The official name of this component is “Ideas that Matter: Presentations from the HBS Faculty.” At this last reunion, there were almost thirty presentations for alumni to choose from. The first and best presentation I went to was by Professor Bill Sahlman, titled “In Search of Entrepreneurial Wisdom.”

It was a full house. Almost everyone at HBS dreams of starting and owning our business. Bill is one of the most popular (and my favorite) professors at HBS because of his sense of humor and the fact that he gets to see thousands of startup business plans from his students and networks (and he is a handsome man.) In the presentation, Bill explained some of the lessons he has observed through four very successful entrepreneurs. I took away five “peals of wisdom” from Bill’s slightly over one hour presentation:

1. Opportunity could be glaring you in your face. Many readers of my book and other friends have commented, “I want to be an entrepreneur but I don’t know where to start.” Well, here is a true story from Bill. A man by the name of John Osher recently made hundreds of millions of dollars selling his startup to P&G, who owns Crest (the toothpaste and toothbrush brand). The startup manufactured an electric toothbrush. Osher came up with the idea when he saw that there were essentially only two categories of toothbrushes at Wal-Mart: US$3 manual ones or US$80 ones that were electric. He figured he could have a market if he could sell an electric toothbrush at a price somewhere in-between. Osher had previous experience with entrepreneurship, small electric motors, and manufacturing in China. Hence this venture fitted well with his strengths. It was such a big success that it helped Crest regain market share after a seven-year decline. So keep your eyes wide open, an entrepreneurial opportunity could be as close by as your nearest grocery shop!

2. Answers change, questions remain. Entrepreneurship is by definition full of uncertainty and the unexpected. Everything can change any time – business models (how money is made), where investment comes from, how cash is spent, partners, competitors, etc. Therefore, the critical point is not just to have the most updated answers, but to be able to continually ask the right questions. Bill has found that there is a common set of questions that can help any entrepreneur make better decisions at any stage, including:

* What can go right?

* What can go wrong?
* What decisions can management make to improve the risk-to-reward ratio?

Even a big company like P&G could benefit from asking these questions when planning a new venture. In the Osher story, P&G ended up paying Osher much more than it would have if it had asked these questions. The deal between Osher and P&G was that the former would get a big lump sum upfront and then an earn-out over the years calculated as a percentage of sales. But what P&G later found out was that before the acquisition, Osher’s product was so uniquely positioned that they were selling like hot cakes without much marketing and human resources. To maintain the explosive growth after the acquisition, however, P&G had to start spending major marketing dollars and build a much bigger organization. Costs sky-rocketed and P&G’s profit was affected. Meanwhile, because earn-out was tied to sales, not net profit, P&G had to continue paying out huge sums to Osher. At hindsight, if P&G had asked “what could go wrong”, they might have discovered the scenario of profit depressed by high costs. If so, they might have structured the earn-out differently.

3. Who would you rather be: a scientist or a man who sells mice to scientists? In searching for the right entrepreneurial ventures, Bill advised us to think about “selling ammunition to all sides of the war without end” than to be on any side of the war – To put this simply, it is often better to be a supplier to all competitors in an industry than to be one of the competitors in that industry. Recent success exemplars include Google and AC Nielson (the marketing information company). To put it in yet another way: it is better to be in the business of training pilots for all airlines than in the airline business – Airline is where the glamour is, but as the rather trite industry joke goes “how do you become a millionaire? Start as a billionaire and buy an airline.”

4. Successful serial entrepreneurs leave clues like serial killers. I took a course from Bill on Entrepreneurialism. Bill told us loud and clear in the class that when evaluating the chances of success of any venture, one of the most important, if not the most important, factors is the experience and track record of the entrepreneur. This time, he added one point. He has observed that successful serial entrepreneurs (people who have successfully birthed more than one startup) are somewhat like serial killers. They have a pattern behind their successes. If they go out of that pattern and their realm of strengths – for example, an entrepreneur who succeeded in finance going into manufacturing – then the chances of success can become much less.

5. You cannot win it all. I found this last point rather comforting. Bill presented four wildly successful entrepreneurial cases in his presentation. He admitted he had a chance to invest in all of them at an early stage but decided not to. He is currently invested in over 100 companies. He expects half to be disastrous and 25% to be mediocre. Even with his education (he is an HBS graduate himself), experience and research exposure, as well as people network to source investment opportunities, he only expects 25% of what he chooses to invest in to succeed!

After the presentation, as we were walking out of the lecture hall, my husband (who also attended HBS) asked me what I thought of it. I told him I already knew all these from the TV series, Sex and the City – Shop more, and failures are okay. I think he now has second thoughts if I should really be the one running our household and our investments.

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