Done 6 Start-ups. Why a 7th one?
Some entrepreneurs are motivated by money. Others, by the pure challenge of building a business from scratch. For Cheryl, who has done 6 start-ups and sold 2 of them, her 7th start-up began when she accepted God’s invitation to solve a distribution problem. The mission was to help build a global community that will use e-commerce as a catalyst to transform the lives of the disabled, disadvantaged, oppressed, poor and needy.
So, what exactly makes her tick? We sat down with her to find out more.
What were your previous start-ups about?
“I’ve started 6 businesses: List broking and compilation, creative services, tele-services, card loss reporting service, operational consulting and professional coaching. I have gone through the gamut of challenges that came from starting a business from scratch and selling it off, and going through the pain of closing businesses because they were not profitable. So, starting my seventh one was not an easy decision.” …
So why do it?
“My past businesses were what I wanted to build for myself. But in this season of my life, I wanted to do something that is spiritually and socially meaningful.”
Tell us how the idea came about.
“Six years back, I bought some hand-made cards from a Thai pastor. They were made by HIV-infected, former prostitutes who were thrown out of brothels in Chiang Mai. The church took them in, rehabilitated them and taught them useful skills to start their lives afresh.
I wondered how I could get more of her greeting cards. Should I email her? Do I have to queue at the bank to send money? What a hassle!
In October 2014, I was selling pressed flower calendars to raise money for a social project to help liberate child slaves. A few customers commented that they had bought the calendars before and really liked them, but did not know where to buy them again until I came along. Later, a lady asked if she could put a few sets of animal hand puppets on my table for sale. Apparently, her friend started a sewing project for impoverished women in Sulawesi to make those hand puppets for sale.
It dawned on me that there was a major distribution issue. There are many kind social entrepreneurs in rural communities trying to create livelihood for the needy. Their hearts desire to restore dignity to the needy, and not perpetuate a beggar’s mentality through handouts. However, if these goods are not easily available to shoppers, then there is clearly a big distribution problem that needs to be solved.
So I thought, if we have a global marketplace like a website, I can shop anytime I want, wherever I am. Perhaps e-commerce can enable such social enterprises to be more profitable and sustainable.
From left: Founders David, Kwok Shong, Eric, Cheryl, Rachel and Desmond
I mulled over the idea, and prayed about it for many months. The burden just grew heavier. I shared this vision with a few friends and got their support. I then decided to take on this project although it could be extremely challenging.”
How is ACTSmarket different from other online marketplaces?
“Unlike other online marketplaces, we only accept social enterprises, charities and VWOs as shop vendors. ACTSmarket is about making social impact. So we accept those who are committed to serving the disabled, poor and needy. Our customers can enjoy unique, handmade, limited-edition products at reasonable prices; and have the satisfaction that they are helping someone needy make an honest living.”
Are there any challenges or particular sacrifices made in building ACTSmarket?
“Money, of course! (laughs) There are so many risks involved in e-commerce start-ups.
My second sacrifice is time. Launching a start-up takes long hours of hard work and I have been sacrificing time with family and my leisure time.
It’s challenging to find competent people who share the same mission, vision and heart for this work. I mean everyone knows that when we do a start-up, we are entering uncharted waters. So I have to find those who not only have the heart for this mission, but are also adaptable and flexible to changes.”
Where do you see ACTSmarket in 3 years?
“It would be great to see a global and active network of people groups and organizations – an ACTS community – connecting and collaborating to make this world a fairer and better place for all. I am such an idealist! (laughs) Truly, I believe we can retain our ideals and yet be practical in trying to achieve our ideals.
ACTSmarket is just the online platform for the ACTS Community to come together to trade, exchange info and ideas, and to have better access to talents and resources.”
How do you think you can fulfill the vision?
“Collaboration! Most definitely. This is a huge and challenging vision and it will take a community of people to make it happen. At the end of the day, I cannot say that it is Cheryl or so-and-so who built the ACTS. Each of us has different talents and gifts. For example, the charities and NGOs are good with implementing social programmes that take care of the welfare and health of the needy. The social entrepreneurs are the ones equipping the needy with skillsets to make products. ACTSmarket provides marketing and technology services to the social enterprises to sell the products.
We also hope to mobilize volunteers. Who knows? If you are good with designing jewelry or crafts, you can volunteer your talent. We can help mobilize people through our platform to come together and collaborate with the goals of empowering the needy, doing social justice and making the world a better place.”
How can a social enterprise balance serving the needy and being profitable?
“A social enterprise must be profitable in the long term or the social impact it desires to do will not be sustainable. The mission of every business is to meet human needs and doing these in ways that create employment, release creativity, drive innovation, increase resources and wealth. Serving such needs should be its reason for existence. However, profitability is necessary to continue serving consumers and meet needs. So a social entrepreneur must learn and apply good business practices and disciplines as he serves.
ACTSmarket is serving social enterprises, and by enabling them, we are indirectly serving the needy people.”
What motivates you or keeps you going?
“I am gratified when I see breakthroughs in people’s lives and they are transformed for the better. And if a few come back and give me a sincere ‘thank you’, that’s icing on the cake.
Ultimately, it’s the love of God that I have experienced in my life that motivates me most. I accepted His invitation to do His will because I wanted to be a good daughter to Him. I am not gifted with a huge amount of patience to do what the charities and social entrepreneurs do in serving the beneficiaries. But I am willing to offer my talents and experience in business to enable them.”
You are already a veteran in business. So what would your advice be to young aspiring social entrepreneurs who may be struggling between life practicalities and passion?
“If they can find work or a social cause that puts their talents and passion to meaningful use and yet make money, that will be fantastic! Ultimately, no matter what work you do, no experience is wasted.”
ACTS Community Reporter
27 July 2016