Why did you decide to go into the computer business?
It was still early, and IBM and Compaq had almost all the market share. I saw an opportunity in custom building computers for a cheaper price. At the time, my [second] husband and I were newlyweds. He was working at a company that sold computers and would help them build computers at night-so he knew how to put them together. We were young and poor, and had just enough money to buy one computer. I would just take the computer apart and put it back together again, and my husband taught me how to trouble shoot what was wrong if it didn’t work.
It was two months of intensive training-kind of like in the movies where you see [new soldiers in the military] training to take apart their rifles and put them back together as fast as possible! It was my day job for those 2 months. I ate, drank and slept computers-and read only computer magazines. Then, since there’s only so much you can take apart and put one computer back together again, I decided it was time to take leap and try to get some clients.
You started by making 100 cold calls a day. That seems like a lot.
I was always in sales, even when I was a kid, since age 7. I knew sales is a numbers game-unless you are a Slick Willie! You need a lot of “no’s” before you’ll get a “yes.” I treated it like a business. I was working at home, but I would get up, put on makeup, pantyhose, like show up to my living room like it was an office. I figured, if I was doing an actual sales job, that’s what I would be told to do: 100 calls a day. I also knew I didn’t have a lot going for me. I had no storefront, no advertisements, not a lot of skills even. All I had going for me was my time and elbow grease, and I had to use that to the best of my ability.
What was it like making those calls?
It was hard. The first seven calls, people were rude, cursing at me. I put down the phone and just cried! I don’t know why I was so shocked. I called my husband, and said ‘Honey they’re so mean!” He says, “Honey, you just need to get back on the phone.” I didn’t like what I heard, but I remember I just wiped my eyes and made 93 more calls. By the end, [the reaction on the other end] no longer bothered me.
Once you step into acceptance and tell yourself ‘this is what needs to be done’ and really embrace it, then it’s not as difficult anymore. I suggest people get to that moment of acceptance as quick as you can– instead of asking “why is this happening?” and those useless questions. I had my first client after two weeks of making those calls.
So, why don’t Chinese women go broke?
There’s more than one reason, but mainly, it’s our mindset. We are able to look at longterm goals and have a farmer mentality. We’re not into the quick fix. The idea of the drive-through or “on demand” this or that… those are all American things. Those values are great when it comes to consumer products, but becomes virus in day-to-day life. We were taught to think of day-to-day action, the good of the team. You don’t call in sick. You make the 100 calls for 2 weeks. You farm everyday knowing that it’s for the end of the year for harvest time.
How was this message instilled in you?
Growing up my grandmother–who was from the old country [China]– always told me, ‘You’re lucky to be alive. Don’t waste your life away.” With the single child policy, a lot of girls don’t see daylight. I always took that to mean I needed to earn my place and make myself useful, and many [Chinese businesswomen] I interviewed said same thing. Also, in Chinese culture itself, we are very big on teaching children to plan for the future. No immediate gratification.
One of my family businesses was a toy store. I helped out in the store, so as I child saw toys were for livelihood, not just for fun! Parents would bring their kids in and the child would pick up different toys and say “Can I have it?” The parents would turn to the kids and say “Do you have the money?” and kids would pull out their wad of cash and count it. Most of time the kid didn’t have enough and the parents would say, “Well, what can you do to earn more money?” but ultimately parents just walked off without buying the toy! In our culture, there is always a way for children to earn money. In some families, it is getting A’s in school, others it is for chores, always ways in household to earn money. That helped us not to have that entitlement.
You often talk about your how your English is still imperfect, yet you never let that hold you back.
I’m not a psychologist, but I think a lot of people let the idea of being “perfect” trap themselves. People sometimes use excuse of being perfectionist as a way out. For example, ‘I didn’t turn in the business plan because it’s not perfect.’ It sounds better to say you’re a perfectionist instead of saying “I’m just scared!” You can’t achieve anything if you never fail. When I interviewed the first Chinese-American congresswoman [Judy Chu], she spoke about Abraham Lincoln-how he suffered from depression, and failed bunch of campaigns before he ever got anywhere in politics. Failure is really just a setback.
What do you see as the American dream?
Ironically, the American dream is not, to me, about ‘get rich quick’. The media highlights end result. They zoon in camera take the close up and runner wins the medal, or when entrepreneur makes million! Nobody zooms in when that same entrepreneur was eating ramen for years to get business off the ground! My definition of the American dream is weathering the storm and the hardship. None of our ancestors came here for drive-through food and on demand movies. We need to remind people of that.
Are Americans today lazy in your opinion?
No, but you have to have a clear vision: what is it exactly that you want? What does it mean to have what you want? If you think, okay ‘I want to have my own business and have 3 kids and home school them’ well there’s not enough hours in the day for that. Or if you want to be an actress, you have to be able to travel. People don’t think about what it takes and the [trade-offs] of certain life decisions. Not everyone is lazy, but there’s an internal conflict or contradiction: I want business for freedom, but don’t want to work the 60 hours a week to get it off the ground. To be successful, you need to be really clear about what you want and honest with yourself. I also think you should pay your dues and keep humility. No matter how much you think you have “arrived,” you don’t know what’s around corner. You might encounter one more speed bump.
Was there a point when you thought, “Okay, now I’m successful?”
When I decided that I was going to write the book, I thought ‘I am successful, now it’s my turn to help others.’ Ironically, the fact I said that to myself put me in position of forgetting my humility-thinking I’m almost immune to disappointment. That’s not a good place to be. No matter how well we’re doing, we should always have a package of Top Ramen now and then to remind us that day of struggle might come around the corner. Don’t ever be too comfortable.